Judge Clark Douglas sees little reason to watch this version of Little Women.
The Emmy Award Winning Adaptation of the Beloved Children's Classic.
There seems to be no shortage of well-produced adaptations of Louisa May Alcott's much-loved novel Little Women. The 1933 version of the film (starring Katherine Hepburn) is widely regarded as one of the best early literary adaptations. A solid adaptation starring June Alyson and Elizabeth Taylor was released in 1949, and a very respectable mini-series based on the novel was produced for the BBC in 1970. In 1994, a slightly more feminist version of the tale starring Susan Sarandon and Winona Ryder was released to great critical acclaim. With the release of this new DVD, we now have another version to consider. Is this 1978 NBC miniseries worthwhile, or is it simply an unnecessary addition to the large pile?
Facts of the Case
For those of you have somehow not seen a filmed version of the story or read the novel, Little Women is a Civil War-era story of four sisters. First, there's the strong-willed Jo (Susan Dey, The Partridge Family), an aspiring writer with an energetic personality. Meg (Meredith Baxter Birney, Family Ties) is a much more proper and graceful young lady, while Amy (Ann Dusenberry) is a pouty young thing who always complains about being left out of everything her two older sisters do. Finally, there's sweet and quiet young Beth (Eve Plumb, The Brady Bunch), who is simply content to enjoy life at home in as peaceful a manner as possible. Poor Marmee (Dorothy Maguire, Three Coins in the Fountain) is forced to take care of all four girls by herself, as her husband (William Schallert, Colossus: The Forbin Project) is away, working as a doctor for the Union Army.
The film follows the various romantic and personal joys and sorrows in the lives of the young ladies. Jo struggles with her writing, Amy deals with jealousy and insecurity, and Beth goes through a number of health struggles. Some of the men in the lives of the little women include playful young Laurie (Richard Gilliland, Bug), the noble but dull John Brooke (Cliff Potts, Silent Running), and the intelligent German scholar Professor Baehr (William Shatner, Star Trek). Between trying to decide whether or not to accept their suitors, trying to find purpose in life and attempting to stay in the good graces of wealthy Aunt Kathryn (Greer Garson, That Forsyte Woman), these four ladies lead very active and engaging lives, and we are invited to spend 194 minutes taking a look at many of the high and low points.
The first word that comes to mind when attempting to describe this production is "ordinary." It is acted, directed, and produced with some measure of general quality and class, and is always cautious to stay faithful to the spirit of the original novel. Even so, the miniseries (divided into two 97-minute parts, presented here on two discs) never really seems able to go beyond merely being a very standard filmed adaptation. Little Women takes significant moments from the printed page and puts them on the screen, but seems to go to very little extra effort to make the story come to life for the viewer.
Perhaps that is because this particular version of Little Women seems far more interested in events and plot developments than it is in the characters. We move from Significant Moment to Big Event to Life-Changing Decision from start to finish, but the series never seems to have time to stop and consider more intimate details. That is particularly surprising when you consider that this is one of the longest versions of Little Women. You would think that there would be more time to add in little details here, but somehow this version doesn't manage to include a single thing we haven't seen before in any of the other versions. It does half as much in twice the time. I missed little moments like Jo's home theatre productions, or the many thoughtful conversations between the sisters. Such scenes are sacrificed for the sake of further exposition.
The acting is all quite competent, if not wonderful. Susan Dey has the majority of the screen time as Jo. While Dey is quite effective, she makes the mistake of attempting to directly mimic June Allyson's performance from the 1949 version, rather than trying to make the character her own. This might make her role seem like a pale imitation to those who have seen that particular Little Women, but I imagine Dey's turn will seem fresh to those who haven't. Ann Dusenberry plays Amy as a rather obnoxious character, and she always seems to be making some kind of off-putting face. Meredith Baxter Birney and Eve Plumb are both perfectly fine in their roles, but they don't have too much screen time and don't get to make much of an impression. (Spoiler Alert) Beth's tragic ending has always been a weepy point in adaptations of the story, but here we spend so little time with Beth before she dies that we don't really care all that much. (End Spoiler)
The men of the story don't fare much better. Richard Gilliland is a bit unconvincing as Laurie, and Cliff Potts is a terrible piece of miscasting. For some reason, he plays John Brooke as some kind of creepy psychopath. Though John never actually does anything too creepy, he acts creepy the whole time; consider the moment when he sees Jo: "Hey," he whispers, "How are you? How's your family…how are your…" he pauses as he briefly checks Jo out…"sisters?" I'd check the special features to hear some thoughts on why this guy was chosen to play the role, but alas…no special features are to be found anywhere, unless you consider "scene selection" options a special feature.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
All the weaknesses of the younger actors and actresses in the cast are just about compensated for by the performances of the older actors. Dorothy McGuire is quite good in the role of Marmee, and Greer Garson is even better as the saucy Aunt Kathryn. Robert Young (who was quite popular at the time due to his television work on Father Knows Best and Marcus Welby, M.D.) turns in a touching performance as the crusty but kind James Lawrence. Easily the most controversial and entertaining performance comes courtesy of the infamous William Shatner, who plays Professor Baehr. Shatner is not only in over-the-top ham mode, he also sports a ridiculously awful German accent. "Yez, I sink I vill take a vife ven I come back to from ze college!" Even so, Shatner showed up just in time to prevent me from falling asleep. If you find this Little Women as dull as I did, you might also love the energetic campiness of Shatner's performance. However, if you are somehow quite involved in the story, his acting may seem like a tacky distraction.
On a more technical end, Little Women is very impressive in a couple of departments. First of all, Edith Head's costume design is just sublime. Head quite wonderfully manages to capture the look and feel of Civil War-era Massachusetts, making the characters seem right at home even when the acting seems a bit too 1970s. The other element of significant note is the lush and inviting score by composer Elmer Bernstein. Bernstein's orchestral writing has always had a very timeless and warm quality, and this is no exception. Bernstein's work here is arguably even better than Thomas Newman's fine score for the 1994 film, setting the tone of the story very effectively. The video here is actually quite good for a 1970s television production, even if the music often sounds just a little bit garbled.
For diehard fans of the novel who simply must see every version, or for those who simply want the story to drag out as long as possible, I suppose this one can be recommended. However, for the casual viewer, Little Women can be better experienced in other incarnations. Fans of classic cinema should check out the 1930s version, fans of creative cinema should check out the 1990s version, and those who want something about as good as this one but significantly shorter should see the 1940s version. On its own, I suppose this Little Women is okay, but it just seems to be a little bit pointless these days with all the superior options out there.
While a few individual participants are free to go, the production as a whole is guilty of taking too much time to do too little.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Lorber
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