Little Women 1933 vs. 1949 . . . and Dumb & Dumber (1994)?

Little Women 1994I am disappointed in myself regarding two things; 1) That I’ve never read “Little Women,” the classic novel by Louisa May Alcott about four sisters growing up in New England during the Civil War and 2) That back in 1994 (was that really over 20 years ago already?!) I was faced with the decision to go see one of two movies with my three sisters, Little Women or Dumb and Dumber, and while two of my sisters chose the former, my other sister and I chose the latter.

What was I thinking? I love comedies because I love to laugh, but disgusting “bathroom humor” is just not for me and that movie had plenty of it. You can bet that if I had that choice to make over again, I would have gone to see Little Women instead, especially since, come on, four sisters watching a movie about four sisters? What could be more fitting than that? :-)

I have yet to watch the 1994 movie, but I have now watched both the 1933 and 1949 versions. Thanks to my love of listening to podcasts I recently discovered a wonderful interview with actress Margaret O’Brien through the Warner Archive Collection Podcast. In the interview Margaret talked about what a great time she had filming Little Women (1949) with co-stars June Allyson, Elizabeth Taylor, and Janet Leigh, and it inspired me to watch both of the older films. I wasn’t necessarily watching them both to compare the two, but I was curious to see if I would like one more than the other. Keep in mind that my opinions are somewhat skewed because I wasn’t familiar with the story not having read the book, but I did indeed have a definite preference of the two.

Little Women (1933) vs. Little Women (1949) – Which Did I Like Better?

Cast of Little Women 1949

My hunch was that I would like the 1933 version better, mostly because I generally like black and white movies over color and also because it starred Katharine Hepburn and Joan Bennett, two of my favorite actresses.

As it turned out however, I ended up enjoying the 1949 version much better. Overall, I thought the cast was more well suited to the characters they played, and I was quite surprised to find that I did not like Katharine Hepburn in the role of Jo March.

In reviews I’ve read, the few people that did not care for her performance (we seem to be in the minority) described her acting as overwrought or over the top, and I would say that sums up how I felt as well. It almost pains me to say that given how much I like and respect her as an actress and how much she enjoyed making the movie. She was quoted as saying about her experience, “This picture was heaven to do – George Cukor perfect. He really caught the atmosphere. It was to me my youth!”

It was also hard for me to get used to Joan Bennett in the role of Amy, most likely because I am so used to her more mature roles in film noir. The fact that she was 23 years old playing a teenager probably didn’t help. I discovered after the fact that she was pregnant during filming and costume designer Walter Plunkett had to redesign her costumes to hide her pregnancy.

Chemistry Between Professor Bhaer and Jo March

Another aspect I liked better in the 1949 version was the chemistry between Professor Bhaer, played by Rossano Brazzi and Jo, played by June Allyson. It seemed more believable to me than in the relationship between Paul Lukas’s Professor Bhaer and Katharine Hepburn’s Jo – due in small part to a much larger age gap between the actors playing the parts (1 year vs. 16 years).

I’ll admit that this is where my lack of knowledge of the book comes into play, as I later learned that the larger age difference was more true to the characters in the book. I read in an article that the 1933 film is considered by most critics to be the best and most faithful to the book, and the nature of their relationship is probably just one of many examples that can be used to justify that statement. As a side note, the 1933 version was actually not the first film adaptation of the book. There were two silent versions released in 1917 and 1918.

Interesting Facts about the Little Women Movies

While doing a little research about the history of the Little Women movies, I discovered a few interesting facts about them:

  • In the novel, Amy is the youngest sister, but in order to use Margaret O’Brien as Beth, Beth was made the youngest.
  • June Allyson was 32 when she played 15-year-old Jo March.
  • Hobe Erwin, a former artist and interior decorator who was hired to oversee the set decoration for the 1933 movie, modeled the interior of the March home on the real Massachusetts home of Louisa May Alcott.
  • Designer Edwin B. Willis won an Academy Award for Best Art Direction – Set Direction (color) for his work on the 1949 film. This didn’t surprise me because the beautiful sets in that movie were one of the things that set it apart for me from the 1933 version.
  • Little Women (1949) marked the American film debut of Rossano Brazzi.
  • Screenwriters Sarah Mason and Victor Heerman won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, which I assume they considered a big honor given that it was based on such a beloved book.

Little Women (1994)

Now that I know more about the story of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, I’m eager to read the book and watch the 1994 film version, especially after reading a post about the house from the movie on one of my absolute favorite blogs, Hooked on Houses. However, because I’m always looking for movies to watch that have Christmas scenes in them, I am going to hold off on watching it until December. Ahh, can I wait that long?! In the meantime I think I’ll head to my library to check out the book.

If you have seen more than one version of Little Women, which one is your favorite?

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6 comments

  1. Eileen says:

    I have not seen any version of Little Women. (I have read the book though.) I could have seen it in the theater in 1994 but I chose to see Dumb and Dumber instead with one of my 3 sisters. Bwa ha ha.

    Eileen

    • Ginny says:

      I guess we both have weird sisters. Maybe we should watch the 1994 version together sometime. Right after we re-watch Housesitter. :-)

  2. Rick says:

    I also prefer the June Allyson version over the Kate Hepburn one. I think that, overall, it has a stronger cast and it’s visually more interesting. The 1994 adaptation is quite good, though (as I recall) the chemistry between Winona Ryder as Jo and Gabriel Byne (the Professor) doesn’t quite work.

  3. Ginny says:

    Hi Rick! Even though I knew I wasn’t the only one to feel that way, it’s good to hear from someone else who also likes the 1949 version better. I’m definitely looking forward to completing the trio by watching the one from 1994.

  4. RL says:

    loved your description of discovering little women.. personally i love the story and have since a girl.. its one of my yearly december habits to read Little Women & Jane Eyre every december.. dont know why just sort of happened. now the month doesnt seem complete until i do..

    as for the movies.. i have seen all three you discussed and for the most part have to agree tho it pains me because i am a HUGE Kate Hepburn fan… but like her other IngĂ©nue roles – she over does them in the silent film style – all weird hand actions and everything sort of overblown.. it wasnt till later when she had some solid serious work in that that went away & one could see the Charactor instead of the actress… kind of sad.. actually the whole cast was kind of the same.. product of the time i guess. i was most interested in the costumes.. a number of them are far more authentic looking in parts than the other movies. and would love to learn more about the wardrobe..

    of the three i think the 1949 one the most enjoyable.. ah well the book is still best :)
    rj

  5. Ginny says:

    Thanks! It’s always hard for me to admit I don’t like a performance when I love the actor, but I just couldn’t say I liked Katharine’s in this movie. Thankfully that’s been few and far between for me with her movies. That sounds like a great tradition to read those books in December. I may just wait till then to first read Little Women as our cold winters here are the perfect time to hibernate indoors and read, and I can also watch the 1994 version around that time. It’s funny my sister and I have been saying for years that we are going to read Jane Eyre at the same time and we have just never done it. One of these days! :-)