Cheaper by the Dozen (2003), Emma (1996) and Little Women (1933)

Weekly Video/DVD Picks from Steven Greydanus of
by Steven Greydanus | Source:
Cheaper by the Dozen (2003)

Life in the Baker house is as chaotic and hugger-mugger as life in the original 1950 Cheaper by the Dozen Gilbreth house was well-ordered and organized. I think I like the in-name-only remake better—not necessarily as a story, but as a picture of large families.

The Gilbreths were certainly disciplined and well-behaved, but there was also something a bit “off” about the whole family, and one got the definite impression that only a professional efficiency expert like Mr. Gilbreth could even think about having so many offspring.

By contrast, the Bakers may not be the ideal family—discipline can be lax, and a brief early scene establishes that Tom Baker (Steve Martin) had a vasectomy after the first ten kids—but on the other hand everyone seems more normal, and we see that it’s okay for an ordinary shmoe like Martin’s college football coach to have a dozen kids, and even if it gets crazy at times it’s ultimately worth it.

A satirical subplot skewers modern anti-family sensibilities, lampooning an uptight couple who’ve imposed only-child status on their lonely son and look down on the Bakers for their “irresponsibility.” And the main story, while formulaic, emphasizes the need for parental sacrifice in putting career after family.

Content advisory: Mild suggestive dialogue; mild crude humor; a fleeting scene involving a vasectomy; a depiction of nonmarital cohabitation; very mild sensuality.

Emma (1996)

Gwyneth Paltrow is delightfully effervescent as Jane Austin’s blissfully oblivious matchmaker in Alister McGrath’s Emma, a lighthearted romp that pokes gentle fun at the over-refinements of privileged gentility while enjoying its trappings and honoring its best aspirations.

If love makes the world go round, the dizzily whirling globe in the title credits establishes the film’s theme. And when we see the globe is a model on a thread in Emma’s hand, it’s clear how she sees herself—pulling the strings, orchestrating the happy convergences that make the world go round. A later archery scene suggests Emma as a distaff Cupid—while pointedly suggesting that her aim may not be as unerring as her serene self-assurance would suggest.

Emma takes place for the most part in a genteel world in which life consists of parties, teas, picnics, and other social engagements, who will marry whom is the bottom line of nearly every conversation, few things worse than a cold or a tiresome conversation ever happen, and more or less everyone is eventually destined to happiness. Yet one memorable scene dramatizes that thoughtless actions can have painful consequences, and Emma’s platonic friend Mr. Knightley (Jeremy Northam), who quite lives up to his name, fiercely admonishes her on the debt of compassion and charity owed to those weaker or less fortunate than oneself.

Content advisory: Romantic complications.

Little Women (1933)

One of the 15 films on the Vatican film list in the category “Art.”

“Imagine a picture concerned merely with the doings of a healthy-minded family!” wrote one critic in 1933 when Little Women debuted. Of course, Louisa May Alcott’s oft-adapted story of a family of four daughters in Civil War–era New England is concerned with more than that.

The Marches are certainly a healthy-minded family, but also a family separated by war, Mr. March being away with the Union army. This means that they’re a family of women, led by their matriarch (Spring Byington). Nor is there any strong male romantic figure; three of the sisters marry, but none of the beaus figures prominently in a significant romantic subplot—except when one is rejected.

While Little Women is far from feminist in the anti-male sense, it has a positive feminine character, defining its protagonists not by relationships with men but by moral choices, domestic and communal ties, and experiences. Part comedy of manners, part morality tale, it’s more interested in its heroines “conquering themselves” than in suitors conquering their hearts. Strong-willed Jo (Katharine Hepburn) has unusual aspirations of becoming a professional writer, and she and her sisters face diminished fortunes, neighbors in need, life-threatening illnesses, tragedies, and the usual trials of growing up and facing change.

Content advisory: Nothing objectionable. Fine family viewing.

Steven Greydanus is a film critic for the National Catholic Register.

To read more of his movie reviews please visit his website at

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