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Little Women (1949) was the perfect MGM picture - a loving tale of family life told on a lavish scale that brought it an Oscar nomination for Best Color Cinematography and the award for Best Art Direction. Yet it only became an MGM picture by accident.
Louisa May Alcott's classic tale of the four March sisters growing up had been a silent film in 1919, but its most famous rendition probably remains the 1933 version directed by George Cukor and starring Katharine Hepburn. That production was the brainchild of RKO Studio Head David O. Selznick, who encouraged screenwriters Sarah Y. Mason and Victor Heerman to stick as close to the original as possible. The result was an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay and a success that helped Selznick get backing for other faithful adaptations of the classics, including his production of David Copperfield (1935) at MGM.
By the '40s, Selznick had become Hollywood's top independent producer, thanks largely to the success of Gone With the Wind (1939). He was obsessed with surpassing his greatest hit and also with finding the perfect vehicle for his protege and future wife, Jennifer Jones. So he set out to produce a remake of Little Women starring Jones and the teen-aged Shirley Temple.
There are conflicting stories about what went wrong. Some sources say the production was canceled after costume tests were shot; others say it actually went into production with Mervyn LeRoy directing, but the magic just wasn't there. Whatever happened, Selznick ended up selling the project, including some of the sets, to MGM. There it became a showcase for some of the studio's most promising young players - June Allyson, Peter Lawford, Elizabeth Taylor (in a blonde wig!), Janet Leigh and Margaret O'Brien.
For Allyson, the film was a particular delight. Although at 31 she was a bit old for the role (MGM's publicity department routinely took ten years off her age), she got along with her younger co-stars as if they were sorority sisters. But she also had some more adult joys during filming when she and husband Dick Powell adopted their first child. When word came that the baby had arrived, she raced from the set without asking permission, drove home to hold the new baby for the first time, and raced back before anyone could miss her.
Allyson always joked that she and O'Brien were MGM's champion criers, and when they worked together, the faucets were permanently open. Little Women was no exception. Allyson was so upset after playing O'Brien's death scene, that the studio had to send her home for the rest of the day.
Producer/Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Screenplay: Sarah Y. Mason; Sarah Y. Mason; Andrew Solt
Production Design: Cedric Gibbions; Paul Groesse
Cinematography: Robert Planck; Charles E. Schoenbaum
Costume Design: Walter Plunkett
Film Editing: Ralph Winters
Original Music: Adolph Deutsch
Principal Cast: June Allyson (Jo March); Peter Lawford (Laurie Laurence), Margaret O'Brien (Beth March); Elizabeth Taylor (Amy March), Janet Leigh (Meg March), Rossano Brazzi (Prof. Baer)
C-122m. Closed captioning. Descriptive video.
By Frank Miller