My Top 10:
- The Bridge on the River Kwai
- Paths of Glory
- Sweet Smell of Success
- 12 Angry Men
- Witness for the Prosecution
- The Good Soldier Schweik
- A Face in the Crowd
- A Hatful of Rain
- Heaven Knows Mr Allison
Note: There are 12 films on my list. The last two are listed down at the bottom.
- The Bridge on the River Kwai (160 pts)
- 12 Angry Men (120 pts)
- Love in the Afternoon (80 pts)
- Heaven Knows Mr Allison (80 pts)
- Peyton Place (80 pts)
- Sayonara (80 pts)
Oscar Nominees (Best Screenplay – Adapted):
- The Bridge on the River Kwai
- 12 Angry Men
- Heaven Knows Mr Allison
- Peyton Place
- 12 Angry Men
- Heaven Knows Mr Allison
- Paths of Glory
- Peyton Place
- Love in the Afternoon
- Don’t Go Near the Water
- Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter
Nominees that are Original: Designing Women, Operation Mad Ball
- The Joker is Wild
- The Pajama Game
- Pal Joey
Nominees that are Original: Les Girls, Funny Face
My Top 10:
It is one of the greatest films of all-time, of course. I have acknowledged that in both of my reviews, the first when I wrote about David Lean as a Top 100 Director and the second time when I reviewed it as part of the Best Picture project.
Le Pont de la Rivière Kwai by Pierre Boulle (1952, tr. 1954)
This is a nice little war thriller. It deals with a bridge being built over the River Kwai by British prisoners of war forced into labor by their Japanese captors. At the same time that we watch the British colonel first deal with the notion of whether officers will be forced to do labor and then, once that is solved, moving on to making the best bridge possible, this is transposed against an Allied mission to come upriver and destroy the bridge to prevent the Japanese from having a complete rail line that will aid in the war. It comes to a violent, sudden conclusion that is rather disappointing.
“Lean exaggerated when he contended that ‘there is not a single word of Foreman’s script in the picture.’ If one compares the final shooting script with Foreman’s draft, one finds that, while much of the dialogue was heavily revised or deleted, some of it was retained.” (Beyond the Epic: The Life & Films of David Lean by Gene D. Phillips, p 231)
That quote is in response to Lean’s claim, included in the book David Lean by Stephen M. Silverman that “There isn’t a single word of Foreman’s in the picture.” Lean was irritated when Foreman was awarded the posthumous Oscar in 1985. It’s tricky to write about this, because, of course, thanks to the blacklist, neither Carl Foreman nor Michael Wilson originally received credit for the script. That, and the Oscar, went to Pierre Boulle, the author of the original novel, who didn’t speak a word of English, so he clearly didn’t write the script. Lean’s claim, in the Silverman book, is that he wrote pretty much the entire script, but “I had trouble with the part of the American.” In the original novel, Shears was a Brit (and hadn’t been in the camp, nor was he faking being an officer so he wasn’t blackmailed into the mission as in the film), but the first Foreman script had added the American character. Michael Wilson was hired by producer Sam Spiegel to write the dialogue for the American (Lean felt Wilson’s Oscar was deserved). Lean wanted the credit to read “By Michael Wilson and David Lean” but according to Lean, Spiegel simply gave the credit to Boulle because Wilson was also blacklisted at the time.
It’s hard to know what happened with it. Lean insists that Foreman’s version diverged quite a bit from the book (in the film, except for Sears’ character, most of the film follows fairly true until the end – more on that below), which would indicate that not much of Foreman was used. The IMDb however, has an agreement with the WGA that when they supply credits, it does not allow “uncredited” writers to be listed, so Lean’s credit is essentially lost (probably because the WGA has very stringent rules about when a director can be given a writing credit).
Now we come to the ending, which is drastically different in the book. In the book, we find out (in a post-mission report from Warden) that the mortar he launched didn’t just mortally wound Nicholson, as in the film. Instead, it obliterates his two men and Nicholson so Warden is forced to launch another mortar which does some damage to the bridge but does not destroy it. It’s the film that we have to thank for the classic ending of Nicholson coming to his senses and with his dying effort, managing to blow up the bridge.
Directed by David Lean. Screenplay by Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson. Based on the novel by Pierre Boulle. (These are the current credits) There is definitely uncredited writing from David Lean and possibly Calder Willingham.
I have already reviewed this film as one of the best films of 1957. It is the consummate #2 film – it finishes in second in an astounding eight categories, including Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay and Actor, all of them to Bridge on the River Kwai. Yet, of course, it failed to be nominated by the Academy in any category.
Paths of Glory by Humphrey Cobb (1935)
Paths of Glory is a good book, one that is stark and un-relenting in its portrayal of the waste and idiocy of war. Just look at one paragraph depicting what it is like out in No Man’s Land:
“A sibilance began high in the air above them. It had hardly begun before it had grown to a piercing whistle, it was hardly a whistle before it became a tremendous, fearful sound, rushing with terrific speed straight at the section. Everyone flattened out in his tracks, including Duval who had the feeling that something enormous was going to hit him. The terrifying thing seemed to pass right down the length of each cringing spine, then it went off with a roar to burst behind them. The explosion seemed to Duval to be strangely far away for something which had been right on top of him. He raised his head, preparing to get up now that it was all over. He had just time to note that the rest of the section was still flattened out on the ground when the air around him became alive with pieces of flying, humming metal. He flattened out again and listened to the flying metal being abruptly silenced by the earth into which it embedded itself.”
Cobb believed that his book was the truth of the war, in comparison to Remarque, claiming that his books “fail utterly as anti-war propaganda, indeed where they become pro-war propaganda, is in the stoicism, the self-abnegation, the idealism and romantic nobility which they portray.” (Cobb quoted in the Penguin Classic Foreward to the novel). The introduction goes on “Cobb’s own words do not waste themselves on pathos or the stoic heroism of the everyman.” That is definitely true, but I would argue that’s why Remarque’s book, though written at a lower age level than Cobb’s (since Remarque was deliberately writing from Paul’s point-of-view) is the more powerful. Cobb’s book is so firm in its indictment of the leadership that everything blurs together into one large waste. It’s true that it makes it perhaps more accurate to the truth of war, but it also makes it less on the storytelling level. The novel functions more as a documentary vision of the waste of the war, as an indictment of the brutality and lack of vision that ground a generation to dust. As a novel, it doesn’t work as well because we lack the human connection that makes novels work.
You might be thinking to yourself that Colonel Dax, played so brilliantly in the film by Kirk Douglas provides that human spark. But you’re thinking of Dax as he is written in the film, not how he is written in the novel. Indeed, the biggest (and best) scene with Dax is the scene where he turns his back on the general after the executions have been carried off. Such a scene doesn’t exist in the book (nor does the poignant final scene) – the novel ends with the execution of the men: “His first shot was, therefore, one that deftly cut the rope and let the body fall away from the post to the ground. The next shot went into a brain which was already dead.”
The Foreward to the Penguin Classics version by David Simon makes that clear: “It is no slight to Cobb’s creation that Kubrick and his screenwriters managed to tease out even more political implication than the novel itself offers. It is the 1957 film version of Paths of Glory in which the lieutenant is compelled to face, in the last moments, the man he has sent to his death. And it is the film version that parses between the generals, with one turning on the other as the unlawful order to fire French artillery on French positions is revealed. These were nuances upon nuances – the gamemanship of ambition and command brought to even greater heights by an auteur operating against the darker strain of the cold war.” Except I think Simon is wrong – that is a slight to Cobb’s book once you realize that the humanity in the film, of which there is precious little, but just enough to give us someone to hang upon, all comes from the screenwriters and that it is absent in Cobb’s original novel. Simon goes on: “Similarly, it was Kubrick who would use the character of Colonel Dax as the moral center of the tale, allowing Kirk Douglas his star turn, and making it possible for him to both lead the doomed charge against the German position and then defend his men passionately in the ensuing court-martial.”
Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Screenplay by Stanley Kubrick, Calder Willingham and Jim Thompson. Based on the novel, “Paths of Glory” by Humphrey Cobb.
I already reviewed this film as one of the five best films of the year in the Nighthawk Awards. It is, among other things, the film with the best performance of Tony Curtis’ career, the film that really showed that Alexander MacKendrick could have been a first-class director, and that the Academy could really miss the boat sometimes, given that they gave 9 nominations to that piece of shit Peyton Place and missed out on this altogether.
“Sweet Smell of Success” by Ernest Lehman (1957)
This is a short story (the credits to the film refer to it as a novelette, but 55 pages doesn’t seem long enough to me to merit that term) about a rather pathetic, rather desperate press agent who just wants to get his clients mentioned in the press (so he can keep them) and sucks up to Hunsecker, a rather repulsive gossip columnist clearly based on Walter Winchell. It’s a well-written story that effectively creates the two main characters. But, it’s really the film that brings everything to life. The story is worth reading, but the rub is that, the film is brilliant and once you’ve seen the film, you don’t really need to read the story and these days, who would end up reading this story before seeing the film?
“‘Tell Me About It Tomorrow!’ centres on New York press agent Sidney Wallace’s attempts to curry favour with entertainment columnist Harvey Hunsecker, a man who, ‘merely by adding new and scabrous meanings to the word rumor‘, has become one of the most influential personalities in America. (The novella was derived from an unfinished 1946 novel entitled You Scratch My Back …, from which Lehman had previously gleaned two short stories, ‘Hunsecker Against the World’ and ‘It’s the Little Things that Count’.) Sidney, who narrates, is more successful than his counterpart in the film and more troubled by guilt.” (Sweet Smell of Success BFI Film Classics by James Naremore, p 9)
That is all information that comes from the BFI book on the film. But in the collection of short work by Lehman (Sweet Smell of Success: The Short Fiction of Ernest Lehman), there is no mention of the earlier works.
While there are some details added in, much of the film comes from the original Lehman story, from the beginning, right down to the end. That’s perhaps because Lehman was already a highly touted screenwriter before the story was published and it was easy for him to adapt it and, at 55 pages, it doesn’t count too bogged down in things that would be hard to put on film.
Directed by Alexander Mackendrick. Screenplay by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman. From the Novelette by Ernest Lehman.
I have already reviewed this film once, as one of the five Oscar nominees for Best Picture. It is one of the highest rated films on the IMDb, not because it is great (which it is), but because it is one of those films that everyone seems to agree is great and there are no dissenters who bring the score down at all. As the first film for Sidney Lumet, it stands as one of the great debut films of all-time and the start of what would turn out to be a magnificent directing career.
Twelve Angry Men by Reginald Rose (1955)
This began as a 1954 teleplay for the show Studio One. It was then adapted, by its original author, Reginald Rose, as a play for theatre the next year and that is the version that is currently available in print.
It’s a smart play, designed to make people look inside themselves at what they believe. It follows twelve jurors who look at a case for a poor immigrant who is accused of killing his father, a case in which the prejudices outweigh the actual evidence. It’s a story of one man who is willing to make a stand because he believes “testimony that could put a human being into the electric chair should be that accurate.” It’s a great play because it doesn’t preach the morality of the death penalty but makes certain that when someone is put there, it must be clear and concrete. There must be no mistakes.
The play, as it was written for the theatre, is almost exactly what appears on the screen. Even though I wasn’t watching the film while reading the play (and it had been a while since I had seen the film), I could hear Henry Fonda in every single line that his character says.
But the play was the original expansion upon the teleplay. That original story was only an hour long. Almost all of the dialogue from the original is still there in the play and the film, but a lot of it has been expanded upon. Rose gives more time to each of the characters.
One other thing about the major difference between the original show and the film: the talent involved. Other than curiosity, there is really no reason to seek out the original. It was directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, who, in spite of having an Oscar that Sidney Lumet never won, wasn’t half the director Lumet was (most notably in the scene I mentioned in my review of the way the camera backs up and then backs in during the racist rant). Aside from the directing, there is also the acting. It’s your choice. Do you want Robert Cummings and Franchot Tone, two actors who were in television in 1954 because they were no longer handsome enough for movies and had never been much in the way of actors, or do you want Henry Fonda and Lee J. Cobb.
directed by sidney lumet. story and screenplay by reginald rose
As one of the Best Picture nominees, I have already reviewed this film. It’s odd that Billy Wilder, who was known so much for his writing, would fail to be nominated in this year while they did nominate the wretched Peyton Place. It is a great film that has more than one twist towards the end, which I discuss below, so, please, if you have never seen the film, you really should stop reading here and watch the film. It’s definitely worth it.
“Witness for the Prosecution was originally published in 1933 as part of a short story collection entitled The Hound of Death and Other Stories. In 1948, it was released with short stories again, although this time the book’s title was Witness for the Prosecution and Other Stories. It was 20 years after the story’s original release, in 1953, that Witness for the Prosecution first appeared in play form, with a new, dramatic and violent ending concocted by Christie.” (The Films of Agatha Christie, Scott Palmer, p 35)
“As with Ten Little Indians ten years before, Christie wrote a new ending especially for the stage presentation of Witness for the Prosecution. Therefore when seeing the film after having read the book, you will naturally notice a drastic change. But again, as with Ten Little Indians, it was Christie, not the theatre producers nor the film producers, who wrote the new ending for stage and screen. In fact, Christie insisted on the new ending to the point of refusing to allow the play to be put on if the producers insisted on the same ending as in the original story.” (Palmer, p 35)
Now, there is something that I should make clear about those quotes from the Scott Palmer book. It is true that Christie added to the ending of the play, a considerable change that occurs after the action ends in the original story. But Palmer makes it sound like she discarded her original ending. The original ending is still used, of course, just as it is in the film, but more happens after that original ending that drastically changes the outcome of the characters.
The original story is a great example of the kind of dramatic mystery that Christie was so good at. In this case, we don’t know until the final line of the story what the actual truth of the matter is. We simply have a compelling story with so many different variations on what has happened that we have to try and decide which character to trust. In that original story there are really only three characters: Leonard Vole, his wife, and the solicitor, Mr. Mayherne. Most of Mayherne would then become Sir Wilfred in the play. Many of the lines and descriptions in the story would then be included in the play, though the play would greatly expand upon them. Both the story and the play are examples of why Christie was such a good mystery writer – she never had the command of the language that Hammett had, but she could write a great mystery that kept you guessing until the very last line.
I must point out that when the play originally came to Broadway, Sir Wilfred was played by Frances L. Sullivan, the magnificent character actor from Great Expectations and Night and the City. I would have loved to see the play with him in the lead.
The changes that were incorporated (especially the ending) were kept when the play was adapted into the film. But the film, aside from opening things up made a major change to one of the characters, added a completely new, vital character, and made yet another addition to the ending that once again gave it a new twist.
Neither the original story nor the play mentioned any problems with Sir Wilfred’s health. It’s the screenwriters that decided to add that development and with it, the character of the Nurse, who is played so brilliantly by Elsa Lanchester. The interplay between the two characters played by real life wife and husband Laughton and Lanchester adds some great dramatic developments, but also almost every moment of humor in the film and keeps it from becoming too unbearably bleak.
But it’s the ending where Wilder really adds on to what Christie originally did. In the original story, of course, we end with the wife’s admission “I knew – he was guilty!” In the play, we’ve added the young woman that Vole is about to run away with and the murder of Vole by his wife. But in the film, with the added character of Lanchester, we have the ready-to-depart Sir Wilfred and the nurse realizing that they won’t be going anywhere, that they will be sticking around, together, to defend Vole’s wife. It’s a fantastic ending, just like the first two were, and it’s great that even having read the story and seen the play, it still wouldn’t prepare you for that final twist.
Directed by Billy Wilder. Screen Play by Billy Wilder and Harry Kurnitz. Adaptation by Larry Marcus. The only mention of the source is in the card before the title card: “Agatha Christie’s International Stage Success”.
Some films are easy for me to complain about. The Before films from Richard Linklater are mediocre films that have an over-inflated reputation. It’s harder when a film is very good (like this one) or even great (see next year’s bit about Vertigo), yet still have a reputation that is greater than I think it deserves. I don’t want to complain about Rififi (the film in America is generally referred to by the single word rather than the entire title). It’s a very good heist film, one of the very best films from Jules Dassin, whose own reputation after he left America ended up being over-inflated. But if you believe some writers, you would think that this film singularly invented the heist film and that everything that comes after it must owe something to it. To suggest that, such writers must basically ignore the existence of The Asphalt Jungle.
That’s the problem with this film and it’s unfortunate that it’s a problem because this is really a good film. It has a lot of the same general story arc as The Asphalt Jungle: the gathering of the gang, the heist itself, the breakdown after the heist and the eventual violent end for basically everyone involved (The Killing, made a year after this film, but released before it in the States, also follows a lot of the same arc). Unfortunately, Rififi doesn’t have the same kind of cast that Jungle had (or The Killing – both of them have gangs lead by Sterling Hayden, one of the most under-appreciated actors of all-time) and while Dassin does a first-rate job here, he is no Huston (or Kubrick) and so things aren’t quite functioning at the same high level. Dassin does the best with what he has – he keeps the script popping, with considerable tension throughout the film, no matter whether it’s the heist itself (more on that below) or on the interactions between various people, all in various states of betrayal (or being betrayed). You watch films like these three and you wonder how, over 25 years later, no one knows what happened to the Gardner paintings, because it always seems like heists go wrong at some later point when everyone starts betraying everyone else.
But let’s get to the heist, because if it’s somewhere that Rififi really does stand out, it’s in the heist itself. It’s one of the best in film history. That’s because Dassin decided to not only focus on the heist (it’s the centerpiece of the film), but, since his actors weren’t the best, he completely rid the scenes of dialogue. They have to be quiet during the heist, so they are and they work with precision and detail and we see how they break in and make their daring robbery. A lot of films have copied this and it is a much more detailed operation than it was in Jungle and it’s the place where Rififi really has been influential.
And I’ll leave it there, because this is a very good film. It doesn’t quite break into the **** range, namely because I don’t think much of the acting, but it is a very good film and I’d like to finish this review on that positive note.
Du Rififi chez les hommes by Auguste Le Breton (1953)
I have not been able to find a copy of the book in English and I am not certain that such a copy exists. That won’t get me anywhere then, since I don’t read French (and, if you believe Dassin, quoted down below, even reading French might not have been able to help). But it’s clear from the quotes and from other things written about it that it’s supposed to be pretty bad, which is interesting since Le Breton worked on the film with Dassin. But much of the larger story was dropped from the book to focus on the heist, which apparently only takes up about 10 out of 250 pages but takes a good quarter of the film.
“I couldn’t even read the book. It was all in an argot that even many people in France can’t read. I got hold of a friend, who sacrificed his love life to read it to me that weekend. I had no idea of what to do with the book. I went to say no but heard myself say yes. The producer said I was the only person who could make the book into a film. I asked why. He said, ‘The problem is that all the bad guys in this story are North African, and at this moment relations between France and Algeria are explosive. But you can make the bad guys America.’ I said, ‘Has it occurred to you to make them French?’ He was stunned at first and then accepted.” (Jules Dassin quoted in Tender Comrades: A Backstory of the Hollywood Blacklist, ed. Patrick McGilligan and Paul Buhle, p 218-219)
“The astonishing thing is that Dassin accomplished all of this on the fly, rejecting everything in the novel whose rights the producers had purchased for him. He rewrote the story from the bottom up, using all of the considerable skills he had accumulated from his time in Hollywood to transform what is essentially a U.S.-style film noir (it even has a nightclub with a ‘thrush’) with a conventional story line into a root film for a new sub-genre, the suspense techno-thriller.” (Hide in Plain Sight: The Hollywood Blacklistees in Film and Television, 1950-2002 by Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner, p 106)
un film de Jules Dassin. d’aprés le roman D’Auguste Le Breton. édité par La Librairie Gallimard. Adaptation de Jules Dassin. avec la collaboration de René Wheeler, Auguste Le Breton. Dialogues: Auguste Le Breton.
I have already reviewed this film once, as my under-appreciated film of 1957. I came upon this film through a confluence of circumstances. I had read the book (not when I was supposed to – see below) and there was a Golden Globe nominated version from 1960, a German film. Netflix claimed they had that film, but it turned out to be this film (that film, which isn’t as good, I later found). I was glad to find it, as it was quite good and I’m not certain I would have ever found it otherwise and I eventually saw the sequel as well (which isn’t quite as good). Netflix apparently no longer has this film (though they have the sequel), but my local library did. See it if you can.
Osudy dobrého vojáka Švejka za světové války by Jaroslav Hašek (1923, tr. 1930)
It was my Sophomore year and I was taking a class called Literature About War. We were supposed to have this book read before class began. No one did. I’m not certain anyone had it read by the time the class ended. It was over 700 pages, this was a class meeting every day and it had all these Czech names (which our professor threatened to quiz us on if any of us mentioned Notre Dame’s bowl loss over the holiday – he literally wrote the book on Notre Dame football). But, years later, I went back and read it (along with several other books I was supposed to have read in college) and I was quite impressed with it. It was funny, it was wise, it was interesting. And it definitely belonged in that class because it’s a book about war, even if the character never really gets around to fighting in the war (which was appropriate for that professor because he used to start his Studies in Fiction class with Tristram Shandy, in which Tristram never really gets around to telling his story).
Svejk has been in the army already once before: “who had left military service years before, after having been finally certified by an army medical board as an imbecile” and how he gets back in is the kind of humorous circumstance that runs through the book. He brags in front of a policeman who sends him to jail, then he goes before a medical board, then he ends up in an asylum. He ends up back in the army and gets sent towards the front and keeps on not making it there. He befuddles his commanding officers and manages to keep himself alive by being incompetent. Yet, Hasek also manages to see some great truths about the war, one of which has always stuck with me: “The excrement of soldiers of all nationalities and confessions lay side by side or heaped on top of one another without quarrelling among themselves.”
There are also some really wonderful illustrations (by Josef Lads) to go along with the book (you can see an example on the cover), which vividly bring the characters to life. The book meanders through a variety of vignettes, but also manages to tell a complete story. Or almost one. More on that below.
This film does a very good job of bringing the book to life. Or part of the book. Or part of part of the book. The first is because the book was intended to run six parts but when he had finished three and a half, Hasek died. As I mentioned in the original review of the film, it still reads like a fairly complete book, unlike something like The Mystery of Edwin Drood or even The Last Tycoon. The second is because this film cuts what exists of the book in half, with the second part coming in the sequel, which was titled The Good Soldier Svejk: Beg to Report, Sir and was released the following year (“Humbly report, sir” would have been more accurate, given that is what Svejk almost always says to almost anyone, but that might be a translation difference – all of my quotes come from the Cecil Parrott translation from 1973). So this film does only give you half the story, though it ends in a better way than say Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings, which just suddenly ends with almost no warning. Almost all of the scenes and the dialogue come straight from the original book. It is really a solid adaptation of the book, a book that shouldn’t be forgotten and a film that shouldn’t be over-looked.
Scénár a rezie: Karel Steklý. (note: there is no credit for the source and there are accent marks on some of the consonants that WordPress doesn’t have characters for)
Actors can be trapped by our expectations, even if those expectations were formed later. That’s especially true for a film like this which wasn’t widely watched at the time of its release. Years after its release, of course, people would find this film and talk about how prescient it was, how smart and observant it was about the world we were living in. Really, it should have been obvious at the time, in the fading era of McCarthyism, but it wasn’t. So, by the time most people were going to watch this, they weren’t watching a remarkable performance from a little known comedian. They were watching a man they had come to love, complete with a particular persona. And that would last through the years, because even after Andy Griffith stopped his own show, he would continue in that persona, and indeed, an entirely new generation would discover him in Matlock (although I really have the feeling the most of the people who actually watched Matlock were the same people who had watched The Andy Griffith Show when they were young). So, I guess I started this film with an advantage that most others would not. I didn’t have to believe in a particular persona for Andy Griffith because I have never seen an episode of The Andy Griffith Show or of Matlock. I could just watch him here sinking into his role as Lonesome Rhodes, a folk singer who discovers a way to connect to the common people and then uses that to make the jump to fame and then to public persona.
This film is hardly the work of just one man. There is a lot of really good work in this film, from the sure handed direction of Elia Kazan, bringing a kind of social realism to this film that it really needed, to the writing of Budd Schulberg, who had written the original story and really had some pointedly political points to make to the solid performance from Patricia Neal as the female producer who discovers Lonesome and can’t seem to quite escape from his spell no matter how much she wants to, no matter how much she is turned off by his ideas, by his former wife, by the sexy little drum majorette that he marries on a lark. But, in the end, it all comes down to Griffith, because if his performance didn’t work, then the film itself would just collapse.
His performance works and, while this is miles away from his widely accepted persona, it’s also close in some ways. Lonesome is a hick, a guy who can play a little guitar, sing a little, but mostly has a way of connecting to people that should not be surprising in the current political climate. He plays on people’s hopes but he also plays on their fears. He knows some of their fears because he came from the same place, but he also knows how to stoke them and when he begins to rise in the world, it’s because he’s found that fire he can keep things piling on. When things fall apart it’s because he’s pushed things too far and they get out of his control. Griffith isn’t generally thought of much as an actor, but this film shows, that with the right script and the right direction, there was really something to him, something darker than he ever showed on television.
“Your Arkansas Traveller” by Budd Schulberg (1953)
This story didn’t just spring out of nowhere. It had its roots in an odd combination of Will Rogers and Father Coughlin and of course was published during the height of McCarthy’s power. Rogers, of course, was the folk humorist and radio uber-star who also made some pointed political commentaries (“I am not a member of an organized political party. I’m a Democrat.”). He was widely considered the voice of the people. From that persona springs forth Lonesome Rhodes, an Arkansas hick who manages to find a voice that the common people like. Yes, he’s a bit of a singer and a humorist, but mostly he just captivates people by rambling on about what ever comes to mind. The problem is that what seems to keep coming to his mind is the darker side of the American isolationist persona. By the end of the story, he has risen in the American culture to the point where he thinks he wants to declare war, to force Congress to step out against the world and declare that they will no longer be pushed around. And that’s where we get to Father Coughlin. By the time Coughlin was forced off the air after the advent of World War II, he had spent a decade as one of the most listened voices in the nation. But what had began as a campaign for social justice had degenerated into an anti-Communist, anti-Jewish crusade. Sadly, Coughlin had a voice and it was an ugly, violent voice that was headed down a horrid road.
So Budd Schulberg, a man who always a notion of how popular culture spoke to the masses (as the son of a prominent Hollywood producer, he wrote the brilliant novel What Makes Sammy Run) wrote a story that seemed to merge the two personas. Here we have a folksy voice of the people who becomes a very dangerous man before an accident ends his career and his life. It’s prescient in the way it heralds the rise of ugly talk radio, of Rush, of Hannity, of the rise of a wanna-be demagogue like that small-handed, even smaller-minded worthless pile of fake hair and very real prejudice. Yet, as a story, it’s probably been forgotten. What became important is the film that it was adapted into and one that really should be getting more discussion as I write this review, just one week before the election (or the apocalypse). Little extra note there: clearly I wasn’t the only one thinking of this film, as I wrote the review before the election, but TCM would later air this film on the day of the inauguration.
“Budd and I had such a good time doing On the Waterfront I said, ‘Let’s do another picture together.’ He knew the kind of thing I was thinking about so he suggested a short story he had written called Your Arkansas Traveller. I read it and liked it and that was it. Then we spent literally months doing research. We went to Young and Rubicam product meetings and talked to advertising people. We went to Nashville a lot and got into the Nashville sound and the Grand Ole Opry. I hung around with a camera. We met a lot of stand-up comics, some of whom are in the picture. Every aspect of the film was carefully researched.” (Kazan: The Master Director Discusses His Films by Jeff Young, p 234-235)
“I worked with [Budd Schulberg] all the time on the conception and on the ordering of the scenes, but I never wrote a word. My contribution was not in the verbal language, the dialogue, but in the language of film, especially in the language of sequence and climax. They are as much the director’s prerogative as the writer’s, so they have to be determined in collaboration. We worked out the basic movement of the story – what they used to call the continuity. Then I disappeared, and Budd wrote a complete first draft. Then I reappeared and we worked over it.” (Young, p 238)
That second quote from Kazan is especially illuminating. It illustrates how the auteur theory works in relation to directors like Kazan (or Hitchcock, Spielberg and Scorsese) who don’t actually write their scripts, but nonetheless, are deeply involved with the construction of the script.
The film follows, for the most, the basic outline of the original story, from the discover of Lonesome, to his rise, to his betrayal and marriage, to the end. The end is handled much differently though, as the Neal character has fled from him and been talked back in the story when Rhodes declares how he will declare war on the world, then drunkenly falls down a staircase and dies before he can actually self-destruct on the air.
Directed by Elia Kazan. Story and Screenplay by Budd Schulberg.
This was a year that was easy to cover the big films (all five films nominated for Picture and Director I had seen by the mid-90’s) but was difficult to finish in the major categories. It wasn’t until 2007 that I first saw either A Hatful of Rain (Actor nominee at the Oscars, Actor, Actress, Director nominations at the Globes) or Wild is the Wind (Actor and Actress nominations at the Oscars). The latter was a good film with a really good performance that absolutely deserved its Oscar nomination. A Hatful of Rain, on the other hand, was a really good film, with a good performance from the Oscar-nominated Anthony Franciosa, but a better performance from the non-nominated Eva Marie Saint (who does earn a Nighthawk nomination). It’s hard to believe that it even got made in 1957, let alone had people rewarding it.
An older man travels to New York to see his two sons. One of them is married and the father dotes upon him, the army hero who survived a brutal experience in Korea. The other works in what the father views as a dive bomb and when he explains to the other son that he needs the money he loaned him to build up a bar in Florida he’s retiring to, he can’t believe that his son doesn’t have the money. He explodes and the whole trip seems like a disaster. We clearly have a case of the black sheep of the family hanging on with the golden boy. Except it’s not like it seems. The black sheep is actually helping his brother out as best he can, feeding him money. The golden boy needs that money because his experience in Korea left him addicted to morphine, which has morphed into a heroin addiction. That money went to support the habit and this can’t be explained to their father without destroying his view of his boy.
Dealing with drug addiction on a very real level (we see the man who supplies the drugs and one of the plot points hinges on arrests being made to drug dealers around New York), while also dealing with the realities of familial problems when all is not what it seems, even to the characters involved, we get a stark drama that is acted with precision, especially from Anthony Franciosa (taking his role from the stage as the black sheep) and Eva Marie Saint. Fred Zinnemann, shooting a lot on the actual streets of New York, brings a level of realism to the film that still makes it a stark drama. In fact, the day I re-watched this, the headline in the Boston Globe was about the opioid problem here in Massachusetts. The film doesn’t cut corners in showing the problems of addiction and the problems that families face, first in finding about it, then in understanding it, then, finally in dealing with it. This is a film that was very much ahead of its time and I can’t really understand why Fox has only put it out in their Archives series and it has been so hard to get hold for so very long when it is so much better than most of the bigger films from this year like Sayonara, and most especially Peyton Place.
A Hatful of Rain: A Drama in Three Acts by Michael V. Gazzo (1954, first produced 1956)
It’s strange to think of people in different ways then you are used to thinking of them. I have recently been watching Alfresco, the original television sketch show starring Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, with Emma Thompson there among them, years before she would become the most accomplished actress at work. Who knew she was brilliant at sketch comedy? Likewise, I think of Michael V. Gazzo as a major player at the Actors Studio and a key supporting player in The Godfather Part II, not as a playwright who could write such a heartfelt play about drug addiction. This is a smart play, one that knows its characters well, understands how families interact with each other and hold on to things for years, and how hard it is in a family to make anyone understand that things and people can change. It is very much a New York drama, and it’s good that the film was able to make such good use of New York location filming.
As turns out to be the case so very often, a lot of the play is changed. A lot of the dialogue does come straight from the play, but there are other changes that are made to open things up. The key difference from the play to the screen is the introduction of the early scenes, when the father first arrives, and then travels with the older son to the dive bar to see the black sheep at work. All of that action only comes through in the dialogue of the play, but it makes for some excellent dramatic scenes in the film that help give you an idea of how these characters interact with each other.
But, with Gazzo working on the script and having written the original play, much of the action does stick fairly closely the play, including most of the lines of dialogue, right down the very end of the film (although the film does add the line about him being her husband – that wasn’t in the play).
directed by Fred Zinnemann. Screenplay by Michael Vincente Gazzo and Alfred Hayes. based on the play by Michael Vincente Gazzo produced on the stage by Jay Julien.
A marine, adrift at sea, comes to rest on a small island. When exploring it, he comes upon a church. More startling, he comes upon a nun in the church. They are close to the Japanese lines (such as lines exist in an ocean), but she speaks English and, in what will turn out to be a rather an awkward issue later, she is rather beautiful. It turns out she is alone, the priest posted with her having died and no relief having yet arrived. This problem would be enough (two stranded together on an island, waiting for help), but it is the Japanese who arrive first, and what started as a drama of two lonely souls, both motivated inwardly by their duty that neither has forgotten, one to country and the other to god, becomes a more dangerous tale of survival against whatever odds may come against them.
That they will survive is what must come in a drama like this. But it is how they must come together in different ways to survive that makes the film as good as it is (a mid-level ***.5). It is helped, of course, that they are played by two actors who seem like they were made for the role. Robert Mitchum, who earned his only Oscar nomination for playing a soldier, is back again in the role. He knows his duty, but he also knows he must try to survive. Aside from that, he also knows that he is starting to grow lonely and that this nun, whatever her devotion to god may be, is quite beautiful. She is played by Deborah Kerr, who has always been magnificent at balancing the prospect of love with whatever might be coming against it. This time she does not waver, in spite of pain, fever, doubt, and she is able to stand firm against Mitchum, no matter what goes through his mind.
As a film about a marine on an island during WWII where the Japanese land, it might be easy to think this will be an action film, but what this really is, is a character study. In the script from Huston, his deft hand at directing, and the sure performances of Mitchum and Kerr, that this film works as well as it does.
Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison by Charles Shaw (1952)
This is a solid enough book, the story of a soldier and a nun who both end up deserted on an island in the Pacific Ocean during the later days of World War II. They must first deal with each other, then deal with the Japanese, who land on the island. It’s an interesting enough novel, but even at only 224 pages, it feels quite padded. There’s a lot of narrative and this really could have been a very satisfying short story that just seems drawn out to novel length.
The film really does a very good job of taking the book and putting it straight on the screen. Much of the dialogue and almost all of the action comes straight from the book. Because so much of the novel does feel padded, it makes it easy to just take out all the unnecessary narrative and cut it down to a 106 minute film that doesn’t feel stretched or compressed.
Directed by John Huston. Screenplay by John Lee Mahin and John Huston. Based on the Novel by Charles Shaw.
Consensus Nominees That Don’t Make My Top 10
Is it the Lubitsch in the film? Or is it the ridiculous pairing that makes me cringe? Either way, on the list of Billy Wilder films, this ranks towards the bottom. Granted, we’re talking Billy Wilder here, so even when a film ranks towards the bottom of his works, it’s still a fairly good film, in this case a mid-range *** romantic comedy with a lovely, charming performance from Audrey Hepburn and a rather amusing one from Maurice Chevalier.
There are echoes of Ernst Lubitsch in this film, the man whom Wilder looked up to. It is the kind of light comedy with amusing situations that Lubitsch often favored. It takes place in Paris, which Lubitsch loved, setting some of his best films there. And it stars Gary Cooper, who was the star of Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, one of Lubitsch’s best films (also set in Paris), which was written by Wilder. But I’ve never been that fond of Lubitsch, believing that his films were often too light in their touch and lacked the biting wit of a good Wilder film. And that’s the problem here – this film does lack biting wit, and that, along with the uncomfortable situation, is a drag on the film.
The set-up of the film is that Maurice Chevalier plays a detective in Paris who tracks down straying wives. Gary Cooper is a bit of a Don Juan, who comes into town and sleeps with various wives before moving on to another big city. The problem is that Hepburn, playing Chevalier’s daughter, is a young, innocent cellist who falls for Cooper’s picture and goes to warn him of a cuckolded husband coming to shoot him. She then becomes the mysterious woman that Cooper falls for, because he doesn’t know anything about her. There are some definitely funny situations, such as when Cooper hires Chevalier to find out about his mystery love, but Cooper, late in his life, playing opposite the young luminous Hepburn just doesn’t work. In the end, it’s good and charming and occasionally rises to the occasion, but not enough to clear the hurdle of being just a mid-range *** film.
Ariane, jeune fille russe by Claude Anet (1920, tr. 1927)
The title translates to Ariane, young Russian girl. That’s who she is – a young Russian girl who comes to Paris and falls for a Don Juan and decides to play a game of mystery to keep the affair fresh. The author, Claude Anet, was a star tennis player who turned to writing after retirement. It’s a light, charming romance, but nothing particularly memorable.
If I hadn’t known beforehand that the film was based on this novel, I would not have guessed it from reading the book. The father? Not in the book. Because of that, we have eliminated the key set-up for how the characters initially meet as well as the main focus of humor in the film. In essence, the romance is there in the original book. But it’s the script from Wilder and Diamond that turns it into a romantic comedy.
produced and directed by Billy Wilder. screen play by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond. based on a novel by Claude Anet.
This film is just trash. It’s not trash because it’s about things which are lurid (abortion, incest) but because it’s badly written, badly directed, mostly badly acted and it wants to be important when it’s really just stupid. That this film was nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture is completely absurd. That is was nominated for its script is just obscene. Don’t bother with it. It is absolutely not worth it.
Peyton Place by Grace Metalious (1956)
The edition of this novel that I read for the purposes of writing this (why else would I read it?) has an absurd introduction that attempts to argue for the literary merits of the book. Let’s be clear. This is not the worst book I have ever read (hello The Bridges of Madison County) but it is extremely bad. Just look at the opening: “Indian summer is like a woman. Ripe, hotly passionate, but fickle, she comes and goes as she pleases so that one is never sure whether she will come at all, nor for how long she will stay.” That’s just the opening two sentences. If I were to quote the whole opening paragraph you would (hopefully) shake your head in dismay over the fact that this was a big seller. But, hey, so was 50 Shades of Grey.
This was a big seller because it was scandalous. New England towns weren’t supposed to have secrets like this. There wasn’t supposed to be pre-marital sex. There wasn’t supposed to be abortion. There wasn’t supposed to be incest. Yet, there were because there always were and there probably still are. But in the fifties, that was a shocking idea, and so when someone actually dared to write about it, people read it in droves. But you shouldn’t, because good lord is it bad.
You might read a lot about how much this book was toned down for the film release. Perhaps this is because the town itself is presented as a more decent place while one particular family has some really nasty secrets. But those secrets (the daughter is raped by her step-father and then the decent town doctor gives her an abortion out of pity) are presented pretty much intact on-screen, because they would have to be in order to have the trial that is the dramatic conclusion of the film. But those are the really salacious elements of the book. Many of the main characters aren’t presented as nastily in the film as they were in the book and it’s not necessarily a town you would want to avoid, as you would in the book if you didn’t want your whole life described in gossip everyday, but it’s hardly fair to say that it was completely whitewashed.
Directed by Mark Robson. Screenplay by John Michael Hayes. From the Novel by Grace Metalious.
I reviewed this film once already as one of the Oscar nominees for Best Picture. It is not a bad film; it is too well acted for that. And it has something that it wants to say about interracial romances and how they come about in the military. But the writing is about as subtle as a sledgehammer and the direction isn’t very good. It’s what you could expect from Hollywood in 1957 trying to make a film about this issue.
Sayonara by James A. Michener (1954)
If the writing in the film is about as subtle as a sledgehammer, what does that make the novel? It seems like Michener has his heart in the right place. He wants to make it clear that the regulations about military men not being allowed to marry natives and bring them home is wrong. But the novel is filled with so much racism, both explicit (one of the characters revels in being allowed to force soldiers home rather than allow them to marry) and more casual (the Japanese women are constantly denigrated, with the words plain and round often being used).
This is a ridiculous melodramatic novel, the story of an air force officer who is friends (soft-of) with a young soldier who has fallen in love with a Japanese girl and marries her and then, after witnessing some local theater, falls in love himself and abandons the woman he’s supposedly been in love with his whole life (also, she starts to act like her mother, because of course, only then would she suddenly start to do that after all the years he has known her). In the end, faced with being forced home without his wife, the young soldier (and his wife) commits suicide. The air force officer relents and allows himself to be sent home. It’s really kind of a mess and I honestly can’t really fathom how Michener ever got much of a reputation even before he started writing ridiculously long travelogues.
Marlon Brando objected to the ending – “I can’t do a picture where the American leaves the Japanese girl like the arrogant ending of Madame Butterfly.” he told director Joshua Logan. Logan suggested he marry the girl instead with screenwriter Paul Osborn saying “I’d like that better – it’s less cliche. We only thought we had to use that ending because Michener wrote it that way.” (quotes from p 88 of Joshua Logan’s Movie Stars, Real People and Me).
That is, indeed, the biggest difference between the film and the novel. There are certainly other differences along the way (the James Garner character is combined with another character – it wasn’t the Garner character who tried to bring his date into the club). The suicide is handled differently as well. In the novel, Brando’s character is climbing in the window when he sees them dead (“While my leg was suspended I saw Joe. He was on the floor with his head blown apart by a .45. Across him, obviously having died later, lay Katsumi with a kitchen knife plunged completely through her neck.”). In the film, he comes in and finds them dead in the bed together. You can see a gun in the foreground, but the way they are lying in the bed kind of belies that (more of the bad direction in the film) – it seems more like they have died together of poison. It is certainly nothing like the gruesome scene described in the book.
Directed by Joshua Logan. Screen Play: Paul Osborn. Based on the Novel by James Michener.
The other WGA Nominees
This was a subgenre for a while, the War Comedy. A lot of them tended to be Navy films, perhaps because it’s easier to set a Comedy among the Navy where you’re out at sea and various hijinks can occur than in the army where you’re too close to combat. Either way, it makes, for the most part, for uninspired films. They feel tired, they feel flat, and even the presence of someone as good on film as Glenn Ford just isn’t enough.
In this case, this is a Comedy because these men never manage to get near the war. Hell, as the title itself says, they don’t even really manage to get near the water. They are PR guys and their job is to buck up morale and write glowingly about the Navy, not to actually go out and fight in a war. To that end, this film consists of such things as recording a newspaper man coming on to an underage girl or dealing with a foul-mouthed sailor (this is the 50’s, so all the words are used, but actually bleeped out). And, of course, there is a romance in the middle of it, because it seems like they felt one was necessary to the plot.
It’s astounding when you look at a film like this to remember that Charles Walters was at one time an Oscar nominee for Best Director, but then again, it was for Lili, and you find yourself wondering that while you’re watching the film for which he was actually nominated. This film isn’t all dreary – Ford manages to liven it up and Russ Tamblyn, still a few years from being reduced back to being a teenager in West Side Story is an enjoyable sidekick. But really the best part of this film comes from Mickey Shaughnessy as Farragut Jones, the man spotlighted by the PR guys as the ultimate Navy man (because of his name) but who turns out to be heavily tattooed, utterly uncouth and hilariously foul-mouthed. The sequences with him and with Ford’s desperation to make something of the man are really the only things that light this film up and keep it from slipping down into **.5 range.
Don’t go near the water by William Brinkley (1956)
This would be the single best-selling book of 1956. It hit the top of the NYT Best Seller list in August and stayed there for a remarkable 19 weeks until Peyton Place came along and dislodged it (if Peyton Place had been published earlier in the year this book wouldn’t have been the top seller of the year). I was all set to write about how I can’t understand how this book was such a big seller and that perhaps it’s a question of the changing times and that I was never in the military so perhaps this type of humor just doesn’t appeal to me, but I can hardly question the merits of this book being on the top of the best seller given what pushed it out of the top spot. This is hardly great literature, but it’s certainly better than Peyton Place. It is pretty much what the film would be – a humorous look at men who work in Public Relations in the Navy and the problems they run into.
The film changes things somewhat from the books – the big moment of the panties being flown from the mast that’s on the cover of the book wasn’t in the film. But much of the film does come straight from the book, including all of the issues surrounding Farragut Jones and his ridiculously foul mouth. One big change though, was to take the main character (Siegel, played by Glenn Ford) and promote him from an Ensign to a Lieutenant.
Directed by Charles Walters. Screen Play by Dorothy Kingsley and George Wells. Based on the Novel “Don’t Go Near the Water” by William Brinkley.
This film starts out in a really clever way, with Tony Randall coming out to introduce it and announcing the title as The Girl Can’t Help It. Then he stops and says “No, we already did that one.” He goes through his pockets trying to figure out the title. Then the film begins and the credits are a series of televisions ads for clearly shoddy products, a good start to a film that mocks the advertising industry. Unfortunately, after the credits, the film itself starts and things go downhill rather quickly.
Rock Hunter is an ad exec, trying to come up with a campaign for lipstick. To that end, he eventually ends up involved with Rita Marlowe, the actress with the “oh-so-kissable lips”. Highjinks will ensure, of course, that involve Hunter, misunderstandings with his fiancee (who also happens to be his upstairs neighbor), his perky 16 year old niece who lives with him and Marlowe herself, played by Jayne Mansfield. Perhaps played is the wrong word, since that would imply some sort of acting was involved and this is Jayne Mansfield that we’re talking about. If they had gotten Marilyn Monroe, there could have been an actual performance to go along with those lips and that body, but the only point of Mansfield is to be a big-busted blonde for men to drool over. Hunter will drool over her, but tries to stick to his fiancee, and the performance by Tony Randall as Hunter (and to a small extent, the performance of Lili Gentle as his niece) is the only thing that really keeps the film going. Well, there is also the cameo at the end of the film when Marlowe’s acting teacher and the one man she really loves finally shows up and that is funny. But the film is mostly a slog, with ridiculous situations. At least they didn’t completely screw up the film by also giving it a standard Hollywood ending, but the ending of the film is silly enough that it doesn’t really matter.
Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?: A New Comedy by George Axelrod (1955)
George Axelrod’s first play, The Seven Year Itch had been a huge hit. But then had come the film, which was also a huge hit, but had massive changes because of the stringencies of the Production Code. For his second play, Axelrod decided to write a play about a writer who goes to Hollywood and then refuses to bow to their pathetic required changes to his work. It is witty and insightful into what goes on with the process of writing in Hollywood and was a big success on stage, and the movie rights quickly sold.
And, once the movie rights were sold, 20th Century-Fox promptly took the entire play and threw out everything but the title and the character of Rita Marlowe. Ah, the amusing irony of taking a play about a writer selling out to Hollywood and then dropping everything about Hollywood from the play and turning it into an indictment of the advertising agency instead.
Produced and Directed by Frank Tashlin. Screen Story and Screenplay by Frank Tashlin. Based on the Play written by George Axelrod and Produced on the Stage by Jule Styne.
Can’t you imagine why this would appeal to Frank Sinatra? Joe E. Lewis began as a singer and then, after being brutally attacked by the Mafia for changing nightclubs, couldn’t sing anymore and turned to being a comedian instead. It was not only a perfect showcase for Sinatra’s talents (there was even a lot of serious acting involved, since it deals with the man’s descent into alcoholism and the destruction of two marriages), but with the Mafia connection, it must have seemed like it was an echo of his own life.
Sinatra gives a strong performance, and if I had considered this film a Musical like the WGA did (I didn’t because the songs are cut down so early in the film after the beating and then it turns more into a dramatic biopic), I probably would have him on my list for Best Actor – Comedy / Musical (which was a weak list in this year and is lead by Sinatra for Pal Joey).
In the end, this film doesn’t work for me on a personal level. Oh, it’s well-made enough, with some serious drama, and Sinatra gets some joy out of the singing in the early scenes and then gets to be dramatic later on. But it’s a biopic about someone I don’t care about and there just isn’t enough in the writing of the film to sustain any interest in it beyond that. The direction is fairly lackluster, as if it were done as a paint-by-numbers. It’s a mid-range ***. But, for some reason, it has never been readily available on video, in spite of winning the Oscar for Best Original Song.
the joker is wild: the Story of Joe E. Lewis by Art Cohn (1955)
I wonder if maybe this is my least favorite kind of book of all those that I have been reading for the first time in the course of this project. It’s a biography about someone whose life I don’t care about it, even a little. Joe E. Lewis was a singer in Chicago during the Capone era and when he left one nightclub for another, Capone’s lieutenant had his throat slashed (against the wishes of Capone, I might add). He survives the attack but was unable to sing anymore (it took him years just to be able to speak again), so he became a comedian instead. I managed to push my way through the book, but I couldn’t really be bothered to care. It’s certainly written well-enough for such a book, but when you have zero interest in the subject matter, it doesn’t really matter. My barometer for such things by the way is Susan Orlean. I tried three times to read The Orchid Thief, but in the end, just couldn’t care enough to read it. So, if you want me to read about a subject I have no interest in, you need to be a better writer than Susan Orlean, and that’s tough to do.
For the most part, this follows pretty well along with the book. It does a good job of making use of the key moments in the life of Lewis, as well as giving Sinatra some songs to perform before they cut his throat so we can be reminded, not necessarily of how good a singer Lewis was, but how good Sinatra was.
Directed by Charles Vidor. Screenplay by Oscar Saul. From a book by Art Cohn. Based on the life of Joe E. Lewis.
Oh, when will the damn WGA category of Musical end and allow me to stop this cycle of endlessly reviewing mid to low *** films that don’t belong in a post about good writing (answer: 1968).
It’s pretty easy to write reviews of these films. It’s almost a fill-in-the-blank. There is a man. He’s probably at least a little obnoxious. Certainly the girl won’t like him at first (or for a stretch in the middle). He is often a newcomer. Then there is the girl. She is supposed to be pretty, but it all depends on your taste, since they’re often blonde and I’m not interested in blondes, particularly (especially, in this case, Doris Day). There will be a conflict that will keep them apart. Sometimes it has to do with work (like in this case). Sometimes it is something about where they live, or their social status, or family. But there will be tension. All of which will be resolved by the end, of course, usually in a rather silly or melodramatic way. There will be a happy ending.
All of that could also describe a lot of romantic comedies, of course, with the main differences being that generic romantic comedies don’t often end up earning WGA nominations and that the Musicals also end up with a lot of songs in them. The songs are often appreciated by groups of people and, because we’re in the era before Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Weber, that usually doesn’t include me.
Case in point, The Pajama Game, in which John Raitt (who?) is the new supervisor at the pajama plant where he will fall for Doris Day (why?) but their romance will be strained because of her insistence on a 7 1/2 cent raise for the workers, which it turns out the manager claims in his books was already instituted so he could pocket the money (what?), but then all of this will be revealed and there will be many songs (why?).
The songs in this case are by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross. If they are memorable to you, I am glad for you. For me, I could not remember any of the them from the first time I watched it and they have already slipped my mind again. They also wrote Damn Yankees, which also doesn’t have a single song I remember and which I will be covering in the next year, because, hey the WGA Best Musical category will still exist.
The Pajama Game: A New Musical Comedy, Book by George Abbott and Richard Bissell (Based on Mr. Bissell’s novel, 7 1/2 Cents), Music and Lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross (1954)
Yes, that is the full title, as listed on the title page of the Random House copy of the book. But don’t think for a minute I’m gonna go track down the original novel by Bissell. I’ve been through this story enough. It’s a silly little Musical about a new guy at a pajama company who faces off against the union, lead by the girl that he falls for.
What you saw on stage is pretty much what you get on film.
Produced and Directed by George Abbott and Stanley Donen. Screen Play by George Abbott and Richard Bissell. Based upon the play “The Pajama Game”. Book by George Abbott and Richard Bissell. From Richard Bissell’s novel “7 1/2 Cents”. Music and Lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross. Original stage production directed by George Abbott and Jerome Robbins. Produced by Brisson, Griffith and Prince.
Is this the quintessential Frank Sinatra role? And if so, does that explain why I don’t rate the film any higher than mid-range ***? Or is it that rating the quintessential Sinatra role at that level explains why I am not a fan of Sinatra, that, in spite of his obvious talent in multiple fields, he just doesn’t interest me? None of that is to say that this Sinatra’s best performance – certainly that is either From Here to Eternity or The Man with the Golden Arm. But, in the years after he broke away from his goody-good image that he had developed through his early crooning years and in films like Anchors Aweigh and On the Town, he would become a bit of a rake, a bit of a cynic about love, a man who could sing and could charm a little mouse but was fundamentally untrustworthy and no role better suits that than this one.
It is a good Sinatra performance, of course, and I rate the performance higher than I rate the film itself. That might have to do with a lot of things. Sinatra, for one, gives a good performance while no one else in the film even comes close. Being in a Rita Hayworth and Kim Novak sandwich might be delicious (as Sinatra put it when asked about not receiving top billing), but at least if you aren’t getting top billing you don’t have to worry about anyone acting you off the screen. Sinatra’s the only one who gives any kind of performance, putting on the charm when he has to, being a cad the rest of the time (more in tune with the character as originally written) and belting out classic Rodgers and Hart numbers in between (see below).
But the film just doesn’t really flow, perhaps because of the two sides of it – the quick-talking nightclub guy who’s at ease in that life contrasted with the romance that the film wants to put center screen, complete with giving it a happy ending that the original didn’t have and which this character doesn’t fit.
Pal Joey is a good film, but it’s a good film mainly because Sinatra gives a spot-on performance (he wins the Nighthawk for Best Actor – Comedy / Musical). I just wish it had more to offer than that.
Pal Joey, book by John O’Hara, music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Lorenz Hart (1940) / Pal Joey by John O’Hara (1940)
This musical is a rarity, in that it involves the author of the original source to write the book for the play (which is probably also why you can both books in one currently from Penguin Classics). John O’Hara wrote Pal Joey as a series of pieces in The New Yorker and Rodgers and Hart, who were already a team, turned them into an unconventional musical. It needed an actor who could play a heel and still maintain the audience’s sympathy (which turned out to be Gene Kelly, which must have been a marvel on stage). Though I don’t love any of the musical numbers, the musical itself was quite a departure from much of the work on Broadway at the time. We have a star who is pretty much a cad and never becomes a better person through the course of the show. We have two completely different types of songs, with the more showy numbers reserved for the nightclub while the more introspective ones were the ones outside of the nightclub, actually showing real emotions.
The original collection of short vignettes (short stories isn’t really the right word for them) by John O’Hara isn’t credited in the film, but it’s where the original musical came from. They were a series of letters written by Joey back to his pal Ted talking about his life since leaving New York City, including trying to get (and keep) work and the mice he meets and sweet-talks (I was going to say romance, but romance isn’t a verb that applies to Joey). They’re interesting reading (O’Hara was quite a talented writer, though he is all but forgotten today) and they give an interesting take on Joey, since his tendency to be a cad shines through even though the whole book is written from his point of view.
If you watched Pal Joey on the stage and came to this film expecting to see the same musical you were probably in for quite a surprise. Just watching the opening credits you would be thinking, wait, the musical took place in Chicago. That would only be the start of the changes, and they would come hard and fast. It would be quickly apparent that the songs were different as well. Yes, several of the songs from the original made it to the film. But a bunch were dropped as well. In their place were songs that were probably quite familiar, songs like “The Lady is a Tramp” and “My Funny Valentine” that were already standards before Pal Joey even hit the stage. The producers decided to bring in some other Rodgers and Hart songs (four in all) to take the place of the songs they had dropped. But that wasn’t all that was different either. That moment, early on, when Joey is staring at a girl who is looking in the window of a pet shop, they have a nice meet cute. That girl, a stenographer, is now a chorus dancer that he meets after he starts crooning at a night club and she’s in the background (they do eventually get the pet shop scene, but they’ve already met and she really doesn’t like him by then). To top off everything, that final meeting of the two of them (back at the pet shop) is quite different, in that Joey no longer ends up alone on stage. He’s walking off into the future with Linda.
Directed by George Sidney. Screen Play by Dorothy Kingsley. From the Musical Play: Book by John O’Hara, Music by Richard Rodgers, Lyrics by Lorenz Hart, Produced on the Stage by George Abbott.
Other Screenplays on My List Outside My Top 10:
- 3:10 to Yuma – The original, based on a short story by Elmore Leonard. This is a good film, a high level ***, but when remade in 2007 with much better stars it will become a great film.
- The Great Man – Jose Ferrer isn’t thought of as anything but an actor, but he would direct and co-write this film, based on a novel by Al Morgan, a Citizen Kane type film looking into a popular radio host after his death. An under-appreciated film with good acting throughout.
(in descending order of how good the film is)
- No Down Payment – Joanne Woodward won her NBR award for Best Actress for this film and Three Faces of Eve. While Eve is the better performance, this is one that shouldn’t be over-looked (and has been) and is the better film, about problems in suburbia. It’s based on a novel by John McPartland, the one more serious novel from a man more known for hard-boiled pulp novels.
- A Town Like Alice – My mother is a big fan of the book, written by Nevil Shute and probably his most famous book until On the Beach. The film is good, but not good enough to justify the BAFTA wins for Actor and Actress and nomination for Picture (it was BAFTA eligible in 1956). It would later be re-made as a much more well-known tv mini-series.
- The Curse of Frankenstein – Yes! Hammer Horror has arrived! Let there be blood and gore in full color! This, of course, is very loosely adapted from Frankenstein. It stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee and what could be better than that?
- Raintree Country – Based on the 1948 novel by Ross Lockridge, Jr., which, according to Wikipedia was considered a contender for The Great American Novel, which is completely absurd. It earned four Oscar nominations, including the first Best Actress nomination for Elizabeth Taylor.
- The Bachelor Party – A solid film, adapted by Paddy Chayefsky from his own 1953 teleplay that shouldn’t be confused with the stupid Tom Hanks film. It earned a Best Supporting Actress nomination at the Oscars.
- The Three Faces of Eve – Joanne Woodward’s Oscar and Nighthawk winning role as a woman suffering from multiple personality disorder. The non-fiction book, written by the real psychiatrists involved in the case, was also published in 1957 and the film was rushed into production. The film is okay but Woodward is great.
- The Enemy Below – A World War II film starring Robert Mitchum and based on a novel by a former British naval officer.
- Time Limit – The one film directed by Karl Malden and adapted from the play. It was nominated for Best Actor at the BAFTAs, who liked Richard Basehart a lot more than the Oscars did.
- Gunfight at the O.K. Corral – If you’re gonna watch a Western, watching one with both Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster is kind of the way to go. Not particularly historically accurate, but good entertainment. The IMDb lists it as “suggested by an article by George Scullin”. The way it was listed at oscars.org made me classify it as adapted, but since that site is now apparently dead, I can’t confirm how it was listed there.
- Street of Shame – Solid 1956 drama from acclaimed Japanese director Masaki Kobayashi about five prostitutes, based on the novel by Yoshiko Subaki. It stars Machiko Kyo, the star of Rashomon, Ugetsu and Gate of Hell.
- Reach for the Sky – Another 1956 film that reached the States in 1957, this one won Best British Film at the BAFTAs. It’s a biopic about Douglas Bader, a British aviator and was based on a 1954 biography. Like A Town Like Alice, it received 5 BAFTA noms and no other awards attention.
- Old Yeller – The Disney classic that scars every kid once poor Yeller gets rabies and has to be shot. I read the story a lot in Walt Disney’s America before we had a VCR so I was prepared for what would come on screen. The film is based on the Newbery Honor winning book by Fred Gipson.
- Stella – A 1955 Greek film that is a retelling of Carmen directed by Michael Cacoyannis.
- The Green Man – A British comedy with Alistair Sim, based on the play Meet a Body, written by Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, who had worked with Sim several times previously.
- The Abominable Snowman – Another early Hammer Horror film, this one based on a teleplay called “The Creature”. Good, but not at the same level as the other Hammer films and is in black-and-white rather than color.
- Four Bags Full – A 1956 French Comedy starring Jean Gabin, adapted from the novel La Traversée de Paris.
- The Prince and the Showgirl – Based on the Terence Rattigan play The Sleeping Prince, surely this film is more famous now because of My Week with Marilyn. And really, that’s a much better film; this is easily the weak spot in Olivier’s directorial work.
- The Spirit of St Louis – The Charles Lindbergh movie, based on his autobiographical account. While it’s a solid mid-*** film, I’m glad it wasn’t nominated for its script, because the book apparently spends over 300 pages in an hour by hour account of the trip.
- The Colditz Story – A 1955 British P.O.W. film that stars John Mills (which, in spite of being mid-***, automatically makes it worth watching). Based on the book from the real man that Mills plays.
- Edge of the City – Directorial debut of Martin Ritt, starring Sidney Poitier, this was based on a teleplay (this was a big year for that).
- This Could Be the Night – A mild, forgettable Robert Wise film starring Jean Simmons. It’s based on short stories by Cornelia Baird Gross.
- Desk Set – Based on the play, this is quite possibly the most forgettable Tracy / Hepburn film.
- The Brothers Rico – Mild gangster film noir adapted from a story by Georges Simenon, though this isn’t one of his Inspector Maigret stories.
- Island in the Sun – So it turns out that Evelyn Waugh’s older brother was also a writer, but a much less famous one. He wrote the novel this was adapted from, but what people really remember about this film is the Harry Belafonte song.
- Silk Stockings – What people remember most about this film is probably Cyd Charrise’s legs. It’s based on the Musical, but that was based on Ninotchka. We’re down into the lower *** range here, so you can tell I’m not as big a fan of this film as some are.
- Men in War – An Anthony Mann film about Korea, though the novel it was based on (Day Without End) was actually about the Normandy invasion.
- The Rising of the Moon – An anthology film that is one of the weakest films ever directed by John Ford. One part is based on a Frank O’Connor short story, one part is based on a one-act comedy and one on the play The Rising of the Moon by Lady Gregory.
- Nightfall – Based on the novel by David Goodis, this is pretty forgettable film noir.
- Fear Strikes Out – A little personal history here. My baseball obsession began early. So did the reading. And when I was in sixth grade, my brother and his then girlfriend gave me a book called Temporary Insanity by Jay Johnstone. It’s a fun book, about Johnstone’s wacky life in baseball and I’ve enjoyed it for over 30 years now. Well, Johnstone talks early on about how his first roommate in baseball was Jimmy Piersall and that explains it, right? Well, wrong. I had no idea who Jimmy Piersall was. I knew all the baseball greats, even in 6th grade (especially in 6th grade) but Piersall wasn’t known for being great. He was known for being nuts. It would be years before I would finally learn a lot more about Piersall and even longer before I would finally see this film, about how Piersall was driven by his father and, though he played for the Red Sox, he also went bonkers and spent time in an institution (which he is famous for, but I didn’t know that back then). Decent film, with Anthony Perkins kind of trying out to play Norman Bates. Based on Piersall’s memoir. All of this was years before he and Johnstone would room together.
- Oedipus Rex – I saw this on the list at oscars.org (when it existed) and watched it because I wanted to try and see any adaptations of notable source material (thus the list down below of the ones I haven’t seen). It’s a decent Canadian production of the play (complete with masks) but not much better than that. It was apparently rather a dud at the box office as well, prompting a Tom Lehrer song, which, of course, is hilarious, because Daniel Radcliffe is pretty much right when he describes Lehrer.
- Beau James – Bob Hope doing some actual dramatic work, playing Jimmy Walker, the former mayor of New York. Based on the book by Gene Fowler.
- Something of Value – Richard Brooks are usually a lot better than this, but they also don’t usually star Rock Hudson. Based on the novel by Robert Ruark.
- My Man Godfrey – Hey, let’s remake a screwball classic, but instead of having William Powell and Carole Lombard, we’ll have David Niven and June Allyson.
- Johnny Tremain – I read this book in 4th grade when I read my way through the Newbery list (yeah, I’ve always been like this – it’s called OCD). I hated it. Pretty much everyone I know who ever read it, hated it. I saw this because the director, Robert Stevenson, would later be Oscar nominated (for Mary Poppins).
- Smiley – A British kids film but you’ll be forgiven if you think it’s Australian, since it was filmed in Australia and takes place there and the author of the original novel was Australian. Nominated for a BAFTA Screenplay Award, which is why I don’t count those.
- The Burglar – Another Goodis adaptation, this one just scraping in with ***. It must have been on the TSPDT 13,000 starting film list because I can’t fathom why else I have seen it.
- Lady Chatterley’s Lover – Now we’re into **.5 range. This is another film I saw after I saw it on oscars.org. It’s a 1955 French version directed by Marc Allegret.
- Band of Angels – Clark Gable hamming it up in a Civil War era film. From the novel by Robert Penn Warren.
- The Barretts of Wimpole Street – The original isn’t a great film but it had some great acting from three of the best of the 1930’s (Norma Shearer, Fredric March, Charles Laughton). John Gielgud isn’t great, Jennifer Jones is no Norma Shearer and Bill Travers doesn’t deserve to be mentioned in the same review as Fredric March.
- The Pride and the Passion – Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra and Sophia Loren fail to bring this story of a cannon in the Napoleonic Wars to life thanks to lackluster direction from Stanley Kramer. Based on The Gun by C.S. Forester.
- April Love – It stars Pat Boone which should tell you enough. It’s based on the novel Phantom Filly. This is the first of an astounding nine films from 20th Century-Fox that are on this list and are **.5 or lower, two of which are listed up above because of nominations (Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter and Peyton Place).
- The Wings of Eagles – John Ford gets even more lackluster, with John Wayne as the man who helped spur American military aviation, based on an article he wrote.
- The Sun Also Rises – It’s a Top 100 novel, yes. But this film is lackluster as you can see in my review. This and the next film helped kick off a few years of Hemingway over-exposure on film that would lead to the death of Hemingway on-screen. A Fox film.
- A Farewell to Arms – Briefly mentioned in the above review. The book is brilliant and I think today it would have bounced back up into my Top 100. But this film, starring Rock Hudson and Jennifer Jones is a dud. Another Fox film.
- An Affair to Remember – Even the 1939 Love Affair wasn’t great, but it was better than this, no matter what my mother or Meg Ryan’s character in Sleepless in Seattle may think. What a waste of two great talents. Yep, also a Fox film.
- The Story of Esther Costello – Another BAFTA winning film (Best Actress), this is based on the novel. Hard to find and forgettable once I found it.
- Tammy and the Bachelor – The first of apparently four Tammy films, based on books by Cid Ricketts Sumner, this is the only one to star Debbie Reynolds. A very forgettable romantic comedy that was Oscar nominated for Best Song.
- The Shiralee – Another British film that was made in Australia and based on a novel by an Australian writer, about a man and his four year old daughter. It received a BAFTA nom for Best Picture and Best British Film.
- Tarzan and the Lost Safari – The second film with Gordon Scott as Tarzan finally brings him to life in color for the first time. This film, while rather disappointing (mid **.5) has more hints of the original Burroughs works than most Tarzan films.
- The Incredible Shrinking Man – One of the more famous Sci-Fi / Horror films of the 50’s (I actually consider it Fantasy because of the elements of how he shrinks) isn’t actually all that good (mostly because of crappy acting). It’s based on a novel by Richard Matheson, more famous for writing I, Legend.
- Kiss Them for Me – Another crappy Fox Comedy with Jayne Mansfield, based on the play. It has Cary Grant but that doesn’t help.
- Hellcats of the Navy – A World War II submarine film based on a book by a Vice Admiral. The only film to pair Ronald and Nancy Reagan and if that gets you excited, well, then you need serious help.
- The Wayward Bus – John Steinbeck, one of the greatest writers ever produced by this country, deserves better than to have one of his novels turned into a Fox film starring Jayne Mansfield, even if it is one of his weaker novels. It would be another 25 years before we would see another American adaptation of a Steinbeck novel (not counting television).
- The Gold of Naples – Another anthology film, this one from Vittorio de Sica. Based on the novel by Giuseppe Marotta.
- Until They Sail – How can a film with Paul Newman, Piper Laurie, Jean Simmons and Joan Fontaine be this bland? Ask Robert Wise because he directed it. Based on a short story by James Michener.
- The River’s Edge – Low level **.5 with Anthony Quinn and Ray Milland. Based on an unpublished short story. Yet another Fox film.
- The Hunchback of Notre Dame – Anthony Quinn again, except this time he’s hamming it up as Quasimodo. Great novel. High ** film. The first film version of the novel in color.
- The Unholy Wife – Making a film noir in Technicolor kind of defeats the point. But then John Farrow was never a particularly good director, even when he earned an Oscar nomination. Based on yet another teleplay.
- The Little Hut – Pretty bad romantic comedy from Mark Robson (Peyton Place). Based on the play.
- Saint Joan – Famously bad for Jean Seberg’s awful performance after the big search for someone to play the part. Based on the play by George Bernard Shaw.
- The Story of Mankind – Another Newbury winner. In fact, the original Newbury winner and the one that nobody (but me) reads because it’s so long. This adaptation has an all-star cast (it’s directed by Irwin Allen, who was always big on that idea) but is only loosely related to the book. Another film I watched after finding it listed on oscars.org.
- Quatermass 2 – Like the first film, based on the BBC show. Unlike the first film, this one is crappy (low **). Released in the States as Enemy from Space.
- The Fuzzy Pink Nightgown – This one has Jane Russell and is directed by Norman Taurog, one of the worst directors to ever be nominated for an Oscar (or win one). It’s based on the novel by Sylvia Tate and is low **.
- Daughter of Dr. Jekyll – A low-budget Horror film from Edgar G. Ulmer. Even at *, it’s not the worst film of the year (there are four films worse that were all original). Very, very loosely derived from the Stevenson classic.
Adaptations of Notable Works I Haven’t Seen:
note: I’ve tried to see all of these, but they aren’t available from Netflix, my library system didn’t have them and often I even try to ILL them and can’t get them. They also aren’t available online. I’m not alone in not having seen them as all of them have fewer than 200 votes on the IMDb.
- The Deerslayer – I may not value Cooper’s writing any higher than Mark Twain does, but that doesn’t mean I don’t see the films if I can. This is a Fox film though, so it might have been terrible. It stars Lex Barker (the former Tarzan) who wasn’t exactly Daniel Day-Lewis.
- The Seventh Sin – It’s Bill Travers again, this time starring in an adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil. It was directed by Ronald Neame, who did direct a number of very good films (The Horse’s Mouth, Tunes of Glory, The Chalk Garden).
- Short Cut to Hell – The only film directed by James Cagney, though he didn’t act in it. It’s another version of Graham Greene’s A Gun for Sale, which had been made in 1941 as This Gun for Hire.
- The Surf – A 1954 Japanese film version of Yukio Mishima’s The Sound of Waves that earned a U.S. release. It only has 16 votes on the IMDb.