“The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.” That line is nowhere in the book but neither is almost any other line of dialogue in the film.

My Top 10:

  1. Lawrence of Arabia
  2. To Kill a Mockingbird
  3. Jules and Jim
  4. The Manchurian Candidate
  5. Throne of Blood
  6. Lolita
  7. Billy Budd
  8. The Music Man
  9. Sweet Bird of Youth
  10. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Note:  There are 20 films on my list.  Only one of the other ten is reviewed: #12 – The Miracle Worker while the rest are listed down towards the bottom.

Consensus Nominees:

  1. To Kill a Mockingbird  (160 pts)
  2. Lawrence of Arabia  (120 pts)
  3. The Music Man  (80 pts)
  4. The Miracle Worker  (80 pts)
  5. David and Lisa  (40 pts)
  6. Lolita  (40 pts)
  7. Billy Budd  (40 pts)
  8. Birdman of Alcatraz  (40 pts)
  9. Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation  (40 pts)
  10. The Notorious Landlady  (40 pts)
  11. Period of Adjustment  (40 pts)
  12. The Pigeon That Took Rome  (40 pts)
  13. Billie Rose’s Jumbo  (40 pts)
  14. Gypsy  (40 pts)
  15. State Fair  (40 pts)

Oscar Nominees  (Best Screenplay – Adapted):

  • To Kill a Mockingbird
  • David and Lisa
  • Lawrence of Arabia
  • Lolita
  • The Miracle Worker

WGA Awards:

Drama:

  • To Kill a Mockingbird
  • Billy Budd
  • Birdman of Alcatraz
  • The Miracle Worker

Nominees that are Original:  Freud

Comedy:

  • Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation
  • The Notorious Landlady
  • Period of Adjustment
  • The Pigeon That Took Rome

Nominees that are Original:  That Touch of Mink

Musical:

  • The Music Man
  • Billie Rose’s Jumbo
  • Gypsy
  • State Fair

Nominees that are Original:  Hey Let’s Twist

BAFTA (Best British Screenplay):

  • Lawrence of Arabia

My Top 10

Lawrence of Arabia

The Film:

I have already written about the film once before.  It is one of the great films of all-time.  It dominates the Nighthawk Awards, winning almost everything.  It is one of the most magnificently photographed films of all-time.  And, the last time I saw it before this, in preparation for the Nighthawk Awards, I even pushed the screenplay higher and knocked off To Kill a Mockingbird from the top of the list.  And this might say the most about how I feel about this film: for this project, I often fast-forward because these are films I have seen before (and even reviewed before).  But, even with limited time, I didn’t fast-forward any of the 223 minutes of Lawrence.

The Source:

Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph by T. E. Lawrence (1926, 1935)

This book, the long (672 pages) and extremely dense memoir of Lawrence about his time in Arabia during and after the Great War is only ostensibly the source for the film but there will be more on that below.  It is very easy to get completely lost in this book.  I used to own it and it is a very difficult and indeed rather boring read.  It is considered a classic by some, but Lawrence gets too bogged down in the details and at times with his lofty prose and you struggle to concentrate on what is actually happening.  Here’s an example: “The first confusion was the false antithesis between strategy, the aim in war, the synoptic regard seeing each part relative to the whole, and tactics, the means towards a strategic end, the particular steps of the staircase. They seemed only points of view from which to ponder the elements of war, the Algebraical element of things, a Biological element of lives, the Psychological element of ideas. The algebraical element looked to me a pure science, subject to the mathematical law, inhuman. It dealt with known variables, fixed conditions, space, and time, inorganic things like hills and climates and railways, with mankind in type-masses too great for individual variety, with all artificial aids and the extensions given our faculties by mechanical invention. It was essentially formidable.” (p 192)  Now imagine almost 700 pages of that.

The Adaptation:

As I said above, the film is only ostensibly adapted from the Lawrence book.  It is not given credit in the film itself.  Indeed, much of the film has nothing to do with the book.  Many characters are either fictional or amalgamations, included Sherif Ali, the second most important character in the film (he is named after a real person, but his actions embody the actions of several people in the book and his first meeting with Lawrence is completely fictional).  There are several real events in the book that are covered in the film and it is easy, by looking in multiple places online, to see how much the film fictionalized and how much is historically accurate (and, thus, following Lawrence’s own accounts).  Clearly the opening of the film has nothing to do with Lawrence’s book as it takes place at and after his death.

The script would eventually, years later, be credited to both Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson (33 years after the film was released, Wilson’s name would be added to the Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay).  Wilson, who had written Bridge on the River Kwai for Lean (and been denied the Oscar due to the Blacklist) wrote three drafts of the script before Bolt was brought on according to Gene D. Phillips, though Stephen M. Silverman’s book on Lean only mentions one script, which Lean hated and refused to use.  “[Producer Sam] Spiegel invited Bolt to his London office and arranged for him to rework Wilson’s screenplay, staring in January 1961. He told Bolt that he particularly wanted him to write some classy dialogue.” (Beyond the Epic: The Life & Films of David Lean, Gene D. Phillips, p 274)  Silverman’s book also credits Lean with writing much of the second half of the script with Bolt, though the IMDb won’t list that because of their agreement with the WGA.

The Credits:

Directed by David Lean.  Screenplay by Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson.

To Kill a Mockingbird

The Film:

I have already reviewed this film as a Best Picture nominee.  In some ways, it is the film equivalent of the book.  By that, I don’t mean it’s adapted from the novel, though it obviously is.  But, as I discuss below, the novel is well-loved without being highly regarded by those who are serious students and teachers of literature.  The film, as well, is highly regarded by almost all, especially because of the performance of Gregory Peck, yet the serious film students, the professors, those who respond to the Sight & Sound poll aren’t going to be pointing to this film as one of the all-time great films in the same way that the films directly above and below this on this list are.

The Source:

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)

This book was one of my first introductions to the stratification of literature in the intellectual realm.  I had first read the book in junior high and loved it, of course, because everyone loves it (well, except for maybe racists?).  It was such a touching story, complete with moral at the heart of it – the same kind of moral that really would strike me a couple of years later when I would first read Anne Frank’s diary.  It’s spelled out, not in the title, but in the final page of the book, when Scout is explaining that the boy in the story that Atticus was reading hadn’t done what the people thought, that, in fact, he was real nice. “Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.”

That’s the theme that runs through the book, not just in Boo Radley.  The racist old unpleasant dingbat?  She’s just trying to kick her morphine habit and die on her own terms.  The Cunninghams?  Just poor folk who don’t know any better than to be part of a lynching party and that can be shamed by the honesty of a little girl.  The town that can’t bring itself to really be outraged over this travesty of justice?  Slowly learning how to adapt to changing times.

Harper Lee’s novel succeeds not because of its moral, but in spite of it.  It succeeds because it paints a realistic portrait of a small town in the South in those years when race relations were very slowly starting to change.  It succeeds because the characters are not saints – they make mistakes, they have flaws, they do things wrong, they fight with each other, they argue.  They are real characters.  It succeeds because it is backed by its heart.  It is not a great work of literature, not the kind of thing that will be studied in universities and praised down through the generations like Faulkner and Joyce and Woolf and Morrison.  It is a very good book, written at a lower level, that appeals to the humanity in us and reminds us that if we are to succeed as people, then it is because of those moments when we do remember out hearts and our innocence and our decency.

One last thing to say about this book and it hearkens to the edition of it pictured on the right.  Because they are continual sellers and have been for years and because they stayed with the exact same mass market edition for years and years, both at Powells and the Booksmith, when I worked there, the top selling books in the history of the store was To Kill a Mockingbird (in that edition on the right) and The Catcher in the Rye (in the white mass market).  Both of them know have trade editions, because that it was literary books do, but those classic mass market editions will always be massive sellers and for good reason.

The Adaptation:

Much of what is on screen is straight from the book, of course.  There are a few moments that are changed, ever so slightly (like how Scout goes along when Atticus goes to tell Tom’s wife).  But for the most part, if it’s in the film, it was in the book and almost exactly as it was on the page.  But there are considerable portions that are left out that I always forget about until I read it again.  The main thing is the rest of the Finch family.  Much of what Scout learns in the book in relating to other people comes in her interactions with her aunt and uncle and cousins, all of which are excised from the film.  And let’s face it – the film works better that way for not bringing in a bunch of characters that are superfluous to the plot.

The Credits:

Directed by Robert Mulligan.  Based Upon Harper Lee’s Novel “To Kill a Mockingbird”.  Screenplay by Horton Foote.

Jules et Jim

The Film:

I have already reviewed this film as one of the five best films of 1962.  It didn’t used to make my Top 5 because this is a very tough year, but I re-watched it again just before doing the awards for this year and it just managed to climb into that final spot.  There are many, of course, who would say that I have it too low and that it’s the best film of the year.  It is certainly one of the seminal films of the French New Wave and, when you look at it in conjunction with The 400 Blows and Shoot the Piano Player, a statement about how immensely talented Truffaut was as both a director and writer.  While there are directors that I rank as greater than Truffaut, there are very few directors that I enjoy more than him.

The Source:

Jules at Jim by Henri-Pierre Roché  (1953)

The story is kind of well known by now.  Roché was a journalist and art dealer for most of his life, but in his seventies he finally wrote a semi-autobiographical novel about his time as a young man and his friendship with another young man and about the woman who kind of bewitched them both.  Certainly his time as a journalist meant that he knew how to write and his novel has the kind of clarity and conciseness that you might expect from an experienced journalist.  All three characters are vividly brought to life and we watch them bounce back and forth between each other, veering towards life in its extremes and, as can be expected from such people who grasp for too much in life, eventually towards death.  Truffaut himself came across the book in a second-hand shop along the Siene and fell in love with it (he would also later adapted Roché’s second novel).

The Adaptation:

The film stays quite true to the book, to the point where the voiceover narration (especially that at the beginning of the film) comes straight from the book.  While some of the vignettes from the first third of the book are cut, so that we can get more quickly to the love triangle that becomes the centerpiece of the film, the only major changes from the book are that, at least in the translation I read, the primary female is always called Kate while in the film she is Catherine and that the fatal drive at the end doesn’t come after a chance encounter, but after the three of them have gone for a drive in the country.

The Credits:

D’après le roman de Henri-Pierre Roché.  Adaptation et dialogues: François Truffaut et Jean Gruault.  Mise en scène: François Truffaut.

The Manchurian Candidate

The Film:

I think I first heard of the film in 1987 when it emerged from the cocoon or in 1988 when it was released on video.  My mother told me about it right when the press came out that it would be seen again for the first time in a generation, since before the moment that marked so many of her generation.  My parents had seen it in the theater back in 1962 but it hadn’t been much of a financial hit (though it did solidly among the awards groups, with 7 total nominations and two wins for Angela Lansbury – the NBR and the Globe) and after JFK was assassinated with a rifle, the story was that Frank Sinatra had it pulled (untrue), but it returned to theaters in 1987 and from there its reputation began to really soar.  I saw it when it was first released on video and was suitably impressed.  I don’t think I had yet seen From Here to Eternity, so for me, this was the first evidence that Sinatra could really act.  Even more surprising was Angela Lansbury, who had been boring on Sunday for several years by this point (I will go ahead and note Veronica’s objection to that description).  I hadn’t yet seen Gaslight and didn’t know that she could be such an incredible actress.  And I hadn’t yet seen Room at the Top, so I didn’t even know who Laurence Harvey was.  This was one of the early films in my film education and a reminder that 1962 was a year that the Oscars got right (7 Oscar for Lawrence of Arabia including Picture and Director) and horribly wrong (Best Picture nomination for Mutiny on the Bounty?).  The Manchurian Candidate was nominated for Best Editing (though, to be fair, so was Mutiny on the Bounty) and Lansbury was nominated but lost (to Patty Duke, which I don’t agree with, but won’t overly complain about) but was passed over for Picture for Mutiny on the Bounty and for Director and Adapted Screenplay for David and Lisa.

This was kind of the right movie for the right time and if it didn’t quite hit it big could some of that be because it opened during the Cuban Missile Crisis and we were already on the brink of war?  Could some of it be that Johnny, the stepfather of Harvey, plays too much the Joseph McCarthy role and that turned people off a bit?  Or was it just too much for people to see this kind of film, an American hero brainwashed by the Communists into killing a presidential candidate so that a bought candidate could then become president?  How does that feel today when a Russian patsy has managed to become president?  Does that make this movie somehow all the more frighteningly real?

This is a fascinating and kind of unnerving film.  A group of soldiers are taken captive in Korea and brainwashed.  They return to the States with one of them earning the Congressional Medal of Honor (Harvey).  He is forced to deal with his loathsome stepfather and his odious mother (Lansbury).  At the same time, another of the soldiers (Sinatra) is haunted by the dreams he has of being captured.  The two men are racing towards each other and a showdown for the future of the country.  We learn about things in bits and pieces and while Harvey is solid enough, it is Sinatra who is the real star of the film, his haunted past terrifying him in the night.  All of this would be disturbing enough without the moment that we get, late in the film, when we suddenly realize who one of the people involved in the plot is.  If you’ve never seen the film, I won’t mention it, but it’s such an unnerving moment when the cards are finally laid bare (yes, that’s a play on what happens) that you sit back and think, holy crap.

John Frankenheimer was a serviceable director in Hollywood for a very long time, yet he rarely made really good films.  In fact, the only other film he would make that’s even close to this one is Ronin, which wouldn’t come until over 35 years later, at the twilight of his career.  But for one brief moment, everything came together, one of the best performances of Lansbury’s career, a haunting performance from Sinatra, first class direction from Frankenheimer and a first-class script.

The Source:

The Manchurian Candidate by Richard Condon (1959)

I used to own a pulp copy of this book, given to me years ago.  I read it once, in early 2005 (I remember I must have read it between March and June of 2005 because I read it during the short time we lived in the apartment on Main Street), didn’t think it was very good, especially when compared to the film, and later got rid of it.  Going back to it for the first time in over a decade, I wasn’t any more impressed by the book than I was the first time.  Apparently, that’s not a singularly held opinion.  The 2003 introduction by Louis Menand mentions that “Time named it one of the Ten Best Bad Books”, that David Thomson thought poorly of it and that Greil Marcus, in the BFI companion book to the film called a “a cheaply paranoid fantasy”.  Menand writes all of that so that he can then defend the book, but in doing so he tries to compare it with Michael Crichton (to Crichton’s detriment) and that just doesn’t work.  Crichton’s book are popular fiction, but they are among the best of them, especially The Great Train Robbery and Jurassic Park.  The Manchurian Candidate is exactly what it is: a cheap thriller that was made into a great film.

Condon even writes to push you farther and faster into the book.  The first fifteen chapters of the book take up 217 pages and some of them actually feel like they are dragging quite a bit, as Condon writes about the way Raymond works his job or the various ways Marco is involved in the story (not very well done).  But the last fifteen chapters take up only 94 pages, as if Condon wants to rush you through to the ending, jumping from scene to scene.

The Adaptation:

There is more than just the basic idea for the film that is in here; many of the finer plot points come straight from the original novel.  But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t considerable changes.  Marco, the Sinatra character, is the major difference, as he is the other lead in the film, while it takes a considerable amount of time in the book before we even meet him and he is never a character on the same level as Raymond.  In fact, if it weren’t for the fact that the plot needs Marco to come along at the end and to discover a few bits of information along the way, you almost wonder why Condon even invented the character, whereas in the film he’s a vital point-of-view for what has happened and what is going to happen.  The major change from the book to the film is that an overt scene of incest between Raymond and his mother is considerably toned down for the film because there is no way in hell that the Production Code was going to let that pass in 1962.

The Credits:

Directed by John Frankenheimer.  Based upon a Novel by Richard Condon.  Screenplay by George Axelrod.
The IMDb lists uncredited writing from Frankenheimer.

蜘蛛巣城
(Throne of Blood)

The Film:

I have already reviewed this film.  It is easily on the list of great all-time film adaptations of Shakespeare, even if it doesn’t use Shakespeare’s language.  Even without the language, it is clearly the play because of the small details throughout the film that stick to the original dramatic moments on-stage.  Yet, it also manages to perfectly fuse Shakespeare’s story of 11th Century Scotland with 15th Century feudal Japan.

The Source:

The Tragedy of Macbeth by William Shakespeare  (1606)

When I was younger, I used to hold this up as the best of Shakespeare’s plays.  That’s because it is considerably shorter than some of his other major works (and thus never lags, even for a second), has some of his best speeches, some of the most complex, interesting characters and yet manages to give us some great action as well; how many other Shakespeare plays end with the titular character’s head being held up on stage?  As I moved into grad school and spent so long working on Hamlet, it became clear that Hamlet really is the pre-eminent Shakespeare play, one of the times where what everyone knows turns out to be correct.  Macbeth is still one of my favorites (not my absolute favorite – that has to be A Midsummer Night’s Dream for a variety of reasons) and, of course, it gives us the “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech, which gave the title for The Sound and the Fury.  I have seen it many times on stage and would gladly see many more film versions of it.  I just wish there was a version with Shakespeare’s actual language that came even close to this version.

The Adaptation:

Well, this is the play and it isn’t.  There would be no credit in the film for the original play, perhaps because none of the original language was used (not just a function of being in Japanese, but in writing entirely new dialogue).  But so many of the moments that only come from the play and not from the original source material in Holinshed that gave Shakespeare his original inspiration are in this film, like the witches, the plotting before the murder, the washing of the hands after the murder and the rising up of the forest.  No writer has ever given the world speeches and dialogue as masterful as Shakespeare but Kurosawa’s version does not let the play down, even for a minute.

The Credits:

Director: Kurosawa Akira.  Screenplay by Oguni Hideo, Hashimoto Shinobu, Kikushima Ryuzo, Kurosawa Akira.
note:  The names appear the opposite of westernized style because that is how they appear in the Criterion DVD subtitles.  As with all non-Roman alphabets, I am forced to rely on subtitles for characters I can not replicate here.

Lolita

The Film:

The famous tagline, of course, was “How did they ever make a film out of Lolita?”  A question that I bet a lot of people asked at the time was “Why did they ever make a film out of Lolita?”  Well, because Stanley Kubrick is a fascinating director who liked to take risks.  With things starting to loosen up on the censorship front, should he have waited?  Well, we would later get another version that would be able to show more of what was going on and was it any better of a film for that?  This isn’t a great film, but it shows the humor at the heart of the story, something that Kubrick and Nabokov shared (a dark, bitter, yet humorous look at the world).  You can read much more about the film in my full review here.

The Source:

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955)

I could write a lot about Lolita.  In fact, I have written about it.  You can read the full review of the book here where I ranked it at #23 all-time among my Top 100 Novels.  You can also find the way I used it in my fiction (mentioned in the review) with the full story here, where even the title of the story is taken from the book.  Bear in mind when reading that story that one of the characters has never read the book and that the other is trying to struggle through its language.  The famous Vintage cover to the book, featured to the right, plays a part in the discussion.

The Adaptation:

When asked at what point Kubrick decided to structure the film so that Humbert is telling the story to Quilty, he answers “I discussed this approach with Nabokov at the very outset, and he liked it.  One of the basic problems with the book, and with the film, even in its modified form, is that the main narrative interest boils down to the question, ‘Will Humbert get Lolita into bed?’  And you find in the book that, despite the brilliant writing, the second half has a drop in narrative interest after he does.  We wanted to avoid this problem in the film, and Nabokov and I agreed that if we had Humbert shoot Quilty without explanation at the beginning, then throughout the film the audience would wonder what Quilty was up to.  Of course, you obviously sacrifice a great ending by opening with Quilty’s murder, but I felt it served a worthwhile purpose.” (Stanley Kubrick: Interviews, ed. Gene D. Phillips, p 88)

That quote is interesting in light of what I wrote in my review of the 1996 film version, about how the second half of the film lags so much in spite of the language.  Kubrick knew that would happen and so he worked out a solution that would get around that.  It’s interesting, in fact, that Kubrick didn’t end up with a writing credit on the film.  Nabokov’s script has actually been published on its own and it differs significantly from the finished film, not the least of which is that it doesn’t even contain the opening that Kubrick devised for it.  Obviously Kubrick did quite a bit of writing on the film, including that entire opening sequence that sets up the film.

There are other changes, as well, of course, though mostly omissions.  The original nymphet is gone, everything is shortened (especially once Lo and Humbert becomes lovers), things are more subdued on screen because what was on the page would never have been allowed.  There is more of an emphasis on the humor in this film.  And we get much less of Nabokov’s beautiful language (though Nabokov’s original script would have had Humbert speaking that final magnificent paragraph aloud as a voiceover).

The Credits:

directed by Stanley Kubrick. screenplay by Vladimir Nabokov based on his novel ‘Lolita’.
The IMDb lists uncredited writing from Kubrick and producer James B. Harris.

Billy Budd

The Film:

I first saw Billy Budd years ago, maybe 10, 15 years ago.  I didn’t read the story at that time because Melville didn’t interest me (I had a Fine Arts teacher in high school who said that no one should read Moby Dick until they’re past the age of 50 and having tried twice, I’m inclined to believe her).  But watching it this time was a different experience.  Oh, my feelings on the death penalty haven’t changed; they have never changed and are likely to never change as I see it as a sign of primitive barbarism and something that no decent civilization should indulge in.  But I was watching this at the same time that Veronica and I were watching out way through Game of Thrones, a show in which lots of people are executed for a variety of reasons and at the same time that primitive barbarism has been on display in the state of Arkansas as they rushed to murder several people under the auspices of “justice”, which of course it has nothing to do with.  So this was the context under which I revisited this film, the story of a gentle sailor who has difficult with words, has difficulty with almost anything that doesn’t involve his job as a foretopman.  But Billy gets involved with things that are beyond his control and even beyond his ability to understand and they lead to him, first, committing murder, and second, being executed for said murder.  It’s a tragedy, to be certain, but the fascination in Melville’s original story is figuring out precisely what the tragedy is and who it has befallen.

It’s always interesting when you find an actor who isn’t known for being a director and they make a film.  What drew them to the film?  It’s especially interesting when you see what role they have chosen for themselves.  This film is one of the handful directed by Peter Ustinov and is easily his best.  In it, he plays Captain Vere, a man who doesn’t seem to realize exactly how awful Claggart, his Master at Arms, is.  But Vere is the captain of a ship during war (this is 1797) and he will do must be done in a time of war, which includes impressing sailors from another ship, allowing a cruel man to essentially run the ship and in the end, mete out “justice” as it is required by law rather than by applying any sense of fairness, mercy, compassion or actual justice.  Ustinov is a fascinating actor and he had been an Oscar winning actor both before this film (Spartacus) and after it (Topkapi).  In many of his supporting roles, he would bring a film to life, even a film as dead to the world as Quo Vadis.  He always had a bit of a twinkle in his eye and some mischief ready to be planned.  But his captain plays things straight.  It is a solid performance from Ustinov, but it is interesting that Ustinov the director would so reign in Ustinov the actor.

He doesn’t have to reign in the other two main performances.  While the film is filled with solid character British actors (including John Neville and Ray McAnally, both of whom would become better known to international audiences in the 80’s), the other two main roles are filled by Robert Ryan, who is allowed to practice villainy in the kind of way that Ryan had been doing for well over a decade on film and Terrence Stamp who, in his film debut, gives such a mysterious, almost ethereal performance that you could only imagine what roles he might play in the future (and could you imagine them including a man who collects so much that he collects a woman, a Superman villain, an ineffectual leader in a galaxy far, far away, a limey gangster just of prison and a transgender person who is sick to death of fucking Abba?).  These two very different characters, played by actors who give very different performances are both very good (they are #6 and 8 on my Supporting Actor list) and they have a fascinating conversation halfway through the film that sheds some insights into both characters as they react to what the other is saying.

Billy Budd is a very good film and it’s too bad that Ustinov couldn’t find more like this one because it shows he really could have been a good director if he had wanted to be.  It is well directed, very well acted and well written (Ustinov also wrote the script).  It is a tragic story, and as I said above, part of the tragedy lies in trying to figure out what the real tragedy is.  Lives are lost.  No justice is found.  And in the end, there is just the ocean spreading out in a sea of great sorrow.

The Source:

Billy Budd, Foretopman by Herman Melville  (1924)  /  Billy Budd: A Play in Three Acts by Louis O. Coxe & Robert Chapman  (1951)

Billy Budd was the last gasp of fiction from one of America’s most lauded writers long before he became lauded.  Years after the publication of Moby Dick, Melville was dying in obscurity when he worked on the novel during his last three years, actually putting an end date on the novel of “April 19th 1891”, though he appeared to have continued work on it until his death on 28 September of that year.  But the novel was thrown into Melville’s papers and not discovered until 1919 when a biography was being worked upon and it was subsequently published in 1924.  Apparently poor transcription of the manuscript lead to poor early versions of the novel prior to 1962, which includes the copy I read in The Portable Melville (published in 1952) but also the copy that was used for the play in 1951 and the films, so it’s only appropriate.  The book is an interesting case study of a man who struggles to make himself understand and in a fit of passion strikes dead the Master at Arms when he is accused of treason.  But Melville’s prose has never worked very well for me and so, even as short as it is, it was a bit of a slog.

The play was the first thing that provided structure to the story.  The actual story comes mostly from the novel, but the play invents a great deal of the dialogue.  There are a few key lines of dialogue in the original short novel, such as Billy saying goodbye to “the rights of man” and the discussion over whether he means the name of the ship he is leaving or the rights he has since he is being impressed and the captain’s imploring of Billy to say something in his own defense that helps prompt Billy to kill Claggart.  But the play created most of its dialogue since there was so little in the original novel.

The Adaptation:

There is a chapter in The Classic American Novel and the Movies by Robert L. Nadeau (author of chapter, not book) that is worthwhile on the adaptation and the differences between the book and film on the more metaphysical level.  The film takes a lot of things from the original play, including much of the dialogue.  But the film is also able to greatly expand it (especially since they could film an actual boat on water) and we get the actual impressment scenes (and, indeed, the Rights of Man trying to avoid the confrontation to begin with) and the play itself ends with the hanging of Billy while the film follows on with the death of Captain Vere (in slightly different circumstances than in the original novel but in keeping with the same concept).  The key scene, in which Billy and Claggart talk to each other is taken mostly from the play and almost nothing of that talk comes from the original novel.

The Credits:

Produced and Directed by Peter Ustinov.  Based upon the play “Billy Budd” by Louis O. Coxe and Robert H. Chapman.  From the novel “Billy Budd Foretopman” by Herman Melville.  Screenplay by Peter Ustinov and Dewitt Bodeen.
The IMDb lists an uncredited screenplay by Robert Rossen.

The Music Man

The Film:

My mother, for the most part, has horrible taste in films.  She’ll watch almost anything that comes on and later talk about how much she liked truly awful films.  There are notable exceptions and this and Yankee Doodle Dandy, the two films that she most passed down to me, are among them.  This is an absolutely wonderful film, one of my all-time favorite musicals, filled with songs that I can sing at any time.  Hell, at one point, I wanted to write my own musical that was basically a spin on this one except that the con artist was a magician and that all the roles would be primarily filled by teenagers.  I also once, in a fiction piece, had a character trying to explain her relationship by quoting the song “Shipoopi.”  If that’s not enough for you, well, you can find a full review of it here because it was (rightly) nominated for Best Picture.

The Source:

The Music Man by Meredith Willson (1958)

Like so many great musicals, most of the greatness of the film comes from the original source.  Willson wrote a story about Mason City, Iowa, his hometown and turned it into River City, setting the action around the Fourth of July in 1912.  It has some of the best song numbers ever produced in a musical, including “Ya Got Trouble”, “76 Trombones” and the lovely romantic song “Till There Was You” which, when covered by the Beatles, supposedly produced more royalties for the Willson family than the entire stage and screen runs of the show put together.  It works because the character of Harold Hill, the travelling salesman shyster who comes to town is so devoted to his scheme and is so good at what he does that even he is surprised when he manages to fall in love before the end of the show.  I have even seen it on stage, produced by the local high school when I lived in Oregon because I love the show so much I was willing to watch high school kids butcher it.

The Adaptation:

This musical comes to the screen much more intact than a lot of musicals.  There are only a couple of songs changes – “It’s You” is dropped and “My White Knight” is replaced by “Being in Love”, although some of the lyrics are the same.  There are some songs that are moved around (“Shipoopi” is pushed later).  But the main difference is that the time sequence is much more decompressed in the film (in the original play, Hill arrives on the 4th of July and everything through “Marian the Librarian” takes place that day).  There are also a lot of scenes that take place between the songs that are either expanded or added entirely.  The ending, of course, is entirely redone for the film.  In the musical, it ends with the band playing and the townsfolk forgiving Hill, but in the movie we get the wonderful fantasy sequence (where it also suddenly goes from night to mid-day) to end the film on a big production number, which works wonderfully if for no other reason than that I believe every film should end with the names of the actors superimposed over them so we know who plays who.

The Credits:

Produced and Directed by Morton DaCosta.  Based on Meredith Willson’s “The Music Man” with his music and lyrics.  Book written in collaboration with Franklin Lacey.  Produced by Kermit Bloomgarden with Herbert Greene in association with Frank Productions, Inc.  Screenplay by Marion Hargrove.

Sweet Bird of Youth

The Film:

The 1950’s had been a golden age for films made from the works of Tennessee Williams.  A Streetcar Named Desire had taken film acting to a new level and the decade included the Best Picture nominees The Rose Tattoo and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof as well as the under-appreciated and highly controversial Baby Doll.  But the decade ended with Suddenly Last Summer with its cannibalism and questionable notions of insanity.  Then came the first few years of the sixties, with less than stellar films like The Fugitive Kind, Summer and Smoke, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone and Period of Adjustment.  Most of the best Williams plays had already been made into films.  What was left to make into a good one?  Well, Sweet Bird of Youth, for one (The Night of the Iguana for another, but that will have to wait two more years).  These were the last solid grasps for the great works from one of America’s best playwrights (after 1970, the only major film version of a Williams play is 1987’s uneven The Glass Menagerie).

Like so many of the films before it, this film would provide stellar parts for solid acting (the films mentioned in the first paragraph would earn a combined 19 acting nominations at the Oscars).  Though Paul Newman is clearly the star of the film, this was 1962 and the Best Actor ranks were overflowing (indeed, just look at the similarly un-nominated performances from Robert Preston in The Music Man and Ralph Richardson in Long Day’s Journey Into Night and Newman himself finishes 8th at the Nighthawks).  The film would have to make do with a Best Actress nomination for Geraldine Page (4th at the Nighthawks), a Best Supporting Actress nomination for Shirley Knight (7th at the Nighthawks, but it’s a solid Top 6) and a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Ed Begley (3rd at the Nighthawks behind Omar Sharif and Peter Sellers).  Indeed, all the acting in this film is solid, which makes sense given the direction of Richard Brooks, who had directed both Burt Lancaster and Shirley Jones to acting Oscars just two years before in Elmer Gantry.

Newman is a young handsome man named Chance Wayne.  Wayne has been pushed out of town by Boss Finley (Begley), who runs the town, and his loathsome son, Tom, Jr (Rip Torn).  That’s because Wayne knocked up Finley’s daughter Heavenly and she had to get an abortion.  But Wayne has also shown up with Alexandra Del Lago, a big movie star who’s addicted to drugs and in danger of falling off the movie star map, who’s played with some serious drama by Page.  Chance must balance her needs with his own desire to win Heavenly back and try not to get the living hell beaten out of him by Tom, Jr. and possibly even killed.  Because this is a Williams play, there will be a lot of talking, a lot of melodrama and some serious scenes for actors to go about doing their best work.  Newman and Page had already played the parts on stage and they seamlessly transition to the film role while Begley plays up the true odiousness of Boss Finley, a darker side to Big Daddy from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Brooks somehow manages to find a somewhat happy ending in all of this.  It’s the one thing in the film that doesn’t really work, but it can’t bring down the powerhouse of acting that has preceded it for two hours.

The Source:

Sweet Bird of Youth by Tennessee Williams (1959)

This actually began as two separate one-act plays, one of a man and a faded Hollywood star in a hotel room and a separate one with a man who rules over a town and his family dealing with that family and the problems caused by a man returning to town.  Williams ended up combining the two and adding the third act which ties up the loose ends (though not in a good way for Chance).  If it doesn’t reach the heights of such works as Streetcar and Cat, it at least is obvious that it comes from the same man.  It’s definitely in the second tier of his works but when you’re talking about a playwright like Tennessee Williams, the second tier of his work is far better than the best plays of many playwrights.

The Adaptation:

“Not unlike his approach to Cat, Richard placed a thread of optimism throughout his screenplay.  Under his pen, Alexandra’s return to Hollywood is more hopeful than in the stage drama, which had made the point that she realizes her time as a screen beauty has passed.  Instead of being made hollow physically and emotionally, Richard’s Heavenly has undergone an abortion (not that such a word would be allowed in the film).  Changing Boss Finley’s reason for hating Chance was no small matter in the story.  A woman turned barren by her lover is different, both as a character and as a symbol, than one forced by her father to terminate her pregnancy and who can still give life.” (Tough as Nails: The Life and Films of Richard Brooks, Douglass K. Daniel, p 148)

That all references the main changes from the play.  First, in the original play, as stated, Chance has passed on an STD to Heavenly and she’s had a hysterectomy, so now she has no chance for any children.  Without ever saying as much, that’s modified down simply to him getting Heavenly pregnant and her needing an abortion.  But that’s nothing compared to the bleak ending of the original play, of Chance refusing to leave town with Alexandra and standing up as Tom, Jr. and his men come to lay on him what might be castration or even a fatal beating, which is dropped for a hopeful ending in which Chance and Heavenly go off together.

The Credits:

Written for the Screen and Directed by Richard Brooks.  Based on the play “Sweet Bird of Youth” As Presented On the Stage by Cheryl Crawford.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

The Film:

John Wayne was, for most of his career, not a particularly good actor.  Supposedly when John Ford first saw Red River he said “I never knew the big lug could act.” He would be Oscar nominated for Sands of Iwo Jima (ridiculous) and would win the Oscar for True Grit over both performances in Midnight Cowboy and in a year where William Holden’s performance in The Wild Bunch wasn’t even nominated.  Yet, somehow he became the biggest of the movie stars.  Wayne was a strange contradiction.  He was the “war hero” type who didn’t actually fight in the war.  He was the reactionary constantly working for the humanist.

All of this prepares us for this film.  It is not one of Wayne’s great performances (and don’t be fooled by my dismissal of his acting above – he does have great performances, most notably Red River and The Searchers).  He gets by on his gusto and his reputation.  You might believe that he is tougher or a better shot than Liberty Valance, the hired gunslinger of the cattle barons who want to keep the power in the territory and prevent it from becoming a state.  That might be because of his reputation, or the way that Wayne always seems to loom large (because he was large) or because Lee Marvin is so good at being so reprehensible that you have to hold to the belief that someone must be better than him – that evil can not be allowed to triumph.

Perhaps that is a key to the appeal of all of this.  Evil must not be allowed to triumph.  We sink into this film, one of the very best Westerns ever made, directed impeccably by that master John Ford, beautifully photographed and well edited.  We allow ourselves to believe in the performances of John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart even though Wayne isn’t doing much in the way of acting and both of them are far too old to be playing the characters they are supposed to be playing.  But they fit the archetypes – Wayne is the man with some true grit who is holding down the west long enough for an educated man from the east to actually tame it with law and order.  This is a film that very much believes in the very concept of America – of learning to read and write, of making yourself a better person, of having a free press, of voting, of striving for something more.  We believe that the man who is so fundamentally good, so determined to bring the very concept of justice to the untamed west should be the man who actually does it.

But sometimes it is those that we don’t expect to do good that actually do it.  One way of looking at this film, which didn’t earn any Nighthawk nominations because it ended up in sixth place for both Picture and Director in one of the best years for movies in history, is that a man rose to prominence profiting from a deed that he did not do.  But look at it another way.  The man who goes on to become senator might not have been the man who shot Liberty Valance.  But he was willing to do what had to be done, to stand there, outmatched, beaten, ripped to shreds, and he was willing to die if he had to.  That was what prompted the man who actually did the deed.  The man who actually shot Liberty Valance could have done it long before then, could have protected the people, could have stood up for justice.  But it took the courage of one desperate man who so believed in those core values that made him do what he did.

Either way you choose to look at this film, and there are far more ways of looking at this film than I have explored, it all comes down to this: we believe in this film for a variety of reasons.  One of them might be because we were always told it was one of the great Westerns.  Well, that’s not a legend.  So, instead we can buy into the largeness of John Wayne on screen, even if he didn’t necessarily deserve the acclaim that he always seemed to have.  But, hell.  You know what I have to say to that?  When legend becomes fact, print the legend.

The Source:

“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” by Dorothy M. Johnson (1949)

This story is better than I would have thought.  It also has a lot more of the story than I would have thought.  It’s the story of a man beaten down by society who finds what he needs to find in revenge.  Along the way, entirely through accident, he manages to have a woman fall in love with him.  That the woman who falls in love with him is loved by another man ends up being the thing that will eventually save his life and even spur him on to greater things.  The story itself can be perhaps seen as a metaphor for some of the growing pains of the country – a man who becomes a powerful politician whose first claim to fame is for something he didn’t do and who is spurred on by the man who loves his wife.  But there’s a quiet little poetry to the story that I would not have expected to find.

The Adaptation:

“The characters of Pompey (Woody Strode), the friend and servant of Wayne’s rancher Tom Doniphon, and Dutton Peabody (Edmond O’Brien), the comical but courageous editor of The Shinbone Star, are among Ford’s most important additions.  The film also brings in more political context for the gunfight, making Liberty Valance (Marvin) into a hired gun of the cattle barons opposed to statehood.  Most crucially, perhaps, Ford differs from Johnson in having Senator Ransom Stoddard (Stewart) confess the truth about his duel with Valance rather than keeping it a shameful secret.” (Searching for John Ford, Joseph McBride, p 624)

“In 1949, Dorothy Johnson published her short story, ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.’  It carries the same theme as the film that Ford made from it, but differs in most other particulars.  The dialogue is much flatter – there is no ‘when the legend becomes fact, print the legend’ here – and Bert Barricune (renamed Tom Doniphon for the film) acts as a sort of fairy godfather to tenderfoot Ransom Stoddard, not merely killing Liberty Valance for him, but goading him on to all his other accomplishments as well, so that Hallie, the woman who rejects Barricune for Stoddard, can be happy.”  (Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford by Scott Eyman, p 462)

One thing that neither of those books deals with is the depth of degradation of the Jimmy Stewart character in the original story, as opposed to the character in the film.  In the film, Stewart has come west as a young lawyer looking to start a practice.  But in the original story, he’s much more aimless: “Sometimes in later life Ranse Foster thought of the several men he had been through the years. He did not admire any of them very much.”  After he is first beaten by Valance and comes to town, only to seek revenge, he adopts “sneering humility” (the phrase is used more than once) and Valance eventually comes looking for him because he hears about the pathetic man.  None of the politics of the story is present in the original, as McBride notes.  But it’s interesting how much of the outline of the story is right there in the original story.

The Credits:

Directed by John Ford.  Screenplay by James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck.  Based on the Story by Dorothy M. Johnson.

Consensus Nominees That Don’t Make My Top 10

The Miracle Worker

The Film:

It had been a long time since I had seen this film.  By a long time, I mean it was 28 years.  What I remembered about this film, after this time, was the scene where Helen finally recognizes water and is able to pull the word for it from the dark reaches of her memory, a scene, that sadly, I remember because some of my, shall we say, less tactful classmates, mocked it mercilessly, though given the number of Helen Keller jokes I still know, I am probably not one for throwing stones.

This is quite a good film and it is decently directed and has a solid script.  But there is no question that the key to its success really relies on two things: the performances of Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke.

Both of them had played the part on stage.  Both of them would go on to win Oscars (though they come in third at the Nighthawk Awards, that is not to say that their Oscars were undeserved).  Duke almost didn’t get her part because she was too old by that time, but if you don’t focus on Helen’s age and focus instead on this young girl who is trapped in a world of darkness and silence and that someone is finally reaching through to connect to it while at the same time she is desperately trying to connect out of it, the question of age falls away.

Helen Keller today is so widely studied as an icon that it’s still difficult to imagine what this must have been like.  To have the world taken away from her at an age where she hadn’t really learned of it yet.  To be lucky enough to find someone who not only was willing to reach her, but had the ability to do it.  It’s an amazing story and, in the performances from Bancroft and Duke, we really connect with that.

The Source:

The Miracle Worker by William Gibson (1957 / 1960)

The double dates are because this, like 12 Angry Men, began as a teleplay (though this was for Playhouse 90, not Studio One) and then, with some additions but few modifications, moved to Broadway.  This isn’t the usual direction, as many Playhouse 90 productions went directly from television to film (Requiem for a Heavyweight, Days of Wine and Roses, Judgment at Nuremberg) without ever hitting Broadway.  But this was actually an extremely successful Broadway play, playing for almost two years and winning Tonys for director Arthur Penn (who also directed the film), Anne Bancroft and the play itself.  I read it myself in Honors Freshman English way back in early 1989, which was also when I first saw the film (and then never saw it again until recently).  It is quite a good play, the kind of thing that is easy to teach to high school kids that works as a parable (the reaching into darkness) but also with two very good roles that are extremely different, as Helen must act mostly through actions and Annie works mostly through words.

The Adaptation:

You could recognize the film as a play (although Penn did a great job of not making it seem like a filmed play), but perhaps not the structure.  The play itself is three acts and all of the background for Annie is done in little asides, not separate scenes.  Most of the film comes straight from the play, with a lot of opening up of the scenes without changing the lines.  The major difference is that the play begins with baby Helen first losing her ability to see and hear while we never get that in the film, which is interesting since it would have been easier to film that than to stage it.

The Credits:

directed by Arthur Penn.  screenplay by William Gibson based upon his stage play.

David and Lisa

The Film:

I’m pretty sure I saw this film back when I was in college.  At that time, I was much more inclined to give a film credit for what it was trying to do, no matter how clumsily it might do so (like, say, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner).  Even then, I intensely disliked this film.  Was it because even in my late teens I had already had my fill of psychologists and their opinions?  (“I’m going to prescribe Prozac,” the doctor told me in late 1992.  “Go fuck yourself,” I replied.)  Or is it just because this film is clumsily written and badly directed, with one lead performance that works if you can buy into the tics that the writing demands and one that doesn’t work at all and makes me really glad that the star managed to find his way to some better acting in the six years between this film and 2001?

David and Lisa is the story of two young people who have what I would call “movie diseases” (the kind of thing you find in a movie that can be perfectly put into a box and is easy to depict on-screen) if not for the fact that this is exactly as they appear in the original book Lisa and David (see below).  In spite of how clumsy this film is, in the way it approaches mental illness, in the way the writing moves ploddingly towards what will certainly be a form of happy ending, of the way in which people are able to overcome their illness in ways that work for the film and the happy ending yet totally bely what should really be happening in their brains, this film somehow managed to earn Oscar nominations for both Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay in a year in which the films that didn’t receive those nominations include The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and The Manchurian Candidate.  In Spellbound, 17 years before this, we had the fascinating artful depiction of the disturbed dreams with the help of Salvador Dali.  Here, we have a stupid clock that chops people’s heads off that is used over and over again and wasn’t particularly interesting or worthwhile on film to begin with.  We have the banding together of the entire group of ill students (their ages in the film aren’t clear, but they are mid-teens in the book) to confront prejudice in a way that would have reminded me of an Afterschool Special if those had existed by this time.

If there is one shining light in the film (a film I rank at a low **) and I’m not necessarily suggesting that there is, it’s the young, beautiful Janet Margolin making her film debut, who somehow finds some luminousness in Lisa that at times even manages to overcome the predictable, cliched script.

The Source:

Lisa and David by Theodore Isaac Rubin, M.D.

What exactly is this book?  Well, other than trite and cliched?  It is written by Theodore Isaac Rubin, whose first book was a clinical study and was a doctor, as is made clear on the title page.  Yet, is this a work of non-fiction?  Both TCM and Wikipedia declare it a novel and the book itself is unclear on this point, as it seems like a clinical study (there are even psychiatrist notes covering the last twenty pages, with specific dates) but the jacket itself only calls it a “love story”.

Either way, it’s the story of Lisa, who suffers from a dual personality disorder, one of which, Muriel, is silent, and the other of which, Lisa, only talks in rhymes and David, a young man who can not bear to be touched.  Of course they will find a way to reach each other and find some love.  Of course, is love what they need to find?  After all, Lisa turns fifteen during the course of the book.  Shouldn’t a better end goal be finding some measure of mental health?  Well, that’s what makes me think it really is a novel because none of this, even though it’s written by a practicing doctor, seems realistic in the slightest.  Slight is definitely the word for the book, running 79 pages with generous margins, the last 19 of which are the notes.

The Adaptation:

Almost all of what is in the book (as I said, only sixty pages of actual text) ends up on the screen, with most of the lines appearing verbatim in the film.  But there are also additional scenes added for the film, because otherwise the film would have run way short, which include the ridiculous clock sequences and the cliched scene in the train station where they confront the ignorant man and his family.  Also, the cliched ending where David figures out where Lisa will go and is able to save the day and ends up holding her hand doesn’t appear in the original book; even Rubin wasn’t writing anything that ridiculous.

The Credits:

Directed by Frank Perry.  Screenplay by Eleanor Perry.  Based on the book ‘Lisa and David’ by Theodore Isaac Rubin, M.D..

Birdman of Alcatraz

The Film:

This was a strange year at the Oscars.  Three films were nominated for Best Picture without Director, Screenplay or any acting nominations (more than the 80’s, as many as the 00’s and just one fewer than the 70’s and 90’s).  And yet, there were several films that earned multiple acting nominations without Picture, Director or Screenplay nominations, including Days of Wine and Roses, Sweet Bird of Youth, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane and Birdman of Alcatraz and of those, only Sweet Bird of Youth ranks higher than mid *** for me.  Even today, over 50 years later, Birdman remains one of just seven films to earn three acting nominations but no more than four total nominations.  That’s because it isn’t all that good of a film.  I had it at a 70, which is a mid-range *** film, and I think I might have over-rated it, thinking back on the performances, most notably that of Burt Lancaster as the prisoner who turns away from the violence of his youth and becomes a bird doctor.

The main problem with this film is that it is way too damn long.  A film of 143 minutes is fine when it has a story to tell that works for the length.  This film is 79 minutes shorter than Lawrence of Arabia, the length of a Disney film and yet this one feels much longer.  There is too much in the film that continues to focus on tiny little moments and then drag the scene out far longer than it needs to be.

The film wants to be a few different things.  In its essence, it is the biography of Robert Stroud, a man who killed a man in Alaska at a time when Alaska wasn’t yet a state, so he gets sent to Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary.  Later, he kills a guard and is sentenced to death, but that ends up being commuted and so he basically spends the rest of his life in solitary.  What made him noteworthy, and sparked a book and a film are that he started being interested in birds and eventually would write a book about canaries (it is unlikely any doctor would call him a genius given that his book is quite flawed because of the way he categorizes illnesses but we can chalk that up to dramatic license).  But it is also wants to focus on his quest for freedom, his relationship with his mother and the marriage to a woman who becomes his business partner dealing in birds.

But the filmmakers don’t know how to keep things moving.  Scenes drag.  Unnecessary scenes clutter things up.  The acting performances that were nominated for Oscars are all solid (Lancaster, Thelma Ritter as his mother, Telly Savalas as a fellow con) though none should have actually earned nominations (I list Ritter as the weakest but she places highest at the Nighthawk Awards because of a dearth of Supporting Actress candidates).  The script is the main problem, wanting to keep running through the same themes over and over again, yet, somehow this was nominated by the WGA as one of the five Best Dramas of the year over such films as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Manchurian Candidate, The Miracle Worker or Sweet Bird of Youth.  And none of that is even the worst thing the film does, although, that, firstly can be blamed on the book, and secondly, is something I discuss below.

The Source:

Birdman of Alcatraz: The Story of Robert Stroud by Thomas E. Gaddis  (1955)

“Gaddis imagined Stroud to be a kindly, good-natured old man, sort of a country bird doctor, paying a heavy price for his youthful indiscretions.  This is the Robert Stroud that he created in his book and this is the Robert Stroud that Burt Lancaster won an Oscar nomination for portraying in the 1962 film Birdman of Alcatraz.  Unfortunately, it bears not the slight resemblance to the actual Robert Stroud, who was a vicious sociopath.  …  This led to a Kafkaesque scene at a parole hearing for Stroud in 1962.  Outside the building protestors marched, holding placards demanding the release of the kindly bird doctor portrayed by Burt Lancaster in the movie, while inside the hearing parole officers dealt with a distinctly disturbed old man who mumbled about getting out of prison soon because he had a long list of people he wanted to kill and not much time left to kill them.”  (Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence by Bill James, p 226-227)  James then mentions the “much more accurate book” Bird Man: The Many Faces of Robert Stroud by Jolene Babyak, but which I was unable to read, and frankly, it isn’t necessary – I’m just reviewing the book and the film, not assessing their historical accuracy, though both seem to be quite historically dubious.

The book itself isn’t all that good either.  Gaddis has trouble writing a straightforward narrative and you get lost in what year it is and sometimes things move back and forth and you’re trying to sort out what is going on.  It’s a bit hard for me, because I’m an opponent of capital punishment, so I’m fine with Stroud getting his death sentence commuted, but Gaddis wants it to sound like Stroud is railroaded and focus on the birds.

Two last complaints about the book, one of which might not be Gaddis’ fault and one of which is likely not Gaddis’ fault.  The first is that the title is stupid since Stroud had to give up all his birds when he left Leavenworth – such things weren’t allowed on Alcatraz.  I think Gaddis wanted to use the title to help attack the very idea of Alcatraz, as he clearly has dim views on it: “The most expensive prison per capita in the world, Alcatraz remained a black molar in the jawbone of the nation’s prison system, a rooted symbol with a life of its own.” (p 178).  But that still doesn’t excuse the title.  The second is that the book is full of primary sources that are quoted, including telegrams and letters.  However, the book is edited in such a way that it is difficult to tell when they begin and even more difficult to tell when they have stopped and Gaddis has resumed his narrative.  It makes for a very difficult read and that is probably on the publishers (Aeonian Press in this case) and not on Gaddis.

The Adaptation:

Most of what is in the film comes straight from the book, including the complete exaggeration of Stroud’s involvement in The Battle of Alcatraz.  The historical inaccuracies that abound throughout the film, from downplaying the violence of Stroud to his involvement in the events at Alcatraz come straight from the book.  Yet, for a book that lasts only 223 pages, and a lot of that is devoted to explaining the way that Stroud’s fame over the birds came about, the screenwriter really left far too much stuff in to spread the film to 143 minutes.

The Credits:

Directed by John Frankenheimer.  Screenplay by Guy Trosper.  Based on the Book by Thomas E. Gaddis.

Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation

The Film:

It’s hard to look back at a film from over 50 years ago and wonder what people should have thought about it.  In this instance, our subject is Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation, a harmless little comedy starring Jimmy Stewart as Hobbs, a man who comes back from his vacation so wound up that he spends the entire film bitching about it to his secretary.  He had very firm notions of what he wanted out of that vacation, and having to pay young men to date his daughter (who doesn’t want to smile because of her braces), listening to his pompous son-in-law pontificate and having to endure bird-watching with the potential employer of his other father-in-law, all while suffering from the world’s most overactive plumbing is not what he imagined.  He has gone on vacation and feels that he has earned the right to have a rest.  I write this review a week before heading off to California for a week in a rented house with my siblings, about whom, I should point out, it is always better when there are no more than two of us in a room and for a week there will be five of us in the same house, complete with spouses and children.  If this review never runs it’s because one of them killed me, I guarantee it (there’s no question that I am most likely to be killed).  But the problem isn’t that this film is about a vacation that doesn’t go as planned.  It’s that this film is so bland when compared to a film that already should have been on the cultural landscape: Mr. Hulot’s Holiday, a brilliantly funny French film that had perfectly satirized the entire concept of going on holiday.  Compared to that film, this one can just be ignored if not for the fact that the WGA seemed to think it worthy of a nomination as one of the best written American comedies of the year, which says less about the WGA than you might imagine and more about the state of American comedies in 1962.

Part of my issue with this film is clearly personal.  Our California trip is a once-in-a-lifetime gathering while the Hobbs family does this every year.  Not only do they have a family cook, but they actually drag her along with them to an island somewhere on their damn vacation (and it must be quite a trek, since they live in St. Louis which is nowhere near any islands).  So, on one level, to me this is just the whining of the lower upper class that wants to pretend that they aren’t as rich as they are and just want to complain about how nothing is how they want it.  Watching it I was reminded of another film, which will be mentioned in the source review below as it is more relevant there.

All of that may sound like the basis for a really negative review but it’s not really that.  The film stars Jimmy Stewart and Maureen O’Hara and has music by Henry Mancini, so, really, how bad can it possibly be?  There are some decently funny parts, especially as Stewart is forced to deal with the plumbing issues.  They even tried to appeal to teen audiences by throwing in Fabian.  It’s not a terrible film and really isn’t even that mediocre of a film.  I just wish it didn’t feel so much like a pale imitation of Mr. Hulot’s Holiday.

The Source:

Mr. Hobbs’ Vacation by Edward Streeter  (1954)

Sitting there, watching the film, listening to Jimmy Stewart complain about how the trip hadn’t been going to the plan and how the family cook had left, it just seemed like the whining of a class of people that I didn’t recognize.  Then, later, Stewart wants a martini at the party and it reminded me of the moment in Father of the Bride when Spencer Tracy gets all upset that no one will drink his martinis.  I hadn’t yet looked at the book and realized that Edward Streeter, the author of the novel, was the same man who had written the novel Father of the Bride.  Once I realized that, it all made sense.  This was just more whining of the lower upper class who wants to pretend that they aren’t rich, when really, they’re just not filthy rich but they are indeed rich.  Indeed, that’s exactly what this book is.  So, if that’s your thing, go for it.  It’s not mine.

The Adaptation:

This is one of those examples where the basic concept is kept but almost all of the details are changed.  There are a few details that remain (like the one grandchild who doesn’t want to see his grandfather), but the location of the family, the location of their vacation, what happens on it, the issues with the son-in-law’s job, the whole concept of telling this story to the secretary, well none of them are in the original book.  It’s about a man named Hobbs who goes on vacation and has things happen to him that bear a slight resemblance to what happens in the film and that’s it.

The Credits:

Directed Henry Koster.  Screenplay by Nunnally Johnson.  Based on a novel by Edward Streeter.

The Notorious Landlady

The Film:

This film does not start out well.  A young American who has arrived in London as a diplomat is trying to rent a flat, but the maid keeps putting him off.  Finally she relents on showing the flat, then on saying something to her mistress, then on admitting she’s not British, dropping her terrible accent and, after explaining that she can’t rent the flat, renting it out.  We’re over 10 minutes into the film and all we know is there’s something strange about the flat and the woman (aside from Kim Novak in a terrible performance) but can we really be bothered to care?

The film is directed by Richard Quine, a minor actor who went on to become a minor director.  It is co-written by Blake Edwards and that might give you hope but then if he had really been confident in it, perhaps he would have directed it and it would have been a lot better.  The plot meanders around as we (very) slowly learn that Novak’s husband is supposedly dead and she is suspected of the murder but since there was no body, she couldn’t be arrested.  So, instead, Jack Lemmon will romance her while living in her flat (does no one find it odd the idea that the tenant will take his landlady out to a romantic dinner the night they meet?) while his boss, Fred Astaire, suggests that he’s got poor judgement but will also later fall for Novak.

Kim Novak was never a great actress – she worked well enough in Man with the Golden Arm but her key roles in Picnic and Vertigo merely required her to stand there and look beautiful (if she’s your thing) and here she falls completely flat, trying to be both funny and mysterious.  That the film works at all (and it does occasionally, which is why this film is a low **.5 and not worse) is because the two male stars are Jack Lemmon and Fred Astaire, and you can pretty much always count on them to do their job, even if their job is to act loopy every time they see Novak.

The Source:

“Notorious Tenant” by Margery Sharp  (1956)

This is a mess of a little story that ran in Collier’s.  It’s the story of a man who lets his flat out to a strange woman who is joined by a female companion and it turns out they were both involved in the mysterious death of the woman’s husband.  Eventually the landlord makes his way through the mystery, but it’s confusing and dreary and not much of a read (though you can find it online through the film’s Wikipedia page).

The Adaptation:

This is another example of taking a basic plot (mystery involved with a woman whose husband is dead after a new tenant takes an apartment) and changing almost everything else.  Now the woman is the landlady rather than the tenant, she no longer has a companion, the tenant is an American in London as a diplomat and in fact the landlady is also an American.  Also, the mystery is completely different, especially as it turns out the husband isn’t really dead.

The Credits:

Directed by Richard Quine.  Screen Play by Larry Gelbart and Blake Edwards.  Based on a story by Margery Sharp.

Period of Adjustment

The Film:

Comedies were not the forte of Tennessee Williams.  In fact, the big three American playwrights were very serious in their theatrical output, never showing that Shakespearian flair for mixing the comedic and the tragic.  That’s not to say that they never wrote Comedies, just that they didn’t do it often and not necessarily well.  That’s all relevant here, of course, because this is a Tennessee Williams Comedy, one that doesn’t exactly hit the kind of levels you would expect from a film version of one of his plays, made all the more obvious by the other Williams play in this post, Sweet Bird of Youth.

This is about two couples.  One is from Tennessee and they have been kind of miserably married for several years and they’re miserable because she knows he married her for her father’s money.  The other is from Texas and they’re also kind of miserable even though they only got married the day before, but their misery stems from driving to Tennessee immediately after the wedding, eating a wedding dinner in a cheap diner and because he’s sensibly bought a hearse because it was inexpensive and roomy and comfortable.  The two men know each other because they served together in Korea (the man who married for money is viewed as a war hero in his town while the other had health problems as the result of the war and then ended up marrying his nurse).  The film stars Anthony Franciosca, who was nominated for an Oscar in 1957 and Jane Fonda, who later be one of the great screen actresses but doesn’t make very good use of them.  Everyone is incredibly overwrought, yelling, acting out of control and that all works fine in one of Williams’ dramas but here it just makes everything kind of shrill.  We have two couples who haven’t really figured things out, but they have to be headed towards a happy ending because it is a comedy after all.

There are definitely reasons for watching this film.  You might be a Williams completist.  Or an awards completist (it earned Picture and Actress noms in Comedy at the Globes, an Art Direction nom at the Oscars and a WGA nom, which is why I’m writing about it).  Or you might love Jane Fonda because she was one of the sexiest kittens to ever appear on this planet, although that’s a little less clear when she’s in black-and-white like in this film.  It’s not a waste of time but there are definitely betters way to spend it, especially for a year as rich in movies as 1962.

The Source:

Period of Adjustment: High Point over a Cavern: A Serious Comedy by Tennessee Williams (1960)

This is a silly little comedy that wants to be more serious than it is but never really succeeds.  It’s perhaps notable that Signet published it with some of his less popular plays (Summer and Smoke, Orpheus Descending, Suddenly Last Summer) or it might be that all four of those plays were made into films in a short period of time (1959-1962).  It’s a three act, but one location play, with all the action confined to one living room, dealing with two married couples, one newly married, the other couple having been married for several years.  The connection is that both men fought together in Korea and that the couples are both having a “period of adjustment”.  It is certainly a minor play in the Williams oeuvre, as is generally the case when Williams would do comedy.

The Adaptation:

If nothing else, George Roy Hill really opens the play up in parts.  Yes, there are large parts of people standing around and it looks like a play.  But the entire first half hour of the film, with the wedding, the trip and the lead-up to why Ralph Bates is home alone is all shown in the film while it is merely mentioned in the original play.  As I wrote above, the action of the play is all confined to the Bates living room, while the film really gets out of there, going to his in-laws house and the police station.  Much of the dialogue is repurposed from other parts, but there are also considerable parts that are added just for the film.

The Credits:

Directed by George Roy Hill.  Screen Play by Isobel Lennart.  Based on the Play “A Period of Adjustment” by Tennessee Williams.

The Pigeon That Took Rome

The Film:

Who would have guessed that Charlton Heston could do some light comedy?  I wouldn’t think so because he’s so stone-faced and serious, but as the star and narrator of this film he actually does a passable job (yes, the Globes nominated him but he was nominated alongside his old Ben-Hur cast-mate Stephen Boyd for Billy Rose’s Jumbo and Boyd was terrible so the Globe nomination is no measure of quality).

The premise of the film is that Heston is an infantry officer good at capturing German soldiers, so he’s pressed into duty as a spy to sneak into Rome, capture some Germans and get information back to the invading Allied troops.  He’s dressed as a priest (“I look like something out of The Ten Commandments“) and he discovers he’s not allowed to use a radio, so he’s forced to rely on carrier pigeons (orders from the COC, Heston is told and he responds “Don’t tell me he’s given up stamp collecting”).  That’s only the first part of the comedy, as we also have Heston and his partner falling for two Italian sisters, Heston’s partner getting engaged and the engagement celebrated by a large dinner for which the imminent father-in-law cooks all the pigeons.  Which means he must get new ones, which he gets from the Germans, which means the pigeons deliver the information to the wrong place.

When I was first trying to track down this film, a decade ago, I was forced to watch it all in bits and pieces on YouTube.  And that was still the case until July, when someone finally posted the whole film (possibly in response to the death of Elsa Martinelli, the film’s lead actress, who died a week before), which meant I could watch it again and actually get the credits.  It may be gone by the time this review runs but hopefully not, because if companies don’t want to make their films available to watch, I’m all for people posting them.  This film has been so little seen since it was first released in 1962 (in spite of three Globe noms, an Oscar nom and a WGA nom) that, unless someone beats me to it, this will be the first external review on the IMDb.

And that’s a shame because the film, while far from great, is quite enjoyable.  The plot is so silly that it made Veronica slap her forehead when I explained it to her.  Heston is quite fun to watch in a more relaxed role.

The Source:

The Easter Dinner by Donald Downes  (1960)

I was unable to get this novel, but then again, I was lucky even to be able to see the film at all and wouldn’t have needed the novel.

The Adaptation:

Not only haven’t I read the book, but the author himself doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page, so there’s very little for me to find out about what was in the original book.  I did find one review that seems to suggest that the American characters aren’t in the original book, that it focuses simply on the Italian family that accidentally kills all the pigeons and the problems that ensue.

The Credits:

Produced and Directed by Melville Shavelson.  Screenplay by Melville Shavelson.  Based on the Novel The Easter Dinner by Donald Downes.

Billy Rose’s Jumbo

The Film:

Have you ever had the feeling that you wanted to watch and still had the feeling that you wanted to turn the damn movie off and go find something better?  Yes, there were actually some times during this film that I wanted to watch and they all had to do with Jimmy Durante, especially when he’s dealing with the elephant in the room (or, on the road, as the case may be).  When he comes on-screen with that gravelly voice of his and that sense of humor, you know you’re gonna get some fun times.  Unfortunately, though, most of this film deals with Doris Day and Stephen Boyd (I would say attempting to sing, but Boyd is dubbed) and there the film loses me entirely.

I don’t know what manner of circumstances lead to this film being made.  Is it just that MGM had bought the rights and after being forced to sit on it for a decade thought they should at least get some money’s worth?  Well, they didn’t because this film lost money.  Was it because it was a hit Rodgers and Hart show on Broadway so they figured a film had to be made?  Was it because a decade ago a mediocre film about a circus had won Best Picture with one of the stars of Ben Hur and they thought maybe they could hit that level of success again?

Yes, this is a film about a circus.  Durante runs the circus (and he’s fun).  Day is his daughter and she of course will fall in love with their new man.  Their new man (Boyd) happens to also be the son of the big circus mogul (are you kidding me?) who wants to buy their independent circus.  The plot is barely there and really silly, the songs are forgettable and the performances are even more so.  I also watched this the same weekend that Ringling Brothers finally closed down after over a century in business, so it just felt like I was watching a relic from the past and not one I needed to look on fondly.  That this film was nominated by the WGA is just the latest proof that the Best Written Musical category badly needed to be done away with.

The Source:

Jumbo, music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Lorenz Hart, book by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur  (1936)

You’ll notice that Billy Rose didn’t write anything.  Rose was the producer husband of Fanny Brice (ironically, I watched this the same week I watched Funny Girl, but he’s only in Funny Lady because of when he entered her life) who produced this show on stage and demanded that he be given credit by name in the title of any film adaptation even if he wasn’t involved in it (which he wasn’t).  This is a story of a small circus and its financial difficulties.  Its most famous moment and line both involved Jimmy Durante and an elephant, with the elephant placing its foot on Durante’s head at the end and earlier, when he’s trying to sneak the elephant away from his financially destitute circus, being asked by a sheriff where he was going with the elephant, saying, with a straight face, “What elephant?”

The Adaptation:

The film takes the basic idea of the circus and the Jimmy Durante character (and the elephant line) from the original and makes use of most of the original songs.  Other than that, it’s pretty different, with the whole romance added for the film.

The Credits:

Directed by Charles Walters.  Based on the musical play produced by Billy Rose at the New York Hippodrome.  Book by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur.  Music and Lyrics by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart.    Screen Play by Sidney Sheldon.

Gypsy

The Film:

I remembered basically nothing about this film when I went to see it again.  While it is a solid film version of a Sondheim musical, it is one in which he wrote only the lyrics, and so it doesn’t have the same effect on me as most of his works.  The songs don’t move me in the way that the songs from Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music or Into the Woods do.  So, I knew that Rosalind Russell was the mother, that Natalie Wood would grow up to be the famous burlesque dancer Gypse Rose Lee and that they had a contentious relationship (and that both were solid in the film but that Russell was better).  That was what I had.  But before re-watching this, I was able to catch parts of the recent London version starring Imelda Staunton and Lara Pulver and had a basic idea of what to expect before going back in.

This film is . . . I was going to write “surprisingly entertaining” but it shouldn’t be surprising at all.  It’s just that I didn’t remember it much and I quite enjoyed it.  It’s not a great film (and in my opinion, isn’t really a great musical, though there are those who think it is among the best ever).  The direction is a bit clunky and the film doesn’t make great transitions between scenes.  But, as a portrait of one woman, a woman who is singularly obsessed with getting her children into show business and making them into stars, it is fascinating.

Rosalind Russell was always an amazing talent but one that never quite broke through at the Oscars.  She was nominated four times but never won and didn’t receive a nomination for her two best performances: as the reporter in His Girl Friday or as the aging spinster in Picnic.  She was much more appreciated at the Golden Globes where she was nominated five times and went home the winner every time, including for this (if you want to place her above Shirley Jones, who wins my Globe, rather than have her in second like I do, I won’t argue with you).  Russell almost seems born for this role, which is ironic, since the musical was actually written for Ethel Merman, an actress who didn’t nearly have the acting range that Russell has.

I don’t know if people always knew about parents like this.  It’s reminiscent of the fathers of Tiger Woods or the Williams sisters, or really, a lot of kids who go to Hollywood and then later end up suing their parents.  Is it just because the parents are driven and want for their children what they couldn’t have?  Or are they as delusional as Rose, singing about how everything is coming up roses and then getting her own turn at the end of the film?  But it seems to work because of Russell’s performance, overcoming all the horrible things we think about such a woman and what she would do to her children.  If one runs off at thirteen to get married can we blame her?  If the other turns into the most famous burlesque dancer of all-time, one who has inspired a musical and numerous biographers, can we blame her?  They wanted to take command of their lives and they do so.

Which brings us to Natalie Wood.  Wood has a more challenging role than Russell because it isn’t nearly as showy, or at least it isn’t until she walks on that stage in that stunning blue dress and reminds us that she’s a magnificent star (that I fell in love with at fifteen when I first saw Rebel without a Cause).  She takes command and if she’s willing to give a little back to her mother at the end, we can kind of understand that as well.

Like most musicals, this film rises and falls with the songs.  They’re solid because they have Sondheim working on them, but the music for the most part doesn’t stand out and it’s really the performances that carry this film.

The Source:

Gypsy, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, music by Jule Styne, book by Arthur Laurents (suggested by the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee) (1959)

Stephen Sondheim was originally asked to write the music as well as the lyrics but Ethel Merman didn’t want to take a chance on an unknown composer (since Sondheim still hadn’t written the music for a show) and so Jule Styne was brought in.  (This info, as well as most everything about Sondheim comes from his wonderful book Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1951-1981) which I highly recommend to anyone who has an interest in theater.)  Sondheim was afraid of being pigeonhold as a lyricist and never getting to write music, but Oscar Hammerstein convinced him otherwise: “He thought it would be valuable for me to learn how to write for a star, a specific and predictable personality who makes an audience feel as if they are greeting an old friend.” (p 56)  Sondheim also liked the self-delusion in the story: “Self-delusion is at the heart of plays from Oedipus Rex to Death of a Salesman via Othello and A Streetcar Named Desire.  Knowing something the character doesn’t gives audiences the superior feeling of omniscience and helps to maintain their interest in the story; they wait in suspended anticipation of the inevitable moment when the character will be forced to face the truth.  They think: I get it, why doesn’t he? If they care enough about him, every moment of the evening is freighted, and when he finally does get it, it’s both devastating and satisfying.” (p 56)

Rose certainly fits that narrative, the woman who is pushing her children into show business but deluding herself along the way.  It works so well only partially because of the songs (which I find to be okay, but far inferior to most of what Sondheim would later do on his own or to what Sondheim had already done with Bernstein), though if you read Sondheim’s book (and you absolutely should) you can see how well the songs set things up throughout the play, but partially because of the character of Rose.  Anyone who can actually sing “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” at that point in her life is so self-deluded that she deserves to have a show dedicated to her.  The other brilliant thing about the show, of course, is the way that the song that the kids sing (especially June) is the same one that Louise returns to when she steps on stage and becomes a burlesque dancer, a delightful twist on the innocence that has come before and a reflection on how it really wasn’t all that innocent given the way Rose was pushing them.

The Adaptation:

The play comes to the film pretty intact.  There are definitely some minor changes (the song “Some People”, for instance, is moved until after Rose meets Herbie again instead of before and the song “Together Wherever We Go” was actually cut from the film though it was included on the soundtrack) but nothing huge.

The Credits:

Directed by Mervyn LeRoy.  Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.  Based Upon the Stage Play Directed and Choreographed by Jerome Robbins, Produced by David Merrick and Leland Hayward.  Book by Arthur Laurents.  From the Memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee.  Screenplay by Leonard Spigelgass.

State Fair

The Film:

In the first film version of the novel, we got Will Rogers doing his best acting as the father and Janet Gaynor and Lew Ayres as a wonderful couple, the daughter and the newspaper reporter.  It made for a film at the top of ***, almost into ***.5 and one that should be widely available and sadly isn’t.  Then, in 1945, it was remade as the only Rodgers and Hammerstein musical to be original to film, with Jeanne Crain and Dana Andrews as the couple and the father pushed more to the background.  Now we get this version, a completely unnecessary remake that adds new songs (with lyrics written by Rodgers because Hammerstein had died) and the filmmakers thought, hey, why bother with real actors as the main couple when we could turn the focus to the little brother and his fling and we could cast Pat Boone and Ann-Margret?  God help me.

The original film ran 97 minutes.  It had well-developed characters that made me care about them in spite of my refusal to care about Iowa.  The second version ran 100 minutes with much less character and story development because they had to fit the songs in.  This one runs 118 minutes and that’s way too damn long given how many times I have to hear them declare that their state fair is the best in the state.  It’s the state fair not a county fair!  It’s the only state fair in the state you blithering idiots!  The extra running time doesn’t actually give you any more character development or story but just scenes of Pamela Tiffin wandering around (she was fine as the ditsy Scarlet in One, Two, Three but in a role that was originally played by Janet Gaynor, one of the greatest film actresses of all-time, she’s just lost) or being hit on by Bobby Darin, who calls over “the girl in the yellow dress” which must have just confused her since she’s wearing a blouse and skirt and not a dress at all or scenes of Ann-Margret dancing surrounded by a bunch of guys dressed all in red.  At least Darin’s character is given a different name this time so we can help separate this film from the earlier versions.  And, in fact, we’ve been given a whole new state this time, because why keep the film set in Iowa when we can move it to Texas for no apparent reason (which does necessitate dropping one of the songs from the 1945 version, but since we still have all the other songs, it doesn’t make the film any better).

Look, do yourself a favor.  If you’re going to watch a version of State Fair, since it’s really really hard to get the original 1933 version (I actually had to buy it in order to see it the first time), then skip this one and go for the 1945 version.  It will be shorter, there will be fewer songs and even Dana Andrews is a better lead than Pat freaking Boone.

The Source:

State Fair by Philip Stong  (1932)  /  State Fair, screenplay by Oscar Hammerstein II, adapted by Sonya Levien, Paul Green, music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II (1945)

I already reviewed the original novel back in my 1932-33 post when writing about the first (and best) film version.  It’s quite a good little novel, an impressive job of bringing these characters to life and making you feel like you really are stepping out into a real state fair in Iowa.

The second film version is also the original Musical version which just makes things confusing for people.  Thank goodness that they didn’t actually do it as a stage musical first and have yet another version to have to deal with.  This is the middle version between the two film versions, not just chronologically, but in dealing with the story as well.  This film version still at least has some resemblance to the original novel (and the original film), including some actual lines from the novel.  But it is also the version that first brings in the Rodgers and Hammerstein songs.  Those songs fit in well with the original story even if I don’t have much use for the songs themselves.  They pad out the running time a bit and to do that, they trim at the edges of the story a bit.  But it also keeps things moving.  It’s certainly not a bad film, a mid-range *** and it’s definitely better than the 1962 version but it’s not exactly a great Musical either, either as a film or in terms of the music.  When you have people who are clamoring for some Rodgers and Hammerstein, this isn’t anywhere near the top of that list.

The Adaptation:

The 1945 film version had started to move away from the novel, but only really in the sense of having songs in the middle of the action bogging things down.  But this film version really takes a big step away from that.  If you were to simply watch the original film version (or read the novel) and then watch this version, it would be a big leap.  It needs that intermediate step to make that connection.  Because here, we’ve changed things a lot and there is almost no resemblance left to the original novel except for the bare bones of the plot (the pig part of the plot is the most similar).  We’ve changed the state to Texas, we’ve updated things to the present so we have racy little boxsters driving all around the place (including an idiotic shot where it looks like Pat Boone is standing in the middle of a raceway), the reporter that the daughter meets on the roller coaster is now a television personality that she meets when he is interviewing people and he spies her and makes a move for her (that’s the moment with the “yellow dress” line), making their first meeting different not only in particulars but also in spirit (in the original, they end up together on the roller coaster by accident, not because he’s interested in her and it’s her reaction on the roller coaster that wins him over).  Even one of the songs, which was specifically about being from Iowa, had to be dropped (and besides, who needs that song when you can just listen to “Iowa Stubborn” from The Music Man).

The Credits:

Directed by José Ferrer.  Music by Richard Rodgers, Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, Additional Songs by Richard Rodgers.  Screenplay by Richard Breen.  Adaptation by Oscar Hammerstein II, Sonya Levien and Paul Green.  From a novel by Phil Stong.

Other Screenplays on My List Outside My Top 10:

  • Long Day’s Journey Into Night  –  A very good film from what might be the best play ever written by an American dramatist.  Filled with fantastic acting.
  • The Lower Depths  –  Gorky’s great play (set in Moscow) had already been given the Paris treatment in 1937 by Renoir.  While I do rank Renoir’s film a bit higher than Kurosawa’s Tokyo version, the main reason that earned a Nighthawk nomination and this one can’t even make the Top 10 is because this is so much a better year than 1937.
  • Whistle Down the Wind  –  A very good British film starring Hayley Mills in an adaptation of her mother’s novel.  It would later be the basis for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical (with a great title song) and its plot would play into one of my favorite 80’s videos.  It’s hard to find in the States, so if you get a chance to watch it, definitely do so.
  • Advise & Consent  –  I gave the awarding of the Pulitzer to the novel a B-.  The film is a low ***.5 with some really good performances scattered throughout.
  • Lonely are the Brave  –  One of Dalton Trumbo’s better scripts has Kirk Douglas in a Western based on the novel The Brave Cowboy by Edward Abbey.
  • Sanjuro  –  Ostensibly an adaptation of the novel Hibi Heian by Shugoro Yamamato, this is really more a sequel to Yojimbo and thus adapted because it uses the main character again.
  • Fate of a Man  –  The directorial debut of Sergei Bondarchuk who would later direct the best version of War and Peace, this is an adaptation of the Sholokhov story and is low ***.5.
  • A Taste of Honey  –  An annoying song but a solid film with a good performance from Rita Tushingham.  Adapted from the play.
  • A Kind of Loving  –  Alan Bates is the latest angry young man in this adaptation of the Stan Barstow novel.

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

  • Letter Never Sent  –  The follow-up for both star and director to The Cranes are Flying isn’t on the same level, but is low ***.5, even if the writing isn’t strong enough to make my list.  Based on a story by Valeri Osipov.
  • Ashes and Diamonds  –  Andrzej Wajda’s 1958 film adapted from the novel by Jerzy Andrzejewski.  At a high *** I rank this much lower than many.
  • Cape Fear  –  High *** made from the John D. MacDonald novel The Executioners (which would later be re-released as Cape Fear when the remake was released in 1991).  Both stars, Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum, would be in the remake (in kind of opposite roles).  The last film in J. Lee Thompson’s good stretch (1958-62) and after that he would begin a terrible decline that would hit rock bottom in the 80’s.
  • Kanal  –  Another Wajda film, this one from 1956.  Written by Jerzy Stefan Stawinski based on his own story about the Warsaw Uprising (which he fought in).
  • Phaedra  –  Jules Dassin follows up Never on Sunday (which I hated) with a modern melodrama based on Hippolytus by Euripedes and it’s actually pretty good.
  • The Important Man  –  Mexico earns a Best Foreign Film nomination at the Oscars for this film based on the novel La Mayordomia by Rogelio Barriga Rivas and starring, believe it or not, Toshiro Mifune.
  • Requiem for a Heavyweight  –  Anthony Quinn steps into the role that Jack Palance had played in the television production written by Rod Serling.
  • Knights of the Black Cross  –  Poland’s 1960 Best Foreign Film submission (not nominated) is adapted from the novel by Nobel Prize winner Henryk Sienkiewicz (best known for Quo Vadis) and released in Poland on the 550th anniversary of the Battle of Grunwald (which is depicted in the film).
  • What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?  –  Even more famous now possibly because of Feud which just lost all its Emmys last night, it’s a good (and disturbing) film with strong acting but not really a classic (mid ***).
  • A View from the Bridge  –  Sidney Lumet does a solid job directing an adaptation of Arthur Miller’s play.
  • The Ballad of Narayama  –  The 1958 Japanese film gets a U.S. release.  Based on the novel by Shichiro Fukazawa.  Would be remade in 1983.
  • Days of Wine and Roses  –  Solid drama about alcoholism with Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick.  The rare Blake Edwards drama.  Adapted from a Playhouse 90 script that had originally starred Cliff Robertson (one of the television productions for which he was passed over for the film, which is why he flat out bought the right to Flowers from Algernon so that he could be guaranteed to get the film role).
  • All Fall Down  –  An outstanding cast (Warren Beatty, Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden, Angela Lansbury) don’t do as much as you expect in the adaptation of the novel by James Leo Herlihy (who will later become more famous for writing Midnight Cowboy).
  • Boccaccio ’70  –  Given that’s an anthology film with segments by Fellini, Visconti and de Sica, you’d think this would be higher than mid *** but you’d be wrong.  All done in the style of Boccaccio.
  • Chased by the Dogs  –  The Egyptian submission for Best Foreign Film (not nominated).  Based on the novel The Thief and the Dogs by future Nobel winner Naguib Mahfouz.
  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream  –  The last feature film from famed Czech animation director Jiri Trnka.  A solid version of my favorite Shakespeare play.
  • The Long and the Short and the Tall  –  Released in the U.S. as Jungle Fighters (though the Academy lists the original British title) based on the play by Willis Hall about World War II in the Burmese jungle.
  • Pressure Point  –  Sidney Poitier plays a psychiatrist dealing with a Nazi sympathizer.  Based on the short story “Destiny’s Tot” by Robert Lindner.
  • Experiment in Terror  –  Blake Edwards makes a Horror film and, surprisingly, it’s not bad.  Starring Glenn Ford and Lee Remick and based on the novel Operation Terror.
  • Eyes Without a Face  –  A 1960 French film that would eventually become a cult classic.  Released in the U.S. originally as The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus.  Based on the novel by Jean Redon.
  • Tales of Terror  –  The fourth Corman/Poe film is an anthology of three different Poe stories.  Like most of the Corman/Poe films (but not all – see below), it’s one of the best films directed by Corman.
  • The Queen of Spades  –  1960 Soviet film that was an adaptation of the Tchaikovsky opera which had been adapted from the Pushkin story.
  • The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm  –  George Pal looks at the lives of the brothers and brings many of their tales to life but, in spite of an Oscar (and three other nominations), it’s a bit flat.  The sets and costumes are lovely to look at but the film itself isn’t much.
  • Two for the Seasaw  –  Robert Wise wasn’t as lucky with his William Gibson play as Arthur Penn had been with his.
  • Don Quixote  –  Grigori Kozintsev isn’t as lucky with his adaptation of the classic novel as he would be later with Shakespeare but then again, I prefer Shakespeare to Cervantes, so you could argue that part of it is just me.
  • If a Man Answers  –  Bobby Darin and Sandra Dee may have been a cute couple but that’s no reason to see them in a movie together.  Nominated for a couple of Globes in the year where they seemingly had no limits on nominations (# of total nominations – 88; # of total nominates the year before – 53).  Adapted from a novel by Winifred Wolfe.
  • Taras Bulba  –  Yul Brynner (Russian) is acceptable as the lead Cossack in the adaptation of Gogol’s novel.  Tony Curtis, on the other hand, is neither acceptable as a Cossack or as Brynner’s son.
  • Bell’Antonio  –  Based on the novel by Vitaliano Brancati and starring Marcello Mastroiannia, this 1960 Italian film got a 1962 U.S. release.
  • The Longest Day  –  Cornelius Ryan’s book becomes a bloated epic from Zanuck with every star he could cram into it.  Nominated for Best Picture because of the sheer production of it rather than the quality.  Ryan’s next most famous book, A Bridge Too Far, would get the same treatment in 1977 and is marginally better though it wouldn’t earn a Best Picture nomination (thankfully).
  • Arms and the Man  –  A West German film of the Shaw play, originally released in 1958, which is when it earned an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film.  But it’s really only a mid-range ***.
  • Only Two Can Play  –  The Kingsley Amis novel That Certain Feeling becomes a Peter Sellers film.
  • No Love for Johnnie  –  The Peter Finch BAFTA winning performance is the best reason to see this adaptation of the novel by MP Wilfred Fienburgh who died in a car crash before the novel was published.
  • Hemingway’s Adventures of a Young Man  –  After doing a mediocre job with Faulkner, Martin Ritt turns to the Nick Adams stories and the results aren’t much better.
  • The Phantom of the Opera  –  Hammer stalwart Terence Fisher is missing Cushing and Lee for the latest Hammer Horror go-round and it suffers as a result.
  • In Search of the Castaways  –  The third Hayley Mills film for Disney is an adaptation of a lesser known Jules Verne novel called Captain Grant’s Children.
  • The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse  –  The original 1921 film is a classic and I wrote about it here where it earned a Nighthawk nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.  The novel is also good and deserves not to be forgotten.  This film can pretty much be forgotten and for the most part has been.  Low ***.
  • The Story of the Count of Monte Cristo  –  Louis Jourdan is Edmund Dantes in this film version by Claude Autant-Lara.
  • Waltz of the Toreadors  –  Another Peter Sellers outing, this one an adaptation of the play by Jean Anouilh.
  • The Interns  –  I don’t remember why I saw this medical melodrama based on the novel by Richard Frede but you can rest assured there’s no reason for you to watch it.
  • Flame in the Streets  –  It was nominated at the BAFTAs for its script and it has John Mills and Sylvia Syms so you would think it’s good but it’s the lower edge of ***.  Based on the play Hot Summer Night.
  • Les Liaisons Dangereuses  –  Roger Vadim does what he does, trying to sex things up, but since he’s a terrible director, you have to rely on the beauty of the actresses (in this case Jeanne Moreau).  Based on the original Laclos novel, since this long pre-dates the Christopher Hampton play.
  • Satan Never Sleeps  –  Leo McCarey, in his final film, goes back to priests, this time with William Holden.  Based on an old script by Pearl S. Buck which she also turned into a novel this same year.
  • Merrill’s Marauders  –  Another Burma film, this one directed by Sam Fuller and based on the non-fiction book The Marauders by Charlton Ogburn Jr who actually served with Merrill.  Perhaps most notable for being the film that Jeff Chandler was making when he injured his back; the injury would eventually lead to complications in surgery that would lead to his death a year before the film was even released.
  • Bon Voyage!  –  We’re in **.5 territory now.  Silly Disney comedy based on a novel by Joseph and Marrijane Hayes.
  • The Counterfeit Traitor  –  Not William Holden’s year.  This mediocre George Seaton film starring Holden is based on a non-fiction book about a Swede who spied on the Nazis.
  • Walk on the Wild Side  –  Nelson Algren’s novel becomes a mediocre film that at least stars an early sexy Jane Fonda.
  • Two Weeks in Another Town  –  It has the same star, director and writer as The Bad and the Beautiful (a magnificent film reviewed here) and even references the earlier film but this adaptation of the novel by Irwin Shaw isn’t even close to being on the same level.
  • Confessions of an Opium Eater  –  Vincent Price stars in the loose adaptation of the famous de Quincy book.  Not all that good.
  • Premature Burial  –  The worst of the Corman/Poe films at low **.5.  Based on the short story by Edgar Allan Poe (obviously).
  • Zotz!  –  Silly Comedy from William Castle who was more known for his gimmicks.  Based on the novel by Walter Karig.
  • Bachelor Flat  –  Frank Tashlin kind of remakes his own Susan Slept Here which was reviewed here (not all that kindly).
  • Jessica  –  Terrible Angie Dickinson drama from director Jean Negulesco.  Based on the novel The Midwife of Pont Clery.
  • Tender is the Night  –  It’s not the some novels can’t be filmed it’s that they shouldn’t be.  A great novel from Scott Fitzgerald is ruined by Henry King.  One of two films on this list with Oscar nominated title songs that would also be the title of a much better song, this one by Jackson Browne (and if you can’t figure out the other one, I feel sorry for you).
  • The Chapman Report  –  A great director (George Cukor), early Jane Fonda, a best-selling novel by the writer who would write one of my most-read books ever (Irving Wallace, author of The Book of Lists), four Golden Globe noms and it all adds up to a low ** film.
  • Mutiny on the Bounty  –  For the second year in a row, all the Best Picture nominees were adapted.  This one can be read about here and I am not kind in any way because this film doesn’t deserve kindness.  The novel is fairly good and you can read about it here in my piece on the 1935 film.
  • Barabbas  –  When you hear that name, you probably think of the prisoner released instead of Christ and that’s what you get here, in a terrible adaptation of a novel by Nobel Prize winner Par Lagerkvist.  I think of the line from 24 Hour Party People about how it would be the worst band name ever, but hey, I was never raised to be religious.

Adaptations of Notable Works I Haven’t Seen:

  • none
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