Remakes are part of Hollywood – they always have been and they always will be. Good stories are worth retelling but should good (even classic) movies be remade? The subject is certainly one which is continually discussed and indeed argued among classic film fans; most of us can name dozens of gratuitous (All the King’s Men (2006)) or name only remakes (Steve Martin’s made a handful) which incite us to rail against the very idea and refuse to go see them. Fresh fodder for the debate includes two new costume drama remakes – last year’s Pride & Prejudice (2005) and this year’s Marie Antoinette (2006) – among many others.
Even during the silent era films were being remade and sometimes just a few years separated an original from its remake (oftentimes the remake was done by a different studio but not always). Once the sound era began there were a rash of new talkies in the 1930’s during which the studios updated classic tomes like Mutiny on the Bounty The Prisoner of Zenda and Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (MGM even remade Love (1927) with Greta Garbo again starring in Leo Tolstoy’s story Anna Karenina (1935)!) as well as others (like Hell’s Heroes (1930) AND Three Godfathers (1936) both of which followed three silent era versions of the Peter B. Kyne story) by adding this (originally shunned) new technology perhaps updating the story and featuring the latest stars. The Thief of Bagdad (1940) a remake of the Douglas Fairbanks (Sr.) 1924 original featured an even newer technology Technicolor!
In the 1950’s several more silent film classics were remade to the delight of new audiences: when Cecil B. DeMille chose to direct one last time it was to remake his earlier 1923 film as The Ten Commandments (1956); two others both of which had originally starred Ramon Navarro in 1923 and 1925 respectively were Rafael Sabatini’s Scaramouche (1952) and another biblical epic Ben-Hur (1959) which won a record eleven Academy Awards including for Best Picture. Another trend in the fifties was the remaking of earlier sound era classics into musicals. Some notable successes were: Judy Garland and her then husband Sidney Luft’s remake of director William Wellman’s 1937 Academy Award winning original story as A Star is Born (1954); Philip Barry’s play for Katharine Hepburn The Philadelphia Story (1940) used to make (newlywed Princess) Grace Kelly’s last film High Society (1956) and even Paul Jarrico’s Oscar winning original screenplay Tom Dick and Harry (1941) which I think was better with Jane Powell as The Girl Most Likely (1957). Two others not as good include The Opposite Sex (1956) based on Clare Boothe Luce’s The Women (1939) and Silk Stockings (1957) from Ninotchka (1939) and Broadway.
Through the years a focus on changing the story helped several remakes find audience acceptance box-office and/or critical success. Director Howard Hawks even changed the sex of one of the characters in Lewis Milestone’s Academy Award nominated The Front Page (1931) from the Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur play to make His Girl Friday (1940); Pat O’Brien’s Hildebrand ‘Hildy’ Johnson became Rosalind Russell’s Hildegaard ‘Hildy’ Johnson. Though both casts are exceptional I think Hawks’s tempo (facilitated by the rapid fire overlapping banter between Russell and Cary Grant et al) makes his version tighter (shorter by almost 10 minutes) and better. Yes a remake can be better than its original!
The best example of a remake that’s better than its original is The Maltese Falcon (1941) which is superior to both the original The Maltese Falcon (1931) (later renamed Dangerous Female for TV) and certainly its first (campy) remake Satan Met a Lady (1936). Though most people who agree with this contention cite its cast – and who can argue since it includes Humphrey Bogart Mary Astor Gladys George Peter Lorre Barton MacLane Lee Patrick Sidney Greenstreet (who received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination in his film debut) Ward Bond Jerome Cowan and Elisha Cook Jr. – as their reason I would add that it was first time director John Huston’s choice to go back to pulp fiction writer Dashiell Hammett’s source material that makes this remake better. Huston also wrote the screenplay which earned him an Academy Award nomination; he added a few scenes which fill in the (previous) blanks making his 1941 version at least 20 minutes longer than either of the earlier films. It’s a mystery why today’s film-makers don’t seek out existing properties that didn’t quite work the first time and remake those in lieu of producing (sometimes shot-for-shot) remakes of those which did ala Psycho (1998).
Some more remakes that I think are better than their originals include:
- Kind Lady (1951) is superior to the 1935 original because while Ethel Barrymore and Aline MacMahon are equally good in the title role the other lead and supporting cast members are much better in the remake – Maurice Evans performance is outstanding while Basil Rathbone’s is fair (at best); Angela Lansbury Keenan Wynn and Betsy Blair gave much richer characterizations to their welching squatters than did Eily Malyon Dudley Digges and Justine Chase. But also the story’s better – the use of John Williams’s suspicious banker character made the story more credible and legal than Frank Albertson’s curious nephew-in-law and the remake’s surprise ending far outshines the original’s back-to-the-way-things-were one.
- The Three Musketeers (1973) is shorter funnier livelier and better cast than the otherwise almost identical story realized in MGM’s 1948 version: a younger (than his 31 years old) looking Michael York was more believable than the 36 year old Gene Kelly as the budding D’Artagnan Faye Dunaway more "boo hiss" evil than Lana Turner as Lady de Winter Raquel Welch a more beautiful (and funny!) Constance than June Allyson (ya think?) Charlton Heston’s Richelieu more sinister than Vincent Price’s (O.K. call it a wash) Oliver Reed’s Athos every bit as good a tortured drunkard as Van Heflin’s (who’d won his Oscar playing one) and Richard Chamberlain & Frank Finley more involved as Aramis & Porthos than were Robert Coote & Gig Young who were no doubt crowded out to make more room for (studio darling) Kelly’s acrobatics.
Is the Bing Crosby-Danny Kaye Michael Curtiz directed Technicolor White Christmas (1954) better than the Bing Crosby-Fred Astaire Mark Sandrich directed B&W original Holiday Inn (1942)? I think so. Though the story’s not completely the same and I enjoy Marjorie Reynolds and Virginia Dale as the lead males’ love interests I much prefer Rosemary Clooney and the tragic (anorexia followed by cancer) Vera-Ellen and especially Dean Jagger in the remake.
Though some would include producer Ross Hunter-director Douglas Sirk’s colorful Imitation of Life (1959) on their list of remakes that are better than their originals I wouldn’t be among them. I much prefer John M. Stahl’s 1934 version featuring Claudette Colbert and Louise Beavers because I found their relationship to be more credible than Lana Turner’s with Juanita Moore (despite the fact that Moore received her only Oscar nomination for Supporting Actress). I think Fredi Washington’s original performance as Beavers’s daughter who was ashamed of being Black such that she’d tried to pass for White was every bit as good as Susan Kohner’s (only) Oscar nominated (plus Ms. Washington really was a light-skinned Black woman!). Rochelle Hudson and Sandra Dee gave equally competent performances whereas Warren William excelled as Colbert’s (and Hudson’s) love interest when compared to John Gavin. Ned Sparks’s character which doesn’t even exist in the remake and his wry performance provides still another reason to like the original.
The reason for remaking a classic film today is financial: whether it be top line – capitalizing on the success of an existing property with name recognition to ‘guarantee’ an immediate audience and/or bottom line – saving the cost it takes to find and then acquire new stories. The skeptical among us wonder whether the goal is ever to improve upon the asset trying to make something better vs. just exploiting it for a new audience – that may never have seen the original product or has an aversion to watching old B&W movies (e.g. even if they’re made available on DVD). Ripping off the classics (if only their titles) has become an all-too-quick-and-easy way for today’s studios to make a buck but it hasn’t always been this way. While yesterday’s audiences weren’t necessarily more demanding or sophisticated there certainly seemed to be more (artistic?) reasons in play for remakes then vs. now.
For example more than one remake has originated with the original’s director. Whether the producer wanted to see if lightning could strike twice or the director desired to say something he hadn’t in his first effort several same director remakes exist. Alfred Hitchcock directed The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) and film critics debate which is better. William Wyler first made These Three (1936) for producer Samuel Goldwyn but later produced a more faithful version of Lillian Hellman’s play The Children’s Hour (1961) with his older brother Robert; though both include outstanding casts (and Miriam Hopkins plays a different character in each) most agree that the original is better. Frank Capra chose to remake his delightful Damon Runyon based comedy Lady for a Day (1933) as his last production Pocketful of Miracles (1961) and his last directorial effort was not on par with his original. John Farrow produced his own remake of (the original "Survivor" story?) Five Came Back (1939) as Back From Eternity (1956) which adds 25 minutes and feels even longer. Leo McCarey dusted off his Academy Award nominated original story Love Affair (1939) to pair Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr in An Affair to Remember (1957); both are equally good romance dramas. And Howard Hawks was convinced to work once again with producer Samuel Goldwyn to remake their earlier Thomas Monroe-Billy Wilder written (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs-like) comedy Ball of Fire (1941) as a vehicle for the many talents of Danny Kaye in the comedy-musical A Song is Born (1948) which amuses but falls short of the original.
Sometimes a remake doesn’t even have to be better than its original to be a great film in its own right or to find an appreciative audience sometimes it’s a matter of accessibility! For example many American studios and directors found success by borrowing from foreign film-makers whether it be from the British the French or even the Japanese:
- MGM also plucked Colette’s novel about a young French girl come courtesan which had been released as a comedy nine years earlier in her country for their musical remake (and Academy Award winning Best Picture) Gigi (1958) which outshines the original
- Literary Nobel Prize winner George Bernard Shaw’s exceptional play was not only made into the terrific British film Pygmalion (1938) with Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller (earning Shaw a unique distinction when he shared the screenplay Oscar) but Warner Bros. also made into the Academy Award winning Best Picture (and Musical) My Fair Lady (1964) starring Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn
- Producer John Sturges borrowed from fellow director Akira Kurosawa (who was influenced by the legendary John Ford) and his Japanese film The Seven Samurai (1954) to make the essential Western The Magnificent Seven (1960) which (propelled Steve McQueen to stardom and) Elmer Bernstein blessed with his unforgettable Oscar nominated Score.
One of the best recent remakes was Peter Jackson’s homage to Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack’s 1933 original King Kong (2005). Keeping the story much the same (and in the same era) Jackson used Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) technology to update this classic even restoring/recreating the long lost spider sequence which was removed from King Kong (1933) after it had horrified early audiences. Earlier this year his team’s efforts were rewarded with three Academy Awards including Sound Editing and Visual Effects two categories which didn’t even exist when the original was released.
So it is possible despite the fervor one hears/reads when it’s announced that yet another classic movie will be remade (or reinterpreted) that it can be done right. It’s just a shame that these are the exceptions to the rule.
© 2006 Turner Classic Movies – this article originally appeared on TCM’s official blog