My Top 9:
- Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
- Five Star Final
- Grand Hotel
- The Old Dark House
- A Bill of Divorcement
- Bad Girl
Note: I kept looking at films, re-watched both Wooden Crosses and Freaks and I still couldn’t manage to put them on the list and so I cut it off at nine. And to be frank, the bottom four on the list are a much lower level than the first five. It’s interesting that my top three – and there’s a good gap in quality between #3 and 4 – are all films that took the general theme of their source novels but departed significantly. Does it make them great that they didn’t feel the need to be overly faithful? Or is it just a coincidence?
One other thing of note. Looking at that list, specifically the first six films, do you notice anything? You might not, depending on how well you know the films. But you of course know that Boris Karloff plays the Monster in Frankenstein. And you may know he is the disgusting Reverend Isopod in Five Star Final. And of course he is the mute butler in The Old Dark House. And, oh yeah, he’s also a gangster in Scarface. Four of the top six Adapted Screenplays for 1931-32 have Boris Karloff. Talk about the Star of the Year.
Oscar Nominees (Best Adaptation):
- Bad Girl
- Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Analysis: What an interesting choice here. Not the choice of Bad Girl as the winner – that’s not a horrible choice, but it is the weakest of the three and it’s not a great choice. I’m talking about the nomination of Jekyll. Think of the horror films made by Universal between 1931 and 1935, films like Dracula, Frankenstein, The Old Dark House, The Invisible Man, Island of Lost Souls and Bride of Frankenstein. Those films combined for exactly one nomination – Best Sound for Bride. And here is Jekyll, nominated for its writing and actually winning the Oscar for Best Actor. It couldn’t quite make the leap and manage a Picture or Director nomination, possibly because it was a Horror film, and possibly because even without it Paramount managed three nominations for Best Picture. But it’s still quite a good nomination – partially because it deserved to be there, and partially because it would be another 36 years before another Horror film would be nominated for its writing.
By the time that Scarface went in front of the cameras two films had already defined the genre of the Gangster Film: Little Caesar and The Public Enemy. In Little Caesar we have a man who through foresight and planning manages to take over the mobs but whose arrogance brings about his downfall. In The Public Enemy, we have the story of Tom Powers, a young man who never actually rises that far and whose brutality brings things crashing down around his head – he’s a low-level enforcer who is good at what he does but doesn’t have the planning to rise like Rico did in Caesar.
In Scarface, we have the rise and fall of Tony Camonte. Camonte, like Rico, rises up to the top of the mobs, wiping out his rivals and ruling over it all. But he doesn’t have Rico’s brains or planning. What he has is a lot of what Tom had – sheer brutality and daring (there is one scene which is almost exactly the same as in Public Enemy, where Tony is going around, like Tom did, explaining to various speak-easies exactly how much beer they are going to buy from his outfit). Tony rises, not because he’s smarter than anyone, but because he’s so forceful and surprising that he gets away with things that no one else would even dare to try.
But that’s just Tony. We also have a whole film that is like that. It brutalizes us with its sense of violence, with a lot more death dealt out on-screen than what we had seen in Caesar or Enemy. And while neither Rico or Tom was capable of an adult relationship with a woman, Tony is so obsessed with his sister and what she is doing that it’s clear to everyone but him that he’s more interested in her body than in anything else in life.
Scarface is a first-rate film. It is anchored by an intense, driven performance by Paul Muni whose sheer level of brutality overwhelms everyone around him, including himself. Then there are the two strong supporting performances – one from George Raft, that made him an instant gangster star and one from Ann Dvorak as Tony’s sexy sister who is beaten into submissiveness by her brother. It overwhelms you with the sound of gunfire and then pulls back to witness the twisted relationships that Tony has with everyone in the world. It has first rate cinematography and editing and it is the first truly great film from Howard Hawks, a man who wouldn’t just rest on his laurels, or even rest in the genre, which he had already done well with The Criminal Code. He would eventually show he could be brilliant with a comedy (His Girl Friday), a mystery (The Big Sleep), a suspense film (To Have and Have Not) or even a western (Red River).
Scarface by Armitage Trail (1930)
Scarface, like Little Caesar, is a short little novel. It chronicles, fairly simply, the rise and fall of a gangster who is basically Al Capone (ironically, for both books, as Capone wouldn’t have his fall until 1931, after both books were published, and his death wasn’t his fall, as he wouldn’t die until 1947). And, ironically, the first man to take a stab at adapting Scarface to the screen would be W.R. Burnett, who had written the novel Little Caesar in the first place. It isn’t much of a novel, a short little gangster piece.
When Caesar was adapted to the screen, rather than begin right with Rico’s rise to the top of the gangster pile, like the novel does, the film jumped backwards to when Rico was just an unknown hood in Ohio. The film version of Scarface does the opposite – it drops the early part of the novel. This has the effect of dropping some of the irony of the book. In the early parts of the book we see young Tony Guarino, a small-time hood who then flees to the war, where he gets the scar acting the hero in a battle, then comes back to Chicago and decides to change his name to completely cut off that part of his life. That’s interesting to bear in mind in the film when we see the relentless pursuit of Tony by Inspector Guarino. They kept the name of the cop who, in the book, actually guns down Tony (not knowing that Tony apparently couldn’t bring himself to kill his brother, with his brother bragging about Tony’s death at the end, saying how his gun jammed and the book ends with the line “But even an automatic can’t jam when the trigger hasn’t been pulled.”) but didn’t actually seem to keep the relationship. Instead, they really heighten up the relationship between Tony and his sister. There is nothing like the incestuous desire that runs through the film in the original book. Yes, Tony does kill the man his sister (Rosie in the book) is in love with. But then she tries to get him back and she doesn’t back down – she actually dumps a ton of poison in his soup but he figures it out and doesn’t drink it and he actually lets her go.
The novel actually proves the same thing that Hitchcock would prove time and time again – it’s actually easier to take a bit of pulp fiction and make a classic film out of it than to try it with a masterpiece. After all, here is this little piece of pulp, not really worth reading a second time, and the adaptation heads a list that includes both Frankenstein and Jekyll.
Directed by Howard Hawks. From the book by Armitage Trail. Screen Story by Ben Hecht. Continuity and Dialogue by Seton I. Miller, John Lee Mahin and W.R. Burnett. Uncredited writing from Howard Hawks and Fred Pasley. This piece by the Mythical Monkey expands on who got the credits and why and gives a good background to how the film came to be what it is – a screen classic.
It’s a pain when two films compete in the same years in so many of the same categories. Look at 2001, with Moulin Rouge and Fellowship of the Ring going against each other for Art Direction, Sound, Costume Design and Makeup. So it’s nice that Dracula and Frankenstein, though released in the same calendar year, get pushed into different Oscar-eligible years because of the eligibility dates for each year. That way I don’t have to pick one or the other in so many categories. Instead, Dracula gets to win 4 Nighthawk Awards and Frankenstein gets to win 6, including two of the same (Art Direction and Makeup). For the record, though I love Dracula more as a book, Frankenstein is a slightly better film and has the advantage in almost every category (I give Dracula a big edge on Actor, a small edge on Adapted Screenplay and Art Direction).
There are a couple of reasons why Frankenstein is a better film. The first is that while so much of Dracula is great, it does have some scenes that have some pretty bad effects – parts of Dracula could be better done with better technology. Not so for Frankenstein, which gets everything it needs with its mood and atmosphere, whose effects are better, and who doesn’t need anything more. And part of that reason is tied up in the other reason why Frankenstein is a better film – James Whale. Tod Browning made a number of good films, but aside from his one great film (Dracula) and one very good but deeply disturbing film (Freaks), his success was tied to the presence of Lon Chaney as his constant star. James Whale, on the other hand, was a great director, one who could move between genres and had a great idea of what kind bring a film to life (see Old Dark House, below, for more on that).
There are a lot of iconic moments in the last century of film-making. Some of them don’t hold up so well over time. But with the wonderful sets, the slow movement of the fingers, the crazed look that comes over Colin Clive’s eyes, well, “It’s alive!” is actually a moment that lives up to the hype, no matter how many times you’ve seen it. Some of that, of course, is Clive. I couldn’t really buy into the first screen collaboration between Clive and Whale, the poignant Journey’s End. Clive never seemed to quite belong in that film – he seemed like he was trying too hard to be the one who is cracking up. But here, well here he has that right level of frenzied intensity to make him believable as the young doctor so desperate to make his mark (in some ways that makes Frankenstein much like Jekyll, except that the film version of Jekyll, below, brings a big change of motivation from the original novel).
But none of it would matter, not the brilliant sets, not the dark, brooding cinematography, not the direction, not the smart script, if not for that brilliant casting move. Let’s get Boris Karloff, who had been playing gangster roles and doing a good job of it, and let’s get him to play the monster. Yes, the fantastic makeup job had a lot to do with it. Yes, the way Whale directed the scenes, cutting away from what he needed to, relying on the monster’s presence rather than dialogue (see below) made a difference. But this performance, the best from an actor whose talents were never truly appreciated, is magnificent. He just runs away with it. Yes, it’s true that Whale only directed one more Frankenstein film, the best of the series, maybe the best of all the Universal Horror films, and then the series badly declined with Whale gone. But let’s not forget that Karloff stopped playing the Monster after the third film and that hurt just as much, if not more.
Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley (originally anonymously published) (1818)
Is Frankenstein a Horror novel? Yes, it was conceived on that incredible night when the great minds sat around and tried to create a ghost story. But, Dracula is about the supernatural. Jekyll is about the dark side of the soul that could be unlocked. Phantom is about a ghoulish creature who stalks and murders. Yet, Victor Frankenstein is a scientist, one who becomes determined to try a bold experiment and see if he can return life to where it has passed on. This is what would later be called science-fiction. And much of what happens in the life centers around the moralistic questions over what Victor has attempted and what he must try to undo, once his creation blazes a trail of death. In that sense it is really a philosophical treatise, not to be surprised at given the extraordinary childhood and education that Shelley had.
It is a very good novel, of course, and one that made my Top 200. But to those of you who have only seen the Frankenstein films it would be a big surprise (well, unless you have seen the Branagh film – that is by far the closest to the original source novel). It was always appropriate for Bride of Frankenstein to be made, of course, because much of what happens in that film actually is inspired by the second half of the novel. And the first half of the novel, from Victor’s pursuit of his monster across the Arctic, to the intelligent, yet brutal monster that is a far different creature than the one played by Karloff, is much different than anything seen on film here.
This film isn’t much of an adaptation of the original novel Frankenstein. It takes the basic idea (scientist creates a creature from dead bodies, it comes to life, must be stopped) and runs with that, but changes almost every detail. Victor Frankenstein? Now he’s Henry. Makes the creature while alone in Ingolstadt, far from home? No, he is helped by Fritz, his hunchback, in a castle overlooking his German town and intruded upon by his fiancee. A tragic ending with the death of his young brother, the maid blamed for his brother’s death, his wife on their wedding night and eventually Victor himself while survived by the monster? Well, none of that really – Henry gets a happy ending after the monster is burned by the villagers (a perfect ending for the monster in that it works well for the film but also works well to bring him back in the sequel).
So, the basic idea comes from the book, but everything else either comes from the stage play or is created on film really for the first time. And, rather importantly, this film, not the original book, would be the basis for almost every Frankenstein film to come, Branagh notwithstanding.
But, much more importantly, this film would really become the basis for classic Horror films as a genre. Yes, Dracula would be first. But this is really where it all comes from. Mad scientist in a castle, especially one on a hilltop? Comes from here. The German town ravaged by the horror? Comes from here. The hunchbacked assistant who is both incompetent (he steals the wrong brain) and malevolent (his torture of the monster with fire sets in motion all of the tragedy ahead for the monster)? Comes from here, and even though he isn’t named Igor, this is really the version that would become Igor in the future.
Directed by James Whale. From the novel by Mrs. Percy B. Shelley. Adapted from the play by Peggy Webling. Screen Play by Garrett Fort and Francis Edward Faragoh. The IMDB also adds Based upon the composition by John L. Balderston and Scenario Editor: Richard Schayer as well as Robert Flory as an uncredited contributor to treatment and John Russell as an uncredited contributor to screenplay construction.
Did Hollywood know what it had in its midst before this? Yes, March already has been nominated for an Oscar before the release of Jekyll and Hyde. But that was for a performance that was more in line with a traditional manner of acting, almost more like silent acting, and March would have already been done with filming by the time the nominations were announced in October. And so, what a shock it must have been, this film. Is it any wonder that he would go on to win Best Actor, the first person to win an acting Oscar for a Horror film (it would be another 36 years before it would happen again)? On the set of the 1941 remake, watching Spencer Tracy’s performance in the lead roles, Somerset Maugham famously said “Which one is he now?” Even without the makeup, no one would have ever asked that of March.
On one level this film is all about March and his performance. The film even begins from his point-of-view, with him playing Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor and slowly getting ready to go out and give a talk, and eventually we see him in a mirror. This all works well, namely because it is such a good set-up for the later point in the film where Jekyll will black out and be replaced by Hyde, who will only be revealed to us in his full horror by staring into a mirror – the deliberate trick camera shot doesn’t seem so much like a trick when it’s already been used. The filmmakers do a great job with the Hyde makeup, especially as it gets more beastly as his transformations continue. But it wouldn’t matter if March doesn’t give such a forceful performance – the true depths of what Victorian man would have done had all the repressions heaped upon his soul suddenly been lifted and any notion of morality lifted with it. He is gutteral, beastly, nasty, forceful, and he does it all with such relish.
And so there must be a focus for his darker side. As discussed below, the original novel deals with all of this from a displaced point-of-view, one level removed from all of the actual action until the final confession. But the film, like the 1920 version, finds a focal point for the darkness of Hyde’s soul. That focal point is Ivy, the young prostitute that Jekyll helps early in the film and that Hyde sets off to find.
I feel I must make a small point before I continue here. Blondes are, shall we say, not my thing. When it comes to Grace Kelly, well, that goes beyond hair color. But for the most part, from Jean Harlow to Marilyn Monroe, all the way down to Charlize Theron and Reese Witherspoon, they have never really been for me. And I stand by that Norma Shearer is the epitome of beauty in the 1930’s. That being said, Miriam Hopkins is quite possibly, indeed quite probably, the sexiest thing on celluloid in the Pre-Code era. And while her performance in The Story of Temple Drake, and indeed the film itself, helped usher in the Code, this is the performance that makes you worry that the nitrate itself will catch fire like it was always threatening to do. Indeed, while Ingrid Bergman, who was more beautiful than Hopkins and, for the most part, a better actress, would play the same role in the 1941 film that Hopkins plays here, she can’t do anything to compare because she is hampered by the code while Hopkins is free to ignite the action.
Jekyll, the moral man, the good man, comes to the aid of Ivy when he sees her beaten by an irate trick. He carries her inside and investigates her injuries, including a bruise high up on her thigh. When she notices his attention, not caring that he is a doctor (who tells her that she shouldn’t wear such tight garters), she takes off her garters and tosses them at his feet. She then undresses the rest of the way and climbs under the covers. She then manages to get him to come over, close enough that she is kissing him passionately when Jekyll’s companion finally comes looking for him. When the two break apart, it is quite clear that Hopkins is wearing nothing under that cover, at least from the waist up. And when Jekyll goes to leave, she dangles her leg tantalizingly off the edge of the bed, now with the garter back up and high on her thigh, calling him to come back again. And for the next minute, as we watch Jekyll and his companion walk away from the scene, they superimpose that image of that leg dangling off the bed.
So, of course, when Jekyll becomes Hyde (he first does it, then is almost discovered by his servant, but after being told that his fiancee is going out of town, immediately decides to do it again), it is Ivy that he seeks out. He knows how sexy she is, how much she is trying to draw him in and Hyde is determined to take advantage of what Jekyll could not. The presence of Ivy and the supreme desire she inspires changes the Jekyll and Hyde story from one of unleashing what might be evil in the soul to unshackling the sexual repressions of the Victorian Era. Which of course makes the end of the film all the more tragic – not for what happens to Jekyll, who has managed to bring it upon himself – but for Ivy, who just wants a better life and even finds it promised to her by that gentle handsome doctor she tried to pull into bed only to have it ripped from her by his sadistic other half.
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886) (usually published as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde)
I wrote about this book once already.
Like the 1920 film version, this film departs significantly from the original novel. That film was based more on the Sullivan play than the original novel, a play which had added a love interest. That love interest prompted two of the key things in the film – a repression that made Jekyll seek out his experiments in the first place and a motivation for the murder of Carew. Those two things carry over into this film. One other thing, of course, carries over – the other female role in the play (I started to write love interest, but clearly love has nothing to do with it). In the 1920 version it was a dance hall girl, as it would be again in 1941, after the Code had taken effect. But here, while Ivy may dance, she is quite clearly a prostitute. And that adds an extra interesting dimension once she becomes a kept woman. If it’s a dance hall girl, well that can make life easier and it might be bearable to be kept by a brute because you don’t have to work. But when you’re selling your body and you no longer have to sell it to whoever comes along, well that might make being kept by a brute an even easier proposition to accept.
This film also does the best job of stressing the differences between Jekyll and Hyde. We see the man who will rush to the aid of a beaten whore, who plays Bach, who is devoted to his fiancee. But we also see the pure brutality of Hyde, including the eventual vicious murder of Ivy which includes the confession as to who he really is, tearing away any illusions, just before her death, of what good there might have ever been in the world. Part of why this particular film is so good at this is, of course, the performance of Frederic March. And part of it is the skillful way the script stresses the differences between the two versions of the man.
Directed by Rouben Mamoulian. Screen play by Samuel Hoffenstein and Percy Heath. Based on the novel by Robert Louis Stevenson.
I reviewed this film once already.
Five Star Final: A Melodrama in Three Acts by Louis Weitzenkorn (1930)
Five Star Final is actually a pretty interesting play, the way it is set up. It is designed to work around three revolving stages, so you have different things happening in different locations at the same time. This is especially useful in what would be a key dramatic scene in both the play and the film: the moment where Nancy Vorhees, desperate to get the newspaper not to print her story and ruin her daughter’s life, is being simultaneously rebuffed by both the publisher and the editor, as their secretaries hold her off on the phone and neither man will talk to her. This would have been difficult in a normal stage play, but because of how Weitzenkorn set up the scene, with the three stages, we actually get all of that action at once, happening on the three different stages interacting in a new and different way.
This play is also completely relevant even today. Look at how completely a woman is destroyed, not because of any news about her life, but because a shoddy, pathetic tabloid feels the need to bring the story back into the public’s eye just so they can increase their circulation. And look at the news of last year and the phone hacking scandal that sent a British newspaper that had been around for over a century into complete destruction. There is a fine line between the public’s right to know and the public’s need to know, something that was clear to Weitzenkorn all the way back in 1930 and resonates even today.
Most of what is in the film is right there in the original play. You have the disgusting publisher, determined to raise circulation and the disgusted editor who does his job at first until he finally reaches that breaking point. We also have Isopod, that odious Religious Editor of the paper who uses a pathetic ploy to find out the information that will give the paper such a scoop (though I can’t imagine they could have known how good Boris Karloff would be in the role). But there is one major difference between the play and the film and it’s to the film’s advantage. In the play, Miss Taylor is simply the secretary to Randall, the Editor. But in the film, played so very well by Aline MacMahon, she is clearly in love with Randall and she watches in anguish as he goes through the motions of the film. And in the end she gets the best of several drunk scenes in the film. Lots of films add in a romantic subplot and it ends up being stupid or unnecessary. But this one, well this one adds a lot to the film and with the right actress in the right role it really helps take the film to another level.
Directed by Mervyn LeRoy. Based on the play by Louis Weitzenkorn. Screenplay by Byron Morgan. Adaptation by Robert Lord.
This film has already been reviewed once.
Menschen im Hotel by Vicki Baum (1929)
It’s interesting that Grand Hotel, the film, has become an acknowledged classic (I don’t think it’s a classic, but it is very good and it did win Best Picture and the general consensus is that it’s a classic and a good use of all those stars) but the book doesn’t have any sort of reputation even close to that. Because it is a good novel, a novel that manages to come to life and it is so similar to the film (see below). Perhaps it’s because it doesn’t have the star power in the pages – just the characters and what happens to them over the course of their stay in the hotel. And even the stars on the screen couldn’t do anything more with a line like “Leaving the scent of laurel in N0. 63 behind, he put his nose out on to the balcony and sniffed. There was that indefinable smell of Berlin in March, gasoline mingled with the dampness of the Tiergarten, and as he pushed past the gently swelling curtain he had already observed that something was not as it should be.” That can only come on the page and Baum does a very good job with it (and credit to Basil Creighton, the translator of the edition I am quoting from).
So much of what happens in the film would be familiar to those who would pick up the book. Look at a scene like “He was dead. Nothing more could happen to him. No one now could harass or pursue him. He would never now find himself in prison. And that was good. He would never now keep his appointment in Vienna with Grusinskaya. And that was sad.” Or look even past that, to the very end of the book, with that well-known line putting a cap on the story: “Always the same. Nothing happens.” But there is more, with a final close-out line that works so well with a novel in a setting like this, reminding us that it’s not just what has been going on, but that even when all these stories are gone this building, the one that gives both the novel and the film its name, is still there to see what will come next: “The revolving door turns and turns – and swings . . . and swings . . . and swings . . .” There is a bit more in the novel than could be put on screen, even in the Pre-Code era: “Flämmchen had no exaggerated opinion of herself. She knew her price. Twenty marks for a photograph in the nude. A hundred and forty marks for a month’s office work. Twopence per page for typing with a carbon copy. A fur coat at two hundred and forty marks for a week as somebody’s mistress.”
Directed by Edmund Goulding. By Vicki Baum. American Play Version by William A. Drake. Drake also adapted the film (uncredited) and there was uncredited writing by Béla Balázs.
I am not a particular fan of Horror films, at least not the average Horror film. That’s because most of them are so badly done. I have seen 313 films I classify as Horror and a full third of them are bad (** or worse). The average Horror film earns a 56.9 – on a par with Action films and far worse than the average for any other genre. There aren’t a lot of great Horror films (I count 29) and not a lot more very good ones (I have 34). But another thing about Horror films is that there aren’t directors who are masters of the genre. Of those 63 films that are very good or great, only three directors appear on the list more than twice, and one of them shouldn’t count since all three of his films were in one trilogy (Sam Raimi). So that leaves really two directors who really rise above when it comes to the quality of the direction of Horror films – Roman Polanski and James Whale.
And all of this is just a prelude to the fact that The Old Dark House only rates a *** on my list, which means it isn’t one of those really good Whale films – though it shares a quality with them and shows why Whale was so much better at this genre than most directors. Whale had a great sense of what was funny on screen, how the macabre could be frightening and hilarious, and it shows in his films.
Look at how bizarre this film is. Look at the characters – the strange brother and sister and their freakishly old father (played by a woman) and their mute psychotic butler. Look at the performances – the creepily silent Karloff and the oafish Charles Laughton, about to burst forth as one of the great actors of all-time. Look at the aura of menace when Gloria Stuart changes her clothes. But also look at the strange way this house comes to life around them. Throughout all the strange happenings, there is a quality of macabre humor and that’s all because of Whale, the master of making even the creepy things in the shadows seem like they could be funny if we think about them hard enough.
Now, when you compare this to the best of Whale’s Horror films – Bride of Frankenstein, The Invisible Man and Frankenstein – this is going to be a very distant fourth. But when you compare it to the vast majority of Horror films – the pathetic slasher films with no imagination and no sense of humor that seem to come out every month – well, this is definitely a better destination.
Benighted by J. B. Preistley (1927)
Benighted is an interesting little book. It would possibly be forgotten by now (not that it isn’t) if not for the charming little film that James Whale made out of it between directing Frankenstein and The Invisible Man. But there is something charming about it that is kind of hard to put my finger on. This is the closest that I can come to it – the novel is written in third person but it doesn’t seem like it. Not because it is limited (which it is, though it follows several characters, but then again many suspense novels like this are limited because to be otherwise would be to give away all the secrets before their time) but because the style of it seems more like it is being told by a character in the book than a displaced narrator. It’s not a particular good book and it makes a better film than it does a book because of Whale’s humor and because of the performances of Laughton and Karloff, but it’s not anything to just throw down either.
The novel almost cries out to become a film because there are only so many things it can manage to do on the page that it knows can be done so easily on the screen. And those actors manage to bring it to life perfectly. And I must add, even though the title of the film is rather generic, it is actually a better title than the book.
Directed by James Whale. From the novel by J. B. Priestly. Screen Play by Benn W. Levy. Additional uncredited dialogue by R. C. Sherriff
Here it is, the transition from old to new. In one corner, beset by madness, hamming it up in his best bourbon-glazed style we have John Barrymore, the lord of the manor in a prominent acting family. He gives us madness exactly as Hollywood (and Broadway before it) saw madness at the time, awash with mannerisms and sudden veering into lucidity and back towards oblivion. He isn’t great and gets nowhere near the Nighthawk Nominees for Best Actor, but he is at least in the mix somewhere.
In the other corner, so young and beautiful, not yet draped in the mannerisms that would later help to define her, but already seeming like she was born for the screen, is one Katharine Hepburn making her film debut. Her father has been gone throughout most of her life, hospitalized for what is said to be shellshock (the film takes place in 1933, 15 years after the Great War, which was way in the future when the play was written in 1921 but not so much here). Hepburn’s Sydney learns more about her father and his illness throughout the course of the film and also must deal with her own life and her mother’s.
The mother is the link between the two. She is played, quite well, by Billie Burke. In fact, Burke, I would say, is better than either Barrymore (who was nearing the end of his well-soaked career) or Hepburn (who, of course, was just beginning, though she would be an Oscar winner within 18 months of the film’s premiere). She must play a woman struggling to go on with her life only to see her mad husband suddenly return just at the moment she is about to find happiness.
Is A Bill of Divorcement a great film? Not by a long shot. It’s a good film, but can’t even make the jump to ***.5. It’s got too much melodrama, too many attempts to be deathly serious, and though it is bolstered by a fine cast, there is just a bit too much hamming it up to quite take it as seriously as it wants to be taken and it hasn’t aged all that well.
A Bill of Divorcement by Clemence Dane (1921)
The original play A Bill of Divorcement was written as a protest to a recently passed law in Britain that allowed insanity as grounds for a woman divorcing her husband. By moving the action forward to 1933 she allowed the actions of the just-completed Great War (which probably had at least something to do with the passage of the law – after all, many men did come back healed in body and damaged in other ways) to serve as a potential reason for a man being committed, though, as it turns out, the war simply pushed him over the edge while his heredity had placed him on it in the first place.
In a couple of ways it has aged kind of badly. The first is because the play is so overly melodramatic, with a notion of mental illness that doesn’t really hold up today (although, I suppose it’s not really all that different than how Hollywood still sees mental illness). It’s hard to know precisely how seriously to take the play and that interferes with our ability to just enjoy it (although enjoy might not be the right word).
But the other reason that it has aged badly is Cary Grant. What? Yes, it’s our old buddy Cary Grant, who in the previous year, interfered with our ability to really enjoy Holiday or The Front Page because the remakes that he starred in. Well, there is a second version of A Bill of Divorcement but it doesn’t star Cary Grant (as a matter of fact it star Adolph Menjou, whose performance as Walter Burns has been forgotten because of Grant). That’s not the problem with this film. Here’s the problem: the premise of the play is that Sydney, after learning more about her father’s illness, eventually turns her fiancee and her own mother away, knowing (at least inside) that she will eventually have to deal with the family illness and not wanting it to spread further. It’s a melancholy ending to a play that wasn’t too happy to begin with. But now think about another play and the subsequent film made from it: Arsenic and Old Lace. It’s a classic of black comedy, with a couple of crazy aunts and a crazy uncle, a murderous relative and one man who thinks he needs to push his fiancee away from him lest she have to deal with this madness. And then comes that crazy, wonderful ending (“I’m the son of a sea-cook!”) and we get a happy ending after all because that madness won’t be infecting him (after all, he is Cary Grant). So, with a story like that, so brilliant and hilarious, with such a great ending, how can we look at Bill but as a bit of over-reaching melodrama?
So what about the adaptation? Well, it does as well as it can with the source material – not being overly faithful (a lot of the lines are changed, but the main storyline stays exactly the same), but expanding things to give John Barrymore, who after all is the star here, much more of a presence on-screen (in the play he doesn’t come in until late in Act I, is off-stage for the first 8 pages of Act II and is off-stage again for Act III until the end). It involves him more in the actions of what is going on rather than a passive character that his ex-wife and daughter are reacting to. But overall, if I were Dane, I would have been pleased at how well they did with bringing the stage version to the screen.
Directed by George Cukor. Screen Play by Howard Estabrook and Harry Wagstaff Gribble. From the play by Clemence Dane.
I have reviewed this film once. As I said then, it is a good film, but it doesn’t rise above that, which in some ways is appropriate, as it is adapted from a good book, but one that can’t quite make it to the next level.
Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis (1925)
Sinclair Lewis turned down the Pulitzer Prize when it was awarded to him for Arrowsmith, which I graded at a C+. To be fair, as I pointed out at the time, that was less because of how good the novel is (it’s pretty good) than because it was a year of The Painted Veil, An American Tragedy and, most importantly, The Great Gatsby. Arrowsmith is an important part of the Lewis canon – it is, in fact, where he actually gives a geographical location for his fictional state of Winnemac, something which I always assumed to just be a stand-in for his home state of Minnesota (because it had been so long since I read the novel) rather than the more interesting midwestern state he created as such: “The state of Winnemac is bounded by Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana, and like them it is half Eastern, half Midwestern. There is a feeling of New England in its brick and sycamore villages, it stable industries, and a tradition which goes back to the Revolutionary War.” and he describes its university as having “twelve thousand students; beside this prodigy Oxford is a tiny theological school and Harvard a select college for young gentlemen.” In fact, because the story takes Martin Arrowsmith off to his wife’s home in South Dakota and then off to New York City (“The McGurk building. A sheer wall, thirty blank stories of glass and limestone, down in the pinched triangle whence New York rules a quarter of the world.”) and then off to the Caribbean to take a shot at the plague hitting there (“Misty mountains they saw, and on their flanks the palm-crowned fortifications built of old time against the pirates.”), I had completely forgotten that Arrowsmith comes from that fictional state that established a world on paper for Lewis, beginning with his great Babbit, and continuing through the years.
This is, as I have said, not one of Lewis’ first-rate books. But that’s not a criticism. Lewis was a great writer – the first American writer to win the Nobel Prize – and while none of his books made my Top 100, four of them made the second 100. That I would rank this fifth among his works then, is not a bad thing. It is a very good book and one that deserves, like all of Lewis’ work, to be better remembered than it seems to be today.
Adapting good novels to the screen has always been tricky. Bad novels are easy – find the plot (the plot is usually quite key in a bad novel – see everything James Patterson has ever written) and follow it. Good novels, which deal with things such as character and motivation can be trickier. Just look at this novel.
Arrowsmith, the film, is the story of a doctor who becomes unhappy as a local doctor in his wife’s hometown, becomes unhappy doing research in New York and finds some meaning in his work on a plague-infested island but loses the meaning in his life. Though, of course, it all has a hopeful ending, or at least as hopeful as it can be given his wife lies dead back on the island, neglected and almost forgotten.
But the book has more than that – a good deal more than can be fit into 108 minutes. We don’t just get a little story about Martin as he is growing up – this book fits into the wider world of Lewis’ writing, and none of that can manage to come across on the screen. When Martin fits meet Dr. Gottlieb, they manage to convey who he is quite quickly, but how could anything on screen match up to the three page description of him, which includes “He had never dined with a duchess, never received a prize, never been interviewed, never produced anything which the public could understand, nor experienced anything since his schoolboy amours which nice people could regard as romantic. He was, in fact, an authentic scientist.” The adaptation is, like so many adaptations, a greatest hits edition that makes certain to cover all the necessary plot points, but can never truly take the place of the original.
Directed by John Ford. Adapted for the Screen by Sidney Howard.
I already reviewed this film once. But I wanted to add this – thinking about the title, I am reminded of a lesson that we were taught in high school that too many people didn’t learn. What do you call a cheerleader who sleeps with a bunch of the football team? Slut, was the usual answer. What do you call a quarterback who sleeps with most of the cheerleaders. Was he a stud? Which is ridiculous of course, but, sadly true for lots of people. And that brings us to the title of this film. There is nothing about this film that makes Dorothy, played by Sally Eilers (quite well) in this film a bad girl.
The title in the film really seems to hinge around the confrontation scene with her brother – that dull lout who decides to throw his sister out on the street because of his notion of morality. It is actually a little truncated from how it is in the book – he is a bit more brutal in the book, including mentioning a time when he hit her, supposedly for her own good. But, as mentioned below, the title in the book is made more explicit.
Bad Girl, by Viña Delmar (1928) and the play by Delmar and Brian Marlowe.
It’s all spelled out on pages 54-56. “She was thinking of what it would like to be a bad girl. People would know about it perhaps.” That’s what goes through her head just before she and Eddie and sleep together. But, when she tells Eddie that she’s not sure she wants to because she would be a bad girl, he replies “No, you wouldn’t. A bad girl is something different. You’d never let anybody else touch you, would you?”
So, there we have it. Apparently, she’s a bad girl because she sleeps with one guy. And her brother certainly believes that makes her a bad girl.
But all of this raises the question of what is bad and what is good. Dot (as she is more often referred to) loves Eddie. They fall in love quickly and they sleep together and they get married and have a kid and they try their best to make it work. She’s a good person who loves the person she’s with and things are hard for her. Whereas, her lout of a brother, who tosses her out because he’s decided she’s a tramp (based, apparently, on one night), is the kind of guy who later will send her a letter that says “Your father died this morning. I thought I ought to let you know. Don’t come over as I will not let you in.”
Maybe I’m reading too much into it. Maybe the title was part of Delmar’s point – to make us see how ridiculous the notion is.
Anyway it works, the book is a decent book – a nice little story about a couple who catch some bad breaks as they fall in love, get married and have a baby. As a novel it’s kind of forgettable, but it isn’t a bad book – decently written, with good character development and a fairly good job of realism.
The film does a fairly good job of bringing the novel to the screen. Of course, Delmar had already adapted her novel for the stage, so that made the job a hell of a lot easier. And, more surprisingly, it does a very good job of taking the scenes that you wouldn’t have thought possible and including them. There is the fact that Dorothy stays all night with Eddie (though it isn’t ever shown they sleep together). There is the scene where her brother throws her out, believing her to be a tramp. And at the end of the scene, his girlfriend, Edna, walks out, knowing what he believes (she is clearly a prostitute, complete with kid, and though that is never explicitly stated, it is very well implied). Granted, this is the Pre-Code Era, but it’s still impressive how much they were actually able to put in the film, and looking at it again this time, I even bumped it up a bit from the rating I gave it during the Best Picture project.
Directed by Frank Borzage. Continuity and Dialogue by Edwin Burke (this is the only writing credit listed – Burke won the Oscar). The credits list both the novel and the play. Uncredited writing from Rudolf Sieber.
Other Noteworthy Adaptations (in descending order of how good they are):
- Freaks – adapted from the story “Spurs” by Tod Robbins, it expands a lot on the story. The film is very good, as is the direction and the film is deeply disturbing, even today, but the acting and script keep it out of the **** range.
- Wooden Crosses – a very good Raymond Bernard film, adapted from the novel by Roland Dorgelès, but the direction and cinematography overcome the weakness of the script – can’t quite make it into my list
- Tarzan the Ape Man – the classic that began the series that starred Johnny Weismuller for almost two decades and really brought Edgar Rice Burroughs novel to the screen – less faithful than the silent 1918 version, but good entertainment
- Murders in the Rue Morgue – maybe Bela Lugosi’s best non-Dracula performance in this version of Edgar Allen Poe’s story
- An American Tragedy – this adaptation of Dreiser’s novel is almost forgotten today, partially because it’s not readily available and partially because of the great 1951 Oscar-winning version A Place in the Sun
- Private Lives – a solid version of Noel Coward’s play with a good performance from Norma Shearer in the lead
- One Hour With You – adapted from the play and directed by Ernst Lubitsch – nominated for Best Picture – it is reviewed in full here
- The Murderer Dimitri Karamazoff – a decent German version of Dostoevsky’s classic
- The Animal Kingdom – a decent film version of the Philip Barry play with a solid performance from Leslie Howard
- The Mask of Fu Manchu – based on the 5th book in the Fu Manchu series by Sax Rohmer, this is the most famous of all the film adaptations, with Boris Karloff in his only appearance in the role – well-made for the most part, but painful in places where the racism shines through
- Strange Interlude – though Clark Gable and Norma Shearer were both talented, they were both miscast here in the adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s Pulitzer Prize winning play
- The Most Dangerous Game – adapted from the famous short story – not all that great a film, but it wasn’t all that great a story
- So Big – directed by William Wellman long before he would start earning Oscar nominations, this is a mediocre film, but then, even though it won the Pulitzer, it was a mediocre novel
- The Sin of Madelon Claudet – based on the play, notable only for the (undeserved) Oscar-winning performance from Helen Hayes
- The Smiling Lieutenant – adapted from the operetta and nominated for Best Picture, but for me at least, painful to watch – it is reviewed in full here, but it’s not a kind review
- Vanity Fair – one of the first starring performances from Myrna Loy, but not one of her best – not well-made