My Top 10:
- A Streetcar Named Desire
- Detective Story
- A Place in the Sun
- The African Queen
- Strangers on a Train
- Oliver Twist
- La Ronde
- Death of a Salesman
- He Ran All the Way
- Alice in Wonderland
Note: A big step up from the year before. There are also several films listed at the bottom that made my list but not my Top 10. Bright Victory is not listed down below because it is reviewed thanks to its Globe and WGA wins. It remains the only screenplay to ever win both the Globe and WGA and fail to earn an Oscar nominee.
Part of that might be because of the category of the WGA where Bright Victory won its award: Screenplay That Deals Most Ably with Problems of the American Scene. This is the last year for that category. This year the WGA dumps the Western category and adds Best Low-Budget Screenplay but that category will also be dumped after this year, just leaving Drama, Comedy and Musical until the late 60’s, which means I will still have to write full reviews of almost every major Broadway production that was turned into a film in these two decades.
One last note – in my Nighthawk Awards post, I only went eight deep in my awards, but in the Comedy / Musical category you will see The Mating Season winning Best Adapted Screenplay over Alice in Wonderland. I have reversed the two this time, partially because I have watched Alice more and bumped it up just the little bit it needed to overcome Season, and well, to be honest, both the film and the source for The Mating Season are difficult to find whereas I own multiple copies of both the film (videocassette and Blu-Ray) and the book (kids edition, the Ralph Steadman illustrated edition, Norton Critical Edition, original Crown annotated edition and the brand new 150th Anniversary Norton Annotated Edition) of Alice, so making the change made it easier to do this post.
- A Place in the Sun (200 pts)
- Bright Victory (144 pts)
- Detective Story (80 pts)
- A Streetcar Named Desire (80 pts)
- Death of a Salesman / Father’s Little Dividend (80 pts)
Oscar Nominees (Best Screenplay):
- A Place in the Sun
- The African Queen
- Detective Story
- La Ronde
- A Streetcar Named Desire
Golden Globe Nominees:
- Bright Victory
note: There were no other announced nominees.
- A Place in the Sun
- Death of a Salesman
- Detective Story
- 14 Hours
- A Streetcar Named Desire
- Father’s Little Dividend
- People Will Talk
- You’re in the Navy Now
Nominees that are Original: Angels in the Outfield, That’s My Boy
Note: A terrible group of nominees.
- The Great Caruso
- On the Riviera
- Show Boat
Nominees that are Original: An American in Paris, Here Comes the Groom
- The First Legion
- The Pickup
Nominees that are Original: Steel Helmet, Five, That’s My Boy
Screenplay That Deals Most Ably with the Problems of the American Scene:
- Bright Victory
- Death of a Salesman
- A Place in the Sun
- Saturday’s Hero
Nominees that are Original: The Well
My Top 10
I have already reviewed this film twice. The first was in my Great Director post for Elia Kazan. The second time was as part of the Best Picture project. Though Sunset Blvd. beat it to the punch for winning all four acting awards at the Nighthawks (and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf would replicate it), it stands on its own for the sheer force of acting contained in its two hours. You may argue that this film does not contain the greatest performances of all-time (but you would get a serious argument from me if you tried to take that position) but if you have any knowledge of film history, you can not possibly argue that they aren’t some of the most historically important performances in film history. If you have not seen this film, then you must rectify that oversight right now.
A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams (1947)
Though I haven’t had a chance to see it (more precisely, I haven’t had the $600 per seat to see it), I am a part of the hysteria surrounding Hamilton. I talk about it, I pay attention to news about it, I listen to it (a lot). It’s a genuine phenomena and that’s because it’s a major work of drama. I’m glad I get to be around for something like that. I can’t imagine what it was like to be around Broadway in 1947 when the new play from Tennessee Williams came out. Yes, he had already done one major play, The Glass Menagerie, but that was a fairly thinly veiled story of his own growing up, not yet a story that was bursting forth from his own fertile imagination. It also didn’t have a (soon-to-be) legendary director and stars who would spring forth from the stage to the screen and become Oscar winners. This play would be something new, not only in the way that method acting would take it over and start to become a major force in the New York theatre, but also in the energy and daringness of what was going on on-stage. Here we have infidelity, rape, homosexuality, childhood seduction. It had sex and violence and everything that a crowd could possibly want. Yet, it does it all with such purity of language, with performances that were widely hailed and a fine focus that kept you interested in the characters no matter what might have gone on in the past (Blanche) or what might be happening in the present (Stanley).
So much of it might come down to one line from Stanley: “When we first met, me and you, you thought I was common. How right you was, baby. I was common as dirt. You showed me the snapshot of the place with the columns. I pulled you down off the columns and how you loved it, having them colored lights going! And wasn’t we happy together, wasn’t it all okay till she showed here?”
Depending on how things are directed, you can focus the audience’s sympathy on different characters. You can make them understand Stanley and the “common” life he has built that he sees being torn apart by the woman who comes in and tries to make him feel inferior, shifting around the comfortable life he has built around himself. You can bring their sympathy to poor deluded Blanche, married in foolishness, awash in a life of sin that she can’t even bring herself to admit to, let alone find a way to atone for. She is slipping deeper and deeper into her mind until the actions of her brutish brother-in-law drive any semblance of sanity out from her head and she will indeed depend on the kindness of whatever stranger may pass through her life. You can find some sympathy for Mitch, the poor man who just wants a little of what Stanley has – a family and a life outside his work and games, the poor fool who so desperately wants to believe Blanche and her stories, until he is finally forced to turn on those lights and come to the truth he hasn’t wanted to face: “You’re not clean enough to bring in the house with my mother,” perhaps the most devastating line in a play filled with them. Or do you find sympathy with Stella? If you can get past the way she returns to her brute of a man, you may just feel bad that she can’t escape him. Or you may understand that she wants to find the different life that Stanley talks about and that it’s actually Blanche who is intruding on her happiness. You may understand her desperation in returning to him, no matter what he has done, that she won’t take this newborn child and submit him to a life of squalor without a father.
None of those are the truth about this play. All of them are the truth about this play. Much like Rashomon, which I will cover in the next year, truth is what we perceive. The truth is that this is one of the greatest plays in American stage history and the masterwork of the man who is most definitely one of the greatest playwrights this country has ever produced.
“There was the matter of creating a shooting script that would preserve the integrity of Williams’s work while satisfying the censors. In this niggling, absurd struggle Kazan fulfilled all of Williams’s hopes. It was largely the director who carried the arguments over cuts and changes in the endless discussions with the so-called Breen office. … The censors immediately focused on three aspects of the script: the implication that Blanche had been fired from her small-town schoolteaching job because her marriage to a homosexual was a sham and she had started sleeping with her students; the fact that Stanley rapes her while his wife, Stella, is in the hospital having a baby; the implication, at the end of the play, that Stella remains in sexual thrall to Stanley and returns to him despite the rape.” (Elia Kazan: A Biography by Richard Schickel, p 212)
Kazan would tone down the overtones of the first point. The second point was a bit of serious contention and, with the Breen office afraid that Warners would actually release the film without the Production Code seal, “everyone agreed that the rape could be presented if it were ‘done by suggestion and delicacy’.” (Schickel, p 213). As for the finale, well Stella isn’t standing there with him as she is in the play, but more on that a little lower.
Kazan had thoughts of opening things up, but really, aside from some opening scenes that involve the actual streetcar (ironic, since it had stopped running in 1948), most of the actions does stay confined to the individual locations, yet it never feels like a filmed play. With the large set of the apartment building, everything flows nicely. One interesting little difference is in the “Stella!” scene. In the play, the direction is this: “Her eyes are glistening with tears and her hair loose about her throat and shoulders. They stare at each other. Then they come together with low, animal moans.” It then describes how he “lifts her off her feet.” But you watch that scene in the film, and you see an animal sexuality in her eyes and you understand the carnality in this relationship and there is much more than what is in the simple stage direction as she goes over her shoulder to be carried back inside.
The ending had to be changed a bit, of course, as mentioned above. The rape itself was always suggested, even in the original play (Stanley carries her off to the bed then the scene ends and the final scene is weeks later). The suggestion stays much the same in the film. But in the play, while Stella is sobbing, Stanley is kneeling beside her, talking to her (and “his fingers find the opening of her blouse”). In the film, Stella is swearing to herself and her child that they will never go back. So, how much you treat the film as different depends entirely on your view of Stella and how much she has changed and whether she really will follow through on that promise or whether you think she will find her way back downstairs to Stanley before too long.
Directed by Elia Kazan. Screen Play by Tennessee Williams. Adaptation by Oscar Saul. Based upon the Original Play “A Streetcar Named Desire” by Tennessee Williams. As presented on the stage by Irene Mayer Selznick.
I reviewed this film previously, as one of the five best films of 1951.
Detective Story: A play in three acts by Sidney Kingsley (1949)
Detective Story is a hell of a play, a three act story that takes place all in one precinct house. It involves the arrest of an abortionist and the story that comes out that he once provided a service for the woman who is now married to the arresting detective. It had two parts to the stage, with the main room in the precinct, as well as the lieutenant’s office, which provides a measure of privacy for certain conversations but allows the action to go on (there’s a picture in the original hardcover of the play performed on stage). The subject matter was dark and the play handled it with a deft hand. The detective is compromised by his view of the world in black-and-white and his own inability to compromise, eventually ending up in actions that will bring about his own downfall.
The only downside to the play is that the original stage production starred Ralph Bellamy as the detective. The film got this one right, because Douglas just absolutely shines in the role, but I can’t really see Bellamy bringing the required intensity to the role.
Many of the lines and much of the story come straight from the play, which was remarkable in and of itself, as it certainly had issues making it to the screen:
“Originally, Wyler planned to compress Kingsley’s play to heighten its realism. He hired Dashiell Hammett, known for his crisp flint-hard dialogue, to rewrite the drama, but the master of detective fiction quickly abandoned the project and Wyler turned it over to Robert Wyler (his brother) and Philip Yordan. The two eventually convinced the director to film the play with only minor alterations. Several long speeches in which Kingsley commented on the dangers of a police state were trimmed, but otherwise Detective Story went to Breen in June 1950 much as it was performed on Broadway. Breen made it clear from the beginning that the central problem with the play was the element of abortion. Until Wyler resolved that matter, Breen would not even discuss the forbidden cop-killing at the end of the script. In a sense the arrangement of priorities was ironic. The murder of a police officer was specifically prohibited by the Code; abortion was not.” (The Dame in the Kimono: Hollywood, Censorship and the Production Code from the 1920s to the 1960s. Leonard J. Leff and Jerold L. Simmons, p 168)
Eventually, the cop killing actually did make it to the screen, but the subject of abortion still wasn’t going to happen: “[Wyler] would have to come up with a new twist on Kingsley’s plot. Wyler and the screenwriters solved the problem by making the abortionist a doctor who delivers out-of-wedlock babies and gets rich by selling them in an illegal adoption racket. That was mentionable under the code.” (A Talent for Trouble: The Life of Hollywood’s Most Acclaimed Director, William Wyler by Jan Herman, p 333-334)
There is also a three page piece on this film, from 128 to 130, of Classical Film Violence: Designing and Regulating Brutality in Hollywood Cinema, 1930-1968 of all the work that Wyler did to, first, get the approval for killing a policeman, then, what had to be done in the course of filming it, to maintain that approval.
Wyler also comments in Conversations with the Great Moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age at the American Film Institute (ed, George Stevens, Jr) about how they had thought more about opening up the play: “We though it would be nice to see where this man lives, to see his apartment, to find his wife there. We wrote it in the script, but we threw it all out because we found that the play was so constructed that the action was very concentrated, very fast and very good.” (p 215)
Produced and Directed by William Wyler. Screenplay by Philip Yordan and Robert Wyler. Based on the play by Sidney Kingsley.
I have reviewed this film already as part of the Best Picture project. It is a great film, but it’s never quite as great as I think it will be. It won six Oscars, which was amazing for a film that didn’t win Best Picture. On some levels, it’s the biggest surprise in Oscar history; it’s the only film in history to win Director and Screenplay and win more than 4 Oscars but not win Best Picture. Only three other films won more than 4 Oscars with Director and they didn’t win Screenplay (Cabaret, Saving Private Ryan, Gravity), the first two actually losing Screenplay to the Picture winner. It still has the sixth most Oscar points for any film not to win. On the other hand, it was up against Streetcar, which should have won all the awards that this film did win, so there’s that going against it. Either way, though, it’s a great film.
An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser (1925) / An American Tragedy by Patrick Kearney (1926)
“Theodore Dreiser should ought to write nicer.” I have quoted Dorothy Parker’s famous quip (about Dreiser’s autobiography) before, including in my original review of this film (and I may do it again next year when I have to review his Sister Carrie for this project). It’s appropriate to this book, because it was Dreiser’s need to write about tragedy, to bring in his view of naturalism, formed in the shadow and influence of Emile Zola and Frank Norris that makes this book both an interesting one and quite a slog to get through all at the same time.
Dreiser had been wanting to write something about crime. He found what he wanted in the story of a man in upstate New York who murdered his pregnant girlfriend because she was demanding he marry her but he had managed to get in with the higher society crowd in his town and wanted to be rid of her. Dreiser did a lot of research on the case and had waited a long time to write it. When he did, he couldn’t seem to stop writing. In the end, he produced a novel that runs 856 pages in the current Signet edition, much of which could have been cut out without any real detriment to the novel itself and certainly without any detriment to the story.
If you have read the novel, first of all, congratulations on having an English degree and I hope you are currently employed. Second of all, you might expect me to say that the entire first section of the novel could have been cut, which is pretty much what happens in the film. However, I actually have an appreciation for naturalism (I am a big fan of Zola, Hardy and Norris and I have a fond appreciation of Sister Carrie), so to me the first part of the book is actually one of the strongest parts of the book. It really focuses in on characters and allows us to see how Clyde could have ended up in his situation and why the shining beacon of his uncle’s factory (and his cousins’ lives) would be so attractive. It’s actually the third part of the book that really drags things down. Much is made of the fact that Stevens cut out the first part of the book, but bear in mind that poor Roberta dies on page 515, with over 300 pages left in the book. Most of that is excised as well, concisely edited into the trial scenes. It is that final part that simply drags and drags and feels like it will never end. Had Dreiser not been so determined to be making a social document of his novel, the final part of the book could have been considerably shorter and I would have a higher opinion of the book as a whole.
Overall, though, it is a strong book and probably not nearly as read today as it should be. The title hearkens down through the ages and anytime we get another “trial of the century”, especially a murder trial like that, we get once again, the notion of an American tragedy like the one Dreiser writes so well about for about 600 pages or so or what is, unfortunately, an 856 page novel.
As mentioned above, much of the book is cut. The second part of the book runs from pages 147 to 515 and contains the majority of the action that is put on-screen. Some of the things in the book are updated (the film takes place in the present while the book was written in 1925 and the actual crime that inspired Dreiser occurred in 1906) and for some reason all the names were changed (which is too bad, because Clyde Griffiths is actually a much better name for the character than George Eastman.
Those weren’t the only changes however, as Stevens makes clear in an interview he would later give: “The rich girl, in the reader’s mind is a lesser girl, but in the boy’s mind, she isn’t. She’s a society girl, she’s bright, and to the boy she is a picture of all that’s attractive . . . Now, maybe I loaded the dice that way. Maybe in the Dreiser book [Winters is] more acceptable physically. I wanted her to appear to be the kind of girl a man could be all mixed up with in the dark, but come the morning wonder how the hell he got into this.” (George Stevens: Interviews, ed. Paul Cronin, p 70)
And really, it’s not unreasonable for Stevens to have made that choice, if you look at the way Clyde reacts when he sees Sondra (the Elizabeth Taylor character): “The beautiful Sondra Finchley! Her lovely face, smart clothes, gay and superior demeanor! If only at the time he had first encountered her he had managed to interest her. Or could now.” Stevens has the right measure of the character and giving us Elizabeth Taylor allows us to see how attractive this life is for the character.
This novel was adapted once before, in 1931. Though that had been a solid film (I rate it a mid-range ***), this film really takes the essence of the novel and makes a first-rate film out of it without losing sight of the core of the novel, which is pretty much exactly what a great adaptation is supposed to do. It might have been Streetcar that deserved the Oscar (and wins the Nighthawk), but the Academy made a fine choice in giving the Oscar to A Place in the Sun.
Produced and Directed by George Stevens. Based on the Novel An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser. And the Patrick Kearney play adapted from the novel. Screenplay by Michael Wilson and Harry Brown.
I have reviewed this film already as one of the five best films from 1951. In an interesting coincidence, in this same spot in 1950 was The Asphalt Jungle, a film also directed by John Huston, also nominated for Best Director and Screenplay at the Oscars and also not nominated for Best Picture. Huston was the first director ever nominated for Director and Screenplay but not Picture more than once and remains one of only two directors to do this in back-to-back years (Richard Brooks, in 1966 and 1967 is the other).
The African Queen by C. S. Forester (1935)
This is a charming little adventure story. It’s about a woman whose missionary brother has died in 1914 after the outbreak of war after they have spent 10 years in Central Africa. Now she doesn’t know what to do other than blame the Germans (he died of illness, but it was brought on by the Germans coming in and destroying the camp). When Charlie Allnutt, the boat skipper who brings the mail and supplies rescues her, she can think of nothing but getting revenge. She wants to sail down the river and into the lake and sink the big German boat there. The rest of the book chronicles their trip, includes problems with rapids and guns, before finally getting to the lake and succeeding in their goal.
Forester was well-known for nautical works, of course, being the creator of the Horatio Hornblower series. This is a bit more limited, since we’re on a river not the ocean, but it moves along nicely and never keeps you wanting.
“C. S. Forester had told me that he had never been satisfied with the way The African Queen ended. He had written two different endings for the novel; one was used in the American edition, the other in the English. Neither one, he felt, was satisfactory. I thought the film should have a happy ending. Since Agee’s health never permitted him to come to Africa I asked Peter Viertel to work on the final scenes with me. He and Gige joined us in Entebbe before we started shooting, and together we wrote my ending – the ending that we later filmed.” (An Open Book by John Huston (1980), p 190)
I had to actually look up the bit about the other ending online. The American ending (according to this book blog, “they fail to sink the ship with the African Queen’s torpedo, and Allnutt disappears beneath the waves”) seems to have been dropped. Wikipedia says nothing about it and the edition I read, the Back Bay Books edition from 2000 (printed here in the U.S.) doesn’t use that ending or even mention it.
Huston does dispense with both endings. His ending is considerably happier, but it also works better for the story. It gives them that nice moment where they agree to be married before what they think is their impending doom. I don’t think either of Forester’s endings would have worked well.
The other significant change is at the opening of the film. When the book opens, Rose’s brother is already sick and almost dead. The film moves the opening earlier and gives us some moments of Rose with her brother (and with Charlie) before all the horrible events start to unfold, allowing us a better measure of who she was before all of this happens, rather than just seeing her afterwards.
Directed by John Huston. Based on the Novel by “The African Queen” by C. S. Forester. Screenplay by James Agee & John Huston.
I go back and forth on whether or not this is the best film that Hitchcock made, though there are several contenders for that distinction (including Rebecca, Notorious, Rear Window and North by Northwest). I do not go back and forth on whether it is one of the best films of 1951; it absolute is, and because of that, I have already written a full review of it.
Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith (1950)
Patricia Highsmith is one of the great pulpish writers. I use that non-word “pulpish” because she wasn’t writing early enough to be one of the actual pulp writers like Dash Hammett or even Raymond Chandler. But she follows in their footsteps. If she is not as hard-boiled perhaps it is because she writes about crime and the criminals that commit them without writing about the men who are solving them.
Strangers on a Train was Highsmith’s first novel and she was not yet 30 when she wrote it. Yet, she had a mastery of the language (“The train tore along with an angry, irregular rhythm. It was having to stop at smaller and more frequent stations, where it would wait impatiently for a moment, then attack the prairie again. But progress was imperceptible. The prairie only undulated, like a vast, pink-tan blanket being casually shaken.”). She also comes in with a great idea for a crime – two men who meet by accident on a train, each of whom wants someone in their life killed. What poor Guy Haines doesn’t expect is that demented, psychotic Bruno Anthony will actually move forward with the murder for Guy (“His hands captured her throat on the last word, stifling its abortive uplift of surprise. He shook her. His body seemed to harden like rock, and he heard his teeth crack.”).
What people who have only seen the film will not expect, of course, is that Guy will not be able to escape his destiny and will find himself with a gun pointed at Bruno’s father: “He pulled the trigger again. The room tore up with a roar. His fingers tightened in terror. The roar came again, as if the crust of the world burst.” In the end, there will be a bit more Dostoevsky than Hitchcock to finish things off: “He knew, too, that he had to face Gerard. That was part of it all, and always had been. It was inevitable and ordained, like the turning of the earth, and there was no sophistry by which he could free himself from it.”
By the way, I love pulp copies of books and especially love to use them in these posts. I do find it amusing, though, when a cover has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING TO DO WITH THE BOOK. This is a great example. Cool cover. Nothing to do with Highsmith’s novel.
Hitchcock was great at taking less literary works, works that weren’t necessarily all the good, and turning them into cinema gold. Occasionally he would work with something more seriously written (Rebecca), but for the most part, the history of Hitchcock’s work is a history of things that are far better on the screen than they were on the page, partially because Hitchcock was usually quite ready to ditch whatever he needed to ditch so that it could serve his story. Strangers on a Train is far better than more novels made into Hitchcock films, but it is no less the same in the way it was made to serve what Hitchcock wanted. Two men meet on a train, both of them having someone in their lives they want to be rid of. The events move into action when the psychotic Bruno Anthony kills the estranged wife of Guy Haines, which will allow Guy to marry again. Bruno seems to have an erotic fascination with Guy and Guy tries to escape from things. Those are the same. Almost everything else is different. A lot of the film takes place in the southwest (they are on the way to Texas in the train, not to DC). Guy is an architect, not a tennis player. His future wife is not the daughter of a senator and has no sister to be involved in the mystery. Guy actually ends up killing Bruno’s father and does not get away cleanly with having done no wrong like in the film. It is, like so many Hitchcock sources, just the bare bones of the idea that would become the great film.
“The work [Raymond Chandler] did was no good and I ended up with Czenzi Ormonde, a woman writer who was one of Ben Hecht’s assistants. When I completed the treatment, the head of Warner’s tried to find someone to do the dialogue, and very few writers would touch it. None of them thought it was any good.” (Hitchcock/Truffaut, p 193-194)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screen Play by Raymond Chandler and Czensi Ormonde. Adaptation by Whitfield Cook. From the novel by Patricia Highsmith.
I wish, desperately that David Lean had adapted more Dickens novels. I have seen 20 feature film adaptations of Dickens novels and his two are by far the best. It is appropriate that both were made in black-and-white, as shadows engulf the characters and they disappear into the darkness of London. Perhaps what is most remarkable about the two films is that both of them are forced to rely on child actors at a time when most child actors were terrible and both films come out just fine. Neither is weighed down by a bad child performance and the credit for that must lie with Lean.
Oliver Twist had been filmed multiple times before Lean got to it. It was made in 1922 with Lon Chaney as a deplorable, disturbing Fagin. It was made disastrously in 1933 with one of the worst child performances in the history of film. But Lean finds all the pieces he needs among the people he already had working with him. Kay Walsh makes a beautiful, but desperate Nancy, ready to find redemption in one act that will lead only to death (she also contributed to the screenplay). Robert Newton, who had been decent and hard-working as Walsh’s father in This Happy Breed, here is the violent and terrifying Bill Sykes. Alec Guinness, who had been the charming and affable Herbert Pocket in Great Expectations turns it 180 degrees and finds the darkness, but also the humor in Fagin. He takes the original Cruikshank illustrations and brings them to life in a remarkable performance.
But aside from the acting, aside from the remarkable performances, aside from Lean’s first-rate direction, the most praise goes to the set and costume designers who really bring the slums (and even the brightness of the houses of the well-of) of London vividly to life on screen and to cinematographer Guy Green, who had won an Oscar for Great Expectations just as this film was beginning filming and does a fantastic job once again here. His shadows seem to come to life and it makes you weary what be around the next corner. Yet, for those rare moments when light shines through, he also makes a way to light up the world with Brownlow’s dedication and love.
Dickens novels seem at times like they were made to be adapted into films. Yet, in all the time since feature films began, only three Dickens adaptations have earned **** from me (the 1935 A Tale of Two Cities is the other). Perhaps what we need is more people to approach it like Lean, cut the stories down to their bare bones and then build a screenplay from that, finding all the darkness around every corner but remember that there still might be some light at the end of it. Or maybe we should just sit back and let the BBC do their full-length adaptations and remember that there really isn’t any other director like David Lean.
Oliver Twist; or, The Parish Boy’s Progress by Boz [Charles Dickens] (serialized Feb 1837-March 1839, book form 1838)
I have read Oliver Twist five or six times over the years and I am certain I will continue to read it. When I ranked all of the Dickens novels after my Year of Reading Dickens, I ranked it fifth, but that was including A Christmas Carol as one of the novels (which ranked fourth). I wrote more in that piece than I had remembered and it sums up a lot of what I would say here if I were to write more. I should note that when I wrote that piece, I had it in my head that Brownlow is actually Oliver’s grandfather because I have become much more used to the Lean film than the original novel. Oliver’s connection to Monks is still a big stretch but it is not as bad as what I was thinking when I said the book contained “the most absurd plot point that Dickens ever came up with.”
In essence, this is not a great novel. It’s not in my Top 200. But it hovers just a little below that and it is one of Dickens’ most readable books. It even works as a book for younger readers (it was adapted by Moby Books, which will never be a For Love of Books post, but I will talk about more when I get to 1956). It might be the book I would recommend to someone reading Dickens for the first time, though how you could get through high school without reading Dickens would perplex me.
“Lean and Haynes completed the screenplay in only a month’s time, on April 12, 1947. They were satisfied with their efforts, except for the opening scene. Dickens begins the novel simply with Oliver’s birth in the workhouse, describing in prosaic fashion how the infant was ushered into a world of sorrow and trouble. Kay Walsh, who was being considered for a part in the picture, offered to try her hand at fashioning a more interesting opening for the movie… She suggested that the movie should open with a pregnant woman trudging through a storm on her way to the workhouse, where her son, Oliver is soon born.” (Beyond the Epic: The Life & Films of David Lean by Gene D. Phillips, p 126)
“Lean says that it would have taken approximately ten hours for a scene-by-scene adaptation of the Dickens novel. ‘The curious thing,’ he remarks, ‘people see the film and think they’re seeing the whole book. I suppose some of that has to do with wanting to capture my first impressions as I read it, the main events, as it were.’ For their faithful condensation, which at 116 minutes ran slightly longer than most features of its time, Lean and his cowriter Stanley Haynes (who also directed the film’s second-unit locations in Beaconsfield) ‘read through Oliver Twist several times,’ and from that created an outline stripped of conversation and description and consisting of one-line summaries of each chapter.” (David Lean by Stephen M. Silverman, p 75)
And, of course, not only do they think they’re seeing the whole book, but sometimes they end up thinking what they’re seeing on screen is the book. Brownlow has a strange connection to Oliver in the book (but a ridiculous Dickensian coincidence connection nonetheless), but in the film, rather than try to explain the bizarre connection, it’s made out that he is Oliver’s grandfather. Quite frankly, while that makes the coincidence more silly, it also allows us a better connection between the two and avoids the long-winded explanation of their real connection. But, for the most part, it is a faithful rendition of the book, certainly far more so than the musical that would later (not even remotely deservingly) win Best Picture at the Oscars.
Directed by David Lean. Screenplay by David Lean and Stanley Haynes. The only mention of the source novel is on the title card: Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens.
La Ronde was made towards the end of Max Ophuls career yet it feels like the work of a fresh new filmmaker. Perhaps it is because this was the start of the final phase of his career and why some people (or at least me) think of him as French. Ophuls was born in Germany but fled in 1933. He made several films in France, then in 1940 came to the United States. He would not direct again until after the end of the war, but then would make several films in Hollywood in the late 40’s (including the very good Letter from an Unknown Woman). Ophuls would then return to France where he would make his final four films, beginning with this one; they would be the best four films of his career and this is the best of those.
The “la ronde” of the title is a carousel, but what it really refers to is the way the story progresses. This is a continuing story that doesn’t follow characters but an idea (Luis Buñuel would later come back to this idea in his surrealistic vision The Phantom of Liberty). It is about sexual dalliances and the way love / sex travels between people and might eventually come back around to the same place. I am reminded of the last line of Stephen King’s extended edition of The Stand: “Life was such a wheel that no man could stand upon it for long. And it always, at the end, came round to the same place again.” Today, you could make this film using HIV as a metaphor, but in 1950, this was simply the way that love could turn.
Ophuls takes us on this dance with grace and style. We are treated to good performances from several great French actors, many of them quite young in this film but who would grow to much more prominence over the next few decades. There are sumptuous costumes and sets. We get that French style of charm and flirtation (and occasionally even romance). This is all very European, and as I said, if you didn’t know any better, you would think this was a new, young filmmaker just starting out, with a fascinating concept of how to make a film. In some ways, the linking concept of the carousel is similar to how Ed Wood would try to link Glen and Glenda through Bela Lugosi’s narration, but this is done with style and talent.
After this film, Ophuls would stay in France, and he would stay in the past, and we would continue to get the gorgeous cinematography, sets and costumes through his final three films. If you just watch his work made before this film, you would think Ophuls was a solid filmmaker. But watching from this film forward, you lament what was lost when he died in his mid-50’s, only four films into his new career.
Reigen (printed in English as La Ronde: Ten Dialogues) by Arthur Schnitzler (1897)
This is a play that really knocks at the moral of upper-class (and lower-class) society and the ridiculous games they play when it comes to sex and love. Like the film would do, the play follows the trajectory forward one character at a time, eventually coming back to the original character onstage.
The play was written in 1897, published in 1900, then banned, then finally produced on stage in 1920, then banned again (and Schnitzler would then withdraw the German version of the play) before Ophuls would make this film version (only possible because Schnitzler had given away the rights to the French language version).
It is a smart and fascinating play. But I suspect it works better as a film if for no other reason than it doesn’t leave much for any one actor to do onstage unless some (or many) of the parts are doubled up. Otherwise, you basically have 10 characters, all of whom get to be onstage for only two scenes and then are gone. There also isn’t much action in the play, perhaps why it was labelled “ten dialogues”.
“Ophuls’ main addition to Schnitzler’s piece is, not surprisingly, the meneur de jeu, who questions his own role in the film, as well as his ‘location,’ as mentioned above. He is ‘the author,’ ‘a passer-by,’ finally, ‘anyone among’ the audience. And we are certainly not surprised that Ophuls also emphasizes the passage of time in the film and adds the ‘chronotype’ of the carousel, which acts as Walbrook’s stage and symbolizes the turning of the circle of desire.” (The Cinema of Max Ophuls: Magisterial Vision and the Figure of a Woman by Susan M. White, p 240)
“Schnitzler’s play – written in 1897 and 1898, privately printed in 1900, published in 1903, first performed (in Budapest) in 1912, and not staged in Vienna until 1921 – was ideal material for the filmmaker’s return to his roots. It’s an ingenious piece of dramatic construction. In the first of its ten scenes, a prostitute picks up a soldier, who in the second scene romances a chambermaid, who in the next scene is ravished by her young employer, and so on until the end, when a count spends the night with the streetwalker from the opening scene and the play comes full circle. The elegant structure manages to convey both the transience of individual passions and the durability of passion itself as a motivating force in human behavior. Love doesn’t last, but it makes the world – the hermetic little world of the play, anyway – go round.” (“Vicious Circle” by Terrence Rafferty, p 7-8 in the booklet for the Criterion DVD)
Un Film de Max Ophuls. d’aprés la pièce d’ Arthur Schnitzler. Adaptation de Jacques Natanson et Max Ophuls. Dialogues de Jacques Natanson.
I have mentioned (probably more than once) the holy trinity of American playwrights: Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams; the only one of them not to win multiple Pulitzers won multiple Tonys for Best Play (Miller). Perhaps the best evidence for their place in American literary history is that, even though the Library of America doesn’t publish a lot of playwrights, all three of them have had their entire collected plays published in box sets. But, while they were all masters of the stage, things were not so even when their plays were made into films. O’Neill won the Nobel Prize for Literature, but only two of his plays have made films better than *** (The Long Voyage Home, Long Day’s Journey Into Night). Likewise, Arthur Miller’s great works have not readily made the transition, as will be discussed here. It is only Williams, who wrote many of the scripts for his film adaptations and worked with prominent directors, that really had a large body of successful plays that made the transition into first-rate films. Indeed, in a 14 year stretch from 1951 to 1964, there were 5 acting Oscars and an astounding 18 acting nominations that went to screen adaptations of Williams’ plays. Yet, Miller, in that same period was barely even having his films adapted, with Death of a Salesman being the prominent exception, and while it would earn several Oscar nominations (three for its acting, two of which lost to the Williams adaptation Streetcar), it has long been difficult to find. So, what is it exactly we have here?
This is a flawed film that gets by mostly on its acting and by the fact that it’s building off one of the greatest of all American plays. Some of the flaws are built into the film while some of them might only come out depending on who you are and what you bring to the film. The film is not particularly well-directed and the cinematography and the editing don’t always quite work. A little of that might be the low quality of prints available to watch (you can find it currently online but I originally watched it on video). You don’t have to know the play to appreciate the film – it’s not a mangled version of Shakespeare, but it does help to have at least some familiarity and have an idea what you are going into. The other flaws, as I have said, might come in depending on what you already know. For instance, you might know what Arthur Miller himself thought of the film (more on that below – so if you want to watch it without that, then stop reading the review and go watch the film now). But the bigger problem might be if you have already seen the play produced. Now, you don’t have to have actually seen it on stage because that magnificent Dustin Hoffman performance from the mid-80’s was taped and has long been commercially available (how could you get through high school without seeing it unless you’re older than I am?). This film has a strong performance from Fredric March, long one of the great screen actors as a man who is disintegrating before our very eyes. He can’t understand what is happening to him, what is happening to his body, what is happening to his mind, what is happening to his family. He only knows that he is not the man he used to be, is not the man he still tries to imagine himself to be. Kevin McCarthy gives the best performance of his career as Biff, the son who was supposed to be the savior but couldn’t handle the weight on his shoulders and Mildred Dunnock is quite good as the long-suffering wife. But none of them can match what Dustin Hoffman, John Malkovich, Kate Reid, Charles Durning and Stephen Lang brought to their performances. It suffers because you can not escape the memory of that. But try to forget that and focus on the performances in this film because they deserve that recognition.
Death of a Salesman: Certain Private Conversations in Two Acts and a Requiem by Arthur Miller (1949)
“This is not a knock against Arthur Miller / Death of a Salesman is my favorite play / But Marilyn Monroe should have married Henry Miller / And if she did she might be alive” Those are from the song Marilyn Monroe by Dan Bern, a great song which I love in spite of fervently disagreeing with it. There are problems with the whole concept of the song (it’s really Joe DiMaggio that she shouldn’t have married but that doesn’t work as well for the song), but I bring it up here because of the lines I quoted above. Death of a Salesman is a great play, certainly one of the greatest in American theatre history, but I don’t really envision people describing it as their “favorite” play. It’s just not a word that springs to mind for this play. You admire this play, you are blown away by it, you are moved by it. But for it to be your favorite? I’m certain someone will write in to disagree with me, but it just seems the wrong word.
It’s incredible what Miller does in this play. He takes the common man, the very encapsulation of the American Dream, and he presents him as the failing man, the one washed away in the modern world. “I am not a dime a dozen!” Willy Loman screams at his son, but he is, and we know it. Yet, in reading the play or watching it, especially as high school students, we swear to ourselves that we will never be that person, that we will make something special of ourselves, the same way we read Walden and swore to ourselves that we would not be like most men and we would not lead lives of quiet desperation.
I have had my copy of this play for so long that it has a fancy “S” stamp in the inside front cover (it means I took it from my sister Stacy’s bookshelves, probably when I was still in high school and she was away at college). I return to it from time to time to remind myself of a life list in the need to be important, to be a great man, no matter what life has left you with.
Arthur Miller was not involved with the film and was certainly not a fan of it, as is evidenced by his comment in his autobiography Timebends: “My sole participation was to complain that the screenplay had managed to chop off almost every climax of the play as though with a lawnmower, leaving a flatness that was baffling in view of the play’s demonstrated capacity for stirring its audiences in the theatre.” (p 314)
“Roberts’s greatest alteration was to cut about 15 percent of Miller’s dialogue. Some of the cuts were just to make the movie ‘less talky,’ or to simplify the narrative . . . the most important was the deleting of Ben’s references to Willy’s father, cutting out all vestiges of his role as father-substitute … Roberts also de-emphasized Biff’s negative qualities. He cut his lines about having stolen the suit in Kansas City, and he gave the line Biff says to Letta about having been in front of a jury to Hap, making it into a simple joke.” (Miller: Death of a Salesman by Brenda Murphy, p 132)
Directed by Laslo Benedek. Based upon the Play by Arthur Miller — As produced on the stage by Kermit Bloodgarden and Walter Fried. Screen Play by Stanley Roberts.
This film is a tragedy all the way through, and I’m not even talking about the plot. It was the last film written by Hugo Butler before he was blacklisted and stopped writing (his name was taken off the credits, although it is in the credits on the print I saw). Director John Berry was named by Edward Dmytryk (one of the Hollywood 10) after the film was released and wouldn’t direct another film in America for almost 25 years. Dalton Trumbo co-wrote the screenplay, using Guy Endore as a front (Endore was still listed in the print I watched); I doubt anyone at this point needs me to explain what happened to him. But the saddest of all was John Garfield, the talented virile actor. This was Garfield’s last film, and only a year after its release, hounded by the Blacklist, he would die of a heart attack at age 39, two years younger than I am now.
But let’s put all of that aside and focus on the film in front of us. That’s kind of a tragedy as well. It’s the story of a young hood (played by Garfield), a man without any better way of life, hounded by his mother, brow-beaten by a smarter partner, and involved in a heist that will end up with his partner dead and him responsible for having shot a policeman. The policeman, unlike in the book, will live, because they weren’t going to make a big fight about it against the PCA like the filmmakers of Detective Story did, but he’s still viewed as a cop-killer, even if he didn’t actually kill the cop.
The hood hides at a community pool and ends up, in an attempt to not be spotted, helping a shy young woman who is nervous in the water. He ends up sticking to her, following her home, then taking the family hostage. That move itself is where the film becomes a bit too much of a Hollywood movie, but once it has been made, we have the very real drama of how to extricate itself from all of this.
The film is well-written and very well directed, but it is in the two main performances that the real quality of the film lies. Garfield is perfect as a hood who doesn’t seem to have chosen crime so much as it emerging from a variety of bad options. That’s also how he ends up with a family at his mercy – making a choice from a variety of bad options. But he’s not alone in the film. The girl he at first befriends, and then later, holds against her will, is played very well by Shelley Winters. In both this and A Place in the Sun, we can see how good she was at being overlooked, at being passed by and the quiet desperation that leaks into her eyes in the scenes where Garfield is trying to explain things to her. She, in her own way, really does want to help him, but by then they’ve all been trapped into tragedy and there’s no way out.
He Ran All the Way by Sam Ross (1947)
This is another one of those novels that probably could have been much more effective if it had been tightened up and turned into a short story. It’s a good enough thriller about a criminal involved in killing a cop (it’s never quite clear if he shot the cop or not, but in the end, it’s not really relevant) who ends up taking a family hostage. The problem is that the hostage situation basically takes up 2/3 of an almost 300 page book. By the time you get to the end, you’re beginning to pine for something more to happen.
An important note: you might find online claims that this novel was written by Trumbo under a pseudonym. That is not true, and I have corrected it on Wikipedia. I don’t know how that got started; it probably stems from Trumbo using a front for the script. But Sam Ross was a Ukranian writer and it’s an insult to him to claim that this wasn’t his novel. So don’t believe that about Trumbo.
Hugo Butler, quite frankly, kept me from fucking up Dalton’s script. Dalton did one script. Then Jack Moss went away with me, and we thought we’d fixed up Dalton’s script. What we actually did was make some romantic piece of shit out of it, although we did find an ending that was quite extraordinary. When we came back, everybody was upset, so Hugo was put on the script. Hugo hated our script, said it was all bullshit. So he fixed our script by going back to Dalton’s, although Hugo got the credit.
The big beef on the script was the ending. It wasn’t Hugo’s beef, it was Shelley Winters’s. The one thing Hugo liked was our idea for the ending. What I didn’t want was the ending of the book, where she stabs him on the couch. I wanted an ending where a betrayal takes place . . . yet it’s not a betrayal. (John Berry, quoted in Tender Comrades: A Backstory of the Hollywood Blacklist, Patrick McGilligan and Paul Buhle, ed. p 73)
Berry is right – the ending in the film, where Nick believes he has been betrayed, when he really hasn’t, works much better for the film, rather than the desperate scene of possible seduction that ends with her pulling out the knife and stabbing him, getting trapped underneath his dead body, waiting for her father to come home and help her.
Directed by John Berry. Screenplay by Hugo Butler and Guy Endore. Based Upon the Novel “He Ran All the Way” by Sam Ross.
In some ways, this is the least Disney of all the classic Disney films. Yet, in some ways perhaps it also exemplifies the way that people attack Disney for the way he (and later, his company without him) commercialize childhood classics.
How you feel about a lot of the Disney films, those adapted from fairy tales, may depend on how much you embrace the darker side of such fairy tales (like, for instance, whether you prefer the Perrault version of Cinderella or the Grimms’). But the “classic” works of literature are different. When something as brilliantly satirical as The Wind in the Willows is made into a Disney film, no matter how much I enjoy it, it’s hard not to see the arguments that it has been “Disneyfied”. So, we come to Lewis Carroll and his two brilliant books. In some ways, they are perfect for Disney to adapt: they take place in a fantastical world, many of the events in them would have been hard-pressed to reproduce with quality in a live-action film and they are episodic, so they would be easy to pick and choose which episodes to put in a film and which to ignore. Indeed, some 60 years later, when visual effects had gotten so much more impressive (and budgets had grown so much larger), it’s not hard to see why they would think of this for the first of their live-action versions of the old animated classics.
The criticisms of this film tend to focus on the cutesiness of the film (if you want a very different take on the characters look at the Ralph Steadman illustrations) and on the episodic nature of the story (there is also the ending, where everything comes together awfully quickly). We just flit from little episode to episode. But that’s also one of the strengths of the film, and one of the things that makes it so very different from the other Disney films of the era. This film is almost anarchic in the way it jumps around. Just look at the tea party scene and the “Unbirthday Song”. When Alice comes in, she is utterly baffled by the way in which the Mad Hatter speaks to her and the March Hare doesn’t help at all. Little kids watching this film at the time can’t have known what to make of it. While it is illustrated for children, in some ways the moment is really made for adults as the Hatter’s logical progression tears down the walls of Alice’s mind. Yes, the film jumps from moment to moment and from new character to new character, but that’s what happens in Wonderland and it’s part of the joy of discovery. Almost any moment in the film with the Hatter in it is just sheer ridiculousness and logic evaporates completely. It is part of what makes this film such a delight.
Now, the film is not great (I ranked it at #17 when I originally ranked all the Disney films and it comes in at mid-range ***.5). The episodic structure keeps it from working too well as a complete film. But there are a lot of moments of sheer inspired genius in this film and it’s given entire generations a visual image of the characters in Wonderland that does not let down its original source.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) / Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871) by Lewis Carroll
When I did my second Top 100 Novels, the only “kids” novel I included was The Wind in the Willows, which, by default, means I think it is the greatest children’s novel ever written. I think perhaps that the two Alice books belong there as well. What they do, with story-telling, with the use of language, with the gift of imagination, makes for one of the greatest things ever put down on page. The magic begins right away, in the second paragraph when the White Rabbit runs by. It’s enough to notice that he’s capitalized, meaning he’s anything but a normal rabbit, but once he starts talking as he goes by, we have entered one of the great worlds of fantasy. Then when we find out it has taken out a watch from its waistcoat-pocket we have to wonder why he has a watch and for the matter, why does he have a waistcoat? And that does it, we’re lost down the rabbit hole.
If I had to choose a book to read to a child, I would probably start with Alice if the child were younger (I read Alice to Thomas but we didn’t get very far into Through the Looking-Glass before I realized that it wouldn’t work nearly as well). It creates a fascinating new world and with such things as a talking rabbit, with a girl who shrinks and grows, with a cat who disappears and leaves its grin behind it, it’s all just so silly and fun and little kids can love it. If they get a bit older, I would go with The Wind in the Willows because it has more of a purpose with its story and the friendship between the four characters is such a wonderful thing to read about. But then, as kids get older, they can return to Alice and discover all the things about the language that they had never understood in the first place.
The two books are a never-ending depth of magic and wonderment. Consider this: I have the Norton Critical Edition, complete with literary essays about the book. I also have multiple editions of the Norton Annotated Edition, in which we can understand what Carroll references throughout the book and get a better understanding of his language and what he does with math. Or, you could read the kids book version I have which is just an easy edition to read to kids complete with kid-friendly illustrations. But Carroll’s world is a source of illusion to all, and I also have an edition illustrated by Ralph Steadman and those illustrations are in no way suitable for children and we can remember that this kind of world is an inspiration to any age.
Walt Disney first had the idea to adapt Alice before World War II and had enquired into the rights as early as 1932. But, with the films after Snow White being as successful as he had hoped, the bank stepped in and Disney “would be allowed to finish the features already in production – Dumbo, Bambi, and Wind in the Willows – but no other feature was to be started until these had been released and earned back their costs.” (Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination by Neal Gabler, p 376). This meant that both Alice and Peter Pan, which were in the early planning stages, had to be put aside and would not make it to the screen until the 50’s. When it would finally come out, it would really become one of the key films in the debate over what would eventually be called the “Disneyfication” of classic works. Would you allow the defining images of a work of literature be what you had seen on the screen, sometimes deliberately aimed at younger audiences?
Alice, in some ways, is able to escape that question precisely because of the way it goes about adapting the stories. Rather than tackle the two different books and have Alice go into Wonderland twice, once through the hole and once through the Looking-Glass, it contains all of her adventures within one journey. Consequently, characters like Tweedledum and Tweeledee, who we don’t meet until the second book, are here in the film, complete with their story of the Walrus and the Carpenter. To that end, those moments which do come from the second book are just thrown into the film as episodes while the main bulk of the story, as well as her arrival and departure from Wonderland are both taken from the first book.
Directors: Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske, Wilfred Jackson. An Adaptation of Lewis Carrol’s The Adventure of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Story: Winston Hibler, Ted Sears, Bill Peet, Erdman Penner, Joe Rinaldi, Milt Banta, Bill Cottrell, Dick Kelsey, Joe Grant, Dick Huemer, Del Connell, Tom Oreb, John Walbridge. Note: the misspelling of Carroll’s name is how it is spelled in the credits.
Consensus Nominees That Don’t Make My Top 10
This film was the last winner of the Writers Guild category “Screenplay That Deals Most Ably with the Problems of the American Scene” and it’s not hard to see why. It’s a solid film with some solid writing and a first-rate performance from Arthur Kennedy that would earn him the second in a long string of Oscar nominations that sadly never ended with a win (he was the male Thelma Ritter of the time). But this film definitely deals with problems of the American scene. In fact, it deals directly with two different problems and while it doesn’t always do it with subtlety, it does so, for the most part, with grace.
The first problem is the one that brings us to the title. Kennedy plays Larry, a soldier who is shot by a sniper in Northern Africa in World War II and is blinded by the damage the bullet does to his optic nerves. He must return to life though and figure out a way to cope with the world through his blindness. This involves rehab back in the States, and then adjusting to life back down South after he has learned how to function outside a hospital. In the middle of it are two different girls. There’s the girl that Larry left behind when he went to war, one who becomes uncomfortable when she realizes what a married life with Larry would be like now that he is blind (I guess she’s lucky they didn’t marry before he left). There’s also the girl that he meets in Philadelphia when he is recuperating, a kindly bank teller who falls in love with him, although given Larry’s gruffness and unwillingness to be drawn into a relationship, the film doesn’t do a particularly good job at making us see what she sees in him unless it’s his pride and dignity. All of this will come to a happy ending, of course, as we can’t have the nice bank teller be left with nothing when she clearly loves Larry so much and doesn’t care about his blindness.
The other problem is Larry’s metaphorical blindness. Larry is from the South after all, and he is not inclined towards blacks. He is a product of his environment and has grown up believing they are inferior and that surfaces when Larry makes a comment about them being allowed on the ward, using the favorite slur of the time of course. What he doesn’t realize is that his friend Joe (also blind) who he is talking to is actually black. That will force Larry to confront his ignorant prejudices at the same time that he is trying to cope with his blindness. He had become friends with Joe because he could no longer see color.
This film was made in 1951, at a time when we were back at war (in Korea) and the issue of soldiers returning home wounded was once again a major issue. It was also a time of great racial unrest in the country, as so many blacks who had been given better treatment in the Army after Truman de-segregated the forces were suddenly forced to return to lives where they were again second-class citizens. So this screenplay, even with some unsubtle stumbles along the way and an ending that is a bit too happy given the issues we have been dealing with, is dealing with important issues and is not bothering to shy away from either.
The strange thing is that this film, rather forward for its time, has long been extremely difficult to find. I happen to own it because years ago one of my readers sent me some prominent films that I had never seen and this was one of them. It’s an Oscar nominee (Arthur Kennedy might not make my Top 5 but that’s because it’s a really tough year) and a WGA winner and it deserves to be available for people to see. It’s only a mid-range *** film but it’s definitely worth seeing, for Kennedy’s performance if nothing else.
Lights Out by Baynard Kendrick (1945)
If the film was progressive in looking at two completely different problems that become linked through the problems of Larry, the book was even more so. It was originally published in 1945, just as the second World War was ending and at a time when people were confronting the problems of wounded returning vets and soldiers were coping with the issue of becoming friends with people under the hazard of war that they wouldn’t normally associate with back home. It’s a solid novel, if considerably unsubtle at times. It makes Larry work quite a bit for his happy ending, but in the end he does get it, finding the woman he loves (more through the help of his friends than in the film). It also takes longer for Larry to deal with his prejudices and learn what a fool he has been. The racial issues seem to have been a secondary motive in writing the book. Baynard Kendrick was already well-known for writing a series of books about Duncan Maclain, a blind detective and had made a study of the blind, even serving as Chairman of the Board of Directors for the Blinded Veterans Association (although the book is unclear if this happened before the book was written – I was reading a Bantam copy from 1951 when it had been renamed Bright Victory to coincide with the film and it’s possible that those things happened in the six years between the original publication of the book and the publication of the edition I was reading).
One of the major points in the film, of course, is that when you’re blind it’s harder to have prejudices against someone. The prejudice in Larry, though, is less pronounced in the film, where it consists mainly of one comment and then some reflection on what he thinks, while the book, very early on (page 4) makes it clear how Larry feels: “No foolishness from labor and uppity Negroes. That was one of the main troubles with the country – the Negroes were getting too damned independent. He’d heard his mother say so time after time. Now he was hooked firmly into the Army. Once he got home, he and a lot of other fellows would show them. The United States was never made to be run by the Negroes and the Jews.”
Most of the rest of the film does hew closely to the film, with one particular moment I really enjoyed coming straight from the book, when Larry, having returned home to problems, gets some understanding from his father, who wants to take him out for a drink and says to his wife: “Mother, you and Chris get out, and goddam quick. Larry and I are driving downtown to have some whisky and chase it with some beer!” Of course, in the film they cut the word “goddam.”
There are some changes in the film, of course. Larry has another encounter with Joe where he still isn’t able to completely overcome his prejudice before they reconcile. It’s also not at the end where they reconcile. In fact, it is Joe, after becoming close friends with Larry again, who manages to connect him with Judy, the girl that he loves. But the essential flow of the story remains the same.
Directed by Mark Robson. Screenplay by Robert Buckner. Based upon the novel “Lights Out” by Baynard Kendrick.
There are two bits of good news about this film, although the “good news” is relative. The first says something about films today and the second says something about “classic” films.
The first bit is that when a film suddenly becomes a success and the studio immediately rushes a sequel into production, it’s not a new Hollywood development showing their bankruptcy of ideas. The good news is that Hollywood has always been short of ideas! Yes, there have been series of films for a long time, and Horror films were often rushed into a sequel, but the success of this film prompted a new film almost instantly, and thanks to the Studio system, they could take all the same stars, because they were all already under contract, and just plop them all back together pretty much the next day and get shooting on a new film.
The second bit is about what a mediocre sequel does to the original film. Does a slough of crappy sequels tarnish the brilliance of a film like Jaws or The Exorcist? I would argue no. But the good news is we don’t have to worry about that question here. Some films have “classic” status without actually earning it and the original Father of the Bride is definitely one of those films. Of the 229 films that have been nominated for both Best Picture and Best Actor at the Oscars, only six of them are worse than Father of the Bride.
Which, I suppose bring us to a third bit of relative good news. This film really isn’t any worse than the original. Rather than the pressure of having to plan and pay for a wedding, this time it’s all about the pressure of your young daughter, newly married, being pregnant. And, if you though you had a lot to deal with concerning the in-laws with the wedding, imagine when there is going to be a grandchild involved! So there are situations that aren’t particularly funny, a lot of ridiculous moaning, a lot of excessive whining about situations that really aren’t such a big deal and, for a plus at least, a lot of young Elizabeth Taylor walking around looking beautiful. But, I’ll remind you that in this same year she was also in A Place in the Sun, a film that really does deserve its classic status, so you’re better off watching that. Yes, it does have a lot of tragedy, but at least it doesn’t have a lot of Spencer Tracy bitching and moaning.
Father of the Bride by Edward Streeter (1949)
First of all, I have already reviewed this book, when I wrote about the original film in the 1950 post. Second, this film is not so much based on that novel, then on the characters created in that novel, continuing on their story beyond the original novel and the first film.
Well, they didn’t have to adapt anything – all they had to do was write a new script that kept to the same characters. They did that just fine, which is part of why this film isn’t any better than the first one – because all of the things that were so annoying about the first one are just as annoying here.
Directed by Vincente Minnelli. Screen Play by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich. Based on Characters Created by Edward Streeter.
WGA Nominees That Don’t Make My List
Henry Hathaway was not a great director, but he was a more than serviceable director who could do certain things quite well. In the late 40’s, he became known for directing a series of films based on true events, portrayed in an almost documentary like style. So, when Howard Hawks refused to make this film because of the subject matter, Hathaway was the perfect director to bring in. The irony was that, while this was another true story, the style wouldn’t be in that same manner as before because the studio was actually downplaying its connection to real events. At the request of the family of the original person who stood for hours on a ledge of a building in midtown Manhattan, the title of the film was changed, as were all the names, and there was nothing made clear about the film that it was based on a true story.
Richard Basehart, in the role that helped land him the role in La Strada that really kick-started his international fame, plays a troubled young man, with a brow-beating mother and a distant father, who is standing outside on a ledge, preparing to jump. His parents, once brought in, are unsuccessful in getting him off the ledge (the mother, in good performance from Agnes Moorhead, actually makes things worse). His fiancee isn’t able to talk him down. Even the kindly beat cop who first reported the story (a more kindly role for Paul Douglas than he was usually given to play) can’t bring him in, though at least he makes progress.
We don’t just stay on the ledge, keeping the film static. We see the reactions from the crowd (including the film debut of Jeffrey Hunter as a man who uses the occasion to flirt). We see a divorcing couple who decide, after seeing the man about to end his life, that their marriage is worth another shot, with the young wife played by Grace Kelly in her screen debut. We get the reminders that just because traffic has stopped to look at the scene, life itself hasn’t stopped.
Hathaway’s direction is solid, similar to his documentary style direction of his other films of the era. But is the film perhaps let down by its ending? In a further departure from the original story, Basehart doesn’t jump, though he slips when a searchlight shines in his face and is able to make a grasp for life and be rescued.
“The Man on the Ledge” by Joel Sayre (1949)
This is a stark piece about New York, written eleven years after the fact about a man who held up traffic in midtown, standing on a ledge outside the Hotel Gotham. People came and went, including a kindly cop who was brought in because he was good at talking to people, as well as the sister of the man on the ledge who was there when he went out there in the first place. Sayre’s narrative is crisp, clean and straight forward and there is hope that something good might come of it, until we get to that final moment. Sayre doesn’t actually describe whether the man (John William Warde) jumps or slips, because the narrative eye is on the cop, back in the room, when “there was a tremendous roar from the crowd below.” But the power of Sayre’s narrative really comes in through in the paragraph that describes the fall itself:
As John’s’ body passed the sixteenth floor a policeman, who had been stationed there to seize the strands of the net when it was raised before his window, made a lunge for him and barely missed. A magnesium flare was set off by the newsreel cameramen. John feel feet first as far as the eighth floor, where he grazed the ledge, then he whirled end-over-end until he struck the hotel marquee, almost hit a Homicide Squad lieutenant coming from under it, and landed partly on the sidewalk and partly in the gutter. A priest sprang forward to administer the last rites, but John was beyond all rites.
The basic premise stays the same, with some of the details deliberately changed at the request of John William Warde’s family. But, by far, the biggest change from the original true story and Sayre’s description of it is in the ending, when Basehart’s character slips because of the lights and then is able to grab something and keep from plummeting to his death.
Directed by Henry Hathaway. Screen Play by John Paxton. From a Story by Joel Sayre.
People Will Talk is a bit of a clumsy, unsubtle film. One line on Wikipedia says “The movie has been said to be to the medical profession what All About Eve was to the theater.” I can understand that someone would say this, but that comparison falls completely flat. Yes, both works were written by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, but All About Eve sparkles with wit and scintillating dialogue. That film really did skewer the people who work in and work around the theater. But this film has less to do with the medical profession than attempting to skewer self-important people who believe it is their moral duty to tear apart anyone who falls outside their norm. On a purely filmic level, the film doesn’t hold up simply because it spends too much time early in the film focusing on what is built up as a mystery, then mostly abandoning for long stretches to focus on the love story, before finally coming back to the mystery at the end. On stage, they might have balanced this more, but the way it is structured in the film, it just makes it look like two completely different films were shoved together awkwardly.
The first story begins with a mystery. A professor at a college has gone to great lengths to track down information about the past of a fellow professor, Dr. Praetorius, and the strange man who is always around him, Mr. Shunderson. He starts to learn some information (which we are not privy to), but then the film focuses on Praetorius himself (played by Cary Grant). He’s a medical teacher, teaching anatomy. Before long we learn that one of his female students is pregnant and that after she discovers this (the father is dead) she tries to kill herself. We then continue with that story for quite a while – with Praetorius falling in love with her (she’s easily young enough to be his daughter), pursuing her (including telling her she’s not pregnant when she actually still is) and even marrying her.
At the same time as all of this, the original professor we met (played with some bland vindictiveness by Hume Cronyn) continues to search into his past. In the end, we get a story in front of a college tribunal (essentially turning this into a courtroom drama for the final part of the film) in which, of course, the whole story comes out and Praetorius is exonerated from any actual wrong-doing.
Most of this is pretty bland. Grant does an okay job, but it’s weird to see him pursuing the young Jeanne Crain and it becomes obvious very early on that they are only going to build up the mystery of Mr. Shunderson to finally be revealed at the end of the film. Given that this was written and directed by the man who had won both Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay at the two previous Oscars, it really was a letdown. It’s not a bad film (mid-range ***), but you expect so much more from this talent.
Dr. med. Hiob Praetorius, Facharzt fuer Chirurgie und Frauenleiden by Curt Goetz (1929)
I was not able to get a copy of Dr. Praetorius. There also seem to be some questions about it. I got the title and the year from a version in WorldCat held by Queen’s University Library in Ontario. Wikipedia, on the page for this film, lists the play as being from 1934, but then again, it’s Wikipedia. The play doesn’t appear to be available in English; there is one listing for it in English in WorldCat, but it also says it’s a “story in 7 Chapters” and lists no library as having that edition, so I don’t know what to make of that. It does seem strange, if Kenneth L. Geist is correct (see the quote below) that a German language play written by a native German would have a lot of jokes about a girl speaking with a Saxon accent.
“Curt Goetz, the author of Dr. Praetorius, also wrote, directed and starred in a German film of his play. Although this screenplay is credited in the titles of People Will Talk, Mankiewicz says that he never saw the picture. Mankiewicz says, “People Will Talk departs rather broadly from its source, Dr. Praetorius, which is full of jokes about the fact that the girl speaks with a Saxon accent. Praetorius’s clinic and his comments on the treatment of patients, doctors, and schoolteachers are all mine. The Shunderson mystery is in the original.” (Pictures Will Talk: The Life and Films of Joseph L. Mankiewicz by Kenneth L. Geist, p 208)
If you read the credits below, which I coped directly from the film, you will see that Geist is wrong and that the screenplay for the film is not actually credited. But that’s about as much as I can say about the adaptation beyond what Geist says since I wasn’t able to get hold of the original.
Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Written for the Screen by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. From the Play “Dr. Praetorius” by Curt Goetz.
On the one hand, Henry Hathaway was a solid director of documentary style dramas, crime and thriller films, as I mentioned above in my review of 14 Hours. On the other hand, this is a Comedy and that’s not really Hathaway’s forte. This film probably couldn’t have been very good no matter who directed it, though, and it lands 87 spots below 14 Hours on my list for the year. At least it doesn’t have the distinction of being the weakest film to earn a writing nomination in this year and thus forcing me to review it, thanks to Father’s Little Dividend.
It’s a ridiculous film about a Navy ship that is put to sea almost entirely manned by civilians. The premise is that there is a lot of new technology aboard and that the ship might work better with people who have backgrounds in engineering (like Gary Cooper, who plays the captain of the ship) than men with experience at sea. The other part of that premise is that there aren’t enough experienced men anyway to fill the Navy ships for the war (it takes place in World War II) and they need to find out if men can be put out to sea without experience and still be successful. Poor Millard Mitchell, playing the chief mate is the only one with real experience.
The whole thing is rather ridiculous, not helped by Hathaway’s direction (he’s really far more suited for the dramatic documentary style). It’s part of a sub-genre that flourished in the 50’s: the war comedy, and it wasn’t one that resulted in many particularly good films (Mr. Roberts is a notable exception). This, and other films like it, mainly end up getting reviewed by me for this project because the Writers Guild for some reason kept thinking they were well-written.
“The Flying Teakettle” by John W. Hazard (1950)
This was a short little non-fiction piece in the New Yorker about Hazard’s experiences aboard the exact type of ship that was described in the film – one run by people without any real sea experience. It’s a mostly forgettable piece about a strange little experiment that the Navy tried that didn’t really work.
The original piece in the New Yorker was just a description of what Hazard went through in the course of his duty. The script embellishes it dramatically, adding a love interest to the story and providing much more of a plot to something that was just a real-life experiment that didn’t actually end up working.
Directed by Henry Hathaway. Screen Play by Richard Murphy. From an Article in the New Yorker by John W. Hazard.
Oh, biopics. There are far more of them than the world ever could have needed. Famous writer? Biopic! Famous artists? Biopic! (Though at least those have the benefit of glorious art on display.) Famous singer? Biopic! Unlike the artists, the enjoyment factor of a musical biopic can really depend on how much you like the music. Ray and Walk the Line are basically the same film but I would much rather watch Walk the Line because I like Johnny Cash and don’t much care for Ray Charles (or, at least his music). In recent years, the writing for biopics is more likely to be over-looked. But, in this era, when there was a separate category at the WGA for Musicals, a lot of them earned nominations and that means I was forced to watch them once (awards OCD) and now I am forcing myself to watch them again for this project.
All of that is a long way of saying that this film is pretty much interchangeable with other Musical biopics, and by that, I don’t mean Yankee Doodle Dandy which is on a completely different level. Famous singer grows up, becomes famous, has some setbacks, has some huge triumphs, and in the end has an important life that they think is worth making a movie over.
The problem with this particular film is threefold, two of which are more specific to me and the last of which is about the film as a whole. The first is that this is a biopic of Enrico Caruso, the famous opera singer, and that no matter how much I like classical music, I can’t really get into opera. Honestly, it’s the singing that throws me off. I like the music in opera, but I don’t particularly like the opera style of singing. So I never had any interest in watching a biopic of a famous opera star, no matter how famous he was. The second problem is Mario Lanza. Lanza was a talented singer (though the type of singing he did doesn’t interest me at all) but he wasn’t a particularly talented actor and so the moments where he is not singing are a drag (and the moments where he is, I don’t care for). But the third problem is that the film just isn’t that good. The acting is mostly forgettable, the director, Richard Thorpe, was never particularly good, and there’s nothing noteworthy to make this more than the greatest hits version of a man’s life built around his opera singing.
Enrico Caruso: His Life and Death by Dorothy Caruso (1945)
To call this a biography isn’t really accurate. Dorothy Caruso outlived her husband by a long time and finally decided to write a book about him. But it really focuses on his career and on the time they had together (and they didn’t actually marry until relatively late in his life). The first 30 pages are all photographs, the end of the book is a list of his recordings, and the rest of the book focuses on individual moments in their lives together as well as stories of his greatest musical triumphs. I would think any serious Caruso fan would be disappointed in this book; it might give some insights into him but it isn’t really the story of his life.
I won’t go into all the various ways that things are changed. Such things are often to be expected in biopics and apparently this one was more egregious than most. In fact, even though the credits mention Dorothy Caruso’s book (but only “suggested by” rather than adapted from), the fiction parts of the film were so outlandish that she actually sued the studio. Many of the parts of the film pre-date the actions in the book anyway, but if you are interested, Wikipedia has (what I assume to be an accurate) list of major discrepancies between Caruso’s actual life and how is portrayed in the book.
Directed by Richard Thorpe. Written by Sonya Levin and William Ludwig. Suggested by Dorothy Caruso’s Biography of Her Husband.
Danny Kaye was never a great actor, but he was a talented performer. He was very good with light comedy, he could sing and he could move around well (all of which made him a lesser version of Gene Kelly, but when you’re being compared to Gene Kelly, that’s more of a compliment than it looks at first glance). Put him in the right role and you would have a good hour and a half in front of you.
This film is no different. In this one, he is a man who looks like a famous aviator and ends up being paid to impersonate him. In the end, the impersonation involves his wife as well, and when the impersonator gets close to the wife, he realizes how wonderful she is, so that at the end of the film, he can make it clear to the aviator himself how wonderful the wife is and that he should take advantage of the fact that he is married to a wonderful woman.
The plot is mostly incidental. The impersonator is an entertainer, and so we not only get some charming acting from Kaye (in the roles where he must play both roles), but some good old song and dance numbers that highlight Kaye’s real talent. The plot itself is just light comedy, the kind of thing that Kaye was perfectly made for and he could do it in his sleep. There’s a lot better films in this year and this hardly merited its WGA nomination for Best Written American Comedy Musical, but it’s not a bad way to spend an hour and a half, watching Kaye in his prime.
The Red Cat by Rudolph Lothar and Hans Adler (1934)
Other than the name of the play and the year it was first performed, I was unable to find out anything about this play. Given that both authors wrote in German (the former was a Hungarian born Austrian and the latter was German), it seems odd that the play would be in English, but the TCM database lists it as being performed in New York beginning in 1934. It is also a remake of That Night in Rio, which was based on the same play but with the added benefit that this film doesn’t make you sit through Don Ameche or Carmen Miranda.
Without getting hold of the play, of course, I can’t tell what was done in the adaptation.
Directed by Walter Lang. Screen Play by Valentine Davies and Phoebe and Henry Ephron. Based on a Play by Rudolph Lothar and Hans Adler. Adapted by Jessie Ernst.
Because of availability of sources and films, I don’t necessarily re-watch these films in the same order that they appear (every film in this entire project is a film I had seen before I watched it for this project). As a result, I re-watched Kiss Me Kate before re-watching Show Boat and was already tired of listening to Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson sing at each other. I wouldn’t call what they do acting, and it amazes me, watching these films, that Grayson would eventually giving such an excellent (non-singing) acting performance in The Night of the Iguana years later. Coupled with the presence of Joe E. Brown who irritates me anytime he’s not trying to get Jack Lemmon into bed, and this was a film guaranteed to turn me off. What makes it worse is that this version was the one I had to watch again for this project, thanks to the Musical category of the WGA Awards that existed for some 20+ years rather than the far superior version made by James Whale in 1936.
If you have ever seen the original version, there’s no question what you will remember about it – the magnificent voice of Paul Robeson singing “Ol’ Man River”. It brings the film to life in a way that all the MGM technicolor of 1951 can’t possibly match. And MGM seemed to know this – they handed it off to William Warfield. Never heard of him? Neither had I. It turns out he’s a baritone singer but not an actor and did almost no other film work. Why take such a magnificent cinematic moment and give it to someone that’s so marginalized in the cast list? Because they wanted to focus on the color and the costumes and the romance and wanted to forget all the things that actually made the musical come to life and achieve a measure of immortality.
Yes, there is a story in the middle of all of this, about a group of performers who travel on a riverboat. It deals with illicit romance and race relations and there’s a slimy villain and a heel who becomes a romantic lead and a real love between a couple that isn’t allowed at the time. But all of that is supposed to fall away when the power of “Ol’ Man River” comes on the soundtrack and this film just forgets all of that. But, hey, this film was directed by George Sidney, a mediocre director of musicals and light comedies. The original was directed by James Whale, fresh off the success of three of the greatest Horror films ever made and it’s a stark reminder that he was a major talent, which is why he’s in my Top 100 directors and Sidney is mostly forgotten.
Show Boat originally came from Edna Ferber’s 1926 novel. Ferber’s novel is over-written, as is must of her work and never really comes to life. Perhaps that’s because, even more than this film, it misses the presence of Joe. He was a creation of Kern and Hammerstein. What Ferber has, are the silly stories that are best left forgotten, but form, sadly, the core of this film.
Kern and Hammerstein, on the other hand, made something much much more. I am not a huge fan of the musical, but with the song “Ol’ Man River”, they really made it come to life and it was a huge success on stage, producing numerous films, of course, of which this is the least.
Almost all of the dialogue from the original Kern / Hammerstein production was excised in this film version. I’m not going to go too deeply into all the changes that were made because, for once, someone has done a fantastic job on Wikipedia detailing all of them. So, if you head over there, you can see, in good detail, all of the changes that were made, both from the original musical and from the first film version, almost all of them for the worse.
Directed by George Sidney. Screen Play by John Lee Mahin. Based on the Immortal Musical Play “Show Boat” by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein, II. From Edna Ferber’s Novel.
Ah, religious dramas. They are not my cup of tea. They are not my cup of anything. As has (presumably) been made clear in many of the things I have written, I have no use for god and even less use for organized groups that choose to worship some form of deity. Religious dramas that have something to say (like Through a Glass Darkly or Winter Light or The Silence, or really most of Bergman’s films) I enjoy. They question, they think, they speak. If they offer no answers, they at least provoke thoughtful discussion. My least favorite are films that want to show us the wonder of religion, films like this or The Song of Bernadette (although, while this one doesn’t push as hard with its religion, it also doesn’t have the same kind of acting on display as Bernadette does).
Unless you revel in films about faith (more specifically, films about the Christian faith), I doubt you will find much to crow about either here. One particular commenter on the IMDb declares that this film has the best performance ever from Charles Boyer making me wonder if that viewer had ever seen Algiers, Gaslight, Fanny, or really any Charles Boyer film. The performances in this film are forgettable. The direction is lifeless. The writing at least tries to deal with some questions of faith (one person begins to walk again in what is viewed in one light as a miracle but it turns out that’s not the case, but it still leads the line at the end “The biggest miracle is faith and to have faith is the miracle.” After the first “miracle”, we then have to deal with a long subplot about a local crippled girl (the girl makes it to the front of the poster which tells you how much the filmmakers want you to focus on her) but then it gets not only preachy but also boring.
Douglas Sirk has never been to my taste. His films later in the decade are filled with ridiculous melodrama and his insistence on using Rock Hudson drags all of them down since Hudson rarely gave a worthwhile performance. But those are far preferable to what Sirk does here.
The First Legion: A Drama of the Society of Jesus by Emmet Lavery (1934)
The Society of Jesus, as the films tells us in an opening title scene, is what is known more commonly as the Jesuits. To invoke the title of “The First Legion” brings things to a point that I would rather not think about. While this play does deal with some doubts and some questions and the role of faith, in the end I personally found it too sanctimoniously pious to cope with.
With the playwright hired to write the script, it does a fairly close job of keeping to the play. Like with so many plays, a lot of dialogue is altered or moved around a bit (it’s like people are convinced they can’t just film the play – they have to move things around) with some added scenes, but for the most part, it’s the play moved to the screen.
Produced and Directed by Douglas Sirk. Based on the Play by Emmet Lavery. Screenplay by Emmet Lavery.
Hugo Haas had been one of those multi-talent people in the film industry in Europe before World War II, producing directing, writing and acting. I say “multi-talent” rather than “multi-talented” for some of the same reasons that I would use that phrase for Ed Wood. He wore a variety of hats, but that doesn’t mean he was exactly Orson Welles or Charlie Chaplin when it come to the depths of his talents. After coming to the States, Haas was a character actor, before he finally got a chance to spread his wings again, beginning with this film.
This film has often been looked at as a low-budget unauthorized adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice which seems a little odd since it was based on a novel that pre-dates Postman both as a film and a novel. The problem that this film has is that it does, in fact, seem like a low-budget version of Postman, and it’s not just the budget that is the problem. Or maybe the budget was the problem. Because while Haas writes a solid script about a railroad worker just hoping to get to his pension with a younger wife. He has an accident and loses his hearing. The wife decides then that this is the right time to get rid of her husband (since she’s having an affair anyway). The problem is that his hearing slowly comes back to him and he doesn’t let her know, so he becomes away of the scheme. Haas does some decent direction and he’s mostly okay in the lead role. The problem is that the budget didn’t really allow him to get a decent cameraman and Haas was stuck in front of the camera too much to really focus on how the film looked. The other budget problem is that we end up with a pretty weak cast around him and so while Haas does a creditable job, no one else in the film is even remotely worth watching.
In the end, Pickup is a decent film – a mid-range *** that shows that Haas really did have abilities on multiple fronts and unlike Ed Wood, might have been able to do something with a real budget. But I think this film might have been forgotten (and probably never seen by me) if not for the fact that for this little stretch, the WGA decided to have a best “low-budget” category. It’s an interesting choice, because the script isn’t really affected by the budget, while so many of the other categories you would see at the Oscars would be drastically affected by it (yes, it is affected a little because of choices that have to be made, but not in the same visual way you would notice as the other categories).
Hlídač č.47 by Josef Kopta (1926)
Unfortunately, this is one source I wasn’t able to read. In fact, as far as I was able to tell, it’s never even been published in English, but given that Haas was originally born in Austria-Hungary, I don’t think that Haas needed it in English.
Obviously there’s not much I can do with a novel that I haven’t read in discussing its adaptation. The film has often been compared to The Postman Always Rings Twice, so it’s possible that Haas picked up noir themes from American films and novels and added them to the original novel.
Produced and Directed by Hugo Haas. Screenplay by Hugo Haas and Arnold Phillips. Based on a Novel by Joseph Kopta.
As is obvious, the WGA used to have a category for scripts “dealing most ably with problems of the American scene”. That’s how, in 1949, we ended up with nominations for Home of the Brave, Pinky and Lost Boundaries, all of them dealing with race relations. In this year, while most of the scripts were much better and dealt with bigger issues, we also have Saturday’s Hero, a film dealing with the issue of athletes getting paid to attend college. Yes, a film made in 1951 dealt with the issues of athletes getting paid to attend college. It is definitely a problem that continues to be part of the American scene. The only problem is that the script itself isn’t very good, and neither is the film.
John Derek plays Steve Novak, a star New Jersey football player who uses the sport to escape his mill town and go to college in Virginia. Most of the first half of the film deals either with his transition to college or with football itself, with lots of game action. Then we start to get into the more serious issue. There are players getting paid to play and there are rich men who are making this happen. This temptation is played off against, what else, the daughter of one of these benefactors, played by Donna Reed. If you guessed that Novak will fall for her, well, maybe you could have written this screenplay yourself.
All of this will come to a bigger head when Novak is injured on the field. Suddenly he has a choice to make about his future and whether education or football are going to play parts in it. Of course Reed will play a part in it – this is Hollywood after all.
It’s hard to believe that David Miller is the same man who would so effectively direct Sudden Fear the year after this. The direction, much like the acting, is wooden (Reed survives this but it’s hard to believe it’s the same actress who would win the Oscar two years later and Derek was never much of an actor) and the script is either mundane or predictable or both. It’s the kind of script that only could have been nominated in this category, and only because of the issue it is dealing with, not because of any quality in the script itself.
The Hero by Millard Lampell (1949)
For such a forgettable book, there are some surprisingly relevant issues still at play today. This is the story of a young man who goes off to a good college rather than play football for a powerhouse school partially because he really does want to get an education. He’s provided with some money by a rich alum and later becomes concerned about his health and his future when he is hurt while playing. Of course, the long term health issues and the whole concept of being paid to play sports while in college are both issues that continue to resonate today. So why isn’t this book better remembered? Because it’s not very good. The characters aren’t particularly well developed, from the jock, to his brother who riles things up back home, to his girlfriend that is a bit unsavory.
The basic premise of the story comes from the book and much of the first half comes straight from there. Even the climax that becomes so important at the end of the book – the question of whether or not to continue playing while at the same time worried about his health, his education, and his love-life, is similar. But there are some details that are, not surprisingly, completely absent from the film. These include concepts like sex outside of marriage, abortion and suicide. The book doesn’t so much deal with serious issues as throw them in there and see what sticks, but films at the times, of course, were confined by the Production Code and all of that had to be dropped. So what we got on film was a more sanitized version of being a star college football star. The book even sanitizes the girlfriend, making her the daughter of someone important rather than a girl that he meets in a, shall we say, less respectable way.
One thing the film does improve on is the title. The Hero was a pretty damn generic name for a book. But making it Saturday’s Hero really emphasizes the college sports at the heart of the story.
One note of the credits listed below: “Under current Guild rules, [Buchman] wouldn’t have gotten credit. He wrote less than twenty percent of the screenplay. But I didn’t begrudge it to him. He polished it up and saw it through as a film.” (Millard Lampell, author of the original novel and writer of the screenplay, as quoted on p 397 of Tender Comrades: A Backstory of the Hollywood Blacklist, Patrick McGilligan and Paul Buhle, ed.)
Directed by David Miller. Based on the novel, “The Hero” by Millard Lampell. Written for the Screen by Millard Lampell, Sidney Buchman.
Other Screenplays on My List Outside My Top 10:
- The Mating Season – Adapted from the play Maggie, a charming high-level *** with good writing.
- Decision Before Dawn – Adapted from the novel Call it Treason by John Howe. As a Best Picture nominee, I have already reviewed it in full.
- The Browning Version – Terence Rattigan adapts his own hit play. A high-level *** with a very good performance from Michael Redgrave.
- The Thing from Another World – Adapted from a novella by John W. Campbell, Jr. A high-level ***.5 and one of the best early Sci-Fi films.
(in descending order of how good the film is)
- Miracle in Milan – Adapted from the novel by Cesare Zavattini. A low-level ***.5 from Vittorio de Sica.
- The River – Jean Renoir film, based on the novel by Rumer Godden. A high-level ***.
- The Desert Fox – Based on Desmond Young’s biography of Rommel, this was one of the films that helped make James Mason a star in the States.
- The Red Badge of Courage – I hated the novel in high school, but later came to greatly appreciate it. It made my Top 200 and came close to my Top 100. A solid adaptation by John Huston though it lost money when it was released.
- The House on Telegraph Hill – From a novel by Dana Lyon, an effective mystery from Robert Wise long before he won his two Oscars.
- The Tales of Hoffmann – Powell and Pressburger give their take on the famous opera. As could be expected from them, it looks gorgeous.
- The Golden Salamander – Trevor Howard stars in this adventure based on the novel by Victor Canning.
- The Blue Veil – Jane Wyman was nominated for an Oscar and actually won the Globe (over Vivien Leigh!) in this adaptation of the short story which had already been made into a French film in 1942.
- Captain Horatio Hornblower – In the same year as his The African Queen, we also get a screen version of C. S. Forester’s famous sea-hero, played by Gregory Peck.
- Susana – Buñuel’s film is based on the novel by Manuel Reachi. At mid-range *** this makes this one of Buñuel’s weaker films.
- Kind Lady – John Sturges directs this adaptation of the Edward Chodorov play.
- Lightning Strikes Twice – Adapted from the novel A Man Without Friends.
- No Highway in the Sky – Based on a lesser Nevil Shute novel, this is an intriguing film in which James Stewart tries to make air travel safer.
- Across the Wide Missouri – We’re getting into the low *** films now. This is a Clark Gable Western, based on the novel.
- I’ll See You in My Dreams – A biopic (another biopic!), this one of Gus Kahn, the lyricist, directed by Michael Curtiz.
- Fixed Bayonets! – Suggested by the novel by John Brophy. A lesser Samuel Fuller film known mainly for being the (uncredited) screen debut of James Dean.
- Mr. Belvedere Rings the Bell – Clifton Webb does his third and final go as Mr. Belvedere. It wasn’t that good the first time.
- On Dangerous Ground – Weak Nicholas Ray film, adapted from the novel Mad with Much Heart by Gerard Butler.
- Tarzan’s Peril – The third Tarzan movie with Lex Barker and the first Tarzan movie to be shot in Africa. Pretty much nothing to do with the original novels other than the character. Everything else from here down is **.5 or worse.
- Jim Thorpe — All American – Jim Thorpe, perhaps the greatest athlete of the 20th Century, lived an interesting life, one more interesting than this biopic, all though Burt Lancaster is pretty good casting, for his athleticism, though it would have been more accurate to cast a Native American.
- Apache Drums – Forgettable Western based on the novel Stand at Spanish Boot.
- The People Against O’Hara – Another John Sturges film, this one from the novel by Eleazer Lipsky.
- Once a Jolly Swagman – Based on the novel by Montagu Slater, a mediocre film starring Dirk Bogarde.
- Quo Vadis – Nominated for Best Picture, so it’s reviewed here. As you can tell if you read that review, I’m glad it wasn’t nominated for its Screenplay by any group because then I would have had to try and force myself to read the novel (I attempted it once before and gave up). It’s a boring novel that was a big seller. Relentlessly mediocre film that can’t be saved by Deborah Kerr’s beauty or Peter Ustinov’s performance.
- The Brave Bulls – I suppose we could chalk up the HUAC pressure on director Robert Rossen for why this film is so mediocre. Based on the novel by Tom Lea.
- M – Joseph Losey remakes the great Fritz Lang film (without credit to the original) and moves the action to LA. Totally unnecessary film.
- Take Care of My Little Girl – Based on the novel, I only saw this film because the director (Jean Negulesco) was once Oscar-nominated. I then promptly forgot about it.
- Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man – Technically only adapted because the characters pre-exist. Also technically a Comedy, though I think Comedies are supposed to be funny.
- Native Son – Just because you write one of the greatest novels ever written (#30 on my list), doesn’t mean you should star in the film adaptation, especially if you are now way too old, as Richard Wright was by this point. You end up with a ** film.
- When Worlds Collide – A bad example of early Sci-Fi, which won the Oscar for best Special Effects, mostly because of a lack of competition. Based on the novel by Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie (whose novel Gladiator was a huge influence on the creation of Superman).
- David and Bathsheba – Based, very loosely, on the books from the Bible. Pretty bad film (low-range **), though only the third worst film I have seen from 1951.