My Top 6:
- Le Million
- The Front Page
- Animal Crackers
- Little Caesar
- The Criminal Code
Note: So, this time I managed to get to six. There is a long list of notable adaptations at the bottom, none of which managed to place high enough in my esteem to actually break into my contenders. As it is, there is a significant difference between the top two (which are almost a tie) and all the rest of the scripts on the list.
Oscar Nominees (Best Adaptation):
- The Criminal Code
- Little Caesar
Analysis: This is one of the worst groups of five (as a whole) that the Academy would ever pick. The first problem is that it has one bad film (which is the winner) and one relentlessly mediocre one. The second problem is that there isn’t any great film to help raise the rest of the group (the films are listed in alphabetical order, not a rank order from me). There would be later years that would have two films near the level of Cimarron and Skippy. But any year that has two films that rank below *** (1958 – Gigi and I Want to Live, 1965 – Cat Ballou and Ship of Fools) have at least one **** film to bring up the whole. Here, the best film is Little Caesar, which isn’t even a ***.5 film. This is all compounded by the choice of Cimarron as the winner -the single worst film and weakest script to ever win in this category. It is, until 1956, the only full slot of five in this category (the next three years would only have three nominees each and from 1935-1955 this would actually be a slightly different categorized category) and they completely blew it.
Things, for me, just keeping coming back to Dracula. I was well familiar with the character long before I had ever seen an actual Dracula film. And I think I had actually read the book (which I read my Freshman year of high school) before I ever saw the film. I had no idea, when I first wrote a review of this film back as my under-appreciated film of 1930-31, that later I would be doing a series of the Top 100 Novels, where it would also appear (see below, for that and other links).
This time I have flat-out listed both the original Stoker novel and the American version of the play, the one with Balderston’s massive revisions to the 1924 version that Deane had done in Britain, partially because the film actually credits the play, and partially because it is so much more an adaptation of the play than it is of the novel. The original novel appeared on my list of favorite novels five years ago, then was #95 in my Top 100. It has also appeared in several other places on book collecting, because of the Norton Annotated Edition (which I have), the Norton Critical Edition (which I also have) and the Bantam Edition. But those are all just editions of the original book. There is also the play, which was adapted by Hamilton Deane in 1924, when he was officially licensed to do so by Bram Stoker’s widow. That version, basically a drawing room mystery with a bit of supernatural to it (and which had some trick stage effects, with trap doors and such) managed to convey some of the things which had happened before Dracula arrives in London, but mainly tightens up the characters from the original novel and keeps the action confined to London. The Balderston version, which was written to bring the play to America, is a better play, and much of what we see in the film actually comes direct from this version of the play.
As I said, much of what we see in this version, probably the most widely seen version of Dracula, actually comes, not from the novel, but from the play itself. But there is one very important thing that happens for the first time in this film, that wasn’t present in either the book or either version of the play, and it’s important both in terms of what it manages to do for the film itself, and for what it does for Dracula lore and the films and novels that would follow in the 82 years since. We have those famous opening scenes, where the young agent comes to the small town, then is brought to Castle Dracula. We have those wonderful sets, with the webs everywhere, with the strange animals (why armadillos? who on earth knows), with the creepy gothic feel to it all. We get those famous lines, about the music of the night (in the original novel) and about wine (not in the original novel). None of these scenes were in the play – the play begins in London. And yet, what would Dracula be without this initial visit to the castle? Certainly the visit itself isn’t new – it was in the original novel and had been in Nosferatu. But those visits were made by Jonathan Harker. This visit is made by Renfield, and it is this visit, conflating his character with Harker, and having him go to Castle Dracula and fall under the sway of the hypnotic Count, marking him as a servant rather than an English madman who is affected by the presence of Dracula that is the big change. This version of Renfield had never appeared in any version of Dracula previously, but it would soon become a standard part of the Dracula story – the man who fell under the sway, sometimes as the initial character in the story, sometimes as a predecessor who visited before the events of the film. And this is all owed to this film (I would say to Fort, but given the number of supposed uncredited writers, I’m not certain who precisely had the idea).
Directed by Tod Browning. Play Script by Garrett Fort. A number of uncredited writers according to the IMDb, including Browning, Louis Bromfield (contributing writer), Louis Stevens (contributing writer), Dudley Murphy (additional dialogue) and Max Cohen (titles – presumably because there were silent versions released to those theaters that still weren’t equipped for sound).
This film, in reference to René Clair’s previous film, could easily have been called Over the Roofs of Paris, and in fact, that is what the first chapter of the Criterion DVD is titled.
The very opening scene of the film is beautiful, as it moves across the roofs of Paris, and follows two men who, distracted by the amount of noise coming from a neighboring flat, peer inside the open skylight and ask the dozens of people dancing and singing inside what is going on. They are happy to tell him, complete in song, the magnificent events of the previous day, of how a young artist, hounded by creditors, trying to cheat on his lover with more wealthy women, and competing with his flatmate, manages to win a million florins in the lottery, only to discover that the ticket is in his jacket, which his lover is mending, which she loans to a thief who runs in through the skylight (being chased by police), who sells it at a thrift store that he runs to an opera star, who uses it that night in a performance, only to have, as Stephen Sondheim would later put it, “a happy ending of course.” After all, this isn’t just a musical, and a wonderful musical. It’s comedy tonight.
But the story and its insanity and intensity and overwhelming sense of fun would start to lay the groundwork for what would eventually, in the States, become screwball comedy. But by infusing it with lively songs, it provides a different kind of fun, opening film up to the world of sound in ways that Hollywood was only starting to develop (this was a rare step for an early musical – to actually have the songs be part of the story, rather than just set musical pieces that the action would stop for).
And then there are the other things that Clair manages to do – the wonderful way the camera floats above the rooftops, the way the sound is edited together (when there is a desperate struggle for the jacket, in the middle of the opera, the sounds of a football match are edited in over – surely one of the first uses of sound in this way). And most of all, just an overarching sense of fun to the whole affair.
Le Million by Georges Berr and Marcel Guillemaud (1910)
The original French play that Clair adapted into his film doesn’t appear to have been translated into English. But I don’t suppose that really matters. Really, this was Clair’s film, through and through. The original play just provided a framework for Clair to drape his film around.
All it appears that Clair did with the original play was take the basic story idea. But the film itself really comes from the things that Clair does as a director, bringing life to the story in an inspired way, and putting in all the songs that keep the story flowing forward at all times. This is one of those films you are stunned to even discover had an original source, since it seems so much like the product of the director’s imagination.
Directed and written by René Clair.
Like all Best Picture nominees, this film has already been reviewed by me once before. The key to the review are my first lines: “Is it fair for a film to be judged by its remake? Probably not. But at this point, it seems impossible to watch this film in a vacuum. I’m not sure what was the bigger surprise after all this time, to go back and realize how many of the lines from His Girl Friday were actually present in the original, or to realize how much weaker The Front Page is than I remembered.” Like Holiday (see below), once Cary Grant got hold of this play, the original just seems to fade into the background.
The Front Page by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur (1928)
What a hell of a play this is – moving so fast you can barely keep track of what the hell is being said. And that’s if you’re reading it, not seeing it onstage. But to those fans of the films – whether it be the original, His Girl Friday, the 1974 remake or even the 1988 re-imagining as Switching Channels – it may be a surprise to actually read the original play. Who is the key role in this story? Well, Walter Burns, of course, that bombastic editor who is determined to keep his prize reporter from quitting and to make certain to get the big story about the hanging. Well, in the original play, we hear a lot about Walter Burns, we hear a lot of people talking to Walter Burns, but in a 189 page three act play, we don’t actually see Walter Burns and hear from him ourselves until page 129, almost at the end of the second act. Hell, Hildy himself, the prize reporter, doesn’t even turn up until page 30. It’s a brilliant, play, quick-witted (my favorite line is in the original: “Leave the rooster story alone – that’s human interest!”), smart, and damn, damn fast. But it’s a play not just about those two conflicting personalities, Walter and Hildy, but about the entire newspaper industry and what a state it is in. It would be the films that would make Walter into such a star.
Eight minutes. That’s how long it takes before Walter Burns appears on-screen in this film. The action immediately moves away from the prison newsroom, with a straight-on shot of Burns in his office, then follows him around the paper, trying to find Hildy. And then before we hit the 15 minute mark, we’ve not only also seen Hildy himself, but Hildy and Walter have run into each other (thanks to a trap that Walter sets for him – something that never happens in the actual play). Most of the lines from the play make it intact to the film, especially the memorable ones (it even has the famous last line, “The son of a bitch stole my watch!”, though it conveniently has Adolph Menjou bump something to cover the offending word).
Directed by Lewis Milestone. Adaptation by Bartlett Cormack. Additional Dialogue by Charles Lederer.
Maybe it says a lot about the Marx Brothers on film that their first two films, the two that were adapted from their Broadway hits, aren’t nearly as good as their next four films, the ones that were actually written for them for the big screen. This film was a step up from The Cocoanuts. It still had a flimsy plot that the film was structured around (including a crime scheme – interesting how many of the Marx Brothers films have some kind of crooked scheme somehow). And it still had some of the songs from the Broadway show that made it something more of just a Marx Brothers comedy routine (not realizing, of course, that you could make an entire film with just that routine and it would be better). But you also had a big step up with those routines. Everyone remembers the great line about the elephant in the pajamas, but that’s nothing. We also have the arrival of the musicians, which might be my favorite Marx Brothers routine of all time.
Now, this routine, all in one, shows both how good and how flawed this film is. Look how brilliant the routine is, how you have to watch it more than once to really get everything that is being said. All it needs is the dialogue between the two brothers. But now look again and watch everyone else, because you probably weren’t the first time. Look at how they all just stand around and do nothing. We do have Margaret Dumont, who at least seems to understand the lines this time, but she has ridiculous reactions. And that’s still better than everyone else, who is just standing around watching the routine. The direction is just dead. You need an audience, but you need to do something more than just have them stand there impassive.
But it does have some early great lines, like “You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen, which doesn’t say much for you.” and “I’m sick of these conventional marriages. One woman and one man was good enough for your grandmother, but who wants to marry your grandmother? Nobody, not even your grandfather.” It’s got Groucho really coming into his own with what he does best and Chico becoming just as confusing as he would ever be (when asked “How did you get to be Italian?” he replies “Never mind that, whose confession is this?”).
Animal Crackers, music and lyrics by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby; book by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind (1928)
Kaufman and Ryskind had collaborated together on the book for the first Marx Brothers Broadway musical, The Cocoanuts. But instead of working with Irving Berlin again, they brought in Kalmar and Ruby. Just like with Cocoanuts, this was a chance to intersperse original songs with the comedy routines of the brothers. The songs are, for the most part, unmemorable (except for “Hooray for Captain Spaulding”). But the routines? Well, they were getting better and better all the time.
Like with The Cocoanuts, things actually get cut back a bit on the screen, and for good reason. It was clear in The Cocoanuts that the brothers were the stars, not the songs, not the silly little plot that was constructed to give it more of a structure. The film trims some of the songs from the Broadway show, but it also adds one of the most memorable, “Hello I Must Be Going”, which would end up being the title of Groucho’s autobiography.
Directed by Victor Heerman. Screen Play by Morrie Ryskind. Continuity by Pierre Collings.
Little Caesar is often paired with The Public Enemy in the public mind. They were both from Warners, both gangster films that exploited the pre-code lack of enforcement of the rules (remember that pre-Code doesn’t mean the Code didn’t exist, it just wasn’t enforced) and both of them made instant stars of its leads. But the similarities end there.
The Public Enemy was an original script, and one that focused on a small-time hustler who wasn’t ever able to rise too high. It has first-rate production values, solid direction and one hell of a lead performance. But Little Caesar, adapted from the novel by W.R. Burnett is more about actual organized crime, not just the little men in the local neighborhoods. And Little Caesar, even through the good performance from Edward G. Robinson that can’t compare to Cagney’s performance, is weaker in every way, not to mention that Little Caesar, outside of Robinson’s performance, isn’t very well acted.
In fact, outside of Robinson’s performance, Little Caesar isn’t really all that great of a film. It is an interesting film, a good film. But it’s interesting more for being first on the block at really showing the gangster life than for its quality. The direction is a bit clunky, it’s not that well filmed and, as I said, the performances outside of Robinson are mostly forgettable or worse.
Little Caesar by W. R. Burnett (1929)
Little Caesar is a very quick read – 308 pages with generous margins and good-size type in the Literary Guild of America edition I read (if it had the same margins and type as the copy of Cimarron I read, it would have been around 200 or fewer pages). It’s a decent book, it moves pretty well, giving us the interesting story of Rico, the enforcer for Sam Vettori, who, very quickly, manages to work his way up, using his brazen lack of fear and his sheer audacity to eventually become a powerful gangster in Capone-era Chicago. But it also shows how that leads to his downfall, right down to those two final paragraphs that work so well in the book and move straight on to the screen: “The man in the derby hat raised his arm and Rico rushed him, pumping lead. Rico saw a long spurt of flame and then something hit him a sledge-hammer blow in the chest. He took two steps, dropped his gun, and fell flat on his face. He heard a rush of feet up the alley. ’Mother of God,’ he said, ‘is this the end of Rico?” “
The film itself shows how thin the original novel actually is. In just 79 minutes, we have a film that pretty much manages to cover the book fairly well, but actually backs up to before the start of the film – it takes over 10 minutes before we get to the actual opening scene of the book, where Sam is planning the heist that will really make the plot move forward. The rise of Rico, from a lowlife hood in Ohio, to a key enforcer for Sam, is actually shown on screen, but has already happened before the book begins. But, even though the film economizes on the characters a bit, it does a pretty good job of keeping true to the book, straight down to that final line.
Directed by Mervyn LeRoy. Screen Version and Dialogue by Francis Edwards Faragoh. Continuity by Robert N. Lee. Uncredited writing from Darryl F. Zanuck and Robert Lord. Both Faragoh and Lee were nominated for the Oscar.
The Criminal Code, as a film, suffers from some of the same problems that a lot of early talkies did: a complete dud of a performance in the central role. I’m not talking about Walter Huston as the warden – he is quite good, of course. But, even though he gets top billing, his is not the central role – it’s Philips Holmes, as the young man who accidentally kills a man and is sent up by the prosecutor (Huston) and then eventually finds work release after that same prosecutor ends up as the warden at his prison. Holmes is just out of his depth, and with such a weak performance at the core of the film, it’s hard for The Criminal Code to ever make the leap from a good film to something more.
But there are other things that are good about the film – the performance from Huston, the direction from Hawks, the script, the strong supporting performance from Boris Karloff as one of the nastiest of the convicts.
The Criminal Code by Martin Flavin (1929)
This was first produced as a stage play in 1929 (Wikipedia also lists it as a novel on their Martin Flavin page, but I think that is incorrect). I haven’t had a chance to read it as a stage play. It is easy to see how it would work on stage, and also easy to see which things they opened up for the film.
Because I haven’t read the original play, it’s hard to know what might be different in the film. The film, as I said, does several things well. It shows the flaws in the criminal justice system that can lead to harsher sentences for those who don’t deserve it and the resentment it breeds. It also has the daring to show a convict slitting the throat of a prison guard before being gunned down (an effective scene from the aforementioned good Karloff, pre-Frankenstein, when he was allowed to act and not just be a monster).
Directed by Howard Hawks (not credited as director, but the film is credited as A Howard Hawks Production and Hawks is credited on the poster I found). Adaptation and Added Dialogue by Fred Niblo, Jr. and Seton I. Miller.
I suppose I could be charitable here and say that Cimarron is not the worst film ever to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. It is merely the second-worst. And I am being charitable in saying that. It ranks at #485 of all 503 Oscar nominees (not counting the three I haven’t seen), which puts it in the bottom 20 all-time. In my review, I said “the question isn’t, why is it a bad film, but rather, how do we begin listing all the reasons it’s bad?” which is not a good thing for the only film to ever be nominated in every eligible Academy category (7 nominations in all in a year where Best Sound, the one category it might have deserved a nomination for, was given to a studio rather than to a film, and RKO Radio was nominated – the only nomination it didn’t receive was Best Original Story).
Cimarron by Edna Ferber (1930)
Has any other American writer fallen as far as Edna Ferber? Starting in the 1920′s, Ferber was a major part of the American literary landscape. She won the Pulitzer Prize for So Big, her Cimarron was made into a Best Picture winner, Giant was a major success, as both a novel and a film and she wrote several plays with George Kaufman, including Dinner at Eight. And today, is she read at all? Several of her books are still in print, but do they sell? At the time she was a much bigger seller than either Edith Wharton or Willa Cather (both of whom won Pulitzers in the years before Ferber), yet while they are both widely read in colleges and high schools across the country (I, in fact, had to read both of them in both high school and college), Ferber is mostly forgotten. And it’s for a reason. I may not be a big fan of either Wharton or Cather (though there is one big for each that I quite like), but they were both better writers than Ferber and Ferber’s books have aged much more. Cimarron, in particular, has aged very badly, with its story of multiple generations over the course of Oklahoma history, with a lead character who is never particular interesting to begin with, and as he flits from profession to profession over the decades, doesn’t get any more interesting.
The lack of anything interesting about Yancey Cravat is something that made the perfect transition from novel to film. He is utterly boring in the novel. And, if possible, he is even less interesting in the film, though that is less because of the writing (though that doesn’t help) than the utterly empty performance from Richard Dix. The filmmakers do a pretty good job of translating the novel to the screen, though, since neither is interesting, that isn’t saying much. The one thing I thought was a big change from the book, turned out to be an incorrect memory from me. I had thought Yancey met his wife in the scene where he loses the land on the creek to the young fiery woman. But it turns out she’s just an incidental character in both. Too bad. She would have been more interesting if she had ended up as his wife.
Directed by Wesley Ruggles (not actually credited as director, but the film is credited as A Wesley Ruggles Production). Screen version and dialogue by Howard Estabrook. Uncredited contributing writing by Louis Sarecky, who is credited as Associate Producer.
Like The Front Page, this is a good film. It’s not a great film, or even a very good film, but it is a good film, that has one solid acting performance (Ann Harding, in this case). But, also like The Front Page, it was remade within a decade with Cary Grant and the original has simply been passed by.
One of the interesting problems with this film adaptation is right there on the poster. The key character in the film is Johnny, the young man caught between his love for two very different sisters, trying to decide what he is going to do with his life and which one of those sisters is best suited to be with him on that journey (he’s actually engaged to one when the play opens and has yet to meet the other – the falling in love with her occurs over the course of the film). But Johnny is played by Robert Ames, fourth billed on the poster, and his performance is fairly flat. So it’s hard to muster up enough energy to care what he’s going to do, because the performance is so lackluster that we never really get emotionally invested in Johnny.
There is one advantage to this film (and I can’t remember where I first read this, so I don’t who to give credit to). In the remake, the more carefree sister, the one Johnny meets, is played by Katharine Hepburn, while the fiancee is played by Doris Nolan. There’s never any question of who Johnny will end up with. But in this version, the carefree sister is played by Ann Harding, in a good performance (which was Oscar-nominated) while the fiancee is played by the more beautiful Mary Astor (who is also good). It provides more drama and tension to the film in that we really don’t know which one Johnny is going to take. It’s just too bad that the film couldn’t have provided us with a Johnny whose decision was worth the interest.
Holiday: A Comedy in Three Acts by Philip Barry (1928)
This was an early hit for the same playwright who would later write The Philadelphia Story. As a play, it is fairly static, relying much more on its ideas and the actors than on anything that actually happens on stage. That’s part of why you can end up with two adaptations that don’t differ particularly much in their scripts but are of considerably different quality overall.
The timing of this play was a big part of its success and a bigger part of the lack of financial success for the two film versions. Because it is the story of a man who is essentially deciding not to work, but to find himself, and the two films hit during the course of the Great Depression. It was no longer such a good notion, the idea of someone choosing not to work at a time when millions upon millions were desperate for any kind of job.
There are a few changes from the play to the film, but not a whole lot – nothing that really changes much and not enough to really open up the film and make it seem like anything more than a filmed version of the play.
Directed by Edward H. Griffith. Photoplay by Horace Jackson.
I already reviewed this film once, to my dismay. For a long time this has been one of the big films I hadn’t seen – a Best Director winner, nominated for Best Picture, Actor and Adaptation. And yet, it was such a colossal disappointment. True, it’s not as bad as The Champ would be, which would combine the mind-numbing child acting of Jackie Cooper with the over-the-tap hamminess that was Wallace Beery, but this was still difficult to watch one, let alone twice. I wasn’t doing it a third time.
Skippy, a comic strip by Percy Crosby (1923-1945)
How little interest does Skippy draw nowadays? It has started getting the archive treatment, with the strips being released in book form from the Library of American Comics imprint from IDW, the same imprint that has done beautiful reprints of other major comic strips. Know how many libraries have a copy? Something like six. There’s just no demand for it. Maybe it’s that it’s a different world. Or maybe there’s just no interest left in it.
So, we have a film that has slipped away from the public conscience adapted from a comic strip that has slipped away from the public consience. This is a film that won Best Director and even in this era where all the old films are getting the DVD release treatment, this one still hasn’t seen the light. And the adaptation just isn’t very good – it’s never believable in the two different kinds of society it portrays and never gives us a single line of believable dialogue. All of its nominations were bad choices, but the choice of it for a writing nomination was the worst.
Directed by Norman Taurog. By Sam Mintz. From the story by Percy Crosby. Screen play by Norman McLeod and Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Additional dialogue by Sam Marquis. I have copied those credits directly from the film. The Oscar nomination went to Mankiewicz (his first of 5 writing nominations) and Mintz. I’m not certain why McLeod wasn’t nominated.
Other Noteworthy Adaptations (in descending order of how good they are):
- Waterloo Bridge - the James Whale version of the Robert E. Sherwood play, it’s better than the 1940 version because of Whale’s direction, but lacks the impact of Vivien Leigh’s performance in the latter.
- Dracula - the Spanish-language version filmed at the same time as the classic. There are some who say it is better than the Browning film. They are on some serious crack. I already reviewed it here.
- Morocco - from the novel Amy Jolly by Benno Vigny. A surprising omission from the Best Picture lists for Trader Horn and East Lynne which earned no other nominations. A good film with a good Oscar-nominated performance from Marlene Dietrich, but the script is noticeably weak.
- Liliom - from the 1909 play by Ferenc Molnár. The first sound version of the play, directed by Frank Borzage. Might have been better if he had gotten his regular Janet Gaynor to go along with Charles Farrell. Very hard to find until the Munau and Borzage at Fox box set was released.
- Night Nurse - one of the nastiest of the infamous pre-Code films. A plot that revolves around kids being slowly killed with malnutrition so two crooks can get their money, includes Clark Gable as a chauffeur nasty enough to punch out Barbara Stanwyck. Well-acted from the main performers, but not pleasant to watch. From the novel by Dora Macy.
- Murder! - from the play Enter Sir John by Clemence Dane and Helen Simpson. A good thriller, but just a warm-up for what Hitchcock would be doing later better than anyone.
- Anna Christie - the German language that was filmed at the same time as the English language one. Also stars Garbo, but the supporting cast just can’t hold a candle. But interesting to see Garbo’s performance.
- The Blue Angel - based on the 1905 novel Professor Unrat by Heinrich Mann. Revered by many because of Dietrich’s performance, the film itself and the script don’t hold up nearly as well as the performance.
- Juno and the Paycock - Hitchcock’s second sound film, from the middle play in Sean O’Casey’s Dublin Trilogy. Very low-level ***.
- Trader Horn - weak adventure film nominated for Best Picture, based on the memoirs by the original Alfred “Trader” Horn. Reviewed here.
- A Free Soul - a pretty bad film, based on the novel by Adela Rogers St. Johns (via the play version by Willard Mack). Good acting keeps the film from completely drowning. Given the Oscar for Lionel Barrymore and the nominations for Norma Shearer (who should have actually won) and director Clarence Brown, surprisingly not nominated for Best Picture. This was also the film that basically pushed Clark Gable from supporting player to star.
- East Lynne - also a pretty bad film, a Best Picture nominee and impossible to find outside of UCLA. It has massive changes from the source novel, is ridiculous melodrama and has a laughable ending.
- Min and Bill - a good performance from Oscar-winner Marie Dressler can’t save this awful adaptation of the novel Dark Star by Lorna Moon. Just barely saved from being the worst film of 1930-31.
- The Maltese Falcon - the first film version of the brilliant novel. You can see my rather scathing review here, though, sadly, it is better than the 1936 version. The worst film of 1930-31.