Little Women (1949)

I'm continuing my exploration of Little Women, despite most adaptations falling well short of our usual yuletide requirements. Today, I'm moving on to the 1949 version, which was essentially a remake of the 1933 film. You'd think that would mean my opinion would be the same, but - between the two - I prefer this by quite a bit.

I'm in the minority on that opinion, by the way: the 1933 is widely considered the stronger film, with Katherine Hepburn even more widely considered the better Jo. But, as I said in my review of that film, Hepburn felt miscast to me - I just couldn't see her as the character. I don't think June Allyson was by any means a perfect casting choice in the remake (she was in her thirties, and you can absolutely tell in close-ups), but she works better as a teen in my opinion.

Likewise, the supporting cast here is stronger, or at the very least more in line with what I want from this kind of movie. The 1933 version was comparatively straightforward in its approach, with the characters taken fairly seriously. The remake doesn't lean all the way into parody or even comedy, but it interprets everything a little more humorously and casts accordingly. They occasionally go overboard, such as portraying Amy (played by a still-teenage Elizabeth Taylor) as the absolute worst, but even these excesses have their weird charm almost bordering on camp.

But the film's strongest asset is its budget, or more specifically the lavish sets the budget pays for. No more so than those of many films of the era, I suppose, but the soundstages of classic Hollywood were things of wonder capable of riding the line between realism and formalism. The exterior set for the March's house is particularly gorgeous.

The Christmas aspects of the movie are pared back in this one. Surprisingly, this version is much less interested in showing the holidays as a melancholy moment contrasting the search for merriment with the realities of innocence lost. The two movies buck the trend in that regard, as that tonal dissonance in Christmas media caught on during World War II and came to dominate holiday movies after. But while the 1933 version embraces a somber outlook towards the time, the 1949 glosses over it, opting for a more lighthearted depiction of the season. In a sense, we're shown a Christmas to be nostalgic for, rather than one where the pull of nostalgia confronts the cruelties of war.

There may be a few reasons for this. First, it's worth remembering that by the time this came out Christmas movies had become a genre in a way they hadn't been in 1933. Whether there was a causal connection, the framing of the holidays in the earlier version was now a trope within that genre. But, as I keep noting, Little Women isn't really a Christmas story in the modern sense. So they may have been reluctant to explore those connections and further conflate this with that genre.

There's admittedly a problem with that theory. Like its precursor, the opening credits of the 1949 film play over Christmas imagery, suggesting the producers weren't averse to having this associated with holiday movies.

The other notable reason relates to the two movies' relationships with war. A great deal of the nostalgia shown in Christmas movies of the '40s and '50s was for pre-war life, but if anything this movie has a favorable impression of war. Laurie's backstory is altered, with him having lied about his age to enlist. Meanwhile, the sequence in the 1933 version where Marmee assists a man who's lost a large portion of his family to the war is excised entirely. If anything, the 1949 version is nostalgic for the perceived heroism and nobility of a just war. To that end, it constructs the idea the Christmas we're seeing (as well as subsequent sequences) was indeed a moment in time worth pining over later in life. I don't really think they sell the story arc, but I suspect that may have been a large part of the impetus.

Overall this is even less of a Christmas movie than its predecessor, and - despite the fact I had fun with it - it is generally regarded as an inferior, less important film. Despite finding a lot to appreciate, I don't think there's any real reason for most people to track this down, unless they're fans of either the era it was made or the source material. I enjoyed this overall, but I certainly don't think it's anywhere near the best of the big Hollywood productions - if you're casually interested in movies of the time, there are better places to look. That said, if you do find yourself checking this out, my advice is to sit back and appreciate the work that must have gone into creating those incredible sets.