Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” is a family favorite, but don’t dismiss it as a chick flick. Currently, you can see three versions: the most recent PBS/BBC Masterpiece, the 1949 version (Amazon Video) and the 1993 Winona Ryder version (also Amazon Video).
The BBC/PBS version of “Little Women” aired in May 2018 and this one begins with titillating views of young girls giggling. You see a girl’s bare feet as she steps out of her underclothes, but for all that, the first words are “Jo, those are the kitchen scissors.” The girls are cutting off locks of hair–not to give a beau, but to send to their father (Dylan Baker) who is away serving during the American Civil War. It is Christmas and the March family has agreed that this year there will be no gifts, but Marmee (Emily Watson) is devoted go charity and even their Christmas meal will be given away.
This version is best at capturing the heartbreak of Laurie and the softening into understanding between him and Mr. Laurence, the courtship between Amy and Laurie, and the tragic death of Beth. There are beautiful moments in Europe and the wonderful Angela Lansbury as Aunt March. This version avoids the cute misunderstanding that leads to a romantic denouement used at the end of the 1949 and 1993 versions.
The Academy Award-nominated 1949 version, produced and directed by Mervyn LeRoy, features a stellar cast: Janet Leigh as Met, June Allyson as Jo, Elizabeth Taylor as Amy and Margaret O’Brien as Beth. The girls are hardly girls at all. The 12-year-old Amy is played by a 17-year-old Taylor who looks odd as a blonde. This version is based on the 1933 Katherine Hepburn version and really, who better to play Jo than Hepburn? Allyson is good enough as the tall and gawky Jo. Peter Lawford, who was 26 at the time, is the young Laurie. The later versions benefit from having more convincing sets and snow. Rossano Brazzi, in his American debut, plays the man that Jo will eventually marry, Professor Bhaer. This is Sir C. Aubrey Smith’s last film. The whole tone is light-hearted and definitely family friendly.
In the 1993 “Little Women,” the petite Winona Ryder was cast as the tall, gawky Jo. A young Christian Bale is Theodore “Laurie” Laurence. This version gives more space for Jo’s imaginative creative writings, involving the girls in a play, and despite the miscasting of Ryder as Jo, this is an intelligent moving adaptation which really allows us to see Marmee (Susan Sarandon) as the center of the family. Meg (Trini Alvarado) is the serious little woman and this Beth (Claire Danes) glows in her sweetness and tragic death. Amy is played by Kirsten Dunst as a young girl and Samantha Mathis as a young woman. The match between Gabriel Burne’s Friedrich Bhaer and Ryder’s Joe has better chemistry than the Brazzi and Allyson match and there’s a bit more writer angst in this version. What you remember most is the warm glow that Sarandon’s Marmee creates in her family and how it reaches out and touches others..