Little Women (1978) The Susan Dey
A review by Corinne H. Smith
This is the story of the four March sisters – Meg (Meredith Baxter Birney), Jo (Susan Dey), Beth (Eve Plumb), and Amy (Ann Dusenberry). We see what draws them together and what pushes them apart. We witness their special devotion to their mother, whom they call Marmee (Dorothy McGuire). 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 (William Schallert), is 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 (Greer Garson), 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 (Richard Gilliland), who lives with his wealthy grandfather, Mr. Laurence (Robert Young). 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.
With 194 minutes available to her, screen writer Suzanne Clausen had the advantage of having more time to fill than in a standard two-hour movie.
Her approach was to use the basics of the original book but to enhance them with more details and explanations. She exercised a wide interpretation a
nd took some liberties in the process. She combined some events, invented others, altered dialogues, substituted first names for others, etc.
Some changes were minor, and others were fairly major. Our views of the characters are changed a bit, as a result. I guess she just wanted to put her own spin on a classic tale.
Most of the producers of the other Little Women movies made research trips to Concord, Massachusetts, and to the Alcott home, Orchard House. Then they built a similar house elsewhere, on their own set. Not this team! They didn’t make any effort to match the March house with its real-life model. None. The house we see on the screen is of a totally different style, both inside and out. And when we reach scenes that show the greater landscape, we see western hillsides and at least one snow-capped mountain. It’s clearly not New England or eastern Massachusetts. Yet Richard C. Goddard and Howard E. Johnson won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Art Direction for a Series. The characters’ wardrobes do seem to be historical enough, and the village street views seem authentic. But I still give them an F for the house.
The cast represents the epitome of 1970s cultural entertainment. Susan Dey of The Partridge Family is Jo, the main character. Eve Plumb, i.e. Jan Brady of The Brady Bunch, is her sister, Beth. (Thank goodness she doesn’t have to whine, “Marsha, Marsha, Marsha!”) Meredith Baxter Birney is recognizable from any number of series, including Bridget Loves Bernie. Richard Gilliland, who plays Laurie, should look familiar, too. He has appeared in many TV series, and he later played Mary Jo’s boyfriend J. D. Shackleford in Designing Women. You may even rack your brain to remember that Joyce Bulifant, who plays Jo’s New York landlord Mrs. Kirke, was Murray Slaughter’s wife Marie on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Yes, it’s old-home week for us Boomers and fans of the 1970s. Going back in our own time is an added benefit of the viewing experience here.
My favorite character to watch is Robert Young, who portrays Mr. Laurence. What an inspiring choice for this role! He plays the kindly gentleman perfectly. I like to hear his voice and to watch his interactions with the girls. And he looks great with his full head of white hair and his bushy mustache. Not Marcus Welby-like at all.
I have to admit that Susan Dey grew on me, as Jo. I didn’t expect her to succeed in the role, and she does, at least in my opinion. But the oddest part of this show comes when she meets Professor Friedrich Bhaer, who is at least 15 years older than she is. Someone decided to fill this spot with William Shatner. C’mon! Laurie Partridge meets Captain Kirk? Really? And he has to put on a fake German accent too, to boot? Geesh. We can only suspend our disbelief so far, you know. In spite of this mis-match, I like most of this movie. I would watch it again. Especially since I know who will show up near the end.
The mini-series generated a decent enough response that NBC decided to use it as the basis for a Little Women television series, starring a few of the same cast members. Alas, this project proved to be unsuccessful. Only a few episodes aired in February and March 1979. Then the show quietly disappeared.
The Little Women of 1978 has been followed by other movie versions, including 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), the June Allyson (1949), and the Angela Down (1970). 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 in the book.
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