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Blu-Ray : Highly Recommended
Ranking:
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Release Date: August 29th, 2023 Movie Release Year: 1933

Little Women (1933) - Warner Archive Collection

Overview -

The oldest - and arguably most beloved - film version of Little Women at last arrives on Blu-ray, and Warner Archive's wondrous transfer struck from a 4K scan of the best nitrate preservation elements shaves decades off this 90-year-old antique. Director George Cukor captures the homespun flavor of Louisa May Alcott's classic novel about four sisters coming of age in Civil War-era New England and Katharine Hepburn leads a top-notch cast as the strong-willed, fiercely independent Jo. Solid audio and several vintage supplements cap off this essential release. Highly Recommended.

Academy Award® winner Katharine Hepburn stars in legendary director George Cukor's adaptation of an enduring American classic novel--Little Women. 1860s New England. As four sisters grow from girls to young adults during the challenging times of the United States' Civil War, the difficulties, tragedies and joys they experience tear at--but cannot break--the deep bonds of sisterhood and family in this timeless and heartwarming tale of growth and self-discovery.

OVERALL:
Highly Recommended
Rating Breakdown
STORY
VIDEO
AUDIO
SPECIAL FEATURES
Tech Specs & Release Details
Technical Specs:
New 1080p HD master from 4K scan of best nitrate preservation elements
Video Resolution/Codec:
1080p/AVC MPEG-4
Length:
116
Aspect Ratio(s):
1.37:1
Audio Formats:
English DTS HD-MA 2.0 Mono
Subtitles/Captions:
English SDH
Special Features:
Original Theatrical Trailer
Release Date:
August 29th, 2023

Storyline: Our Reviewer's Take

Ranking:

Few movies merit one remake, let alone four, but because Louisa May Alcott's beloved novel Little Women continues to captivate and inspire readers, Hollywood continues to recycle the heartwarming story every couple of decades. The most recent film version (there have also been a couple of TV miniseries over the years) arrived in 2019 and received glowing reviews, but most Little Women fans hold a soft spot for director George Cukor's 1933 adaptation that first brought Alcott's semi-autobiographical tale to the screen.

It also brought further attention to a young actress named Katharine Hepburn, who made good on her early promise and cemented her newfound stardom with her alternately vivacious and nuanced portrayal of Jo, the second eldest of the four March daughters who come of age in Civil War-era New England. Though a strong ensemble cast brilliantly brings Alcott's novel to life, the inimitable Hepburn dominates this homespun, heartwarming film that brims with humor, romance, tenderness, and sisterly bonding.

Much like the character she plays, Hepburn craves attention, seeks recognition, refuses to compromise her principles, and isn't afraid to defy society's demands. The role fits her like a glove and her portrayal, far more than the one in Morning Glory that won her a Best Actress Oscar the very same year, is both timeless and iconic. When we think of Jo in Little Women, we don't think of Winona Ryder (1994) or Saoirse Ronan (2019), and we certainly don't think of the sugary June Allyson (1949). We think of Hepburn. She is and always will be - mannerisms and affectations notwithstanding - the definitive Jo.

The story begins at Christmastime in 1863. While worrying over the fate of her husband (Samuel S. Hinds), who's a chaplain in the war, the ever-patient, level-headed Marmee (Spring Byington) manages the mercurial temperaments of her four very different daughters. There's the stoic, statuesque Meg (Frances Dee); the headstrong, fiercely independent, and tomboyish Jo; the pretty, somewhat simpering, very girlish Amy (Joan Bennett); and the huge-hearted, unselfish, too-good-to-be-true Beth (Jean Parker). As the years pass, the girls grow into women, navigate the vagaries of romance, and pursue various paths in life. Jo, who aspires to be a writer, develops a fondness for Laurie (Douglass Montgomery), the sheltered, insecure grandson of their imposing, very rich neighbor Mr. Laurence (Henry Stephenson), while Laurie's tutor, the shy, worshipful Brooke (John Davis Lodge), becomes enamored of Meg. Amy, under the tutelage of Aunt March (Edna May Oliver), a stern, blunt, and miserly dowager, grows into an elegant and sophisticated young lady, but fate isn't as kind to Beth, who becomes stricken with scarlet fever after caring for some sick local children.

Little Women sometimes gets a bad rap for its unabashed sentiment and dated viewpoints on love and marriage, but Cukor, who earned an Oscar nomination for his direction, largely succeeds in telling the story in a straightforward manner. Always regarded as an actor's director, Cukor concentrates on the performances, and though Hepburn blossoms under his guidance and his fascination with her electric personality oozes from the film's every frame, he doesn't neglect the rest of his esteemed cast. As Jo's three sisters, Dee, Bennett, and Parker all inhabit their roles and Byington, who soon would be stereotyped as Hollywood's most lovable ditz, makes a marvelous Marmee.

It's impossible to imagine anyone other than the horse-faced Oliver as the crusty old biddy Aunt March (and that includes you, Meryl Streep!), and though Montgomery looks almost as pretty as the four March sisters (until he grows a mustache late in the movie), he strikes just the right tone as the love-struck Laurie. My favorite portrayal of all, however, comes from Paul Lukas as the awkward, kindly, bookish Professor Bhaer, who strikes up a deep friendship with Jo when she comes to New York City to pursue her literary ambitions.

Though the entire film is well done, I prefer the last third of Little Women when the titular women are no longer little. I find the more mature March sisters more interesting and much more age-appropriate for the actresses playing them. All four handle the teenage scenes well, especially Parker, who at 18 is the only true teenager in the group, but they come into their own in the movie's latter, more emotional scenes.

Little Women nabbed an Oscar nod for Best Picture (it lost to one of the most derided winners, Cavalcade) and the screenplay by the husband-and-wife team of Sarah Y. Mason and Victor Heerman won the Academy Award for Best Writing, Adaptation. (Nine other writers worked on the script, including Charles Brackett and Jane Murfin, but did not receive screen credit.) Though it shows its age here and there, it remains an elegant, classy, and emotionally affecting film that honors its source and contains an array of memorable performances. Alcott's novel has charmed and inspired generations of girls and Cukor's adaptation does it proud. It may not be your favorite cinematic incarnation, but there's no denying its enduring worth, quality, and resonance.

Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The 1933 version of Little Women arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.

Video Review

Ranking:

Lest we forget, Little Women is 90 years old, but you'd never know it from Warner Archive's crisp, vibrant 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that's struck from a 4K scan of the best nitrate preservation elements. The use of multiple sources is obvious and there are noticeable fluctuations in quality and grain levels, but the overall presentation is quite stunning and at times breathtaking. Grain is evident throughout and it not only lends the image a lovely film-like feel, it also heightens the nostalgic flavor of this period piece. Clarity and contrast are excellent, deep blacks and bright, stable whites anchor the frame, and beautifully varied grays enhance fine details and depth. Many of Hepburn's close-ups exude the wow factor as they showcase her wide eyes, prominent cheekbones, and angular features, and those of Bennett, Dee, and Parker are equally striking. (Even the overly made-up Douglass Montgomery looks pretty!) A few missing frames here and there aren't surprising, but they're smoothly handled and any errant nicks or specks of dirt escaped my scrutiny. Though the 2001 DVD looked mighty good, this high-def rendering is a revelation, making an upgrade mandatory for fans.

Audio Review

Ranking:

Soundtracks from the early 1930s often exhibit a fair amount of wear and tear, but this DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track outputs surprisingly clean, clear sound. Though some (very) faint surface noise can be detected during a few silences, the track is devoid of any defects like pops and crackle. A wide dynamic scale gives Max Steiner's music score plenty of room to breathe and excellent fidelity helps it fill the room with ease. Subtleties like Beth's chirping birds and driving rain are distinct, and despite the limitations of the recording equipment, all the dialogue is generally easy to comprehend. A few words here and there sound a bit muffled, but that's to be expected in a film of this vintage.

Special Features

Ranking:

In addition to the scoring cues and trailer that have been ported over from the 2001 DVD, the extras package includes a few vintage shorts and cartoons.

  • Vintage Short: Salt Water Daffy (HD, 21 minutes) - This wacky 1933 Vitaphone two-reeler, directed by Ray McCarey (the younger brother of Leo McCarey), stars a pre-Wizard of Oz Jack Haley and Shemp Howard as two petty thieves who wind up in the Navy by accident. Lionel Stander plays their exasperated drill sergeant.

  • Vintage Short: In the Dough (HD, 22 minutes) - Also directed by Ray McCarey, this 1933 Vitaphone short features Roscoe ("Fatty") Arbuckle as a baker who gets a new job and must deal with a couple of bumbling mobsters on the take. Slapstick hijinks ensue. Shemp Howard and Lionel Stander also appear in this two-reeler, but don't receive any billing.

  • Vintage Cartoon: I Like Mountain Music (HD, 7 minutes) - This 1933 black-and-white Merrie Melodies cartoon looks terrific in HD and depicts what happens in a newsstand and toy store after hours when the pictures and toys come to life. Characters spoofing Edward G. Robinson, Eddie Cantor, George Arliss, Will Rogers, Sherlock Holmes, and King Kong enliven this inventive one-reeler.

  • Vintage Cartoon: The Organ Grinder (HD, 7 minutes) - Ken Darby lends his pipes to this 1933 black-and-white Merrie Melodies cartoon about an organ grinder and his mischievous monkey. Comedians Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy are caricatured in this short that also looks fantastic in HD.

  • Scoring Stage Suite of Recordings (25 minutes) - This audio extra allows fans of Max Steiner's score to revel in the maestro's music.

  • Theatrical Trailer (SD, 3 minutes) - The film's original preview hypes Hepburn as "today's electric star in the enchanting story of our yesterdays!"

Final Thoughts

The 1933 version of Little Women, despite its advanced age, never gets old. Cukor's sensitive direction and the memorable performances of Hepburn, Bennett, Lukas, and the entire cast make this charming adaptation of Alcott's novel worthy of repeat viewings. The new 4K scan struck from the best nitrate preservation elements revitalizes this classic film, while solid audio and a nice array of vintage supplements add to the appeal of this definitive preservation of a timeless and beloved motion picture. Highly Recommended.