Little Women (1933)

I should start by acknowledging I've previously said Little Women wasn't Christmas media and that we wouldn't be covering it here. I still stand by the first part, incidentally - most adaptations of Little Women don't pass our personal litmus tests - but obviously, I reconsidered the second half. As I've been diving into the origins and evolution of Christmas movies, I've concluded Little Women may be quite a bit more important to the history of the quasi-genre than I'd given it credit for, this version most of all. So I decided to watch through the theatrically released adaptations to explore how this story influenced and/or reflected that evolution. I'm not going to do full reviews for these, since - again - it's not a Christmas movie, and I assume you know what Little Women is anyway, but I'll offer some general reactions and thoughts.

I want to acknowledge two video essays I found extremely useful in this project - Be Kind Rewind's Comparing Every Version of Little Women and Patrick H. Willems's Little Women - How Greta Gerwig Revolutionized a Literary Classic. I'm a huge fan of both channels - if you're a fan of movies, I strongly recommend exploring both.

Neither silent version survived, so let's start with the acclaimed 1933, which... okay, I kind of feel bad about this... I mostly just find boring. I know, I'm seeing this nine decades after its release, and I'm not exactly the target audience for the books - but the truth is I found this a bit tedious to watch. The whole thing feels less like a cohesive story than a series of mostly disconnected vignettes tossed on the screen. I realize that's in line with the source material, but the choice not to pull it together into more of a unified story causes it to drag, for me at least. None of that's intended as a slight against the filmmakers - most of the screenwriting structures and guidelines commonplace now didn't even exist in 1933 - but it means the movie plays out more like a companion to the book than what I'd consider a satisfying film. 

To be fair, Jo is eventually given an overarching character arc, but the same isn't really the case for her sisters. They all get miniature arcs early on which read like short morality lessons, but only Jo really seems to develop as a person over the course of the film, and even that feels forced.

Again, keep in mind I'm writing this 90 years after this came out, and I'm sharing this reaction while considering modern audiences. At the time, it was well received and seems to have been considered the definitive version until the '90s. It was an influential, important film - I just don't think there's much here to appeal to viewers who aren't obsessed with either the source material, cinema of the 1930s, or the movie's star, Katherine Hepburn.

Hepburn probably comes closest to challenging this generalization. She injects a great deal of energy and charisma into the film, so serious fans of the actress will likely find a lot more to enjoy here than I did. Even so, her casting feels like a double-edged sword: she delivers star power, but it comes at the cost of the movie. Hepburn was in her mid-20s when the movie was made, which certainly isn't unusual for performers portraying teenagers. But Hepburn's intensity and power make her feel older, rather than younger. I can't guarantee some of that isn't my subconscious imposing my impression of Hepburn from her subsequent career, but - again - for modern audiences likely to experience a similar disconnect, the cause is academic. On top of that, the supporting cast is pretty forgettable.

Let's talk Christmas - after all, that's why we're here. And there's quite a bit to explore. The holidays account for roughly the first 30 minutes of the runtime, and they're not essential to either the plot or theme of the larger film. I'd describe this as a movie with scenes built around Christmas, rather than a piece of Christmas media.

That being said, it might be one of the most important movies ever made in terms of the evolution of Christmas movies.

Little Women was released in 1933 and - for better or worse - its success was pivotal in Hollywood's shift from more adult-oriented content to family-friendly fare. It's worth noting that, with a few exceptions, the first "talkie" Christmas movies came out after Little Women. It's not unreasonable to wonder if The opening scenes of Little Women directly inspired the production of subsequent movies.

I also want to draw attention to the way the holidays are introduced. In a deviation from the book (I  looked through the first few chapters), we're introduced to the girls' mother before the children themselves. Their mother is volunteering on Christmas Eve, assisting a man in finding a coat. We learn he's already lost two children and is going to visit a third in a hospital. Their mother wishes him a Merry Christmas as Christmas music plays somberly. This transitions to the idea of family as comfort, with the girls' presence giving her the strength to bear the difficulty of the war.

I find this moment fascinating for a number of reasons. The tonal dissonance between Christmas as an ostensibly happy time and the realities of tragedy would become a dominant theme in Christmas movies a decade later. I'm skeptical it got its start here, but this is the first time I can recall seeing this particular note struck so clearly (I mean that literally - the musical cue accompanying these two parents wishing each other Merry Christmas would be replicated in countless subsequent movies). I wouldn't be surprised if Little Women borrowed this moment (or at least elements) from earlier films, but even if that's the case, it's worth noting this was a major financial success that helped shift Hollywood towards family-friendly pictures. It's not much of a stretch to wonder if the Christmas movies of the 1940s were partly born out of the start of this adaptation. This isn't a Christmas movie, but in a real sense, the opening half-hour provides a template on how to make the Christmas movies that would follow.

But I find it equally interesting how the framing of this dissonance differs from most later movies. To the extent Little Women is concerned with nostalgia, it's nostalgia for the time it's set in, rather than the characters' nostalgia for happier past Christmases driving films like White Christmas or Meet Me in St. Louis (or Die Hard, for that matter). You could infer that nostalgia from the interaction and accompanying musical beat, but it's certainly not explicit. If this is the start of movies embracing this kind of yuletide nostalgia, it had yet to be refined.

It's also worth noting the girl's experiences were a long way from glowing. If anything, the holidays seemed to be a reminder of how little they had, as well as the value of sharing with the even less fortunate. Some of the lessons they learn echo themes of charity and economic justice that permeated early Christmas media until post-war politics shifted the genre towards a nostalgic yearning for innocence.

But Little Women doesn't entirely conform to that template, either. A major character, Mr. Laurence, is wealthy and acts as a sort of benevolent benefactor, rewarding others' kindness in turn. His presence implies an inherent justice to capitalism that clashes with the themes of more progressive holiday stories. In addition, charity is just one of several virtues the girls are taught, and it doesn't seem to have been given special weight.

Ultimately, the portrayal of the holidays in this movie seems to exist at something of a crossroads in the development of Christmas movie themes. It's mostly notable that the theme that would eventually take over is present, at all, given how early this was made. And, regardless of whether the movie spoke to me, it's hard to ignore its footprint.

Again, I can't really recommend this to anyone without a compelling reason to track it down. There's a lot of history here, and serious fans of the book and Hepburn will likely be interested, but the movie as a whole isn't going to appeal to most casual modern viewers.