"The crowd milled indignantly in the small Dayroom, everybody talking excitedly. Stark posted himself huskily in the doorway with Pete and the Chief flanking him. Warden gulped off the rest of the coffee and set the cop on the magazine rack and pushed his way down to the other end and climbed up on the pingpong table." (p 731)

“The crowd milled indignantly in the small Dayroom, everybody talking excitedly. Stark posted himself huskily in the doorway with Pete and the Chief flanking him. Warden gulped off the rest of the coffee and set the cop on the magazine rack and pushed his way down to the other end and climbed up on the pingpong table.” (p 731)

My Top 7:

  1. From Here to Eternity
  2. Stalag 17
  3. The Big Heat
  4. The Moon is Blue
  5. The Actress
  6. Peter Pan
  7. Hondo

Note:  After a few years with more than 10 screenplays on my list, I can’t do more than seven in this year.
Note:  This is the earliest year where significant records exist at oscars.org (there are a few for 1952 and even this year is incomplete in strange waves).  One of the great things about oscars.org is that it lists original sources (you can actually look up everything in a particular year with a source author) and it makes it much easier to distinguish between original and adapted scripts.

Consensus Nominees:

  1. Lili  (184 pts)
  2. From Here to Eternity  (160 pts)
  3. Shane  (80 pts)
  4. Hondo  (40 pts)
  5. The Cruel Sea  (40 pts)
  6. The Actress  /  Call Me Madam  /  Gentlemen Prefer Blondes  /  How to Marry a Millionaire  /  Kiss Me Kate  /  The Moon is Blue  /  Stalag 17  (40 pts)

Oscar Nominees  (Best Screenplay):

  • From Here to Eternity
  • The Cruel Sea
  • Hondo
  • Lili
  • Shane

Golden Globe Nominees:

  • Lili

note:  There were no other announced nominees.

WGA Awards:

Drama:

  • From Here to Eternity
  • Shane

Nominees that are Original:  Above and Beyond, The Little Fugitive, Martin Luther

Comedy:

  • The Actress
  • How to Marry a Millionaire
  • The Moon is Blue
  • Stalag 17

Nominees that are Original:  Roman Holiday

Musical:

  • Lili
  • Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
  • Kiss Me Kate

Nominees that are Original:  The Band Wagon, Call Me Madam
Note:  The Band Wagon is considered Original because the Broadway musical that came before it was simply a revue.  The film only took the title and a few songs from the original, nothing about a story or characters (which the original didn’t have).

My Top 7:

From Here to Eternity

From Here To Eternity PosterThe Film:

I have already reviewed this film twice.  The first time was as part of my Top 100 Directors project.  It’s important to remember Fred Zinnemann really is a great director, since he was denigrated by the Auteur Theorists in spite of such monumental achievements as this film, A Man for All Seasons and High Noon.  The second was when I wrote about it for the Best Picture project and I should point out that this one of those times where the Academy absolutely got it right.  In both of those cases, I used the same photo (Kerr and Lancaster in the surf – which I also used for my Year in Film and my Nighthawk Awards and is the same picture as is on the poster on the right), which I didn’t go with this time because it’s not actually in the book.

eternity-signetThe Source:

From Here to Eternity by James Jones  (1951)

From Here to Eternity is a great novel and has been acknowledged as such from the beginning. It won the National Book Award when it was first released, it appeared on the Modern Library list and it appears in my Top 200 Novels of All-Time list. It is not an easy read, being over 800 pages, filled with profanity and adultery (it originally also had some instances of gay sex which were censored before it was published) and hard living and almost none of the characters are particularly likeable. The main character is a man determined to live his life his own way, which is an odd way of going about things when you are also determined to be an army lifer, and circumstances work against him at the end of the book to bring his life to tragedy. The other two main characters are a staff sergeant and the wife of his commanding officer with whom he is having an affair. All of this is set against the Army base in Honolulu in 1941, with the attack on Pearl Harbor coming100 pages before the end of the book and setting in motion the final tragic events that will close out the book’s action. The tone is tough, but the power of the prose shines through, from those first lines (“When he finished packing, he walked out on to the third-floor porch of the barracks brushing the dust from his hands, a very neat and deceptively slim young man in the summer khakis that were still early morning fresh.” all the way through to the tragic conclusion.

The Adaptation:

This was always going to be a hard book to adapt. It wasn’t just the language; clearly that was going to have be cleaned up for the film to be made. But there were story problems as well: “The important problem remaining in the story from the code’s standpoint is the lack of proper compensation for the immoral relationship between Warden and Karen. [The matter was resolved by having the adulterous wife tell Burt Lancaster that what they had been doing with such joy and exhilaration was evil and that she and her corrupt officer husband ‘deserve each other.’]” (The Censorship Papers: Movie Censorship Letters from the Hays Office, 1934 to 1968 by Gerald Gardner, 1987, p 56)

Surprisingly enough, most of the rest of the book was left alone when it was transferred to the screen. The characters who were pretty awful remained pretty awful. Terrible things happened to a lot of the characters and they were allowed to happen. Perhaps the hardest thing to do was make certain to get the casting correct. Hell, we almost had Joan Crawford playing the captain’s wife rather than Deborah Kerr. That alone might have screwed up the adaptation.

The Credits:

Directed by Fred Zinnemann. Screen Play by Danial Taradash. Based upon the novel by James Jones.

Stalag 17

stalag-17-1952-001-poster-00n-caf_0The Film:

I have loved this film since the moment I first saw it, as William Holden has always been one of my favorite actors, but, because there were so many Billy Wilder films to chose from during my Top 100 Directors project and because it somehow got passed over for a Best Picture nomination, I didn’t end up actually writing a review of it until the Nighthawk Awards.  At one time I even considered it a rival for the best film of the year, but I have since realized that From Here to Eternity is a greater film.

stalagThe Source:

Stalag 17: A Comedy Melodrama in Three Acts by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski  (1951)

This is a decent and interesting play about a cynical man who is at odds with the other P.O.W.s in the camp that they are all being kept in.  He has managed to push thing about as far as he can get away with and when a man ends up in the camp that he thinks can change his fortunes if he helps him to get away (as well as getting rid of the spy in the camp), he decides to take his ticket out.  In the time after the war (and with us back at war in Korea), it’s easy to see why this was a success.  But it doesn’t have a lot of wit to it – that would come later in the film.

The Adaptation:

The Introduction by Jeffrey Meyers to the published version of the screenplay from the University of California Press does a better job of summing up the differences between the play and the script than I could do, so I’ll give a big block quote from him.

Wilder developed the play and made it more interesting in every way.  In the play the Kommandant issues orders but never appears; in the film Wilder makes him one of the most important characters.  The first attempt to escape and the killing of Manfredi and Johnson, as well as the harsh interrogation of Dunbar, take place offstage in the play but are dramatized in the film.  Taking advantage of film’s ability to focus on tiny objects in close-up, Wilder has Schultz and Price leave their notes in a hollow chess piece rather than under a loose brick.  The prisoners insult, ‘Drop dead,’ becomes the comic ‘Droppen Sie dead.’  Dunbar is an officer, rather than a sergeant-major, to intensify his conflict with Sefton.  Wilder, in fact, invented the most memorable aspects of the film: Sefton’s mouse race, his private schnapps distillery, and his telescope.  ‘You couldn’t catch much through that steam,’ the narrator observes, ‘but believe you me, after two years in that camp just the idea what was behind that steam sure spruced up your voltage.’  Wilder also though up the telltale light cord, as well as Sefton’s trunk of luxury goods, his bets against prisoners who try to escape and his great exit line.  Wilder’s conclusion is also superior to the play’s.  In the stage version, as Hoffy says, Dunbar ‘came back to the barracks to pick up his gear so we slipped his guard a doped-up drink and sneaked Dunbar our of the barracks.’  In the film, however, Dunbar is snatched from his SS guards when the prisoners explode a smoke bomb made from thousands of ping pong balls.  And Price is unmasked by Sefton, who uses Price to help Dunbar escape.  (p ix-x)

The Credits:

Produced and Directed by Billy Wilder. Written for the Screen by Billy Wilder and Edwin Blum. Based on the play by Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski.

The Big Heat

Big Heat, The_18The Film:

This was a film that I didn’t see until around 2008 or so, somehow missing it for a very long time when I definitely shouldn’t have.  It’s a great film, a dark, cynical film with a great performance from Glenn Ford.  It’s on my list of the Top 100 Films to Earn No Oscar Nominations.

Big Heat1The Source:

The Big Heat by William P. McGivern  (1953)

The Big Heat is an extremely effective police thriller. If it’s not on the level of Raymond Chandler, it is at the level of most of the work of James M. Cain. Yet, it doesn’t have anywhere near the reputation of a book like Double Indemnity. It’s a story of a Philadelphia homicide detective who ends up embroiled in a case much larger than him. The suicide of a policeman leads to his mistress, then to a crime boss who owns most of the city (with an upcoming election that factors into much of the story). The sheer determination of Bannion, the detective, ends up with a witness dead, with his wife dead, with another woman scarred by boiling coffee. Through it all, Bannion keeps moving forward, determined to arrive at the truth of the matter, not to let the corruption above and around him prevent him from finding out what really happened.

There is a moment where he’s willing to kill a woman (the dead cop’s wife), just so that everything can finally be released into the open, and it’s here where you really see what McGivern does with this book:  “Why did he wait? He had only to pull the trigger, let the firing pin snap forward, and the steel-jacketed bullet would take care of the rest, take care of this soft, perfumed, sadistic bitch, and with her Stone, Lagana, the hoodlums who had murdered his wife and held this town in their big, bitter grip.” But, he can’t do it, and manages to find some small bit of mercy: “Bannion looked down at her without expression and put his gun away. He shrugged then, a gesture of immense and bitter weariness, and walked out of her apartment. The sound of her low, wild, grateful weeping followed him to his car.”

This is definitely a book that deserves to stay in print, as part of some crime series and if you get a chance, it’s definitely worth a read.

The Adaptation:

“The Big Heat was a police thriller, and Sydney Boehm, who wrote the script, would hew closely to McGivern’s novel – while making shrewd improvements . . . Sergeant David Bannion, the lead character in McGivern’s novel, had originally been conceived as an educated policeman, able to quote Hume, Locke and Kant. The erudation was one of the first of the novel’s marginal elements dropped by Boehm. The scenarist made Bannion more of a representative citizen swept up in a nightmare, someone more in sync with Lang’s middle-American complex; another character who became, like the mob victim of Fury, ‘close to John Doe,’ in the director’s words.” (Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast by Patrick McGilligan, p 403)

All of that is quite accurate. One other thing that is different is that the film has all of this taking place in a fictional city, while in the book it is set in Philadelphia.  Bannion’s boss is, in the end, made more sympathetic in the book and some of his odiousness is passed on to the character of the police commissioner who is not a character in the book.  Overall, this is a great example of how to take a crime novel and rather faithfully adapt it for the screen in the era of the Production Code.

Several pages in Classical Film Violence: Designing and Regulating Brutality in Hollywood Cinema, 1930-1968 detail the work between the studio and the PCA concerning the amount of violence in the film, with Columbia trying to maximize it, partially to show the brutality involved, while the PCA was trying to limit it (see p 180-185).

This is another film that has a BFI Film Classics book. The volume for this film spends more than the usual amount of space on the original novel and the relationship between the two, covering 10 pages of the book, from pages 12-22.

The Credits:

Directed by Fritz Lang. Screen Play by Sydney Boehm. Based upon the Saturday Evening Post serial by William P. McGivern.

The Moon is Blue

moonisblueThe Film:

For a long time this was a film high on my list to see. It was nominated for three Oscars, one of them major (Actress) and it won the Globe for Best Actor – Comedy. But it was unavailable on video for a long time. I finally tracked it down by getting it as an ILL and being forced to watch it in the library (it was for Library Use Only). But I was not disappointed when I finally got a chance to see it.

This movie might feel dated to some people. Certainly it has a reputation of a film that was once shocking but now is not. That’s certainly true – what was shocking in 1953 is ridiculously tame in 2016. But that doesn’t mean the film doesn’t work. The film works for the same reason that the play works (see below), because these characters are interesting and witty and spending a couple of hours with them as they banter back and forth and never get around to actually doing anything is a welcome time.  It’s a reminder that you don’t need to actually have sex for things to be sexy.

Maggie McNamara (whose career didn’t amount to much after this but is very good here) is a young girl, a virgin (that’s key and she admits it in an amusing scene) who goes to the apartment of a womanizing architect (Don) that she met at the Empire State Building. He’s thinking of getting her into bed. Or maybe he’s not. Her frank discussion of the subject has confused him and he’s no longer sure what he wants to do. He’s intrigued. Unfortunately, while he runs out to get some supper for them, his upstairs neighbor comes down. The upstairs neighbor, a considerably older man is also the father of the woman that Don has been seeing. So now we have machinations going on as the father also tries to get McNamara into bed. It’s not a question of will-they won’t-they (this is 1953) but how witty will things become before she decides that she isn’t going to bed with either one of these men.

It’s certainly entertaining enough. At one point this was one of my Top 5 films of 1953 and if it has fallen out (it has), it hasn’t fallen far (it’s at #6) and it’s because there are other films that belong there more that I hadn’t seen at that point (The Big Heat). It has what I think is the best performance of David Niven’s career (he’s the upstairs neighbor), who I think is far better here than in his actual Oscar winning performance. It has a very charming performance from William Holden. We even have the daughter from upstairs pop in and she’s quite good as well. More importantly, this is a film that actually deals with sex as an adult issue and not some juvenile showcase and even in 2016 that’s not something we see very often on film. Yes, this was once considered daring (it was actually released without a Production Code seal) and it is no longer considered even remotely so. But it is still very good and odds are you haven’t seen it and you really should.

MoonisBlueThe Source:

The Moon is Blue by F. Hugh Herbert  (1951)

This is a smart and charming play that was daring for its time because it actually talked about sex in an adult and amusing way. It was a huge hit on Broadway and there was considerable speculation as to whether a film could even be made of it. But Otto Preminger, who had directed the original Broadway production decided that he could make it happen and he did. I personally don’t think the play would have worked as well as the film namely for the casting (Barry Nelson instead of William Holden? There are reasons sometimes why movie stars get put into roles when stages make the transition.) But all the amusing and witty dialogue from the film originated right here on stage and if this would no longer work on stage (it would be considered too tame and dated), it at least is still worth reading for the dialogue if nothing else.

The Adaptation:

“Sometimes a play has a major fault which is easy to fix, and other times there are little things, such as inconsistencies in the characters, which require major rewrites. I have never known a script which was so perfect that it could be put on the stage as it was originally written. In the case of The Moon is Blue, I thought the third act would have to be redone from scratch.” (Preminger: An Autobiography. Otto Preminger. 1977, p 107)

But, in spite of what Preminger wrote, he didn’t really redo the third act. As I sat there, reading the play, while watching the film, so much of the play, from the start to the end, was right there as it was on the page. There were some added moments (the first scenes, the first time Don interacts with Cynthia), but much of the play was right there on the screen. Yes, some lines were cut, but this was one of the closest play-to-film adaptations I have ever seen.

The Moon is Blue had played on Broadway and in theatres all over the country. American audiences found it amusing and were not shocked. I did not believe that movie audiences were different or that they should be protected from something freely available on the stage. The language in the film was exactly the same as the language in the play.” (Preminger, p 109)

In this case, that is the truth. There were a few lines that were cut, but they didn’t seem like censor cuts, but just natural trimming. All of the lines that would have been shocking on stage made it to the screen untouched.

The Credits:

produced and directed by Otto Preminger. written for the screen by F. Hugh Herbert. from his stage play “The Moon is Blue” produced on Broadway by Otto Preminger and presented by Richard Aldrich & Richard Meyers in assocation with Jules Fleischmann.

The Actress

the-actress-movie-poster-1953-1020209600The Film:

The first time I saw this film, I paused it almost immediately. There was a picture of “Our Station” with the word Wollaston on it. Was it true? Was Ruth Gordon really from Wolly Beach, just up the road from where we living in Quincy? (Close – she was from Wollaston Heights, on the other side of the T tracks.) People come from anywhere, but there’s always something interesting about watching or reading something about the people who come from where you do. I wasn’t from Quincy, but I had been living there nearly two years when I first tracked down this film.

Tracked down is really what I had to do at the time. Today, Warner Bros Archive Collection has made a lot of things available that didn’t use to be. I had been trying to see this film for years, because it earned an Oscar nomination, won Best Actor at the Globes, Best Actress at the NBR and was nominated by the WGA. But for years it was extremely difficult to get hold of. That’s unfortunate, because this is one of the best films that Warners has made accessible through their Archive Collection.

The Actress is the story of Ruth Gordon growing up in Quincy and yearning to escape to the stage. What’s so remarkable is not that she managed to do so, but how much she managed to do after she escaped. She became a successful stage actress, yes. And eventually she would be an Oscar winning actress on film, with fantastic performances in Rosemary’s Baby and Harold and Maude. But the most remarkable thing might be what happened in between, when she became a writer, writing the play this film was based on, writing this film, and, as the writing partner of her husband Garson Kanin, earning several Oscar nominations for writing. There are people who earn Oscar nominations for writing after already having earned Oscar nominations for acting (Alec Guinness and Emma Thompson, for example), but it’s really odd to go the other direction (but not unheard of – John Huston also did it).

Gordon’s life comes alive in the performance of Jean Simmons, who seems every inch the 17 year old yearning to discover something more than her own little neighborhood (or even Boston, where she sees the play that changes her life). It’s incredible to think that this performance actually came five years after she played Ophelia in Olivier’s Hamlet. Her performance isn’t the only wonderful thing about the film, either. Spencer Tracy gives one of his best performances (amazingly he wasn’t Oscar nominated) as the gruff, but loving father. It’s a reminder of Paul Dooley in Breaking Away in a similar role. He has dreams for his child, dreams that he wasn’t able to take advantage of, but he also realizes that his dreams for her aren’t her own dreams and he wants her to chase her dreams.

Most of the action is confined, as in a play, but the house looks wonderful, with a beautiful set and nice costumes (that was the Oscar nomination the film did earn), as well as a solid supporting performance from Teresa Wright as Ruth’s mother.

The Source:

Years Ago by Ruth Gordon  (1944)

On one hand, this is a coming of age story that is like so many others – a girl (it’s usually a boy, but not always) wants to escape from her hometown and make something of herself. In this case, the hometown is Quincy, Massachusetts and the goal is to become an actress. Many people don’t do much after they escape and many of those stories are either fictional or thinly veiled fiction, but in this case, it’s the real story of Ruth Gordon, the woman who grow up to become a famous writer and Oscar-winning actress.

That traditional story is set against some smart dialogue and some real nice slice-of-life pieces. It works so well for the same reason the film works well – because the father is gruff, but loving, and in the end he wants to give his daughter her dream and not hold her back. That makes him a bit of rarity on stage and on screen and it makes for a welcome change.

The Adaptation:

As should surprise no one, since Gordon wrote the original play and the script, there isn’t a whole lot that is changed. Some lines of dialogue are different, there is a little bit added outside the home (most notably the opening, where we actually get to see young Ruth see the play that will change her life rather than just depend on her description of it), but for the most part, this is the stage play with movie stars attached to it.

The Credits:

Directed by George Cukor. Screen Play by Ruth Gordon. From Her Stage Play “Years Ago”.

Peter Pan

Peter_pan_posterThe Film:

The first time we see Peter Pan, he is hiding in the shadows.  We get a glimpse of him in the darkness, than a maniacal smile lights up his face, the light provided by Tinkerbell, his fairy friend.  We’ve been hearing about him for several minutes from children who firmly believe he exists.  It’s ironic that he’s hiding in the shadows, because he doesn’t have one himself.

In Cinderella, there was an everyday story of a young woman cruelly treated by her stepsisters, when suddenly magic intervenes.  In Alice in Wonderland, Alice is a normal girl who falls down a hole and into an adventure.  But in Peter Pan, we are expecting magic right from the start.  Before we even meet the character, we are hearing about his fight with pirates and Indians and that he lives in a world of fairies and, most important, that he can fly.  If Cinderella had been the stereotypical story for girls (“don’t you want to grow up to be a princess?”) then this was the equivalent story for boys.  Peter gets to have fights, be the hero, kiss the girl (sort-of), save the day, and not only can he fly, but he never has to grow up.  He can remain a kid forever.

Peter Pan, as a film, never quite hits the highs of the best of Disney films – it lacks any real power when it comes to the songs and its story is too similar to Alice – you go to the magical land, have a few adventures, come home.  It also has very outdated stereotypes in its depiction of “Indians” and it’s clearly a “boys” film, with the girl brought to Never Never Land to be a mother, not a fellow adventurer.  But it’s a solid ***.5 film (which makes it one of the better films of 1953) and it’s still fondly thought of as a classic because it does have that grand sense of adventure.  The characters come vividly to life (most notably Captain Hook and the crocodile.  Perhaps, most importantly, it takes Tinkerbell, a character who exists only as a little ball of light and a bell on stage and creates her with such a forceful personality that she would later be given her own series of films at Disney.

I ranked this film at #21 in my ranking of the first 50 Disney films.

peterpanThe Source:

Peter Pan; or, The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up by J. M. Barrie  (1904  /  1928)

This is always a tricky source.  I cite the title and dates for the play above, because it is the play that is specifically cited in the credits of the film.  But the play and the novel grow together.  If you want a full history of Peter and how he came to be, both in terms of life (the story detailed in the film Finding Neverland) and in literature, the best thing to do is get the wonderful The Annotated Peter Pan.  I didn’t link to that above, because it doesn’t contain the play, but rather the novel, originally known as Peter & Wendy, but now more regularly titled Peter Pan, which is what makes it confusing.

Peter first appeared in The Little White Bird, a 1902 novel by Barrie.  Then he became the star of the play, which was first produced in 1904.  In 1906, the chapters dealing with Peter from The Little White Bird were published separately as Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens.  Then came Peter & Wendy, a novel version of the play (which Barrie continued to rewrite all this time), which was published in 1911.  The play itself wasn’t published (because of the revisions) until 1928.

It is a very good play, one that works perfectly well for children, with the exciting Peter for kids to cheer for, with adventure and fun to keep things thrilling and with great lines that continue to resonate (“To die will be an awfully big adventure”).  But, as theater, it also does two things quite brilliantly.  The first is when Tinkerbell is injured saving Peter, and Peter must implore to audience to believe in fairies.  It works very well for the same reason that Julie Christie claps so hard in Finding Neverland – because it pulls at your emotions in all the right ways.  The second is what it generally does with the casting.  Lots of plays through the years have had people who double up in roles.  Sometimes that just works best with characters who are never on stage at the same time (like Lafayette and Jefferson in Hamilton).  But in Peter, it works particularly well telling something about the story, with the actor who plays Mr. Darling generally playing Hook as well (this is also done in the 2003 film version).  That provides an extra measure of the terror of growing up and what we might see in our parents, a brilliant observation from Barrie, a man who had no children of his own.  It is still a great play, even after all these years, but if reading a play isn’t your thing (well, then you are hosed for the new Harry Potter), there’s always Peter & Wendy.

The Adaptation:

Peter Pan was one of those Disney films that gestated for a long time.  It was originally in the planning stages before the war (Disney had wanted to make it as far back as 1935 but it took four years to secure the rights), then when things were cut back, first because of financial losses from Pinocchio and Fantasia, then with the move towards the war films, it was put on hold.  Finally, after the package films gained them some financial breathing room after the war, and after Cinderalla and Alice made it to theaters first, this was the last of the Disney films to use all of Disney’s Nine Old Men.

Much of what is in this film does come straight from the original play.  There are a few things that are added that would not have been possible on stage (such as firing at Peter up in the clouds) and there are a few alterations (Peter imploring the audience to clap and save Tinkerbell was cut as it was though that it would be awkward).  But, from start to finish, most of the film, and indeed, even most of the dialogue is straight from the original play.

The Credits:

Directors: Hamilton Luske, Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson.  An Adaptation of the Play “Peter Pan” by Sir James M. Barrie.  Story: Ted Sears, Erdman Penner, Bill Peet, Winston Hibler, Joe Rinaldi, Milt Banta, Ralph Wright, Bill Cottrell.

Hondo

hondoThe Film:

Geraldine Page was a great actress but she wasn’t a great beauty.  She was also a method actress and not really thought of as someone who could be in a Western.  So how is it that she captures John Wayne’s heart in a way that no other actress really does in his long history of Westerns?

Part of it is certainly the performance.  It is, with the possible exception of Katy Jurado in High Noon, the best by a female in a Western up to this point.  Indeed, it still stands as one of the best performances by a female in a Western.  I have seen 358 Westerns and only 18 performances by female have even made my acting lists and every female performance I rank higher is from the later, more Post-Modern Western Era (Julie Christie in McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Mary McDonnell in Dances with Wolves, Frances Fisher in Unforgiven, Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit, Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hateful Eight).  To have a strong woman like this, out in the middle of nowhere, without a man around is strange enough.  But then she’s also interesting.  She has taught her son to shoot.  She stands off against the Apache on her own.  She even is ready to take down John Wayne.  It’s no wonder that he’s drawn to her.  He might have found better looking women along his trails, but no one more desirable.

But Wayne is bringing his own baggage into this.  He ends up at her ranch by accident and he is worried about her, alone with a young son out in the wilderness.  When he returns to town and meets her husband by accident, it only furthers his concern and attraction towards her.  But then things take two dark turns – first, the Apache warn her that she needs a husband to raise her child and if hers doesn’t return, they will give her one, and Hondo (Wayne) ends up killing her husband in self-defense.  In the end, we get a happy ending of a sort, one that Wayne would rarely get, but you feel he really deserves here.  Both of them find a chance for happiness and a measure of devotion.  This is a good Western, and it’s my #14 film of the year and is a high-level ***, almost just reaching for that higher level of film.

The Source:

The Gift of Cochise” by Louis L’Amour  (1952)

Do not be confused by the fact that Louis L’Amour wrote a book called Hondo.  Yes, that is this film, but that book is actually a novelization that L’Amour wrote of the screenplay that had originally been based on his short story “The Gift of Cochise.”  It is not the source of the film, but rather a product of the film.  I can understand the desire for a novelization, especially as I used to be a fan of them, but it really wasn’t necessary – L’Amour did a fine job with his original short story and it was poignant and exciting at the same time, even if it is considerably different than the film it inspired.

This story is actually quite good.  It’s the story of a female who is on her own with two small children.  She has taught the boy to shoot and he so impresses Cochise when the Apache arrive that Cochise declares him an Apache boy and that he must have a father.  So, suddenly she has a deadline for her husband, who is off wandering to reappear or she will have to marry an Apache.  However, her husband is dead, the result of a good deed when he stood up for an out-gunned man.  That man then searches for the widow to offer his condolences, with the result that he ends up needing to marry her for both their sakes.

It’s a good little story with a bit of Western mythos behind it all and you can see how the filmmakers looked at it and decided they could build upon it on film.

The Adaptation:

They most certainly built upon it.  Some things are quite close to the book – the way the mother and son face off against the Apache (even if there is no other child in the film) and the fight between the man (he’s not called Hondo in the story) and the Apache in single combat.  However, there are also a lot of things that are very different, most notably that Hondo only meets the woman at the end and that her husband died defending him rather than attacking him.  The filmmakers must have felt that it would work better for getting the audience’s sympathy if the husband was a jerk and potential murderer and that Hondo would be a much better choice than if he had gone seeking amends for his actions.  It’s a good example though of taking the idea of a story and building it up into a film.  And it does work much better with the two of them having already met, then waiting for their meeting at the ending (it also means they have a relationship to build on).

The Credits:

Directed by John Farrow.  Screenplay by James Edward Grant.  Based on a Story by Louis L’Amour.

Consensus Nominees That Don’t Make My Top 10

Lili

lili-posterThe Film:

This is an odd bit of a musical. It’s a strange story of an urchin who ends up becoming a part of a travelling troupe and falls in love with a puppet show. Through the puppet show, she manages to conduct something of a romance with the puppeteer through his puppets, but is more infatuated with the magician that she met that drew her to the show in the first place. It’s not a bad musical, but it’s far from a great one. Yet, somehow it managed Oscar nomination for Director, Screenplay and Actress and became one of the big hits of 1953.

There really isn’t enough to fill a whole film here. It runs 81 minutes, which includes songs and some dream sequences. That’s perhaps because it was based on a short story that was rather moving but had no real story to it and they decided to expand it and give it an actual story (in a rare reversal of expanding upon something, after the success of the film, Paul Gallico re-wrote his short story into a short novel and re-released it, perhaps hoping for more money than he had earned from the story’s original appearance in Saturday Evening Post).

Why doesn’t this film work for me? Well, for starters there’s Caron, who I have never thought was a particularly good actress. She does an okay job, but to see her on that Oscar list with those magnificent performances from Audrey Hepburn and Deborah Kerr just strains credulity. But the bigger problem is that this is, on one level certainly, a romance, and there is no real romance to be had. The more caddish character is the one that Caron falls in love with of course. But the more romantic option is the title character from the original story called “The Man Who Hated People”. The whole point of that original story had been that the man was incapable of interacting outside of his puppets, and that works for part of this film, but then they want to just forget it at the end so she can run away with him and find a happy ending. So, in the end, it’s really the script for this story, light to begin with, and feeling like there wasn’t enough for a feature film, that lets me down and prevents this from ever rising above a mid-level ***.

I don't normally say where I grab the pictures I use, because I just grab them and claim no ownership. I should point out that I pulled this one from the Paul Gallico website.

I don’t normally say where I grab the pictures I use, because I just grab them and claim no ownership. I should point out that I pulled this one from a website dedicated to Paul Gallico, who wrote the story.

The Source:

“The Man Who Hated People” by Paul Gallico (1950)

This is a moving little short story about a girl who is the star of an early television show, in which she rather naturally interacts with puppets. She is the one human character on the show, and her natural interactions with the puppets have made her a star, but this is her last day on the show and it’s known to everyone. There is a man behind the puppets, of course, a man, who, somehow will win her in the end (the end of the story really works against the entire grain, as if a more serious, realistic ending couldn’t be found in a story that was appearing in Saturday Evening Post) even though he still isn’t really capable of showing any human emotions without the puppets to channel himself through.

This must be one of the earliest works of fiction to deal with the emerging world of television. Apparently the show portrayed in the story was based on a real television show and that might account for the easy way in which Gallico describes the show – because he didn’t have to make up the concept, but was something that readers might already be familiar with. In the end, though, in spite of the story’s creativity and poignancy, it’s really rather let down by the “happy” ending.

The Adaptation:

I’ve complained twice now about the ending. The film keeps the measure of a happy ending that the story provided, although it makes it more about the couple than about the continuation of the show. But that’s partially because so little else about the film is the same from the story. Perhaps unwilling to show television on film at a time when television was beginning its ascendency, the medium of the story was transported to a travelling show. This allows for more of an interaction with the audience, even though the audience is of course much more limited. But the story deals much more with how people react to the girl and her interaction with the puppets than the film does. The film wants to concentrate on the love triangle, a part of the story that didn’t exist at all in the original story, as the whole character of the magician was created by the filmmakers. The original story might have made for a very nice short film. But the filmmakers had to create too much, and didn’t do it all that well, to really sustain a feature film.

The Credits:

Directed by Charles Walters. Screen Play by Helen Deutsch. Based On A Story by Paul Gallico.

Shane

Shane_02The Film:

It has been nice to discover when I have written about this film, most noticeably when I wrote a full review of it in the Best Picture post for 1953, to learn that, while I go against the consensus critical grain on this film, I am not alone in that.  I think this is a vastly over-rated film, mainly because of the mostly sub-par acting and I will never understand those people who hold this film up to be superior to High Noon.

Shane-paperback-covThe Source:

Shane by Jack Schaefer  (1949)

Shane is not a bad novel, just like the film is not a bad film. But it is an over-rated novel, a slim little volume about a man who comes to town, ostensibly a peaceful man, but one who is really a practiced gunslinger and who will solve the problems for a family and then quickly depart without waiting to be thanked. What makes it as annoying as the film is that while it doesn’t have the performance of Brandon de Wilde, it is written from the kid’s point of view and that tends to drag considerably, so that a 151 page book seems like a slog. I’ll just give you the final line: “He was the man who rode into our little valley out of the heart of the great glowing West and when his work was done rode back whence he had come and he was Shane.” If that sentence works for you, have at it. If not, I’ve saved you reading a book that’s not for you.

The Adaptation:

“Stevens crafted the film’s simple opening out of difficult materials. These included the original novel, A. B. Guthrie Jr’s first draft of the script, the advice of co-workers, including historical consultant Joe De Yong, and the director’s own habit of shooting vastly more film than would ever appear in the final cut.” (Shane BFI Film Classics by Edward Countryman & Evonne von Heussen-Countryman, p 16, ISBN 0851707327)

“Another change is the time setting. Schaefer places the story in 1889, one year before the Census Bureau announced that the ‘frontier’ had ended. He has narrator telling the story in about 1893. Stevens changed the film’s setting from 1889 to an indeterminate nineteenth-century ‘West-time’. That let him make an important historical reference to the Civil War (1861-5) as having been in the near past. Abandoning flashback and specific dating also freed him from showing a more developed valley in the never filmed framing sequences.” (p 17)

“[Michael Wilson] wrote a ‘step outline’ of the story based on Jack Schaefer’s spare but effective novella about the earliest white settlers in Wyoming. Wilson’s 17 pages were delivered in March 1950 to director George Stevens while the two men were working together on A Place in the Sun. … [Wilson] did pull into the foreground of the story the historical theme of the struggle over public lands between big cattle ranchers and refugee small-holders. Schaefer, himself an historian, had touched on this, but Wilson’s explicit restatement of the theme in class terms (against a background of Indian dispossession) survived the many permutations of the narrative that were to follow, nearly all of them apparently attributable to Stevens’ own genius.”

Those quotes pretty much say everything that needs to be said. I will say that the menace of death and violence hangs over the film much more so than the book.

The Credits:

Produced and Directed by George Stevens. Screenplay by A. B. Guthrie, Jr. Additional Dialogue by Jack Sher. Based on the Novel by Jack Schaefer.

The Cruel Sea

cruelseaposterThe Film:

Studios become known, at times, for doing certain things, but that doesn’t mean it’s all they do.  Universal might have made Horror films but they also won Best Picture for All Quiet on the Western Front.  Warner Bros made gangster films, but they also made Casablanca and Yankee Doodle Dandy.  Likewise, while Ealing Studios became so (rightfully) known for their brilliant Comedies, they also could make films in other genres and they helped document the English experience both during and after the war.

This particular film is one that documents the length of the war.  It covers the crew of a convoy escort, the type of British naval ship that would sail alongside convoys sailing across the Atlantic.  These journeys were perilous, with the constant threat of u-boats.  But the film, like the book before it, takes an interesting viewpoint – though the Germans were the opposition force in the war, it is not them that are really the enemy.  The only real enemy is the sea itself – cold and detached, ready to embrace lives into its icy depths, not caring with nationality they belong to, what they have done or what lives they might have lead.  It would seem too much to expect this one ship to survive the war and it does not, nor does most of its crew.  What it follows is one particular captain, played very well by Jack Hawkins, always one of the most appreciated British actors in the U.K. and always one of the most under-appreciated in the States, even when he was playing major roles in Best Picture winners like The Bridge on the River Kwai, Ben-Hur or Lawrence of Arabia.  Hawkins is one of the few officers on the ship with actual sailing experience, and in his able hands, he is able to do more than many commanders might have done.  But in the end, even the sea catches up to his ship and most of his crew, with them sinking and those without something firmly to live for ending up sinking to the bottom with their ship.  But that is not enough to keep Hawkins grounded on land and he is given another ship with which to finish out the war.

The film is solidly written and directed.  But what really makes it worth watching is the performance from Hawkins.  Look at his eyes when he is forced to make the decision to drop a depth charge to take out a German boat, even though it means the death of other sailors who are still in the water.  Watch his face when too many of his officers go down with the ship.  Watch the resignation when he is assigned the task of taking in a German boat after the war ends and there is no time for revenge, but only for relief that the killing is finally over.  This is a good enough film (mid-range ***), but Hawkins is the primary reason for that.

cruelsea-coverThe Source:

The Cruel Sea by Nicholas Monsarrat  (1951)

This is a solidly written book, though it is not really my thing.  It documents the entire war experience of one captain, beginning on one ship, escorting convoys across the Atlantic, and then, after that ship sinks, continuing his duties through the end of the war on a second ship.  I’m not really a fan of war books and they don’t much interest me and this one, because it covers the whole war, starts to feel like a bit of a slog by around page 400 (it runs slightly over 500 pages).

There is one really moving section though that makes it memorable.  That is when the ship sinks, in 1942.  It begins strongly, and movingly: “Some men just died: Sub-Lieutenant Baker, Stoker Evans, Lieutenant Morrell; and many others.  These were the men who had nothing particular to live for, or who had made so fundamental a mess of their lives that it was a relief to forfeit them.”  But then, after a few pages detailing those deaths, we get to those eleven who live.  “It reminded Lockhart of the way a party ashore gradually thinned out and died away, as time and quarrelling and stupor and sleepiness took their toll.”  We eventually get through all the man and arrive at the Captain: “The Captain did not die: it was as if, after Compass Rose went down, he had nothing left to die with.”  Then we get to the line that really seems to sum things up: “Between the dead and the living was no sharp dividing line.  The men upright on the rafts seemed to blur with the dead man they nursed, and with the derelict men in the water, as part of the same vague and pitiful design.”

The Adaptation:

The film pretty much keeps most of what is in the book.  You would think that’s hard with a 500 page book, but so much of the book describes their time at sea, that it’s easy to keep most of the individual episodes throughout the book while dropping a lot of the narrative itself.  Wikipedia notes that the film dropped some of the grimmest moments, but other than the man who goes AWOL so he can deal with his cheating wife, I didn’t notice any particular grim moments that weren’t in the film, and that seems like it was less because it was grim and more because of Code issues.  Certainly the grimmest moments are killing the men in the water so they can also kill the Germans, as well as all the men who die when the boat sinks, and both of those make it to the film intact.

The Credits:

Directed by Charles Frend.  Screenplay by Eric Ambler.  The only mention of the source is in the title card: The Cruel Sea by Nicholas Monsarrat.

How to Marry  a Millionaire

how_to_marry_a_millionaireThe Film:

This was the year in which Marilyn Monroe suddenly shot into the stratosphere. She had already shown she had dramatic ability early in the year with Niagara. That cemented her sex symbol status as well, especially when it combined with her dumb blonde role in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Then came this film, in which she was forced to share top billing with Lauren Bacall, who wasn’t nearly as good-looking but was a better actress, and Betty Grable, who had been Monroe’s Fox blonde bombshell predecessor, except that Gable wasn’t nearly as good looking either and couldn’t do much in the way of acting. In this film, they play roommates, all of them hoping to find a rich guy and marry him with results that none of them anticipate.

The Grable storyline is the most annoying. She follows her rich guy to Maine, comes down with measles, then he comes down with measles and she’s miserable in the sticks and falls for the local forest ranger that she thinks is rich. Their story takes up too much of the time (possibly because it had a whole play devoted to it – see below) and Grable isn’t particularly interesting and her man, played by Fred Clark, really just wants a distraction from his harried home-life, which doesn’t work out so well in the silliest, but perhaps one of the funniest scenes in the film, when he drives the long way round back from Maine to keep from being spotted, only to be the 5 millionth driver over the G.W. Bridge and get his picture in the paper.

The Bacall storyline is the most interesting, if partially because the rich man she is pursuing is played by William Powell and he’s actually a good guy who deserves to be loved, but he’s also smart enough to realize that Bacall has fallen for the guy she thinks works in a service station.

The Monroe storyline certainly provides us with some eye candy (the way she looks in the dress when she is first romancing her man is perhaps the best she’s ever looked on film), though we know there is something wrong with her man (“no one’s mother is at home on a Friday night in Atlantic City” Bacall tells her as a warning). Thankfully, she ends up with the right guy by accident – she hates to wear her glasses and thus ends up on a flight to Kansas City instead of Atlantic City and meets him on the plane. He loves how she looks with her glasses on, which is ironic, because I love girls with glasses and this is one of the few times where I think a female actually looks worse with her glasses (partially it’s because of the style of her glasses, and partially because Monroe just doesn’t work right with glasses).

In the end, there is more of a happy ending than anyone realizes is coming and it makes for a nice sight gag to end the film. What this is, overall, is a charming romantic comedy, with solid performances from Bacall and Powell, one of the better “dumb blonde” performances of Monroe’s career, the final notch in her cementing her role as the pre-eminent sex goddess of the world and a storyline starring Betty Grable that manages to not quite kill the film.

The Source:

The Greeks Had a Word for It by Zoe Akins (1930) / Loco: A Comedy in Two Acts by Dale Eunson and Katherine Albert (1946)

These are two completely different plays that have pretty much nothing to do with each other. I wasn’t able to read The Greeks Had a Word for It but I was able to get Loco. Loco is really a silly little play about a woman who goes to Maine with a married man who is trying to escape from his family. She comes down with measles and some hijinks ensue. But they are not enough to really sustain the play.

The Adaptation:

Even without having read the Akins play, it’s easy to see how these two plays make up the film. The Akins play is about three women who are all trying to marry rich. That’s the basic plot of the film right there. What Loco adds to the film is the subplot in which Betty Grable goes up to Maine with her rich man and the problems that ensue once she gets there and comes down with the measles. I don’t how much more was added to the film and if the subplots involving the Bacall and Monroe characters are from the Akins play or if they were created by the screenwriters.  I do know that too much time is devoted in the film to the plot from Loco and it makes the film drag.

The Credits:

Directed by Jean Negulesco. Screen Play by Nunnally Johnson. Based on Plays by Zoe Akins and Dale Eunson and Katherine Albert.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

1953_-_Gentlemen_Prefer_Blondes_Movie_PosterThe Film:

So, am I not a gentleman, then?  Yes, I married a brunette like the sequel suggests, but I have never preferred blondes.  There have been some notable exceptions over the years (Grace Kelly, Michelle Pfeiffer, Naomi Watts, Cate Blanchett when she’s a blonde), but Marilyn Monroe’s not really among them.  Her blonde bubbliness, combined with serious curves that aren’t really my thing has never really worked for me (even when she’s wearing glasses like in How to Marry a Millionaire, above).  The films in this part of the post are in order by their awards, so the featuring of the two films that helped make Marilyn Monroe the biggest sex-bomb on the planet is just a coincidence.  I’m glad when she’s in fine form like in a film like Niagara or Some Like It Hot, but for the most part, she’s not for me.  She’s especially not for me in a film like this where she plays dumber than she is and she’s really just in it for the money.  To call her a gold-digger is not a slight, it’s a description.

That being said, this film wasn’t going to win me over with the brunette either.  I prefer my brunettes to be smart and sexy and I don’t find Jane Russell to be either.  Yes, at least she just falls for the wrong handsome guy rather than the rich guy, but that doesn’t really make her character any better.  This is the story of two showgirls, both of whom are used to falling for the wrong guy.  They travel on a boat to Europe in which one falls in love with the wrong man and the other tries to seduce a man who is definitely the wrong man.  In the end, they both end up with the person they really want to be with, so I suppose you could consider it a happy ending.  The really point of the film are the musical numbers where Russell and Monroe strut their stuff.  Unfortunately, their stuff doesn’t really interest me with one major exception and that really has only a little to do with the actual film.

That particular number is called “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend”.  As a song, I find it kind of obnoxious, partially because I’ve never cared much about money, so a female singing about how all they want is diamonds doesn’t work for me.  As a performance, Marilyn Monroe gives the best of the film by far, and musically the song flows quite well.  But, in a film that is directed by Howard Hawks at a level much below most of his work, this is the moment where the film really shines.  The musical number really comes through.  The problem is I don’t know how well it comes through for me because of the actual scene or because of my own memories.  I was 10 years old when Madonna made the video for “Material Girl”, and though I never found Madonna to be that attractive, there was an oozing sexuality in this video.  I have never liked the message of “Material Girl”, but with its music and beat and video it has long been one of my favorite pop songs and I still listen to it all the time.  So, when this song comes on in the film, do I think of Monroe, or am I fondly thinking of Madonna?

All of this makes the film sound much worse than it is.  It’s actually a pretty good film, in spite of the all things about it that make me want to not particularly like it.  It has a silly premise, characters that I would despise in real life and an ending courtroom scene that is beyond ridiculous.  Yet, somehow it all flows together better than my review can make it sound.  If for nothing else, you should see it for the iconic song.  Or, well, you could just watch Madonna.

gentlemenThe Source:

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: The Illuminating Diary of a Professional Lady by Anita Loos  (1925)  /  Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos and Joseph Fields  (1949)

This novel was a big deal when it came out.  Loos was a very successful screenwriter and would continue to be.  She would eventually turn her novel into a hit musical in 1949.  But the novel doesn’t work for me at all.  It’s an epistolary novel, in this case told in the diary entries from Lorelei Lee.  The problem for me is that Lee is a rather repulsive character, a gold-digger who just wants to find a rich man and settle down in some comfort.  She’s also not all that bright (she’s written that way specifically by Loos), so to struggle through all her journal entries takes some effort.  This was a key work helping to kick in The Jazz Age, and I can understand why, but I think I’ll stick to Fitzgerald instead.

It’s really the Musical that the film is based on, but I wasn’t able to get that separately.  While the Musical was popular, it wasn’t read a lot, while the Loos novel is obviously still in print from Penguin and must still sell.

The Adaptation:

The basic premise of the film comes from the original novel, but many of the details are considerably changed.  But it was really the musical, co-written by Loos that changed most of the details in the first place.

The Credits:

Directed by Howard Hawks. Screen Play by Charles Lederer. Based on the Musical Comedy by Joseph Fields and Anita Loos. Music and Lyrics by Jule Styne and Leo Robin. Presented on the Stage by Herman Levin and Oliver Smith.

Call Me Madam

call-me-madam-movie-poster-1953-1020542709The Film:

It is a criticism of a performance to say, “hey, that character is really god damn annoying, but she’s good at being annoying.”  At what point are you separating a character you find irritating from a bad performance?  Or is it a good performance?  In the end, I would just prefer to skip it either way, but I’ve committed to doing this series and so there will be a lot of Musicals for the next decade that don’t deserve to have their writing praised, but, hey the WGA had a Musical category and they decided they had to fill it.

So, let’s get this over with.  Ethel Merman plays Sally Adams, a socialite who manages to get herself appointed ambassador to a tiny little (fictional) country called Lichtenburg.  She’s not remotely qualified and that’s supposed to be the joke premise, but many ambassadors aren’t remotely qualified.  She’s also really damn annoying.  And she sings a lot.  That shouldn’t be a problem, since it’s a Musical, but maybe Irving Berlin just isn’t for me, because none of the songs work for me at all.  The best musical moments in the film are actually a dance sequence and that’s problematic because, first of all, no one is singing at that point, and second of all, it actually goes on much too long and kills the momentum of the film.  The dance number is between Donald O’Connor, who was multi-talented and could act (though doesn’t do much in this film), sing and dance (which he does really well twice in this film, the first number reminiscent of his smashing through things in “Make Em Laugh” in Singin’ in the Rain).  His dance number (his favorite of his career) is with Vera-Ellen, who plays the Princess of Lichtenburg, and could dance, but could do little else (at least by the evidence in this film).  Their romance isn’t allowed (he’s a reporter and an aide to Merman) and so of course there are problems, causing problems for the potential romance between Merman and George Sanders, who is the foreign minister for Lichtenburg.

Look, I’m talking so much about the plot because I didn’t care about the songs, because I found Merman (or her character, or both) really grating and because the film is really rather dumb, way down in the lower levels of ***.  It didn’t deserve a writing nomination, but the WGA gave it one, so that’s what I have to say.  You can watch it if you want, but I certainly won’t recommend it.

The Source:

Call Me Madam by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, lyrics and music by Irving Berlin  (1950)

Because this is considered less of a play than some dialogue around which to hang the songs of Irving Berlin, the only copy I could find was not a printed play (like you can find with Rodgers and Hammerstein or Sondheim) but the libretto for the songs with none of the accompanying dialogue.

The Adaptation:

Without seeing the rest of the play, it’s hard to know what might have changed.  According to Wikipedia at least one song was dropped and replaced by an older Berlin song and another older Berlin song was interspersed throughout the film.  This is why I prefer more modern Musicals, because if you can just drop in a song from another play, how coherent is it?  I prefer Sondheim or Webber or Boublil-Schonberg Musicals where there is a coherent whole piece of music.

The Credits:

Directed by Walter Lang.  Screenplay by Arthur Sheekman.  Based on the Musical Comedy “Call Me Madam”.  Book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse.  Produced on the Stage by Leland Hayward.  Music and Lyrics by Irving Berlin.

Kiss Me Kate

Kiss-Me-Kate-PosterThe Film:

The 50’s were a big time for Musicals on screen. There’s a reason that from 1948 to 1966, the WGA had a separate category for Musicals and in the late 50’s, the Globes would separate out Musicals from Comedies in their Best Picture category. Some were great, some were good and some were just a stage musical thrown on screen with lackluster results, even though the success of the stage musical usually meant that they would be a financial success. Kiss Me Kate is in that latter category, a fairly lackluster film that isn’t nearly up to the level of the other musicals of the era.

I feel bad, because I feel like I should like Cole Porter’s songs more than I do. Some of them are quite witty. But some of the wittiness is lost in this play (see below) and the songs just don’t work for me. When the songs don’t work in a musical, it’s hard for anything else to work. But that can be overcome by good direction, solid production values and worthwhile acting. The middle one is at least represented in this film but the other two are completely absent.

The last is the biggest problem in this film and it continued to plague film Musicals throughout the decade. You can cast someone who can’t sing as long as they can act (thus Deborah Kerr earning an Oscar nomination for The King and I), but when they can’t do much acting, it makes it much harder to take on-screen. This one gives us Kathryn Grayson (who would, years later, be great in The Night of the Iguana but is unmemorable here) and Howard Keel (well known as a singer but acting was never his strong suit). As lovers, they’re not particularly interesting, and if you can’t be interested in the romantic leads in a film and you can’t be interested in the songs in a Musical, well then, you’re headed for a low-range *** and that’s just where this film ends up.

The Source:

Kiss Me Kate, A Musical Play, music and lyrics by Cole Porter, book by Samuel and Bella Spewack (1948)

Part of the quality of a stage (and then film) musical can come from its original source. After all, a considerable portion of them are adapted from something else. So you would think, starting from Shakespeare, Kiss Me Kate would have had a good head start. The problem (for me) is that The Taming of the Shrew is fairly low down in my estimation of Shakespeare plays. That’s compounded by the obviousness of it all – it’s one thing to adapt Taming (like in 10 Things I Hate About You), but it’s something else for two actors to be playing it and to fall for it anyway.

Like with any major stage musical, this one had its ardent admirers. And they love to brush up their Shakespeare and start quoting him now. But I’ll stick to the actual Shakespeare, thanks very much, and leave this musical behind.

The Adaptation:

As with many plays, the changes come right from the start. This film decides to be a bit meta, with Cole Porter himself (played by Ron Randell, another dud performance) brings the two lovers together to prepare for the potential play they will perform in, even giving “Too Darn Hot” a try right at the beginning of the film rather than waiting until the start of the second act.

Wikipedia once again does a fairly good job of detailing the differences between the stage and film versions, including noting the differences in the most famous song (“Brush Up Your Shakespeare”), which was fairly bowdlerized for the screen version (ironic given where the word comes from in the first place). In other words, if you really decide you’re into Kiss Me Kate, try to see it on stage and skip the film version.

The Credits:

Directed by George Sidney. Screen Play by Dorothy Kingsley. Based Upon the Play Produced on the Stage by Lemuel Ayers and Arnold Saint Subber. Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter. Play by Samuel and Bella Spewack.

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

  • Mogambo  –  A high range ***.  It stars both Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly and it’s a wonder the celluloid didn’t catch fire.  It’s a remake of Red Dust (with Clark Gable playing the same role as before), which was based on a play, but this is based more on the first film than the play.
  • Man on a Tightrope  –  This is one of Elia Kazan’s lesser known films.  It’s a solid ***, based on the novel by Neil Paterson, which was based on his own magazine article about a real circus that escaped from East Germany.
  • Julius Caesar  –  Reviewed in full in my Best Picture post.  As I said in that review, it’s actually got too much of Brando, who takes over the film.  Based, obviously on the Shakespeare play.
  • The War of the Worlds  –  The great H.G. Wells book comes to life.  Like the later Spielberg version it moves the action to the States.  It has very good effects for the time and wins both the Nighthawk and the Oscar.  Produced by George Pal, who would later produce and direct a film version of The Time Machine.
  • House of Wax  –  Another remake, this one of Mystery of the Wax Museum, a 1933 film.  This film is famous for being the first color film in 3-D, but it’s quite a good film with a nice deranged performance from Vincent Price.
  • The Importance of Being Earnest  –  This film version of Oscar Wilde’s play was released in the U.K. in 1952 and made it to the States the next year.  A solid adaptation but not any better than that.
  • Island in the Sky  –  John Wayne is a pilot in this William Wellman film based on the novel by Ernest K. Gann.
  • The Robe  –  The novel by Lloyd C. Douglas was a massive best-seller, holding the #1 spot on the New York Times list for a year.  The film has flaws (as you can see in my review) but does have a very good performance from Richard Burton that keeps it from drifting into mediocrity.
  • Miss Sadie Thompson  –  The story “Rain” by Somerset Maugham had been filmed twice already.  I reviewed the story in my 1927-28 post along with the first film version.  This one, with Rita Hayworth in the lead, can’t hold a candle to the original.  Part of that is the toning down of the story, as the Production Code had come into effect since the previous two versions.
  • Act of Love  –  A decent romance from director Anatole Litvak (a one-time Oscar nominee).  Based on the novel The Girl on the Via Flaminia by Alfred Hayes.
  • The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms  –  The first feature film adapted from a Ray Bradbury story, this one was based a little bit on his “The Fog Horn”.
  • The Little World of Don Camillo  –  Based on the novel Don Camillo, this was the first in a series of films that made Fernandel an international star.
  • Jeopardy  –  Barbara Stanwyck is trying to get her husband out from under a collapsed pier and escape a convict.  Based on a radio play called “A Question of Time”.  Director John Sturges would soon start making much better films than this.
  • The President’s Lady  –  Nominated for 2 Oscars, this story of Andrew Jackson is based on the Irving Stone novel.  Charlton Heston plays Jackson and would so again five years later in The Buccaneer.
  • Young Bess  –  Since Charles Laughton is playing Henry VIII again, you could think of this as a sequel to The Private Life of Henry VIII.  But this isn’t nearly as good, with Jean Simmons as the young Elizabeth.  It’s based on a novel by Margaret Irwin.  The costumes were (rightfully) nominated for an Oscar.
  • Gaslight  –  The original version of the play, released in the States as Angel Street.  It was made in 1940 but suppressed in the States by MGM after they made their (far superior) 1944 version.  Really only worth watching as a curiosity – stick to the Boyer / Bergman version.  This is listed at oscars.org, so I trust the 1953 eligibility date.
  • Torch Song  –  Joan Crawford is a diva (shocking, I know) in this film version of a short story by I.A.R. Wylie.
  • So Big  –  A mostly mediocre novel by Edna Ferber that won the Pulitzer (I gave that award a C, but it would have been lower if there had been a book I felt really deserved the award).  It became a mediocre film from Robert Wise.
  • Botany Bay  –  Nordhoff and Hall, who wrote Mutiny on the Bounty, also wrote this novel about the founding of Australia as a penal colony.  The movie is the low end of ***.
  • The Juggler  –  Now we’ve hit **.5.  Kirk Douglas is a juggler haunted by the Holocaust.  It’s adapted by Michael Blankfort from his own novel.  Blankfort and director Edward Dmytryk would re-team the next year for The Caine Mutiny with much better results.
  • A Lion is on the Streets  –  Adrian Locke Langley’s novel loosely based on Huey Long may have preceded All the King’s Men but the film version at least is far inferior, even though it reteams the White Heat director/star team of Raoul Walsh and James Cagney.
  • Plunder of the Sun  –  John Farrow (Hondo, Botany Bay) directs his third film of the year, this one starring Glenn Ford and adapted from a novel by David F. Dodge.  It’s pretty mediocre, which I blame more on Farrow than on Ford.
  • The Beggar’s Opera  –  The fourth **.5 film in a row with a great star, this one has Olivier in the adaptation of the famous 1728 opera.  Olivier as MacHeath might work better if it wasn’t a Musical.  This story was the inspiration for Threepenny Opera.
  • The Clown  –  The crappy 1931 film The Champ is remade with a clown instead of a boxer.  Do I really need to say more?
  • The Four Poster  –  The Jan de Hartog play becomes a two person film.  I only recently saw this thanks to constant reader Mike.  The film is mediocre but I always appreciate it when I am able to see hard to find Oscar nominees.
  • The Wild One  –  Yes, Brando is iconic in the film, but he’s not actually that good and the film is worse.  It’s based on a short story by Frank Rooney called “The Cyclists’ Raid” which was inspired by a Life Magazine article in 1947.  I first encountered this film as a kid in a Mad Magazine spoof, which must have been a reprint in a collection, because there’s no way my brother had the actual Mad Magazine from September 1954.
  • Knights of the Round Table  –  L’Morte de Arthur done really badly, with Robert Taylor as Lancelot and Mel Ferrer as Arthur.  From the same director, Richard Thorpe who made the mediocre Ivanhoe the year before.  I wish I could say it’s the weakest King Arthur film ever but sadly it’s not even close (I’m looking at you First Knight).
  • Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde  –  It would be adapted because it has Hyde, but it’s also adapted in my mind because of the Abbott and Costello characters who are the same in each film.  This is relentlessly mediocre and yet not the worst film of theirs in this year.
  • I Confess –  A French play by Paul Anthelme becomes one of the weakest Alfred Hitchcock films.
  • Little Boy Lost  –  Based on a novel by Marghanita Laski, this weepy melodrama is directed by George Seaton (Miracle on 34th Street) and stars Bing Crosby as a man returning to Europe to find the child he lost during the war.
  • All the Brothers Were Valiant  –  Based on the novel by Ben Ames Williams, again we have Robert Taylor directed by Richard Thorpe.  Taylor makes Stewart Granger in this film look like Olivier.  This is a low level **.5 adventure film.
  • The Story of Little Mook  –  Based on a fairy tale, this is an East German Kids film, if you can imagine such a thing.  It barely squeaks out a **.5 rating from me.
  • Abbott and Costello Go to Mars  –  We’re down to **.  Maybe the worst of the Abbott and Costello films and you could probably argue it’s an original as there are no Horror characters dragged through their attempts at humor and they technically aren’t the same characters as in other films.  This wasn’t originally the lowest film – it was It Came from Outer Space, but it turns out that wasn’t based on an actual Bradbury short story, but just a screen treatment, so it’s technically original.

Adaptations of Prominent Works I Haven’t Seen:

Note:  Now that we are up to 1953, I can search through oscars.org by source author.  As I have gone through each year, I have tried to see films made from works by prominent authors (even if the film is supposed to be terrible or if it’s a minor work by a major author).  But not all of them are films that can be found.  In some years, I have found all the films I wanted from my list.  But in other years, this list will list films I haven’t seen, in alphabetical order.

  • Affair in Monte Carlo  –  Based on Stefan Zweig’s novel Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman.  It’s a 1952 British film starring Merle Oberon (and apparently released in the U.K. under the book title).
  • Hiawatha  –  An adaptation of the Longfellow poem that stars basically no one I have ever heard of.
  • Pimpernel Svensson  –  A 1950 Swedish adaptation of The Scarlet Pimpernel.
  • Sea Devils  –  My parents had a copy of Victor Hugo’s Toilers of the Sea the whole time I was growing up but I never read it.  Haven’t seen this film version with Rock Hudson either.
  • Tarzan and the She-Devil  –  The Tarzan films in this decade are much harder to find.  They really have nothing to do with the Burroughs novels.
  • Tonight at 8:30  –  Three short Noel Coward plays get the omnibus film treatment.
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