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Monday, May 08, 2023

Book v. Film Being Contest To Never End

Did Best-Sellers Make Best Movies in 1939?

Heard of 1939’s Disputed Passage? Based on a best-selling novel from that year, it went largely unseen till recent when Kino issued a Blu-Ray. Disputed Passage author Lloyd C. Douglas was recognized as truth teller in print, a fisher of men whose The Robe and Magnificent Obsession were musts among thinkers plus seekers after entertainment. Readers emerged from Douglas spiritually whole, his repeated theme science as augment to the soul, but no substitute for it. Douglas evangelized from his Sunday pulpit in addition to writings sold quick wherever tendered. Books start hot, cool fast, it seems, more than music or film of past times. To review texts as consumed in 1939 is to know what today is barely known, top ten as follows: Rebecca (Daphne de Maurier), Wickford Point (John P. Marquand), Escape (Ethel Vance), Disputed Passage (Lloyd C, Douglas), The Yearling (Margorie Kinnan Rawlings), The Tree of Liberty (Elizabeth Page), The Nazarene (Sholem Asch), and Kitty Foyle (Christopher Morley). Which ring familiar? I submit those adapted to movies, the balance obscure. Who has read any of the lot, this not argumentative, but honest inquiry. Peruse of Rebecca might follow a view of Selznick/Hitchcock’s adaptation for purpose to compare, but consuming 135,285 words after 130 minutes spent already with the screen? That’s a lot of Rebecca, so much as to classify as research rather than recreation, done toward earning some degree or other. And what of the rest? There is The Yearling and Kitty Foyle, known if by comparative few as writing or pictures, The Yearling regarded once as gift to youth and parents besides, but who of latter will bestow it upon children in 2023? Of The Tree of Liberty, Wickford Point, and The Nazarene, I will defer comment for total ignorance across respective boards.

Question is which survives better, novels or movies? I chose 1939 for its being banner year for film, so say many. Think of all that still entertains from then. Better yet, list them, if not on paper, at least in your head. Use paper, cause chances are it will be a long list. Now do the same with books from same vaunted year. What of these have you read? Answer as to me: none … at least so far. Many call out movies for being “dated.” To that argument, I submit Escape, by Ethel Vance, an anti-Nazi novel that became an anti-Nazi film, sugared to extent by Norma Shearer and Robert Taylor, shown still by TCM and sold by Warner’s DVD Archive. For every modern having watched Escape, I’ll wager not one ever read the book. Latter beyond best-selling in 1939 became a Photoplay edition in 1940, reprinted in 1942, softbound for revive during the sixties, otherwise gone. Was Escape ever assigned to students of literature? Not that I’m aware of, having checked surveys of twentieth-century writing, bare, if that, mention of Ethel Vance (a nom-de-plume) or her actual name, Grace Zaring Stone. Let’s never mind movies a moment and consider music. What of a Hit Parade from 1939 remains viable? I checked an online list from which many if not all were recognized. Where the title failed to register, a quick excerpt did, as in Oh, yes, that one. As proposed before, music sticks longer in large part because it goes down smoothest, certainly in shortest time.

Two-three minutes I gave following tunes to refresh memory, and each clicked: Cherokee (Charlie Barnet), Sunrise Serenade (Glen Gray), And the Angels Sing (Benny Goodman), In the Mood (Glenn Miller), more. These play Spotify as I write, thirty songs heard in time it would take to watch one feature, let alone what was needed to get through mere portion of a novel. Does listening trump watching, which itself trumps reading? Music in relaxed state is passive engagement, while movies require focus to best enjoy, a book more so (most books anyway). How often do we “read’ a page, reel in attention drifted elsewhere, then start paragraphs over for having wandered? That happens with music too of course. Think of a song that just ended and you don’t recall what it was, especially one heard incessant over widening expanse of years. What movie have any of us have seen a thousand times, let alone a book as oft read? Songs surely lead among arts for sheer repetition alone. Singles bought young on 45 RPM, then had on cassette, disc, now online. How many times have I listened to this or that song over such haul? --- surely a number beyond calculation. To finish any book is considered by most an accomplishment. I’m always proud to close one. Meaningful post-credits to Disputed Passage: Lloyd C. Douglas at his desk inscribing a copy of the source novel to Paramount, thanking the company for integrity they preserved of his novel. Fidelity to literature was Hollywood aim, at least the suggestion of it. They knew true art was understood to be a singular endeavor. Film as collectively created was for that reason alone a disqualification. Art is art for one person having generated it. From conviction as to that came the auteur theory. What of any group offering is respected a same? Think absurdity of present-day Disney writing by cooperative committee (regular meetings of a dozen or more to compose a script), or seeming sci-fi of AI scripting, except here is robotic reality already arrived. Filmmaking sufficiently corporate wants singular and single-minded creatives about like they want snake bite.

Painted to Illustrate a Magazine Story, But Who'd Not Call It Art?

Can any artist who needs help still be called an artist? Architects perhaps, famous enough ones. Think Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, or Egyptians that dreamed up pyramids. They got credit for being in charge, but where does that leave quarry help or them what dragged stone across deserts? Art created for commercial purpose remains suspect, which is why Illustration Art got short shrift till collectors showed a hidebound establishment how much they were willing to spend for privilege of owning it. Now Illustration Art hangs in galleries (note use of caps ... product of my being a fan). Pity so much got tossed once publishers had their use of it. Artists too popular will be underestimated. Humorists too were told to get serious if they wanted respect. The heavier a novel, the better. Rachel Field’s All This and Heaven Too best-sold in its day, Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath close behind, the latter still lauded, if not read. Ms. Field’s offering at 608 pages was elephantine enough for Bette Davis to step out of a book tall as she and co-star Charles Boyer for Warner Bros. ads. Picture makers sought prestige because this, plus stars and enough gloss, spelled money to make bend-over-backwards worthwhile. Selznick prospered for adherence to mammoth selling Gone With the Wind and then Rebecca. He knew better than to let Alfred Hitchcock make an Alfred Hitchcock movie out of what was understood to be a Daphne de Maurier movie. I intend to ask the next academic encountered if any 1939 novel is taught anywhere. I bet none, and that includes toniest of the lot, The Grapes of Wrath. Prestige of latter led then and still would over one like Kitty Foyle, but her story sold a million copies during 1939, cash recipients caring less over which novel got more plaudits.

But what is Kitty Foyle, a person, or cat or who? Everyone by 1940 knew, including Ginger Rogers who won an Academy Award for playing her. I’ll not be millionth and one to read the book but am intent on watching Kitty Foyle this very night, event to be reported upon come morning. 2:55 AM: Good enough film, if a cleansing of Christopher Morley’s novel where Kitty lies down with her beloved and gets up with child she’ll then abort, impossible content for RKO and undoubtedly a letdown for readers who attended Kitty Foyle in good faith. Patronage however knew the rules after six years of stricter Code application, so took appealing Ginger Rogers in trade for source honesty. Such was bargaining Hollywood and fanbase understood and accepted. Integrity of literature was less sacrosanct where adapted book was merely popular. The Grapes of Wrath differed for measures required to preserve what readers and certainly reviewers called important if not seminal content. Essentials of Kitty Foyle in print and on film had been done before, in fact was a precode fixture, while The Grapes of Wrath took bows as boldest statement of then-time. Novels were catnip for titles and content customers knew from word-of-mouth. You didn’t have to read a hot book to smell its sizzle, as plenty who knew text would tip you off. These were crowds Hollywood relied upon to swell attendance. Kitty Foyle in print dealt sex and profanity --- would RKO buck the system and serve those? Short answer was no. Authors deplored the sellout but kept on selling out. Literary properties industry-bought beat publishing commissions every time. What nettled was heading west at weekly fee to script your work for lots more cash only to find they owned not just the novel but the novelist. Writers could let that break them or get cynical as first checks cleared. The more sensitive fell victim and perished, Scott Fitzgerald notably, him put to smithy task not on his own creations but those of others who had not his literary gift, but knew better how to write movies that would play.


Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Hi, John -- I couldn't resist answering your question:

What movie has any of us have seen a thousand times, let alone a book as oft read?

TWO TARS with Laurel & Hardy, which I have seen more than 1,300 times.

True. I was working as the film librarian and projectionist in an antique-auto museum, which gave shows hourly. I had to watch the picture while it ran, to make sure the taped music track stayed in synchronization. I ran through six prints in five years.

7:28 AM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Pointless reminiscing. You've been warned.

In my own early 60s youth, recreational reading was less about specific books than about zeroing in on a genre, author, or series. What we now call "franchises", with their promise of a continuing known qualtity. Sometimes I think modern readers are reluctant to commit to a book of any kind unless there's an assurance there is, or soon will be, more of the same if they like it.

In our grade school library found heavily footnoted editions of "Around the World in Eighty Days" ("*wager = a bet.") and "Moby Dick" (detailed annotations on the minutiae of whaling). Conquered the Complete Sherlock Holmes one summer, and later my dad's beloved Hornblower books. Got into scifi, favoring short story collections of Asimov, Heinlein, and Bradbury. For the most part, any Real Novels I read were for school. Flashman, another of my father's favorites, appealed during adolescence for seasoning realistic history with comedy and sex (the antihero/narrator is an unrepentant lecher and coward setting down his memoirs in old age; since it's too late to strip him of a lifetime of honors and glory he's gleefully honest).

Not sure I ever scooped up a reasonably current bestseller except on vacations away from TV, and I grabbed paperbacks that were at hand. I remember "Ice Station Zebra" and "The President's Plane is Missing". Also Asimov's novelization of "Fantastic Voyage" -- when I finally caught up with the source movie, it was a letdown. My public library checkouts were mostly nonfiction (and 8mm films). A little perversely, I read (both tenses) more ABOUT classic mysteries than the classic mysteries themselves.

Eventually I did go through the "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" books as they appeared. And I've read assorted antiques, including "Graustark" (an American Ruritanian romance), a couple of Horatio Algers, and Christopher Morley's innocent "Parnassus on Wheels" (a feisty eccentric operates a horse-drawn bookshop pre-WWI). But to this day have little truck with bestselling fiction, unless it bumps up against another interest ("Seven Percent Solution", for example).

Realized a few years back I'd seen numerous Jane Austen adaptations, from vintage Hollywood to modern revisionist, without reading the books (I DID buy a heavily annotated edition of "Pride and Prejudice", and read all the notes). My sister said this was like going to Disneyland without getting on the rides.

6:41 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

"The Great Gatsby" has never worked well as a movie because its greatness lies in Fitzgerald's prose. Same with "Catcher in the Rye", where Holden Caufield's narration is what makes it a classic. As I read "Catch-22" in high school, I wondered how it possibly worked as a movie. Same with "Johnny Got His Gun".

And thank the movie gods that "Confederacy of Dunces" has never been filmed no matter how many times it's been announced. If they filmed it as written, its grotesque characters and situations would be unwatchable. If they cleaned it up, it wouldn't be true to the source. But as a book, it's brilliant. Some novels should remain novels.

11:58 AM  
Blogger rnigma said...

"Escape" certainly had an impact upon Charles Busch, who based his play "The Lady in Question" largely upon it, even using Bob Taylor's line "I've had it up to here!" (with Nazism, holding up his arm in a sieg-heil salute).

5:30 PM  
Blogger Pacocat said...

Sometime in the early '70s, when I was about 15, I saw "Kings Row" with my dad at one of the revival theaters that were around the LA area at that time (probably the Encore, on Melrose - anybody out there remember that place?) I was intrigued enough by the movie to search out the book, and found a dusty old copy on the shelves of my local library. I enjoyed it enough to try some of the other bestseller/movie adaptions from that era ("Anthony Adverse", "Northwest Passage", etc.) but never got very far in 'em. The style of those seemed antiquated to me, though they were at that time only about forty years old. "Kings Row" was much more readable.
Maybe I should give those others another try after all these years; they sound more appealing than most of what's being published nowadays...

9:54 AM  
Blogger Lou Lumenick said...

"The Tree of Liberty'' was filmed as the lethally dull "The Howards of Virginia" (1940).

9:43 PM  

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