“LITTLE WOMEN” (1949) Review

“LITTLE WOMEN” (1949) Review

Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel is a bit of a conundrum for me. I have never been a fan of the novel. I have read it once, but it failed to maintain my interest. Worse, I have never had the urge to read it again. The problem is that it is that sentimental family dramas – at least in print – has never been appealing to me. And this is why I find it perplexing that I have never had any problems watching any of the film or television adaptations of her novel.

One of those adaptations proved to be Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 1949 adaptation, which was produced and directed by Mervyn LeRoy. It is hard to believe that the same man who had directed such hard-biting films like “LITTLE CAESAR”, “I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG” and “THEY WON’T FORGET”, was the artistic force behind this sentimental comedy-drama. Or perhaps MGM studio boss, Louis B. Meyer, was the real force. The studio boss preferred sentimental dramas, comedies and musicals. Due to this preference, he was always in constant conflict with the new production chief, Dore Schary, who preferred more realistic and hard-biting movies. Then you had David O. Selznick, who wanted to remake his 1933 adaptation of Alcott’s novel. One can assume (or not) that in the end, Meyer had his way.

“LITTLE WOMEN”, as many know, told the experiences of the four March sisters of Concord, Massachusetts during and after the U.S. Civil War. The second daughter, Josephine (Jo) March, is the main character and the story focuses on her relationships with her three other sisters, the elders in her family – namely her mother Mrs. March (“Marmee”) and Aunt March, and the family’s next-door neighbor, Mr. Laurence. For Jo, the story becomes a “coming-of-age” story, due to her relationships with Mr. Laurence’s good-looking grandson, Theodore (“Laurie”) and a German immigrant she meets in New York City after the war, the equally good-looking and much older Professor Bhaer. Jo and her sisters deal with the anxiety of their father fighting in the Civil War, genteel poverty, scarlet fever, and the scary prospect of oldest sister Meg falling in love with Laurie’s tutor.

Despite my disinterest in Alcott’s novel, I have always liked the screen adaptations I have seen so far – including this film. Due to the casting of Margaret O’Brien as the mild-mannered Beth, her character became the youngest sister, instead of Amy. Screenwriters Sally Benson, Victor Heerman, Sarah Y. Mason and Andrew Solt made other changes. But they were so mild that in the end, the changes did not have any real impact on Alcott’s original story. Ironically, both Victor Heerman and Sarah Y. Mason wrote the screenplay for Selznick’s 1933 film. I thought Mervyn LeRoy’s direction injected a good deal of energy into a tale that could have easily bored me senseless. In fact, MGM probably should have thank its lucky stars that LeRoy had served as producer and director.

As much as I admired LeRoy’s direction of this film, I must admit there was a point in the story – especially in the third act – in which the pacing threatened to drag a bit. My only other problem with “LITTLE WOMEN” is that I never really got the impression that this film was set during the 1860s, despite its emphasis on costumes and the fact that the March patriarch was fighting the Civil War. Some might say that since “LITTLE WOMEN” was set in the North – New England, as a matter of fact – it is only natural that the movie struggled with its 1860s setting. But I have seen other Civil War era films set in the North – including the 1994 version of “LITTLE WOMEN” – that managed to project a strong emphasis of that period. And the production values for this adaptation of Alcott’s novel seemed more like a generic 19th century period drama, instead of a movie set during a particular decade. It is ironic that I would make such a complaint, considering that the set decoration team led by Cedric Gibbons won Academy Awards for Best Art Direction.

I certainly had no problems with the cast selected for this movie. Jo March seemed a far cry from the roles for which June Allyson was known – you know, the usual “sweet, girl-next-door” type. I will admit that at the age of 31 or 32, Allyson was probably too young for the role of Jo March. But she did such a phenomenon job in recapturing Jo’s extroverted nature and insecurities that I found the issue of her age irrelevant. Peter Lawford, who was her co-star in the 1947 musical, “GOOD NEWS”, gave a very charming, yet complex performance as Jo’s next door neighbor and friend, Theodore “Laurie” Laurence. Beneath the sweet charm, Lawford did an excellent job in revealing Laurie’s initial loneliness and infatuation of Jo. Margaret O’Brien gave one of her best on-screen performance as the March family’s sickly sibling, Beth. Although the literary Beth was the third of four sisters, she is portrayed as the youngest, due to O’Brien’s casting. And I feel that Le Roy and MGM made a wise choice, for O’Brien not only gave one of her best performances, I believe that she gave the best performance in the movie, overall.

Janet Leigh, who was a decade younger than Allyson, portrayed the oldest March sister, Meg. Yet, her performance made it easy for me to regard her character as older and more emotionally mature than Allyson’s Jo. I thought she gave a well done, yet delicate performance as the one sister who seemed to bear the strongest resemblance to the sisters’ mother. Elizabeth Taylor was very entertaining as the extroverted, yet shallow Amy. Actually, I have to commend Taylor for maintaining a balancing act between Amy’s shallow personality and ability to be kind. The movie also featured solid performances from supporting cast members like Mary Astory (who portrayed the warm, yet steely Mrs. March), the very charming Rossano Brazzi, Richard Stapley, Lucile Watson, Leon Ames, Harry Davenport, and the always dependable C. Aubrey Smith, who died not long after the film’s production.

Overall, “LITTLE WOMEN” is a charming, yet colorful adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s novel. I thought Mervyn LeRoy did an excellent job in infusing energy into a movie that could have easily sink to sheer boredom for me. And he was enabled by a first-rate cast led by June Allyson and Peter Lawford. Overall, “LITTLE WOMEN” managed to rise above my usual apathy toward Alcott’s novel.

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“THE FAR PAVILIONS” (1984) Review

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“THE FAR PAVILIONS” (1984) Review

Thirty-four years ago saw the publication of an international best seller about a young British Army officer during the British Raj in 19th century India. The novel’s success not brought about a not-so-successful musical stage playin 2005, but also a six-part television miniseries, twenty-one years earlier. 

Directed by Peter Duffell for HBO, “THE FAR PAVILIONS” tells the story of Ashton “Ash” Pelham-Martyn, the only son of prominent British botanist Hillary Pelham-Martyn and his wife in the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains in 1853. After his mother dies of childbirth, Ashton is mainly raised by his ayah (nurse) Sita, who is a part of his father’s retinue. Cholera takes the lives of all members of the Pelham-Martyn camp some four years later, with the exception of Ash and Sita. The latter tries to deliver Ash to his mother’s family in Mardan, but the uprising of the Sepoy Rebellion leads her to adopt the slightly dark-skinned Ash as her son. Both eventually take refuge in the kingdom of Gulkote. While Ash forgets about his British ancestry, he becomes the servant for Crown Prince Lalji and befriends the neglected Princess Anjuli, Master of Stables Koda Dad, and his son Zarin. Ashton eventually leaves Gulkote after learning from the dying Sita about his true ancestry. After reaching his relatives in Mardan, Ash is sent back to Great Britain to live with his Pelham-Martyn relations. Within less than a decade, he returns to India as a newly commissioned British Army. Not only does he make new acquaintances, but also renews old ones – including the Princess Anjuli.

British costume dramas have always been popular with American television and movie audiences for decades. But aside from the Jane Austen phenomenon between 1995 and 2008, there seemed to be an even bigger demand for period pieces from the U.K. during the 1980s . . . a major consequence from the popular royal wedding of the Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer. HBO and Peter Duffell took M.M. Kaye’s 1978 bestseller and transformed it into a miniseries filled with six one-hour episodes. Aside from a few changes, “THE FAR PAVILIONS” was more or less a television hit. And in many ways, it was easy to see why.

First of all, Kaye’s story about a forbidden love story between a British Army officer viewed as an outsider by most of his fellow Britons and an Indian princess with a touch of European blood (Russian) was bound to appeal to the most romantic. Add an epic trek across the Indian subcontinent (in the form of a royal wedding party), action on the North West frontier and a historical event – namely the start of the Second Anglo-Afghan War – and one is faced with a costumed epic of the most romantic kind. And I am flabbergasted at how the story managed to criticize the British presence in both India and Afghanistan, and at the same time, glorify the military aspect of the British Empire. If I must be honest, M.M. Kaye not only wrote a pretty damn good story, but she and screenwriter Julian Bond did a solid job in adapting the novel for television.

Now, I said solid, not excellent. Even the most first-rate miniseries is not perfect, but I feel that “THE FAR PAVILIONS” possessed flaws that prevented it from being the superb production it could have been. The miniseries’ main problem seemed to be its look. I had no problems with Robert W. Laing’s production designs. His work, along with George Richardson’s art direction, Jack Cardiff’s superb cinematography, and Hugh Scaife’s set decorations superbly brought mid-to-late 19th century British India to life. I was especially impressed by the crew’s re-creation of the Rana of Bhithor’s palace, the cantonments for the Corps of Guides regiment and the royal wedding procession for the Rana of Bhitor’s brides – Princess Shushila and Princess Anjuli of Karidkote (formerly Gulkote). For a miniseries that cost $12 million dollars to produce, why shoot it on such poor quality film, whose color seemed to have faded over the past two or three decades? It seemed criminal that such a lush production was shot on film of bad quality.

As much as I admired Bond and Kaye’s adaptation of the latter’s novel, there were two aspects of their script that annoyed me. One, the screenplay skipped one of the novel’s best parts – namely Ash’s childhood in Gulkote. Instead, the story of his birth, early travels with Sita and his time in Gulkote were revealed in a montage that served as backdrop for the opening credits. And I was not that impressed at how the script handled Ash’s early romance with a young English debutante named Belinda Harlowe. I found it rushed and unsatisfying. More importantly, the entire sequence seemed like a waste of Felicity Dean and Rupert Everett’s (who played Ash’s doomed rival George Garforth) time. And some of the dialogue for the romantic scenes between Ash and Juli struck me as so wince inducing that it took me a while to unclench my teeth after the scenes ended.

I had other problems with “THE FAR PAVILIONS”. The casting of American actress Amy Irving as the adult Princess Anjli (“Juli”) produced a “what the hell?” response from me when I first saw the miniseries. That startled feeling remained after my last viewing. Irving simply seemed miscast in the role, despite a decent performance from her and her solid chemistry with lead actor Ben Cross. Another role that failed to match with the performer was that of British military administrator, Sir Louis Cavagnari, portrayed by John Gielgud. Cavagnari was 39 years old, when he met his death at the British mission in Kabul, Afghanistan. Gielgud was 79 to 80 years old when he portrayed the military officer . . . naturally too old for the role. The makeup department tried to take years off the actor with hair dye and make-up. Let us just say that Amy Irving was more convincing as an Indian princess than Gielgud was as a character 40 years his junior.

Aside from my quibbles about the casting of Amy Irving and John Gielgud, I have no complaints about the rest of the cast. Ben Cross did a superb job in his portrayal of the hot tempered and impatient Ashton Pelham-Martyn. Ash has always been a frustrating character for me. Although I sympathized with his feelings and beliefs, his occasional bursts of impatience and naiveté irritated me. And Cross perfectly captured all of these aspects of Ash’s nature. Despite my strong belief that she was miscast, I cannot deny that Amy Irving gave a subtle and well acted performance as Princess Anjuli. But I could never accuse Omar Sharif of being miscast. He did a superb job in his portrayal of the wise and very witty horsemaster of Gulkote/Karidkote, Koda Dad. Sharif made it easy to see why Ash came to regard Koda Dad as more of a father figure than any other older male. Although I believe that Irving was miscast as Princess Anjuli, I was surprised at how impressed I was by Christopher Lee’s portrayal of Anjuli’s uncle, Prince Kaka-ji Rao. The Anglo-Spanish actor did an excellent job of portraying a character from a completely different race. I suspect the secret to Lee’s performance was that he did not try so hard to sell the idea of him being an Indian prince. And Saeed Jaffrey was superb as the effeminate, yet manipulate and murderous courtier, Biju Ram. It seemed a pity that the miniseries did not explore Ash’s childhood. Audiences would have been able to enjoy more of Jaffrey’s performance.

Sneh Gupta was excellent as childishly imperious and self-absorbed Princess Shushila, Juli’s younger sister. She did a first-rate job of transforming Shushila from a sympathetic character to a childishly imperious villainess. Robert Hardy gave a solid performance as the Commandant of the Guides. Benedict Taylor was charming and outgoing as Ash’s only military friend, Walter “Wally” Hamilton. I really do not know how to describe Rosanno Brazzi’s performance as the Rana of Bhithor. I feel that too much makeup made it difficult for me to get a grip on his character. I was surprised to see Art Malik as Koda Dad’s son, Zarin. But his role did not seem big enough to produce a comment from me. Rupert Everett was excellent as George Garforth, the British civil servant with a secret to hide. Unfortunately, I was less than impressed with the miniseries’ portrayal of the story line in which he played a part.

I realize that “THE FAR PAVILIONS” has a good number of strikes against it. But its virtues outweighed its flaws. And in the end, it proved to be an entertaining miniseries, thanks to the lush production and the first-rate cast led by Ben Cross.