It's all up for Gyppo.

“His mind was struggling along aimlessly in pursuit of his actions, impotently deprecating them and whispering warnings.  But it was powerless.”

My Top 10:

  1. The Informer
  2. Les Misérables
  3. The 39 Steps
  4. Mutiny on the Bounty
  5. Captain Blood
  6. Bride of Frankenstein
  7. The Scarlet Pimpernel
  8. The Dark Angel
  9. David Copperfield
  10. Ruggles of Red Gap

Note:  After a weak year that could only muster seven for its list, we have a complete list.  And a strong list at that – I am sorely tempted to nominate six films, but I draw the line at the traditional five – indeed, for Picture, Director and Adapted Screenplay these six films will move around, with a different one being the 6th, and non-nominated film, in all three of those categories.  The only downside is that eight of the ten are dramas – 1935 is a much better year overall, but 1934 had those really great comedies.

Oscar Nominees  (Best Screenplay):

  • The Informer
  • The Lives of a Bengal Lancer
  • Mutiny on the Bounty

Analysis:  The Informer is the winner here, just as it’s the winner of the Nighthawk.  It was a sign that this was the better film than Mutiny, in that it won Director and Screenplay.  It’s maybe not so surprising that the jingoistic writing in Lancer would also make it over the paring down of the novel in Les Mis.  It’s worth noting that Captain Blood came in third as a write-in.

the-informer-1935The Informer

The Film:

I have already reviewed this film once.  The film won four Oscars.  Though it failed to win Best Picture, it won Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Actor – the only film to win those three without Best Picture until 2002 (although 7th Heaven did win Director, Screenplay and Actress).  Yet, somehow it isn’t looked that well upon today and I am at a loss to understand it.  This was a really good year for film, more so when you consider what a dearth there was in 1934, and this was the best of a very good bunch.  Oddly enough, it wasn’t even close to winning Best Picture, because this is one of the few years where we know the results and Mutiny won by a wide margin.

informersignetThe Source:

The Informer by Liam O’Flaherty  (1925)

You could do a good week’s work in a Lit class by tying together “The Tell-Tale Heart”, Crime and Punishment and The Informer.  And in some ways, The Informer is the most tragic of them and the least harsh in its denouement.  At a novel’s length it doesn’t have the sheer horror of Poe’s tale.  As a political tale it focuses more on the outside forces working on Gypo that any that might have been at work on Raskalnikov (and, at less than 200 pages, has far less of a psychological portrait of the world at work).

Yet, it is an effective novel, written not that long after the events of the Revolution in Ireland, when political turmoil was still rolling across the countryside (ah, but little did O’Flaherty know that the turmoil would roll for nearly another century) and it still has bite even today because the psychology, those actions which seem to stem from Dostoevsky, stand out stronger than the politics.  Had the novel been more harsh in its approach to poor Gypo Nolan, the pathetic man just desperate for another pint and a place to sleep for the night, done with the revolution that has been passed him by, then perhaps it would be easier to dismiss this as a piece of political propaganda.  But instead, we have that tragic ending: “He stretched out his limbs in the shape of a cross.  He shivered and lay still.”

The Adaptation:

For the most part the film is a fairly straight adaptation of the novel.  There is the added bit at the beginning though, that changes things – the £10 that Katie wants to get away to America.  That gives a stronger motivation to Gypo for wanting to get the money.  And in Frankie’s death scene (not portrayed directly at all in the book – in the novel the last sentence of Chapter One is Gypo requesting the reward and the first sentence of Chapter Two is “At thirty-five minutes past seven Francis Joseph McPhillip shot himself dead while trying to escape from No. 44 Titt Street, his father’s house.” – the visit to the family is omitted and his death is the result of dropping his gun during his escape and it sending a bullet into his “brain though the right temple.”  But most of the rest of it is right there, right down to that final moment, Gypo in the church, desperately hoping (and receiving) for forgiveness from Frankie’s mother before his end.  It helped that the novel was fairly short and quite cinematic, but this is a first-rate adaptation of a novel.

The Credits:

Directed by John Ford.  Screen Play by Dudley Nichols.  From the Story by Liam O’Flaherty.  Nicholas would end up refusing his Oscar because of the labor struggles between the Academy and the emerging Guilds at the time.  Academy President Frank Capra sent Nichols his Oscar and Nichols sent it back, saying “to accept it would be to turn my back on nearly a thousand members who ventured everything in the long-drawn-out fight for a genuine writers organization.”  Capra sent it back again and when Nichols sent it back a second time, Capra gave up.  Accounts of all of this strife can be found on pages 62-66 of Inside Oscar.

Poster - Les Miserables (1935)_02Les Misérables

The Film:

I have already reviewed this film once.  Is it the best film version of the celebrated novel?  Depends on your point of view.  I am a big fan of the 2012 film in spite of its flaws because of how magnificently it hit the moments it needed to hit.  But I will say this: I have seen 7 film versions of Les Mis – 8 if you include the 1978 made for television movie.  To my mind none of them beat this one for the sheer force of the battle of wills between Jean Valjean and Javert, the force of personalities that both March and Laughton bring to their performances.  I tie classification of acting categories to Oscar nominations, but because Laughton wasn’t nominated I can place him in supporting here where I think he really belongs and he just runs away with it.

lesmisThe Source:

Les Misérables by Victor Hugo  (1862)

It might indeed be the greatest story ever told.  What it is not is the greatest novel ever written.  Or in the Top 100.  Or even in the Top 200, at least not my list (though Hugo’s Notre Dame is).

I have read this novel in its entirety twice.  I suspect I will read it again at some point, though this is not that point (I also would like to get another translation – my Signet copy is a newer translation but based on the original translation that happens to be in my Modern Library Giant).  Let’s just say that this is the only novel that I recommend to people to read in an Abridged form.  (So why have I read the unabridged twice?  Because I’m odd, that’s why.  I thought we were clear on that by now.)

What is it that makes it such a great story?  Do I really have to explain that?  Do I have to tell the story of Jean Valjean (“Jean Valjean was thoughtful though not sad, a characteristic of affectionate natures.”), the man who stole a loaf of bread to feed himself, his sister and her seven children (“How mournful the moment when society draws back and permits the irreparable loss of a sentient being.  Jean Valjean was sentenced to five years in prison.”) and he becomes that number we all know so well (“All his past life was erased, even his name.  He was no longer Jean Valjen; he was Number 24,601”).  At the point of relieving the suffering of the poor Fantine and re-uniting her with her daughter Cosette, he is forced by the depths of his soul to reveal himself and is forced to flee the policeman Javert (“Javert, in his dreadful happiness, was pitiful, like every ignorant man in triumph.  Nothing could be more poignant and terrible than this face, which revealed what might be called all the evil of good.”)  Pursued by Javert, he and Cosette flee to Paris where they live for nine years, until they are caught up in the actions of the June Rebellion in 1832 (“There, in front of the doors, some young men standing on the posts distributed arms.  They pillaged the lumberyard on the Rue Transnonain to make barricades.”).  Cosette finds live with Marius, who has survived the Rebellion thanks to Valjean (“Cosette was intoxicated, enraptured, startled, in Heaven.  She was as frightened as one can be by happiness.”) and Valjean soon dies, knowing the couple will be happy together (“The night was starless and very dark.  Without any doubt, in the gloom, some mighty angel was standing with outstretched wings, waiting for the soul.”).

All of this, the story, the quotes, the language, make it sound like a masterful novel and in a lot of ways it is.  And then there’s Hugo doing way, way, way too much.  Fans of the films or musical (who haven’t read the book) would perhaps be surprised to learn that the novel doesn’t begin with Valjean – it begins with the story of the Bishop of Digne, giving his story before the man traveling on foot enters the town.  On page 59.  We have 58 pages on the Bishop, a minor character who will be gone before long, before we even begin the damn story.  And that’s not all.  The first part of the book?  Fantine.  What page does Fantine first appear?  120.  To set up a ridiculously complicated Dickensian backstory between Thenardier and Marius we have a description of Waterloo at the start of part 2.  It takes 58 pages.  When Valjean flees the battle with the unconscious Marius into the sewers?  Twenty pages on the history of the Parisian sewers.  Is it a triumph of storytelling and language?  Yes.  Is it one of the greatest stories ever told?  Without question.  Is it, at 1463 pages (or, 14 pages longer than my copy of War and Peace), some 900 pages too long?  Absolutely.

The Adaptation:

This is, most assuredly, the Classics Illustrated version of Les Mis.  It’s not even really the Cliffs Notes version because of how much, they not only condense, but make changes to make the condensed version flow better.  On the one hand I could document all the changes from the book.  I’ll give a simplified version of that: giving an introductory story to Valjean instead of through flashback, simplifying the story in Montreuil, giving Fantine a brief reunion with Cosette, basically eliminating a wide variety of minor characters (Thernadier, Gavroche, Enjolras), having the film end with Javert’s death instead of all the things that follow.

On the other hand, I could talk about the ways that this is the easiest way to make a film out of this story, especially a film that’s going to run less than 2 hours.  Keep to the core parts of the story – yes, you have to put in the love story as it develops between Cosette and Marius, because you need that spring of hope and you need Valjean’s desperate heroism.  But this story, at its core, is the story of two indomitable wills and the question of whether the law or the justice will prevail.  So we have a focus on Valjean and Javert, on the heart-wrenching story of Valjean, beginning with his imprisonment, and of the seemingly endless pursuit by Javert.

The Credits:

Directed by Richard Boleslawski.  Screen Play: W.P. Lipscomb.  The only credit for the original source is the title of the film: Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables.


39steps
The 39 Steps

The Film:

Prior to directing The Man Who Knew Too Much, in 1934 (though it wouldn’t get a U.S. release until 1935), Alfred Hitchcock had directed 16 films.  Only one of them was truly memorable – The Lodger, the film that would be a blueprint for what would later come.  The Man Who Knew Too Much would start to establish him as the Master of Suspense that he would eventually be known as, but The 39 Steps would be a much bigger step forward.  First, it is a better film, easily the best film of Hitch’s British period.  Second, it would establish a few different things that would be the hallmarks of his career.

“Incidentally, on reseeing your version of The Thirty-nine Steps, I realized that it’s approximately at this period that you began to take more liberties with the scenarios, that is, to attach less importance to the credibility of the plot, or at any rate, whenever necessary, to sacrifice plausibility in favor of pure emotion.”  That’s what Francois Truffaut says to Hitchcock on page 99 of their book and Hitchcock immediately agrees with him.  And that’s the first thing about Hitchcock that this film does – it has plot-holes (though in some ways is more plausible than the source novel) but you slide right past them because it’s so damn riveting.

The second thing is the idea of the innocent man wrongfully pursued.  That had been a key plotpoint at the end of The Lodger, but it is the driving force throughout almost this entire film and would continue to be returned to in future films, most memorably in North by Northwest.

The third thing is, in some ways, the most important for these posts.  It shows that Hitchcock would take source novels and have no compunctions whatsoever about abandoning large parts of them, sometimes sharing little more than a title, really.  And it also shows how much better these Hitchcock films would be than their original sources.  There are many who consider the original Buchan novel a classic, but to me it is no more than a decent spy thriller.  It’s the Hitchcock film that’s the classic.

Now then, there’s the importance of the film.  But what is the film, exactly?  A great suspense film is what it is.  A film with a strong lead performance from Robert Donat about a man who finds himself up in his flat with a woman, only to wake up the next morning with her murdered.  Today that’s practically what’s expected in a Hitchcock film, but in 1935 it was a far different story.

Donat becomes the man on the run, sometimes eluding capture (either from the police or the spy ring that happens to be after him because of what the woman told him – they are the ones who really murdered her), sometimes going on the run simply because he believes he is being chased.  He disguises himself, kisses an alluring (yet displeased) blonde, climbs out on to the Forth Bridge, runs across the Scottish moors, leaps out a police window, gives a stirring speech, and in a fit of inspiration, manages to get the key information revealed when he needs it to be in order to keep from being arrested (and to stop the spy ring).  Though the film often fails to be plausible (How did the spy ring kill the woman?  And why did they not kill Donat?), it moves brilliantly (there is a great cut from a scene where Donat has been shot to him explaining why it didn’t kill him) and never fails to be riveting.

the-thirty-nine-stepsThe Source:

The 39 Steps by John Buchan  (1915)

The 39 Steps is a decent thriller, a little yarn to get you through a couple of hours (and not much more than that – it’s only 149 pages long).  It’s the story of a man who has another man mysteriously murdered in his flat.  He’s forced on the run, trying to simultaneously break up a spy ring (headed into what will be the Great War) and stay out of the hands of the police.  Some of the scenes are well-done and thrilling and the pace never really slows down.  But some of it is just patently absurd – the man on the run just randomly happens to stumble upon the chief of the spy ring.  And in the end, unlike what Hitchcock would do, bringing in the concept of the MacGuffin, the 39 steps in the book are very real and a key to the plot (as opposed to just the name of the spy group).  There are some who hail this as a great thriller, but it was really one of the books that taught me that not all great films are adapted from great sources – sometimes they’re just decent enough to give brilliant life to a film idea that is much better.

The Adaptation:

The basic premise for The 39 Steps comes straight from the book – the murder in the flat, the flight to Scotland, the desperate attempt to keep out of the hands of the police, and the eventual revelation of the insidious plot and the innocent man is finally seen to be innocent.  But so much of what we think of when we think of the Hitchcock film wasn’t in the book at all.  The sexual tension in the air with the woman who comes back to Donat’s flat?  A man in the novel.  The woman he kisses on the train and later ends up handcuffed to?  Not in the book at all.  Finding the spy ring because he thinks he’s looking for the man to help him?  Just a random coincidence in the book – he’s not searching for a particular man.  Mr Memory?  Created for the film.  In all, the novel provided a blueprint for a film.  But all those details that make it so memorable, all the ones that make the film a classic?  All of those come from Hitchcock and his collaborators.

The Credits:

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock.  Adapted from the novel by John Buchan.  Adaptation: Charles Bennett.  Continuity: Alma Reville.  Dialogue:  Ian Hay.

mutiny-on-the-bounty-center-from-left-movita-clark-gable-charles-laughton-1935Mutiny on the Bounty

The Film:

I have already reviewed this film once.  It is a great adventure film and still the best film version of this story, partially because Gable is still the best Fletcher Christian (that Mel Gibson is a more accurate Christian didn’t make him a better one).  It won Best Picture by a wide margin, though, oddly, director Frank Lloyd finished last in the voting, behind even write-in Michael Curtiz and all three Bounty actors finished behind write-in Paul Muni for Black Fury.

MutinyOnTheBountyThe Source:

The Mutiny on the Bounty by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall  (1932)

“The most popular version of the Bligh story in the 1930’s was the trilogy of novels by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall.  The first volume, Mutiny on the Bounty, hewed to the basic facts but, by adopting the point of view of a young midshipman whom Bligh had allegedly done an injustice and by idealizing Christian, it made Bligh seem a merciless scourge of spirited youth.  It prepared the way for a motion picture, starring Charles Laughton, which completed the conversion of Bligh into an ogre and of Christian into a hero of romance.”  Afterward by Milton Rugoff (p 220) to William Bligh’s The Mutiny on Board H.M.S. Bounty, published 1961.

I bring up that quote to point out something that should be obvious but may not be.  The makers of this film chose for their script to go, not to the original court documents or to Bligh’s first-person account of the mutiny, as published in 1790 (and again, with additions covering the voyage in full, in 1792).  That quote comes from the Afterward in the Signet Classic copy of Bligh’s book (the Afterward dates to 1961 but my book clearly comes from sometime around 1984 because of the line on the front: “The gripping documentary that inspired the dramatic epic film, THE BOUNTY, starring Sir Laurence Olivier, Anthony Hopkins and Mel Gibson.”  I love how Olivier, who’s not in much of the film, gets top billing there).  Instead, the script, as mentioned, is adapted from the Nordhoff and Hall book (actually, some of the adaptation clearly comes from Men Against the Sea, the second book in the Bounty Trilogy, which covers the desperate voyage that Bligh made in the lifeboat).

Nordhoff and Hall were writing in what was already an established genre, one which now seemed ready made for film: the adventure on the sea (it’s not quite a swashbuckler, which is what makes this a very different film from Captain Blood even though they are also the same in several ways).  Nordhoff and Hall chose as their first-person narrative hero, Roger Byam, a fictitious sailor.  Why they created Byam when he is so clearly modeled on Peter Heywood (they even acknowledge as such in their introduction), I am uncertain.

It is in the novel, as is mentioned above, that the real demonification of Bligh begins.  In Chapter IV, “Tyranny”, we see how Bligh works – clapping men in irons, sending a man to spend the night in the topmast, almost killing him, ordering the constant flogging of the men (there is a brilliant color plate of Mills being flogged in the Heritage Press edition).  But the choice of Byam (Heywood) is the right one in the book – not only he is barely involved in the mutiny (not really involved at all, in fact – he tries to go with Bligh, but the launch was already too full), but in refusing to flee Tahiti with Christian’s group he is the proper example for those who were implicated in the mutiny without ever being part of it.  This provides for a character that we can follow back to England and watch him eventually being pardoned after he is (wrongly, as the authors would have us see it) convicted.

The Adaptation:

Now, Nordhoff and Hall began the true downfall of William Bligh in popular culture but what they did to his reputation was nothing compared to what Jennings, Furthman and Wilson would do to him in their script.  As mentioned above, Bligh is presented as a fairly harsh captain, with floggings galore and a man who is almost killed.  But the film takes that to new levels.  First we have the flogging of a dead man to show Bligh’s insistence on following the rules to the letter (perhaps inspired by his previous role as Javert? – after all, that film was finished before this one was).  Then, later, we have the brutal keelhauling scene.  Which, of course, is completely inaccurate, as it was never used as a punishment on British ships, and is something added just by the filmmakers.

There were other things that were changed in the transition from the book to the screen.  There is the extra tension between Bligh and Byam (as if any was needed), there is the decision to have Bligh be the captain of the ship that returns to Tahiti to pick up those who had stayed (which actually makes sense from a cinematic viewpoint – it makes things tie together better).  Of course, while the filmmakers made good use of the first book and threw a bunch of the second book into the film (without screen credit) to show what a remarkable job Bligh did in bringing those men back to safety, the film leaves off with the possibility that Fletcher Christian was about to found a paradise, when, if you read history (or the third book in the trilogy), you know that nothing of the sort was forthcoming.

Reading the book and watching the film, watching the battle of wills between a lower officer and the captain, the mutiny that springs forth, the trial after the return of the ship and the eventual findings, all from the viewpoint of the younger man who is watching and who will eventually return to the sea, I can’t help but wonder how much of this stuck with Herman Wouk when he would eventually write The Caine Mutiny (right down to the detail that neither Bligh nor Queeg actually had the rank of Captain).

The Credits:

Directed by Frank Lloyd.  Screen Play by Talbot Jennings, Jules Furthman and Carey Wilson.  From the book by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall.  Margaret Booth is listed as a writer with nothing specified on the IMDb, so maybe they just accidentally put her here (she was Oscar-nominated for her Editing on the film).

blood8Captain Blood

The Film:

I have already reviewed this film once.  And I’m not sure that I did it full justice.  Reading my review, I think this is one of those films I should have bumped up.  And that may be enough to just push it into the top 5 of a very good year even if the script just can’t quite make it there.  But watching it this time I thought to myself – this really is the best pirate film ever made.

captain-blood-rafael-sabatini-paperback-cover-artThe Source:

Captain Blood: His Odyssey by Rafael Sabatini  (1922)

People talk about The 39 Steps as if its a classic of the thriller genre, when really its just a standard thriller with a lot of plot holes that keeps moving at a very good pace.  Captain Blood is also mentioned as a classic of its genre – in this case, the sea adventure genre.  And this time people are right.  The Mutiny on the Bounty is a good book about a historical event.  But Captain Blood, with history at its edges (the action of the book begins with Peter Blood’s actions during the Monmouth Revolution and the events of the Glorious Revolution three years later become the impetus for the climax of the novel).  It is a great adventure at sea of a man wrongfully imprisoned, a man resourceful enough to become important even as a slave and to lead a charge on an invading ship and capture it for his own, manning it with his fellow slaves.

The Adaptation:

Perhaps the differences between The 39 Steps and Captain Blood are evident enough in the films.  Both of them are classics, each a masterful work in its genre.  Both of them show how great the directors were at what they were doing.  But then look at the source novels.  So much of what makes the Hitchcock film a classic is in the film and the film only – the book only provides a frame for which to hang the rest of his elegant thriller on.  And now look at the Sabatini novel as compared to the Curtiz film.  Almost everything comes straight from the book – indeed, there are considerable parts where you can sit and read the book while watching the film and have lines go whole and complete on the screen as you are reading them.  Yes, there are some parts that are changed – all of the scenes with Lavasseur are different than in the book, though there are similarities between their final duel and the way the duel is eventually described in the book.  But even those scenes keep true to the spirit of the book.  And then, we go straight down to the end, and while Arabella might not be begging and playing with the scene and kissing Blood in the book, when we see Blood raise his eyes and stare at his enemy, knowing that he has won, well, just compare that to the end of the book:

At the table sat a man of whom nothing was visible but the top of a carefully curled black head.  Then this head was raised, and a pair of blue eyes solemnly regarded the prisoner.  Colonel Bishop made a noise in his throat, and, paralyzed by amazement, stared into the face of his excellency the Deputy-Governor of Jamaica, which was the face of the man he had been hunting in Tortuga to his present undoing.

The Credits:

Directed by Michael Curtiz.  Screen Play by Casey Robinson.  “Captain Blood” by Rafael Sabatini on the title card is the only mention of the source.


bride_of_frankenstein_poster_05
The Bride of Frankenstein

The Film:

How to approach a film sequel to Frankenstein?  Well, there was an easy thing to do – try using the rest of the novel.  After all, when James Whale had directed the first film in 1931, they had focused so much on the creation of the monster, that after lumbering around with him for a while and leading to his destruction (possibly), they ended the film.  They hadn’t touched the darker parts of the novel – where the monster blackmails Frankenstein into creating him a mate.  This allowed for an easy plot to develop and a title to go with it.  But what about the film itself?  What more do you do aside from that basic premise?

Well, not a whole lot, on the one hand.  Recycle some of the stuff from the first one.  Bring in a new, creepy villain with a science-fiction premise that has nothing to do with Frankenstein itself but could be interesting and helps show off where the state of visual effects have gone.  Make use of the scene in the book where the monster is with the blind man, the one who reaches out to him from the common core of humanity and helps introduce him to language.  And bring in some humor – again, something that can be done with the new villain, but also a bit with the monster itself.  Is it still not long enough?  Well, then bring in an opening sequence showcasing the way the original novel was written, the famous night when that great confluence of minds all challenged themselves to great a ghost story.  And then, for extra good measure, take the actress who plays Mary Shelley in that opening scene and use her again to play the monster’s bride.

What does all of this add up to?  In less capable hands it wouldn’t add up to much.  Just look at what happens to the Frankenstein films when the third one, directed by Rowland V. Lee, would come along.  The first two films in the series are among the greatest Horror films ever made (as seen here) and nothing that would come after the departure of James Whale from the series would come even close (they would generally be low level ***).  In fact, of this wonderful period of film, the Golden Age of Horror, the Universal films that began with The Hunchback of Notre Dame and ends with this film this may be the best.  Certainly that period, which contains some of the best films ever made in the genre (The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Phantom of the Opera, The Cat and the Canary, Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, The Bride of Frankenstein) receives a magnificent send-off.  There would not be another **** Horror film made in the United States until 1956 (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) or 1960 (Psycho) depending on your definition.

This is a first-rate film, with a smart and witty script that takes some inspiration from the novel and some that comes from nowhere, great direction and magnificent sets, cinematography and production values.  In fact, this might be the compliment that sets this film apart.  While Hunchback and Phantom were made before 1927, those other five films were part of the Oscar Era.  And Bride of Frankenstein, with its Oscar nomination for Best Sound, was the first of them to actually earn any notice from the Academy.

frankensteinThe Source:

Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley (originally anonymously published)  (1818)

I wrote about Frankenstein once already when I reviewed the first film here.  And in some ways this film has more to do with the way the Academy divides Original and Adapted Screenplays, but I’ll discuss that more below.  Suffice to say, if you have never read Frankenstein then you need to read it.  Whether you classify it as a Horror novel or a Science-Fiction novel or even a metaphysical novel that deals with the very nature of life and death, you need to have read it.

The Adaptation:

This film, in some ways, is an adaptation of the latter part of Frankenstein, dealing with the part of the novel in which the monster demands that Frankenstein make him a mate.  It also prominently uses a key part in the novel – the scenes where the monster interacts with the blind man, the man who accepts the monster as part of humanity because his eyes cannot tell him otherwise (and because, as a blind man, he fits that maxim that he actually sees more than the rest of us).  It is from the blind man where the monster learns the use of language, and while the versions of the monster on film previous to 1994 use a lot less language than the original did in Shelley’s novel, at least here we finally get a chance for the monster to communicate.  And that’s a good thing, because it allows him to have those final words, those all important words for the climax: “Yes, go.  You live.” to his creator.  “You stay,” to Pretorius, who is much more of a monster than this poor creature.  And then that final brilliant line: “We belong dead.”

The Credits:

Directed by James Whale.  Suggested by the original story written in 1816 by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and Adapted by William Hurlbut and John Balderston.  Screenplay by William Hurlbut.  These credits are a big step up from Frankenstein which didn’t credit the stage play by Balderston and credited Mary Shelley as Mrs. Percy B. Shelley.  A lot of uncredited writing: Robert Florey (story), Edmund Pearson (screenplay), Josef Berne, Lawrence G. Blochman, Morton Covan, Philip MacDonald and R.C. Sherriff (adaptation) and Tom Reed (contributing writer).

1934-The-Scarlet-Pimpernel-posterThe Scarlet Pimpernel

The Film:

So, after playing the crippled Philip Carey in Of Human Bondage, what next for Leslie Howard?  It turned out to be a return to England to star, first in a small film called The Lady is Willing, then take on what would be one of his best-known roles: Percy Blakeney, more commonly known as the Scarlet Pimpernel.

Alexander Korda, the uber-producer who, had been born near the place in Austria-Hungary where Baroness Orczy was and, like her, had then emigrated and spent the better part of his adult life in Britain, had the rights to the novel and wanted it to star Charles Laughton but fans weren’t about to have their dashing hero played by someone as unkempt and odd-looking as Laughton.  So in came Howard, the living embodiment of a man who could be a wimp by day and a dashing hero by night.

In a film with solid quality in every direction (the sets and costumes look very good) the most important part is the performance from Howard.  The Scarlet Pimpernel is a British aristocrat who is secretly getting the French aristocrats out of Paris before their heads end up on the ground.  He is the ur-Batman, the original masked man (though not actually masked, just using occasional disguises, but mostly surviving on the fact that people don’t know who he is – so more of the original secret identity), constantly saving families marked for death at the very last moment.

With the powers-that-be in Paris getting more angry by the day, they send Chauvelin, a man of solid intelligence, and a connection to Lady Blakeney, the beautiful French woman who is married to the notoriously lazy Percy Blakeney, and one of the most popular women in London.  Lady Blakeney is played by Merle Oberon, who can’t quite pull of the performance that she manages in The Dark Angel, but does have the requisite beauty to fulfill her primary role.  But she’s more than made up for by the performance of Howard and the strong, devilish performance from Raymond Massey as Chauvelin (Massey would always be good casting for any villain).

scarletThe Source:

The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emma Orczy  (1905); originally written as a novel in 1902, rejected by twelve publishers and adapted as a play in 1903 before being published as a novel in 1905

There are some similarities between The Scarlet Pimpernel and Captain Blood.  Both of them were published in the first part of the 20th Century, both of them would become big sellers and key books in the development of their respective genres.  Both of them are well-written (by writers who were born in Central Europe but would later live in Britain and would actually write in English.  Both are still in print and still read.  And both would become incredibly important and influential in different artistic forms.  Captain Blood, with its historical fiction melded with an adventure out on the high seas would become the model for almost every pirate film ever made, in Hollywood or elsewhere.  The Scarlet Pimpernel, with its story of the aristocrat who hides behind a mask (though mostly figuratively) would become an influence on Zorro, and then Batman, and through him, pretty much every superhero with a secret identity.

The book is an example of the best kind of historical fiction – one that tells an exciting story, well-paced, interesting, with some tension, drama and romance – but throws it into important historical events.  On one level this is simply an adventure book of a man who is determined to flout a certain kind of authority.  And on the other hand, it’s a story of the French Revolution, of the Terror, of the horrible things that were going on and how some in the world reacted or chose not to react.  It’s been over 100 years since the book was first written and it’s still as readable as ever.  I must wonder, though, since it is a well-kept secret built up through the first half of the book who the Pimpernel actually is, if original copies actually advertised on the book about the double life of Percy Blakeney.  It’s too bad these days that most people going to the book for the first time will either already know the identity or have it revealed on the back cover, because it’s a nice revelation when it finally comes.

The Adaptation:

The filmmakers make a decision that makes for a key difference in the experience of reading the book as opposed to seeing the film.  Or perhaps they decided that too many people had read the book already.

Early in the film we see the Pimpernel mastermind the escape of a family from the guillotine.  And then he pulls off his disguise to reveal himself, even being called by name.  There is nothing like that in the book (oh, there’s the escape, but we don’t see the aftermath of it).  The book is written in third person limited as we watch the story unfold mostly through the actions and thoughts of Lady Blakeney.  Thus, we are as surprised as she is when her foppish husband turns out to be the hero.  Not so for the film, when we know he is the Pimpernel before we are ever aware of him as Blakeney.  It establishes him as the hero right away (guessing, perhaps, as I said, that many would have already read the book and known who he was).

Aside from that major difference, much of the film unfolds as the book does, keeping to the story and even most of the dialogue.  But after the Pimpernel has gone back to France for his eventual final confrontation with Chauvelin things change.  Did the filmmakers decide that Blakeney’s method of escape – to disguise himself as a Jewish tinker and allow himself to be beaten while leaving evidence that distracts the French – was too unheroic?  Either way, they essentially lop off the end of the book, taking two scenes and somewhat blending them.

But either way the film is a credit to the original novel.  Howard so embodies the character of Blakeney, so perfectly at ease as either the foppish aristocrat or the dashing hero, and the film keeps everything moving so well that it never feels any different from the book, even when it is.

The Credits:

Directed by Harold Young.  Scenario, Continuity and Dialogue by Lajos Biro, Sam Bermann, Robert Sherwood & Arthur Wimpens.  ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel’ by Baroness Orczy on the title card is the only mention of the source.  Uncredited writing from Baroness Emma Orczy and Alexander Korda.

darkangelThe Dark Angel

The Film:

I first watched this film some 10 or 15 years ago.  I gave it a 74, which is the very high end of *** – a good film that is almost good enough to be a very good film and break into my Best Picture consideration.  I had Merle Oberon second on the year for Best Actress, behind Hepburn but ahead of Oscar winner Bette Davis (which is something, because I’m not a big fan of Oberon – I thought Wuthering Heights would have been better without her).  I also gave it consideration for Best Cinematography and Best Original Score (neither of which did it come close to a nomination for because the year is so strong) and Best Art Direction (in which it came 7th).  I obviously gave it consideration for Best Adapted Screenplay, as here it is in 8th place, ahead of two good Best Picture nominees.

The problem here is that’s really all I have to say about the film after all this time.  It was difficult to get ahead of a copy of the original play (see below), but it turned out to be easier than getting hold of the film itself in time to write a review of it.  Because it wasn’t one of those Best Actress nominations from this year that were really hard to find (like Escape Me Never or Private Worlds) it didn’t occur to me that it would be so difficult to find the film again.  But it’s not available on DVD, only one library within 500 miles has it and it’s been pulled from YouTube (which makes the Samuel Goldwyn company, I assume, a bunch of assholes – it’s one thing to protect a copyright, another thing to pull down a film when the VHS is out of print and you can’t be bothered to release a DVD – exactly what royalties was that YouTube version taking from you?).  If I still lived in Portland, I could head on down and rent it from the single greatest video store on the planet (that’s a shout out to Movie Madness – take advantage of it if you live anywhere near Portland).  But I don’t and I can’t.  So that’s really all I have to say about the film – it’s good, almost very good, with a strong performance from Oberon that, in a weak year for Best Actress, takes second place.

The Source:

The Dark Angel: A Play of Yesterday and To-day by Guy Bolton, writing as H.B. Trevelyan (1925)

I have, sitting here in front of me, a copy of the play The Dark Angel: A Play of Yesterday and To-Day, printed by Ernest Benn Limited, in original wrappers, from 1928.  It is part of the series Contemporary British Dramatists, Volume LXI.  It is incredibly fragile and I worry that it will fall apart in my hands and I am stunned that a library I shall not name sent it to me as an ILL.  I am also surprised that is © 1928, since it was produced on Broadway on 1925, but that must be the British copyright.  Guy Bolton may have been born in England, but had an American father and went to the States as a teen and didn’t come back to Britain until the 1930’s.  I am not surprised that he wrote this play under a pseudonym since he was mostly, by this time, known for a new wave of American stage musicals in the teens and twenties and The Dark Angel is a melodrama that is far away from those works.

It is a good play, if a bit melodramatic.  It provides good parts for all three key roles and has a wonderful small part for Roma, the servant at the hotel where the two lovers stay in the prologue (who, very knowingly, realizes that the two aren’t actually married yet) and who later works for Hilary, who realizes the importance of their reunion: “She’s more than that . . . she’s the light that shines in the darkness . . . she’s the voice that whispers in the night-time . . . she’s the memories that come at dawn.”  This is a strong enough play that it’s surprising that is has never been revived on Broadway after its initial 1925 spring run.

The Adaptation:

Because it’s been so long since I saw the film I can’t really say much about what the adaptation does.  I will say this, though – in the original play, Kitty’s last name is Fahnestock, her father’s name is Evelyn and the hero’s name is Hilary Trent.  In the film, Kitty’s last name is Vane, her father doesn’t seem to be in it all (having been replaced with Granny Vane) and Hilary has been changed to Alan.  Aside from the dropping of the father, these changes actually stem from the 1925 silent film starring Ronald Colman in the hero’s role.  I’m guessing that Hilary, which is much more common as a male’s name in Britain than it is in the States was dropped as an unsuitable name (the same for Evelyn, which was changed to Hubert in the silent film), while Vane is just a much more easier name to use than Fahnestock.

But there is one key obvious difference – a difference that was inserted into this film version but was not in the original silent film.  In this film, it is out of jealousy that Gerald sends Alan off on the mission that will end up with him being blind.  But that motivation is nonexistent in the original play.

The Credits:

Directed by Sidney A. Franklin.  Screen Play by Lillian Hellman and Mordaunt Shairp.  Continuity by Claudine West.  Based on the play by Guy Bolton.  Credits retrieved from the IMDb as I didn’t get a chance to rewatch the film.

davidcopperfield04The Personal History, Adventures, Experience & Observation of David Copperfield the Younger

The Film:

I have already reviewed the film once.  I have to pretty much agree with what I said then: “It’s not really a film.  It’s an excuse to use great literature as an excuse to start grabbing stars off the MGM lot and put them on the same stage.

davidcopperfieldmlThe Source:

The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (which he never meant to publish on any account) by Charles Dickens (1850; serialized 1849-50)

Ah, great literature.  That’s what I just said.  But is David Copperfield really great literature?  Well, lots of people think so.  As I mentioned in my Great Expectations post, on various surveys, David Copperfield gets listed as his best book by British readers.  It comes in 7th among Americans.  Well, when I did my own Year of Reading Dickens (and boy, if you ever want to see how nastily vicious people can be on the internet while remaining anonymous you can search for where this post got mentioned on some other website and there were literally thousands of comments talking about how awful this post was), I ranked it 6th (and that was including A Christmas Carol).  So I actually rank it slightly higher than the average American.  I wrote a bit about it already on that post, but the key point I want to repeat is that I like this novel and I will read it again, but it suffers in comparison to Great Expectations because David really is pretty annoying as a narrator.  Which actually comes up again and again.  If you search for “David Copperfield” on this blog you’ll find it in other places, namely because of the immortal Salinger line: “all that David Copperfield kind of crap”.  Certainly I love Holden for not being David and I love Saleem (in Midnight’s Children) for taking the David Copperfield kind of crap to a new level in the world of magical realism.  But David shouldn’t take it all too hard.  He’s the narrator of a very good book.  Not good enough to make my Top 200, but good enough that I have returned to it before and I will do so again.

The Adaptation:

Did I say that Les Mis was the Classics Illustrated version of the novel?  Well, that’s nothing compared to what this film does.  Les Mis streamlines the plot by focusing so much on Javert and Valjean and trimming away the extras.  But David Copperfield is just the book, there on the screen, with everything pared away that could possibly be in order to get it into 130 minutes.  Sometimes this means a few alterations (all of the parts at Salem House are cut but Steerforth is kept, so they make him head boy of a school later in the film) but for the most part, things follow the book with just cuts along the way.

The Credits:

Directed by George Cukor.  Adaptation by Hugh Walpole.  Screen Play by Howard Estabrook.  The title card listing of by Charles Dickens is the only mention of the source directly.  Uncredited writing from Lenore J. Coffee.

Ruggles of Red Gap (1935)_02Ruggles of Red Gap

The Film:

I have already reviewed the film once.

rugglesThe Source:

Ruggles of Red Gap by Harry Leon Wilson  (1915; serialized beginning in 1914)

I was surprised to see that Tufts had a copy of Ruggles of Red Gap.  Hell, I had been surprised to realize that the film was based on a novel – the situation itself doesn’t really lend itself to a novel.  To a play, yes, but not to a novel.  (Imagine my surprise to discover the book was still in print).  After reading the novel, the surprises didn’t end.  It’s an unremarkable novel about a butler who is “won” in a poker game and must depart to Red Gap, Washington, or, to be more precise, the middle of nowhere.  Through some unmemorable adventures, he eventually becomes a leader in the town.  Yes, the book had been filmed once as a silent, though I struggle to wonder how they thought to find this novel and film it.  Maybe that was the impetus for coming back to the film in 1935.  The film is enjoyable, especially for Laughton’s performance, but nothing about the novel cried out to be filmed.  And then came the final surprise.  Clearly this wasn’t a book that had been read a lot.  But Tufts got it in 1935.  There’s one Date Due stamp in it before I checked it out.  It was checked out just once before – in 1961.

The Adaptation:

As I said, not a novel crying out to be filmed.  But what’s really remarkable is that the one truly memorable thing in the film (other than Laughton’s performance) is the recital, by Ruggles of the Gettysburg Address in a saloon full of roughnecks.  It’s a good scene, that quintessential British butler knowing the American words when no Americans do.  And where is it in the book?  Not there.  True, at the end of the book, he is planning for a recital of the Declaration of Independence for the 4th of July (the final lines are “Once more I take up the Declaration of Independence.  It lends itself rather well to reciting.  I feel that my voice is going to carry.”).  But he’s been asked to do that.  It doesn’t have nearly the same appeal that the scene in the film does.  So, the filmmakers found a novel almost not worth bothering with and then the only really good thing in the film was something they added.  Kudos to them then, for making something worthwhile out of it.

The Credits:

Directed by Leo McCarey.  Screen Play by Walter DeLeon and Harlan Thompson.  Adapted by Humphrey Pearson.  “Ruggles of Red Gap” by Harry Leon Wilson on the title card is the only mention of the source material.

the-lives-of-a-bengal-lancer-posterThe Lives of a Bengal Lancer

The Film:

I have already reviewed this film once.

livesThe Source:

The Lives of a Bengal Lancer by Francis Yeats-Brown (1930)

This book hasn’t done much better than Ruggles at Tufts (which makes me wonder why either is still there).  It was checked out in 1973 and 1984.  And that’s it.  And this is actually more understandable.  Who, these days, really wants to read this kind of jingoistic look at India through the eyes of a Brit from the first part of the century?  It’s one thing if you’re reading a great writer like Kipling.  But from Yeats-Brown, well, it’s just imperialistic ambitions.  I mean, just look at this: “Which of these people were Brahmins?  Which Mohammedans?  Which Animists?  There were fourteen million Brahmins in India, I had read in a book, but to me the twice-born and the eaters of offal were alike.  Did this slow brown tide that passed my carriage windows fight and make love like the quicker white?”  Well, it’s interesting as a document of its time, the memoir of Yeats-Brown of his time in India as a lancer.  But it’s not a great literary work and not one that will be remembered like Kipling.

The Adaptation:

There is actually very little of the book on the screen.  And they’re quite honest with that upfront in the credits: Suggested by the Novel by Francis Yeats-Brown (though it’s not a novel).  They basically took the title from the book and took some of his observations from his time in India and then created a plot to hang around that rough framework.

The Credits:

Directed by Henry Hathaway.  Screen Play by Waldemar Young, John L. Balderston and Achmed Abdullah.  Adaptation by Grover Jones and William Slavens McNutt.  Suggested by the Novel by Francis Yeats-Brown.  All five of the writers were nominated for the Oscar.  It is worth noting that the credits list the source as a novel when it is in fact a memoir.  Uncredited contributing writing from Maxwell Anderson and Francis Yeats-Brown.  Laurence Stallings is an uncredited contributor to screenplay construction.

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

  • Liliom  –  Fritz Lang’s film of the play, which had already been filmed in 1930 by Frank Borzage.  It’s very good with a good performance from Charles Boyer.
  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream  –  Already reviewed once, I always want to love this more than I do, partially because it’s one of my favorite Shakespeare plays (I was in it in 6th grade) and partially because while both Cagney and de Havilland were Warner stars, this is one of only three films that has both of them.  But it’s no more than simply good.
  • Black Fury  –  Starring Paul Muni and adapted from the short story “Jan Volkanik” via the play Bohunk.  Notable because Muni, without an official nomination, came in second in the Best Actor voting.
  • The New Gulliver  –  A good Russian film, an animated semi-adaptation of Gulliver’s Travels.
  • Chapayev  –  The story of the Russian hero, directed by Georgi Vasilyev, adapted from the novel.
  • Crime and Punishment  –  Josef von Sternberg’s adaptation of one of literature’s great novels.  I already reviewed this film here.
  • The Call of the Wild  –  William Wellman’s adaptation of the Jack London novel (which, I must admit, I hate).
  • Alice Adams  –  I have already reviewed this once.
  • Ah, Wilderness!  –  That rare thing, an O’Neill comedy.  This film is okay but it has a fairly good, restrained performance from Wallace Beery.
  • Peter Ibbetson  –  Yet another film based on a novel via a stage version.  Stars Gary Cooper, though not very effectively.
  • Anna Karenina  –  Already reviewed here, this film suffers from having Clarence Brown as its director.
  • The Tunnel  –  An interesting early sci-fi film based on the novel.
  • The Raven  –  A fun film to see Karloff and Lugosi together.  It makes use of the title and some of the content of Poe’s famous poem but the resemblance ends there.
  • Sylvia Scarlett  –  Scraping the lower ends of a ***, this film was a famous bomb, in spite of Cukor, Hepburn and Grant.  Based on the novel.
  • Mad Love  –  Another version of The Hands of Orlac, with an effective Peter Lorre, though the quality of the film pretty much ends there.
  • The Devil is a Woman  –  It’s von Sternberg and Dietrich, but not all that good.  Based on an 1898 French novel.
  • The Case of the Curious Bride  –  I cannot fathom the success of Warren William.  Here he is Perry Mason, which I only saw because Michael Curtiz directed it.  Famous for having Errol Flynn’s first Hollywood scenes, though he has no lines.
  • Becky Sharp  –  This is Vanity Fair, via a stage version.  It stars Miriam Hopkins and she was Oscar-nominated but it’s one of her weaker performances.
  • She  –  The adventure novel by Haggard is considered a classic in the genre.  The film, which combines all the books in the series, is not.  The Golden Raspberries book lists it as one of the 100 Most Enjoyably Bad Movies Ever Made.
  • The Last Days of Pompeii  –  A low end **.5 film.  Made by the same producer as She at the same time (and both films were later shortened to be on the same double-bill).  It’s inspired by the novel by Bulwer-Lytton (yes, he of the contest) but bears almost no resemblance to it and very little to a good film either.  But, hey, it’s at least better than:
  • The Little Colonel  –  This Shirley Temple film (based on the novel) is so sickeningly sweet it may send you into a diabetic coma.  Not the worst film of the year, but close.
Advertisements