Little Women (1970) The Angela Down
A review by Corinne H. Smith
This is the story of the four March sisters – Meg (Jo Rowbottom), Jo (Angela Down), Beth (Sarah Craze), and Amy (Janina Faye). We see what draws them together and what pushes them apart. We witness their special devotion to their mother, whom they call Marmee (Stephanie Bidmead). The story is set mostly in Concord, Massachusetts, in the early 1860s; and the main action centers around the most independent girl, second daughter Jo. Their father, Mr. March (Patrick Troughton), is at first away from home and is involved in the war effort. The Marches were once well off but now have to make do with what they have. Every once in a while, they get a visit from their stodgy but rich relative, Aunt March (Jean Anderson), who dishes out a lot of judgment; but who also, reluctantly, doles out a few dollars to keep the household running. And then there’s the boy next door, known as Laurie (Stephen Turner), who lives with his wealthy grandfather, Mr. Laurence (John Welsh). They both become good friends of the March family. Jo and Laurie hit it off right away. Will their friendship become something stronger? Watch and find out. As the film rolls along, we see four young girls (who in theory start out at 16, 15, 13, and 12 years old) indeed turn into little women.
At 205 minutes, this mini-series / movie is the longest of the Little Women to date. Screen writers Alistair Bell and Denis Constanduros are credited with having “dramatised” Miss Alcott’s work. They chose to use fairly liberal pens to do this. The basic points of the original plots are here, but they’re often altered enough to be quite different from the book. For example: Instead of an ice skating scene featuring Jo and Laurie and Amy, we see them rowing in a boat on a river with a rickety wooden pier standing nearby. Maybe the producers had to use what resources were available to them. And did they even read the book? Their last fifteen minutes don’t come close to replicating Miss Alcott’s finale.
The production itself consists almost entirely of interior shots and vignettes. We never see the March house from the outside. Only four scenes were shot in an actual landscape, and these were all filmed around the same river. To convey the change of scenery when characters travel to Europe, two aerial views of stock footage are shown. No background music is ever used to help to augment emotion or to soften transitions from one scene to another. As a result, the changes tend to be stark and abrupt. It's too easy to lose interest when everything seems the same. I guess this was the BBC style, back then.
The cast members do decent work. Angela Down plays a very indignant and often pouty Jo. Janina Faye’s Amy is a loud-mouthed brat … as she should be. Stephanie Bidmead makes an ultra-traditional Marmee, even in her manner of dress. The character of Mr. March, as played by Patrick Troughton, appears more often here than he does in other versions. Jean Anderson is suitably snooty as Aunt March. The Marches’ housekeeper Hannah (Pat Nye) is especially terse and opinionated. German-born actor Frederick Jaeger does a terrific job of portraying Professor Bhaer. It’s too bad we don’t see more of him. The rest of the actors suppress their English accents for the most part, and yet some traces almost always slip through. And really, their speech shouldn’t have mattered. The filmmakers could have approached the story as a full British version, and the audience could have accepted this. Especially since it was reaching an exclusively English audience at the time. As it is, the movie gives us a faux American fable.
Everyone has loud moments in this film. Everyone. Whenever their characters have arguments, or whenever they face personal challenges, they yell. Someone should have told the actors that anger and frustration can be convincingly conveyed with quiet drama at times, too. We need some welcome relief from continuous confrontation, from moment to moment.
What a difference 47 years can make! The BBC production of Little Women of 2017 is a tremendous improvement over what the network did with this one in 1970. If you choose to watch only one of these, then go with the other movie, the Maya Hawke. The bottom line is that this my least favorite of the Little Women movies. The filming technique puts me off, as does all of the yelling. I doubt that this is what Miss Alcott had in mind. Crying, yes. Constant yelling and bickering? Not so much.
The Little Women of 1970 has been followed by the Susan Dey (1978), the Winona Ryder (1994), the Maya Hawke (2017), the Sarah Davenport (2018) and the Saoirse Ronan (2019). It was preceded by the Katharine Hepburn (1933) and the June Allyson (1949). If you’re curious, you could watch some of the others and make your own decisions about them. Better yet: go back to Miss Alcott’s original novel. None of the movies can cover the detail discovered in the book.
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