One of my favorite podcast genres are those which do a deep dive into a movie or book for the entire episode (How Did This Get Made/I Hate It But I Love It/Heaving Bosoms, This Had Oscar Buzz, etc). I realized that if I love listening to deep dives that I might enjoy creating a deep dive. I’m not prepared to produce a podcast, but I can use this blogging platform. Years ago, I once ran across a blogger who went detail by detail through the Sandra Bullock / Bill Pullman rom-com While You Were Sleeping. It was the most amazing thing and I hope to do something like that.
I can think of no better film to be my first deep dive than 1994’s Little Women, directed by Gillian Armstrong, and starring Winona Ryder as Jo, Claire Danes as Beth, Kirsten Dunst as young Amy, Christian Bale as Laurie, Susan Sarandon as Marmee, and an actress I never saw again as Meg (sorry Trini Alvarado!). The movie means a lot to me personally, and also with a new adaptation coming out in December, it seems fitting to spend time with the 1994 version.
I saw Little Women with my family at my small town’s second-run theater when I was 12 years old. I had two sisters and we were/are very close to each other, so the prominence of sisters in the story appealed to us. Our family loved this movie so much, it became almost an annual tradition to watch it around Christmastime.
I’m not sure if my sisters ever read Louisa May Alcott’s book, but the closest I ever got was trying to read a copy of Good Wives as a teenager and then abandoning it. (Good Wives being the second volume of Little Women). So I’m afraid you will be reading the thoughts of someone for whom the 1994 movie, not the book, is first in her heart.
Now that I have set some personal background to the movie, let’s dive in:
We open on a wintry landscape. I grew up in Maine and my mother’s family lived in Vermont, so the story’s setting was also a point of connection. The filming locations include Deerfield, Massachusetts and it really does look and feel like New England in these establishing shots.
Winona Ryder begins her voice-over narration, with this very precise pronunciation, befitting her character’s writer aspirations.
Jo mentions that they are impoverished – I guess in a house-poor sort of way. Their home Orchard House is good-sized and never seems in disrepair throughout the film.
Aw, everyone is so cuddly together from the beginning, as they read their father’s letter from where he is stationed near the Potomac.
There’s a reason my family often rewatched this on Christmas Eve – it starts out very Christmasy, with all the March girls singing Christmas carols right from the beginning. Love it.
Marmee seems to have very specific relationships with each of her daughters, which is lovely. Each good night and Merry Christmas is a little tailored to each girl’s personality.
That Christmas breakfast looks so delicious. Jo’s impatience to eat the sausage is relatable. Except for me it would be bacon.
When the girls are giving up their breakfast for the even poorer Hummel family, I have to note that the bread is shaped so that it has a divot in the center, which is just a perfect resting place for Amy’s reluctantly donated orange.
Ah – one of my favorite scenes – with Jo, saying “Don’t you wish you could roll about in it like dogs?” (referring to the snow) and the disapproving neighbor Mr. Lawrence saying to Laurie: “Once one of our finest families.” Followed by the sisters robustly singing “Here we come a wassailing”. I am now incapable of singing that carol without adding the saucy little emphasis to “happy new Year” like Jo does while saluting Laurie with the teapot.
Young Amy’s malapropisms are a recurring joke – in this Pickwick Papers’ scene it’s “abscondated” instead of “absconded” but she has even better mangled words later in the movie.
I don’t know why Amy gives Beth a hard time for putting a recipe (“History of the Squash”) in their home-made newsletter instead of a story. Wasn’t Amy’s contribution just an advertisement?
It’s lucky that when Jo looks out at the window at Laurie that he’s no longer staring at their window from his doorstep like he was five minutes earlier.
I enjoy the sisters’ open speculation about their new cute neighbor Laurie. Jo – “does he have a noble brow?” It’s the equivalent to wondering if a real-life person has a rakish grin or a glint in his eye. Do descriptions from novels apply to real people?
Meg – “They said he grew up amongst artists and vagrants.” She says it slightly disapproving, but it does make him sound pretty cool.
Dammit, Beth. Showing up all her sisters’ personal wishes, with her wish that the war would end and father would come home. I think Jo is not annoyed, but “Oh sweet Beth, we all want that” means that maybe the next time they play “Christmas wishes”, they’re going to lay down some ground rules, so that Beth can’t make them all feel bad by being completely selfless and giving the “world peace” Miss America answer.
Credit to Beth – she doesn’t want to be a complete downer so she follows up by admiring the neighbors’ superior piano.
I will always love how Kirsten Dunst gleefully plops that sugar cube into her teacup to punctuate her line: “when I grow up I’m going to be disgustingly rich.”
Meg pulls older sister rank on this discussion: “I dislike all this money talk – it isn’t refined.” A bit more sophisticated version of when my older sister said “I hate money!” as a teenager.
For all that Jo and Amy are the most fractious sisterly pairing, Jo does give credit to Amy’s scene-ending profundity by looking over the teacup at Meg with a smile that basically says “little Amy’s got you there.”
Malpropism from Amy: “You have to tell me exquisitely everything about Belle Gardner”.
What is on Beth’s hand in this scene. Is it pie dough?
I love how almost everything in this scene gets a callback later – Jo’s dress with the scorched backside, Meg’s instruction not to shake hands, Meg’s scavenged heels.
Yay! It’s the moment where Jo accidentally burns off Meg’s hair! I love all the comic beats here: everyone slowly registering the “burnt feathers” smell, and then all around screaming.
Classic sisterly move to say something like: “I’m sorry! I’m sorry! You shouldn’t have had me do it!”
The elderly housekeeper Hanna’s interjection of “Listen to the child” after Amy’s line about suitors was weirdly a favorite of my family’s to repeat to each other. “Listen to the child,” we’d say in creaky voices.
Winona Ryder as Jo is so charming in these scenes at the dance. Stealing the feather off that woman’s boa and then the side shuffle to get away from the notoriously bad dancer. I love when she accidentally rocks that lady’s hoop skirt when she’s scooting behind the rows of onlookers.
Aw! Jo and Laurie’s friendship is born! They’re so adorably awkward here, trying to remember what everyone has told them is the proper thing to do and finding it completely unnatural.
Sister betrayal! Bad Jo! “She’s completely bald in front!”
Laurie is just completely smitten from the get-go, and who could blame him. Jo says “I do all the voices” while describing reading to her Aunt March, and Laurie softly says “I’ll bet you do.” Jo just seems excited to finally get some answers about the mysterious boy next door. She envies his romantic background, his access to college, and enjoys talking to someone about life beyond their Concord circle.
The other exchange in this initial conversation that I particularly enjoy, is when Jo, ambitious but sheltered, declares that she wants to “pursue the stage” and asks Laurie: “are you shocked?” Laurie responds simply “Very” but Christian Bale manages to infuse the brief line with amused admiration.
Oh no, Meg is stuck with the bad dancer now! But yay, Laurie and Jo galumphing around in the back rooms. Favorite bit of dialogue here: “I’m sorry, Meg always makes me take the gentleman’s part…It’s a shame you don’t know the ladies’ part!”
Laurie spends a little too long looking at the back of Jo’s dress, ostensibly for purposes of assessing how badly it was scorched, but ahem, young man.
I like how it takes a second for Laurie to realize Jo referred to him as “the captive” to Meg, and then he just looks at her like, “wait, what?”
Laurie blames the sprained ankle on Meg’s poor-quality heels. It feels a little sad that he called them out, when Amy had earlier reassured Meg that no one would notice.
In this moment, Jo and Laurie are having to navigate Meg’s narrow views of propriety. So we can’t tell Mrs. Gardner, and Laurie can’t take you home, so what exactly are you planning to do? I assume they got there by walking, which is obviously out of the question for Meg to do with a sprained ankle. Jo saves Meg from that little trap of manners, like a good impertinent sister.
When I first saw this scene of them returning from the dance, I thought Amy had the clothespin on her nose because the house still smelled like Meg’s burnt hair. But it’s actually Amy trying to do a 19th century DIY nose job.
Dang, Marmee maligns Meg’s heels as well as they come into Orchard House. Poor Meg was just trying to scrape up some fashion during wartime poor time!
Another favorite comic line delivery from Kirsten Dunst: “He put snow on your ankle?!!” “To bed, Miss Amy.” “With his own hands?!!”
Perfect transition from Jo telling Amy “He isn’t a boy – he’s Laurie!” to Laurie happily trudging on all fours while pulling Jo and Beth on a toboggan across the lawn.
Consumers of Little Women in all its forms often play a game of which sister are you. Marmee’s little speech about women’s need for exercise to Mr. Brooke actually makes me think I might be a Marmee. I have definitely let loose a forceful opinion about society into a casual conversation and been met by awkward silence.
I like how Marmee realizes Meg is embarrassed and adjusts her conversational style, but with a subtle air of graciously accommodating her two more rules-bound listeners. Mr. Brooke and Meg are so prissy, haha. I can’t hate on them though, because there’s a little bit of me in there too.
Oh, I just noticed that Meg is using a cane in this scene (due to the sprained ankle). I’m sure the continuity isn’t perfect in this film, but I more often notice the little ways it succeeds.
Kudos also to the subtle nods to the ongoing war. Jo adds a coin to a wounded veteran’s tin cup on the sisters’ way to work/school.
I like how Jo corrects Amy’s assertion that Beth “gets to stay at home and do pleasant things”, and Jo says, hm if you call “laundry and housework” pleasant. 19th century housekeeping is no joke. I’ve read my great-great-grandmother’s journal from the late 19th century and it’s a lot!
For the longest time, I thought that Amy’s slate getting wet in a puddle was connected to her sudden begging for money to buy “limes.” I imaged the slate contained her intricate scoresheet of how many limes she owed her schoolmates. But now I think they are not related. I also thought for years that “limes” referred to the fruit, but they are actually a type of candy. And finally, malapropism alert – Amy tells Meg that she’s so “degraditated”.
I love Jo’s indignation about Amy’s corporal punishment and even more when Amy tells everyone that her teacher said it was good to educate a woman as it was to educate a female cat. My sisters are the best validators of my emotions.
Meg and Marmee are a little upset at Amy for her vanities and deception, but at the same time her family is hovering over her in the best way, tending to her hand and feeding her cookies.
The way that Marmee says “Jo will now supervise your education” is like she’s punishing Jo for something? Because Jo was talking about strangling the teacher or because Jo scoffed at Marmee’s response of writing a letter? I’m not sure of Marmee’s motivations here. Clearly neither Jo or Amy think this is a great arrangement though, which sets up a new sister dynamic going forward.
This ensuing scene of Jo writing later that night establishes a couple things – one is that Jo is moved to write when her mom has been particularly wise, and two that Jo and Beth have a special closeness.
I like how Mr. Brooke admonishes Laurie for shouting out a window at Meg and Jo, but then is able to get in a little wordless exchange with Meg as a result. I think that’s them flirting the best way they can, the poor things. Also, there are kittens in the scene! They show up again later.
This “line of wisdom” from proper Mr. Brooke always drew a laugh from my family – “Over the mysteries of female life, there is drawn a veil, best left undisturbed.” And then he leaves the room humming because he just got a little smile from Meg.
Cut to that mysterious female life: the sisters are acting out Jo’s play in the attic with a very patient cat wearing a bonnet. (Amy’s bratty malapropism: “I’m exhaustified with playing the boy.”)
For whatever reason, Jo decides that Amy’s tantrum is the perfect segue into introducing Laurie. It wasn’t very nice to Meg and Amy that he eavesdropped without their knowing (Beth hadn’t said much), but he turns what he overheard into reassurance. He seems to grasp better than Jo that her less confident sisters need this reassurance, whereas Jo would have just bulldozed over them.
Cut to Amy being bratty again as Meg and Jo rush around getting ready to go to the theater with Laurie and Mr. Brooke. There’s a familiarity in the rushing around. My sisters and I would forever be rushing around on school mornings. From our house, we had a clear sight-line to a street that the school bus would go down first before it came to us. If one sister was ready, she would be posted to watch that street and call out status reports to the other two.
Amy’s “You’ll be sorry for this Jo March!” is so dramatic. Ugh, no one likes you right now Amy. I know you’re the youngest and that’s why you’re understandably immature, but you end up with Laurie, so you need people to like you!
Post-theater scene: I’m trying to root for Meg and Mr. Brooke here but his pontifications are so dull!
Ooh, this moment is great when Jo stops treating Meg and Mr. Brooke like it’s a funny joke, and suddenly realizes that there is serious intention there. Then she’s just nope, nope, noping her way up there to separate them.
And I’m watching this scene carefully to see how Mr. Brooke acquires Meg’s glove. He is kind of playing with Meg’s gloved hand as they stand at the front door. But it looks like she has both gloves on when she gets into the house. Maybe they have two layers of gloves?
“You look flushed Meg, dear. Was the theater overcrowded?” – ooh, it’s always rough when people are too perceptive, especially when it’s your mom.
All right, Jo is being a little insufferable while on her post-theater high. First she poked at Meg, and now she jabs at Amy, “still sulking?” But Amy has already acted rashly, presumably when she heard her sisters come in the door and was hit afresh with jealousy. Amy lets out a breath as Jo walks away, and you start to know something is up.
Jo attacks Amy over the burnt manuscript and we see Meg and Marmee hear the commotion downstairs. I have a fondness for scenes of people overhearing tumult in another part of the house and reacting/running to aid. I rewatched Gosford Park recently (another movie I could deep dive), and when the murder victim is discovered, the screams interrupt the music and cards in the other rooms to satisfactory effect.
We always laughed at Amy wildly screaming and flailing as Marmee and Meg enter the room. It’s a nice bit of physical humor there.
This part of the movie rather settled into my mind that if you were to divide the sisters into pairs, it would be Meg/Amy and Jo/Beth. There were earlier hints to support this, with Meg giving Amy her rag money, etc. But when ManuscriptGate happens, Meg’s comforting of Amy seems instinctual and not just because she was in the room. Considering that Jo seems to spar most often with Meg and Amy, it makes sense that Beth would be Jo’s main confidant, because Beth can’t be jabbed at. My younger sister is a little like Beth in that way. My older sister and I would get on each other’s nerves, but my younger sister seemed impervious to that kind of thing.
Skating scene: this is probably the most action-scene that Little Women gets, when Amy falls through the ice. I didn’t really ice skate growing up, even though I was a Mainer. But we would snowmobile with my cousins, and sometimes we would go across frozen lakes in the snowmobiles and don’t think it didn’t cross my mind about breaking through the ice like Amy.
I like how Jo and Laurie hear the breaking ice and the scream but when they look at the other end of the pond, they at first – ominously – see nothing, before Amy resurfaces. It just gets across how Jo’s heart must have stopped in that moment.
Just as with Meg’s sprained ankle, Laurie is quick-thinking during the rescue, directing Jo to grab a rail. There is steam coming up from the water around Amy, so at least they weren’t freezing Kirsten Dunst.
“Josephine March, you walked all the way from Walden Pond in only these bloomers?” I wanted to joke that they said hi to Thoreau on the way, but he published Walden in the 1850s and he died in 1862, so they could not have. The fictional March family certainly would have known him when he was alive though, as Jo explains in a later scene that her family is part of the transcendental movement in Concord.
“I could never love anyone as I love my sisters.” Winona Ryder’s line reading here reminds me so much of a certain tone my family gets when we’re getting a little soppy to each other. I assume other families get the same way. Also, I told you the kittens would be back, and they serve here to gently close out this scene of sisterly reconciliation.
And this is a good stopping point, and I’ll pick back up again soon with a Part Two.