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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

DIDJA KNOW: Didja See?



Spencer Tracy and Irene Dunne play lovers split asunder and 
reunited in a spiritual way in A Guy Named Joe. 


Didja ever notice a glaring similarity between a modern movie and an earlier predecessor? Sometimes, the latter-made films are direct remakes; other times, they just bear a strange plot resemblance to earlier fare. I normally discuss this double-take analysis in my "Take One, Two, Three" articles, but today's offering is less in depth. Instead of re-hashing storylines and how they mutate from film to film, I instead offer up a new game of: If You Liked This, You Should Watch This. Since not all of the following original films were hits, it makes one wonder why studios would decide to reinvest in an already failed clunker; since some of the originals were great box-office successes, it makes one wonder why studios would want to desecrate an already perfect vehicle by re-doing it-- sometimes to disastrous results. In any case, here is the latest conglomeration of my congested, media-soaked head. You be the judge:


Angels in the Airfield


Steven Spielberg's film Always was fairly well received upon its 1989 release. An atypical romance with an otherworldly quality, it told the story of a renegade pilot (Richard Dreyfuss) who squelches forest fires. Due to his risky job, his girlfriend (Holly Hunter) is constantly in emotional turmoil with worry over his safety, and rightly so. He goes on one mission too many, and the cost is his life. However, he returns as a spirit, looking over his grieving love and getting mighty jealous when she starts falling for another guy (Ted Baker). An appearance by Audrey Hepburn as a helpful angel (left) also tipped the scales on this one, making it a well-acted, well-crafted love story for adults. BUT...


Didja see A Guy Named Joe? The plot is practically identical! Released in 1943 and directed by Victor Fleming, this film tells the tale of ace WWII bomber pilot (Spencer Tracy) who loses his life in the line of duty, much to his girlfriend Irene Dunne's despair. He is soon back as a guardian angel, who too is forced to watch his young mentor (Van Johnson) as he rises in the ranks as a pilot and falls for his girl. In both versions, the returning guardian learns with bitterness the love he took for granted in his life, overcomes his overzealous penchant for danger, and coaches the new, younger pilot into a better flier. He too overcomes his own personal envy in pushing his mourning girlfriend toward a love that he was unable to fulfill for her himself in life. The later film is admittedly a remake-- though, as 45 years had passed between pictures, few people know it! (Spence and Irene embrace next to Ward Bond, right). 


Two Little Mermaids


In 1984, the fantastical romantic comedy Splash hit theaters thanks to director Ron Howard. The unconventional tale of a young man (Tom Hanks) who falls in love with a mysterious woman (Daryl Hannah, both left)-- who turns out to be the mermaid who saved him from drowning as a child-- was an unlikely sensation that helped seal Hanks's reputation as the comic leading man of his generation. The mermaid, known as Madison, comes to land, sprouts legs, and hides her tail by avoiding water. As she acclimates to human life, she is forced to keep her true identity a secret from the man she loves, but eventually the truth comes out, and the befuddled (and a little grossed out) suitor is left with a harsh decision to make. With the help of his brother (John Candy), he decides that love is the only answer, and he forsakes his life on the land for an eternal swim with Madison. (It goes without saying that a massive suspension of disbelief is necessary to enjoy said picture). BUT...

Didja see Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid? It was produced in 1948 and directed by Irving Pichel. It too tells the unlikely tale of a girl with a tail. (Haha). This time, William Powell is the surprised recipient of aquatic affection, however, he is aware that the girl of his dreams (Ann Blyth) is a fish from the get-go. To boot, he is middle-aged and unhappily married. Hence, when he accidentally catches a mermaid when out fishing on vacation (right), he is both struck dumb and pierced with Cupid's arrow. He takes his prize home, where he moves her from the bathtub to the outdoor coi pond and tries to keep her existence a secret, though his shenanigans increasingly make him look as mad as a hatter to his friends. Though man and fish fall in love, in this case they admit defeat: their two worlds can never be one, and besides, Powell's character needs to go back to his wife and patch all that matrimonial business up. Because of the differences in plot, this is clearly not a remake, but with such an interesting spin on romance (or should I say, "fin"), you can't help but draw a comparison.
Knock Outs


There are a great many films out there surrounding the passion and the pain of athletic combat: Rocky, Cinderella Man, The Fighter, Golden BoyWarrior, Million Dollar Baby, etc. All of these films have some level of similarity in plot-- the underdog is put through the mill to overcome insurmountable odds and become a champion. Details vary, endings add new interpretations, but they all evoke the emotions of sympathy and aggression in the audience-- hearts with fists-- that makes this genre a continuing, surefire hit-maker at the box-office. The excitement of competition itself is enough to keep audiences coming back for more. Hence, much was made of Darren Aronofsky's recent take on the subject in The Wrestler in 2008. In this film, Mickey Rourke portrays an aging wrestler (left) of the comical yet intense WWF style, who struggles with the decision to give up the ring for a safer, more respectable life. The estranged relationship he shares with his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) and the complicated and not fully reciprocated attraction he has for a stripper (Marisa Tomei) adds to his personal frustration. At the end, a broken, wreck of a man, he decides that the only place he belongs is in the ring, where he accepts the mask of his caricatured self and faces daily, painful atonement for his sins. The brutally nuanced performance of Rourke brought the film a great deal of attention, and it was hailed as a creative and moving contribution to the genre, BUT...


Didja see Requiem for a Heavyweight? Though this earlier movie by Ralph Nelson (1962) revolves around boxing, the plot is uncannily similar in many ways to The Wrestler. Adapted from a televised production, the film stars Anthony Quinn as the aging boxer Louis "Mountain" Rivera (right) who is clearly on the way out. Battle-worn and suffering from punch-drunk dementia, he too considers surrendering a life of pain in the ring for a more simplistic career-- as a camp counselor. An impossible romance enters his life too with the lovely Grace Miller (Julie Harris), for though her heart goes out to him, she is intimidated by his aggressive presence and too frightened for his safety to truly fall for him. Torn between his manager (Jackie Gleason) and his trainer (Mickey Rooney), Mountain vacillates between his feelings of duty to pay off the former's gambling debts and the latter's concern for his personal safety and support of his retirement. After having his heart broken and humiliating himself in his failed attempts at normal, civilian life, Mountain accepts his fate as a puppet of the ring. He even sacrifices his dignity to do so, sells out, and becomes a gimmicky, cartoon-ish wrestler known as "Big Chief Mountain Rivera." He enters the ring to jeers and laughs, but is too numb to hear them or feel the punches anymore. While different in details, this earlier offering proves that The Wrestler may not have been the super-creative endeavor that we  origianlly assumed.


Re-Count


In 2008, the all-American nice guy Kevin Costner appeared in the film Swing Vote (left) directed by Joshua Michael Stern. In it, he plays Bud Johnson, an immature and under-driven father whose daughter holds the reins of responsibility in their small family. Disappointed by his apathetic approach to life, she tries to vote for him at the latest presidential election in their home state of New Mexico, however, a technological mishap causes his ballot to go uncounted. This minor occurrence causes big waves when it is discovered that NM will hold the deciding vote in the electoral college and-- with a 50/50 tie between the Republican and Democratic candidates-- Bud's un-tallied vote alone will make the national decision. Suddenly swarmed by the media and forced to take a stand for the first time in his life, Bud is politically seduced by both flip-flopping candidates-- played by Kelsey Grammer and Dennis Hopper-- and he finds himself interested and asking questions on behalf of the American people. In the end, he must step up to the plate and make a decision, but the process changes the man he was and makes everyone else question their own political and social stances. Pretty interesting concept. BUT...


Didja see The Great Man Votes of 1939 starring John Barrymore? Directed by Garson Kanin, this film is a nearly identical precursor to Swing Vote. In it, Gregory Vance (Barrymore) is a washed up widower and fallen intellectual who has found solace in alcohol. To his children, he is a sad genius, but to the world, he is a faceless night watchman. His life is turned upside down even further when it is discovered that he is the only registered voter in his district left to solve the latest ballott dilemma. A big mayoral election comes to the fore, and the politicians come calling with their governmental flirtations, trying to win his deciding vote. Just as in the later picture, Vance is forced to remember himself as a man, embrace his duty as a patriot, and emerge as an integral part of his community. He garners a self-respect that has been absent for years, and thus the respect of his children, though their presence in his life is being threatened by un-trusting relatives who want to take them away. Confident for the first time in a long time, Vance fights back the only way he knows how and manipulates the system that is trying to manipulate him, inevitably refusing bribes, turning on the wooing candidates, and making up his own mind. The final victory is a dual one in that he wins back his self respect and his children. Swing Vote (as far as I know) is not an admitted re-make, but the close resemblance of the stories makes it and The Great Man Votes at least fraternal twins.


Several Brides for One Brother


In 1999, Gary Sinyor directed the romantic comedy The Bachelor, (no, not the TV show). In it, Chris O'Donnell plays Jimmie Shannon opposite Renee Zellweger as Anne Arden. Jimmie and Anne have been dating for some time, and while all of their friends get married around them, Jimmie finds it difficult to commit. Begrudgingly, he admits that maybe it is time for him too to settle down, but when he proposes to Anne with the phrase "sh*t or get off the pot," she gives him the heave-ho despite her love for him. Unfortunately, Jimmie discovers immediately afterward that his grandfather has died and left him a $100 million fortune-- wth the slight draw-back that in order to collect, he must be married by 6:05pm on his 30th birthday... which is tomorrow. Jimmie tries to win back Anne, but she's still miffed, so he is forced to go through his little, black book and approach any ex that will have him-- but his proposal skills are so poor that none will. When word gets out that he is to inherit a fortune, suddenly he finds himself attacked by every woman within driving distance and literally chased down the street by thousands of females in wedding dresses (left). Long story short, he and Anne reunite, but not before he has learned that it is she he wants and not the cash, which is thankful, since they have run out of time. At least they have each other and are rich in love. Cute enough, BUT...


Didja see Buster Keaton's classic Seven Chances??? Released in 1925, this hysterical hit of visual mayhem revolves around Buster's James Shannon, who is a struggling broker and romantic underdog. Suddenly, he is alerted to the fact that his grandfather has died, and he will inherit $7 million if he is married by 7pm on his 27th birthday... today! Uh-oh. He quickly proposes to his girl, Ruth Dwyer, but she turns him down when his proposal insinuates that he has to marry any girl he can find and not her in particular. Offended, she leaves him to his typical bad luck, aided only by his partner and the lawyer who initially broke the news. He proposes to every girl in sight, but as he is not exactly the prototypical ladies' man, he is consistently turned down. His pals line up seven girls for him to propose to, but still no luck. While he takes refuge at the church, unbeknown to him, the word of his upcoming fortune is leaked. Awakening from a nap, he is suddenly surrounded by frothing females in wedding gowns (right), but he is too overcome and intimidated to deal with the situation. He runs, the ladies take chase, but he finds salvation in Ruth's arms-- she has forgiven him. The two are married at the stroke of 7:00 and live happily, and richly, ever after. Since Keaton and O'Donnell's characters share the same name, it is pretty clear that the later film is a remake. While both are entertaining, there is no match for Keaton, so if you are going to see either, see Seven Chances!
Lon-a-Thon


Since I start to implode if I don't mention Lon Chaney at least once a month, I have a few past-present film comparisons to go over in relation to his work. For starters: Didja see Ace of Hearts? Produced in 1921 and directed by Wallace Worseley, the plot involves a group of insurgents who, having for various reasons become disenchanted with the court system, take matters of retribution into their own hands in the name of justice. They choose various subjects, whom they deem despicable, and engage in a game of chance in order to decide which member of their tribe should kill the immoral infidel. Another member, Lilith, played by Leatrice Joy, deals from a stack of cards. The man who receives the Ace of Hearts is the chosen assassin (left). In the midst of the latest caper, a love triangle ensues. Lon's Mr. Farrallone is in love with Lilith, but so too is Mr. Forrest (John Bowers), whom she, of course, chooses. Chaos follows, with Lon as per usual sacrificing himself for his beloved, while the obvious questions of right and wrong and the hypocrisy of man are brought to the fore. BUT, you may recognize the storyline in 1983's The Star Chamber, in which Michael Douglas joins a band of fellow judges who are determined to bring justice to the criminals that they were unable to punish in a court of law. They meet secretly, dole out verdicts, and condemn men to death by their own means. Both films beg the question, What is justice?


Didja see Tell It to the Marines? In 1926, George W. Hill directed this masterpiece with Lon starring as the intimidating Sergeant O'Hara (right) who has been tasked with bringing latest enlistee Skeet Burns (William Haines) up to snuff. Hard-boiled, rugged, and self-sacrificing, O'Hara consistently butts heads with Burns over the latter's insubordination and their shared affection for base nurse Norma Dale (Eleanor Boardman). In the end, Skeet overcomes his own selfishness, toughens up, and fights alongside his mentor in a pivotal battle, proving once and for all that he is a man, and thus, a man worthy of Norma's love. After the younger man has served valiantly, O'Hara bids him and Norma adieu, and continues on, training the next chapter of weak enlistees. In this film, Lon forever set the unsurpassed bar on military tough guys that would be frequently repeated in various films, from Full Metal Jacket to Stripes. BUT, you may notice an uncanny similarity between the plot lines of Tell it to the Marines and 1982's An Officer and A Gentleman. Minus the love triangle, they are very similar in that Lou Gosset, Jr's Sergeant has to train and mature the headstrong and crooked new soldier, Zack Mayo (Richard Gere). Both films present the strange, macho love-hate relationship between the superior officer and his trainee and the arduous process the underling must go through to embrace maturation, responsibility, and eventually love, (in the latter film via Debra Winger).


Didja notice how many of Lon's early gangster films centered around Chinatown? In Outside the Law (1920), his dastardly character of Black Mike Sylva cooks up trouble for fellow crooks Dapper Bill Ballard (Wheeler Oakman) and Molly Madden (Priscilla Dean) in this neck of the woods. In addition, Lon makes his first appearance as a Chinaman in a dual role as Ah Wing, thanks to director Tod Browning. ~ In The Shock, Lon portrays Wilse Dilling, a crippled con, again from Chinatown (left), forced to do some undercover work for Queen Ann (Christine Mayo). He switches locales to a small town, where he consequently falls in love with good girl Gertrude Hadley (Virginia Valli) and changes his ways. Turning his back on the criminal life, he returns to the dirty underbelly of Chinatown only to save his beloved's life. ~ In addition, the gang of cons in The Miracle Man were assembled from Chinatown. Lon, of course, plays Frog in this picture, which-- thanks to his abilities of contortion as a salvaged cripple-- would be his big breakthrough. ~ And finally, one of the working titles for Lon's cop drama While the City Sleeps, in addition to "Easy Money," was "Chinatown." ~ BUT, did this influence the eternal movie on this geographical subject, 1974's Chinatown starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway? Director Roman Polanski's take on the city presents just as many diabolical components as these Lon predecessors, including corruption, violence, and incest. What is it about this place that brings out the worst in people, anyway? Whether in NYC or L.A, early Chinatown comes across as a today's Compton!


See what happens? Ya' go to Chinatown and ya' get Jack'd (aka Nicholson).

4 comments:

  1. Great post Meredith. Thanks for bringing up Lon. Like you needed a reminder?? (Loved Ace of Hearts) Am I in the minority that liked The Great Man Votes? I saw it when I was 15 and thought Barrymore's performance was great! Very observant of you to discuss the similarities between Tell it to the Marines and Officer and a Gentleman . Indeed, very much alike. Besides, where else am I gonna get a George W Hill reference? I would have enjoyed to see the work he could have produced had he not died so young . Ty

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    1. Thanks, Bill! I agree. I love John. He never disappoints. :) I know, so sad about George. He was so talented and gone too soon. Glad you enjoyed!!!

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