Little Women, 1949, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Starring June Allyson, Janet Leigh, Elizabeth Taylor, Margaret O’Brien, Mary Astor. Directed by Mervyn LeRoy. Technicolor, 121 minutes.
As the Civil War rages, the March family– sisters Meg (Janet Leigh), Jo (June Allyson), Amy (Elizabeth Taylor), and Beth (Margaret O’Brien) and mother Marmee (Mary Astor)–faces the day-to-day in Concord, Massachusetts. Their father (Leon Ames) is serving in the Union Army, and while concern about him weighs on them all, it doesn’t keep the lively girls from pursuing interests close to home.
Jo, a rambunctious tomboy, is also an aspiring writer, and her plays help keep the family’s spirits lifted. Accompanying them in their acting is youngest sister Beth,* who pounds away on the family’s old upright piano. Jo and Beth aren’t the only ones with talent in the family. Amy draws, although her artistic endeavors at times get her in trouble at school.
The family may be poor, but Marmee has instilled in her girls the importance of giving to others, particularly the less fortunate. She sees the fruits of her lessons on Christmas Day, when her daughters spend the money they received from a wealthy aunt on gifts for their mother. What’s more, they take what they consider a sumptuous breakfast feast to neighbors who are suffering in their poverty and just welcomed a new baby, even though they can barely afford to eat already.
Jo longs for male friendship, and she soon finds it in the neighbor’s grandson, Laurie (Peter Lawford). Their relationship has a certain amount of imbalance, however, as Laurie falls in love with Jo, while she merely considers him a good friend–her best friend, perhaps, but not a man she wishes to marry.
It is when Laurie proposes that Jo must face certain realities in her life, and those realities send her running.
Little Women was nominated for two Academy awards and won one for Best Art Direction. It was one of MGM’s top pictures of 1949, along with Adam’s Rib and The Stratton Story (also starring June Allyson).
This was the second pairing of Taylor and Lawford, the first being Julia Misbehaves, and the young actress was said to have quite a crush on her much older co-star (she was sixteen, he was twenty-eight). However, in both films Lawford was strictly cautioned to stay away from Taylor, and he never broke his promise to do so.
At 31, Allyson was a bit old to play young Jo, and behind the scenes her life was much more grown-up. During the filming she and her husband Dick Powell adopted their first child, According to Turner Classic Movies (TCM), “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.”
Little Women is a pleasant film and while there were changes from the beloved book, viewers will recognize much of the story. Arguably the 1933 version starring Katharine Hepburn is better overall, but classic movie fans will enjoy both.
*While in the book Beth is third in line of the March girls, in the movie she is last.