Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Not on the make for remakes

Ginger Rogers (from Wikimedia Commons/ public domain)
What is it with remakes?

So often the later filmmakers seem to try to recapture whatever made the original special and so much is lost in the effort.

For every somewhat successful remake (say the Judy Garland over the Janet Gaynor version of A Star is Born), there are so many that are just dreadful.  Adding color, subbing Danny Kaye for Gary Cooper and Virginia Mayo for Barbara Stanwyck did not make 1941's Ball of Fire into a compelling A Song is Born in 1949, it just made me long for Gary's complicated innocence in place of Danny's nonsense (which was reined in quite a lot here anyway) and Barbara's wit, sparkle and depth in place of Virgina Mayo's softer curves and more one-note performance. The original movie entranced me.  The remake bored me.

I don't know which is worse, where plot, dialogue, direction, staging and sometimes even costuming replicate an earlier (and often better) version with the newer ones feeling unnecessary at best or more often flat and not worthwhile, or remakes where they take the premise and twist it away from elements that added depth or story line.

I'm thinking of  The Shop Around the Corner (1940).  I'm not a huge fan of Margaret Sullavan, but the story is a jewel box full of layered performances and plot.  (Although having Hungarian Jimmy Stewart speak in flat American accents and most of the other performers speak in European ones took a lot to get used to.)  Remade as a glorious color musical with Judy Garland as In the Good Old Summertime, some of themes were lost, ones that darkened the comedy and gave it some tension.  As the young clerks secretly correspond and build a relationship, the owner of the shop confronts secrets himself that result in travails for the lovers and a break up of the owner's marriage.

One version is as airy as cotton candy, the other has a chewy nougat center.

Another example of this is the absolutely shameful remake of one of my favorites:  My Sister Eileen (1942).  The 1955 remake stars Betty Garrett and Jennifer Leigh instead of Rosalind Russell and Janet Blair.  It's not the cast, the stars work okay for me, it's what they did to the women.  Eileen, free, easy, full of sass, fun and sex appeal in both movies has a full and unrepentant future at the end of the original.  In the remake she's suddenly in love with the drip of a drug store clerk who gave her free sandwiches.

Normally I attribute such a corralling of a female character because of her libido to censorship and the post code mentality, but both of these movies were made post code.  By the way, the remake is a musical, of which I have forgotten all the numbers, which should tell you something right there.  (If you have the opportunity to see the stage musical Wonderful Town, do see it. It's a great adaptation of the movie and a near perfect classic Broadway musical.)

The remake that started this essay (rant, tirade) was one of 1933's Rafter Romance, a forgettable but enjoyable comedy with Ginger Rogers (whom I love when she is not too busying playing Ginger Rogers the important actress in a film) and Norman Foster, whom I usually don't like, although his somewhat coarse and flat acting style works okay here.  It was a shock not to just see the premise (which happens a lot even when it's not a remake) reused (of a man and a woman sharing an apartment because she works days and he works nights and unknowingly falling in love) but everything from gags to dialogue duplicated in Living on Love just five years later.  James Dunn holds his own but what he sees in wooden, unappealing Whitney Bourne escapes me and the movie has all the charm it once possessed polished out of it.

(The main difference between the scripts is that in the original it was an attic apartment the unknowing lovers shared.  In the remake it was a basement apartment.)

Part of this urge to remake could be that without television and later video and internet, these movies might not have had the shelf life movies do today.  Part might be greed.  I can't find info on Rafter Romance's receipts, but it must have done very well for producer Merian Cooper to remake it so soon afterwards.  The remake was not a success and lost $28,000 in its first release.  Even today a movie or a concept with a proven track record is more likely to get made; it's seen as a way of reducing risk (which account for all the sequels we see) and giving audiences what they like. Other times remakes are due to changing tastes, changing mores/codes, and changing technology (color vs. black and white, silent vs. sound, etc.).

I guess I'm most upset when they change the movie title so I chance on one of these subpar remakes without knowing what I'm getting into.  The moment of discovery is not a pretty one.

I'm sure there are remakes that improve on the original.  The 1929 mostly silent version of Showboat created an artificially happy ending and totally ignored the subplots of race and racism that were included in the 1936 and 1951 musical movies.  The 1949 French version of Gigi might have been closer to Colette's story, but the 1958 color MGM musical created a world I craved to live in when I was young. (I kind of missed that whole kept woman theme).  Interestingly, supposedly MGM kept the French version from being seen for many years and when I finally saw it I understood why - much of the staging and costuming in the glorious Leslie Caron version was lifted from the earlier French black and white.

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