Give it up for these Little Women stars!
There have been many different versions of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” novel, including Greta Gerwig’s recent take. Each version provides the same story of four sisters (Jo, Meg, Beth, and Amy), and their views of life, love, and liberty. We know Jo aspires to become a writer with no intentions of marriage, Meg eventually becomes a wife, Beth is a beautiful pianist, while suffering from scarlet fever, and Amy is the youngest, who provides a minor message of forgiveness.
We also meet their loving mother Marmee, who wants the best for her girls without being generic or routine; their father Mr. March, who’s fighting in the Civil War; their pompous Aunt March, who judges her family based on their finances and fun-loving nature; Laurie, a wealthy young man, who has a thing for Jo, although their chemistry gets mixed based on his personality, and her perspectives on love; his tutor John Brooke, who falls for Meg; his grandfather James Laurence, who kindly allows Beth to play on his piano, and soon buys her one; and the German tutor Professor Bhaer, whom Jo falls for.
So, in honor of the latest film version, I’ve decided to dish on three versions from 1933, 1949, and 1994. Let’s take a look.
“Little Women” (1933)
The cast features Katharine Hepburn as Jo, Joan Bennett as Amy, Frances Dee as Meg, Jean Parker as Beth, Spring Byington as Marmee, Douglass Montgomery as Laurie, Edna May Oliver as Aunt March, Paul Lukas as Professor Bhaer, Henry Stevenson as Mr. Laurence, and John Davis Lodge as Mr. Brooke.
Director George Cukor takes no prisoners, and guides the cast with passion and poetry. He also spares no expenses with the sets, costumes, and decor, and even if we can’t see them color, we still admire the craftsmanship in them. Hepburn had one of the best, most beautiful voices, and used it tremendously to help bring the Jo character to life. Really, she did, really. And she’s given full support from Montgomery, Lukas, and Byington.
The other sisters in this version aren’t really given their due, but their acting makes them charming. And the film resonates with the story without jumping to conclusions or recycling tricks. It resonates with the book’s time period, as well as its own time period, when the Great Depression hit. Both sides were in dark times, and this movie shined on through.
“Little Women” (1949)
June Allyson plays Jo, Margaret O’Brien is Beth, Elizabeth Taylor is Amy, Janet Leigh is Meg, Mary Aster is their Marmee, Lucile Watson is their Aunt March, Leon Ames is their father Mr. March, Peter Lawford is Laurie, C. Aubrey Smith is his grandfather James Laurence, Richard Stapley is his tutor John Brooke, and Rossano Brazzi as Professor Bhaer.
In this version, we see the four sisters making an oath about not spilling the beans to their mother about a snobbish woman (Isabel Randolph) slamming their family. And despite Aunt March disinheriting her, Meg wishes to marry Mr. Brooke.
Director Mervyn LeRoy gives such a beautiful look to the story and women. I love their hairstyles, costumes, and dialogue (the best being Jo saying: “How perfectly splendid”). The best performances come from Allyson as Jo, Taylor as Amy, O’Brien as Beth, Leigh as Meg, Aster as Marmee, and Watson as Aunt March-all of whom put all of their passion into them.
This is one of my favorite versions, because it isn’t sappy or demeaning; it’s filled with poetry and admiration. I love the delicate timing and drama the sisters find themselves in, whether they’re having fun or being serious about life.
“How perfectly splendid.”
“Little Women” (1994)
The cast in the 1994 version featured Winona Ryder as Jo, Trini Alvardo as Meg, Claire Danes as Beth, Kristen Dunst and Samantha Mathis as Amy in two timelines, Susan Sarandon as their mother Marmee, Mary Wickes as Aunt March, Christian Bale as Laurie, and Gabriel Byrne as Professor Bhaer.
Directed by Gillian Armstrong, this version has some unnecessary lines like when Amy can’t go to the theater with her sisters, but is nonetheless radiant and passionate. The best performances in the film come from Ryder, who never rises to the occasion as Jo, Dunst, who provides a tender sweetness as Amy, Sarandon, who keeps a delicate pace to Marmee, and Byrne and Bale, who both deliver the goods as Jo’s suitors.
I think we can agree that when Amy burns Jo’s book, and she despises her up to a point when she follows her and Laurie on the ice and falls in, it’s an example that forgiveness is a powerful weapon. Hatred can lead to drastic consequences, and that’s a subplot message in the “Little Women” story.
Each “Little Women” version appears to offer their own views of Louisa May Alcott’s story. They deliberate on romance, turmoil, and drama, and the filmmakers draw them with such complexity. And all the stars from different generations portray their characters radiantly and passionately.
But mostly, the women are given independence and intelligence, either giving in or rejecting the rules of love and marriage, and we adore them for that notion.