American Plays and Musicals on Screen – THOMAS S. HISCHAK (2005)

 

American Plays and Musicals on Screen – THOMAS S. HISCHAK (2005)

  • American Plays and Musicals on Screen
  • 650 Stage Productions and Their Film and Television Adaptations
  • THOMAS S. HISCHAK
  • McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers Jefferson, North Carolina, and London
  • ©2005 Thomas S. Hischak. All rights reserved

The movies have been borrowing from Broadway since the first film studios on Long Island were cranking away at one-reel moving pictures and coercing stage stars and directors to cross the East River and provide their services. When the movies got longer, film-makers needed more substantial plots to sustain the action, so they started borrowing stories as well as personnel from Broadway. For a short time it was possible to work in both media: shoot movies during the day and perform on stage at night. The Marx Brothers, for instance, were making the film of The Cocoanuts in 1929 while playing evenings and matinees in Animal Crackers on Broadway. Had the movie capital remained in the New York City area, America’s film industry today would be similar to Great Britain’s, where top artists can do theatre and make films (and television) without leaving the London metropolis. But it was not to be. In the United States, with Hollywood and the movies on one coast and Broadway on the other, the crossover between the two involved geography as well as career transitions. Everyone agrees that plays and films are different, but no one has ever found an unshakeable explanation of exactly why something works in one medium but not the other. Yes, theatre is verbal and movies are visual. But many great plays depend on visuals, while some movie classics are beloved primarily for their talk. It is a commonplace that stage actors need to have a voice while movie stars need to have a look. Yet many performers make the transition easily from one medium to the other. Another generality: Broadway directors create pictures on a stage, while Hollywood directors choose what to focus on. But there are as many ways to direct a movie as there are theories on acting and directing. If a foolproof formula existed that could distinguish what elements of a play would be sure to work on the screen, there would be fewer mistakes and fewer embarrassing results. But there is no formula, and the history of plays-to-films is filled with inexplicable duds and triumphs.

All the Way Home

November 30, 1960 (Belasco Theatre), a drama by Tad Mosel. Cast: Arthur Hill (Jay Follet), Colleen Dewhurst (Mary Follet), Lillian Gish (Catherine Lynch), John Megna (Rufus), Aline MacMahon (Aunt Hannah Lynch), Lylah Tiffany, Dorrit Kelton, Art Smith, Tom Wheatley, Georgia Simmons. Director: Arthur Penn. Producers: Fred Coe, Arthur Cantor. 334 perfor-mances.

Pulitzer Prize. (Paramount 1963). Screenplay: Philip H. Reisman, Jr. Cast: Robert Preston (Jay Follet), Jean Simmons (Mary Follet), Helen Carew (Mary’s Mother), Pat Hingle (Ralph Follet), Aline MacMahon (Hannah), John Cullum, Michael Keanrey. Director: Alex Segal. Producer: David Susskind.

(TV 1971). Teleplay: Tad Mosel. Cast: Joanne Woodward (Mary Follet), Richard Kiley (Jay Follet), Pat Hingle (Ralph Follet), Eileen Heckart (Hannah), Shane Nickerson, James Woods, Barnard Hughes, Betty Garde. Director: Fred Coe. Producer: David Susskind.

(TV 1981). Teleplay: Tad Mosel. Cast: Sally Field (Mary Follet), William Hurt (Jay Follet), Ned Beatty (Ralph Follet), Polly Holliday (Hannah), Ellen Corby, Jeremy Licht, Betty Garrett, Michael Horton. Director: Delbert Mann. Producer: Charles Raymond.

James Agee’s novel A Death in the Family has more characterization than plot and the stage version was deemed by some critics more static than theatrical. Yet the portrayal of a family dealing with the sudden death of the father in a car accident was quite stirring on stage, particularly because of the superior cast. Much the same can be said about the film and two television versions of the work. Robert Preston gives a surprisingly subdued performance as the father in the 1963 movie and Jean Simmons is just as effective as his young wife. An out-standing cast was assembled for the 1971 television production though it lacked the atmosphere of the film. The 1981 television remake struck some critics as more melodramatic than tragic though some of the performances were commendable.

Helen Hayes and Lillian Gish – Promo for Arsenic and Old Lace

Arsenic and Old Lace

January 10, 1941 (Fulton Theatre), a comedy by Joseph Kesselring. Cast: Josephine Hull (Abby Brewster), Jean Adair (Martha Brewster), Allyn Joslyn (Mortimer Brewster), Boris Karloff (Jonathan Brewster), John Alexander (Teddy), Edgar Stehli, Helen Brooks. Director: Bretaigne Windust. Producers: Howard Lindsay, Russel Crouse. 1,444 performances.

(Warner 1944). Screenplay: Julius J. Epstein, Phillip G. Epstein. Cast: Cary Grant (Mortimer Brewster), Josephine Hull (Abby Brewster), Jean Adair (Martha Brewster), Raymond Massey (Jonathan Brewster), John Alexander (Teddy), Priscilla Lane, Jack Carson, Peter Lorre, Edward Everett Horton, James Gleason. Director-producer: Frank Capra.

(TV 1969). Cast: Helen Hayes (Abby Brewster), Lillian Gish Martha Brewster), Bob Crane (Mortimer Brewster), Fred Gwynne (Jonathan Brewster), David Wayne (Teddy), Sue Lyon, Richard Deacon, Jack Gilford, Billy De Wolfe. Director: Robert Scheerer.

One of the longest-running plays in the American theatre, this farce continues to please not because its characters or dialogue are of any interest but because of its wacky premise: two sweet old ladies murder off a series of old gentlemen who seem unhappy with life. Legend has it that Joseph Kessel-ring wrote the piece as a serious thriller and that producers Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse rewrote it as broad comedy. For decades the dark comedy has remained a fa-vorite with all kinds of producing groups, from Broadway to high schools. Frank Capra’s 1944 screen version opened the story up somewhat and kept the piece moving in a broad, rapid manner. Cary Grant, as the nephew Mortimer who discovers what his two elderly aunts are up to, gives a fever-pitch performance filled with so many double takes that he seems like a cartoon; possibly his best and worst comic portrayal. Josephine Hull and Jean Adair played the aunts on stage and on screen and they are the glue that holds the story together. The film also boasts a variety of delightful character actors in playful supporting roles. A very abridged version of the play was shown on television in 1955 and in 1969 the comedy was reset in the 1960s and clumsily altered. (Newspaper drama critic Mortimer became a television critic.) It is indeed unfortunate that this version was so misguided for it had a first-rate cast, including Helen Hayes and Lillian Gish as the aunts.

The Birth of a Nation – 1915 UK Programme

The Clansman

January 8, 1906 (Liberty Theatre), a play by Thomas Dixon, Jr. Cast: Holbrook Blinn, George Bee Jackson, Joseph Woodburn, Albert Lovern, Henry Riley, Grayce Scott, Samuel Hyams. Director. Frank Hatch. Producer: George H. Brennan. 51 performances.

The Birth of a Nation (Griffith 1915). Screenplay: D. W. Griffith, etc. Cast: Henry B. Walthall (Col. Ben Cameron), Lillian Gish (Elsie Stoneman), Mae Marsh (Flora Cameron), Miriam Cooper (Margaret Cameron), Mary Alden, Ralph Lewis, George Siegman, Donald Crisp, Raoul Walsh, Eugene Pallette. Director-producer: D. W. Griffith. In a Southern town during Reconstruction, an African American rabble rouser joins with some carpetbaggers to get the recently freed Negroes to terrorize the community. But the Ku Klux Klan organizes and puts down the rebellion, in turn terrorizing the blacks. During the play’s modest run, an African American group objected to the stilted melodrama, calling it “evil propaganda.”

But even that notoriety was not enough to interest playgoers and the play pretty much disappeared from memory. In 1915 D. W. Griffith turned to the Thomas Dixon, Jr. novel the play was based on as the inspiration for his feature length film The Birth of a Nation, the cinema’s first and most influential movie epic. The screenplay covers the story of two families during the Civil War and only the last reels are close to the stage play. African Americans protested then, and have continued to object, to the racist treatment of Negroes in the film, several of them played by white actors in blackface. As in the play, the Ku Klux Klan is seen as the savior of the white race and that also has bothered many over the decades. Yet there is no denying the power of the film and the many innovations it made in moviemaking. As for the original play, it remains forgotten. Footnote of interest: when the film was first released it was titled The Clansman, it’s more grandiose title came a little later.

I Never Sang for My Father

January 25, 1968 (Longacre Theatre), a play by Robert Anderson. Cast: Hal Holbrook (Gene Garrison), Alan Webb (Tom Garrison), Lillian Gish (Margaret Garrison), Teresa Wright (Alice), Sloane Shelton, Matt Crowley, Allan Frank, Daniel Keyes. Director: Alan Schneider. Producer: Gilbert Cates. 124 performances.

(Columbia 1970). Screenplay: Robert Anderson. Cast: Gene Hackman (Gene Garrison), Melvyn Douglas (Tom Garrison), Dorothy Stickney (Margaret Garrison), Estelle Parsons (Alice), Elizabeth Hubbard, Lovelady Powell, Daniel Keyes, Conrad Bain. Director-producer: Gilbert Cates.

This domestic drama about a man who can never quite reconcile himself to his difficult father was regarded as polished soap opera by some critics, deeply felt drama by others. But everyone agreed that the acting was distinguished, particularly Hal Holbrook and Alan Webb as son and father and Lillian Gish and Teresa Wright as mother and daughter. While none of the cast appeared in the 1970 film, it was pretty much a carbon copy of the play and also divided critics on its merits. Gene Hackman and Melvyn Douglas, as son and father, led the strong cast and they are all commendable, even if the material tends to depress rather than exhilarate.

Lillian Gish in Mr. Sycamore

Mr. Sycamore

November 13, 1942 (Guild Theatre), a comedy by Ketti Frings. Cast: Stuart Erwin (John Gwilt), Enid Markey (Estelle Benlow), Lillian Gish (Jane Gwilt), Russell Collins (Rev. Dr. Doody), Otto Hulett, Leona Powers. Director: Lester Vail. Producer: Theatre Guild. 19 performances.

(Capricorn 1975). Screenplay: Pancho Kohner. Cast: Jason Robards (John Gwilt), Sandy Dennis (Jane Gwilt), Jean Simmons (Estelle Ben-bow), Mark Miller, Jerome Thor. Director-producer: Pancho Kohner.

This must be the most oddball entry in this book. Mailman John Gwilt is so disgusted with life that he decides he’d rather be a tree. His loving wife Jane helps him dig a hole in the backyard and, taking off his shoes and socks, John plants his feet in the dirt. Neighbors mock him but Jane brings John a chair to make him comfortable and food to eat until he takes root. John gets discouraged and almost gives up the idea but one day he turns into an actual tree so Jane spends the rest of her days sitting in its shade and chatting with the transformed John. Ketti Frings adapted Robert Ayre’s story for the stage and the prestigious Theatre Guild produced it, though it only lasted a few weeks. As bizarre as the play is, it is even more bizarre that thirty-three years later the piece was rediscovered and made into a movie. Jason Robards played John in the 1975 film with Sandy Dennis as his wife and Jean Simmons as the local librarian who gives John the idea when she reads a poem to him. Despite the stars attached to the project, the movie seems to have disappeared without anyone much noticing it. But it is available for viewing and it is a curiosity, to say the least. Neither funny enough to be a comedy nor reasonable enough to be taken serious, the allegorical tale is a real puzzle, and not a puzzle easy to sit through.

Gene Lyons and Lillian Gish – The Trip To Bountiful 1953

The Trip to Bountiful

(TV 1953). Teleplay: Horton Foote. Cast: Lillian Gish (Mrs. Carrie Watts), Eileen Heckart (Jessie Mae Watts), Eva Marie Saint (Thelma), John Beal (Ludie Watts), Charles Slader, Will Hare, Dennis Cross. Director: Vincent J. Donehue. Producer: Fred Coe. November 3, 1953 (Henry Miller Theatre), a play by Horton Foote. Cast: Lillian Gish (Mrs. Carrie Watts), Jo Van Fleet (Jessie Mae Watts), Eva Marie Saint (Thelma), Gene Lyons (Ludie Watts), Will Hare, Frank Overton. Director: Vincent J. Donehue. Producers: Theatre Guild, Fred Coe. 39 performances.

(Bountiful Film Partners 1985). Screenplay: Horton Foote. Cast: Geraldine Page (Mrs. Watts), Carlin Glynn (Jessie Mae), Rebecca de Mornay (Thelma), John Heard (Ludie Watts), Richard Bradford, Kevin Cooney. Director: Peter Masterson. Producers: Horton Foote, etc.

The elderly Mrs. Carrie Watts is so unhappy living with her son and his scolding wife that she boards a bus back to her hometown of Bountiful, Texas, where she revisits old haunts and comes to realize the past is dead. Texas playwright Horton Foote wrote this character drama for television in 1953 and that same year it showed up on Broadway with Lillian Gish reprising her poignant performance as Mrs. Watts. While all the acting in the Broadway production was estimable, the play was too uneventful for playgoers and the drama only lasted a month. But interest in the play was kept alive with various regional productions and thirty-three years later it was filmed with Geraldine Page giving a moving performance as Mrs. Watts, winning an Oscar for her efforts. This time the piece was better received by audiences and the quiet little drama was a modest box office hit. The filmis slow and atmospheric yet the fine acting throughout makes it interesting enough.

“Way Down East” – Richard Barthelmess, Lillian Gish and Lowell Sherman

Way Down East

February 7, 1898 (Manhattan Theatre), a play by Lottie Blair Parker, Joseph R. Grismer. Cast: Phoebe Davies (Annie Moore), James O. Barrows (Squire Bartlett), Howard Kyle (David Bartlett), Minnie Dupree, George Backus, Homer Granville. Producers: William A. Brady, Florenz Ziegfeld. 152 performances.

(Griffith 1920). Screenplay: Anthony Paul Kelly. Cast: Lillian Gish (Anna Moore), Richard Barthelmess (David Bartlett), Burr McIntosh (Squire Bartlett), Kate Bruce, Mary Hay. Director-producer: D. W. Griffith.

(Fox 1935). Screenplay: Howard Estabrooke, William Hurlbut. Cast: Rochelle Hudson (Anna Moore), Henry Fonda (David Bartlett), Russell Simpson (Squire Bartlett), Slim Summerville, Margaret Hamilton, Edward Trevor, Andy Devine, Spring Byington. Director: Henry King. Producer: Winfield R. Sheehan.

Annie Moore was seduced and became pregnant but the baby died so she sets off to start life anew where no one knows her. She gets a job as a servant at the Bartlett estate but when Squire Bartlett learns of her past he turns Annie out and she makes her way through a violent snowstorm. The son, David Bartlett, has grown to love Annie so he rides out and rescues her then persuades the family to accept her. This classic melodrama had all the standard stage conventions, from the forlorn heroine to the storm, but there was honesty in the characterization and the emotional tug it created was not as manufactured as most “mellerdramers” of the day. The play was a success in New York and on the road for over twenty years and Phoebe Davies, who originated the role of Annie on Broadway, played it over 4,000 times during her career. Four screen versions were made of the tale, the first in 1908 being only a silent short. A 1914 movie told the story in more detail but it was the 1920 version by D. W. Griffith that became a silent screen classic with its famous scene of Annie, played by Lillian Gish, caught on an ice floe rushing down the river. The melodrama was filmed on a giant scale so that the story seemed almost epic in scope; clichéd or not, it is still impressive. The 1935 remake looked very old-fashioned amidst the smart, sassy movies of the Depression era and the stilted dialogue would have come across better on title cards than from the mouths of Rochelle Hudson and Henry Fonda as the lovers. It is also a disappointing film in its action sequences but there are some expert character actors to be found in the cast.

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