New This Week
Little Women is the last of the nine 2019 Oscar nominees for Best Picture to make it to home video. Winner Parasite, as well as 1917, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, Jojo Rabbit, Joker, and Ford v Ferrari have all been previously released on DVD and Blu-ray. The Irishman and Marriage Story have been available via Netflix since late last year.
Little Women has been a perennial favorite since Louisa May Alcott’s novel was first published in 1868. Classified as an autobiographical novel, it was an idealized version of Alcott’s own family with events in the four sisters’ lives pushed forward from the 1840s and 50s to the Civil War in the 1860s. It began with a Christmas Day celebration in one year when their father was away in the war and ended on Christmas Day of the following year when he returns home. In real life, it was Alcott, not her father, who was involved in the war. She was a nurse and it was her sudden illness that caused her mother to drop everything and go her aid.
Alcott’s novel was so successful that readers immediately asked for more and Alcott wrote a second volume published as Good Wives in 1869. She wrote two sequels, Little Men, published in 1871, and Jo’s Boys, published in 1886. The first two novels, Little Women and Good Wives, were combined as one novel in two parts and re-released under the original’s title of Little Women in 1880. All subsequent editions have been of the combined volumes as one novel in two parts.
The various film and TV versions of the beloved novel have all been faithful to the events covered in the first volume, but a bit sketchy as to events in the second volume in which the sisters are older, one dies, and the other three marry and have children of their own. Greta Gerwig’s version is no different in that regard, but instead of presenting the story in a chronological narrative, she begins it with events that occur in the second volume and presents those from the first volume in flashbacks interspersed with the later events.
Another deviation from the original is that Gerwig’s heroine is more Alcott than the character Jo. The relationship Jo has with Professor Bhaer, who eventually becomes her husband, is hardly explored at all and the ending is presented in a dreamlike sequence which suggests that it is a false ending forced on the author by her publisher.
There are other deviations from the original that those who know the story well will find disconcerting. One is the short shrift given to Beth’s story, best explored in the 1994 version. Another is the turning of Mr. March’s aunt into his sister even though she is obviously many years older than the character of the girls’ father.
On the plus side are the film’s gorgeous cinematography, the exquisite production design, costuming, and hair and makeup as well as Alexandre Desplat’s score and above all, the performances of its stellar cast led by Oscar nominees Saoirse Ronan as Jo and Florence Pugh as Amy.
This latest version should not be anyone’s only encounter with Alcott’s masterpiece. One should read the original work or at least see some of the previous versions of which I would recommend the 1933 version directed by George Cukor, the 1994 version directed by Gillian Armstrong, and the 1978 mini-series directed by David Lowell Rich.
Kino Lorber has issued Blu-ray upgrades of three Gary Cooper classics and three lesser known films of Marlene Dietrich.
The Cooper titles are The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, The General Died at Dawn, and Beau Geste.
1935’s The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, directed by Henry Hathaway, was Cooper’s third film nominated for a Best Picture Oscar following Wings, which won the 1927/28 award, and A Farewell to Arms, which was a 1932/33 nominee. Cooper himself would have to wait another year to receive his own first nomination for Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.
The title of The Lives of a Bengal Lancer was taken from the 1930 autobiography of a former British soldier, but was a totally different story involving Cooper, Franchot Tone, and Richard Cromwwell as young British officer-heroes, Sir Guy Standing and C. Aubrey Smith as their more seasoned leaders and Douglas Dumbrille as the arch-villain Mohammed Khan who utters the oft-quoted line, “we have ways of making men talk.”
1936’s The General Died at Dawn, directed by Lewis Milestone, is based on the life of a real British mercenary in early twentieth-century China. Cooper’s character is an earlier version of the one he would play in 1943’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. Madeleine Carroll, fresh from her best-known role in Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, is his love interest, and Oscar-nominated Akim Tamiroff is the warlord whose death is given away in the film’s title.
1939’s Beau Geste, directed by William Wellman, is the best known of the four film and TV mini-series made from the classic novel. It’s a virtual scene-for-scene remake of the 1926 silent film version starring Ronald Colman. Cooper, Ray Milland, and Robert Preston are the brothers Geste, Susan Hayward the girl they all love, and Oscar-nominated Brian Donlevy is the sadistic sergeant in this French Foreign Legion classic. Donald O’Connor plays Cooper’s character as a boy.
The Dietrich titles are The Song of Songs, Angel, and The Flame of New Orleans.
1933’s The Song of Songs, directed by Rouben Mamoulian, is a pre-code drama based on a 1908 German novel in which Dietrich plays a naïve country girl corrupted by her new life in Berlin. Brian Aherne is the sculptor who loves her, Lionel Atwill her later husband, and Alison Skipworth the aunt who turns down her nose at her.
1937’s Angel, directed by Ernst Lubitsch, is a sophisticated comedy-drama in which Dietrich plays the erring wife of Herbert Marshall, who has a fling with Melvyn Douglas. Edward Everett Horton and Laura Hope Crews co-star.
1941’s The Flame of New Orleans, directed by René Clair, is a comedy-adventure film that finds Dietrich in another triangle, this time with sea captain Bruce Cabot, and banker Roland Young. Mischa Auer and Andy Devine co-star.
This week’s new releases include 2019’s Just Mercy and the Criterion Edition Blu-ray of 1939’s Destry Rides Again.