Tuesday, October 13, 2020

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Best Adaptation: 1931-32, Day Ten

Monday, we discussed the nominees for Best Original Story, as presented by the reigning winner for Best Adaptation, Howard Estabrook. Estabrook also presented for, of course, Best Adaptation, which saw three nominated films from a classic, an award winner, and a recent bestseller.

Arrowsmith was published in 1925, the ninth novel by Sinclair Lewis. Lewis won the Pulitzer Prize, but declined it, saying, among other things, that, "All prizes, like all titles, are dangerous." And here we are now discussing its feature film adaptation's Oscar nominations. Lewis is known for his socially conscious novels tackling American issues through various occupations. Among his best-known works are Main Street (adapted for film in 1923 and 1936), Babbitt (adapted for film in 1924 and 1934), Elmer Gantry (adapted for film in 1960), Dodsworth (adapted for film in 1936), and It Can't Happen Here (never adapted).

Bad Girl was published as a novel by Viña Delmar in 1928. She was 23 and it was her first novel, and with the provocative title and subsequent banning of it by some cities, she was bound to be a sensation. A novelist, short story writer, playwright, and screenwriter, Delmar adapted the novel for the stage, and would later write the screenplays for Make Way for Tomorrow (1937) and The Awful Truth (1937, nomination for Best Screenplay).

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde came from the 1886 novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a mystery with an unbelievable ending written by Robert Louis Stevenson. My goodness, you know Stevenson's work: Treasure Island (1883, over 50 adaptations), Kidnapped (1886, at least nine adaptations), The Black Arrow (1888, at least eight adaptations), A Child's Garden of Verses (1885). Jekyll and Hyde (as it sometimes known) has been adapted countless times, starting in 1908. This is one of the most famous versions, alongside the 1920 version with John Barrymore and the 1990 Broadway musical by Frank Wildhorn.

That's how they started; here's how they ended up:

Sidney Howard
based on the novel Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis
first of three nominations

Now, I've not read the original source novel, but I am familiar with the works of Sinclair Lewis, so I feel I understand the challenge of adapting one of those into a digestible and coherent 108 minutes. The current version is missing ten minutes due to the Production Code's enforcement on its re-release, and apparently John Ford was dropping scenes left and right so he could finish early and start drinking, but aside from Myrna Loy's mystery of a character, those effects are hardly felt. You still get a fully developed portrait of an idealist across decades of story, and it works!

Bad Girl
Edwin J. Burke
based on the novel by Viña Delmar and the play by Viña Delmar and Brian Marlowe
first and only nomination

She's a model who's tired of wolves and their wandering hands; he's a music store salesman wary of broads on the make. They quarrel on their first date, marry quick, and try not to disappoint themselves or each other. A movie about reg'lar folks with reg'lar problems, no flash or contrivances necessary, though the through-line of antagonism between hubby and his wife's best friend feels forced. It's nicely done.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Samuel Hoffenstein and Percy Heath
based on the novel The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert L. Stevenson
first of two nominations for Hoffenstein, first and only nomination for Heath

Its greatest strength is in its characterization of Henry Jekyll, who just seems to want to behave badly without any consequences and use science as the alibi. As Jekyll, he can be the frustrated but still handsome and promising youn scientist, chastely affianced to an heiress; as Hyde, he can dilly-dally with a music hall singer and beat the crap out of her whenever he chooses. He can indulge in every horrific reflex he can imagine, at no risk to his reputation. A complex, human story that sticks in the craw. 


Bad Girl won the first of its awards right here, but honestly, it's a movie that hasn't really stuck with me. And, obviously, there's one I like lots more. My vote:

adapted by

Tomorrow, the nominees for Best Director: Bad Girl's Frank Borzage, The Champ's King Vidor, and Shanghai Express's Josef von Sternberg.

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