You see, long ago I bought a paperback copy of the book that was published as a tie-in to the miniseries, with a cover that matches the one used in the opening credits. I bought it at a yard sale when I was probably ten or twelve. Inside are a few production pictures of key moments in the story, plus a cast list.
And when I was 14, I fell deeply in love with Captain Kirk and the original Star Trek series. There was a time, believe it or not, when I loved Captain Kirk more than Sergeant Saunders, and Star Trek more than Combat! By 14, I was also quite familiar with the book Little Women, though I much preferred Little Men (and still do). My two favorite characters have always been Jo March and Professor Bhaer, and so when I opened my copy of the miniseries tie-in book one day and saw that William Shatner once played my dear Professor Bhaer -- he who played my beloved Jim Kirk! How could I not long to see that version?
The years passed. I always wished I could see this, but it was made two years before I was born -- how could I? It was too obscure to ever show up at a library or video rental store.
But hello, brave new world of the internet! Last year, when I participated in the Period Drama Challenge, I learned that this version was available to watch online! It was on YouTube at that time, but I didn't have the three hours to devote to it. So I waited. And the other day, being down with strep throat again and holed up in my room to rest, I watched it. It's on Hulu now -- you can watch it for free here (if you're in the US). You can also buy it pretty cheaply from Amazon, which I did even though I'm kind of boycotting Amazon right now. ("Kind of" meaning "I'm not buying stuff from there unless that's the only place I can find something.")
Did I love it? I think I might have. I certainly liked it a whole lot, and like I said, I bought a DVD copy because I really want to watch it again, and I think my kids will like it. I'm pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it, as I've read some pretty scathing reviews of it online.
I'm not going to compare it to the 1994 movie, because they're very different, and both good in their own ways. I liked how much of the story was in this -- with three hours, they could hit more than the highlights. The characters felt very well developed, and if there wasn't quite as much Professor Bhaer in it as I'd hoped, well, he's not in the book as much as I'd like either.
Mostly here I'm going to talk about the cast. The costumes were just fine, and I'm no great critic there anyway. The scenery and sets were nice, and the writing was too. But it's the acting I liked the most, so I'll just say a bit about each of the key characters.
First, Susan Dey as Jo March. She's not traditionally pretty, which I appreciated, since after all, Jo's hair is supposed to be her "one beauty." She pulls off the tomboy aspects of Jo very well, climbing trees and riding horses with great verve. And she's great at crying. I mean, really great -- very realistic, and not afraid to look not-pretty when she cries. This Jo cries rather more than I'd expect, but since Dey was so good at it, I didn't mind much.
Next, William Shatner as Professor Friederic Bhaer. His German accent was not as atrocious as I'd feared! And few people can be as charming as Shatner when he feels like being charming. He alternated Bhaer's impatience and gentleness quite nicely. I liked that he was about twenty years older than Susan Dey, since Professor Bhaer is supposed to be older, though they looked more like they were maybe ten years apart. And he had me almost in tears myself at the end. All in all, he more than lived up to what I'd hope from him in this role all these years!
I don't have my copy of the DVD yet, so am relying on Google to find pictures, and there aren't very many.
Dorothy McGuire has long been one of my favorite "movie moms," so I was confident she would make a splendid Marmee. I was not wrong. Just like in classic movies like Friendly Persuasion (1956), Old Yeller (1957) and Swiss Family Robinson (1960), she imbued her role with quiet strength and dignity, with sparks hidden beneath her calm exterior that would flare up now and then.
And what a treat to have Greer Garson playing Aunt March! She seemed to be having so much fun with her outspoken, flinty role. I mostly have only seen her in 1940s movies like Pride and Prejudice, Mrs. Miniver, and Random Harvest, but she was just as delightful here as she was in those. And she had more of a character arc than I remember from the book, to tell the truth. By the end she had softened and was not quite so sour.
Robert Young made a delightful Mr. Lawrence. He had a loud bark, but was such a sweetheart inside, and Young gave him a twinkle even at the beginning that kept him from ever being gruff.
I felt like Meredith Baxter's Meg was too unlikable, to be honest. She was whiny. Yes, a whiny Meg! Unthinkable, right? But she was, or at least I thought so. I never really warmed up to her, or felt that she had much kindness under her stiff exterior. Also, her mouth was open most of the time, which annoyed me.
And Ann Dusenberry's Amy felt off too. For one thing, they had the same actress play Amy through the whole thing, and while I finally liked her pretty well when she was older and went to Europe with Aunt March, when she was little she annoyed me dreadfully. I wanted her to get in way more trouble for burning Jo's book than she did.
At first, I wasn't sure about Eve Plumb as Beth. She didn't seem sweet or kind enough at first, but I think that they did that deliberately, so that after she got sick she became much gentler and nicer. By the end, I really, really loved her. The scenes between Beth and Jo were some of my absolute favorites, especially toward the end. She had me in tears, to tell the truth.
Richard Gilliland was acceptable as Theodore "Laurie" Lawrence. I didn't love him, but I was fond of him by the end. Same goes for Cliff Potts as John Brooke.
And finally, William Schallert as Mr. March. I don't have a lot to say about him, except that he kept cracking me up because he played Baris in the classic Star Trek episode "The Trouble with Tribbles," which is one of my favorites. So I kept thinking of him in that, fussing at Captain Kirk about all the tribbles, and through the whole movie I wondered if there would be any interaction between Mr. March and Prof. Bhaer. And there really wasn't, I'm sorry to say, other than Jo introducing Prof. Bhaer to her family at the end, so they may have smiled and nodded at each other. I wonder if Shatner and Schallert had any fun reminiscing about Star Trek while they filmed this, or if it was like, "Oh, hi, how're you?" It's fun to think about, anyway.
Is this movie family-friendly? You betcha! Nothing remotely unsavory, and my six-year-old has been reading this while I type it and asking if we could watch this some time (he's read an abridged version of the story, so knows a little bit about the characters already), and I told him we definitely can as soon as my copy arrives.
I actually jotted down my favorite lines while I was watching it, so I'm going to quick share them here:
"Anything worth reading is worth reading twice." -- Aunt March
"I want to experience something besides the dumb old things I'm supposed to do." -- Jo
"You can't fight growing up forever, Jo. You'll change, just like everybody else." -- Laurie
"Such a fine young woman, with such a good mind, even if you can't learn German." -- Professor Bhaer
"Christmas isn't Christmas unless it's snowing." -- Jo