I had the very good fortune to host a film panel discussion at a Comic Convention. We were treated to some excellent questions. The subject of remakes came up – to which I responded with the adage, “That for every idea redone there is a new idea left on the scrap heap.” An attendee stated that remakes are sometimes the only way people learn about past productions. She would not have known the other versions existed if it wasn’t for the remake she was seeing now. You know, she is right.
Makeup Artist Rick Baker – known for his love of Universal monsters and their legacy – expressed a similar view when he said that a remake is good when you take the idea of the original film and build off it. I think it’s wonderful when you go back to the source material of the original and utilize those elements you were not able to use due to time or budget. While not necessarily in the scope of classic Hollywood, Robert Rodriquez did just that when he directed El MARIACHI (1992) and remade the same picture on a larger budget retitled, DESPERADO (1995).
The ongoing battle film makers have today is hugely different from that of yesteryear. The systems of delivery such as video streaming open up who new ways to get work seen; yet they often come with a saturation of material. Material produced isn’t actually viewed by people in its entirety which is a double edged sword in that it makes the film maker hit the story hard in order to maintain interest. The work available on video streaming is what studio would call, ‘the pitch,’ in the first few minutes. The pitch was a great catalyst in Robert Altman’s 1992 picture, THE PLAYER, which was just a mass of free flowing fun with a dark side.
The Preston Sturges film, SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS (1941), is another satire or indictment of the Hollywood system at that time to produce dramas when people always want to laugh. Joel MacRae has a cynicism in his voice and his ways as he journeys across America (or what he thinks is far away, which turns out to be just outside Los Angeles).
He doesn’t really learn anything, and ends up trying to help Veronica Lake whom he takes under his wing to get her into pictures. He is also followed on his journey by a studio bus that dogs his every move filled with reporters watching out for their investment. It is only when the film turns dark with the incident in the box car, the kidnapping, and vanishing into the nightmare of prison life that the real lesson is learned.
THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939), and BEN HUR (1959) were remakes of original 1925 productions (WIZARD was also done in 1910) and we all know how they turned out. BEN HUR (1925) was actually from a 1907 silent short film directed by Canadian born (Toronto Ontario) Sidney Olcott. DR. JEKYLL AND MR HYDE has been remade many times with actors from Fredric March to Spencer Tracy to Jack Palance. Studios remade many of their silent films into sound versions to capitalize on the new thing. The MALTESE FALCON (1941) came from a 1931 production.
Personal favourite of remakes – I do have them – are A STAR IS BORN (1937) with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March and later Judy Garland and James Mason in 1954. Each version is different, mostly due to the chemistry between the two players. Screen charisma you cannot teach. Gaynor has a flare for comedy which comes out in the 1937 version. Garland has a quirky humour always tinged with pathos which opens up a different feel to the story. Honestly, it still brings chills when Garland stands up and proudly declares she is, “Mrs. Norma Maine” in the last scene. Is it the character we are cheering or is it Judy Garland? It doesn’t really matter what the answer is.
The remake has its place in Hollywood as it does bring a new dimension to stories or people. Today it could be argued that most achieve opposite result and simply become a platform to market merchandise. There are missteps like Tim Burton’s, PLANET OF THE APES (2001), redo of the 1966 Charlton Heston vehicle. I have read Pierre Boule’s book, MONKEY PLANET, and eagerly awaited the Burton film which lost the charm of the 1966 version because it was from that time.
Today the remake is a “reboot.” If the finished film gets people to watch the original then that is good. Some people are not interested in that as I am sure we have all come across people who will not watch a film in black and white or one that has subtitles. If these older stories get new people involved in the act of creating their own projects then perhaps we will have something to look forward to for the next generation. The drawback is that everyone has a camera, everyone has a story, and everyone is still influenced by the “Hollywood Dream,” of discovery which is accelerated now by technology. TCM’s Robert Osbourne was chatting about his life as an actor saying that he had no idea how someone would make it today as things had changed. The “studio system” is long gone and means new ways are being born faster than ever.