This week, Sadie is taking an in-depth look at Professor Bhaer, the most divisive character in Little Women. Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4. Today: Professor Bhaer in film and TV adaptations of Little Women.
1933: There aren’t many Bhaer-centric clips available online for this Katharine Hepburn version; its fans are clearly and firmly in the #TeamLaurie camp. At the two-minute mark in the trailer, though, you can see the professor in action. And what action it is! Bhaer, “blundering in,” is played in this version by the Hungarian actor Paul Lucas. He is kind of sleazy and unctuous and dandified in a way that makes any Bhaer partisan—or indeed, any lover of fairness—tremble with indignation. Even so, he gets points for using actual dialogue from the book, and whoever casted him should be lauded for drawing, kind of, from Bhaer’s actual region of the world.
1949: This adaptation is a literal remake of the ’33, but in this case Bhaer is the dashing and obviously Italian Rossano Brazzi. He’s also completely wrong for the part, but then again he’s playing against June Allyson, so the jig is well and truly up. And let’s face it, he’s pretty dashing. (The fact that Laurie is played by a highly objectionable, pre–Rat Pack Peter Lawford doesn’t hurt.)
1978: It needs to be said—William Shatner, who took on the role for this TV miniseries, kind of looks the most like Bhaer as Louisa May Alcott describes him in the book. Problem is, he’s still William Shatner—smirking and mugging and generally carrying on like Captain Kirk all the time. It’s compelling, no question—William Shatner as Professor Bhaer approaches performance art—but ultimately horrifying.
1994: Now, the Bhaer for our time, a ludicrously attractive Gabriel Byrne. I consider Winona Ryder to be the most preposterous Jo of all time (and I include Susan Dey in that assessment), but no one can deny that the couple seriously amp up the heat—by which I mean, they kiss. It’s maybe the only adaptation where absolutely no one is sorry to see Jo and Bhaer end up together, and for this it deserves a high score.
2005: Last but not least, we have the musical version. What to say? It seems they tried to imbue the relationship with an adversarial flirtatiousness rather than the worshipful mentor-pupil relationship of the actual text. The results are … well …
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.