"I made myself comfortable on the living-room sofe.  We had the afternoon papers sent up.  Morelli, it seemed, had shot me - twice for one of the papers and three times for another - when I tried to arrest him for Julia Wolf's murder, and I was too near death to see anybody or to be moved to a hospital."  The Thin Man, p 38.

“I made myself comfortable on the living-room sofa. We had the afternoon papers sent up. Morelli, it seemed, had shot me – twice for one of the papers and three times for another – when I tried to arrest him for Julia Wolf’s murder, and I was too near death to see anybody or to be moved to a hospital.” The Thin Man, p 38.

My Top 7:

  1. The Thin Man
  2. It Happened One Night
  3. Vampyr
  4. The Gay Divorcee
  5. Of Human Bondage
  6. Death Takes a Holiday
  7. Twentieth Century

Note:  Only seven?  Yes, only seven.  I’ve seen 79 films from 1934, at least 30 of which were adapted.  But many of them don’t rise above the mundane and some of them are just downright bad.  A list of notable films that didn’t make the grade are down at the bottom, as usual.  And really, this year is all about three films, one of which (Vampyr) is questionable as to whether it belongs here (records of its first U.S. screenings are sketchy).

Oscar Nominees  (Best Adaptation):

  • It Happened One Night
  • The Thin Man
  • Viva Villa

Analysis:  So, let’s hear it for the Academy for at least nominating those two big films and giving the Oscar to one of them, a very deserving Oscar, even if I would have gone with the other choice.  But how about that third choice?  Well, it’s simply an awful choice – a bad film that is badly written, showing all the wrong things that Hollywood can do with a biopic, even if it is one written by Ben Hecht.

thinmanThe Thin Man

The Film:

I have already reviewed this film once, in which I rated it as the best film of 1934.

thinmanvintageThe Source:

The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett  (1934)

When I talk about Great Reads, I am talking about a couple of different things.  The first is the quality of the book.  Several of the books that I have put in the Great Read series aren’t as well written – certainly not well enough to make it into the Top 200 Novels.  But they are usually fairly well written, sometimes very well written.  The second part is the readability of the book.  That’s something I really focus on – especially genre books that you can just sink into and that leave you with a smile or a chill or something else in your spine.

The Thin Man is a perfect example of both of these and belongs in the Great Reads series and I’ll mention that to the idiot that writes those pieces.  It is a well written detective novel, similar in manner to the earlier Hammett novels, the great hardboiled mysteries The Maltese Falcon and Red Harvest.  But it also has another special touch to it, something that Chandler and Cain and Thompson were never quite able to bring to their hard-boiled novels.  It’s genuinely funny.  Which makes it all the more readable, just a quick couple of hundred pages in the voice of one of the most entertaining detectives to ever grace page or screen: Nick Charles.

The Adaptation:

If you watch the film and see how little Nick and Nora Charles are in the first half-hour of the film, you’d be surprised to then go to the book and discover that it’s actually written in the first person.  I strongly suspect that Gone with the Wind changed things for how Hollywood adapted novels.  With the overwhelming popularity of Mitchell’s novel, followed by the madhouse of publicity that followed every aspect of making that film, suddenly writers had to pay attention to certain things.  These were now books that had seriously devoted followings and if they suddenly found their favorite parts either altered or left out altogether they were going to make their displeasure known in the way most likely to hit at Hollywood producers – by not seeing the film.  But before that, they could pretty much do what they wanted.

But here’s the thing.  They really did a pretty damn good job with this book.  Granted, it was all right there on the page to begin with (although that hadn’ t stopped people in the past – there would be two terrible versions of Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon before the classic 1941 version that would stick fairly close to the book).  Right there on page 5, after Dorothy Wynant walks away?  Nora asks Nick if he has types.  “Only you, darling – lanky brunettes with wicked jaws.”  Of course, who knew at that time that Myrna Loy would step right into that description, but the line carried over perfectly.  And it continues, right on to the end, when Nick punches Macaulay and says to Guild “What do you want me to do?  Put him in cellophane for you?”  I could quote either the book or the film – they both have the same line.

Of course, it’s not all a perfect move from page to screen.  Some of the story is made less complicated in the film and the early parts of the film are only described later (and somewhat differently) whereas the film spells them out for us.  And sometimes Hackett and Goodrich, knowing the actors they had to work with, spiced things up (after Nick has been shot and the police find the gun, Nick is asked “You’ve heard about the Sullivan Act?” – in the book he simply says “Yes.” but in the film, Nora brilliantly remarks “Oh, that’s all right.  We’re married.”).  They took a great read and at times they even, amazingly, made it better.

The Credits:

Directed by W. S. Van Dyke.  Screen Play by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich.  From the Novel by Dashiell Hammett.

It-Happened-One-Night-Promotional-Poster-it-happened-one-night-15327799-2246-1800It Happened One Night

The Film:

I have already reviewed this film once.

night_busThe Source:

“Night Bus” by Samuel Hopkins Adams  (1933)

There is a useful book called No, But I Saw the Movie: The Best Short Stories Ever Made Into Film.  It contains 18 short stories, mostly written by lesser known authors (though there are a few big ones in there – Stevenson, du Maurier, Runyon, Clarke).  The list includes two Best Picture winners, three other Best Picture nominees and an astounding five films that were nominated for Best Director (though not Picture).  I will need to return to this book a number of times over the course of this project, but I begin with it here because it has “Night Bus”, the rather unassuming 55 page short story that would be forever forgotten in spite of being the inspiration for the classic It Happened One Night.

“Night Bus” is a perfectly charming enough story.  It tells the story of Peter and Elsie, the couple stranded together, her by a refusal to see the world as it is (“You haven’t happened to hear of a thing called unemployment, have you?” he asks and she replies “Oh, that’s just socialistic talk.  There are plenty of jobs for people who really want to work.”) and him by a refusal to see her tossed to the wolves in the world that she clearly doesn’t understand.  Over the course of the story we see much that is familiar to us from the film (because, really, what are the odds that anyone has read this story and not seen the film – how could that even be possible at this point?), a lot of lines that sound like they come straight from Gable and Colbert because they do, eventually.  It heads right to the same conclusion we know it must fine, although is slightly different along the way.

The Adaptation:

From the point where Peter Warner meets Ellie (a name slightly altered), her slipping past him into his seat as he tosses papers out the window, much of the film follows along precisely with the original story, right down to the individual lines of dialogue.  It’s the things on the outer edges that are a bit different.  The key difference in style is that in the film we know exactly who Ellie is right from the start, watching her flee from her father.  The story itself actually begins with Peter and we don’t meet her until she shows up on the bus and we only very slowly learn who she is and what her story is, revealed to us as it is to him.  And that’s where the other big difference is – in the story, Warne’s just a guy trying to find his way, rather than a newspaperman.  So he doesn’t catch on to who she is quite so early and he doesn’t have any ulterior plan over what to do about it (which is where the screwball comes in more to the film – that he has that motive, which is absent in the story).  But, those things aside, really the film is just a masterful performance of the book.  If the story doesn’t leap off the page, well, it doesn’t have Gable and Colbert saying those lines and falling so clearly in love right in front of our eyes, and it does lack one of the best lines, when Peter is asked if he loves her.  In the story, he breaks down pretty quickly, at first saying “God forbid,” but then relenting, saying “I am, too.  I have been from the first.”  But in the film we get that great moment of Gable arguing with her father:

Alexander Andrews:  Oh, er, do you mind if I ask you a question, frankly?  Do you love my daughter?
Peter Warne: Any guy that’d fall in love with your daughter ought to have his head examined.
Alexander Andrews: Now that’s an evasion!
Peter Warne: She picked herself a perfect running mate – King Westley – the pill of the century! What she needs is a guy that’d take a sock at her once a day, whether it’s coming to her or not. If you had half the brains you’re supposed to have, you’d done it yourself, long ago.
Alexander Andrews: Do you love her?
Peter Warne: A normal human being couldn’t live under the same roof with her without going nutty! She’s my idea of nothing!
Alexander Andrews: I asked you a simple question! Do you love her?
Peter Warne: YES! But don’t hold that against me, I’m a little screwy myself!

The Credits:

Directed by Frank Capra.  Screen Play by Robert Riskin.  Based on the Short Story by Samuel Hopkins Adams.

vampyrposterVampyr: Der Traum des Allen Grey

The Film:

Vampyr was made after the advent of sound but it didn’t need to have been.  Is that because it was made to be presented in several different languages (French, German and English)?  Or is it because of the dream-like quality that director Carl Th. Dreyer brought to the entire production.  Dreyer has long been hailed as one of the greats of international cinema for films such as The Passion of Joan of Arc, Day of Wrath, Ordet and Gertrud.  All of his films are good or even better, but this is the only I find to be truly great.  There is a sense of atmosphere here that prevails over the entire film – a lot of German Expressionism floating over the Danish director.

There is a lot of Nosferatu in this film – the atmosphere that Murnau produced in that film and the weird dream-like way in which characters move through the (supposedly) waking world (helped immensely by the dream-like quality of the cinematography, a far cry from realism).  The irony here is that this isn’t based on Stoker – it’s based on a longer story from Sheridan Le Fanu, an Irish writer who pre-dated (and almost certainly influenced) Stoker.  As I said, this is a sound film, but there isn’t much more spoken dialogue here than there was in Nosferatu.  While this helped the complicated production it also seems to be an artistic decision and helps add to the atmosphere.  In fact, the film doesn’t actually need any dialogue and rarely even needs to tell us what is happening.  If sometimes we might be confused by this story of the man Allen Grey (oddly changed to David Gray because of an error in the German version – thus the poster), who comes to a castle in a French town only to discover a complicated mystery – a murder, combined with the hold a vampire has over a woman that Grey meets.

We get strange scenes that make no sense and make perfect sense all at once.  There is a dream sequence where Grey sees himself, dead.  There is a moment where Grey must assist in the exhumation of the vampire and help end its undead life (with a great transformation from tissue to bone as the moment happens and the stake is driven home).  And we get a final death scene for one of the characters that happens so carefully that it seems like it might also be just a dream.  In fact, when you finish the film you wonder how much has really happened, a horrible dream that has gone awry, only to realize what an artistic vision of a horror film it was.

inaglassdarklyThe Source:

Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu  (1871-72 – originally published serially in late 1871, early 1872, then had a Prologue added to fit it with the rest of the tales in the collection In a Glass Darkly when it was published in 1872)

I have a very nice collection called Tales Before Tolkien.  It’s a great collection, showcasing a number of fantasy stories that pre-date the publication of The Hobbit, some of which Tolkien definitely read and some of which he might have read.  It’s a reminder that while modern fantasy may owe a massive debt to Tolkien, fantasy did not spring forth from those first words “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”  And so it is with Horror fiction as well, or more specifically, Vampire fiction.  Dracula may be the primary source, the well which people return to for a drink of the process, just like Tolkien is for fantasy, but there is a deeper spring that fed that well and part of that is the work of Sheridan Le Fanu.  Le Fanu, like Stoker, was an Irish writer and he definitely had an influence on Stoker and some of that influence comes from the long story Carmilla, which would be included (with an introduction to make it fit the other stories) in the collection In a Glass Darkly, the cases collected by a Dr Martin Hesselius, “a physician interested in ‘metaphysical’ medicine”, a precursor of Stoker’s Van Helsing.

All of the stories in Darkly are worth reading, a nice example of Horror in a state before the Stoker influence came to bear.  But while the supernatural elements of the other stories in the collection are interesting, it is Carmilla that has really been remembered over the years, partially because of Vampyr (and other film versions, notably Hammer’s The Vampire Lovers, a more faithful adaptation that isn’t nearly as good but is much more sexy) and partially because it was a key part of the road that lead to Dracula and partially because it’s a really fascinating story on its own right.  In fact, Carmilla, with its lesbian overtones is perhaps more influential on modern vampire fiction in some ways than Dracula is.  With lines like “Her looks lost nothing in daylight – she was certainly the most beautiful creature I had ever seen, and the unpleasant remembrance of the face presented in my early dream, had lost the effect of the first unexpected recognition,” we can see the hints of attraction, but with lines like “Sometimes after an hour of apathy, my strange and beautiful companion would take my hand and hold it with a fond pressure, renewed again and again; blushing softly, gazing in my face with languid and burning eyes, and breathing so fast that he dress rose and fell with the tumultuous respiration” we are in a different world altogether and with “At the same time a light unexpectedly sprang up, and I saw Carmilla, standing, near the foot of my bed, in her white nightdress, bathed, from her chin to her feet, in one great stain of blood.”

I don’t want to give away the whole story of Carmilla (the Internet can do that if you determined not to read the story, which in the Oxford World’s Classic only runs 77 pages).  But it runs across multiple victims, across centuries, with a ruined castle, with a dark history and with blood and passion.  Dracula may still be the best of all vampire stories, but it isn’t the beginning and a story like this is a great reminder of where the power of Stoker’s story would spring from.

The Adaptation:

As is noted below, the credits for Vampyr don’t actually mention Carmilla itself.  They, instead, mention In a Glass Darkly.  That’s because while some basic premises for the film (the idea of a vampire, the hold the vampire seems to have over the house, the staking) come directly from Carmilla, there is much that is vastly different.  Indeed, the central character in Vampyr is Allen Grey, an adventurer.  Grey is derived more from Doctor Hesselius, the Van Helsing-like character who is the linking part of the five stories in Darkly.  However, only one of those stories, “Green Tea” has Hesselius as a character; for the rest of them, when they were brought together for the collection they had prologues added with notes from Hesselius as if he had collected them, taking these supernatural stories and giving them a link.  There is no character even close to the Grey character in Carmilla.  What the film really does is take the basic idea and then expand on it from that (toning down the lesbian overtones which would be played up prominently in future adaptations).

The Credits:

Directed by Carl Th. Dreyer.  Screenplay: Christen Jul and Carl Th. Dreyer.  That’s as much as I can faithfully do with the credits.  The print that I watched, with English language titles (the Image Entertainment DVD) didn’t even list Dreyer as the director and listed no writing credit beyond the screenplay.  Online I found a print with titles in German, which did list Dreyer as director but no book credit.  Then I also found a print with titles in French which has Dreyer as director and also has a credit “Frei nach dem Roman “In a glass darkly” von J. Sheridan Le Fanu” (interesting that they didn’t translate the title of the book).  This last credit resembles that on the book of the Image DVD case: “based on story from IN A GLASS DARKLY by JOSEPH SHERIDAN LE FANU”.  Nothing seems to specifically mention Carmilla.

Poster - Gay Divorcee, The_04The Gay Divorcee

The Film:

I have already reviewed this film once.  I am a big fan of it, and in fact, I think it is the best of all the Astaire-Rogers musicals (which Top Hat devotees will not be pleased about, but I think the interplay with Alice Brady, the only key element missing from the latter film that is in this one, is such a big part of the film’s success).

The Source:

The Gay Divorce by Dwight Taylor  (1932)

The original play The Gay Divorce wasn’t a musical at first.  It was an unproduced play by J. Hartley Manners (called An Adorable Adventure according to the IMDb, though I haven’t seen that elsewhere), written, clearly, some time prior to his death in 1928.  Then the book is credited to Dwight Taylor and the adaptation of the book by Kenneth Webb and Samuel Hoffenstein.  Usually that would mean Webb and Hoffenstein did the songs, but since Cole Porter wrote the songs, this series of credits isn’t quite clear on how exactly The Gay Divorce made it to the stage in November of 1932.  What’s more, since I wasn’t able to get hold of a copy to read it, I’m not entirely certain what was in the original play and what was new for the film.  We do know that most of the Cole Porter songs in the original play were dropped from the film, although “Night and Day” was (wisely) kept.

The Adaptation:

As I mentioned above, most of the Cole Porter songs were dropped when the play was adapted into the film.  Whoever at RKO thought, “I know what this musical needs – less Cole Porter!” was clearly an idiot, but the film still works marvelously (it doesn’t hurt that one of the songs added to the film was “The Continental”, the song that would go on to be the first ever winner of the Best Original Song category at the Oscars).  The other really big difference, as should be clear, is the title.  As the play came to Hollywood just as the Code started to be enforced, the Hays Office decided to flex a little muscle over the title.  They decided that it would be inappropriate for such a serious thing as a divorce to be considered gay, so they made them alter the title just a little.

The Credits:

Directed by Mark Sandrich.  From “The Gay Divorce”.  Book by Dwight Taylor.   Musical Adaptation by Kenneth Webb and Samuel Hoffenstein.  Screen Play by George Marion, Jr., Dorothy Yost, Edward Kaufman.  The uncredited writing comes from Robert Benchley, H.W. Hanemann and Stanley Rauh (contributors to dialogue).

Of_Human_Bondage_PosterOf Human Bondage

The Film:

In the mid 30’s, Leslie Howard and Bette Davis, an unlikely pairing (British well-mannered stage actor who came to Hollywood already well established versus a young American actress who rose quickly through the Hollywood ranks), would make three films together.  The films would get progressively less tragic, moving them from the utterly ugly relationship between the two of them here, through the romantically tragic situation in the brilliant Petrified Forest and through the hilarious screwball snarkiness of It’s Love I’m After.  In once sense then, we can look at this film, and know that something happier will come along in the end, just not before the end of this film.

Leslie Howard is a poor failed artist and now medical student who falls for a Cockney waitress, with every connotation that description entails.  That waitress, of course, is Bette Davis, playing up her sex appeal when she needs to and then dialing up the nastiness beyond anything imagined by Hollywood at the time – a level that has been to be seen to be believed, even by those who have seen most of her other work.  Howard is perfect as the gentleman cripple (he has a club foot, and the word cripple becomes a key part of the film), a man admired for intellect and despised by the woman he desires.

The film follows closely to their relationship, to how she is willing to be romanced to move ahead in life.  But it works as well as it does (and much better than later adaptations) because of how so very good Howard and Davis are in their roles (making their tenderness in Forest, especially hers, all the more surprising and touching).  There’s no question that Davis deserved the Oscar, which she wanted so bad and was denied her (she was passed over for a nomination but was expected to win as a write-in in this first year it was allowed; instead she came in 3rd), but Howard was also over-looked on favor of the far inferior performance of Frank Morgan in Affairs of Cellini.

Of Human Bondage is a difficult film to watch, through Davis’ nastiness, through her eventual decay (she becomes a prostitute and then dies of tb).  But with those performances from those two greats, well, sometimes you can’t look away, even when you want to.

Of Human Bondage_Modern Library_1948The Source:

Of Human Bondage by M. Somerset Maugham  (1915)

Of Human Bondage is one of those “admired” novels that doesn’t actually seem to be read anymore.  In fact, I went through an English major and a Masters program without ever having Maugham even suggested.  I read the novel for the first time in 1999 in response to the Modern Library list.  Unlike some books on the list that have been forgotten but deserve to be remembered, and even taught (Appointment in Samarra), this is more like The Way of All Flesh – a book that seems more remembered for its reputation than for its actual quality.

There is a bit of autobiography to the novel but doesn’t that always seem to be the case with a bildungsroman?  At 760 pages it takes our young man father towards his destiny than most such novels do.  We follow him through the death of his parents through his attempts to become an artist in Paris which ends in total failure, followed by his taking up medicine, in his father’s footsteps.  It is only then, as a student when he falls for a snarky Cockney waitress well below his social class who nonetheless manages to look down on him, that the story really moves at all.

But the problem isn’t really that so little happens over the course of 700 pages (though it certainly doesn’t help).  The real problem is Maugham’s turgid prose and pace.  His novels often seem to have this problem and I can’t think of I’ve actually managed to complete other than this one (though some of his stories, which flow better, are quite good).

The Adaptation:

“You see, in other things, if you’re a doctor or if you’re in business, it doesn’t matter so much if you’re mediocre.”  That’s Philip talking – an approximation of what he says a couple of minutes into the film.  But it’s a direct quote from page 296 of the novel.  The film simply skips over the first 300 pages of the book, and in the end, eliminates most of the last 160 pages of the book as well.  It focus on those 300 pages when Philip is dealing with his relationship with Mildred.  In taking a 760 page book and trying to adapt it into an 80 minute film, they rightly decided that this stretch of the book would both encapsulate many of the themes of the book (the education of Philip, especially in the ways of the world; the state of human society; the bonds that hold us together and pull at us) and yet still have the largest dramatic arc.

The Credits:

Directed by John Cromwell.  Screen play by Lester Cohen.  From the novel by W. Somerset Maugham.  Uncredited dialogue from Ann Coleman.

death-takes-a-holiday-movie-poster-1934-1010341741Death Takes a Holiday

The Film:

I wrote about this film once as the under-appreciated film of this year.  But I didn’t really write that much about the film itself.  What I wrote about that time was the appeal of Fredric March, about him as a star and an actor, about how he is so good in this role, a role that would later be revisited by Brad Pitt in one of the great mistakes in cinematic history.

But what about the film itself?  The film presents an interesting concept (already presented in the play, of course): what would Death be like?  What if Death decided to walk the Earth?  What could happen?  And could Death learn what it is to be human and perhaps even fall in love?  Presented in an over-long production with an actor playing Death as someone who is the least interesting person ever would, as proved later, be a disaster.  But in this film, kept short, kept moving with the interactions between Death and the small party of humans that are together at a country estate for a weekend, we see something interesting: the characterization and humanizing of Death.

And all of this works so well because of March’s performance as Death.  His Death is an all-powerful abstract who reigns itself in and becomes a he – who finds a core of inner humanity, looking more closely at these beings that he takes away from all of this so-called life, and in the course of the story, finds a love worth keeping, a love who is more willing to follow him into the eternal darkness than spend any more time among the living without him.  “But you don’t who I am,” Death tells her at the conclusion of the film.  “You are my love,” she replies and it is the reply that needs be said.

As I said before, March was one of the all-time great film actors.  And yet, like Leslie Howard, he was passed over in 1934 for the mediocre performance of Frank Morgan in Affairs of Cellini.  Here we have a film, long over-looked, often forgotten, one that is interesting and subtle, short, yet with a cautious pace that makes it feel more than complete.

deathThe Source:

La morte in vacanza by Alberto Casella  (1928), “rewritten for the American stage” by Walter Ferris  (1929)

The original Italian play was translated and adapted for the stage in New York in 1929, opening the day after Christmas.  It was a hit when it was first staged and the introduction makes it seem like a classic (“among the most important plays of our time” it says, and “one of those rare combinations that appeals to schools, colleges, churches, Little and Community Theaters.”), but I suspect today (borne out by the relative scarcity in WorldCat), that it is mostly forgotten today, less well-known than its film version, which itself has been too often over-looked.

The Adaptation:

It’s the play.  There’s really not much more that needs to be said other than that.  There is a bit of opening up in the film (the early car scenes where they feel the darkness and chill is actually shown at the beginning of the film, rather than described shortly afterwards when the characters arrive at the estates), but almost every line of dialogue in the film comes directly from the play itself (or at least the English language translation of it).

The Credits:

Directed by Mitchell Leisen.  Screen play by Maxwell Anderson and Gladys Lehman.  From the play by Alberto Casella.  English Adaptation by Walter Ferris.

20th_century_1934Twentieth Century

The Film:

Twentieth Century is called one of the first screwball comedies, although that’s not really the most apt description.  Twentieth Century is a very good comedy, a back and forth between a tyrannical director (the original title of the play was Napoleon of Broadway) and the actress that he molds into the form that he wants.  When she leaves him, fed up with his over-bearing ways (including, but not limited to, tapping her phone) and flees to Hollywood and he suffers from a couple of flops, he comes up with the idea of cornering her on the famous Twentieth Century Limited, the train that used to run between Chicago and New York.  Since this is a comedy, is there really any question of what is going to happen in the end?  Somehow that director will find a way to get his star back and they’ll be together again on the stage (and behind it).

So why isn’t this really a screwball comedy?  After all, it stars Carole Lombard, who would eventually be a master of the form in films such as My Man Godfrey and Nothing Sacred and it is a romantic comedy where the two who spend most of the film feuding end up together in the final reel.  Well, it’s mainly a matter of pace.  In brilliant screwball comedies, films like Godfrey or Bringing Up Baby or His Girl Friday, things just keep coming at us.  The laughs happen so hard and so fast that we spend the entire film laughing, not because the film is so damn funny (which it usually is), but because the pace is so frenetic that we never have time to do anything but laugh.  Twentieth Century, surprisingly as it is, given that the writers were also responsible for The Front Page, actually takes more of its time to give us the story (and indeed, the film starts off slowly – much more slowly than most screwballs).  We have to slowly see how John Barrymore, so perfectly tyrannical as the director, will mold this pathetic young actress into exactly the person he wants to see on stage.

Twentieth Century is a very good film, one that seemed even better this time than it had the first time.  It’s got two very well-cast stars and a very good supporting crew across the board.  It has good direction from Howard Hawks and a good script.  It’s a good romantic comedy, even if we know what the ending is going to be – after all, it’s the journey that’s the key here, not the destination, which is only appropriate on a train.  It’s just not really a screwball.

The Source:

Napoleon of Broadway by Charles Bruce Millholland  (1930)

Ah, but that title is not the full source.  Napoleon of Broadway was a play that was never produced.  And so Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, those brilliant playwrights and screenwriters, whose The Front Page was at the time being adapted for film, got hold of the play and adapted it, renaming it Twentieth Century, and it made it to Broadway in late 1932.  At this point, it’s hard to really know what parts existed in the original play, as written by Millholland, and what parts were written by Hecht and MacArthur, the former of whom is known as one of the greatest screenwriters in film history, and the latter of whom collaborated with him on many great works.

The play starts off slow, with a number of people boarding the train, and some subplots that turn out to be completely throwaway as we eventually discover who the leads are, what their back story is, and what is going to happen.  It’s not until the second act, when Lily and Jaffe actually start interacting, that things really begin to take off (although some of the early stuff is quite funny, especially the way Jaffe’s men get rid of the people in the compartment that he needs for his plan).  And of course, as we head towards the end of the play at a more frenzied pace, it’s easy for the audience to see where it’s all going.

The Adaptation:

The original play is very well-named.  With the exception of the final scene (which only covers 4 pages of the 143 page play) all of it takes place on the Twentieth Century Limited.  Everything that we learn about the backstory between Jaffe, the tyrannical director, and Lily, the now Oscar-winning actress (there’s a great exchange in the play that is absent from the film: ” ‘She’ll never be any good in the movies.’  ‘What are you talking about – she won the gold statue.’  ‘What gold statue?’  ‘A big gold statue they give away every year, for the best performance.’  ‘Who does that?’  ‘Some Academy.'”) we get during the course of the train trip.  So, we get a lot more interaction among the train in the play (especially the early scenes, with other passengers).  The film doesn’t deal with any of that.  Hecht and MacArthur, no longer bound by the stage, abandon the train until the second half of the film, opting to start the film with the beginning of the story and we actually get to watch Jaffe mold Lily into the actress that he wants her to be.

Does that make it work better than in the play?  Well, it makes it different, and though I have never seen it on stage, it seems that both versions work well for the mediums in which they are presented.

The Credits:

Directed by Howard Hawks.  Written by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur.  Based on the play “Napoleon of Broadway” by Charles Bruce Millholland.  Uncredited writing from Gene Fowler and Preston Sturges.  Hecht and MacArthur’s work on the play is uncredited as well.

viva-villa-movie-poster-1934-1020452875Viva Villa!

The Film:

I have already reviewed this film once.  But I should once again stress that it stars Wallace Beery at his absolute worst, hamming it up in every single scene.

villaThe Source:

Viva Villa!: A Recovery of the Real Pancho Villa, Peon, Bandit, Soldier, Patriot by Edgcumb Pinchon, assisted in research by Odo B. Stade (1933)

Just because this film is a travesty don’t think for a moment that the filmmakers took a serious book on Mexican history and destroyed it.  Just look at this early description of the infant Villa from the book:

In truth, some stray clot of Conquistador, some untraceable stain of Celtiberian blood, transmitted through the light-skinned, brown-haired sire, has thickened and quickened in the son to a thatch of rufous hair, unquellable topaz eyes, and the chest of a baby-gorilla.  He lays hold of a horse like a born charro, and, even with his milk teeth, bites to the bone any hand touching him not to his liking.

Yes, there is a lot more of that.  This was a book that was written to be adapted into a bad Hollywood film.  It’s rather appropriate, since the edition I read was the 1934 Photoplay edition printed by Grosset and Dunlap (which would be worth quite a bit if it had a dust jacket and wasn’t a library copy from UConn).  The prose is ridiculously overwrought and is almost impossible to get through.

The Adaptation:

As ridiculous as the prose is in the book, at least it was telling the more or less accurate story of Pancho Villa.  But the filmmakers decided to throw that out the window.  The film begins with the taking of the land away from the poor and when Pancho’s father protests he is whipped to death.  A nice little story to get Pancho on the way to being an outlaw.  Well, except that nothing remotely like it ever happened.  The film continues to be like this – since it’s Hollywood making use of a Mexican hero (one who had actually been in films about himself – watch And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself, the HBO film which is so so so much better than this one) they don’t really care anything about the facts.  They just portray him as a Mexican kind of Robin Hood and leave it at that.  “Suggested” as is used in the credits is probably the right word.  They took the book title and the concept of a story about Pancho and the resemblance pretty much ends there.

The Credits:

Directed by Jack Conway.  Screen Play by Ben Hecht.  Suggested by the book by Edgcumb Pinchon and O. B. Stade.  Uncredited directing from Howard Hawks and William Wellman.  Uncredited writing from Howard Hawks, James Kevin McGuinness and Howard Emmett Rogers.

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

  • The Scarlet Empress  –  Very good, with a very good performance from Marlene Dietrich as Catherine II, adapted from her diaries, but the script just wasn’t strong enough to make my list.
  • Tarzan and His Mate  –  The best of the Weissmuller Tarzan films, based on the characters as they were used in the first film rather than any specific Burroughs book.
  • Madame Bovary  –  Renoir does Flaubert and does a good but not great job.
  • The Count of Monte Cristo  –  A good adventure with Robert Donat as Edmond Dantes, a good, exciting adaptation.
  • It’s a Gift  –  One of the better W.C. Fields films, based on a play that was adapted from his story.
  • The Lost Patrol  –  John Ford’s classic adaptation of the Philip MacDonald story.
  • The Barretts of Wimpole Street  –  Adapted from the Rudolf Besier play and reviewed here.  Very well acted but the film itself doesn’t hold up that well.
  • Babes in Toyland  –  Adapted from the opera and also known as March of the Wooden Soldiers.  It’s Laurel and Hardy and easy to find on YouTube.
  • The Merry Widow  –  Another musical brought to the screen if not quite brought to life.
  • The White Parade  –  My review, done just recently is here.  Adapted from the novel by Rian James.
  • The House of Rothschild  –  Again, reviewed here, as a Best Picture nominee, adapted from the play.
  • Imitation of Life  –  Three BP nominees in a row, all of them just squeaking into the lower level of *** (reviewed here).
  • The Painted Veil  –  In the same year as a very good Maugham adaptation we get this very flat one.  Remade in 2006 and that one is much, much better.
  • One More River  –  A rather flat James Whale film, adapted from Nobel Prize winner John Galsworthy’s novel Over the River, one of his last.
  • We Live Again  –  An uninspiring version of one of Tolstoy’s lesser known novels, Resurrection, with a disappointing Fredric March.
  • One Night of Love  –  The last of the BP nominees, reviewed here.  A short story adapted into a feature-length operetta.  Don’t torture yourself.
  • Evelyn Prentice  –  On here to prove that not every Powell-Loy film was a winner.
  • The Age of Innocence  –  On a scale of 100 there is a 28 point difference between the 1934 Painted Veil and the 2006 version.  But there is a 44 point difference between this boring adaptation of Edith Wharton’s best novel and the 1993 Scorsese version.
  • Babbitt  –  Harry Beaumont made a (now-lost) silent version of this great novel by Sinclair Lewis (in my Top 200).  It has to be better than this disappointing version, though Babbitt’s not really a novel that lends itself to a film version.
  • Treasure Island  –  If watching Wallace Beery hamming it up and Jackie Cooper crying in The Champ wasn’t bad enough, they team up again here and it’s almost as bad.
  • Jane Eyre  –  It’s bad enough that it keeps Viva Villa out of the bottom spot for an adaptation in 1934, though it isn’t the worst film of the year (thanks to Cleopatra).  I have the only external review of this on the IMDb.  I’m gonna finish off this post by quoting that review: “The film, as an adaptation of Jane Eyre, is a complete and utter mess, with horrible casting and terrible decisions along the way.  But as a film, it is even worse, because if you haven’t read the novel, then hardly anything in the film will make any sense.  But if you have read the book, you will find it so maddening that you won’t want to watch anymore.”