My Top 10:
- The Grapes of Wrath
- The Philadelphia Story
- His Girl Friday
- The Letter
- The Shop Around the Corner
- La Bête Humaine
- The Baker’s Wife
- Pride and Prejudice
Note: I finally have, not only a full slate of 10, but films that I consider for my list and don’t make it, though that film is discussed below because it was nominated for the Oscar (The Long Voyage Home). This is the best group of 10 to date, hands down. The Letter is much better than any #6 so far except for Bride of Frankenstein. Shop and Humaine, at the #7 and 8 spots would be in the Top 5 of any year to this date except 1935.
Oscar Nominees (Best Screenplay):
- The Philadelphia Story
- The Grapes of Wrath
- Kitty Foyle
- The Long Voyage Home
Analysis: I won’t argue with the win for Philadelphia Story as I rate it almost as equal to Grapes. The nomination for Rebecca is well-deserved of course. The nomination for Voyage is a bit surprising as The Letter, which was nominated for Director, wasn’t nominated here. But Kitty Foyle is relentlessly mediocre – it currently sits at #100 for the year on my list.
I have actually reviewed this film three times already. The first time, in my piece on John Ford, I focused primarily on the film as it relates to California. The second time, the Best Picture piece, I wrote more about the film itself as a film. The third time is listed below.
The more I watch this film and the more I read this book, the more they both move me. For years, when people asked me where I was from, I used to hew and haw at the answer, explaining my time in New York, California and Oregon. But these days, when people ask me, I tend to say I’m from California. It’s not just because of my family history (see the first review). It’s because the more I reflect on it, the more I feel that is where I came from.
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939)
I wrote about the book once already, listing it at #18 in my Top 100 Novels of All-Time and I am not entirely certain that I didn’t underrate it. That link is below, under Adaptation.
When I came to the Top 100 Novel post, I had already written about the film twice. But, having focused on California and on the film itself, this third piece on the film focused more on what the film did with the novel itself.
Directed by John Ford. Associated Producer and Screen Play by Nunnally Johnson. Based on the novel by John Steinbeck.
I have already reviewed this film once. It is one of the all-time great comedies, both in terms of how hard it can make you laugh, but also in the sheer quality of it – the directing, the writing, and most especially the acting. I don’t agree with Jimmy Stewart’s Oscar but I think that both Hepburn and Cary Grant should have won.
The Philadelphia Story by Philip Barry (1939)
The Philadelphia Story is a fantastic play – funny, interesting, witty, fast-moving, romantic. It has good characters and smart dialogue. And yet, does it ever get performed? Could this be the problem with making the perfect film adaptation of the play, complete with the star from the original Broadway production that it was written for? No one ever wants to compete with perfection. Who knows. People do still perform Streetcar, after all.
Having, for some bizarre reason, been labelled “box office poison”, Katharine Hepburn went away from film in 1939. “Playwright Philip Barry came to Hepburn’s rescue, tailoring the arrogant heroine of his new comedy The Philadelphia Story to her personality. Agreeing to do the play on Broadway, the actress got not only a good role but a good deal – instead of a straight salary, she opted for a percentage of the profits and the film rights to the play.” (Inside Oscar, p 104) But there were changes to be made to the play. First of all, the brother character was dropped from the actual story and many of his lines were handed over to C.K. Dexter Haven, the ex-husband now made into a plum part for Cary Grant. Also, in order to cut the running time down, some of the scenes were trimmed. And, as ever, the action was expanded; in the original play all the action takes place at the Lord house. But expanding the film also gave more (and better) lines to Mike and Liz, the two other great roles in the film, played by Jimmy Stewart and Ruth Hussey (including their whole great first scene together). But in the end, much was the same, straight down to the ending, with the exact same lines.
Directed by George Cukor. Screen Play by Donald Ogden Stewart. Based on the Play by Philip Barry Produced by the Theatre Guild, Inc. Uncredited contributing writing from Waldo Salt.
The review that I had originally written to appear in this slot I ended up lifting and using in the Nighthawk Awards: 1940 slot instead when this post ended up being delayed by seven months, as this film was the only one of my Best Picture nominees that was adapted, and thus had never been reviewed before.
The Front Page by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur (1928)
I wrote about The Front Page already here, when I was discussing the original film version of the play. Rather than re-iterate what I already said about it, it’s best to check that bit before reading the paragraph below.
Something like three minutes. That’s how long it takes Walter Burns to show up in this film. And that’s after an opening shot that begins with a pan across the newsroom and has Hildy come out of the elevator. And Burns is introduced when she walks in and quits (after a much longer discussion she wasn’t planning on). So, this version is saying right up front that these are the two key roles and we’re going to do as much as we can with these two roles. And part of the way it takes a 189 page play and makes it into a 92 minute film is by keying in on the Burns / Hildy relationship and taking most of the stuff about the newspaper industry, all that stuff that happens in the press room, and letting it drop.
But, of course, the real big change isn’t that they key in on the relationship. It’s that they fundamentally alter the relationship by turning Hildy into a female (a good thing the name works so well for either gender) and having the two of them be a recently divorced couple as well as an editor and reporter. This also adds a bit of playful fun with the relationship between Bruce (Hildy’s fiancee) and his mother – a much different relationship now that Bruce is a male (it’s also similar to Bellamy’s role in The Awful Truth – perhaps why Walter describes him as looking like Ralph Bellamy).
The best thing is that it keeps one of the best bits from the original play – Walter telling Duffy to change everything in the paper. In the play it’s spread out among other people interrupting and one line has to be changed and is, brilliantly (in the play it’s “To hell with the League of Nations!” which in this film becomes “Take Hitler and stick him in the funny page!”). But, with all the changing, moving around, putting things on page 6, it all comes to the same brilliant punchline: “Leave the rooster story alone – that’s human interest!”
Directed by Howard Hawks. Screen Play by Charles Lederer. From the play “The Front Page” by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur as produced by Jed Harris.
I have already reviewed this film once. It is one of Hitchcock’s best films with remarkable acting all around, including one of the single best supporting performances of all-time from Judith Anderson.
Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier (1938)
Perhaps in one sense this would belong in 1939 – the classic that doesn’t really deserve classic status. That’s not to say that Rebecca is a bad book – far from it. But, neither were any of those films from 1939 that are so often accorded classic status (Dark Victory, Love Affair, Ninotchka, Midnight) bad films – they are, in fact, good films, of varying degrees. And Rebecca is a good book. But is precisely that – a good book.
It is a much beloved book, though, that much is certain. Hell, the copy I have in front of me from my local library has been beat to hell – there are pieces of the spine missing, the pages are wet and it has been read so many countless times that the spine is cocked beyond all hope of straightening. Perhaps because it combines two different book forms that happen to be big favorites of those who will read the same story over and over – the romance and the mystery. And it has these because it is, in many ways, an off-shoot of one of the best books ever written, a book that has both romance and mystery at its heart, as well as the young woman entranced by the older man, and who, after much pain and misery and the haunted specter of a previous wife, find happiness: Jane Eyre.
But perhaps one key difference between the two books, why Jane Eyre is such an amazing work of literature and why Rebecca is a good book, but really a classic, comes down to the real subject matter. Jane Eyre, of course, is a character study, not just of young Jane, but of the haughty, proud Rochester and the way that Jane saves and redeems him. In spite of the interesting character of Maxim de Winter, it is not really his story, and in spite of the first-person narrative it is never really her story either. Really, this is the story of the house. From the famous opening line (“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”) straight on down to its final line (“And the ashes blew towards us with the salt wind from the sea.”), this is really the story, not of a romance, but of what goes in within the walls of this house. And perhaps it really has the wrong title. Yes, Rebecca haunts the story, from the very first meeting of the eventual lovers, right on to the conclusion. But really, Manderley would have been a more apt title.
They were always going to have to change some of the book to make a film of Rebecca. After all, you couldn’t have Max de Winter killing his wife in cold blood and getting away with it – the Code expressly forbade that. But producer David O. Selznick was adamant that the film stay close to the book. When he saw the first draft of the script by Philip MacDonald and Joan Harrison, written under Hitchcock’s supervision, he sent Hitchcock a memo explaining “We bought Rebecca and we intend to make Rebecca.”, adding later “Readers of a dearly loved book will forgive omissions if there is an obvious reason for them; but very properly, they will not forgive substitutions.” (Memo from David O. Selznick, p 266). In the same memo, he insists on keeping no name for the narrator, explaining the reasons why their meeting on the Riviera needs to stay the way it was in the book. Selznick himself would complain in another memo “The whole story of Rebecca is the story of a man who has murdered his wife, and it now becomes the story of a man who buried a wife who has killed accidentally!” The actual handling of the scene would actually be suggested by Joseph Breen of the Hays office (p 285). He would later describe it in a letter being prepared for du Maurier: “There is one drastic change that was forced on us by the Hays office and that almost caused us to abandon the picture. I don’t want her to think we are imbeciles when she sees this change, which is that Maxim actually did not kill Rebecca.” (p 297). What there is no mention of in the book is the other big change made at the end. In the book, Max and the narrator have heard that Mrs. Danvers has cleared out and then they return to the burning house. We see no sign of Danvers, get only the hint that she might be responsible and certainly don’t see her tragic end in the house itself. It is a major change, yet an incredibly effective one, giving it the best ending the film could have had.
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Selznick International presents its picturization of Daphne du Maurier’s celebrated novel. Screen Play by Robert E. Sherwood and Joan Harrison. Adaptation by Philip MacDonald and Michael Hogan.
Walt Disney had hit a home run on the first pitch with Snow White. It had earned glowing praise (Sergei Eisenstein himself called it the greatest film ever made to that point) and was enormous at the box office (often overlooked because of the even more successful Gone with the Wind two years later). For his follow-up, he went, not back to fairy tales, though they would serve him well, but to a beloved children’s book. It would not, in some ways, be lightning in the bottle again. Pinocchio would not earn quite the same praise and it would not earn anywhere near the same amount of money. But, in other ways, it is the more lasting success, the first truly brilliant Disney film, and it would establish something even more important: the basic premise of the whole Disney concept. After all, what magical things can happen when you wish upon a star?
Pinocchio is not in my Top 5 of 1940. That says less about how brilliant it is (and it is brilliant – it ranks 4th on my list of all the Disney Animated films) and more about how good a year 1940 is – after all, this film would have been in my Top 5 in any previous year and 1946 would be the only year in the next fifteen where it wouldn’t make it. In my brief bit on it in the Disney ranking I mention the key aspects – the story (though, as mentioned below, the story can also be done badly), the music, the character of Jiminy, the lived-in look of the animation. But really, it is how all of these things fit together so well.
Look at the story – a perfect one for Disney, about the magical puppet who comes to life and wants to be a real boy. There are moral lessons to live by and some good fun to be seen on screen before we get to that. There is adventure and fantasy and thrills galore and more than a good deal of humor. There is the magnificent look of the film – the small town where Pinocchio comes to life, the brutal island that is both fantasy and nightmare all at the same time, the dark, brooding stomach of the whale.
But really, this all comes down one character and one moment. Did the writers know what was happening when they put down those wonderful words “When you wish upon a star”? It rivals “Over the Rainbow” as the best song ever written for the screen and it is the heart and soul of the Disney concept. When you go to Disneyland, you might not go on the Pinocchio ride – after all, it is one of the rides friendliest to really young kids – but it is all about watching dreams come true. And Jiminy finds a way to help those dreams come true and he really brings that story to life, still, after over 70 years, one of the finest animated films ever made.
The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi (serialized 1881-82, published 1883; usually published as Pinocchio)
I bought the book Pinocchio back in 2000 but until I picked it up for this project I had never read it. It was one of those books for my (then) future child, based on the knowledge of it as a “classic.”
But this book perhaps shows the quality of the film that Disney made and the value of voice actors. Much of the action in the film is straight from the book – how Pinocchio doesn’t go to school, but goes away, following the lies of Fox and the bad influence of Lampwick, ends up on a road of bad behavior, finds Geppetto (though in a shark, not a whale) and eventually becomes a real boy. But this Pinocchio (who has far more adventures than were put into the film) I always found just simply obnoxious. There are far too many opportunities for him to listen, far too many promises to the blue-haired fairy that he will be good in the future and long before he is redeemed I was sick of him and his promises. There are those who might see it as a classic. I see it only as a tiresome story of a tiresome character who is made so much more in the brilliant Disney film than he is on the page.
Perhaps this is why this film has been made multiple times and one of those films is a widely acknowledged classic and the two of the others (a live action film from 1996 with Martin Landu and the 2002 version directed by and starring Roberto Benigni) are complete and utter dreck; because the story itself is not as great as some would have you believe. It is the Disney film that is the brilliant work of art.
If you came to the book after having already watched the Disney version, and I’m gonna say that’s everyone who’s not Italian, there’s an incredible shock waiting for you. It begins on page 25 of the Puffin Classics edition (tr. E. Harden) when the talking cricket, who has “lived in this room for a hundred years or more” begins to moralize to Pinocchio. At this moment, Pinocchio is planning on running away from the short-tempered Geppetto (a shock to begin with), who is in jail because of Pinocchio’s actions (even more of a shock). When the cricket tells Pinocchio that he is sorry for the puppet because he has a wooden head, the real shock comes, at the top of page 26:
At these last words, Pinocchio lost his temper and, seizing a mallet from the bench, threw it at the cricket.
Perhaps he did not mean to hit him, but unfortunately the mallet struck him right in the head. The poor cricket had scarcely time to say ‘Cri-cri-cri‘, and there he was, stretched out stiff, and flattened against the wall.
Yes, not only is the talking cricket not the Jiminy Cricket we all come to know and love in the film, one of the greatest characters in animated film, but he’s almost entirely the invention of the filmmakers at Disney. In the original book, the talking cricket is actually killed by Pinocchio less than 30 pages in.
Of course, that’s not the only thing that the film does. It establishes the personality of Geppetto as poor and kind, just wanting a little boy to love. It gives us his lovable pets. It gives us one of the most wonderful songs ever written.
Yes, much of the basic framework for the film comes straight from the book, including most of the characters (though not necessarily the characterizations). Many of the episodes (the puppet show, the fox, the island, the belly of the beast) are on the page, but come much more to life on the screen (the nameless shark is not nearly as interesting as Monstro, the malevolent whale). The book is widely regarded as a children’s classic. The film is an absolute classic for all ages.
Supervising Directors: Ben Sharpsteen and Hamilton Luske. From the story by Collodi. Story Adaptation: Ted Sears, Webb Smith, Joseph Sabo, Otto Englander, William Cottrell, Erdman Penner, Aurelius Battaglia. Uncredited writing from Bill Peet.
I have already reviewed this film once. I think that the more I watch this film, and I have seen it at least four times now, the more I am struck by Bette Davis’ performance. But this time I was also impressed with the way they made the changes so that this play could be fit into the Code.
The Letter by W. Somerset Maugham (1927); adapted from his short story “The Letter” (1926)
Somerset Maugham’s story “The Letter” would be eventually recognizable to those who have seen the film. But it wouldn’t, perhaps, be instantly recognizable. Yes, the basic elements of the story are there – the flat facts of the case – the killing of Hammond, the fact of the letter, the intrigues involved in getting the letter back. But there isn’t the explosive opening, there isn’t nearly as much to the character of Leslie Crosbie (most of the story deals with the intrigues of the letter, not the character of Leslie herself) and there certainly isn’t the same ending – not even the line that became so key to the advertising about still loving the man she killed.
Then there is the play, which Maugham wrote the next year, at the behest of a producer friend who wanted it as a showcase for his wife (who didn’t end up playing the part). It is a good play with a good strong part for the role of Leslie Crosbie, much more dominant on stage than she had been on the original pages. And there we find much more of what we would later become so familiar on-screen.
Much of it is there, right in the play. There’s the explosive opening, of Leslie opening fire on the man, even as he is already dying. There is the back-and-forth between Leslie and Joyce, the lawyer. And there is the famous line at the end: “With all my heart I still love the man I killed.”
Ah, but there are differences too. The trial? That’s only in the film – there’s not trial in either the story or the play. And more importantly, there is the end. If Max de Winter couldn’t get away with killing a woman who wanted killing, then there was no way Leslie Crosbie was going to get away with shooting her lover. There was the Code, after all. And so, we still get the line, though this time it is said to her husband, rather than to a friend. And then we get the aftermath – the wandering out into the darkness and the shadows, the darkness from which she will not emerge. And really, who’s to say that this not the more apt ending. For once, perhaps, the Code gives us the ending we deserve.
Directed by William Wyler. By Somerset Maugham. Screen Play by Howard Koch.
I am, as I have said in several previous pieces, not a big fan of Lubitsch. The Lubitsch Touch, so admired by Billy Wilder, was always something that I thought was over-rated. I preferred the cynicism of Wilder himself. But that’s not to say that Lubitsch didn’t have his masterpieces, his films that really do belong to the ages, that are warm and funny and charming. This might be the best of the bunch, the charming, funny romance between two people who don’t realize they are romancing each other. And while so many Lubitsch films were nominated for Best Picture that didn’t deserve them, this film received absolutely no recognition from the Academy (true, it almost blanked at the Nighthawks, but I don’t nominate 10 films for Picture like the Academy did then).
Is this a film that might sadly be only known through its remake? The Shop Around the Corner has over 15,000 votes on the IMDb (which is almost 20 times what The Baker’s Wife has) but that still leaves it 100,000 short of You’ve Got Mail. That wouldn’t be a problem if You’ve Got Mail was a remake on the level of, say, His Girl Friday. But it’s not. It’s not even close. It’s doesn’t have the warmth of Shop. It doesn’t have the charm of Shop. It, surprisingly, doesn’t even have the acting of Shop.
This is the story of a hard-working clerk, one who likes his job, is a great employee, helping to hold the store together as personal problems begin to envelop his boss and manages to endure the constant irritation that is the new employee, a young woman who managed to get a job by successfully selling a musical cigar box that the clerk argued against stocking. Neither of these two know how to really find someone with their interests, who knows about literature and culture, who wants to move up in the world, so they have both found romance through personal ads and each of them are writing letters filled with thoughts and ideas and emotions and of course they’re both writing to the other. The clerk, played so perfectly by Jimmy Stewart, is the one who first realizes it when they go to finally meet each other. The woman, played quite well by Margaret Sullavan, lingers on in the world she believes she is in.
This film works so well because, even though the main characters don’t particularly like each other, we like them both and we want them both to succeed, both in the store, and in their love lives. We want them to triumph over the grumpiness of their boss (Frank Morgan), over the fussiness of their co-worker (Felix Bressart) and their womanizing co-worker who it turns out is making considerable trouble for a lot of the staff without any of them knowing it (Joseph Schildkraut). I mention all of the supporting players because they are all part of the large ensemble that makes the film work so well. Unlike so many film romances, it is not just the primary players who make the film as witty and charming as it is. And it is witty and it is charming. It should be seen by anyone who loves romance, who loves a good time, who loves film.
Illatszertar by Nikolaus Laszlo (1937)
Illatszertar (changed to Parfurmerie in the English translation, though the play has never been staged in the States) is a charming enough play. It all takes place in a shop, amid the busy lives of the various workers. In the first act, we have the close of the day, soon before Christmas. The owner gets irate at one of his clerks, for seemingly no reason, then fires him. After all the other employees leave, we learn that the owner’s wife has been having an affair, but not with the employee he thought. Distraught over his actions and the affair, he attempts suicide, but is stopped by the page boy. The second act is the next morning and the actions start to take focus. The clerk is re-hired, he argues with a female clerk he can’t get along with, only to discover that she has been corresponding with him by mail without either of them ever knowing it and ends with the guilty clerk being tossed out. In the third act, everything comes together – the owner reconciles with his wife and the two clerks finally learn that they have been in love with each other the whole time.
Much of The Shop Around the Corner comes straight from the original play, though a number of changes would be brought in. The first is establishing, right from the start, both the antagonism of the two clerks destined to fall in love (she is actually hired after the start of the film in a scene that undercuts his authority while in the play she has been working there for two years) and the romance through the mail that will be the essential part of the story (in the play it is a side-part to the main action, while in the film, everything focuses around that idea). Also, like with so many plays adapted to film, it takes a single location and expands on it. This allows for other scenes – such as Stewart going to meet his love for a date and discovering that’s Sullavan, whereas in the play he only discovers it when she tells him in the shop while angry at him.
Produced and Directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Screen Play by Samson Raphaelson. Based on a Play by Nikolaus Laszlo. Uncredited writing from Ben Hecht.
The original line here read “my most recent post had a review of the film.” Then I ended up dropping the series and waiting over seven months before I actually finished this post. The post is linked below.
La Bête Humaine by Émile Zola (1890)
I reviewed this book as a Great Read and it can be found here.
Like with many adaptations of Zola’s novels, this one moves this time period forward from the Second Republic to the modern day. It perhaps says something about how timely Zola’s novels are that they were designed to cover a specific period of history and yet, they move to the present so easily.
There are other changes to the book, of course. Lantier now is on the train and has a much better idea of who committed the crime rather than the brief instant he sees the train and the look he gets later at the inquest. The ending is also made considerably less bleak. Rather that start a new affair with his friend’s girl and then fight with his friend, ending up in both their deaths and a driverless train headed, not to war and death, but just to death, we simply have Lantier leap to his doom. When the suicide of the main character is the less bleak ending, well then, you know your original source novel is by Zola (or maybe Hardy, but we’ll go with Zola).
Un film de Jean Renoir. Inspiré du roman d’ Emile Zola. Renoir also did the adaptation and dialogue but with no credit. Denise Leblond also did uncredited dialogue writing.
Through the late 30’s, as Marcel Pagnol had moved from writing into directing, he made one poignant film after another. And, while there had been some comedic moments in Cesar and the presence of Fernandel forced some comedy from the otherwise melancholic Harvest, here he was with a comedy, a comedy good enough to win Best Foreign Film from both the New York Film Critics and the National Board of Review. But with The Baker’s Wife, like Harvest, adapted from another writer, he found a way to bring the humor forth through the very poignancy that he was already establishing as his trademark.
Once again, we have Raimu as the star. Raimu had been a stage actor (starring in the Marius trilogy on stage) when his film career was assured with the reprise of his role on film. As a major part of the beating heart of the trilogy, across all three films he would provide heart and soul. And so, Pagnol went back to him when he needed someone to fill the role of the baker, a man cuckolded and who, suddenly finding himself heartbroken, finds himself unable to bake.
The poignancy comes from the situation – this poor man, who so easily makes himself lovable on screen, is broken in front of us. At first he is just making excuses, claiming she is outside, claiming she must be on the way to church, finding whatever reason he can find to explain that she set up a cushion to take her place in the bed. But, as he sits in the cafe, ordering a whole bottle of Pernod, and we watch the reaction from the rest of the town, we begin to see the humor creeping in. For the baker, this is a time of pain and grief. But for the town, this is a disaster. If the baker is heartbroken and not baking, how will they get their daily bread? And so the town reacts and goes in motion, and that is the real humor – the way one thing can move a group of people to action, to do the right thing for all the wrong reasons.
“La Femme du boulanger” by Jean Giono (1930)
The original story was part of a larger novel called Jean le Bleu. It’s the simple story of the baker and the wife who leaves him and how he copes (or fails to cope) over the first few days before his wife is returned to him. While the novella doesn’t appear to have been translated, the story itself is available as part of Treasury of Classic French Love, a book with French and English editions on facing pages, allowing you to learn French (or English).
The original story had the plot. But it would be the Pagnol film that would provide the humor. Though there are parts of the original story that deal with the town wanting to get their bread back (the previous baker hanged himself) and there are parts where we see the baker’s desperation, we don’t really get the kind of warm humor that shines through in the film. We don’t get a scene like the one in the cafe, where the baker is desperate for a lot to drink or the sheer desperation of the town in their need to get something to eat.
Film de Marcel Pagnol. d’apres une nouvelle de Jean Giono. Pagnol also did the scenario and dialogue but the only credited listed was the first one.
That this film is not a complete classic, not a **** film that cries out to be seen must be put down to the director. Because when you have a comedic romance based on a classic novel (even one that I think is vastly over-rated) and you have romantic leads of the caliber of Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson, then you should end up with something great.
And yet, the 1940 Pride and Prejudice is not a great film. And though I am a huge fun of Olivier, it is barely even a very good film. It continues to move down a bit every time I see it and I wonder if someday I will see it as just another standard older film. And that’s not such a far cry from how others see it.
So what exactly is the problem? Well, I could say it’s the source material, as I find Jane Austen unreadable, but this same novel was made into a 2005 film that was so good I own it on DVD. And it’s not really the acting, as Olivier is solid, and rather apt for Darcy, Garson is charming, as Lizzie should be. And Edmund Gwenn and Mary Boland give solid performances as the parents (Boland even earns a Nighthawk nomination because the category is a bit thin).
But what really seems to be lacking is the chemistry. Yes, Olivier is perfectly suited to play Darcy. Yes, Garson is witty and charming and beautiful. But when the two of them are together there are no sparks – there is no moment like in the 2005 version where we realize that these two are made for each other (no, I have not seen the BBC version with Colin Firth, so that’s why there’s no comparison to it). It is a standard costume romantic comedy and with the acting, just a little bit more. If it only had some real direction, it could have been a contender.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813)
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” For some, this line causes their hearts to flutter. For others it settles on them like concrete. I am of the latter view. The universal chattering back and forth, the gossiping and need to find a husband for your daughter, or to talk about it with someone else who is looking for a husband for their daughter, or perhaps a marriage-worthy woman to marry their rich son off to; all of it makes me want to cringe. Perhaps it is that some will say that Ms. Austen’s novels were a form of social satire and that I am somehow missing the humor or perhaps even missing the point. Or perhaps it is the middle-class in me looking with disgust at novels like those of Ms. Austen or Mr. James and recoiling from those searching for a suitable match that will allow these people to continue with doing nothing. For all the drudgery in so many of the Dickens novels at least his characters went out and found a damn job.
But, then why do the films so often work for me when the novels do not? Is it that what is tolerable over the course of a couple of hours is unbearable for the amount of time it would take to read the novels? Or is that dialogue is one Austen’s actual talents and her story-telling, with lines (to pick one at random) like “Colonel Fitzwilliam’s manners were very much admired at the Parsonage, and the ladies all felt that he must add considerably to the pleasure of their engagements at Rosings.” just make me retch. And that was just one example. To pick another one: “If gratitude and esteem are good foundations of affection, Elizabeth’s change of sentiment will be neither improbable nor faulty. But if otherwise – if the regard springing from such sources is unreasonable or unnatural, in comparison of what is so often described as arising on a first interview with its object . . .” Yes, I stopped it short, because it goes on for another three lines.
Look, I find Austen to be unreadable, a point I have made before. When made into films with fantastic acting and lush art direction and amazing cinematography, the silly love story, the one in which the main character ends up marrying the person she seems to destined to marry within the first 50 pages of the story, whether it be Lizzie to Darcy, Emma to Knightley or Elinor to Edward, can fade a bit into the background. And, because I am forced to endure the dialogue and the story and not the narrative, sentences like “The vague and unsettled suspicions which uncertainty had produced of what Mr. Darcy might have been doing to forward her sister’s match, which she had feared to encourage as an exertion of goodness too great to be probably, and at the same time dreaded to be just, from the pain of obligation, were proved beyond their greatest extent to be true!” I can hear the school-girls squealing with delight. I’ll stick to the Brontes.
Finding myself unable to slog through the entire book and certainly unwilling to track down the Jerome play, there is not much I can add to what the adaptation has done to the source material beyond what anyone else can find out and what Austenites must already know by heart. I will snag one line from the book The English Novel and the Movies: “Although the movie lists Helen Jerome’s play on its credits, screenwriters Aldous Huxley and Jane Murfin have gone back to the book for most of their material, and have borrowed little of Jerome’s narrative restructuring or dialogue.” (p. 45) The book then does go on to criticize Huxley and Murfin for the way they have handled the transition from the book’s narrative to the screen: “At its worst, therefore, the movie version resorts to totally unconvincing dialogue to express what it cannot easily visualize.” (p. 46)
Directed by Robert Z. Leonard. Screen Play by Aldous Huxley and Jane Murfin. Based Upon the Dramatization of Jane Austen’s Novel Written by Helen Jerome. Uncredited contribution to treatment from Victor Heerman and Sarah Y. Mason. Uncredited contributing writing from Tess Slesinger and John Van Druten.
I have already reviewed the film once.
The Long Voyage Home: Seven Plays of the Sea by Eugene O’Neill (1918 / 1940)
Although, it’s not really adapted from the full book. Eugene O’Neill, at the beginning of his career, before he became the American playwright (later joined in a trinity with Miller and Williams) wrote several one-acts that took place at sea. The first four of them used the same group of characters (except for those that were killed off) and all took place on the same boat: SS Glencairn. They were later, after the film, published together in a Modern Library volume as The Long Voyage Home: Seven Plays of the Sea, though only those first four were adapted for the film.
Each of the plays is a short little character piece. Not one character mind you, but bringing out aspects of all the characters, especially the ones like Driscoll who continue through all four plays. We get more of some of the characters in individual plays. In Bound East for Cardiff we learn more about Yank as he lies dying before us. In The Long Voyage Home it’s Olson’s turn as he is headed home, before he is shanghaied to another boat at the end of the play. In In the Zone it’s Smitty (who the others suspect of being a spy).
This is O’Neill, of course, the man who brought classical tragedy back to American theater, who won four Pulitzers over a magnificent career but only wrote one comedy. So none of these plays are going to get happy endings. But they get realistic characters and fascinating studies of those characters.
Dudley Nichols would do a good job with the adaptation. He would move the plays around a bit (he moves The Long Voyage Home to the end to conclude with the effort to shanghai Olson). He alters the time period (the plays were set during the Great War but the film is moved up to World War II – either way they work just as well, especially the suspicion of Smitty of being a German spy). He stays true to the characters as they were developed by O’Neill. And, in the end, he provides both a greater sense of tragedy and a little sense of hope as well. The final play concludes with Smitty, a broken man, having had his past revealed; the film leaves Smitty dead after a machine gun attack. And while the third play concludes with Olson being lost, here, with the play moved to the end, his friends lead a charge to get him back (even if he doesn’t get home, he at least isn’t on a new boat). But that charge ends up with Driscoll, one of the pivotal characters being left behind and later, ironically, killed on the other ship, when, in fact, he is one of the few characters who actually survives all four plays, indeed getting in the final line in each of the last two plays. Still, it is a good film and well adapted from the original plays to make them all work as one continuous story instead of four pieces of a story.
Directed by John Ford. Based on Four Sea Plays by Eugene O’Neill. Adapted for the Screen by Dudley Nichols.
I have already reviewed this film once.
Kitty Foyle by Christopher Morley (1939)
The first thing to point out is that the novel has not subtitle, unlike the film’s ridiculous subtitle: The Natural History of a Woman. The second thing to point out is that, in spite of its success, this is a terrible novel. Or maybe that’s why it was such a success.
Here’s a quote I turned to at random: “Every time I heard her or the maid coming in I had to hurry and pick up that slippery little silk quilt I couldn’t keep on top of the bed. I guess French people don’t trash round so much once they get to sleep. She’d make me wear the prettiest little bed jacket of her own and said I made a romantic looking invalid, like somebody that had been through the French Revolution.”
The problem with the book stems from its point-of-view. It’s written in first person from Kitty’s point-of-view and Morley just can’t pull off any actual narrative that sounds natural. It’s painful to read and it has dated very badly. I can understand how Hollywood would want to pounce on it and its “controversy” (it was an early book to deal with abortion), but since that would have to be pushed out by the code anyway, I’m sure they just wanted the name recognition.
I have already mentioned in my review of the film that I think it is quite bad. It might have the single worst performance to ever win Best Actress and it was a win over The Philadelphia Story, The Letter and Rebecca, which makes it all the more appalling (with no nomination even for His Girl Friday). The script is pathetic melodrama and didn’t belong anywhere near the Oscar nominations. But, of course, much of the script comes from the book. While being forced to make certain changes that in no way would have made it past the Code (in the book Kitty has an abortion – here the baby dies; also, the baby is out of wedlock in the book while in the book the characters marry and quickly divorce when they realize it won’t work). The film, being Hollywood after all, has a much more straightforward ending as opposed to the ambivalence of the book’s ending.
Directed by Sam Wood. Screen Play by Dalton Trumbo. Additional Dialogue by Donald Ogden Stewart. The only mention of the source material is the title card, which shows Kitty Foyle A Novel by Christopher Morley.
Other Adaptations (in descending order of how good they are):
- The Thief of Bagdad – Michael Powell is one of many directors on this project, his last before joining with Pressburger and forming The Archers. It looks glorious and won three Oscars (it also wins three Nighthawks, but not the same three). It suffers in the script department and a lot of the acting is fairly weak and that keeps it from moving it out of the *** level, but it is at the very top of the *** level. Adapted somewhat from Arabian Nights, but more from the Douglas Fairbanks film.
- Christmas in July – One of the weakest Preston Sturges films and it’s still pretty good. Adapted from Sturges’ own play.
- They Drive By Night – If this fairly good Raoul Walsh film reminds you somewhat of Thieves Highway that’s because the source novels are by the same author. It’s got George Raft and Bogie as brothers before Bogie would become a star by taking roles Raft was turning down.
- The Stars Look Down – An early solid film from Carol Reed. Adapted from a novel by A.J. Cronin, who also wrote The Citadel.
- I Love You Again – Enjoyable comedy that re-teams William Powell, Myrna Loy and W.S. Van Dyke outside the Thin Man series. Adapted from the novel.
- Abe Lincoln in Illinois – Raymond Massey is solid as Lincoln (and was Oscar-nominated). From the Pulitzer winning play by Robert Sherwood.
- Too Many Husbands – Enjoyable screwball comedy adapted, surprisingly, from a Somerset Maugham play called Home and Beauty.
- House of the Seven Gables – Director Joe May made some great films in Germany then came to the States and the results weren’t nearly as impressive. George Sanders and Vincent Price make this Hawthorne adaptation worthwhile.
- Northwest Passage – A King Vidor of the Kenneth Roberts adventure novel, starring Spencer Tracy.
- Waterloo Bridge – Not nearly as good as the 1931 version by James Whale, partially because this version stars Robert Taylor. On the other hand, it also has Vivien Leigh, and she is very solid and very beautiful.
- The Invisible Man Returns – Joe May again, this time with an Invisible Man sequel that uses the concept from Wells’ novel but nothing else.
- They Knew What They Wanted – Another Pulitzer Prize winning play gets turned into an Oscar nominated film (this one nominated for Supporting Actor).
- Irene – A musical with Ray Milland that’s not as bad as it sounds like it should be.
- Captain Caution – Another Kenneth Roberts novel, this one with Victor Mature.
- Dark Command – A John Wayne film from Raoul Walsh, adapted from a novel by W.R. Burnett (Little Caesar, High Sierra).
- The Howards of Virginia – The novel The Tree of Liberty gets turned into a film about America at the time of the Revolution starring Cary Grant.
- Our Town – The film’s not exactly as a classic as I point out here. The play has also, I think, had its reputation die off as the years go by.
- The Mark of Zorro – Tyrone Power can’t compete with Douglas Fairbanks or Antonio Banderas.
- Castle on the Hudson – This film couldn’t decide if it was a crime film or a melodrama. Adapted from a book by an actual prison warden.
- City for Conquest – Not the best Cagney film, but not awful either. Adapted from the novel.
- Swiss Family Robinson – Not the Disney version (that would come in 1960), but an RKO production of the classic kids book.
- Arizona – Even William Holden and Jean Arthur can’t do much when they’ve got a lackluster director like Wesley Ruggles. From a story by Clarence Buddington Kelland, whose story “Opera Hat” was made into Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.
- The Ghost Breakers – The play was brought to the screen with Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard to capitalize on their success in The Cat and the Canary the year before but this isn’t nearly as good.
- Primrose Path – Marjorie Rambeau scored an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for this Ginger Rogers film based on the play.
- Strange Cargo – Not particularly memorable Crawford / Gable film from a novel called Not Too Narrow, Not Too Deep.
- Boom Town – Another Gable / Tracy film, this one adapted from a Cosmo story.
- Escape – Early anti-Nazi film, adapted from the novel, which, unfortunately, stars Robert Taylor.
- The Blue Bird – Another trudge through a Shirley Temple film, this one adapted from the Maeterlinck play.
- Lady with Red Hair – You’d think with a title like this they would have made it in color, but alas, no. Miriam Hopkins and Claude Rains are mostly wasted in this film based on the memoirs of early 20th Century stage actress Mrs. Leslie Carter.
- Northwest Mounted Police – A big DeMille film, adapted from a novel on the Mounties and one of the worst films to win Best Editing at the Oscars.
- The Boys from Syracuse – Not all that good and very hard to find. Based on the Broadway hit, which was loosely adapted from Comedy of Errors.
- The Mortal Storm – Adapted from the novel by Phyllis Bottome, this film was notable for being one of the first to be anti-Nazi. But, it still fails to even mention the Jews and its message can’t keep up the mediocrity of the film. Also known as the 1940 film starring Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan that isn’t nearly as good as The Shop Around the Corner.
- Vigil in the Night – Another A.J. Cronin novel, but this one is a mediocre melodrama from George Stevens before he started racking up Oscar nominations.
- Dance, Girl, Dance – Mediocre musical from a story by Vicki Baum, better known for writing Grand Hotel.
- All This and Heaven Too – I have already reviewed this film once. It’s one of the worst Best Picture nominees ever, in the bottom 15, and the worst between 1934 and 1957. Adapted from a novel by Rachel Field, more known for her children’s books.