"This house was the pride of the town.  Faced with stone as far back as the dining-room windows, it was a house of arches and turrets and girdling stone porches: it had the first porte-cochere seen in that town."  (The Magnificent Ambersons, p 9)

“This house was the pride of the town. Faced with stone as far back as the dining-room windows, it was a house of arches and turrets and girdling stone porches: it had the first porte-cochere seen in that town.” (The Magnificent Ambersons, p 9)

My Top 10:

  1. The Magnificent Ambersons
  2. Bambi
  3. Random Harvest
  4. Now Voyager
  5. The Glass Key
  6. Kings Row
  7. This Gun for Hire
  8. The Man Who Came to Dinner
  9. Mrs. Miniver
  10. The Pride of the Yankees

note:  Like in 1941, I have a Top 10 but no more.

Oscar Nominees (Best Screenplay):

  • Mrs. Miniver
  • The Pride of the Yankees
  • Random Harvest

Oscar Nominees  (Best Original Story):

  • The Pride of the Yankees

note:  The other four nominees for Best Original Story qualify under current rules as Original Screenplays.  This includes winner The 49th Parallel and nominee The Talk of the Town, whose screenplays were the other two nominees in the Best Screenplay category.

The Magnificent Ambersons

Ambersons title cardThe Film:

I have already reviewed the film once.  It is so well made, so well thought out, so well directed, that even though the studio took the film away from Welles while he was in Mexico it shines through on almost every level and is easily one of the best films of the year.

ambersonsThe Source:

The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington  (1918)

I gave serious consideration to putting The Magnificent Ambersons in my Top 100 Novels of All-Time and it easily made my Top 200.  Though I had seen the film long before the Modern Library did their Top 100 Novels (noted on the cover of the edition to the right – the same edition I own), I did not read the book until after that list was released in 1998.  And yet, it easily ranked as one of the best books that I read for the first time while reading my way through that list.

This novel is the story of George Minafer, who is an Amberson in descent and behavior, if not by name.  It is his ignominy to come of age during the not-so-glorious descent of the family that had once stood at the center of this town.  He is rich, prideful and disdainful of almost anyone who does not share his name, or at least pedigree.  He holds himself above the world, the kind of man who looks down upon all those who toil in the world, and whose only ambition is to be a yachtsman.  It is his luck to somehow come across the love of a young woman named Lucy Morgan (it could hardly be said that he has earned it).  He is a man whom the whole town waits to get his comeuppance, and when he finally does, no one seems to remember that they were waiting for it.

All of this could be a boring book, or a dreadfully nasty book.  But Tarkington, with grace and elegance, follows the declining fortunes of the family through the life of young George so that while we may wait with baited breath for his fall, when it finally comes, we get an understanding of the world which has produced him and has now been left behind in the emerging world of the twentieth century.  Look at this early description of George:

Having thus, in a word, revealed his ambition for a career above courts, marts, and polling booths, George breathed more deeply than usual, and, turning his face from the lovely companion whom he had just made his confidant, gazed out at the dancers with an expression in which there was both sternness and a contempt for the squalid lives of the unyachted Midlanders before him.  However, among them, he marked his mother; and his sombre grandeur relaxed momentarily; a more genial light came into his eyes.

Tarkington’s language is perfect for the world that is disappearing, the world whose decline he is focused upon.  If I had to describe Tarkington, I would say he is one part of the romance and describer of courtly practices that so many love in Jane Austen, crossed with the social awareness of Theodore Dreiser, yet without Austen’s unawareness of actual human nature and without Dreiser’s tendency to wallow in the misery of the crash of his characters.

The Adaptation:

“[Tarkington] deserves to be taken more seriously.  If the movie of Ambersons has any quality, a great part of it is due to Tarkington.  What doesn’t come from the book is a careful imitation of his style.  What was all my own was a third act which took this story into a darker, harder dimension.  I can’t pay enough tribute to Tarkington.”  (This is Orson Welles, p 96)

Welles is pretty spot-on here.  In my review of the film I mentioned that when I had gone back to re-read the book, I could almost hear Welles narrating in my head.  Welles isn’t just being modest in his quote – the script really comes straight from Tarkington or is a perfect imitation of him.  In the end of the film, because of the cutting that the studio ordered, we start to veer a bit away from the novel.  But for much of the film, you can watch the film and hold the book and follow along, especially in those early scenes as Welles gives great life to a part of a novel that most people would have considered unfilmable – an attempt to ground the novel in a specific time and place that is not connected to the story itself, but to the era in which it belongs.  And yet, with Welles behind the camera, it becomes precisely that part of the story that works so well to set up everything that follows, for if this is a novel about anything, it is a novel about the changes that society brings upon itself, sometimes leaving those behind who were once so far ahead.

The Credits:

From The Novel by Booth Tarkington.  “The Magnificent Ambersons was based on Booth Tarkington’s novel.”  “I wrote the script and directed it.  My name is Orson Welles.”


bambiThe Film:

I have already reviewed the film once.  It is, quite simply, a brilliant film.  It was strange to read the book Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination and to read about how much the film suffered when it came out – not just at the box office, but in the reviews.  To me, the best narrative Disney films of the first 50 years were, without a doubt, Pinocchio and Bambi, and yet, somehow, both of those films were considered artistic failures when held up to the standard of Snow White.  I’m sorry.  Snow White is fantastic, but outside of Fantasia, Bambi was the best film made by Disney while Walt was alive.

bambialifeThe Source:

Bambi. Eine Lebensgeschichte aus dem Walde by Felix Salten  (1923, tr. 1928)

Bambi is an interesting little novel.  I almost venture to say kids book.  Because, it is, in many ways, aimed towards children.  It is the life of one young deer, from the day he is born, until the day when he takes over his father’s place, helping to guide younger deer in the forest, but also walking alone.

If you have seen the film, and I would venture to say that most people, certainly in America, will have seen the film before they have read the book, it is a bit of a shock.  This is a book aimed towards children in helping them to learn about nature and what life is like in the forest, but it is not a cutesy children’s book filled with pleasant animals and happy times.  Things are very rough for the young fawn and he must learn to make his way with the constant danger of man.  Most of the other animals are no help and his mother disappears early on (yes, disappears – we don’t get that brutal moment that everyone knows from being a kid, instead simply “Bambi never saw his mother again.”).

I don’t know that anyone who grew up loving the film could ever really be comfortable with the book.  It lacks the, for a better word, “humanity” of the animals in the forest.  It lacks the wonder and joy that you see on film.  It is a good book for someone young who is anxious to learn about nature, though, and will provide them, I think, with some good thoughts to build upon, because both film and book have one major thing in common – the dread of man and what damage he can bring when unleashed upon the forest.

The Adaptation:

Everyone knows that Snow White was the first Disney animated feature length film.  But Alice in Wonderland and Bambi were begun before it – indeed, Bambi was originally planned for a 1934 release.  It stalled at the time “most likely because Walt feared the studio did not yet have the artistic capability to animate so realistic a story.” (Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, Neal Gabler, p 215).  Eventually it got underway, but they still weren’t quite certain of how to go about putting it on-screen.  Then came the most important decision.

“It was Ham Luske, for example, who suggested at a meeting that September that they centralize one of the bunnies to act as a kind of guide, just as Jiminy Cricket had done in Pinocchio.  That gave Bambi’s friend Thumper a much enlarged role and changed Bambi’s introduction to the forest.”  (Gabler, p 320)  This was obviously the key change from the book (there is no Thumper in the book) and the one that makes the film so accessible and so wonderful (read my review to see my full views on Thumper).  But that wasn’t the only change to come as they were making the film, trying to figure out how to complete the narrative.  “A few weeks later, musing on the winter sequence, [Walt] came up with the idea of Bambi on the ice pond.  ‘He has never been on ice before.  It is like putting Pluto on ice with skates on him.  He just can’t stand up.  He is having a hell of a time’.”  (Gabler, p 320-321)

“Obviously Walt understood that Bambi was difficult.  He knew it had less a riveting story than a cycle and that it required subtlety.  The characters couldn’t be too broadly drawn or the film would miss the poetic tone it needed to be great, and greatness was the goal.”  (Gabler, p 328)  The book then talks about how they didn’t achieve that goal.  Certainly the film was not a big commercial success when it was released, and it would seem not an overly critical success as well.  But Gabler would have you believe that the critics were right.  They were not.  Bambi has one of the best scripts that was ever produced by Disney and it makes for one of the best films in the company’s history.  The proof is there every time you watch it.

The Credits:

Supervising Director: David D. Hand.  From the story by Felix Salten.  Story Direction: Perce Pearce.  Story Adaptation:  Larry Morey.  Story Development: George Stallings, Melvin Shaw, Carl Fallberg, Chuck Couch, Ralph Wright.

Random Harvest

randomharvestThe Film:

I have already reviewed this film once.  The first time I saw it, almost 20 years ago now, it seemed like a solid film, but both times I have re-watched it since I realized it really is a very good film, certainly the best of the Hilton adaptations of the era.

JamesHilton_RandomHarvestThe Source:

Random Harvest by James Hilton  (1941)

I couldn’t decide what my problem was while reading Random Harvest.  Was the problem that, after reading Lost Horizon and Goodbye Mr. Chips, I was expecting something along those lines and that this book was simply far more obtuse and I was confused as to what was going on because of the style?  Or, was the problem that I was used to the narrative of the film, having seen it three times, and was trying too hard to reconcile the actions in the film with what I was reading on the page?

Either way, the novel simply wasn’t working for me.  Because there is a secret at the heart of the book that won’t be revealed until the final lines (it is revealed much earlier in the film because there is no way around it), it is written in what I would argue, is a deliberately obtuse manner.  It wants to maintain the secret, so it plays around it, gives us a story that covers almost twenty years by giving us a first person narrative, then a passing down of another person’s narrative, and then going into third-person because Hilton can’t really seem to figure out how he wants to tell the story.

In the end, what I will say is this – having now read this book, I am actually more impressed with the adaptation process of bringing it to the screen.  Not only would there be the secret at the heart of the film, but the whole narrative process would have to be changed in order to make any sense of it on the screen.  I know this was a best-seller; it was released after the next war had already begun and it deals with the traumatic stress of fighting in war and returning home afterwards.  Perhaps that was why it was so successful, because this is so fundamentally different from the other two Hilton books I have read, so much more of a slog, that I can’t imagine why people would have been so anxious to finish it.

The Adaptation:

The screenwriters must have a made a decision early on about the narrative of Random Harvest, and it was for the best.  The book is told from a first-person point-of-view from a man who ends up in the employ of Charles Rainier.  Then the narrative moves into third-person as we hear Charles’ story.  It is bizarre and confusing in the book and the writers wisely decided to drop the narrator entirely and simply allow the story to develop around Charles’ actions.  In this way we actually see the story unfold with him, rather than attempting to connect it all together years after many of the events have happened.

While there are a number of narrative changes (in the novel the character of Kitty dies and as it had been years since I had seen the film when I was reading the book I was trying to remember who she was in the film, but in the film she doesn’t die), the biggest change from the novel to the film is necessitated by the change in format.  The book contains a secret – that when Charles was amnesiac he fell in love with a dancer and he’s trying to track down his past.  In the end of the novel we learn (rather obliquely, though) that this is the woman who is now his wife.  But in the film they can’t really hide that fact, so that fact is revealed much earlier on and we have to watch her suffer in silence, waiting for him to learn the truth.  I actually thought it was more effective from that standpoint, but then this is one of those cases where I prefer the film to the book.

The Credits:

Directed by Mervyn LeRoy.  Screen Play by Claudine West, George Froeschel and Arthur Wimperis.  Based Upon the Novel by James Hilton.

Now, Voyager

now-voyager-movie-poster-1942-1020142780The Film:

There is a level on which Now, Voyager annoys me.  It’s a Warners film, a romance with Claude Rains and Paul Henreid, and so it invites comparisons to Casablanca, which it pales against.  My mother plays into that because she always describes Paul Henreid as being from Now, Voyager, which is doubly annoying, because I know who he is anyway, and because I always remind her that he’s also in Casablanca, which you think she would remember as it one of her favorite films.  But there are other levels as well, levels of the film which don’t annoy me at all.  It is a very good film, a film that rises up the typical romance.  It is a considerably better film than several other films for which Bette Davis earned Oscar nominations, or even Oscars (e.g. Dangerous, Jezebel, Dark Victory).  Although it does bring up a problem with Bette Davis films in general.

Bette Davis rarely ever had someone on screen to match with her.  Even in a great film like The Letter, her husband is just there to be stepped on.  Perhaps that’s one of the things that’s so great about The Little Foxes – her brother is so odious that he actually is a match for her on screen.  Perhaps the reason this film doesn’t suffer from that problem as much as many other of her films is because the character is written to be so much weaker than a typical Davis character, at least until the end when she is finally able to stand up for herself (and manages to pretty much kill her mother by doing so, though she was a pretty awful woman anyway).

All of that said, Now, Voyager really is a good film.  It has a great role for Davis (she’s a long-suffering dowdy woman whose only luck at finding someone was sabotaged by her mother and has now managed to find someone, only for the person to be unhappily married but unable to extract himself from the marriage), a good role for Claude Rains (the psychologist who helps her get out of the rut in her life that she has been trapped in thanks to her overbearing mother) and a plumb role for Gladys Cooper (as the, really, pretty awful mother).  Yes, Paul Henreid is in the film, but really his only job is to be intriguing enough for Davis to fall in love with and not be too much of a milksop.  That he can perfectly light two cigarettes and look classy doing so would make his scenes the stuff of screen legends, but really the film itself is better when it’s not trying to bog itself down in the romance and simply looking at Davis attempting to live her life.

nowvoyagerThe Source:

Now, Voyager by Olive Higgins Prouty (1941)

The version of Now, Voyager that I got out of the library is a 2004 version printed by The Feminist Press.  It is part of a series called Femmes Fatales: Women Write Pulp.  That’s a bit odd, because while the second part is accurate, as far as this book is concerned, the first is anything but.  The series is designed to re-introduce people to those female writers of the 30’s and 40’s who were ignored by the literary establishment.  They wrote in genres that were often dominated by men and they sold lots of copies in the early paperback market.  Now, Prouty’s book was undoubtedly a huge success in the paperback market, much to her dismay.  But the character of Charlotte Vale is in no way a femmes fatale and it feels strange to read that on the cover.

Now, Voyager is quite a solidly written book.  It might perhaps be ignored because Prouty also wrote Stella Dallas, a rather famous weepy book, and because there is a romance at the heart of the book, perhaps making people mistake this for a lesser kind of book.  But that’s the problem of marginalizing “chick lit” in the first place – the merit of a book is in the writing, not in the type of book it is.  Just like Hammett and Chandler are great writers, even though they wrote in a genre dominated by crap, that does not mean that the romance aspect of this book (or the fact that it was so popular as a pulp title) should allow it to be ignored.

Prouty’s novel balances many things (in her own words: “Charlotte’s story is that of an escape from domestic tyranny, and tells of her amazing metamorphosis, and her moving love-story” (Inside Warner Bros. (1935-1951), p 166)).  It balances the way that the upper class in Boston react to many things in life – to an aging woman who is unmarried, to the notion of having a breakdown, to an appropriate time to remarry after a death and whether that means the person is still part of the family.  It balances a well-written romance between two desperately unhappy people.  It balances all of this within the accepted norms of society.  And it provides a satisfactory conclusion of what two people in such a situation would do in the end to make themselves, and the others around them, happy.  It is not a great novel, not destined to ever be read in a class, but it is a solid novel and provides the core of a well-loved film.

The Adaptation:

Much of what we see on screen was right there on the page.  Many of the lines, especially the by-now classic famous last line (“Oh, Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars.”) are straight from the book.  The events between the two lovers were toned down on-screen because of the Code, of course, but it would still be fairly obvious to any reasonable adult what happens between the two of them, even if they couldn’t make it explicit on-screen.

There are some changes, of course, but not changes that greatly alter the story.  The psychologist, for instance, is someone who is only met much later in the book.  The film-makers decided to actually depict his arrival and first meeting with Davis and it works really well because, of course, played by Rains, he is graceful and full of class.  There is also the question of the local.  The two lovers meet upon a boat while traveling, and Warners used some actual location shots.  In the book, they go ashore in Italy.  But the war had broken out and there certainly was no chance of anything in Italy, so it’s Brazil where the exotic events happen.

But none of that is a particularly big change.  If you are a fan of the book, you are likely to be a fan of the film.  And if you are a fan of the film (more likely in this time period), the book will likely also be to your tastes.

The Credits:

Directed by Irving Rapper.  Screen Play by Casey Robinson.  From the Novel by Olive Higgins Prouty.

The Glass Key

glass_key_ver2_xlgThe Film:

Some studios do certain things perfect.  Others do them not as well.  Sometimes that’s a problem – look at dreck like the Ice Age and Madagascar films against the continued success of Pixar, for example.  Sometimes, it’s an imitation, but not quite as pale and actually with some considerable shading.  It’s one thing to hope for steak and get spoiled meat.  It’s another thing to hope for steak and get a decent burger instead.

All of this is getting around to three specific films, two of which are on this list: The Glass Key, This Gun For Hire and The Blue Dahlia.  All three are very good films, hard-boiled film noir, deep in the shadows.  They involve writers who are among the best at this kind of writing – Dash Hammett (the source novel for this film), Graham Greene (the source novel for Gun) and Raymond Chandler (who wrote the original script for Blue Dahlia).  They all star the same team – Alan Ladd as the man hunted and Veronica Lake as the girl who gets involved.  If you watch these three films, you will find yourself enjoying them, admiring them and even sometimes being impressed with them.

But now leave the studio grounds at Paramount (the source of these three films) and head over the Hollywood Hills to Burbank, where you find Warner Bros.  We have two of the same writers involved, we have the same kind of films – hard-boiled noir, we have a big star who is cold and hard.  But The Maltese Falcon (Hammett) is the best of its kind and the 1-2 punch of Bogart and Bacall in To Have and Have Not (Hemingway, filtered through Faulkner and Brackett) and The Big Sleep (the best Chandler book, also filtered through Faulkner and Brackett) blow Ladd and Lake out of the water.  Maybe one thing to look at is the difference in directors – Falcon is directed by John Huston and the other two by Howard Hawks.  The three Paramount films are directed by Frank Tuttle, Stuart Heisler and George Marshall.  So these films are good, but they are still just the hamburger to Warners’ steak.

That being said, I love a good burger.  And this is a good burger.  Ladd would never be a great actor, but he would be a screen presence and he is right as a man loyal to his boss, willing to take a beating, determined to solve the mystery and find out who really did murder at the core of this story.  Lake would never be a great actress but she is alluring on-screen and she has palpable chemistry with Ladd.  Brian Donleavy, even when playing a good guy, always seems like the kind of man you can’t quite trust, and since he seems determined to keep the truth from getting out, we know we can’t trust him here.  There is also ample talent running around aside from the leads – the wonderful Bonita Granville as the sister who believes her brother is guilty and William Bendix as a brutal enforcer who has a great scene when he realizes he’s been betrayed and he will get his vengeance no matter what it costs him.  This story is not a mystery on the same level as Falcon, but it is a good mystery and we follow it through, partially because Ladd is so determined to know what has really happened.  In the end we are rewarded and feel as satisfied as we would after a good, filling meal.

glasskeyThe Source:

The Glass Key by Dashiell Hammett  (1931)

Ned Beaumont looks at Paul Madvig’s mother.  Ned is Paul’s right-hand man and has been trying to figure something out.  He wants to know who killed Taylor Henry.  Ned assures Paul’s mother that Paul didn’t kill Taylor:

He smiled at her.  He smiled with his lips only and they were thin against his teeth.  “It would be nice if somebody in town besides me thought he didn’t do it and it would be especially nice if that other one was his mother.”

Beaumont is an interesting character and a reminder that Hammett was not just a great mystery writer, but a great writer.  The Glass Key isn’t as well written as The Maltese Falcon, it doesn’t have the humor of The Thin Man, it is not as brutal as Red Harvest.  But it has a great character at its core in Ned Beaumont.  He is different from the other Hammett characters in that he doesn’t have Sam Spade’s coldness or Nick Charles’ sense of humor.  But he does have loyalty and that loyalty continually drives him forward.

He is also smart.  He figures things out before many of the characters, even if he isn’t smart enough to escape from a trap that ends with him nearly beaten to death.  Through it all, he maintains Paul’s innocence to anyone who will listen and even those who don’t.  He battles against a rival mob, against Paul’s sister, against the D.A.’s office.  In the end, it is his determination and sheer nerve that takes him through to the solution, and always, it is there in Hammett’s clear, crisp hard-boiled style.

The Adaptation:

There are small changes.  Some of them make sense (the line I quote above is said in the film to Paul’s sister rather than his mother, but since she’s even more convinced that Paul is guilty it works just as well).  Some of them don’t make as much sense (Ned is changed to Ed in the film).  But many of the scenes in the book end up right on-screen: Ed taking so many beatings that he is barely alive, then craftily manages to get himself out of the situation, Ed’s careful destruction of a suicide note and manipulation of events.  The larger political story on the edge of the scenes is, for the most part, eliminated in the film to focus on the mysterious death and discovering who might have killed him.  Like with all good films made from Hammett books, the filmmakers understand that Hammett’s writing is essentially cinematic and there is no need to cut much and no need to really change anything at all – just stick to what is already on the page and film that.  If you don’t do that, well, then you end up with dreck like the first two attempts at making The Maltese Falcon.

The Credits:

Directed by Stuart Heisler.  Screen Play by Jonathan Latimer.  Based on the Novel by Dashiell Hammett.

Kings Row

kings-row-ann-sheridan-ronald-reagan-everettThe Film:

I have already reviewed this film once.  I was very impressed the first time I saw it, almost 20 years ago, swept up in the cinematography, the score, the performance by Claude Rains and the melodrama.  But every time I go back to it I see Robert Cummings in the lead role and the whole film just drags.

kingsrowThe Source:

Kings Row by Henry Bellamann  (1940)

An argument could be made that Kings Row is the original Peyton Place – the best-seller that scandalized the town in which the author lived.  Certainly those who lived there could see similarities between the book and the town.  But there are two key differences.  The first is that Bellamann was writing (fictionally) about his own experiences rather than deliberately unburying even skeleton in the town’s closet.  The second, and to me, more important one, is that Bellamann’s book actually has some literary merit.

Kings Row is, in a lot of ways, a sordid soap opera.  It has all the things you could possibly imagine – lust, violence, sordid affairs, pregnant girls spirited out of town, incest, homosexual affairs – everything that could could cause a scandal in 1940.  At the heart of it, it’s the story of a quiet young man who is smart and kind (his lust gets a girl into trouble, but he doesn’t ever seem to be quite aware of what precisely has happened), who grows up to be a doctor and whose friends are burdened with their own problems that bring death upon far too many of them.  The main character, Parris Mitchell, is just about the only one to come out of the book with any sort of happiness ahead of him.  One girl he loves is spirited away, one is killed by her own father, his best friend is first ruined, then crippled, and finally dies while still young.

Yet, the book is mostly forgotten now, surviving mostly in relation to the famous film.  Perhaps almost 700 pages of such suffering is too much for people.  And some of the things which caused such scandal in 1940 (and more so around 1900, when most of the book is set) are no longer as scandalous.  Yet, for all that, it’s not a bad read.

The Adaptation:

There was much of this book that was never going to be allowed on-screen.  It’s surprising, given the incest, suicide, madness, abortion, lust and despair that are in the book that Warners would even consider making a film out of it.  That they succeeded says something about how to work within the code and how well the screenwriters could adapt:

Mr. Wallis assured us that there would be absolutely no suggestion or inference whatever of nymphomania on the part of Cassandra. To this end, her illness will be definitely identified as something else, possibly dementia praecox, and certain lines in the picture which might possibly be interpreted as referring to nymphomania will be changed, so as to remove any possibility of this flavor persisting… It was agreed that, while it is necessary for the proper telling of your story, that there be an indication of one sex affair between Cassie and Parris, Mr. Robinson will inject a new scene into the picture, probably between Parris and Drake, in which Parris will definitely condemn himself for this affair, condemning the affair was wrong, and will indicate his feelings of impending tragedy. This will tie in directly with the later scene in which they learn that Cassie has been killed by her father, Dr. Tower.  (The Censorship Papers: Movie Censorship Letters from the Hays Office, 1934 to 1968, Gerald Gardner, p 185)

This was how you had to approach such things and the script by Casey Robinson does it very well.  Aside from having to take things off the screen and make them implicit in the film that were explicit in the book, there were other changes made.  There was certainly no way to have a completely happy ending to the film, but they tried, and the major characters do find a measure of happiness.  But all in all, much of the darkness in the book is there on the screen and the story, as it is, survives as much as would be possible within the code.  But, even though this was a book that shouldn’t have been made under the code, I can’t see the point of ever remaking it – it would just be a catalog of horrors and misery that would last for hours.

The Credits:

Directed by Sam Wood.  Screen Play by Casey Robinson.  From the Novel by Henry Bellamann.

This Gun For Hire

This_Gun_For_Hire_movie_posterThe Film:

This is one of those star-making performances and the proof is in the poster.  Alan Ladd may be prominently featured on the poster, but he’s fourth-billed (in the film, he’s listed last among the actors as “and introducing”).  He went into this film with relatively little exposure and he came out a star.  Before the end of the year, Paramount had another Ladd-Lake noir teaming already out in theaters, The Glass Key.  But this was where it all began and it’s easy to see why people took to Ladd.

Alan Ladd was never a complex actor, never one to make you think too much about what he was thinking, or whether he was thinking, for that matter.  He seemed cold and hard, like a slightly milder (and shorter) version of Humphrey Bogart (apparently one of the reasons for the Lake-Ladd pairing was that the five foot Lake made the 5’7″ Ladd look not-so-short).  But those kind of qualities work well when you’re playing a killer-for-hire who has been double-crossed and simply wants to get revenge (in that sense, this film seems like an early version of Point Blank, except without the off-screen prison term).

Ladd seems like the kind of person who would rip a woman’s shirt and then throw her out of his room because she’s trying to get rid of his cat.  Or the kind of person who would shoot a woman because he needs to tie up loose ends.  He kills who he has to in order to do what he needs to.  Even at the end of the film, when he is doing something right by getting the confession that is needed, he doesn’t hesitate to shoot who he has to, even if it’s a cop.  He will get his revenge and death comes to those who dare stand in his way.

Weir's Close, Edinbugh Penguin 1974The Source:

A Gun for Sale (This Gun for Hire) by Graham Greene  (1936)

A Gun for Sale (which was retitled This Gun for Hire in the States) was one of the early novels from Graham Greene.  It would eventually be termed an “entertainment” by Greene, as opposed to his more serious novels, which really begin with Brighton Rock.

These books are all fast-moving thrillers, often with a spy involved, usually with international intrigue, and almost always with at least one murder.  Murder will come often in this book – it’s the first word: “Murder didn’t mean much to Raven.  It was just a new job.”  The tone is set from the first line and we soon get to know Raven, the cold-blooded killer who’s been hired to do a job, finds himself double-crossed and hunted, and then is determined to get his revenge.  He knows this revenge will likely cost him his life, but he is determined to go through with it anyway.

The Greene entertainments are first-rate thrillers.  If they don’t have the kind of pace that Ian Fleming would establish in the Bond novels, they have more characterization and it’s easy to see, even in these lesser outings, the kind of writer that Greene is.  Raven even (spoilers), gets a wonderfully worded ending: “Saunders shot him in the back through the opening door.  Death came to him in the form of unbearable pain.  It was as if he had to deliver this pain as a woman delivers a child, and he sobbed and moaned in the effort.  At last it came out of him, and he followed his only child into a vast desolation.”

The Adaptation:

There’s one hell of a change right off the bat and perhaps it’s part of the star-making turn of Ladd.  Raven, the killer, in the book, has a harelip.  It’s the identifiable mark that becomes his badge early on as he is first wanted by the police and is trying to avoid detection.  He’s ugly and he repels almost everyone who looks at him.

Alan Ladd is not ugly – he is starkly handsome.  He will never, through looks alone, inspire the kind of revulsion that Raven does on almost every page of the book.

That aside, the film actually does a fairly good job of keeping to the book.  This is more impressive when you consider the political overtones of the book (the murder is committed in another country and then Raven comes back to England).  The action of the film is moved from Europe (mostly England) to California.  It does still have a bit of the political element and the notion of foreign involvement, but it really keeps it closer to a crime thriller.  Aside from his looks, Ladd is written fairly close to the book, including his total lack of morality.

The Credits:

Directed by Frank Tuttle.  Screen Play by Albert Maltz and W.R. Burnett.  Based on the Novel by Graham Greene.

The Man Who Came to Dinner

Man-Who-Came-to-Dinner-The_01The Film:

This film presents an interesting counterpoint to what I wrote above about Now Voyager, for two different reasons.  This film does star Bette Davis (though it’s really Woolley who’s the star – Davis got top billing because she was a star and he wasn’t), but in a much different role than usual.  This time she plays a secretary, one who’s getting a bit tired of running around after her brilliant, but extremely unpleasant boss, and she falls in love with a local newspaperman and plans to settle down in a small town in Ohio and simply be happy.  Yes, she’s strong-willed, but not in the usual Bette Davis way.

What makes all that the more ironic is that Woolley has one of the few male roles in a Bette Davis film that is actually strong enough (and blustery enough) to stand up to Davis.  He plays Sheridan Whiteside, a brilliant man of letters (he writes, he broadcasts on the radio, he’s generally thought to be brilliant) who gets stranded in a small little Ohio town when he breaks his leg at Christmas time.  Stuck in a wheelchair, he then terrorizes all around him.  This would be awful except for the fact that it’s so damn funny.  Whiteside becomes humanized through his interaction with the children of his hosts, he’s got brilliant sarcastic wit, and he even gets taken down at times by some of the others around him.

This film is not exactly a comedy classic.  It’s not directed well enough, there’s not enough of a strong cast around Woolley (Jimmy Durante gets a nice little scene and Davis is good, but any actress could have played her part) and things begin to lag at times.  But to watch Woolley, who was always full of bluster in his film roles, actually get the perfect role to play on screen, it can still be great fun.

The Source:

kaufmanThe Man Who Came to Dinner: Comedy in Three Acts by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman  (1939)

In 1942, Alexander Woolcott came up with one of the great publishing ideas of all-time: The Viking Portable Library.  We have him to thank for that.  We also have his obnoxious personality to thank for the great character of Sheridan Whiteside, the central character in The Man Who Came to Dinner.  Woolcott had stayed at Hart’s house and terrorized everyone and when Kaufman said Hart was lucky that Woolcott hadn’t broken his leg and been forced to stay they knew they had a hit play (which Woolcott would star in on stage).

It’s a good play, but it’s a great set-up for a blustery character actor.  Monty Woolley, who would eventually get the part in the film, was the lead on Broadway and was perfect.  It was made for his kind of over-the-top bluster.  It’s filled with great lines like “My Great-aunt Jennifer ate a whole box of candy every day of her life.  She lived to be a hundred and two, and when she had been dead three days she looked better than you do now.” or “I left home at the age of four and haven’t been back since.  They hear me on the radio and that’s enough for them.”  But he doesn’t get all the lines.  Miss Preen, the suffering nurse assigned to take care of Whiteside gets her own great line on the way out the door:

I became a nurse because all my life, ever since I was a little girl, I was filled with the idea of serving a suffering humanity.  After one month with you, Mr. Whiteside, I am going to work in a munitions factory.  From now on anything that I can do to help exterminate the human race will fill me with the greatest of pleasure.  If Florence Nightingale had ever nursed you, Mr. Whiteside, she would have married Jack the Ripper instead of founding the Red Cross.

It’s not quite a great play on the level of some of Kaufman’s other works (this is the fourth time I have used that cover for a book though it’s actually the fifth play included in that Library of America collection which has made it into my Best Adapted Screenplay posts – see here, here, here, here and, without the cover, here).  There’s too much that’s a bit ridiculous to make some of the plot points work.  But, it continues to keep Whiteside right at the center, and as long as he can continually make us laugh, it will work.

The Adaptation:

Like is often the case with a play like this, you can, for the most part, read the play and watch the film at the same time.  There are a few additions to open up the beginning (most of the first several minutes of the film are completely new, setting up the action, as opposed to just diving in as usual on stage) and there are a few changes throughout the play.  But really, if you were to watch the play and then watch the film, you’d pretty much be repeating your experience.

The Credits:

Screen Play by Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein.  From the Stage Play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart.  Produced by Sam H. Harris.  Directed by William Keighley.

Mrs. Miniver

mrs-miniver-posterThe Film:

I have already reviewed this film once.  I feel the need to defend it a little because there are those who call it one of the worst Best Picture winners of all-time.  It’s not great (it’s a high level *** film), but it’s far better than dreck like Broadway Melody or Cimarron.

The Source:

mrsminiverMrs. Miniver by Jan Struther (1939).

In the Introduction to the 1985 Harper Perennial edition of the book, Armistead Maupin talks about falling in love with Mrs. Miniver as the character of newspaper columns, and then in the book.  He calls it a masterwork and notes that its author was “less than delighted by the sugary Hollywood version of her story.”  If there had been more to this novel then perhaps I could have agreed with him.  But there is not and I do not.

This is a very thin book and if you have seen the film, you’ll be surprised.  This is simply a typical British story that does seem like it would have come from the Times (see below).  It’s a well-bred woman, bringing up her family, occasionally heading on in to London (“They didn’t take the children down to Starlings much in the water, until the Christmas holidays.”).  It’s all very British and very genteel.  It’s maybe a world that doesn’t exist so much anymore and it just feels dated at every turn.  I can understand a young Brit looking up to this woman back in that age, but today it just reads like a world that has gone away and there isn’t much argument for keeping it around.

note:  The copyright is 1940, but in the Foreword to the 1942 Edition, Jan Struther writes “Mrs. Miniver was first published in England in October 1939, just after the outbreak of war.”  The book itself was a continuation of columns that first appeared in the Times of London.

The Adaptation:

The book is about a character but it doesn’t have much in the way of a story.  True, there are some individual moments in the book that will show up in the film (the purchase of a hat is the opening to both the book and the film).  But really, the screenwriters needed to come up with a story that would work with the characters because the book didn’t have one.  So, that lead to the inclusion of two key storylines: the flower competition involving the other characters (who were not in the book) and the war (the book was completely before the war began).

But, bringing in the war not only changed the book, it also brought, at first, unwanted attention from the studio:  “Why, [Louis B. Mayer] wanted to know, was Wyler departing from the script and injecting so much anti-German sentiment?  He had just heard about a sequence in which a young, wounded Luftwaffe pilot – shot down over a London suburb and found by Mrs. Miniver in her backyard garden – was being remade into a self-righteous, fiendish killer.  To have him spout Hitler’s master race slogans was unacceptable, Mayer told him.”  (A Talent for Trouble, Jan Herman, p 231-232)  That was the first week of December in 1941.  A week later, after Pearl Harbor, Mayer called him in an said “You may be right.  You do it the way you want, that’s fine with me.”  (Herman, p 233)

The final thing that had to be decided was how to end the film.  In the end, the filmmakers decided on a big scene in church, a scene that would address both what had gone on in the film, but also what was going on in England at the time as well.  So, the film concludes with a sermon (which really is the big problem for a lot of the film’s detractors).

“Wyler believed in the vicar’s words with his whole being.  In a hasty rewrite of the script he and Henry Wilcoxon, the actor who played the vicar, had put the text together the night before shooting the final scene.  ‘Willy felt it needed a quintessential statement and a climactic speech from the vicar,’ Greer Garson recounted years later.  ‘He and one or two others batted it out.’  Wyler recalled that he ‘hardened the speech,’ making it a more principled declaration and giving it both a more contemplative and more ringing tone.”  (Herman, p 236)

As I said, there are those who really don’t like the end of the film.  But this film is very much a product of its time, and the time was dark, not just for England, but, with Pearl Harbor come and gone, for us as well, and Wyler wasn’t going to back down from what he felt needed to be said.

The Credits:

Directed by William Wyler.  Screen Play by Arthur Wimperis, George Froeschel, James Hilton, Claudine West.  Based on the Book by Jan Struther.

The Pride of the Yankees

the-pride-of-the-yankees-253265lThe Film:

I have already reviewed this film once.

lougehrig_usThe Source:

Lou Gehrig: Pride of the Yankees by Paul Gallico (1942)

I have a book, published by Grosset and Dunlap (the same pubisher as Pride) that was my father’s.  It is called Baseball’s Greatest Players and it was published in 1953.  It gives a few page descriptions of 25 players and it includes their statistics (which is interesting for a number of players like Roy Campanella, Stan Musial, Jackie Robinson and Ted Williams, all of whom were still active and thus have incomplete careers listed).  I have had this book in my bookcase since I was a little kid, though I probably haven’t actually looked it in over 25 years.  Still, it was the first thing I thought of when I opened Lou Gehrig: Pride of the Yankees, the biography by Paul Gallico that was turned into the film.  I looked in the back, and there are 20 pages at the end of statistics compiled by The Sporting News, pages of World Series results, batting leaders, even a quiz.  It was clear, even before I really looked at the book, that this, like my book, was written for kids (actually, the prose makes it even more clear – the writing in this book is actually at a lower reading level than my book).  This book has large type, very generous margins, 20 pages of statistics at the end and a 16 page introduction (the dust jacket on the right calls it a Foreword, but the copy in my hand calls it an Introduction) by Bill Dickey and still only runs 185 pages.

(Brief digression here for baseball fans, as I so rarely write anything about the sport which was my all-compassing passion for a good ten years of my life.  Bill Dickey is not in the book (and, to be fair, I don’t think deserves to be).  Roy Campanella, in spite of having played only 4 1/2 years is the only catcher in the book.  Bill James, in the 2002 version of The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract ranks Campy 3rd, behind Bench (#2) and Berra (#1).  Now, that’s with Campy’s whole career.  Berra had been playing one season longer than Campy, but with similar stats (they both won one MVP).  Berra would have many of his best years in the mid-50’s, right after my book was published, while Campy would have two more great years and three mediocre years (mixed together) before the car accident that would end his career.  Between the two, there’s a good argument for going with Campy, especially as the book had three Yankees already and only one Dodger.  However, Mickey Cochrane is James’ 4th ranked catcher and his career was done, so why not go with him?  Perhaps because Cochrane hits more for singles and doubles while Campy was a power hitter.  James has Dickey in 7th and Gabby Hartnett in 9th.  So, strange to have Campy in with only a few years in the Majors (plus more in the minors and Negro Leagues), but not unreasonable.  But what’s interesting is that there are no third basemen in the book.  James lists Home Run Baker as the best up to that point, but since he didn’t have the longevity of other plays of the dead ball era, his stats look rather sad in comparison to people like Cobb, Collins and Lajoie.  Had the book come out one year later, it might have had Al Rosen, whose brief career would hit its peak in 1953 and the author would not have known that Rosen would be done in a few years thanks to a bad back.)

So, this is really a strange exception for this project to this date.  For one thing, this is a non-fiction book.  There wasn’t a whole lot of adapting non-fiction books in this era.  If a film wasn’t based on a short story, play or novel, it was usually just simply written without any listed source.  In fact, the Academy considered Gallico’s work an “Original Story” and he was nominated at the Oscars for it (the script by Swerling and Mankiewicz was nominated in the Screenplay category).  But this wasn’t the usual case in Hollywood at the time.

The other thing is the kids aspect of the book.  Not that children’s books weren’t made into films – look at what Disney was doing, or some of the Shirley Temple movies.  But those were “kids books”.  This is a biography really written for grade school kids – the kind of thing I would have checked out from my school library in 3rd grade or so.

The Adaptation:

Well, the movie stays true to the book in concept – telling the story of Lou Gehrig in the format of a typical Hollywood biopic.  To that end, there are some exaggerations in the film (like when Gehrig supposedly shatters a window at Columbia – a window that is nowhere near the field) and a few changes for dramatic effect (in Gehrig’s famous speech he actually began with his comments about being the luckiest man on the face of the earth, which the book accurately portrays, ending with those lines, but making them clear they come at the beginning of the speech – the film wants the whole speech in there, so it moves those famous lines to the end of the book).  The book focuses more on Gehrig’s career, so there isn’t as much in there about his wife.  But all in all, the bulk of what is in the film comes from the book.

The Credits:

Directed by Sam Wood.  Screen Play by Jo Swerling and Herman J. Mankiewicz.  Original Story by Paul Gallico.

Other Notable Adaptations (in descending order of how good the film is):

  • Moontide  –  The great French actor Jean Gabin comes to America in a thriller adapted from the novel by Willard Robertson.
  • My Sister Eileen  –  The first of two films based on the play which had been based on a series of autobiographical short stories that had been in The New Yorker.  Both versions are solid but neither is any better than that.
  • The Major and the Minor  –  The first film Billy Wilder would direct in Hollywood (he had directed one in Austria in the 30’s), because he had been so irritated at having his work changed in Hold Back the Dawn.  One of Wilder’s sillier films and one of his weakest, it’s based on the play Connie Goes Home and relies on the notion that Ginger Rogers pretends that she’s 12.
  • Keeper of the Flame  –  Based on an unpublished book by I.A.R. Wylie, this is perhaps the most serious of the Hepburn-Tracy films and perhaps the least known.
  • I Married a Witch  –  Charming Veronica Lake comedy based on the novel The Passionate Witch.
  • In This Our Life  –  Based on a Pulitzer winning novel so unmemorable I couldn’t remember anything about it, this was John Huston’s second film but a rare film that he didn’t write.
  • Arabian Nights  –  Sort of based on the classic, but really more based on the popular notion of the classic, this film is just okay and doesn’t have nearly the imagination of style that Michael Powell’s Thief of Bagdad had.
  • The Pied Piper  –  Adapted from a Nevil Shute novel, this Best Picture nominee is not particularly good, as I noted in my review here.
  • Pimpernel Smith  –  An updated World War II version of The Scarlet Pimpernel, this time not only starring Leslie Howard, but directed by him as well.  Adapted from the novel by A.G. Macdonell, which was inspired by the original novel by Baroness Orczy.
  • George Washington Slept Here  –  Yet another adaptation of a George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart play, but written in 1940, and therefore not included in the oft-used volume pictured above.
  • The Male Animal  –  A decently charming little comedy with Olivia de Havilland and Henry Fonda, based on a 1940 play by James Thurber and Elliott Nugent.
  • Tarzan’s New York Adventure  –  The sixth Weissmuller Tarzan film, the last with Maureen O’Sullivan and the last at MGM.  It uses
  • Reap the Wild Wind  –  Winner of Best Visual Effects at the Oscars (rather ridiculously), this is Cecil B. DeMille film stars John Wayne, who not yet perfected his big-screen persona.  Adapted from a story written for The Saturday Evening Post.
  • Dr. Kildare’s Victory  –  The 10th, and final, Dr. Kildare film.  Only considered adapted because the character has been used before – he was originally created for the 1937 film Internes Can’t Take Money.
  • The Jungle Book  –  The Kordas do Kipling, but they don’t really do him all that well, as this is a low-range *** film.
  • Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror  –  The third of the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films.  This one is at least somewhat adapted from an actual story (“His Last Vow”), but is the first of the series at Universal and therefore the first to move the action to the present.  Not the worst in the series but certainly not the best.
  • The Fleet’s In  –  It takes a title from a 1928 film but the story from a 1933 play called Sailor, Beware! and has songs by director Victor Schertzinger but doesn’t have a lot of quality anywhere.
  • This Above All  –  Tyrone Power does his thing (his thing being looking good while not doing much acting) in a romance based on the novel.  Winner of an Oscar for Art Direction (black-and-white).  Winner of the Nighthawk Award for worst winner of the Art Direction (black-and-white) in the 1940’s.
  • The Great Man’s Lady  –  I saw this because director William Wellman is an Oscar-nominated director, but then pretty much forgot about it.  Based on a short story called “The Human Side” by Viña Delmar who also wrote the novel Bad Girl, which became an Oscar-winning film.
  • Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon  –  The fourth film in the Rathbone Sherlock Holmes saga.  Still not the worst that I’ve seen, but getting down there.  This takes a little bit from “The Adventure of the Dancing Men”, but really is the first of the films to go off in its own direction, to its detriment.
  • Tortilla Flat  –  Subpar Steinbeck makes for a mediocre film (we’ve hit the **.5 films).  Unless you’re an Oscar completist (it was nominated for Supporting Actor), you should skip the film.  And unless you’re a Steinbeck completist, you can probably skip the book as well.
  • The Spoilers  –  Another mediocre Oscar nominee (in this case, Art Direction), this Western is based on the novel by Rex Beach and had already been filmed three times.
  • My Gal Sal  –  Mediocre Oscar winner (it won for Art Direction (color) and was my Nighthawk winner for worst winner in that category for the 40’s) based on an essay by Theodore Dreiser about his brother.  It stars Victor Mature and that’s really enough said.
  • The Black Swan  –  Tyrone Power swashbuckler that won the Oscar for Cinematography (color), but surprisingly isn’t the worst winner on the decade because of Wilson.  Still, it’s relentlessly mediocre.  Adapted from the novel by Rafael Sabatini, who also wrote the far, far, far superior Captain Blood.
  • Roxie Hart  –  Based on the play Chicago.  I’ve already reviewed this film because it’s the worst film I’ve seen from 1942 and that should say it all.