Little Women (1933): Cukor Adapting to the Screen Classic Literature

Despite the dubious merits of his last two films, Cukor’s next feature, a remake of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women,” in 1933, began the most creative phase of his entire career.

This film was followed by two other great features, Dinner at Eight and David Copperfield, that demonstrated the evolution of Cukor’s distinctive style as a director. All three films proved strong and durable and solidified Cukor’s reputation as one of Hollywood’s best directors. But Little Women was a personal work in a way that Dinner at Eight was not; it became one of Cukor’s personal favorites.

After seeing a preview of Bill of Divorcement, Selznick thought that Little Women would be a perfect vehicle for the young and talented Katharine Hepburn. When he approached Cukor about the project, the director confessed that he had not read the book. “It was always considered a little’s girl story,” Cukor later recalled, “it seemed awfully syrupy.” But once he read the novel, Cukor found it strong-minded, full of solid virtues, and ripe for a screen adaptation, especially with Katharine Hepburn in the lead.

Selznick, however, met with staunch resistance from RKO’s executives, who were concerned about the lack of commercial appeal of a period piece like Little Women. There was some pressure from the studio to “modernize” the story, a suggestion that Selznick rejected outright.

Finding an approach that would capture the work’s essence was foremost in Cukor’s mind. Asking himself, why had the novel survived all these years Cukor found the answer in its heartfelt, multi-layered portrait of family life, stressing an admirable New England sternness about sacrifice and austerity.

Set during the Civil War in Concord, Massachusetts, the film is dominated by women. Mr. March, off fighting the war, leaves his wife Marmee (Spring Byington), to take care of their four daughters. Jo (Hepburn) is an ardent tomboy; Beth (Jean Parker), gentle and sweet; Meg (Frances Dee), tender and romantic; and Amy (Joan Bennett) dainty and sly. With the exception of Jo, the sisters try to live up to their father’s expectations to be responsible “little women,” to fit into the traditional mold of femininity.

The Oscar-winning script for Little Women, by husband and wife team Victor Heerman and Sarah Y. Mason, was poignant and original for its time. Rather than tightening the loosely-constructed novel, the script followed the book’s episodic quality. Things happen, but they’re not tied together, reflecting Cukor’s belief in the book’s vitality. When people would comment on how well he handled the big scene, he would ask, “What big scene” Cukor didn’t feel any of the scenes was “the big one.” He didn’t think of the movie in terms of linear progression of plot with a climax; these concepts would have betrayed the spirit of the novel.

Cukor had great respect for his source material. Successful screen adaptation, he believed, meant accepting a book’s weaknesses and strengths. For instance, Beth gets desperately sick and it looks as if she’s going to die. Then she recovers. Then she gets sick again. Then she becomes an invalid. And finally she dies. Cukor shot this sequence as it was written. When friends complained, “Why, the bitch seems to be dying all the time,” he countered that this awkwardness was also in the book.

Similarly, Cukor refused to tamper with Jo’s love-interest, which develops awkwardly and rather late in the narrative. He also insisted that a version of the script, in which Jo’s novel becomes a smash success, be modified to present a less idealized view. Cukor wanted to depict a family that accepts hardship and sacrifice as a matter of course–without nobility.

Cukor had emotional affinity with Jo, who like him was not only an outsider, but also an artist. His direction conveys effectively the process by which Jo’s restlessness and frustration are actively channeled into her creative career. Jo’s determination to make her own way as a writer, leads her to decline marriage. “Look at me world, I’m Jo March, and I’m so Happy!” says Jo in a moment of exhilaration. When Hepburn said love is “sickly and sentimental,” and “why is it that things always have to change just when they’re perfect,” audiences believed her. Like Jo, Cukor was more interested in pursuing his career than having a rich love life.

Cukor could also relate to the idea of Jo’s tutorship by an elderly, cultured gentleman. Jo meets a shy European professor, Fritz Bhaer (played by Paul Lukas), who introduces her to the worlds of theater and opera, lending her his volume of Shakespeare. This was a role Cukor would play in real life for numerous young men in California in his own house–which became one of Hollywood’s chief literary and cultural salons.

But Cukor’s directorial touch was usually more light-hearted. In the scene where Jo goes to NY and sees opera for the first time, she is transfixed, suddenly wanting to be an opera singer. Cukor noticed that Hepburn was twirling around with great exuberance and verve, in an exquisite dress that had been copied from one of her grandmother’s. He thought that she was too high-minded, fancying herself a bit too much. After a long take, as Hepburn sank to the ground in a curtsy, Cukor had a large ham tied to a rope lowered into view! He made his point.

Cukor was sensitive to his performers, always aware of their problems. During the shoot, he fired a schoolteacher who visited on the set, because she had destructive influence on the actors. He explained: “People are rather insensitive, they have no hesitation of coming here and standing in front the actors and watching them, and the actors, instead of looking into their own imagination, are confronted with cold eyes.”

If Hepburn was a natural choice for the tomboyish Jo, it did not initially occur to Cukor that Joan Bennett might be right for the role of Amy, the mischievous sister. Cukor perceived Bennett as a somewhat hard-bitten actress, certainly not a character out of Alcott’s book. Amy, as he saw it, called for a soft and comedic touch. But one night he ran into Bennett at a party and observed her slightly tipsy and amusing conduct. It was there and then that he got the wild idea to cast her as Amy. Unbeknownst to Cukor, though, Bennett was pregnant, which as the film progressed, threatened the credibility of Amy’s slim girlishness.

Douglass Montgomery, an actor from the Rochester days, was cast as Jo’s love interest, the romantic Laurie. Montgomery looked strange in the picture, wearing too much make-up and lipstick, but he gave a sensitive performance. Fond of Montgomery, Cukor later considered him for the lead of David Copperfield and as Ashley in Gone With the Wind.

The only disappointing performance in an otherwise uniformly good cast, was Spring Byington as Marmee. Little Women marked her film debut–Cukor gave her a break. Byington was too sugary and sentimental to capture the “tall stately lady” the author intended. The film’s other false note Cukor disliked was Max Steiner’s insistently sentimental score.

Little Women was shot entirely on the RKO lot, including the winter scenes which required the use of artificial snow. (Growing up in New York, Cukor was sentimental about snow.) While most of the narrative takes place indoors, the film conveys a sense of small-town life through its recreation of Civil War austerity.

While working on this film, Cukor discovered how stimulating the research process could be. The authenticity of the look is a tribute to Cukor’s insistence on meticulous attention to detail. He sent set designer Hobe Erwin to Concord, to get a feel for the place and insured that the sets reproduced the locale with accuracy.

Walter Plunkett approached the costumes with the same historical accuracy as Cukor. His designs reflected the notion that the girls were poor but high-minded. Plunkett arranged that one girl would wear a certain dress for one occasion, but then another would borrow it from her. The costumes were interchanged among the actresses in different scenes–to suggest their frugal life.

This struck a chord among the viewers as Little Women was released during the height of the Depression. Indeed, in the context of the 1930’s, the treatment of social class was relevant. The March family, once rich, had lost its fortune. Poverty, hunger, and infant mortality are also in the background, along with Beth’s illness and death.

Tallulah Bankhead was vacationing in California when she saw a rough cut at Cukor’s house–no one else had seen it yet. There was a frightful scream at the end of the showing. Typically flamboyant, Bankhead threw herself into Hepburn’s arms and hugged her, then burst into tears. On her knees, holding three wet handkerchiefs, she was terribly shattered by the film and by Hepburn’s performance. Cukor looked at her with a cruel eye and said, “Tallulah, you’re weeping for your lost innocence.”

Under Cukor’s delicate direction Little Women is a powerful depiction of lost innocence–a film about the making of a sensitive writer, the maturation of a girl who transcends her milieu while retaining its heritage. Little Women was nominated for three Oscar Awards, including Best Picture. It also brought Cukor’s first nod as Best Director, which he lost to Frank Lloyd (Cavalcade). For many years, Little Women was dismissed as a sentimental period piece, but recently it has been reassessed in the new context of feminism, of which Hepburn was an early exemplar.

Selznick produced Little Women again in 1948 at MGM, but early on he realized something basic was missing. He called Cukor and asked for his honest opinion. “It’s perfectly all right,” Cukor said after looking at the rushes, “but it hasn’t got magic.” Cukor felt that the l948 version made the mistake of slicking the novel up, and the acting did not measure up to his version. June Allyson, who played Jo in the MGM movie, was no Hepburn. Cukor knew it was Hepburn’s great performance that cast magic over his film.