Review – When Jo Marchs In (“Little Women”)

Louise May Alcott must be VERY happy! Her 1868 novel has been turned into more than a dozen movies, including TV films, theatrical releases, and straight-to-video, plus BBC remakes, and numerous other screen re-tellings, including a musical stage version! More than ANY other book! Wow! That’s impressive!

Like I said, there have been numerous re-tellings of the novel, but up until now all of them of have been told with a linear storyline, i.e., a beginning, middle, and end. However, this movie requires that you have some prior knowledge of the novel or seeing a previous movie version, as the film starts late in act two, and then proceeds to ping-pong with flash-backs & flash forwards in a jumbled kaleidoscope of memories and events, all told through the eyes of Jo March (Saoirse Ronan). We start with older Jo and her adventures in NYC as she tries to juggle her teaching job at a boarding house with being a writer by selling her sensational short stories to local newspapers.

It’s from this jumping-off point that we begin to see Jo’s past life in Concord, Massachusetts with her poor, but close-knit family and sisters: Amy (Florence Pugh) who is quite the artist, when she isn’t being mean. Pretty, but shy Meg (Emma Watson), and the youngest, musically-inclined Beth (Eliza Scanlen). There’s also their mother, Marmee (Laura Dern) and father (Bob Odenkirk), who’s off in the war. And let’s not forget their wealthy next-door neighbors, Timothy “Laurie” Laurence (Timothee Chalamet) and his gruff-looking dad (Chris Cooper). Although the movie involves all the girls and their individual stories, the center story revolves around Jo and how her family and acquaintances effect her life.

Hopping back-and-forth and back again, we hit all the marks that make this story the stirring tale that it is: Marmee getting the girls to give up their breakfast to feed a destitute family, Amy getting even with Jo, Laurie dancing with Jo at a lavish ball, acerbic Aunt March (Meryl Streep) being a pain, feisty & independent Jo dealing with the publishers, Amy going to France instead of Jo, Laurie professing his undying love for Jo, Beth getting a surprise gift from Mr. Lawrence, Jo meeting German Professor Friedrich Bhaer (Louis Garrel) at her boarding house, marriages, deaths, and more. And all the while it’s Jo that remains the constant, writing and hoping that one day her life will become more than it is.

Directed by Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird), who also adapted the novel for the screen, is what you call an “actor’s director”. And by that I mean, since she’s been an actress longer than a director, she knows a thing or two about directing actors. Gerwig’s background speaks for itself: her 2017 Lady Bird not only garnered her much praise, but multiple awards as well. And it shows here as well. Her masterful hand at simple camerawork is like those Masterpiece Theater pic’s on BBC; beautifully shot, high production values, and richly costumed. It’s elegance without overstatement.

Gerwig chose a sumptuous cast as well: Ronan inhabits her character with such passion, it’s like she was born to play Jo. Watson, Scanlen, and Pugh are all excellent as well, with emphasis on Chalamet who nails his upper-crust society airs. Streep, in her extended cameo, is always her wonderful self, and Dern turns in a terrific understated performance. There’s no doubt of the chemistry of the four March sisters, as Gerwig had them room together prior to shooting just to bond, and it shows. There’s only one problem, and that’s the confusing script.

Gerwig, who can write some of the best dialogue and scenes around (she was nominated for Best Original Screenplay), did something usual here. It was as if she chopped up the individual scenes of the movie, tossed them in the air, then taping then back together in random order. Now, I don’t mind flash-back’s and flash-forwards, but when they’re used to excess, that’s when it gets confusing. After awhile, all the zig-zagging got to be a challenge: at one point I struggled to figure out which time-period was showing on the screen! Was I seeing the past, present, or was this a dream of the past? Nevertheless, I found this version to be one of the very best as far as acting, direction, and scale. And all those confusing time-jumps? Well, just make it game, like I did!

Little Women (1949)

To be honest, it was tough trying to figure out which version to compare the 2019 movie with. Y’see, Little Women has more than a dozen different versions, including movie and TV adaptations, BBC remakes, straight-to-DVD reboots, a Broadway stage version AND a musical! So I rolled the dice and picked this.

Being cheap and not wanting to spend more money than they should, MGM in 1949 decided to re-use the same 1933 Little Women script by Sally Benson, Victor Heerman, Sarah Y. Mason, and Andrew Solt, who adapted the classic novel by Louisa May Alcott. These writers also decided to change a great many things from the book for the screen.

In the small town of Concord, Massachusetts during the Civil War (although you’d never know it), we are greeted by the March sisters: tomboyish and super-independent Jo (June Allyson) who fancies herself a writer, vain and selfish Amy (Elizabeth Taylor) who never passes up a meal, shy and fastidious Meg (Janet Leigh), and the youngest, Beth (Margaret O’Brien) who loves to play the piano.

They all live in a modest home with their mother, loving called Marmee (Mary Astor), while their father (Leon Ames) is far away in the war. They get occasional visits from their cantankerous and unfiltered Aunt March (Lucille Watson) who’d rather set the world on fire. Anyway, the girls constantly bitch about social status, their lousy life of poverty, and the other girls who have more than they do. Only Marmee and their housekeeper keep them in check.

There are multiple stories spinning like plates on sticks, but the main one deals with Jo and her wanting to be a writer and, at the same time, spurning the love of next door neighbor, Theodore “Laurie” Laurence (Peter Lawford), who is crazy in love with her. She gives up on love and seeks her literary muse in NYC, where she meets penniless Professor Bhaer (Rosanno Brazzi in his debut role) in a boarding house, and the two hit it off. Meanwhile, Beth gets Scarlett fever and never fully recovers, leading to her early demise. Amy eventually marries Laurie in a surprise move and, in an equally shocking move, Professor Bhaer takes Jo’s fledgling novel about her late sister and publishes it into a book!

In this two hour movie there’s comedy (Jo meeting gruff Mr. Lawrence for the first time), drama (Laurie begging love from Jo), pathos (Beth going over to tell Mr. Lawrence ‘thank you’), and social commentary (the girls arguing whether they should feed the poor or not). One thing is for sure, Hollywood wasn’t concerned if 30-something’s were playing teenagers (Grease, anyone?), as these “little middle-aged women” were BIG box office draws at the time. In fact, June Allyson was pregnant during filming!

While the book and movie were different, this film made major bank, thanks to the great direction of Mervyn LeRoy (The Wizard of Oz, Quo Vadis) who could direct dirt and make it look magnificent. Check out that basket that Beth is carrying; that’s Dorothy’s from The Wizard of Oz; a sorta Easter egg LeRoy threw in for fun. All the girls are wonderful, despite the dated and sometimes silly dialogue. However, even though this movie revolves around Jo and her life, it’s Margaret O’Brien that owns the movie. Her acting is so far above the stratosphere from the others it’s scary. Just watch her deliver her “I’m not afraid to die” speech to Allyson. It’s devastating.

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