"Anything worth reading is worth reading twice," lectures Greer Garson in the new TV version of "Little Women." It does not follow that anything worth filming is worth filming three times, and even a ritzy new BBC version of Louisa May Alcott's hoary old classic would be a minimally enchanting proposition.
Surprisingly, though, to judge from the first of two two-hour chapters - to be seen at 9 tonight on Channel 4, with the second airing tomorrow - NBC and Universal have done a nifty job of turning "Little Women" into a tolerably sweet and wholesome TV film.
Of course there isn't the richness or texture that George Cukor brought to the 1939 RKO version, which starred Katharine Hepburn, nor the woozy Technicaloric sweetness of the 1949 MGM remake with Elizabeth Taylor. But style counts for little in television; director David Lowell Rich displays none in his approach to "Little Women," yet the tale - adapted by Suzanne Clauser - is told efficiently and with tearjerky skill.
It is still a story of family ties and schisms, of honor and sacrifice, of getting sick and getting well during America of the 1860s.
Concord, Mass., has been attractively recreated; an ice-skating scene on an idyllic soundstage pond is actually lovely. Directory Rich doesn't have the smarts to exploit its surreal charm, but he does, pay some attention to period details - talk of Keats, pianos in parlors, and the first croquet of spring.
Of the four March's sisters, Susan Dey's Jo is the standout by a long shot. Dey is assertive and beautiful enough in this part to look like she really could be the daughter of Dorothy McGuire, who plays "Marmee." From "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" in 1945 to "Friendly Persuasion" in 1956, McGuire has been a sublime personification of maternal strength on the screen. It turns out she is still wonderful.
Producer David Victor had the sense to hire Elmer Bernstein to do the musical score - an invaluable enhancement, as is John Addison's score for Universal's current "Centennial."
Kids going to movies in the '30s, '40s and '50s heard their parents bemoan the fact that they were seeing films of cherished novels instead of actually reading the books. Oh, the emotional imaginings they were said to have missed! Today's parents are probably aghast that their children see toned-down TV remakes of cherished old movies instead of actually seeing the old movies. Thus do we get one giant step further from literature. If all the TV versions were as good or at least as harmless as "Little Women," however, this tragedy would be merely a catastrophe.