Sunday, June 18, 2017

1941: Here Comes Mr. Jordan

Screenplay by Sidney Buchman and Seton I. Miller
Adapted from the play Heaven Can Wait by Harry Segall

Prizefighter Joe "The Flying Pug" Pendleton's soul is prematurely taken from his body when a messenger from heaven sees his plane about to crash and thinks there's no way he can survive. By the time the messenger's boss, Mr. Jordan, realizes that Joe is actually supposed to live for several more decades, his body has been cremated, so they must find a different body for him to inhabit.

This was a pretty faithful adaptation, apart from a few minor changes. I'm not sure why they felt the need to come up with a different title for the movie, since they're pretty much exactly the same story. Max the manager changes his last name from Levene to Corkle, and Mrs. Ames the housekeeper is replaced by Sisk the butler, but neither of these changes really affects the plot. A few scenes are added to the film that were only talked about in the play, like the plane crash and a few boxing matches, as is almost always the case when a play is adapted for the screen. The biggest changes have to do with the person whose body Joe inhabits for most of the story: Farnsworth, whose first name is Jonathan in the play and Bruce in the movie.

In both versions, the reason Joe agrees to become Farnsworth is to help Bette Logan, a young woman whose father is in jail because of a financial scheme Farnsworth orchestrated and then pinned on him. In the play, Farnsworth's plan before he died was to agree to get Mr. Logan out of jail if Bette went away with him for the weekend. Apparently that was too scandalous for the movie; in the adaptation, Farnsworth has no intention of helping her at all. Either way, Joe as Farnsworth gets her father out of jail, no questions asked. Then he decides to get Farnsworth's body "in the pink" (which is his favorite phrase) so he can be a boxer again, until Mr. Jordan tells him he can't be Farnsworth anymore. In the play, this is because Farnsworth's soul is protesting that he hates prizefighting and doesn't want to be remembered this way. In the movie, however, we never hear from Farnsworth in the afterlife; Mr. Jordan merely states that it's time for Joe to find a different body, and we're just supposed to take his word for it. This is probably the most significant change, and I'm not sure why it was necessary. Possibly the screenwriters didn't want a villain like Farnsworth to dictate what the hero did in his body. Or maybe they just wanted to shorten that part to accommodate the extra scenes they added. Regardless, the reason Joe needs to leave doesn't really alter the outcome, so on the whole, the movie is very consistent with the play.

Having watched the 1978 film Heaven Can Wait (which is significantly different from the play and original film, although still unquestionably the same story) many times, I noted that many of the changes from the play to Here Comes Mr. Jordan carried through to the remake. In the later film, the trainer's name is Max Corkle and there's a butler named Sisk instead of a housekeeper, and when Joe has to leave Farnsworth (whose first name is Leo in that version) it's just because Mr. Jordan says "it's time," not because Farnsworth had any say. So that was interesting.

Coming up next: Best Picture and Best Actress winner Mrs. Miniver, based on newspaper columns by Jan Struther, which have conveniently been compiled into a book.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

1940: The Philadelphia Story

Screenplay by Donald Ogden Stewart
Adapted from the play The Philadelphia Story by Philip Barry

Socialite Tracy Lord is about to get married for the second time when she is beset upon by a horde of unwelcome visitors, including a reporter, a photographer, her estranged father, and her ex-husband.

This was an odd experience for me because this is my most-watched movie since I started keeping track, but I had never read the play until now. I was expecting it to be kind of like Pygmalion, with the play almost identical to the film, especially since I knew that Katharine Hepburn had originated the character on Broadway and was instrumental in bringing the story to the screen. However, while the basic story and many of the lines are the same, I was astonished at how many significant changes were made in the adaptation. Due to my unquestionable bias, I think most of the changes were made for the better, but I'm sure a devotee of the play would disagree.

When I encounter other people who have seen this movie and tell them it's my favorite, oftentimes I hear the same complaint: there's too much talking, and hardly any action. While I can't disagree, after reading the play I noticed a lot more action in the film, or, if not action, at least a lot more scene changes. The play is set entirely in the Lords' house - granted, in several different rooms, but essentially it's all in one place. Compare that with the film, which, while mainly set at their house, also has scenes at a magazine office, a library, and other people's houses. The film also explores parts of the Lords' house not seen in the play, like the stables and the pool. It's not surprising from a practical standpoint that the play would have so few settings compared to the movie, but I still found it intriguing how the story was altered to accommodate these extra locations. For instance, in both versions there's a big party at Uncle Willie's house the night before the wedding. In the play, we only hear characters discussing the party afterwards, whereas in the film, we see some of what happens at the party, which flows better into what happens later. Speaking of which, the swimming pool has an important role in both versions after this party, but in the film this is foreshadowed by setting an earlier scene at the pool, which was set elsewhere in the play.

The change of settings, while interesting, was kind of to be expected. The change that really surprised me was the omission from the film of a character who figures prominently in the play: Alexander "Sandy" Lord, Tracy's brother. In both versions, Tracy has a brother named Junius, who is mentioned but never makes an appearance. In the play, her other brother Sandy is the one responsible for bringing the reporter and photographer to the house to keep their publisher from running a scandalous story about Mr. Lord. Then later Sandy comes up with the idea to write a scandalous story about the publisher so no one has to write a story about either Tracy's wedding or their father. How could a character who facilitates such crucial aspects of the plot be completely eliminated from the story, you ask? Simple: the film gives these tasks to C.K. Dexter Haven, Tracy's ex-husband. Personally, I think this was a stroke of genius, no offense to Sandy, or Philip Barry. The thing is, the play ends essentially the same way as the movie, but I feel like that ending makes way more sense if Dexter was trying to help Tracy from the beginning. We don't see Dexter very much in the play, and he's kind of under-developed. Similarly, while Sandy does a lot in the play, we don't get a very good sense of who he is either. But blending them into one character creates a new, multi-dimensional, realistic person who greatly enhances the story. I don't know how Donald Ogden Stewart came up with the rather bizarre idea of combining the brother and the ex-husband, but it works remarkably well.

Beyond this, there are a few other minor changes. Some of the lines are exactly the same, but the lines around them are different, slightly altering their meaning, which I found fascinating. Also, the play has several PG-rated swear words that were replaced with G-rated swear words in the film, which I assume was just to comply with the Hays code. Otherwise, the story and most of the characters are fairly consistent, and the inconsistencies mainly serve to make the movie stronger; thus this is the epitome of a well-adapted screenplay. But really, given how much I love this film, how could I think otherwise?

Another interesting tidbit: In 1956, The Philadelphia Story was remade into a musical called High Society, and while that version has many significant differences from the original story (it's not even set in Philadelphia, for one thing), I did notice that several lines from the play that were cut from the 1940 version made their way into the 1956 version. But there's no Sandy in the musical either.

Next up: Here Comes Mr. Jordan, based on the play Heaven Can Wait by Harry Segall. I haven't seen or read either of those, but I have seen the 1978 remake, so I'm excited to see how the original compares.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

1939: Gone with the Wind



Screenplay by Sidney Howard
Adapted from the novel Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

This Civil War/Reconstruction-era story is centered around Scarlett O'Hara, who grew up on a plantation in Georgia. Despite having all the young men in the area wrapped around her finger, Scarlett has eyes only for Ashley Wilkes, who seems to feel the same way about her but nevertheless marries his cousin Melanie, as their family expects. Resourceful and determined, Scarlett makes it through the war and reconstruction better than most of her neighbors, but even though she marries three different men and makes a small fortune for herself, she never stops longing for Ashley. Consequently, she stubbornly refuses to see what is plain to the rest of the world: she is clearly much better suited for her third husband, the roguish, practical Rhett Butler, than the honorable, daydreaming Ashley Wilkes.

This is exactly what I was talking about in my intro post when I said, "a great adaptation should capture the spirit of the original story without feeling confined by it." Given that the novel is 1,037 pages long, it's amazing to me how faithful the film is to the original story. Almost all of the major plot points remain, and the novel and the film unquestionably have the same heart. I think a lot of credit belongs to the acting, particularly Vivien Leigh's incredible Oscar-winning performance as Scarlett, which I blogged about here. In a one-second glance, Leigh conveys multi-paragraph descriptions of Scarlett's thoughts and feelings. Of course, this only goes so far, so it was still necessary to make a few cuts. In my opinion, they made the right ones.

In general, I think the changes can be divided into two categories. The first is changes to minor characters. The novel goes into significant detail about all the O'Haras' neighbors and several Atlanta families and how the war and reconstruction affected them. The film includes some of these, but often multiple characters were combined into one, and some were eliminated altogether. To be honest, I got most of them mixed up when I was reading the book, so this is no significant loss. There are enough minor county people and townspeople to further the main characters' stories and convey the widespread affects of historical events without bogging down the story too much, so the film unquestionably succeeded there. Slightly more controversial is the elimination of Scarlett's first two children. Scarlett doesn't really pay very much attention to them, so they're not crucial to the story, but there are a couple of plot points that aren't quite the same without them. In the book, Scarlett has a son before helping Melanie give birth, which means two things: Scarlett actually had some knowledge of childbirth to help her in the book, unlike in the movie in which she literally has no clue what she's doing; and there was much more urgency for Scarlett to leave Atlanta in the book, with her own child's safety to think about, which explains not only Melanie's intense gratitude that Scarlett doesn't abandon her, but also how much weight a promise to Ashley carries with Scarlett. The movie is slightly lacking without these, but it still pretty much works. Scarlett's second child really only matters in the book when she's pregnant with her, which is when she's building up her mills (in the book she has two mills, in the movie only one, but that's immaterial). In both versions, the town is scandalized that a woman, particularly one with a husband to support her, is working outside the home. In the book the scandal is heightened by the fact that she is appearing in public while obviously pregnant, which was not done at the time. This pregnancy is also what convinces Ashley to help her at the mill and is another example of Rhett going out of his way to be nice to her, but the movie is fine without this. The final minor character change is the elimination of two ragged ex-soldiers who help Scarlett after the war: one at Tara and the other in Atlanta. The movie does a good job of modifying the plot so that their characters become unnecessary, but they do have a couple of lines that were just too good to not include, and the film gives those to other characters. Interestingly, most of these lines are given to Mammy, whose shrewdness is very similar to theirs, so it works remarkably well. Mammy also absorbs the purpose of a couple of other slave characters from the book who didn't make it into the movie, so she's more important in the film than in the novel, which is definitely not a bad thing because she's one of the best characters.

The second category of changes are those that make the movie a lot cleaner than the book. Several conversations in the novel, particularly between Rhett and Scarlett, are fairly sexually explicit, if not by today's standards, at least by 1939 Hollywood's standards; thus they were unsurprisingly removed or modified. The film actually has more sexual content than one might expect for that time, but significantly less than the book. I think the biggest impact this has on the story is in the movie Rhett tells Scarlett that he loves her several times early on, so it seems kind of odd that Scarlett doesn't think that he loves her. By contrast, in the book, he doesn't say he loves her until towards the end, but he repeatedly says that he "wants" her. I guess that's what film Scarlett infers when he says "love," but it's interesting to me that they felt the need to change the word anyway. There are a few other instances of sexual content being toned down or eliminated, but the most significant cleaning up the movie does is in regards to racism. People who have only seen the film without reading the book might be surprised to know that the movie is drastically less racist than the book, since the movie is plenty racist. I think any story about the American Civil War from the perspective of the South has to be inherently racist to some degree, but it's fascinating the way the filmmakers toned it down. For instance, the book uses the N-word many times, although most of the more proper characters discourage its use, but the film doesn't use it at all. The KKK features prominently in the book, and it's portrayed as the only method of law and order protecting the women of Atlanta; the movie never mentions it by name, although it had to kind of keep it to explain how Scarlett's second husband died, but it makes that sound like a one-time raid on Shantytown rather than an organized group. The book goes on and on about how bad freedom was for the slaves who were dependent on their owners; the movie shows a couple shots of loafing black men on the streets of Atlanta, but that's about it. Overall, the movie is a lot more focused on the main characters' stories than the turmoil of the South as its society was overthrown, so it stands to reason that it would eliminate some of the long passages glorifying the South's traditions. In this way, it seems like the film had enough racism to satisfy racists, while cutting back enough to satisfy non-racist fans of the story, thereby satisfying everyone, which could partly explain the film's immense success. But that's pure speculation on my part.

At the core of both the novel and the film is a story about different types of people and how they react when their world is turned upside-down. Margaret Mitchell created a rich story full of complex and realistic characters that had the potential to transfer perfectly from the page to the screen if placed in the proper hands, and luckily, that's precisely what happened.

Stay tuned for my very favorite movie of all time, The Philadelphia Story, based on the play by Philip Barry.