Monday, January 30, 2017

1930/1931: Cimarron

Screenplay by Howard Estabrook
Adapted from the novel Cimarron by Edna Ferber

Sick of living with his in-laws in Wichita, Yancey Cravat moves to Oklahoma in the land rush of 1889 with his wife Sabra, young son Cimarron, and black servant Isaiah. Yancey quickly makes a name for himself as the editor of the town newspaper, in which he defends Native American rights and expresses other controversial opinions. But his wanderlust gets the best of him, and he often takes off for years at a time without a word to his family, which now includes daughter Donna, leaving Sabra to raise the children and keep the paper going on her own.

I found it fascinating, not to mention painful, to read and watch this story, with its blatant racism and sexism, in 2017, knowing that while we may have gotten more politically correct, we definitely haven't come as far as we should have by now. Most of the racism, particularly against Native Americans, is condemned, at least by Yancey. Sabra hates them for most of the story and only comes around towards the end. This is particularly uncomfortable since, at least in the book, it's told from Sabra's perspective. The movie skips over a lot of the parts that happened when Yancey wasn't there, which makes them seem more like dual protagonists, but in the book Sabra is unquestionably the main character, though I didn't really get the impression that the author was condoning her xenophobic opinions, at least when it was directed against the Native Americans. Racism in other forms - against African-Americans, Mexicans, and Jewish people - was presented and neither condoned nor condemned, which was realistic but uncomfortable.

One thing that I noticed and found especially interesting, if unsurprising, was that a lot of the racism was cut out or toned down in the movie. There are several Native American characters in the book who feature quite prominently; the only one who made it into the movie was Ruby Big Elk, who marries Cimarron Cravat. In the book, her parents visit Yancey and Sabra to tell them that the marriage has taken place and invite them to a ceremony; in the movie, Cim's just like "I'm marrying Ruby" - at which the viewers are almost like "Who?" since she's barely been in the movie up to that point - and Sabra says, "No you're not" and he retorts, "Dad says it's okay" and that's that. There are a few Native Americans in the background of other scenes, and a couple of them speak briefly, but Ruby's the only one who gets both a name and a speaking part. And this was 1931, so it almost goes without saying that they're mostly - possibly exclusively - played by white people in makeup.

Apart from having way fewer Native Americans and fewer scenes of Sabra on her own, the movie is fairly consistent with the book apart from two major changes. One is the character of Jesse Rickey, the printer at the newspaper. In the book he's described as an alcoholic who is good at his job when he's sober. In the movie he doesn't drink excessively but has a stammer that other characters make fun of until they get to know and love him. That was kind of unnecessary. The second change is quite complex and involves both the killing of the outlaw The Kid and the death of the servant Isaiah. In the book, the killing of The Kid happens when Sabra is on her way home from a visit to her parents, so it's only described after the fact, whereas in the movie, she's there watching it happen. In the movie, Isaiah is shot and killed in the crossfire. That's a lot cleaner than the book's version of his death, which comes several years after The Kid's. While Yancey is away, Sabra hires a Native American teenager to help her with the housework. In the movie it's implied that Ruby Big Elk was the first and only. In the book the first was Arita Red Feather, who ends up having Isaiah's baby, for which crime her tribe executes both of them. So the film eliminates both the unwed teen pregnancy and the gruesome method of their executions, which results in even less representation by cutting out yet another Native character and significantly reducing the screen time of the one African-American character.

To be honest, though, I wasn't really surprised that they cut out the whole Isaiah/Arita thing. On the contrary, I was a bit surprised that the movie didn't take out more of the sexual aspects until I remembered that this was still pre-Code. One of the major scenes in both the book and the film are when Yancey returns after five years away and immediately defends a prostitute whom Sabra has been trying to run out of town. In the book this happens before he goes to war, and in the movie he's already gone to war, but other than that, the scene is pretty consistent in both versions. The film does neglect to mention that the old rich man whom Donna sets her sights on is married to someone else when she starts seeing him. Apparently divorce was considered more scandalous than prostitution in 1931.

Overall, the best aspect of the adaptation is the spot-on casting of Sabra and Yancey. Irene Dunne perfectly captures both Sabra's innocence at the beginning and the way she grows and matures while generally standing by her convictions. Richard Dix acts exactly as Yancey is described. Several times the book mentions the way he lowers his head like a buffalo about to charge, and he does that in the movie, but it's subtle. When I watched it the first time, I would never have described him as doing that, but after reading the book I definitely noticed it. I think it would have been very easy to overdo this and make it look silly, but the way Dix does it looks perfectly natural. So even though the plot and the themes were slightly off, at least the movie got the main characters right.

The next winner of this award was Bad Girl, based on the novel by ViƱa Delmar, which I just finished reading today, so I should be blogging about that pretty soon.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

1927/1928: 7th Heaven

Screenplay by Benjamin Glazer
Adapted from the play Seventh Heaven by Austin Strong

A sewer-worker-turned-street-washer named Chico rescues impoverished criminal Diane from her abusive sister, then stops her from killing herself. Soon afterwards, he prevents her from being arrested by telling the police she is his wife. Diane goes to live with Chico temporarily, just in case the police decide to check this story, but they end up falling madly in love. Their love is so deep that nothing, not even World War I, can break them apart.

Overall, the story was kept fairly consistent, but with a few notable changes. When I blogged about Janet Gaynor's performance in 7th Heaven, I referred to the movie as cheesy. As it turns out, most of the cheesiest bits are taken directly from the play, such as Chico's catchphrase, "I'm a very remarkable fellow," which he repeats ad nauseam throughout. Another example is how instead of saying, "I love you," they say, "Chico - Diane - Heaven!" although that comes up a lot more in the movie than in the play. Chico and Diane's relationship is essentially the same in both versions, except the movie cut out the part when Diane's rich aunt tries to bribe Chico to break up with her right before the war. That didn't really make sense in the play, and it messed up the pacing, so I think leaving it out of the film was a wise decision.

As is often the case, many of the minor roles were greatly reduced or eliminated altogether in favor of focusing on the lead characters. This usually bothers me, but I think it worked well here. A lot of the minor characters are fairly bland and don't have much to do with the main storyline, so their presence isn't necessary. The play starts with the taxi driver, Boule, trying to get his cab Eloise to run, which does become a recurring plot point in both versions, but the movie doesn't dwell on it nearly as much. The play kind of overdoes that bit. By contrast, the film opens with Chico working in the sewer, which is never actually seen in the play. Obviously, it's easier for a film to take place in more locations than a play, but it's interesting that the film chose to start with Chico, since in the play his first appearance is when he pops out of a manhole to save Diane from her sister. The movie makes it clear from the first shot that Chico is the protagonist; the play keeps the audience guessing for a bit longer and gives him a much more dramatic entrance. I'm not sure which way is better; they're just different.

Because 7th Heaven is a silent film, it should come as no surprise that the movie has much less dialogue than the play. On stage the characters talk at great length about how delicious Diane's cooking is; on film Chico is shown enjoying it. The play jumps straight from the beginning of the war to the end, when characters return and talk about what they did, whereas the film shows a lot of the fighting, both at the front and at home. The play wasn't merely performed in front of a camera; it was modified to take advantage of the differences between stage and screen, which is what I think most adaptations strive for.

Despite their differences, both versions have the same somber yet hopeful tone, and the overarching themes of love, courage, and theology are presented in essentially the same manner. The story itself isn't great, and I stand by the words "cheesy" and "melodramatic" that I used to describe it last time, but I'd say that the movie is a good adaptation of an okay play.

The following year's winner of this award is a lost film, and the year after that the only Oscar-winning screenplay was an original one, so I'm skipping both of those. My next blog post will therefore be about the fourth Best Picture Winner, Cimarron, based on the novel by Edna Ferber. It looks like a fairly long book, so it could be a little while, but it's coming eventually.

Saturday, January 7, 2017


So I've watched and blogged about all the Best Picture Oscar winning films and all the Best Actress Oscar winning films, and now it's time to tackle a different category. But this time I'm going to do something a little different. Before watching each winning film (in order, regardless of whether I've seen it before or not) I'm going to read (or watch) the original story - whether it's in the form of a book, a play, another film, or something else - that its screenplay was adapted from. (If it's a play, I'll read the script, if it's another film I'll watch it.) This blog will contain my thoughts on the quality of the adaptation. That way, even for the films I've already blogged about before, I'll be approaching them from a different angle, and hopefully have some fresh insight.

In my opinion, a great adaptation should capture the spirit of the original story without feeling confined by it. My favorite film adaptation of a book is the 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice, which is actually a TV miniseries and thus ineligible for Oscars (although interestingly, the 1995 winner of this award was also based on a Jane Austen novel). Many, if not most, of the lines in this adaptation are taken directly from the book, and it's very apparent that the people who made it were devoted to the original. But my favorite thing about it is how consistent the parts that aren't in the book are with the story. There's like one sentence in the book after Elizabeth turns Mr. Collins down about how Mrs. Bennet thought Mary might be into him; the miniseries leads us to the same conclusion by showing her light up every time he's in the room. What's so great about this is the main story can progress in the foreground while Mary's unrequited love is portrayed in the background, which is something that's very hard to do in a book without messing up the pacing. That's what a good adapted screenplay should do: use the aspects of storytelling that the medium of film is best suited for to capture the original story in a new way. I know it's much easier to adapt a novel into a 6-hour miniseries than into a 2-hour feature film (or a 4-hour film, as the case may be...looking at you, Gone with the Wind, for the third time), so I'm going to try not to hold these movies to the same standards as Pride and Prejudice, although that might be difficult for me. So I apologize in advance if some of these posts turn into angry rants. Sometimes I have trouble restraining myself. Don't get me started on the Harry Potter movies, whatever you do.

The Academy has gone back and forth on whether or not to separate original screenplays from adaptations, especially in its early years. It appears that most of the winners when there was only one category were adapted, so I'm going to count those, and just skip over the few years when there was only an original winner. I haven't gone through and made sure I could track down all the winning films or original stories, so I might have to skip a few more. This feels impure, but this project is going to take long enough as it is without frantically trying to track down lost material.

The first winner of this award was Benjamin Glazer for 7th Heaven, adapted from the play of the same name by Austin Strong, which was one of the three films Janet Gaynor won Best Actress for. So stay tuned for that, and if you're curious, you can find my thoughts about Gaynor's performance here. Thanks for reading!