Director: George Cukor
Screenwriters: Victor Heerman, Sarah Y. Mason
Adapted from: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Cast: Katharine Hepburn, Joan Bennett, Frances Dee, Jean Parker, Spring Byington, Douglass Montgomery, Paul Lukas
Nominations: Picture, Director – George Cukor, Screenplay
The relationships among siblings are curious. They’re antagonistic and protective; they’re supportive and critical; they’re the best and the worst. But they’re the few relationships we have that can literally last a lifetime. With her novel Little Women, Louisa May Alcott tapped into the timelessness of sibling relationships—the novel, more than 150 years after its initial publication, is still one of the most read tales in American literature. The story of the March sisters has been brought to the silver screen seven times: the first adaptation was a 1917 silent film (now lost) directed by Alexander Butler; the most recent was Greta Gerwig’s 2019 adaptation. The first sound version was directed by George Cukor—renowned for his “women’s films”—and starred Katharine Hepburn as the lively and strong-headed Jo, and was the first adaptation of the novel to be nominated for any Academy Awards (of the five adaptations eligible for Oscars, four were nominated for at least two Oscars).
The 1933 Little Women film really isn’t all that exceptional. George Cukor’s direction is unobtrusive—though with the logistics of shooting sound films in the early years making directorial flair more difficult to showcase has more to do with that than much else—as the action tends to play out in master shots with the expected cuts to medium shots and close-ups. The plot maintains the vignette/episodic approach of the novel with few changes beyond condensation. What helps make the film a worthwhile watch is the quality of the performances throughout; the relatability of the relationships among Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy; and the everlasting appeal and nostalgia of simpler times.
It a world full of uncertainty and chaos and unrest, there’s a charm in watching a film that shows us there’s possibilities of peace. Granted, the purpose of Little Women wasn’t necessarily to invoke those ideals, but just as the film was a quiet respite for those slogging through the dire grips of the Great Depression, it acts as an escape from the harshness of everyday life. One theme I’ve taken away from the film is how changing the world doesn’t have to entail changing everything about the world; sometimes the world changing we should focus on is changing our personal world. The phrase “Think globally, act locally” comes to mind: Jo’s desire to affect the world with her writing turns her thinking and concern back toward her family (who’ve influenced her novel).
Unlike the most recent version of Little Women, this adaptation seems to purposely avoid making any critiques upon the role of women in society. For the most part, the characters are taking their lives and they happen without considering that being a woman might be a hindrance. However, that in itself is a subtle yet strong representation of non-traditional female roles in life (and fiction/drama): Jo’s success as a writer is dependent upon her writing ability; Amy refuses to submit to societal expectations—along with using her full first name (unlike her sisters), she knows what she wants and is willing to fight for it. For as quaint as the film is, this is actually a powerful message, and it helps give this adaptation of the novel continued relevance through today.