Everybody thinks that classic films are individual, one of a kind. That sort of makes sense, perhaps it is this individuality that makes them classic. But some of the most beloved classic films had a past, they were remakes of earlier films; the most notable being silents but some interesting examples came from the most individual period in film history, Precode. Although, some remakes have distinct and novel components that make them worthy of study and praise, a lot have taken significant inspiration from their predecessors and have altered some parts to remain relevant to the different audience they are representing or attracting.
Even the most prestigious classic movie list – the AFI’s 100 Years 100 Movies – is peppered by films that were first conceived in the Precode or silent eras. The most popular is “The Wizard of Oz” (ranked 10 in the current list) which seems to be on a level of its own when considering it’s individually and, certainly, its esteem in the minds of movie-goers. However, few people know that the idea of “the wizard” was born in the mind Frank Baum published as “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” in 1905 and even fewer people know that that idea was first put onto film in 1925 starring the famous – but not recognised today – Dorothy Dwan as Dorothy. Understandably, no one can have the magic or singing ability that Judy Garland brought to the role and when looking at both films they don’t have a lot, other than the basic plot ideas, in common. But I cannot help but wonder whether Miss Garland and the MGM produces didn’t take even a little of the silent film as inspiration for what was to become a firm favourite among contemporary and modern viewers.
Silent to Classic 1#: The Wizards of Oz
Although, interestingly at number 41, King Kong (1933) has defied the issues of its age to become the only film in the list to overshadow its more modern predecessor. This fact is puzzling; although in my opinion the original is completely more entertaining than the 2005 version and, perhaps, its significance lies in the technological firsts that stems from the films creation and not the storyline.
More interesting, when you are looking at film remakes is when the original film was created in the Precode era. The central component of movies made between 1927 and 1934 is that they are focused on the concerns of the period – the great depression and the increase in organised crime, sexual revolution and the growing feminist movement. I always questioned whether remakes of these Precode favourites would be relevant to the audiences they were shown to? In the case of Scarface (1932) – a classic in its own right – and the arguably more famous 1983 version, a little chopping and moulding needed to take place. The most notable is the switch from liquor bootlegging – important as America was in the depths of Prohibition – to the more modern criminal activity of selling and distributing cocaine. But in this case the remake was produced after the Motion Picture Production Code was dissolved in 1966.
Precode to Classics 2#: The Scarfaces
Other, more interesting, Precode to classic remakes occurred during the period of staunch regulation and the strictly followed code of behaviour in between the years 1934 and 1966. Filmmakers could no longer explore the adult ideas of sex, drugs, violence and relationships as blatantly as before and, it seems, America vastly changed from the forward-thinking, economically-strapped time of the early 30’s to thoughts of the ever present threat of war. Therefore, remakes included extreme alterations: complete changes to the films endings, the characters careers and behaviours and even general semantics – what worlds could be used and in what context. Several movies suffered this fate. “The Letter”, first a novel by Somerset Maugham, was dramatised in 1929 with the famous but tragic Jeanne Eagels as its heroine. In this early talky Jeanne’s character kills her lover when he threatens to leave her and, after a lengthy trial, is acquitted thanks to the devotion of her husband. But this would not do for the censors watching over the production of the 1940 Bette Davis film of the same name, and the character is murdered in the final scene as a sort of penance for her actions.
Precode to Classic 3#: The Letters
Another example is the fight over “The Maltese Falcon”. The Precode version starring Richardo Cortez in the part Humphrey Bogart made famous decades later was having a very obvious affair with his secretary as well as the Brigid O'Shaughnessy character – later played by Mary Astor. There are unconcealed sexual scenes between the couples shown in silhouette or with tricky camera angles as well as the amount of time Bebe Daniels spent lounging in Ricardo’s apartment. But, as the code specified, scenes of that nature were out with the nature of central relationship, in the classic 1941 remake, left for audiences to assume and speculate. This situation is also shown in the film couples: Rain (1932) and Miss Sadie Thompson (1953) and Cleopatra (1934) and the Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor remake of (1963).
Most movies are bound by the time they were created. The topics, stars and production styles don’t often translate from one decade to another. For the lucky films, such as, “The Wizard of Oz” (1939), “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (1953), and “Maltese Falcon” (1941) that have stood the test of time, they are praised and continually presented to younger audiences while their predecessors are left to the attics and backrooms of forgotten film history.
Alice White (with dark hair) and Ruth Taylor
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