This is the third screen adaptation of the book. It follows two silent versions, the first released in 1917 with Minna Grey and the second in 1918 with Dorothy Bernard. After this first sound version came a 1949 remake, with June Allyson, Elizabeth Taylor and Peter Lawford, and the 1994 release, starring Winona Ryder.
Set in Concord, Massachusetts, during and after the American Civil War, the film is a series of vignettes focusing on the struggles and adventures of the four March sisters and their mother, affectionately known as Marmee (Spring Byington), while they await the return of their father, who serves as a colonel and a chaplain in the Union Army. Spirited tomboy Jo (Katharine Hepburn), who caters to the whims of their well-to-do Aunt March (Edna May Oliver), dreams of becoming a famous author, and she writes plays for her sisters to perform for the local children. Amy (Joan Bennett) is pretty but selfish, Meg (Frances Dee) works as a seamstress, and sensitive Beth (Jean Parker) practices on her clavichord, an aging instrument sorely in need of tuning.
The girls meet Laurie (Douglass Montgomery), who has come to live with his grandfather, Mr. Laurence (Henry Stephenson), the Marches' wealthy next-door neighbor. The Laurences invite them to a lavish party, where Meg meets Laurie's tutor, John Brooke (John Lodge). During the next several months John courts Meg, Jo's first short story becomes published, and Beth often takes advantage of Mr. Laurence's offer for her to practice on his piano.
Marmee learns that her husband is recuperating in a hospital in Washington, D.C., after an injury, so she goes to Washington to care for him. During her absence Beth contracts scarlet fever from a neighbor's baby. She recovers, albeit in a weakened condition. The March parents return, and Meg marries John. Laurie confesses his love to Jo, who rejects him. When he snubs her in return, Jo moves to New York City to pursue her writing career, and she lives in a boarding house. There she meets Professor Bhaer (Paul Lukas), an impoverished German linguist. With his help and encouragement Jo improves her writing, and she resolves her confused feelings about Laurie.
Beth, debilitated, is near to death, so Jo returns to Concord. After Beth dies, Jo learns that Amy, who accompanied Aunt March to Europe, has fallen in love with Laurie and accepted his proposal. Professor Bhaer arrives from New York City and proposes to Jo, who accepts, then Amy and Laurie eventually marry.Katharine Hepburn as Josephine "Jo" March
Frances Dee as Margaret "Meg" March
Joan Bennett as Amy March
Jean Parker as Elizabeth "Beth" March
Spring Byington as Marmee March
Douglass Montgomery as Theodore "Laurie" Laurence
Paul Lukas as Professor Bhaer
Edna May Oliver as Aunt March
Henry Stephenson as Mr. Laurence
John Davis Lodge as Brooke
Samuel S. Hinds as Mr. March
Nydia Westman as Mamie
Harry Beresford as Doctor Bangs
Although David O. Selznick received no screen credit, he returned to RKO from MGM to supervise the production as the last film left in his contract with the studio.
At Hepburn's request, costume designer Walter Plunkett created a dress for her character copied from one worn by her maternal grandmother in a tintype Hepburn had. Plunkett also had to redesign several of Joan Bennett's costumes to conceal her advancing pregnancy, a condition Bennett intentionally had not mentioned to George Cukor when he cast her in the film.
Louise Closser Hale originally was scheduled to portray Aunt March, but after her death on July 26, 1933, Edna May Oliver assumed the role.
The film was budgeted at $1 million, and 4,000 people worked on it during the yearlong production schedule. 3,000 separate items, including costumes, furnishings, and household appliances, were authenticated by research. Hobe Erwin, a former artist and interior decorator, was hired to oversee the set decoration, and he modeled the interior of the March home after Louisa May Alcott's Massachusetts house. Exteriors were filmed at Lancaster's Lake in Sunland, Providencia Ranch in the Hollywood Hills, and the Warner Bros. Ranch in Pasadena. Original prints of the film employed the use of hand-coloring for fireplaces and candles.
The film opened on November 16, 1933 at Radio City Music Hall, where it broke attendance records and earned over $100,000 during its first week of release. It was the equal fourth most popular movie at the US box office in 1933 and, after cinema circuits deducted their percentage of exhibition boxoffice ticket sales, made an eventual profit of $800,000.
RKO's timing of release was impeccable, as Depression audiences were ripe for the film's evocation of life in a simpler, more innocent and auspicious world. In addition, the film business had come under fire in 1932 and 1933 for presenting an abundance of violent and sexually titillating material. This film was just the type that conservative people felt should be produced. They championed it, sent their children to see it, and made it part of school curricula.
The film was released on DVD for Region 1 markets (US, Canada, and US territories) on November 6, 2001 by Warner Home Video. It is closed captioned and features an English audio track in Dolby Digital 1.0 and subtitles in English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Georgian, and Chinese.
The film was overwhelmingly praised by critics upon its release. Mordaunt Hall of The New York Times observed, "The easy-going fashion in which George Cukor, the director, has set forth the beguiling incidents in pictorial form is so welcome after the stereotyped tales with stuffed shirts. It matters not that this chronicle is without a hero, or even a villain, for the absence of such worthies, usually extravagantly drawn, causes one to be quite contented to dwell for the moment with human hearts of the old-fashioned days. The film begins in a gentle fashion and slips away smoothly without any forced attempt to help the finish to linger in the minds of the audience."
Variety called it "a superbly human document, sombre in tone, stately and slow in movement, but always eloquent in its interpretations." John Mosher of The New Yorker declared it "an amazing triumph", and "a picture more intense, wrought with more feeling, than any other we are likely to see for a long time to come."
The New York World-Telegram credited the film "a stunningly clever job of recapturing on the screen all the simplicity and charm of its author", and wrote that Hepburn gave "an unforgettably brilliant performance and that once and for all she definitely proves how unlimited and effortless an actress she really is."
The New York American wrote, "It is possible that with the passage of months the memory of Katharine Hepburn's portrayal of the sensitive, fiery Jo will be dimmed a bit, or somewhat superseded by later displays of histrionic genius. But at the moment, and for days, weeks, months to come, Miss Hepburn's characterization will stand alone on a pedestal of flaming brilliance."
TV Guide rated the film four stars, calling it "unabashedly sentimental" and "an example of Hollywood's best filmmaking." It added, "The sets, costumes, lighting, and direction by George Cukor all contribute greatly to this magnificent film, but the performances, especially Hepburn's, are what make the simple story so moving. There are laughs and tears aplenty in this movie, which presents a slice of American history in a way that children will find palatable. Released during the depths of the Depression, Little Women buoyed Americans' spirits. It still does."
Husband-and-wife screenwriters Sarah Y. Mason and Victor Heerman won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. The film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture but lost to Cavalcade, and George Cukor lost the Academy Award for Best Director to Frank Lloyd for his direction of that film.