Little Women (1933 film)

Little Women is a 1933 American pre-Code drama film, directed by George Cukor and starring Katharine Hepburn, Joan Bennett, Frances Dee and Jean Parker. The screenplay, by Sarah Y. Mason and Victor Heerman, is based on the 1868 novel of the same name, by Louisa May Alcott. A sequel was released the following year Little Men (1934 film)

Little Women
Theatrical release poster
Directed byGeorge Cukor
Produced byMerian C. Cooper
Written byDavid Hempstead
Screenplay by
Based on
Music byMax Steiner
CinematographyHenry W. Gerrard
Edited byJack Kitchin
Distributed byRKO Radio Pictures
Release date
  • November 16, 1933 (1933-11-16) (United States)
Running time
117 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$2.1 million[1]

This is the third screen adaptation of the book. It follows two silent versions, the first released in 1917 with Minna Grey and the second in 1918 with Dorothy Bernard. After this 1933 sound version came the 1949 Little Women, with June Allyson, Elizabeth Taylor and Peter Lawford, the 1994 film Little Women, starring Winona Ryder, and the upcoming 2019 film Little Women featuring Saoirse Ronan.


Set in Concord, Massachusetts, during and after the American Civil War, the film is a series of vignettes focusing on the struggles and adventures of the four March sisters and their mother, affectionately known as Marmee (Spring Byington), while they await the return of their father (Samuel S. Hinds), who serves as a colonel and a chaplain in the Union Army. Spirited tomboy Jo (Katharine Hepburn), who caters to the whims of their well-to-do Aunt March (Edna May Oliver), dreams of becoming a famous author, and she writes plays for her sisters to perform for the local children. Amy (Joan Bennett) is pretty but selfish, Meg (Frances Dee) works as a governess, and sensitive Beth (Jean Parker) practices on her clavichord, an aging instrument sorely in need of tuning.

The girls meet Laurie (Douglass Montgomery), who has come to live with his grandfather, Mr. Laurence (Henry Stephenson), the Marches' wealthy next-door neighbor. The Laurences invite them to a lavish party, where Meg meets Laurie's tutor, John Brooke (John Lodge). During the next several months John courts Meg, Jo's first short story becomes published, and Beth often takes advantage of Mr. Laurence's offer for her to practice on his piano.

Marmee learns that her husband is recuperating in a hospital in Washington, D.C., after an injury, so she goes to Washington to care for him. During her absence Beth contracts scarlet fever from a neighbor's baby. She recovers, albeit in a weakened condition. The March parents return, and Meg marries John. Laurie confesses his love to Jo, who rejects him. When he snubs her in return, Jo moves to New York City to pursue her writing career, and she lives in a boarding house. There she meets Professor Bhaer (Paul Lukas), an impoverished German linguist. With his help and encouragement Jo improves her writing, and she resolves her confused feelings about Laurie.

Beth, debilitated, is near to death, so Jo returns to Concord to be with Beth and her family during this time. After Beth dies, a grieving Jo learns that Amy, who accompanied Aunt March to Europe, has fallen in love with Laurie, accepted his proposal and they return, having married. Upon their return, Jo is happy for Laurie and Amy, indicating it has turned out as it always should have been. Professor Bhaer then arrives from New York City, and with him he brings Jo's manuscript for Little Women, which is soon to be published. He confesses his love to Jo and proposes. Jo accepts, welcoming him to the family.



Although David O. Selznick received no screen credit, he returned to RKO from MGM to supervise the production as the last film left in his contract with the studio.[2]

The prime goal of director George Cukor was to emphasize the juxtaposition between sacrifice and family life in Little Women.[3]

At Hepburn's request, costume designer Walter Plunkett created a dress for her character copied from one worn by her maternal grandmother in a tintype Hepburn had. Plunkett also had to redesign several of Joan Bennett's costumes to conceal her advancing pregnancy, a condition Bennett intentionally had not mentioned to Cukor when he cast her in the film.[4] Plunkett designed all of the costumes very thoughtfully, purposely shuffling clothing items between the March sisters in different scenes to emphasize both the family bond of sisters sharing and the reality that each girl would only have so many clothes but an individual’s closet could be drastically expanded by sharing with siblings.[3]

Louise Closser Hale originally was scheduled to portray Aunt March, but after her death on July 26, 1933, Edna May Oliver assumed the role.[5]

The film was budgeted at $1 million, and 4,000 people worked on it during the yearlong production schedule. 3,000 separate items, including costumes, furnishings, and household appliances, were authenticated by research. Hobe Erwin, a former artist and interior decorator, was hired to oversee the set decoration, and he modeled the interior of the March home after Hillside, Louisa May Alcott's Massachusetts house.[5] Exteriors were filmed at Lancaster's Lake in Sunland, Providencia Ranch in the Hollywood Hills, and the Warner Bros. Ranch in Pasadena.[6] Original prints of the film employed the use of hand-coloring for fireplaces and candles.[7]


The film opened on November 16, 1933 at Radio City Music Hall where, despite being the coldest November 16 for 50 years, broke opening day records with 23,073 people attending.[8] It earned over $100,000 during its first week of release.[5] A record 451,801 people attended the three week run at the Music Hall before it moved to RKO's Center Theatre where a further 250,000 people attended in four weeks.[8] It was the fourth most popular movie at the US box office in 1933[9] with rentals of $1.3 million. Worldwide it made $2,000,000 and made a profit of $800,000.[1]

RKO's timing of release was impeccable, as Depression audiences were ripe for the film's evocation of life in a simpler, more innocent and auspicious world. In addition, the film business had come under fire in 1932 and 1933 for presenting an abundance of violent and sexually titillating material. This film was just the type that conservative people felt should be produced. They championed it, sent their children to see it, and made it part of school curricula.[10]

The film was re-released in 1938 and earned an additional $70,000 in rentals and $49,000 in profit.[1]

Home media

The film was released on DVD for Region 1 markets (US, Canada, and US territories) on November 6, 2001 by Warner Home Video. It is closed captioned and features an English audio track in Dolby Digital 1.0 and subtitles in English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Georgian, and Chinese.

Historical Context

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott takes place in the midst of the Civil War (during the 1860s). This period is the reason why there are so many references to men off fighting in the military. The Civil War had ended long before the 1933 film was adapted and produced. By the time the 1933 film was made the United States was in the midst of Great Depression and would be fighting in World War II in the near future. References that were once meant to be about the Civil War became all too relatable for audiences. Especially at the beginning of the film, the constant emphasis on food, frugality, conservation, activism, social reform, and want for family and morality are just a short list of the ideals that transferred directly from the Civil War era to the mindsets of Americans in the Great Depression. Cukor’s focus on hardship and relief partnered with intense familial commitment creates a nostalgic and sentimental picture of joyfulness, moral improvement, and social progression. The 1933 film became a trademark of  “an activist spirit grounded in unbreakable ties to family and community” as the March girls represent the hope and determination that was prominent during both the Civil War and the Great Depression.[3]


Critical reception

The film was overwhelmingly praised by critics upon its release. Mordaunt Hall of The New York Times observed, "The easy-going fashion in which George Cukor, the director, has set forth the beguiling incidents in pictorial form is so welcome after the stereotyped tales with stuffed shirts. It matters not that this chronicle is without a hero, or even a villain, for the absence of such worthies, usually extravagantly drawn, causes one to be quite contented to dwell for the moment with human hearts of the old-fashioned days. The film begins in a gentle fashion and slips away smoothly without any forced attempt to help the finish to linger in the minds of the audience."[11]

Variety called it "a superbly human document, sombre in tone, stately and slow in movement, but always eloquent in its interpretations."[12] John Mosher of The New Yorker declared it "an amazing triumph", and "a picture more intense, wrought with more feeling, than any other we are likely to see for a long time to come."[13]

The New York World-Telegram credited the film "a stunningly clever job of recapturing on the screen all the simplicity and charm of its author", and wrote that Hepburn gave "an unforgettably brilliant performance and that once and for all she definitely proves how unlimited and effortless an actress she really is."[14]

The New York American wrote, "It is possible that with the passage of months the memory of Katharine Hepburn's portrayal of the sensitive, fiery Jo will be dimmed a bit, or somewhat superseded by later displays of histrionic genius. But at the moment, and for days, weeks, months to come, Miss Hepburn's characterization will stand alone on a pedestal of flaming brilliance."[14]

TV Guide rated the film four stars, calling it "unabashedly sentimental" and "an example of Hollywood's best filmmaking." It added, "The sets, costumes, lighting, and direction by George Cukor all contribute greatly to this magnificent film, but the performances, especially Hepburn's, are what make the simple story so moving. There are laughs and tears aplenty in this movie, which presents a slice of American history in a way that children will find palatable. Released during the depths of the Depression, Little Women buoyed Americans' spirits. It still does."[15]


Husband-and-wife screenwriters Sarah Y. Mason and Victor Heerman won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.[16] The film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture but lost to Cavalcade, and George Cukor lost the Academy Award for Best Director to Frank Lloyd for his direction of that film.[16]


  1. Richard Jewel, 'RKO Film Grosses: 1931-1951', Historical Journal of Film Radio and Television, Vol 14 No 1, 1994 p55
  2. Edwards, Anne (1985). A Remarkable Woman: A Biography of Katharine Hepburn. New York: William Morrow & Company. p. 110. ISBN 0-688-04528-6.
  3. Kellett, Katherine (Fall 2002). "Cukor's Little Women and The Great Depression: Sacrifice, Morality, and Familial Bliss". The Oswald Review. 9: 11–29. ISSN 1520-9679.
  4. Edwards, p. 109
  5. Little Women (1933) profile,; accessed June 27, 2017.
  6. "Little Women". American Film Institute. Retrieved August 16, 2017.
  7. Maltin, Leonard (August 15, 2017). "Tinted talkies". Leonard Maltin. Retrieved August 16, 2017.
  8. "More than 8,000,000 Attended Radio City Houses in First Year". Motion Picture Herald. January 20, 1934. p. 27. Retrieved April 30, 2018.
  9. "Box Office Champions of 1933". Motion Picture Herald. February 3, 1934. p. 16. Retrieved April 30, 2018.
  10. Jewell, Richard B.; Harbin, Vernon (1982). The RKO Story. New York: Arlington House. p. 68. ISBN 0-517-54656-6.
  11. Hall, Mordaunt (November 17, 1933). "Movie Review – Little Women (1933)". The New York Times. Retrieved December 9, 2014.
  12. Greason, Alfred Rushford (November 21, 1933). "Little Women". Variety. New York. p. 14.
  13. Mosher, John (November 18, 1933). "The Current Cinema". The New Yorker. p. 83.
  14. "N.Y. Critics Unanimous in Raves over Little Women". Motion Picture Daily. New York. November 20, 1933. p. 8.
  15. Review,; accessed June 27, 2017.
  16. "The Sixth Academy Awards". Retrieved 24 December 2017.
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