Tuesday, 2 October 2018

Classic Hollywood literary adaptations: David Copperfield, Design for Living, The Body Snatcher, The Asphalt Jungle, The Letter and A Walk in the Sun

I'd always avoided the 1935 Hollywood version of David Copperfield. The casting of W.C. Fields as Mr. Micawber suggested it would probably be a vulgar travesty, especially...

...to someone brought up on David Lean's wonderful adaptations of Great Expectations and Oliver Twist. I have to admit I was wrong - the first hour of David Copperfield is up there with Lean's best work, thanks to an astonishing performance by the 10-year old British actor, Freddie Bartholomew. This was the lad's first major screen role, and his first Hollywood film. Director George Cukor and producer David O. Selznick signed him up on a trip to London, and Bartholomew and his aunt emigrated to the United States. Young Freddie is the best thing in the film, despite the fact that he's surrounded by some of Hollywood's greatest character actors at the very height of their powers:  Edna Mae Oliver is a splendid Betsey Trotwood, Basil Rathbone is a wonderfully horrible Mr. Murdstone,  Hugh Williams gives some depth to that arch-rotter, Steerforth, Lionel Barrymore excels as Dan'l Peggotty, and the great comic actor Roland Young unfreezes his top lip to give us a truly repulsive Uriah Heap. W. C. Fields, oddly, gives a great performance full of typical slapstick "business" early on, when Freddie Bartholomew's around, but, by the time he's ready to denounce Uriah Heap, he's rather too restrained. The film loses energy and focus in the second half, from the point where Frank Lawton takes over as the adult Copperfield: unlike Freddie Bartholomew, he allows himself to be overshadowed by the rest of the cast, and ends up seeming rather dull.

The screwball comedy Design for Living is a 1933 Hollywood adaptation - albeit an extremely loose one - of a Noel Coward play,  scripted by Ben Hecht and directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Set in Paris, it stars Miriam Hopkins as a commercial artist working in an advertising agency's Paris office, who is pursued by - and falls in love with - two destitute American chums, would-be painter Gary Cooper and would-be playwright Frederic March, who are starving in a Bohemian garret. Unable to choose between them, Miss Hopkins suggests they form a platonic ménage à trois - which doesn't stay platonic for long: in fact, she ends up sleeping with both of them, albeit not at the same time, before switching tack and marrying her boring boss, and then leaving him to shack up once more with her young lovers. It's a pre-code film - i.e. it was made before the introduction of the stringent Hays Code - and it's pretty darned filthy in its way. The only slight flaw in this amusing concoction is the audience being asked to believe that a red-blooded American gal is going to have a problem choosing between Gary Cooper - who the lady with whom I watched the film assured me oozed sex appeal throughout - and Frederic March, who is a rather cold, cerebral actor. Despite that, it's well worth watching:

The Body Snatcher is a 1945 adaptation of a Robert Louis Stevenson short story, produced by Val Lewton, and directed by Robert Wise. It's an astonishingly effective, creepy, atmospheric horror film in which Boris Karloff gives the second-greatest performance of his career, as Cabman John Gray, a demented, deeply sinister Edinburgh "resurrection man" locked in a psychic battle with an outwardly respectable medical lecturer. I thought I'd seen all the great Golden Age horror movies - I was evidently wrong. The original trailer for the film is misleading and lurid (for a start, Bela Lugosi isn't Karloff's co-star - his role is relatively minor), but this modern trailer gets it right:

The Asphalt Jungle (1950) is an adaptation of a 1949 W. R. Burnett novel about a jewel heist, starring Sterling Hayden as a thuggish criminal (a "hooligan"), Sam Jaffe as a criminal mastermind just released from prison, and Louis Calhern as a crooked businessman desperate for funds. It's one of the greatest noir movies ever made - absolutely rivetting. Here's the first four minutes:

The Letter (1940) is a ripe, sweaty slice of exotic melodrama based on a 1927 Somerset Maugham stage play about the wife of a British rubber planation manager in Malaya who kills a friend of the family who, she claims, turned up unexpectedly at her bungalow when her husband was away, and tried to rape her. The British community rallies to her support - but then the dead man's Malaysian wife (Gale Sondergaard in a truly OTT cod-oriental outfit) turns up bearing a letter that suggests things may not be quite as straightforward as they appear... Howard E. Koch adapted the script, and William Wyler directed. Bette Davis is in her element as the wife of the plantation manager, who is played with just the right amount of pathos by Herbert Marshall. If the opening doesn't leave you needing to know what happens next, there may be something wrong with you:

I'll end with a film I'd never heard of, and, because I'm not a huge fan of war movies, wasn't particularly interested in seeing. A Walk in the Sun was based on a 1944 novel by Harry Brown, originally serialised in Liberty Magazine. The actor Burgess Meredith was instrumental in getting the film made, and ended up doing the narration. Lewis Milestone (of All Quiet on the Western Front fame) directed. There's some rather disconcerting narrative songs to get past, but the rest of it's fine. A platoon of American soldiers land on a beach near Salerno in September 1943, after which  confusion reigns as they head inland and end up launching an assault on a farmhouse defended by German troops. Nobody does anything hugely heroic or spectacular - there's a lot more dialogue than action, although there's plenty of the latter towards the end. The focus of the film is the interaction between a bunch of typical GIs, and what makes it work is the quality of the acting: Dana Andrews, Lloyd Bridges, John Ireland and Richard Conte are all terrific. It's a thoughtful film, so it's pleasing to report that it was both a critical and commercial success. I can't find any decent clips, so here's the whole of it:


  1. Your cinema posts are now featuring films I have actually seen! Holy Mudder of Mercy...

    I always enjoy the 1935 version of "David Copperfield" [I saw it when I was far too young and the portrayel of the Murdstones gave me very bad nightmares for months afterwards. Isn't Miss M. supposed to sport a disfiguiring scar?]. Mr Dick also gives me the creeps - I have always thought that the current Transport Secretary Chris Pudding-Face Grayling would make a great Mr Dick [ wet, useless yet oddly sinister].

    Am now going to watch " A Walk in the Sun" courtesy of your blog so thanks for that!

    Transport Secretary Chris Grayling would make a very effective Mr Dick [wet, useless yet oddly sinister?].

  2. During a chat with a neighbour yesterday [she is an avid fan of the sublime Sir Walter Scott] we both agreed that the continuing ascendancy of both Dickens and Trollope over Scott is that they are both English and that their works have inspired superb interpretations in terms of film and TV series while Scott was pretty much ignored by the new media.Then there is also the serial form argument.

    Anyway, the film version based on a Dicken's novel that seems the least popular is "A Tale of Two Cities" [1958]. At least, I never see it on anywhere. Great script, great British cast [including Cecil Parker and Christopher Lee] and one of the most poignant endings ever [see the final sequence of "Elvira Madigan" as a comparison]. Why is it not given more prominence?

    [One theory is that it was directed by Ralph Thomas whose younger brother Gerald then came along in 1967 with his own film of the events in France in 1789 entitled "Carry On...Don't lose your head" which somehow "tainted" the earlier version because of familial ties. The "Carry On" film stars Sid James as Sir Rodney Ffing ,aka "The Black Fingernail", and a bunch of Froggies variously called Citizens Camembert, Bidet etc, Good stuff. Both highly recommended].

  3. A Tale of Two Cities (1958) was on Talking Pictures a few days ago and the business model of the channel appears to be to repeat each feature a few times before moving on to something else - just like the Granada of old, albeit without the rustling of crisp packets, chewing noises and ululations from the back row. Catch it while you can.

    You have to be careful mentioning Trollope in the same sentence as Dickens here, as the Blogmeister's view is that the great inventor of the pillar box was no Jeffrey Archer. I tried once to reason with him without success. I am not sure about Walter Scott. Maybe another member of the Scots/Norwegian clan can explain why the resonance of all those kilt, dirk and tam o'shanter heroics doesn't travel much farther South than Penrith.

    WC Fields's Micawber is a tribute to David Lean as director. Fields apparently attempted to introduce a lengthy juggling scene involving cigar boxes into the film and was unimpressed by arguments that this did not conform to the required portrayal of his character. Lean won eventually. A pity.

  4. You are spot on, Ex-KCS when you say Walter Scott's historical novels about his homeland have not travelled well. Many of them have pages of difficult Scottish dialect for a start. One of his most popular works - "Ivanhoe" consists entirely of English-related themes.

    Robert Louis Stevenson was far more successful [viz "Kidnapped", " Master of Ballantrae"].

    Films with Scottish historical themes tend to be universally rotten with everybody running about in garish tartans, red fright wigs and accents based on the janitor from " The Simpsons". Parts must be found for Bill Laurie, Finlay Currie, Brian Cox, Gordon Jackson and Wee Jock Tigernuts McStiffen et al. At least they can do the accent, but leading roles always go to "foreigners" who can't. Michael Caine? Errol Flynn? Liam Neeson? Mel Gibson? They can't even do a proper English accent.

    If you have ever sat through "Bonnie Prince Charlie" [1948] with David Niven as a platinum blonde prince or the musical "Brigadoon" [1954] with Cyd Charisse singing a ballad in a Scottish brogue it really is enough to put you off the country for ever.