[1932/1933 & 2019] Little Women II

Here’s Part I.


Sam Sklar  

Besides the fact that diversity is Good, everyone deserves a shot regardless of race or skin color or gender or orientation. Whoever you are, you deserve more attention for making really good art. What I think is even better is that a lot of the stories that we haven’t heard yet are probably going to be coming from women and people of color and people of different sexual orientations and preferences. And these are the stories that are going to define this generation of audiences and I think that producers and people that fund these projects and that greenlight scripts should do a better job and lead the way, rather than just following the dollars. It’s going to be slow rolling anyway.

Zach Schonfeld  

Yeah. Throughout the past century almost all of the film adaptations of Little Women have been huge box office successes, and proved that movies that center around women’s stories can perform really well at the box office, and that both men and women will go see these movies. And you can go all the way back to the very first adaptation of Little Women, that 1918 version, which I haven’t seen because it’s lost, and see that this is true.

When I was researching the Vulture piece, I was going through this old Paramount pressbook from 1918, which has all these promotional materials for movies that Paramount was releasing at the time, and there’s all this material urging theater owners to show this Little Women adaptation at their movie theater. And it says: “

It is safe to state that nine out of every ten women and girls in your town have read this idyllic story of home life during the period of the Civil War … Every woman who has read this notable book in her girlhood will see the picture again at your theatre. Every mother will want her daughter to see it.” 

So it’s a shame that Hollywood has been so resistant, or the Academy has been so resistant, to movies that center around women’s stories when it’s clear that these movies resonate with a lot of people.

Sam Sklar  

I’m going to venture a guess here: the Hays Code may have slowed this down.

I think a lot slowed down the acceptance and adaptation of female stories and stories about people who aren’t just straight white people. I think that the folks who were in charge of censorship for 25 or 30 years were not just we’re not just editing for explicit material or whatever their moral code was. I think they were probably editing out stories… a person who color or a gay person or someone experiencing sexual trauma was not allowed to be told. And before filmmakers could even decide whether a story was worth telling, they were hamstrung by the code and they found they were going to eventually get censored by it. It halted a lot of progress.

So I would bet that the Hays Code definitely played a big part jamming natural progress and I think also film executives are probably very skittish. And the folks who have a lot of money and prestige and power tend to trust their own instincts, even if they’re rooted in a very narrow set of experiences. 

And when it’s all white men whose instincts are “I am white man, I understand white men, so we’ll pay white men to make movies about white men until it makes me comfortable.” It’s an a-virtuous cycle.

A lot of these big studios are reeling (ha) from the legacy of the Hays Code, and a lot of the staff, children of filmmakers, maybe children of people who saw these films still linger. We’re going to need another generation or two: this upcoming generation will be the “change” generation and the next generation of filmmakers. The next one will show that the film industry won’t even be recognizable in 40 years.

Zach Schonfeld  

So I’ve already explained why I was skeptical of Greta Gerwig’s version of Little Women, and why I didn’t love it as much as most critics did. But I do want to say what I did like about it. There was a lot that I did like about that movie. 

First of all: Saoirse Ronan, I think, is absolutely fantastic. She gave a deeply felt, lived-in performance as Jo. She’s a fantastic actress. And I think you can absolutely draw a parallel between Saoirse Ronan in the 2010s and Winona Ryder in the early ‘90s. Both actresses in their early 20s who are so good at playing coming-of-age roles, playing troubled, intelligent, tormented, teenage girls in various settings. I thought Saoirse Ronan was also brilliant in Lady Bird and in Brooklyn as well, which are both kind of period pieces in their own way. 

Another thing I liked about the 2019 Little Women was the cinematography, and the level of visual detail in every scene. It’s stunning, and I particularly loved the scenes where the whole family’s together, when the girls are younger, and the whole family is together in the living room, and there’s such a family feeling to those scenes. Greta Gerwig directed it in such a way where they’re all talking over each other. The sound design is very chaotic in a very realistic, familial way. All the girls are talking over each other and there’s so much affection and love and bickering and it just feels like a real family. I thought that it was just extremely well directed. I really like the scenes where they’re all together.

Sam Sklar  

Yeah, Saoirse Ronan’s performance was my number one thing that I liked the best about this movie as well. I’d also like the scene where Bob Odenkirk showed up halfway through for a little unintentional comic relief. He’s so recognizable from Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul! that seeing him in this context was a little…goofy. He was good though!

Zach Schonfeld  

We haven’t talked about Timothée Chalamet, I think he’s a good Laurie. I thought he got too much screen time in the film, perhaps. I thought he got too much screen time relative to Professor Bhaer, who was relatively underemphasized in this version. But it makes sense: Timothée Chalamet is the hot young thing right now. It makes sense that he would get a lot of screen time given his current rising profile.

Sam Sklar  

This was going to be one of my main points. I thought Timothée Chalamet was wildly miscast in this role. I understand the twee nature of Greta Gerwig’s work and the fact that Timothée Chalamet is the it boy in Hollywood right now—he’s the hot young thing. Every movie he’s in gets a bump.

My view of who Laurie is, is Christian Bale’s performance. Obviously this is Greta Gerwig’s telling of the story so she had a different interpretation of what “big strong man” means to her in 2019 whereas the 1994 version and even the 1933 version had much different takes on it. 

To me, the Laurie character is meant to be this very stereotypical six-foot-three, two-ten, and handsome, but a little bit oafish; all over the place, but well-meaning; a duality of traditional masculinity and what a “man” actually is—a flawed human. And I thought Christian Bale did a great job—he is my standard bearer for that type of role anyway. And I just think that it weakens the relationship when you have two skittish, waifish people going at it. 

There’s a power dynamic, which I think Greta Gerwig was trying to flatten a little bit, which I think needs to exist in order for the story to make sense as it was written, but again, this is Greta Gerwig’s interpretation of it. And so for me and my expectations for the film, I think he was miscast. For Greta Gerwig’s interpretation, I think he was the perfect cast. It’s hard to only comment on what movie we got and what movie we want, though.

Zach Schonfeld  

I thought he was good, but he got too much screen time relative to the character, Professor Bhaer, who I think is an important character who was not very well developed in this particular adaptation of the film.

Sam Sklar  

In this theory of Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, (if I’m going to interpret this, and I’m likely to be way off, and I don’t want to put words or ideas in her head) the whole flattening of the power dynamic, is that she didn’t want Jo to succumb to the eventual “needing a man to be fulfilled” trope.  And so by giving Professor Bhaer less screen time and making him an increasingly secondary, throwaway plot point. Greta Gerwig doesn’t seek to remove the power that Jo had over her own life, in a way that the ‘94 version did, which was a little more faithful to the book, and maybe faithful to Alcott’s experiences.

I just think it was a conscious choice to make this man a secondary part of Jo’s life rather than her eventual understanding that you can do both: you can have a career and a life and also find love, and it’s likely to come out of nowhere. That’s what that’s what that character represents to me. Dumping this part of the plot into “Oh, I guess you’ll get married now, but whatever, he’s just a man,” was a weak choice. And I think played out the opposite way of what Greta Gerwig was expecting. Instead of empowering Jo to make her own decisions it infantilized her.

Zach Schonfeld  

I agree with you. I think Christian Bale was the best Laurie. In the 1933 version, Douglas Montgomery plays Laurie—I thought he was unremarkable. He was a little bit goofy in my opinion. In the 1949 version, Laurie is played by Peter Lawford and Peter Lawford was already well into his 20s by the time this movie was made, and he just looks like he’s 30. He looks too old to be Laurie. 

And this is a problem that is true of many of the characters in the 1949 version, which is that they’re just much older than the characters they’re supposed to be playing. And the 1949 version also takes one liberty that none of the other versions take, which is: Beth is the youngest. Beth is younger than Amy, which is unfaithful to the book and I think the reason that they did that is because they wanted Elizabeth Taylor as Amy March—Margaret O’Brien plays Beth. They changed around the characterization in order to accommodate Elizabeth Taylor, who, at the time was already well into her teens, and could not have played the youngest sister for that reason. 

Sam Sklar  

But it definitely makes sense in the studio system and starlet system, right, that was still waning but still definitely there. 

Zach Schonfeld  

That’s probably the most significant way that the 1949 version deviates from the 1933 version, because otherwise, it’s really just a rote recreation of the ‘33 version in glorious Technicolor?

Sam Sklar  

Yeah, I mean, it seems much more of a spectacle than a retelling. “Come look at this! But in color!”

Zach Schonfeld  

I’m a completist. Once I start watching all these movies I have to keep doing it. So now I’m very curious to watch the 2018 version set in present day, which is obviously a huge liberty, and probably an ill-considered one, although I haven’t seen it so I’ll reserve judgment. I’m also curious to watch the television adaptation from the 70s, which is supposedly terrible. If you look at rankings of the different Little Women media, they all ranked the 70s version last.

Sam Sklar  

Yeah, I’m going to go ahead and not watch that. I’m going to leave that to you.

Zach Schonfeld  

I’m curious about it. So I’m probably just going to watch it to satisfy my curiosity. What do you think will be the next adaptation that we see of Little Women? I’m sure there’ll be another one in like 20 years. 

Sam Sklar  

So Alcott’s follow up to “Little Women” was “Little Men.” So we’re going to see a remake of Little Men, probably. 

Zach Schonfeld  

Oh, that’s good. That’s interesting.

Sam Sklar  

And I think the next remake of Little Women will be women of color. It will be a retelling with a different type of familial relationship based on cultural differences between, maybe Black women, maybe Latina women or Asian women, or a mix of non-white sisters. I am thankful that Greta Gerwig didn’t necessarily cast women of color in these roles. I think it would definitely change the whole tone and mood of what she was going for. But I definitely see the story worthwhile to be retold through a different cultural lens.

Zach Schonfeld  

Right. It’s funny you brought up Little Men. I completely forgot about that. They actually made a Hollywood adaptation of little men, only a year later after the ‘33 adaptation in 1934. Someone named Phil Rosen directed a movie version of Little Men, and I don’t think it achieved the same success. According to Wikipedia, “The film received slight criticism due to high expectations from Alcott’s prior novel, ‘Little Women.’ Although the film was considered by some to be a sequel to Little Women, it didn’t contain the same message about the domesticity of women and their roles in society, and therefore did not have as big of an impact.”

So I’m curious to watch that as well now.

Sam Sklar  

And they remade it in 1940 and again in 1998. It was a Canadian feature. 

And then… wait a second. Wait a second. Hold on. In 1993 an animated television series based on this novel ran in Japan: Little Women 2: Jo’s Boys and has been translated into several other languages with new cast members to voice the characters. That I want to see.

Zach Schonfeld  

One thing that we haven’t talked about is that when the 1933 version of Little Women came out, it was the middle of the Great Depression. And everything that you read about this film emphasizes the fact that there’s a clear parallel between the themes of frugality and sacrifice in the book, ‘Little Women,’ which is obviously set in wartime, and how those themes resonated during the Great Depression, when Americans were once again forced to deal with with scarcity, rationing food, and economic uncertainty. 

Those themes obviously resonated when the movie came out in 1933, in the middle of the Great Depression. And it’s funny when I watched the ‘33 movie, two months ago, I was like, “Wow, the Great Depression, how quaint, we’re not living through anything like that.” And now two months later we are once again living through an economic crisis. Perhaps those themes are once again uncomfortably relevant to our lives more so than we would desire. Right now we’re dealing—and you I are dealing—with a lot of economic uncertainty and rationing food in the middle of an economic crisis. So perhaps for that reason, it’s a perfect time to rewatch the 1933 adaptation of Little Women.

Sam Sklar  

I mean, it certainly seems that prosperity is the dot that connects…

Zach Schonfeld  

…different periods of American history. It’s interesting that we’re currently talking about a book that was set during one national crisis in 1865, which was adapted for the screen during another national crisis in 1933, and we are currently discussing it during yet another national crisis in 2020. 

That’s one historic parallel. And that’s one reason that the story resonated in 1933. And perhaps might still be resonating today.

Sam Sklar  

Yeah, I think that’s probably right. I think we’re lucky (she wasn’t so lucky) that Louisa May Alcott lived through the Civil War. She was writing during the Civil War and had this fresh in her mind. And so the themes are there and they seem to be universal. They seem to have transversed eight or nine generations of Americans at this point. 

I think that this story is one of these stories that I think resonates but it’s mostly American. The plot and setting place it firmly as a very American story, but I think the concept of family is not just “American.” I think that’s where it definitely resonates across the globe as well and why we might be ready for a Little Women remake maybe from somewhere that we don’t necessarily associate with white people.

Zach Schonfeld  

I think that would be a really interesting version.

Sam Sklar  

Let’s talk about two of the seven films that have been made to try and determine whether they should have won Best Picture or not. It’s a little bit challenging to do considering we haven’t seen all of these movies. Especially not from 1933. But I guess we’ll start there 

There are some famous movies that came out in 1933. Cavalcade, which I’ve seen and written about, won.

That is also a movie about progress in a way. It follows a family over several generations—I think it’s about 40 years the story runs—and the idea of moving forward in a crisis. And I think that’s what pushed it over the edge for Best Picture. It was a little slow and a little goofy; it was 1933 and a lot of these movies tend to be slow and goofy by our standards. But I think when it came out, it definitely had very interesting plotting and timing. And I think that’s probably why it won. 

Other movies that came out this year: 42nd Street, which is a famous movie, I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang—a pretty famous movie, and A Farewell to Arms, a challenging Hemingway adaptation.

Zach Schonfeld  

So I haven’t seen any of the other films that were nominated that year. I don’t have an informed opinion on whether it should have won, because I just haven’t seen these other films. 

Sam Sklar  

I definitely try to make the case without having seen it. It’s a little challenging to do. When I do see a movie and I understand the historical concept with a context, I try to see if the themes of this movie fit American historiography. 

They probably got this one, right, although Little Women could have also won. And that probably would have been fine as well to meet the needs of “coming together in a crisis,” which was a very 30s sentiment along with honoring and being part of a family. This was pre-Code as well. And so a lot of these movies were able to tackle more challenging themes, because they were still relevant to American life even though a lot of these themes of despair and liberation.

Zach Schonfeld  

Regarding the 2019 Best Picture nominees, as is probably obvious from my comments about the film, I don’t think Little Women deserved to win. This is a very rare Oscar year where I think the correct film won Best Picture. That never happens. [Ed. Seconded; that never happens].

And this year Parasite won Best Picture. I thought Parasite was phenomenal. It’s an extraordinarily timely film, brilliantly directed, and brilliantly acted.

I thought that film was absolutely a deserving winner. My other favorite movie of the year in 2019 was The Irishman. But honestly I’m thrilled that The Irishman did not win Best Picture because that would have meant another two weeks of having to endure people’s horrible takes of The Irishman on social media. I’m thrilled that we weren’t subjected to another week of people who watched The Irishman on their iPad complaining about the Irishman. 

Although we did have to endure terrible takes about Parasite from Republicans and from the President of the United States, it was worth it. It was worth it because Parasite was a historic win—the first non-English language movie ever to win Best Picture. And I’m thrilled that it will now bring Bong’s work to the public to more popular attention. And now Bong will be able to get the money and support to make literally whatever he wants to make next, which I think is awesome. And I’m thrilled to see what he will do with that opportunity.

Sam Sklar  

I’ve loved all his work. Memories of Murder, in particular, stands out to me, but I think everything he’s he’s touched has been great.

I could have made the case for The Irishman. Because that was a great movie—one of Scorsese’s best. I will make the case for Once Upon A Time…in Hollywood, which either needed to be half-an-hour shorter or half-an hour-longer: I think there was too much content and not enough content for the story that Quentin Tarantino was trying to tell. But I’m not going to tell him how to edit his movies. So I enjoyed it for what it was very much. 1917 looked like watching somebody playing a video game.

Zach Schonfeld  

Also, yeah, it feels like a video game.

Sam Sklar  

The whole movie. Marriage Story. Absolutely not. It was terrible. I hated it.

Zach Schonfeld  

I didn’t hate it but it’s certainly not my favorite Baumbach.

Sam Sklar  

And Joker they’ve made many times before. They remade Taxi Driver, but worse. Jojo Rabbit, too, which I think was unfinished. They took the script and filmed it halfway and then said, “Okay, we’re done”. And then Ford vs. Ferrari, which I think was the most underrated feature of 2019.

Zach Schonfeld  

I thought it was so underrated that I didn’t even see it. 

Sam Sklar  

I think it’s fantastic. It was just so much fun. I like car racing, though. I think it’s a fun activity. I thought that all the technical awards this movie won were well deserved, that the acting was good. I thought the story was well paced. And I also appreciate that they changed the title for an American audiences from Le Mans ‘66, because Americans don’t know what Le Mans is even though it’s so huge globally. 

But yeah, they definitely got the Best Picture right in 2019. I saw Parasite three times in theaters. 

Zach Schonfeld  

You saw Parasite three times in theaters?

Sam Sklar 

I saw it once myself, and then twice myself and once with friends. The third time I wanted to see it  and have a discussion with friends afterwards. I would see it again if it came back to theaters.

Notable snubs from 2019—I wouldn’t be able to tell you the ones from ‘33 as they were making hundreds of movies a day in 1933—but I thought Midsommar, directed by Ari Aster, was snubbed.

Zach Schonfeld  

Yeah. It’s exactly the kind of movie that the Oscars would ignore.

Sam Sklar  

The Safdie Brothers’ Uncut Gems, with Adam Sandler, was totally snubbed. It was absolutely brilliant.

Zach Schonfeld  

Another film that I thought deserved to be nominated for Best Picture, but wasn’t, was Us by Jordan Peele. I liked it even more than Get Out and I liked Get Out a lot. 

Sam Sklar  

I thought it fell apart in the third act.

Zach Schonfeld  

I disagree. I thought Us was fantastic. It works as a horror movie. It also works as social commentary. It also is just visually a wild ride from beginning to end. Us was one of my favorite films of the year—top five for me.

Sam Sklar  

I liked it. The first two acts were fantastic. Jordan Peele is a master of comedy and horror. I think those are two sides of the same coin. I was extremely happy with 2019 for film.

Zach Schonfeld  

I thought it was a really great year.

Sam Sklar  

And in 2020, we’re gonna get Bloodshot starring Vin Diesel winning Best Picture. This is the only movie that’s come out. Oh boy.

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