Favorite films: Little Women (1949)

It is Christmas Eve once again, so I wanted to write about one of my favorite Christmas films. This adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s novel is my favorite, not least because June Allyson stars as the feisty and irrepressible Jo March. It’s usually overlooked compared to the other four. I have not watched the latest one directed by Greta Gerwig – I agree with Margaret O’Brien – and the other two are quite good, but this one is so close to my heart.

The close-knit March family is no longer as affluent as they once were, but they make do. Robert March (Leon Ames) is fighting for the Union in the Civil War, leaving Marmee (Mary Astor) to hold down the home-front with their four lovely daughters. Like the other films, this one chronicles life in their Concord, Massachusetts town through all four seasons. Their next door neighbor Laurie (Peter Lawford) also becomes a close friend, particularly to Jo.

Meg, the eldest, seems like an almost thankless role at first. She’s much more mild compared to the other three, but Janet Leigh is so lovely and sweet. Meg comes across as so level headed and responsible, while also seeming a bit dreamy.

Vain and selfish Amy is mostly concerned with her looks and dreams of being rich again. She often mispronounces words in an effort to sound refined, but she’s only ever pompous. A bit snooty, she does have her good qualities. When she and Beth overhear cruel comments about their mother, she comforts Beth, who’s devastated by it. Amy is also hilarious. Elizabeth Taylor is so good! And her honey blonde wig makes her even prettier, if you can believe it.

Shy and timid Beth is the most selfless of the March sisters, but she inspires them all to do good. For example, during their Christmas meal, Beth is unable to eat a morsel when she thinks of their hungry neighbors who are much poorer than they are. But her sisters agree with her (Amy begrudgingly) and they share what they have. Maggie O’Brien was a formidable acting talent since she was five years old, delivering emotional performances and looking adorable while doing so. But as Beth, she brings so much more gravitas to the role.

Beth is such a timid thing that at a party, while she and Amy sit on the stairs (they’re not allowed to dance), she hides while Amy chatters away to Theodore Laurence (C. Aubrey Smith), Laurie’s grandfather. As Jo explained earlier, most people don’t like him and have good reason to, but she does. Beth hides at first, but when he gives her permission to play his piano, she reappears and gratefully accepts. One of the most touching scenes of the film is when he gives her a pianoforte as a Christmas gift and she goes to thank him. Hannah the maid remarks that Beth is out of her mind. That’s the only explanation for why she would decide to thank him in person.

Now we’ve come to Jo, the tomboy, who wishes she’d been born a boy so she could do something useful, like fight in the war alongside her father. June Allyson was born to play Jo, and it’s the one character she most closely resembles. Jo has dreams of being a writer and her confidence in her ability is truly refreshing. She sometimes embarrasses her sisters with her unladylike behavior and she never backs down from speaking her mind.

Female centric films directed by male directors always surprise me, and this one is no exception. Mervyn Leroy is one of my favorite directors, one of the most overlooked in Classic Hollywood. He did so well with trim running times in the precode era, and his postwar films, usually long or filmed in lush technicolor, were also quite good. Little Women, so picturesque, feminine and warm, could only have been directed by him.

A year ago, I would have said Jo is the one I relate to the most. But I can identify with all the March sisters. I’m the baby of the family, but among my group of cousins (four of us), I was the oldest. Even now with my group of friends I’m older than the other girls. I dream of a family of my own. I still want to publish my own stories, and I’m a bit of a slob who suffers from vanity and an incurable sweet tooth. I’ve been sensitive ever since I was a child and still am, a good quality to have I think.

I couldn’t figure out why I was so emotional watching the film this time around. But now I understand. Christmas this year feels a lot like the March family’s: marked by uncertainty, separated from dear family members, and fearing a contagious illness. I can’t help but think how Marmee and her girls would respond to covid. Sure there might be some grumbling, but they would make all the necessary sacrifices. And being confined indoors would allow Jo to make up even more plays and stories for she and her sisters to perform.

There’s a reason this film has been remade for every generation. It endures through the years for its tender portrayal of family life. It’s wonderful that such an old fashioned tale has never gone out of fashion.

This Christmas, my aunts and uncles and cousins won’t be coming over for dinner. Our house will be so much more quieter. But maybe in the stillness, I’ll be thinking more of another quiet night in a stable.

I hope 2021 is a much gentler year. But I also hope that no matter the season, I can meet it with as much courage and grace as my little women.

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