Is there anything calculated to set off the movie enthusiast like a remake? We just passed a week that offered us a new-and-not-improved version of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) on apparently no better excuse than changing the title to The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3. Presumably in our more frenzied time, it simply takes too long to spell out the numbers. Soon we’ll be seeing titles written in chatspeak. Oh, wait, the Christian “horror” film C Me Dance got there last year, didn’t it?
Before the year is out, we’ll have Joe Johnston’s The Wolf Man, based on the 1941 film, The Wolf Man—and apparently offering us something like the original if we judge by the character names. It remains to be seen if Benicio Del Toro in the title role will actually follow in Lon Chaney Jr.‘s paw prints and opt for special “and Benicio Del Toro as The Wolf Man” billing on the credits. There is, of course, much angst in fandom over what this new version will do to the original classic. The truth, of course, is that the new version won’t actually do anything to the original—except probably prompt Universal to release a third DVD of the 1941 film. The old film isn’t going anywhere and it isn’t going to change.
It might be as well to ask ourselves just exactly how much of a classic The Wolf Man really is. Sure, horror fans of my generation love the movie. And I suspect that it would also attract any group of pubescent boys. It’s the perfect horror picture for anyone going through that awkward stage, because that age range is just right to identify with Chaney’s oafish, blundering Larry Talbot, who’s going through changes he can neither understand, nor control. Looked at from an adult standpoint—and divorcing one’s self from nostaglia—it might be noted that it’s a very imperfect movie that wastes perhaps the strongest cast Universal ever assembled—Claude Rains, Bela Lugosi, Warren William, Patric Knowles, Ralph Bellamy—in order to showcase their new horror star, Lon Chaney Jr.
It’s hard, I grant you, to put away whatever opinion we formed of it in childhood. I certainly have warm feelings for it. It was the second movie—the first being The Mummy’s Tomb (1942)—on the double bill of the first “Shock Theater” I ever stayed up for (and by myself, too). I thought it was simply the greatest thing I’d ever seen and that old Lon was absolutely wonderful. I was also about nine years old. I still have that memory, but I can also see the wasted cast, the rear-screen, the model work (is that really cigarette smoke wafting out of the chimney of Talbot Castle?), and the film’s clunky structure. I doubt I’m ever going to feel any kind of nostalgia for the new version, but I certainly realize that there’s a chance that it’ll actually be a better movie.
Apart from that, though, it’s as well to put the whole concept of remakes into some kind of perspective while we piss and moan about this or that remake coming along and playing havoc with some well-loved classic or even marginal classic. We like to bemoan the lack of originality in today’s movie-making world, but step back for a minute. Hollywood didn’t just suddenly become unoriginal, venal or stupid. This is by no means a recent occurrence. I’m not sure exactly when it started, but it certainly existed in the 1930s.
Studios then, as now, bought properties and they retained the rights to those properties. It was therefore not in the least unreasonable to dust them off occasionally and cobble together a new version. In fact, it made even more sense in an era when movies were by and large a here-today-gone-tomorrow proposition. Warner Bros., for example, paid good money for the rights to the play Five Star Final in 1931, so why not get some more good out of it by remaking it as a B picture called Two Against the World in 1936? Studio scribes could even freshen it up by turning it into an expose of unethical radio broadcasters rather than tabloid journalists.
You won’t find too many people complaining about John Huston’s 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon, but it’s actually the second remake of the Dashiell Hammett novel. This, however, raises the separate question of whether or not a film is actually a remake if it’s based on something other than a film. That’s reasonable. You’d hardly call Terence Fisher’s Horror of Dracula (1958) a remake of Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931). And whatever you might call Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 Bram Stoker’s Dracula (and I can think of some pretty choice things to call it), you wouldn’t call it a remake of either one. They’re all adaptations of other sources than the previous films.
Similarly, there were two separate versions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1920. They share a source, but neither is a remake of the other, nor are the remakes of the 1912 one reel version of the book. Even taking this kind of thing into account, it would be hard—if you compare Huston’s Maltese Falcon to Roy Del Ruth’s 1931 version—to argue that the Huston film isn’t a remake. It’s obvious that Huston saw the first version and took more than a few pointers from it. Huston’s film is still the more highly regarded. Blame that on Bogart if you like. Or blame it on the fact that Huston gave the story its mythological heft by way of Shakespeare (“the stuff that dreams are made of”). It doesn’t matter, it’s still a remake.
There are, of course, other reasons for remakes. The George Arliss talkies Disraeli (1929), The Green Goddess (1930), The Millionaire (1931) and The Man Who Played God (1932) are all remakes of silent George Arliss pictures. (It took me years to realize that a lobby card from The Man Who Played God that I bought from a poster dealer in New York showed a scene I’d never seen in the film because the card was from the silent movie.) It made sense that Arliss would reprise his greatest hits from the silent era as talkies. The silents are hard to see these days (I’ve never been able to see a single one), but chances are good that the talkies are better. (Arliss himself never even mentions the silents in his autobiography.)
Other times we can find filmmakers themselves deliberately opting to remake one of their own movies. Tod Browning remake his London After Midnight (1927) as Mark of the Vampire (1935). Since the silent is lost, we can’t compare the two, but Mark of the Vampire is still one of Browning’s most creepily atmospheric movies. Frank Capra remade his Broadway Bill (1934) as Riding High (1950). His stated reason was that he’d always wanted to remake this film about a racehorse owner with an actor who loved horses rather than with one who was afraid of them, as Warner Baxter supposedly was. Whether that’s entirely true or not, the star of the remake, Bing Crosby, certainly fit his requirement. Of course, it probably helped get the picture made by using as much of the original supporting cast as possible—allowing for some economical recycling of footage (so what if they were all 16 years older?).
Alfred Hitchcock famously remade his 1934 film The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1956. His own take was that the original was the work of a “talented amateur,” while the remake was that of a “professional.” Personally, I’ll take the talented amateur over the extra 45 minutes of the professional’s work—not to mention Doris Day singing “Que Sera Sera” for part of those 45 minutes. I freely note that I am in the minority with this view.
One thing has definitely improved with the modern remake—the practice of suppressing the original has gone the way of the celebrated dodo. It wasn’t always thus. MGM was notorious for buying up the rights to a film and then burying it so that no one could compare the original with their remake. This happened with Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932). Here’s a case where the newer version of the story was indeed a remake, following the outline of the older film as closely as the censorship of 1941 would allow. They pulled the same stunt with James Whale’s Show Boat (1936) and with William A. Seiter’s Roberta (1935), keeping them from public scrutiny for about 30 years. If you’ve seen their remakes, it’s easy to understand why they wanted no comparisons.
Today it can, in fact, be in an old movie’s favor to be remade. To date, the only DVD release afforded Mitchell Leisen’s Death Takes a Holiday (1934) is as a bonus disc that came with the deluxe edition of Meet Joe Black (1998). It’s not, after all, as if you actually have to watch Meet Joe Black, though you may find yourself explaining to friends why you have it on your shelves. Similarly, Stanley Donen’s Charade (1963) may exist in a number of copies of dubious quality, since the film has somehow ended up in the public domain, but it appears that the only official DVD release from Universal is the gorgeous, anamorphically-enhanced copy that comes as a bonus with Jonathan Demme’s The Truth About Charlie (2002). Ironically, the disc that includes both films is actually cheaper than most of the public domain incarnations of Charade.
Demme’s The Truth About Charlie is an unusual case in the realm of the remake. It very much is a remake of Donen’s Charade, though a surprising number of critics missed the fact in 2002. However, the film is more than that. It’s as much hommage as remake, and it also includes many references to and outgrowths from the same French New Wave movies that had influenced the Donen film. This, of course, didn’t keep—and hasn’t kept—admirers of the original from trashing the film at every opportunity. It seems a very strange attitude to take about such a good-natured movie that was made by a guy who’s obviously nuts about Charade. Is it as good as Charade? No, but neither is it a bad film, nor an insult to the old classic.
Much the same can be said of the widely condemned Coen Brothers’ 2004 remake of The Ladykillers (1955). It’s both remake and hommage. The Coens aren’t just trading on the original. They’ve taken the premise and completely rethought it in quite different terms. It has its weaknesses, yes, but I like their remake a lot. I do not love it as I love Alexander Mackendrick’s original, but that’s no disgrace. I’m glad that both exist. I own both and I watch them both from time to time.
Of course, we’re not generally talking about pictures by the Coens or Johnathan Demme when we talk about remakes. More often than not we’re in reference to unregenerate crap like House of Wax (2005) or The Fog (2005) or The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008). These are indefensible on any serious level. They’re very obviously not the work of anyone who gives a damn about the original films (Scott Derrickson’s claims about honoring the original Day the Earth Stood Still are more hollow than Keanu’s vacant gaze). These are simply uninspired attempts to milk a few bucks out of an existing work. But are they really worth getting worked up about? Most of them have already been forgotten like the disposable commodities they are.
Remakes have always been a part of the movie scene. And as long as someone somewhere thinks there’s a nickel to be wrung out of this or that old movie, they’re going to keep coming. Have I ever gotten worked up over a remake? Oh, sure, but I’ve pretty much come to accept them as a fact of life. Well, alright, a few years ago there was talk of a remake of Ken Russell’s Altered States (1980) and I gave serious thought to marching on Warner Bros. bearing a large sock of dung with the intent of smacking sense into someone. Fotunately, the talk came to nothing so I wasn’t put to the test. On the other hand, there is talk that Neil Burger (The Illusionist) is going to write and direct a remake of James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein with Brian Grazer producing. I may have to look for that sock.