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Wednesday, May 9, 2012

CAST AWAYS: From Stage to Screen

Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Ryan Clash by Night and use a stage play
to take Hollywood by storm.

Some of our most iconic films were adapted from theater plays. This is but one of many pieces of evidence that it is a good story above anything else that makes a good film (are you listening Hollywood?). A lot of film actors, of course, get their start as stage thespians, and many have been discovered treading the boards of Broadway, off Broadway, or even off off Broadway. Cinema constantly goes fishing and poaching in these highly respected and esteemed waters, using the talents of the theatre mixed with the punch of Tinsel Town power to create smash screen hits. In some cases, the original theatrical cast is duplicated on the screen, with the play itself edited to fit into a two hour bracket of entertainment. In most cases, however, the cast and the script itself are heavily altered to fit into the world of movieland conditions, with a leading man and lady with more star power usurping the primary roles and the story acclimating itself to time constraints, current audience tastes, and-- of course-- censorship. Thus, theatre is looked upon more often as performance art while Hollywood is viewed as its more bastardized (albeit profitable) cousin: product-- art in a can, or should I say in the can.

In any case, it is the stories more popularly seen on the silver screen that touch the most hearts and introduce superbly written and acted productions to people the world over. It is films that we will honor and pass down to our children as a shared experience, whereas theatre is a once in a lifetime shot: never duplicated and never performed the same way twice. It makes one wonder and yearn for the chance to see some of the alternate performances that, instead of being left on the cutting room floor as in film, were left merely to history, echoing against the walls of so many great theaters. While screen actors never age and never die, theatre actors and their performances become ghosts as soon as the curtain comes down after the final act. Here are a few of the lost souls whose spirits were brought to life through other vessels on the silver screen:

Tallulah Bankhead (left) was... a character. James Cagney once said that acting was a "shy man's profession," because it allowed a more introverted or bashful person to become someone more intense, emotional, and outspoken. Tallulah must be the exception that proves this rule, for no character she played was as outrageous and gutsy as she. She bragged that she only came to Hollywood to sleep with Gary Cooper, which she proudly accomplished. She too drew gasps and chuckles from the set of Lifeboat when her soggy undergarments became too daunting and she decided to continue filming sans panties: a moment Hitch must have remembered with fondness. While she made quite a few contributions to the big screen, even being an early contender for Scarlett O'Hara, this earthy lady with southern sass remains most renowned for her contributions to the stage. She brought many characters to life for the first time that would later be embodied by different actresses when adapted for the screen. One such character was Mae Wilenski of Clash by Night, written by Clifford Odets and performed for the first time in 1941. Lee Strasberg directed the vehicle through its meager 49  performances, but despite its short run, it was still made into a film a decade later.

This time, Barbara Stanwyck (right) took on the role of Mae, with her name changed to D'Amato and the play's locale moved from Staten Island to Monterey. Fritz Lang used his genius as director to add as much gravitas as he could to what turned out to be another soapy B-film, which remains most notorious now for an appearance by a young, pre-superstar Marilyn Monroe. Since Babs and Tallulah had much in common-- both assertive, sexual women with notorious, husky drawls-- it is easy to see Tallulah standing in Babs's place at the helm. The film retains more cult than classic status, but Babs brings her usual guts to the part, invigorating the tale of a sexually undernourished wife in a cataclysmic love triangle with the dignity of truth as only she could. Tallulah wasn't an option for the screen version, most likely because her career had stalled a bit. She remained fairly busy on the stage and small screen in the '50s, but a life of hard living and hard drinking mixed with her hell-raising reputation made her a much bigger gamble than the diligent and consummately professional Stanwyck. In any case, Babs was a few years younger, so that also tipped the scales in her favor.(Interestingly, there may be more to the connection between Babs and Tallulah. When Louis B. Mayer once confronted Tallulah about her over-erotic nature, she shot back with a list of stars, including some from his own stables, that she had... made friends with. Allegedly, "Barbara Stanwyck" was one of the names. It shut the red-faced Mayer up quickly).

The same year that Tallulah was first breathing life into Mae Wilenski on stage, another one of her past roles was being brought to life on the screen, which may explain was she was unavailable to take the film role. Directed by Herman Shumlin, Tallulah had portrayed the infamous Regina Giddens of The Little Foxes at the National Theater in February of 1939 and then enjoyed an extensive run and tour. The play was so successful that Lillian Hellman adapted her own script into a screenplay in '41 with William Wyler directing. But Tallulah's busy stage schedule was not the whole reason she was overlooked for the film version. Wyler had insisted on casting Bette Davis for the role of Regina (left), as he had been impressed with her vitality in their previous collaborations of Jezebel and The Letter. Jack Warner wasn't about to loan his top star to Samuel Goldwyn for the production, but Wyler stuck to his guns and eventually got his way. However, he did admit that Tallulah was an amazing talent, and prior to production, he pressured Bette to see Tallulah's interpretation on the stage-- which was still running-- if only to ensure that Bette bring something different to the table. Bette herself would admit that Tallulah was fantastic and had performed the role the only way it could be performed, which made crafting her own, unique characterization a real headache. Still, it remains one of her most iconic roles, and ironically not the only one she stole from Tallulah-- she had performed in the role of Judith Traherne in Dark Victory in 1939, which too Tallulah had immortalized on the stage. Essentially, Tallulah kept settin' 'em up, and Bette kept knockin' 'em down.

Though clearly an actress of great reputation, Tallulah was a die-hard fan herself when it came actors. One performance that left her in awe was that of Frank Fay (the ex-Mr. Stanwyck) when he starred in the lead role of Elwood P. Dowd in "Harvey" (right). Tallulah considered his interpretation of a kind-hearted man who sees and interacts with an imaginary rabbit to be "one of the greatest performances [she'd] seen." It ran for over 1700 performances from 1945-1949 on Broadway, being a smash hit and a triumph for Fay, who was still nursing a bruised ego after his divorce from Babs and his failed film career. Despite this boost in his career, he still wasn't hailed to reclaim his role in the 1950 film version, though his co-star, Josephine Hull, thankfully was, and it earned her an Academy Award. Instead, the most lovable and likable of all film actors was cast as Elwood: only Jimmy Stewart could play a complete loon and still hold the audience's favor. Still, with Tallulah as Fay's cheerleader, it makes one wonder what exactly he brought to the table that was so astounding, and so different from Jimmy...

James Stewart goes nuts (or should I say "carrots?") in Harvey.

Barbara Stanwyck snagged another role from a hard-luck diva: Frances Farmer. Farmer (right), while in the midst of her scandalous affair with Clifford Odets (wed to Luise Rainer), was cast in the lead female role of his production of "Golden Boy" when it hit the stage in 1937. Both members of The Group Theatre-- a precursor to the Strasberg method school that churned out modern, provocative work-- their combining forces in the story of a violinist turned boxer was sure to pack a wallop. At heart, the film was personal to Odets, who wrote it about the struggle between integrity/artistry and the temptation of commercial success. Many friends would say that he lost this battle when he "went Hollywood," taking his Golden baby with him. Frances, who was much more about the craft than the dough, was not invited along for the ride, as she had walked out on the play and Cliff when the affair hit the skids. She felt her star power had been used to sell tickets to the play and was tired of being used as, what she considered to be, Cliff's whore and cash cow. Thus, in 1939, Babs stepped on board for the screen version and coached newbie William Holden in his breakthrough performance. Bill had, coincidentally, nabbed the role of Joe Bonaparte from Luther Adler but also from John Garfield, who was a member of "the Group" and had been promised the part by Odets himself. Cliffy didn't come through, and the part went to Holden-- a test of faith that made a star. (This one was a bit of review from past blogs, but with Babs as star of the month, I thought it was worth repeating).

Another star moment was made when Marlon Brando brought his interpretation of Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire to the big screen in 1951. One cry of "Stella!" and a few broken dishes later, and Hollywood had its newest bad boy. Marlon was not the only gem poached from the original 1947 case-- both Karl Malden and Kim Hunter would reprise their stage roles as Mitch and Stella respectively, and Elia Kazan would too transfer his directorial efforts from the stage to screen. The only member not invited along for the ride was Jessica Tandy, who invented the now iconic role of Blanche DuBois. Initially, her ostracizing seems ignorant if not plain rude. After all, she won a Tony for her efforts, which had-- along with the rest of the original cast-- created a half-hour applause after the play's debut. So, why wasn't she brought on board? (Marlon and Jessica rehearse, left).

The decision was, as always, a calculated one. The play had received such buzz that it was essential to the studio to re-create the magic for the screen and capitalize. Yet, studio heads were insecure-- they craved star power. Thus, players were essentially traded, with Marlon being a necessity to bring his violence and danger to the big screen, and Kim and Karl allowed to reprise their roles because they were secondary characters. Jessica was deemed the expendable one. Since Vivien Leigh (right) had later portrayed the role of Blanche in London under hubby Laurence Olivier's direction, she seemed a safer bet for screen viewers. In effect, the gamble worked, for this contradiction between old-Hollywood (Scarlett O'Hara herself) and new-Hollywood (holy, shirtless Marlon!) created just the juxtaposition needed for Blanche's otherworldly quality within the gritty realism of the Kowalski household. One wishes there were a piece of evidence to give all Williams devotees a glimpse into Jessica's interpretation, but-- despite this unsavory casting coup-- Vivien still managed to earn the respect of her co-stars and her second Academy Award for Best Actress.

My Fair Lady (1964) was a film adaptation of the musical adaptation (1956) of the earlier George Bernard Shaw play "Pygmalion" (1913). Clearly, the metamorphosis of the cockney Eliza Doolitle to a refined lady was reflected in the story's own journey. The musical "My Fair Lady" premiered in '56 on Broadway with one of history's favorite songstresses, Julie Andrews, in the lead role of Eliza (left) and Rex Harrison in the role of her Svengali-- the crotchety, uppity Henry Higgins. Despite the fact that Rex couldn't sing a note-- a fact that he obviously knew full well when he panicked and locked himself in his dressing room prior to curtain-- his rhythmic talking and pitch-perfect performance coupled with Julie Andrews's consistent magnificence was enough to make the show a hit. The mockery of gender roles and classes and the superb score, with such hits as "I Could Have Danced All Night" and " On the Street Where You Live" resonated with audiences, and eight years later it was time to broaden the fan base. Hollywood intervened with its usual accuracy, and cameras started rolling.

There was but one problem, Julie was nowhere to be found! Her mettle as a film actress had not yet been tested, thus Audrey Hepburn was given the role of Eliza (right). Rex, who was a much more experienced film actor, was allowed to maintain his role of Higgins. Despite the casting snafu, the film remains a classic and a delight, with Audrey bringing her own lovable, romantic nature to the role of Eliza while simultaneously pulling off a stellar, cockney ignoramus-- "Come on Dovah! Move your bloomin' ahss!" Yet, the fact that her singing was dubbed (by Marni Nixon) worked against her, and many believe this is why her performance was not recognized by the Academy. Clearly, everyone was "Team Julie" that year at the awards, for it was she who won for her breakthrough performance in Mary Poppins. Rex, however, walked home with the trophy for Best Actor. As for Audrey, she took the snub like a pro, though she was deeply hurt. She had indeed recorded all of her own vocals and was shocked when another voice came out of her mouth upon the final screening. She was deeply hurt, as she had worked diligently on all her past singing roles, including Funny Face and the iconic "Moon River" of Breakfast at Tiffany's. Yet, it couldn't be argued that Julie indeed had a stronger voice. Neither gal harbored any hard feelings about the whole debacle, and both became good friends. In the end, they had Eliza to thank for bringing them together.

The Barrymore name still holds great meaning in Hollywood. John's granddaughter Drew has been left alone to carry the torch of this illustrious family of thespians, but their reputation remains in tact. However, as Ethel was almost totally devoted to the stage and John was-- at best-- inconsistent in his dedication, it is Lionel (left) who has the most impressive cinematic track record. He got his start in film in the late 1900s, but he too maintained his dedication to the theatre. As such, in 1923 he appeared alongside his wife Irene Fenwick in "Laugh, Clown, Laugh." It premiered at the Belasco and ran for 133 performances through March of 1924. It wasn't exactly a runaway success, but its modest audience recognition and its intriguing storyline was enough to gain Hollywood's attention... albeit not immediately.

A few years later, MGM was sifting through storylines when Laugh, Clown, Laugh was brought to its attention as a vehicle for Lon Chaney. "The Man of a Thousand Faces" had portrayed a clown before in He Who Gets Slapped. The role seemed a perfect fit for America's favorite character actor, who was known for his tragic tales of unrequited love. Since Lon did a lot of his own story scavenging, it is possible that he came across the script himself, or at the very least that he was consulted on it. Sensing another suffering heart, he jumped at the chance to portray the romantically tortured Tito and handpicked Loretta Young to star as his adopted daughter/love interest (cringe), Simonetta (together, right). As Lionel was a competent film actor but not a star of Lon's latitude, he probably was not even considered for the part. The film was a runaway success and also-- reportedly-- Lon's favorite role. Since Lionel was working steadily on his own, he probably didn't hold any grudges... but if he did, he got a little revenge when he starred opposite Lon in West of Zanzibar in 1928. His character in the film steals Lon's wife!

Jean Arthur (left) stands alone in history. Not for her acting talent, off-putting behavior, or cinematic resume, but for that voice! It is hard to purr and squeak at the same time, yet that seems to be just what she did merely by talking. As such, when Garson Kanin's "Born Yesterday" hit the stage in 1946, he had no other actress in mind than his friend Jean for the role of the abrasive yet adorable Billie Dawn. A rough around the edges gal trying to play it classy, Jean's duck-out-of-water persona certainly would have fit the bill. There was but one minor problem when it came to Jean-- her crippling inferiority complex, which consistently manifested itself in stage fright. She started numerous plays only to drop out or cause problems once they debuted. Such was the case with "Born." No sooner was she cast in the role of Billie than her usual neurotic antics began to surface. During rehearsals, she would take issue with the script, get nervous, panic, and withdraw into her dressing room, driving Garson nearly mad. Despite this, the play opened to positive reviews in New Haven and continued to fare well in Boston. Then, Jean's internal stresses asserted themselves in physical illness, and she claimed to have a sore throat. One night, in the second act, she completely blacked out and couldn't remember her lines. She finally alerted the production that she would not be continuing on-- doctor's orders-- and an unsuspecting Mary Laslo stepped in to temporarily take her place. However, Mary had been playing the small role of the manicurist and was unprepared to be a sudden lead! 

Enter Judy Holliday (right). With the Philadelphia opening postponed, the equally gifted and much less emotionally troubled actress jumped into grueling, boot camp rehearsal sessions. Had it not been for coffee, as she admitted herself, she may not have made it. By the time the show hit New York, with a new leading lady and a new third act, it was a sensation. Judy ran away with the role, making it her own. In effect, thanks to Jean's erratic behavior, Judy became a star! Hence, when a film adaptation was made in 1950, Judy was cast in the lead role-- not the original Billie prototype, Jean. Judy had worked in film before, her most noteworthy part being  in Adam's Rib opposite Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, who had both championed her, but it would be this film that would skyrocket her film career, however briefly. In this case, it was Judy alone of the main cast who duplicated her performance, for Paul Douglas lost his role of Harry Brock to Broderick Crawford and Gary Merrill passed the torch of Paul Verrall to William Holden (yet another stage nab for the Bill). In the end, no matter who it was performing beside her, Judy stole the show. It was her moment, and her take on the reinvented showgirl who finds absolution through intelligence-- and thus self-respect-- remains one of cinema's favorite comedic female characters.

Ken Kesey's book One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was so unique and powerful in its human appeal that it was immediately turned into a play. In 1963, the adaptation hit Broadway with none other than multi-faceted tough guy Kirk Douglas (left) taking on the role of feigned nutcase Randle McMurphy. Gene Wilder too was cast as the sensitive but disturbed Billy Bibbit. Joan Tetzel took on the role of the unlikely villainess, Nurse Ratched. It ran for 82 performances and definitely turned some heads! Over ten years later, the film was in the can, but the cast was different. As Kirk had no longer been considered young enough to portray the devious and rebellious Murphy, Jack Nicholson swooped in and immortalized the role. Since Jack always comes off a bit "cuckoo" himself (in the best possible way), the casting decision seemed to be kismet. Gene too did not reprise his role, instead handing it to off-kilter character man Brad Dourif. Danny Devito too contributed his uncanny screen presence in a small role. Nurse Ratched would be memorably played by Louise Fletcher, who garnered an Academy Award for her muted take on evil. Jack would too win the Oscar, as would director Milos Forman. However, best of all was the fact that the "Douglas" name would still be honored when Michael Douglas, son of Kirk, would win the award for Best Picture after serving as Producer on the film. Since his father helped bring the play to life, it was perhaps in honor of him that Michael even approached the project in the first place. Innovation seems to run in that family.

Jack makes friends (with "Chief" Will Sampson) and history in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

While one can't argue the finished products of cinema nor their hold on us, the re-workings of the casts in all of these instances is something to note. A few different ingredients, and you wind up with a vastly different product, be it masterpiece or dud. Since we shall never be able to compare results-- play versus film-- we are left only with the offerings our movie stars have left us. In the end, there probably is no better or worse, merely different takes. A film adaptation of a play is akin to the effect produced in re-making a movie: you're going to get a different experience with different players-- some will like it, others not. I suppose the good news is that we are so flooded with talent that we have all these different pools to pull from. Since it could be argued that Hollywood keeps making the same old stories anyway, there is some beauty in seeing the same old plays performed again and again by different actors. It would be nice to have all of life recorded so that there was no mystery about our creative past at all, but for now, we shall have to suffice our curiosity with our own wonder. And, of course, with the movies.


  1. Wow great blog Meredith. You really covered it all including a bit about Lon! Thanks

  2. Hahaha, I know. My blogs keep getting longer! But there were too many great examples in this topic! Thanks.

  3. Jean Arthur's Easy Living is a wonderful film, and so is her comedy with John Wayne.

    1. 100% agree! She was fantastic in just about everything. ;)