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Little Women (1994)

Sunday December, 16 2018 at 10:00 PM

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Every generation gets a new Little Women movie. After silent versions in 1917 and 1918, there followed a famous 1933 feature from RKO starring Katharine Hepburn; a 1949 color MGM remake with Elizabeth Taylor; TV movie versions in 1958 and 1978 (among others); and a triumphant big-screen return in 1994. More adaptations appeared in 2017 and 2018, with yet another on tap for 2019, but the 1994 version of Little Women will be hard for anyone to top. It is arguably the finest adaptation to date, with a beautifully calibrated sensitivity toward the essence and details of Louisa May Alcott's 1868 novel, even as it injects a bit of modern feminism.

All that said, Columbia Pictures only agreed to make it after young executive (and future studio chief) Amy Pascal smartly pitched it as a Christmas movie. The novel's existing Christmas sequences could be emphasized in the film, she proposed, and the project's advertising campaign could be built around holiday imagery, and the movie could be released at Christmastime. All of the above happened, yet the film does not stray from the feel of the novel. To the contrary, making Little Women a bona fide Christmas movie actually heightened the sense of family togetherness that is at the center of Alcott's work. The four March sisters grow from childhood to young adulthood in 19th century Massachusetts, laughing, supporting, fighting and loving one another--and their mother, Marmee--along the way. But the heart of the story comes through in the scenes where all are together as a family. All feels right with the world at those moments, with their Christmas celebrations a perfect fit since the season naturally conjures family togetherness.

Pascal and screenwriter Robin Swicord first hatched the idea for a new Little Women 12 years earlier, and it took that long for both to attain the degree of power and status in the industry that would allow them to carry it through. They both loved the novel passionately, and when the green light finally came, Pascal (who was named after the character of Amy March) brought three more similarly passionate women on board: producer Denise Di Novi, director Gillian Armstrong and movie star Winona Ryder, who would play Jo March. Di Novi and Ryder had been talking for years amongst themselves about their desire to tackle this novel, and Australian-born Armstrong had established herself as a top director of women-centered stories with such films as My Brilliant Career (1979) and High Tide (1987).

The production was shot mostly in Vancouver--even the snowy scenes were shot there during the summer--but Armstrong also received special permission from the perfectly preserved town of Deerfield, Massachusetts to shoot establishing shots for the opening sequence. The production design of the March house was based on Alcott's own childhood house in Concord, and the attention to detail in every frame is apparent, helping the audience to feel immersed in the period.

Robin Swicord's script did not originally contain the voiceover heard through the film from Ryder, which memorably begins, "My sisters and I remember that winter as the coldest of our childhood." In fact, the script began with a scene of the sisters doing a theater performance. Armstrong and her editor changed this partly to emphasize the Christmas element but also because she thought the audience would otherwise have trouble immediately distinguishing the costume-clad girls from one another. Jo's sisters are played by Claire Danes (Beth), Trini Alvarado (Meg), Kirsten Dunst (younger Amy) and Samantha Mathis (older Amy). Susan Sarandon plays Marmee, a role first made famous by Katharine Hepburn, and Hepburn herself, then 86, was offered the showy part of Aunt March. She declined, saying she would never think of "competing" with Edna May Oliver, who had played the part so unforgettably in the 1933 version. The producers then offered the role to Mary Wickes, an inspired choice. Wickes, 83, was a veteran character actress who had appeared in two famous holiday favorites, The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942) and White Christmas (1954). She makes her appearance as Aunt March one of her most memorable, snapping the film's funniest lines with obvious delight. It was also her last film appearance as she died in 1995.

Also starring Christian Bale, Gabriel Byrne and John Neville, Little Women was a critical and commercial success. It was nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Actress (Winona Ryder), Best Costume Design and Best Score. Over the years, it has stayed alive through annual holiday revivals and deservedly worked its way into the hearts of many fans as a family film of the purest sort--honest, buoyant and just sentimental enough to tap into anyone's nostalgia for the exuberances and even pangs of childhood.

By Jeremy Arnold

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