The film is set during the U.S. Civil War, which had only recently concluded when Alcott was writing her novel. The war is entirely off-stage, however; what matters for the sake of the story is that the men are off "doing their duty," leaving their wives and daughters at home with burdens that, though different than fighting, are no less difficult to bear. Things are especially hard for the March family, as sisters Jo (Katharine Hepburn), Meg (Frances Dee), Amy (Joan Bennett), and Beth (Jean Parker) have to deal with being newly poor after their family lost their money. The story of Little Women follows these four sisters over a period of years as they grow up, and face sorrow and disappointment on the way to finding love and happiness.
Hepburn is obviously the centerpiece of the film as the boyish Jo March, and deservedly so: she brings a great deal of energy and enthusiasm to the role and brightens every scene that she's in. The other sisters are portrayed well, but don't stand out as much as Jo, who is, after all, intended to be seen as the liveliest of the lot. Edna May Oliver has a small but very memorable part as the cantankerous Aunt March.
Director George Cukor seems determined to cover a large number of incidents from the novel, with the result that the film moves at a rapid clip, often with disconcertingly jumpy transitions from one scene to the next, which might be months or years later. Beth's sickness, for instance, is dealt with in a fairly hasty manner rather than being fully developed. While the film does stand on its own, because of the rapid progression of the story, it does help to have read the book when it comes to filling in some of the details.
The film is clearly playing up the more inspirational and heart-warming elements of the novel, such as the sisters' acts of kindness and generosity to others. At the same time, the screenplay omits or downplays the less cheery parts of the book, such as the relationship between Jo and Amy, which is much more strained in the book than in the film.
Little Women is fascinating as a glimpse into another time; both the historical setting in the 1860s and the time that the film was made in the 1930s are distant enough to feel like different cultures. Who would have thought that it was considered rude for a girl to stand with her hands behind her back, or to whistle? One of the things that makes this version of Little Women interesting is that it's so unselfconscious about the way that manners, styles, and behavior are presented; there's no sense that the film is trying to point out "look how things were different back then!" This isn't so surprising if the dates are considered, though: the 1933 version of the film is actually closer to the book's 1869 publication than the film is to our time, nearly 70 years after the film was created.
Warner has treated Little Women to an excellent restoration, resulting in a clean picture without any visible noise. The image is free from edge enhancement, and is reasonably sharp overall, except of course when it's been deliberately softened for effect; Cukor uses a soft-focus lens whenever any of the young women in the film are given a close-up shot. The contrast is excellent, allowing for plenty of detail and shading in the black-and-white image. The transfer is almost entirely free from print flaws, with only an occasional tiny speck. Every now and then the image wobbles a bit, but given the age of the film, it's not a big problem; I'm surprised that it was able to be cleaned up this well at all.
The film is presented in 1.33:1, which is its original aspect ratio.
The soundtrack for Little Women is a rather dismal mono. The restoration may in fact have produced a track that's better than VHS, but it's still pretty bad. Both volume level and sound clarity vary from one scene to the next, but in general the entire track has a muffled quality to it. It's often difficult to understand the dialogue if the characters are speaking quietly. There's also a somewhat harsh, tinny quality to the sound when the volume goes up higher.
The special features are fairly limited on this disc. The most interesting extra is actually the original trailer for the film, which offers a dramatic contrast between the restored film and the unrestored original material. The trailer, evidently taken from unrestored footage, is full of obvious scratches and noise and has terrible contrast, showing just how much work must have gone into cleaning up the print for the DVD.
The other special features include the "scoring session music cues," which play directly from the special features menu, a cast list (though it's just a list, with no information about the actors), and notes on the Hepburn/Cukor collaboration.
Little Women is both an interesting piece of film history and an entertaining film in its own right, particularly because of Katharine Hepburn's excellent acting. The DVD's impressive restored transfer makes for an enjoyable viewing experience, though I wish that the sound had been similarly polished up. With Warner's reasonable price tag, there's no reason not to pick up this disc if you're at all intrigued by the film.