Friday, December 10, 2010

Jack Warner and Stage Adaptations

The Man Who Came to Dinner is on as I write, an adaptation of a stage play that sticks as close to the original as a movie can get away with: though it "opens up" the play by adding some outdoor scenes or moving some scenes to different rooms in the house, it carries over large chunks of the play unchanged, and doesn't try that hard to disguise the fact that the whole play (like most stage comedies of the era) took place on a single set.

I'm not saying this to criticize the movie, just to make an observation about stage adaptations from this studio, Warner Brothers: it seems to me like when Jack Warner bought a play, he preferred to adapt it for the screen with as few changes as possible. At WB in the '40s, '50s and '60s, Broadway-to-Hollywood adaptations often included a relative minimum of changes to the structure or story of the original play, and frequently used people from the original production.

The same year as Dinner, WB also adapted James Thurber and Elliott Nugent's play The Male Animal. While this adaptation was tinkered with more than most (the ending was changed to something more upbeat), a lot of it is very faithful, and Warner hired the play's original writer and star, Elliott Nugent, to direct the film. The Voice of the Turtle, also based on a play that starred Nugent, has to do some rewrites because of censorship, but is still pretty recognizably a filmed play.

Then you have the '50s Warner productions that are almost like co-productions with the original Broadway production. It started with A Streetcar Named Desire: same director as the original, much of the same cast, with one principal role (Blanche) re-cast with a movie star. This pattern was used in the two George Abbott adaptations, The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees: everybody from the Broadway show except one star. (I hate to say it, but Pajama Game might be better off if more of the Broadway cast had been replaced. John Raitt and Carol Haney don't come off well on the screen.) When director Mervyn LeRoy came back to Warner Brothers, most of his work was on extremely stagey stage adaptations like Gypsy and Mary, Mary.

There are some WB stage adaptations that take bigger liberties. Arsenic and Old Lace makes some real changes to the play, probably because the director, Frank Capra, had more say over the script. But on the other hand, when Alfred Hitchcock made Rope and Dial M For Murder for Warners he didn't even bother including the obligatory outdoor scenes.

Other studios had a range of attitudes about how to adapt a play. MGM tended to be pretty faithful to stage plays (especially if George Cukor was directing) and less faithful to musicals. While over at Fox, wholesale rewriting was often the rule -- look at Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which has almost nothing to do with the play. Compare Warner's My Fair Lady to Fox's The Sound of Music the following year. The former uses almost the same exact script as the original play, all of the same songs, and even similar sets and costumes. The Sound of Music, even before the director came onto the project, had been rewritten and re-shaped quite a bit.

That this was a Warner preference seems to be confirmed by his biggest project after he left his studio: He may have decided to re-cut 1776, but it was also his decision to do most of it on one set with most of the original Broadway cast.

I don't know if this preference for more-or-less faithful adaptations is addressed in any Warner biographies. It might just be part of his economy-mindedness: don't waste time adding things to a script that's already been successful, and don't build a lot of new sets or go outdoors more than necessary. When his lieutenant Hal Wallis went out on his own, he had an approach to stage adaptations that was a lot like Warner's (in Boeing Boeing and other such claustrophobic films based on successful plays), so it might be part of the whole studio's aesthetic.


policomic said...

I recently watched "Dial 'M'" on DVD, and the extras included comments from the ubiquitous Peter Bogdanovich, who recalled Hitchcock telling him that he considered it a mistake for a movie director to attempt to "open up" a play. His philosophy on this, Bogdanovich said, was that if you had bought the rights to a successful play, you should simply film the play, because that was what you had paid for--not just the words and plot, but the fact that everything was designed to take place in one or two rooms. To "open it up" risked ruining what made the play work in the first place.

Steve said...

I believe "The Music Man" could be included in the list of stage faithful Warner musicals in terms of casting and staging, right down to the use of theatrical spot lighting at the end of one song. Of course, the kids magically changing into their band uniforms breaks into film technique, but even that is rather basic jump cutting.

Will Finn said...

I know it's simply a verbal change but a dear departed old friend (who saw the original) told me in the stage play of MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER the scandal revealed at the climax has something to do with sexual innuendo and the film "sanitized" it into a Lizzie Borden style murder. I never looked that up, but if true it wouldn't be the last time movie censors were far more comfortable with mass murder than sex.

Steve beat me to MUSIC MAN; HARVEY is another...

Jaime J. Weinman said...

Will: The original stage play is basically the same there as the film; the day is saved when Whiteside recognizes Mr. Stanley's sister as "Harriet Sedley, who murdered her mother and father with an axe."

Come to think of it, they must have had a tough time getting that by the film censors -- this and Arsenic and Old Lace feature more or less unpunished murderers. I guess it's okay because they're dotty old ladies.