A gripping finale as he fades into the darkness.  "I steal!"

“I steal!”: A gripping finale as he fades into the darkness.

My Top 10:

  1. I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang
  2. The Invisible Man
  3. Design for Living
  4. Dinner at Eight
  5. Little Women
  6. Lady for a Day
  7. Marius
  8. Island of Lost Souls
  9. State Fair
  10. The Story of Temple Drake

Note:  We finally break out of the doldrums of the previous several years.  I not only have a full Top 10, but there are several films down at the end of the list that I also considered that didn’t make the Top 10.  There is actually a bit of a drop between #4 and #5 but it’s still a solid group of nominees, although we still don’t have a complete group of Comedy nominees, with only three comedies in the Top 10 and one more down at the end.

Oscar Nominees  (Best Adaptation):

  • Little Women
  • Lady for a Day
  • State Fair

Analysis:  Some kudos to the Writers Branch here.  While the Academy was giving Best Picture and Best Director to the relentlessly mediocre Cavalcade, the Writers Branch didn’t even bother to give it a nomination.  And while they didn’t go for any of the best scripts of the year (including the two great comedies adapted from plays that really remade them properly for the screen), they did at least pick three good scripts and gave the Oscar to the best of the three.

FCG Poster 3I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang

The Film:

I already reviewed this film once.  But let me stress how good the performance from Paul Muni is and how disturbing that final scene is, with him, frightened, desperate, slipping away into the darkness, and then those final words after all has gone to black: “I steal!”

The Source:

fugitivebookI Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang by Robert E. Burns  (1932)

This is not a great book and it was never going to be a great book.  It is a compelling timely book that exposed brutal conditions that too many people were either perfectly willing to ignore or actually endorse.  It was written by a man who literally was what the title says (this kind of title is designed to draw attention, but there’s not really a more apt title that they could have come up with) – a fugitive, on the run from a brutal state determined to draw its pound of flesh.  It was serialized first in “True Detective” magazine and then published as a book in early 1932.  It was a true sensation, a stark description of horrifying conditions and Warners was quick to seize on it and get a film made.  The film did just as good a job as the book of telling the story; better, perhaps, when you think of Muni’s performance, and it reached a wider audience.  The book had served its purpose and the film was helping to that end.

The Adaptation:

It takes 15 minutes of film time to get to the crime for which James Allen is sentenced to the chain gang, while it only takes three pages of the book (after the long introduction by Burns’ brother).  But from there on, until the end of the film, this film is pretty much what we read in the book, with a few key exceptions.

The first is the actual crime.  In the film, the crime happens before Allen is even aware it is happening, with just the one person with him (the actual criminal).  In real life (and the book), Burns was with two men and found out just beforehand – he tried to talk the leader out of it but ended up going along with it.  His second escape has also been greatly sensationalized in true Hollywood style.  The end is also different, if potentially no less bleak.  Rather than the gut-wrenching final line, we get a scene of Burns standing with his mother and his brother at his father’s grave after the funeral, not knowing if Georgia will ever manage to ruin his life again.

Overall, this is just about as good as we could have hoped for from a Hollywood production ripped straight from the headlines.  It tells the story with a sense of pathos as well as drama.  It makes use of the Introduction to help explain the story of Allen and how he was changed by the war and couldn’t get back into the world that he had been a part of before.

The Credits:

Directed by Mervyn LeRoy.  By Robert E. Burns.  Screen Play by Howard J. Green & Brown Holmes.  Uncredited writing from Sheridan Gibney.

the-invisible-man-movie-poster-1933-1020141475The Invisible Man

The Film:

In my previous year’s post I mentioned that James Whale has a better track record for directing Horror films than just about any other director.  This continues here (although, is The Invisible Man really a Horror film? Maybe more of a Sci-Fi film which gets pushed into Horror because it’s a James Whale film from Universal in this time period), complete with the Whale humor.  I had forgotten until I was starting this that I actually reviewed the film once already, over four years ago now, for my Great Director post for James Whale.

The Source:

invisiblemanThe Invisible Man by H. G. Wells  (1897)

I wonder these days how often people actually read H.G. Wells.  The same could be said of Jules Verne.  Not because they aren’t worth reading – they are both quite readable (Verne, especially).  They tell magnificent stories and they tell them well.  While both get classified as Science Fiction, Verne really did write Sci-Fi while Wells’ fiction was more a world of fantasy (Wells says as much in my omnibus: “As a matter of fact there is no literary resemblance whatever between the anticipatory inventions of the great Frenchman and these fantasies.”).  But both of them have had so many film adaptations, both of them have been ingested into Alan Moore’s magnificent League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and both of them have had so many books appear in comic book form or classics illustrated or the Moby Books Illustrated Classic Editions (which is where I first read Verne) that I wonder if people forget to read the actual source material.

That would be a shame in either case.  I have made clear in many places that I have a great fondness for the early genre works – for the great Victorian Horror novels, for the pulp fantasy and mysteries of the 20’s and 30’s, and of course for these first great Sci-Fi novels.  Because The War of the Worlds has such a Deus Ex Machina ending, this may be the best of Wells novels, the one that is easiest to read (see Island of Lost Souls, below, for more on that), yet with a great story and a great idea at the center of the story.

The Adaptation:

It would, in fact, be easy to tell if someone had actually read The Invisible Man (and the same test could be applied to Island of Dr. Moreau).  See if they know the romance story.  Because the romance story only exists in the film.  Indeed, except for the fact that in the film Griffin kills Kemp while in the book Kemp manages to get the crowd to help him in subduing (and killing) Griffin, the two are actually quite similar.  Except for that romance backstory.  (Well, there is also Thomas Marvel, the first visible sidekick that Griffin enlists, who is simply excised from the film).  In the film, they add the idea that Griffin is romantically involved with the daughter of his mentor.  This might seem like typical Hollywood filmmaking (for every mad scientist there always seems to be a long-suffering fiancee) but it actually works because of the other change.  In the book, Griffin is a rather amoral character (he robs his own father) but in the film it is the process and the chemicals involved that help turn Griffin mad.  This (combined with the wonderful voice of Claude Rains, with its immense dignity and presence) create sympathy for an otherwise unsympathetic character.  The romantic backstory only adds to that and we find ourselves actually rooting for a man who would wantonly kill without hesitation or even reason.  We can forgive this typical Hollywood change because it all ends up working for the best.

The Credits:

Directed by James Whale.  Screenplay by R. C. Sherriff.  The film is titled as H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man.  Uncredited writing from Preston Sturges and Philip Wylie.

designDesign for Living

The Film:

There is a wonderful moment late in Design for Living that perhaps sums up the entire film (start at the 1:25 point here).  Gilda flees from a party her husband (whose marriage to she has never consummated) is hosting to impress clients.  She runs up to her bed and falls on it in comic despair.  She curses the name of Egelbauer, the client from downstairs who means so much to her husband.  And then she hears it – a baritone singing “Egelbauer” followed by a quick “Egelbauer” from another voice.  She sits up, wondering where this is coming from.  And then, from behind a dressing screen rise two men, the men she really loves, the men she ran away from and into her silly marriage because she couldn’t decide between the two of them and having both was becoming too hurtful to all three.  She hasn’t seen them for over a year, not since before her marriage (in fact, it was their deliberately pitiful wedding gift that brought on the lack of any wedding night fireworks).  And after they see her, they drop down behind the screen again, and then rise again, having switched places.  It is a ridiculously silly scene, but also a delightful one.  After all, we may have been told (numerous times) by this point that “Immorality may be fun, but it isn’t fun enough to take the place of one hundred percent virtue and three square meals a day.” but when the immorality involved is a threesome between Miriam Hopkins, Fredric March and Gary Cooper, we’ll take the immorality any time.

Ernst Lubitsch was a major director for quite a while – through almost two full decades, first in Europe, and then in America.  His films were the darlings of the early Academy days (three Best Picture nominations in the first five years and eventually six overall).  And yet, for all of that, his best films were the ones that the Academy ignored.  The five films that I rank as his best (Design for Living, The Shop Around the Corner, To Be or Not to Be, Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, Trouble in Paradise) combined for only two Oscar nominations (Editing and Score for To Be).  If people are going to talk about the Lubitsch touch, about that European approach to love and sex, this is the kind of the film they should start with.  It’s a brilliant touch, that after Gilda’s husband (played so perfectly by the ever-suffering Edward Everett Horton) should come back in the room, that the two men should look at him, then walk over and duck back behind the dressing screen again, and when asked what they are doing there would insist that they are hiding from Egelbauer.

All of this flows so very well right from the start.  Gilda first meets the two men when they are asleep in a railroad compartment and she draws them.  Then they wake up and see her sleeping and look at her pictures and then they talk in French and she gives up and says “Nuts!”  And suddenly they’re all Americans on the lose in Paris, where anything can happen and what happens is a delightful romantic comedy that pushes the edges so much it’s almost easier to see from this film than from The Story of Temple Drake why the Code started to be enforced in ernest the next year.  Not because such a thing as a threesome should be portrayed on the screen.  But that it should be portrayed as such a wonderful good time.

cowardplaysThe Source:

Design for Living by Noël Coward  (1933)

Design for Living was written expressly for three people – Coward himself and the first couple of the stage, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne.  It is a play about three people who have great difficulty living together, but find, in the end, that they are utterly incapable of living apart.  “I’m not different from them,” Gilda says about her two men, Leo and Otto, at the end.  “We’re all of a piece, the three of us.  Those early years made us so.  From now on we shall have to live and die our own way.  No one else’s way is any good, we don’t fit.”  Over the course of the play they have come and gone in love, all three perhaps as equally in love with each of the other two.  And for a while, Gilda manages to escape the situation, to marry poor boring Ernest and getting herself away into “sanity” but that’s only another stage that isn’t as interesting and what she really wants is to be with these two men.  In the play, unlike in the film, we meet them already in the middle of their affairs.  But we step through many of the same stages – flitting from one to the other and trying to escape altogether, only to discover what they all really know – they desperately need each other, all three of them.

The Adaptation:

It’s perhaps summed up best in the Introduction to Volume III of Metheun’s Collected Plays of Noël Coward:

After the triumphant Broadway run, Noël rapidly sold the film rights in Design for Living to Paramount, who gave it to Ben Hecht to write and Ernst Lubitsch to direct, with a cast headed by Miriam Hopkins, Gary Cooper (in the Coward part) and Fredric March.  The result was successful but hugely unfaithful to Noël’s original, turning a sophisticated comedy into broad farce.  ‘I offer no apologies to Coward’ said Lubitsch, ‘who knows very well that no picture ever lives up to a play if filmed word for word.’  Hecht added that only one line of Noël’s was left in the screenplay and defied Noël to find it.  ‘I shall not,’ retorted Coward, ‘even bother to find the film.’

Now that may not be fair, as the film is a classic.  Did the filmmakers change much of the film?  Yes.  Did they take what was a rather cynical take on society and remake it into more of a screwball comedy, toning down the bisexual aspects?  Yes.  But did they also take a very risque play, one dealing with a lot of things that would be difficult to put on screen and make a great comedy out of it?  Yes.  Did they stick to many of the original concepts and plot points and to the core of the characters?  Yes.  Did they make a great film that lives up to the spirit of the play and and essentially come to the same ending point?  Yes.

The Credits:

Directed by Ernst Lubitsch.  Screen play by Ben Hecht.  The film is titled as Noel Coward’s Design for Living.  Uncredited writing from Sidney Hoffenstein.

dinner-at-eight-posterDinner at Eight

The Film:

In 1932, MGM released Grand Hotel, a film over-stuffed with stars, something MGM, a studio full of stars, could afford to do.  In spite of earning no other nominations it would go on to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards.  So, a year later, they did it again.  They took the same three lead actors (Wallace Beery and the two Barrymore brothers) and teamed them with some of their biggest actresses (this time it would be Marie Dressler, Jean Harlow and Billie Burke rather than Garbo and Crawford).  Instead of melodrama, they found some comedy gold with all of the actors hitting exactly all the right notes (and again, ironically, having the Barrymore in the smaller role give the better, more scene-stealing performance, though this time it would be John rather than Lionel).  And what would be MGM’s reward this time around?  Nothing.  Dinner at Eight would join The Invisible Man, Duck Soup and King Kong on the sidelines, failing to earn even a single nomination (and MGM would fail to win any Oscars for the only time between the start of the Oscars in 1928 and 1961).

And yet this film is so much better than Grand Hotel.  And that’s not to speak negatively of Grand Hotel, which is a very good film.  But Dinner at Eight is a great film and one which only gets better with repeated viewings.  It is good because it takes a class of people that I absolutely can’t stand (the idle rich) and not only skewers them (not mercilessly, but not with a great deal of mercy either) but also manages to humanize them.  This is what I can’t ever stand about Henry James novels – his desperate obsession with those idle travelers through Europe, never giving thought to holding an actual job; they are idolized in every page of his prose and yet they haven’t a trace of humanity.  The characters Kaufman and Ferber create are very alive, which is incredible given the horribly flat and shallow characters created by Ferber in her novel Cimarron.  Maybe it’s just that she needed Kaufman’s humor to bring life to her characters.

So who do we have on the screen?  First, there are the Jordans, poor Oliver (Lionel Barrymore), whose business is starting to fade fast and who is just hoping to go out with some grace and dignity and possibly even a little money, and the stress of all of that is quickly killing him.  Adding to his stress is his wife Millicent, so desperate to put on a dinner for the visiting Lord and Lady Ferncliffe.  She doesn’t realize how fast the money is fading and taking her husband with it.  She just wants to put on the best party ever and, played with great aplomb by Billie Burke, we both want to nurture and strangle her with every word she says.  There is also the daughter, Paula, who is having problems with her fiancee, but the main problem is that she’s in love with an actor whose fortunes, unlike the Jordans, have already faded far beyond recovery.  This actor, Larry Renault, is played by John Barrymore, putting his own reputation right on the screen and giving what may be the single best portrayal of an alcoholic before Ray Milland came along in The Lost Weekend.  His agent (played by Lee Tracy who was a minor star before his career was derailed and who is quite good here) knows how bad things really are – he tries to balance the need for truth in the situation and the need to keep his client hopeful.  And there is the other washed up performer – this one an actress, played with great aplomb by Marie Dressler.  She has a better size on what has happened in her life, and what is happening around her – she is trying to dump the stock her old flame Oliver has set her up with and hopes to both come out of okay financially and not damage Oliver’s mental health too much at a time when his physical health is a real concern.  She also witnesses a moment between Renault and Paula and tries to handle it with delicacy – with even more delicacy when more tragic events have intervened later in the film.  As played by Dressler (who gives the best performance in the film), she is probably the most caring person in the film, one who actually acts towards a number of other characters with tender care and affection.  Then there are the polar opposites – the Packards, a rather disgusting couple on their way up.  He’s a man whose financial fortunes are on the rise and who has no time for Oliver until he realizes he might have a chance to meet the Ferncliffes.  His wife is a platinum blonde social climber even more desperate to move up the ladder than he is and smarter than she looks, as she lets us all know in a calculated scene.  They’re played by Wallace Beery (who perfectly reigns in his excesses for once and gives the performance that is just right) and Jean Harlow (who shows some great comic timing and perfect line delivery).  All in all, it’s the same kind of star power as in Grand Hotel, but in a story that brings them together rather than showing how they are divided and one that allows their talents to play as much off each other as singularly.

kaufmanThe Source:

Dinner at Eight by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber  (1932)

Is this play a tragedy?  So many bad things happen to the people in it it begs that question (and though the death doesn’t come at the end, there is a death and there is only a potential shadow of a wedding in the future).  There isn’t much happiness in the future of any of these characters and not a whole lot of light in their current situations.

And yet, I sit here, reading the play while watching the film, comparing the two, and it’s printed in a wonderful Library of America volume called Broadway Comedies.  Maybe it’s that Kaufman, in plays like this and Stage Door could perfectly tinge what were at heart comedies with enough tragedy to make them poignant.  And the comedy here is different, both from traditional comedies, but even from a previous Kaufman comedy like Animal Crackers (which is in the same volume).  This isn’t funny because of brilliantly funny moments (though Millicent, in her utter hysteria, can be hilarious to watch).  It’s funny because of the tragedy, because of the satiric picture it paints of the upper class and the way the good things they have gotten used to are slipping away and how desperate they are to hold on to them (like Renault), go out gracefully (like Oliver) or move up (the Packards).  Some plays about the privileged upper class, like Holiday, don’t so well anymore, and certainly didn’t sit so well during the Depression.  But one like this, which shows the upper class struggling and shows how pathetically human they are, well, that played just fine.

The Adaptation:

You can read in some places about certain parts of the play that were changed, tailored to the casting of John Barrymore as Renault (it’s true the lines about the profiles were added for the film, but the line about the three wives is actually in the published play).  And there is an entire bit about the servants in the Jordan household and all the problems they are going through.  In the film we only get it as dialogue while the play actually showed us the ridiculous action (the film was wise to make this cut, with some economy of characters in a film already overloaded with the biggest stars that MGM could stick in a film).  There are also some actual plot changes – in the play Paula isn’t told about Renault’s death before the end of the play, whereas there is a touching scene in the film where Carlotta imparts this information and urges Paula to make a good choice.

But the key difference between the play and the film is a brilliant one.  The play ends with a sense of tragedy – with Paula off to try to and meet her destiny, with the disastrous dinner about to begin.  There is not much of a sense of friendliness.  But here, Hollywood lightens things up, and for once it’s the right move.  We get the easy let down for Carlotta for selling her stock, we get the Packards going easy on Oliver.  We get Paula hopefully making a better choice for her future.  And instead of those lines from Kitty and Carlotta about what time people eat, we end with one of the most brilliant exchanges in film history, complete with what may be the single greatest reaction in film history.

The Credits:

Directed by George Cukor.    Screenplay by Frances Marion and Herman J. Mankiewicz.  Additional dialogue by Donald Ogden Stewart.  From the play by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber.

littlewomenLittle Women

The Film:

I have already reviewed the film once here.  In it, I discussed the saccharine sweetness of the film, which seemed even more potent this time around.  It’s interesting that the female director (Gillian Armstrong) who would tackle the film in 1994 would get away from that.

The Source:

littlewomenpenguinLittle Women by Louisa May Alcott  (1868/1869)

I have a co-worker who tells me I can’t understand Twilight because I was never a 13 year old girl.  I think that’s a load of crap – Twilight is crap no matter what and it’s quality is unconnected to what 13 year old girls may feel about it.  Now, on the other hand, I will readily admit that perhaps I can not manage to complete Little Women because I was never a 13 year old girl.  It falls into the same category that the novels of Jane Austen and Henry James do – completely unreadable to me, yet admired for the films that are adapted from them.  Yet, when I get to a line like “Gardening, walks, rows on the river and flower-hunts employed the fine days; and for rainy ones, they had house diversions” I know I just can’t get through it.  I am reminded of my friend Brett in college, who, when we were assigned to read Middlemarch, would later say “Once I got to the three page description of jewelry I knew I would never finish it.”  Although, to be fair to Ms. Alcott (who wrote the book just a few miles up the road), I have as much trouble at finishing most of 19th Century American Literature, so it’s not just about it being a book mainly for females.

The Adaptation:

Well, the novel is clearly cut down considerably, with over 400 pages crammed into just under two hours.  And for someone who has never finished the book, it’s easier to look at it in comparison with the 1994 film, which gives us more of what is going on in the war and more of the heartbreak in the relationships (especially Laurie’s one-sided love for Jo).  I will mention the beginning though: one of the things this film does, as I mention in my review, is open slowly, with the first 30 minutes devoted to giving a bit to each sister in turn.  And compare that to the novel, where the novel opens with four short paragraphs, each one with a line of dialogue from a different sister.  We get them all together, in discussion, to begin the novel.  It allows us to slip straight into their story instead of feeling the need to drag it out a bit, making certain we know who each one is.

The Credits:

Directed by  George Cukor.  By Louisa M. Alcott.  Screen Play by Sarah Y. Mason & Victor Heerman.  Uncredited contributing writing from Del Andrews, Alfred Block, Charles Brackett, Salisbury Field, David Hempstead, Jane Murfin, G.B. Stern, Wanda Tuchock and John Twist.

lady_for_a_day_xlgLady for a Day

The Film:

I have already reviewed the film once here.  But one thing I didn’t address in that review is that this film isn’t as good as a lot of Capra films and there’s a good reason.  Clark Gable.  Gary Cooper.  Jimmy Stewart.  Cary Grant.  Those are stars of the later, better Capra comedies.  And this one?  Well, it’s Warren William, an actor who, the more I watch him, the less I like him.  Since he’s Dave the Dude, the key role in the film, it’s hard to get past that.  But at least there is Ned Sparks, who is so wonderfully sardonic in all his roles, and especially here as the Duke’s right-hand man.

The Source:

guysanddolls“Madame La Gimp” by Damon Runyon  (1929)

Later collected in Guys and Dolls, his stories of Broadway, this 13 page story by Damon Runyon was one of the first that would later make him such a household name.  It basically consists of two parts.  The first is when the narrator is stopped by Dave the Dude, who has been talking to Madame La Gimp and has learned her situation (daughter raised elsewhere coming for a visit, thinks her mother is well-off and living in a ritzy hotel).  Then there is the solution, of the party in the hotel that the Dude manages to pull off (complete with the young couple eloping at the end).  That’s it – a pretty cute little succinct story that works in well with the rest of Runyon’s stories.

The Adaptation:

So how do you make a 13 page story into a 96 minute film?  Well, for the most part, a lot of it is right there.  Just, instead of getting it all as quick dialogue, you spread it out.  First you establish the characters of Dave the Dude and Apple Annie (changed from the story, yes, but would you really want to have Madame La Gimp as your key character?).  Then you get the story out, though slowly.  And then you slowly gather everything together for the solution, including the complications of trying to pull off such a scheme.  There is one thing thrown in just for the film – the kidnapping of the reporters that also leads into the breakneck finale.  But really, making it a bit Hollywood is not only to be expected, but is necessary in order to give the film enough weight and a long enough running time.  And it does give it a nice kick for an ending, through its shear audacity and really brings the humor to the forefront for the ending to counterpoint what would eventually be established as Capracorn.

The Credits:

Directed by Frank Capra.  Screen Play and Dialogue by Robert Riskin.  From the story by Damon Runyon (the credits do not mention the name of the story).


The Film:

If you have seen the Best Picture-nominated 1961 film Fanny, which is a pretty good film, you get a complete story – the love of Fanny for Marius, his departure, her choices after he leaves and what unfolds as time goes on.  That film feels like it tells a complete story in 134 minutes.  And yet, here is the original Marius, the first of a trilogy of plays (and films), clocking in at 120 minutes and only getting a third of the way through the story.  Does watching Fanny make Marius seems too long and drawn out?  No.  Does watching the trilogy make Fanny seem truncated?  A bit, but not as much as it could have been.

Credit must be given where credit is due on this film.  This film feels like a play, in the way it develops the characters, in the way we carry from scene to scene, in the very structure of the film, with the rising action and falling action and especially the climax.  But it never looks like a play.  We move in and out of the buildings and lives of Marseille, watching the young Fanny, so desperately in love with Marius, who is only desperately in love with going to sea.  Oh, sure, he cares for Fanny and they have long been attracted to each other.  But not enough to keep him home and it his desire to go away and Fanny’s desire to give him what he wants that will lead to the climax of the film.  These three plays are named for a reason and this is Marius because it is Marius’ need to escape that is the key to the film.

But also key to the film is the performance of Orane Demazis.  While Pierre Fresnay is well cast as the young, impetuous Marius and Raimu is perfect as Cesar, Marius’ disapproving father, it is Demazis’ performance that is the linchpin to all three films, and it all begins here, with every look she throws at Marius, the way she will distract his father so he can run off to sea (and, it turns, leave her pregnant).

mariusbookThe Source:

Marius by Marcel Pagnol  (1929)

I didn’t get a chance to read Marius because, in spite of two ILL requests for an English edition, I got a French edition both times.  I suppose I could have than compared the play to the actual film rather than the subtitles, but since I don’t understand French, trying to both read and listen to a Foreign language seemed too much.  But, having seen the film (which Pagnol wrote) and having read other Pagnol works, I’m fairly confident in saying it’s pretty good.

The Adaptation:

As I mentioned, I can’t really compare.  But since Pagnol here is a rare early example of someone adapting their own work for the screen, I think we can say that what was changed (if anything) was changed because Pagnol felt it would work better on screen.  Indeed, when we get to the third film in the trilogy it was being directed as well as written by Pagnol, so he had complete control.

The Credits:

Directed by Alexander Korda.  De Marcel Pagnol.

islandoflostsoulsIsland of Lost Souls

The Film:

Is this the safer side of Freaks?  How interesting that Universal would become the undisputed master producer of Horror films in the early 1930’s, and yet the two most disturbing films, the ones that actually got banned in more than a few places, the ones that can still cause people to cringe, were actually made by MGM and Paramount.  Maybe in their desperation to compete with Universal in the genre they just went too far?

Island of Lost Souls doesn’t freak people out today the same way that Freaks still does.  The parts of it that were so objectionable – the vivisections, the thought that Moreau is actually playing god (and saying it out loud) – those aren’t so objectionable anymore, or at least not objectionable enough that they shock.  So, today, we can look at the film for what it is rather than how it makes people react.

I could say that Island of Lost Souls is good enough and important enough in film history to earn a Criterion release on DVD, although, in all fairness, so did Armageddon.  Unlike the Universal Horror films, it abandons the humanity of almost everyone involved in the film.  Indeed, it is the attempt to create humanity out of animals that helps lead Moreau out of his own humanity and when he is brutally cut down by his own creations the only reason anyone might be upset is because Charles Laughton has done such a masterful job at playing such an amoral human being that we are sorry to see his performance gone, though the movie ends almost immediately afterwards, so we aren’t forced to rely on anyone else (that’s a relief as no one in the film other than Laughton is very good).

It is the combination of Laughton’s performance and the disturbing subject matter of the film that really make it worth seeing.  Well, that and two other things – the good cinematography from Karl Struss (who won the first Oscar in the category for Sunrise) and the really good makeup from Wally Westmore, the same Paramount makeup artist who had so magnificently transformed Jekyll into Hyde the year before.

moreausignetThe Source:

The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells  (1896)

The Island of Dr. Moreau is an exercise in youthful blasphemy.  Now and then, though I rarely admit it, the universe projects itself towards me in a hideous grimace.  It grimaced that time, and I did my best to express my vision of the aimless torture in creation.”  That’s Wells himself, in an introduction to a single bound volume of seven novels, reprinted by Crown in 1979 as The Complete Science Fiction Treasure of H.G. Wells, which I think used to be my brother’s.  He also objects to the fact that the volume is chronological and thus begins with The Time Machine (“a little bit stiff about the fourth dimension”) and Moreau (“rather painful” he calls it) rather than The Invisible Man or The War of the Worlds.  He has some good points there – the latter two novels are better books and easier to read.

Moreau is really more a philosophy treatise than a novel, because there isn’t really anything in the manner of a plot.  Oh, yes, there is a man who is shipwrecked on Moreau’s island, who bears witness to what Moreau has created on the island.  He is eventually rescued (“It is strange, but I felt no desire to return to mankind.  I was only glad to be quit of the foulness of the Beast Monsters.”), though, like Gulliver, is never quite able to adapt to the world he has returned to.  But beyond that, there isn’t much to the actual story itself.  Moreau dies, but in an encounter with one of his created creatures, not because they rise up against him.  It is a dense story for how short it is.

The Adaptation:

H.G. Wells was reportedly unhappy with this film version of his novel and it’s not hard to see why (though my Wells introduction is from 1934, it doesn’t mention the film).  His story, as I mentioned, is more along the lines of philosophy.  His Moreau meets his death in a manner that is reminiscent of Jurassic Park – chaos theory will eventually cause things to break down.  It is not because of a conscious violent decision that Moreau makes to further his experiments, like it is in the film.  In fact, that decision is made in the film because of the presence of a woman – Edward Parker’s fiancee, who has come to try to rescue him.  But the fiancee, and indeed, the famous Panther Woman of the film, are both inventions of the filmmakers.  There were no female characters in the original story because the sexual tension wasn’t relevant to the story.

On the other hand, the film might be memorable in a way that the story isn’t.  Perhaps it’s the accessibility and the length.  Moreau isn’t a very long story, but it is a bit of a slog to get through (the first few times I tried reading it, back when the awful 1996 film came out, I couldn’t do it, even though it’s less than 100 pages).  But the film is short and feels even shorter, quick-moving, keeping the tension building with every new development.  It’s not a great film by any means – the direction is solid but not great and the acting outside of Laughton isn’t very good.  But it gives a thrilling story and it does it with a sense of style and that’s actually more than the original story offers.

The Credits:

Directed by Erle C. Kenton.  Screen Play by Waldemar Young and Philip Wylie.  From a novel by H.G. Wells.

statefairState Fair

The Film:

I reviewed this film once already here.  I pointed out then that it is one of the hardest to get hold of out of all the Best Picture nominees.  To be able to watch it I ended up buying a copy online.  Given that it’s a pretty good film, it’s really hard to conceive of why this isn’t available.  Maybe because of the ready availability of the later two versions?  But since they’re not as good, I still don’t understand it.

The Source:

statefairsignetState Fair by Phil Stong  (1932)

The current in-print version of State Fair runs 266 pages.  Why?  Is it to make seem a bit more substantial?  Given the generous margins, I’m guessing that the Signet version probably runs less than 200, maybe even closer to 150.  It’s okay to be a short novel, though clearly the University of Iowa Press doesn’t seem to think so.

This is a good short little novel about the Frake family.  In some ways, it is almost the exact opposite of the Runyon stories.  The Runyon stories deal with outlandish characters, just this short of caricature.  These characters seem like they could walk straight off the stage and into an actual Iowa State Fair.  And instead of the craziness of Manhattan, they’re alive in the heartland, living their lives, bringing their pigs to the fair and falling in love.

The Adaptation:

If you watch the film and read the book, so much of it comes vividly to life on the screen.  Will Rogers is exactly what you would expect as Abel Frake, the nice farmer out to win the prize for his magnificent pig.  Janet Gaynor is perfectly cast as Margy, the smalltown girl.  When we read a line like “Then young man looked at her curiously.  Then abruptly he seized her about the shoulders, pulled over to him and buried her face in his coat lapel, which smelled pleasantly of lavender and tobacco smoke.” and then watch the actual roller coaster scene, it’s like it leapt off the page.  And we root for her and Lew Ayres, the nice young newspaper reporter to find love for the same reason that we do in the book – they’re a couple of nice young people and they deserve the happiness they seem to be finding in each other.

The Credits:

Directed by Henry King (not credited as director – film titled as Henry King’s Production of State Fair).  Screen Play by Sonya Levien and Paul Green.  Novel by Philip Stong.  Uncredited contributing writing from Frank Craven (who also played the Storekeeper), Julien Josephson, Philip Stong and Henry Wales.

templedrakeThe Story of Temple Drake

The Film:

I have actually reviewed this film twice before.  The first time, as an overlooked film, which, because it was discovered by the Mythical Monkey, opened up my readership and opened me to a great site.  That was picked up because there are only 14 reviews of this film on the IMDb and two of them are mine.  The second one was during my review of the book, so see below for that.

The Source:

sanctuarySanctuary by William Faulkner  (1931)

As noted above, I have actually already reviewed the book here, where I also reviewed the film for a second time.  I should point out that I reviewed the book as one of the Top 100 Novels of All-Time.  You can also find out more about the book and various editions of it here.

The Adaptation:

In the second review, I specifically addressed the adaptation of the novel into the film, so see that second review for this.

The Credits:

Directed by Stephen Roberts.  Screen play by Oliver H.P. Garrett.  From a novel by William Faulkner.  Uncredited writing by Maurine Dallas Watkins.

Under Nighthawk Award Consideration (in descending order of how good they are):

note:  These are the films where I actually gave the script some points, as opposed to the films on the lower list who are just noteworthy films that are adapted whose scripts I did not consider good enough to consider them for my awards.

  • Picture Snatcher  –  A very good James Cagney film, as a con turned tabloid photographer, adapted from a story by Daniel Ahern.
  • Trouble in Paradise  –  1931-32 was the year of Boris Karloff – he starred in four of my Top 10 Adapted Screenplays.  Here, it’s Miriam Hopkins.  She’s got the lead role in Design for Living and the title role in The Story of Temple Drake, both in the Top 10, and also is the female lead here, in a film adapted from the play.
  • Berkeley Square  –  Leslie Howard was Oscar-nominated for his performance in this film, adapted by John Balderston from his own play.  It’s very hard to find these days, so see it if you get a chance.
  • Number 17  –  One of Hitchcock’s least known films, adapted from the play.
  • When Ladies Meet  –  A solid film from one of the worst directors ever nominated for an Oscar (Harry Beaumont, director of The Broadway Melody), adapted from the play.
  • A Farewell to Arms  –  You can read my review here.  A solid adaptation of one of Hemingway’s best novels (which made my second 100).

Other Noteworthy Adaptations (in descending order of how good they are):

  • Mädchen in Uniform  –  A classic Lesbian film, though not a great one, adapted from the play Gestern und heute.
  • Rain  –  Not as good as Sadie Thompson, adapted from the same Maugham story, partially because the script and direction aren’t as good, and partially because Crawford’s not as good as Swanson.
  • Today We Live  –  Two Faulkner adaptations in one year.  There won’t be another for a long time.  This is from his story “Turnabout”.
  • Don Quichotte  –  G.W. Pabst takes on Cervantes.  A good film, but nothing more.
  • Smilin’ Through  –  Reviewed here, this Best Picture nominee was based on the play by Jane Cowl and Jane Murfin.
  • The Emperor Jones  –  Paul Robeson stars as the lead in the adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s play.
  • The Son of Kong  –  Though this is decent entertainment, this is really here to point out something.  The way Academy rules are written, at least currently, characters that already exist, even if they were created for the screen, constitute an adapted screenplay.  So here, with characters created for King Kong, which was an original screenplay (and released less than 10 months before – they knew how to get things made back then), this is technically an adapted screenplay.
  • Alice in Wonderland  –  Only interesting for the sheer star power (Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, W.C. Fields, Edward Everett Horton).  Rather mediocre as a film.  The first feature length version of the two Carroll books.
  • Ann Vickers  –  A mediocre adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’ novel, which isn’t one of his best novels.
  • Cavalcade  –  The Best Picture winner, this mediocre film based on the Noël Coward play has aged very badly.  I reviewed it here.
  • Christopher Strong  –  A completely ridiculous film, adapted from the novel by Gilbert Frankau, with mediocre performances from Katharine Hepburn and Colin Clive.  An early pseudo-feminist film (for the strength of Hepburn’s character – a pilot) completely undone by the stupid ending.  It also has the ridiculous moth costume.
  • 42nd Street  –  I never liked this film, in spite of its status as a “classic.”  Having finally seen Footlight Parade, from the same studio and director in the same year, and a vastly better film in every way, I am even more irritated that this is viewed as a classic and was nominated for Best Picture.  My review is here.  It’s based on a novel by Bradford Ropes.
  • Morning Glory  –  A pretty bad film, adapted from the pay by Zoe Akins.  It is only salvaged by Katharine Hepburn’s Oscar-winning performance.  She is the only Best Actress winner between 1928 and 1939 that I agree with completely.
  • Oliver Twist  –  I have seen 125 films from 1932-33 and the only one worse than this is The Vampire Bat.  When people talk about terrible child performances that sink a film, this is the perfect example.  Dickie Moore is so appallingly bad as Oliver that you actually find yourself rooting for Bill Sikes.