Thursday, September 18, 2008

Movie from the Novel

One interesting feature of the old Hollywood studio system was that a very high priority was given to the adaptation of current popular novels into film. Since the studios were cranking out movies at an assembly line pace, there was a constant search for new stories, grist for the mill. The studios had people on staff whose job was to read novels.

Some popular novels from the 1920s through the 1940s are pictured here in their original hardcover printings. Among them, I think only “Three Came Home” by Agnes Newton Keith, has not been reprinted. The others have all been at one time reprinted at least once either in hardcover or, more commonly, paperback in the last 20 years. I wonder to what extent the films made from these novels have contributed to their being reprinted.

It is probable that old movie buffs who enjoyed Ginger Rogers’ Oscar-winning performance in “Kitty Foyle” (1940) have never read the book by Christopher Morley, or “Gentleman’s Agreement” (1947), have read the novel by Laura Z. Hobson. Obviously these novels were popular at the time the films were made, but are no longer the touchstones of popular culture they were then.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee has justifiably become a classic and probably does not need the wonderful 1962 film to publicize it. It stands on its own as a giant in American literature. But these other novels might have gone long by the wayside were it not for the films made from them, which possibly maintain them as part of our cultural history.

The numerous incarnations of “Show Boat” on film and the stage seem to overshadow the original novel by Edna Ferber on which it was based, reportedly the first novel ever to have been transformed into a musical. “Mama’s Bank Account” by Kathryn Forbes and “Cheaper by the Dozen” by Frank Gilbreth, Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey were cozy memoirs of growing up in “the good old days”, a kind of fare that once was prime fodder for the movies. Today we’re more likely to read memoirs of dysfunctional families, and even those don’t always make it to film. It would seem that innocent books like these would lack a following today, and without the films that made them famous -- “Mama’s Bank Account” became “I Remember Mama” (1948) -- been relegated off the publisher’s back list to the anonymity of a public library book sale for stray copies.

Similarly “My Sister Eileen” has also undergone a number of film and stage versions, but the original memoir by Ruth McKenney is probably not at the top of anyone’s summer reading list today. They were delightful stories, told in the voice and style of their era, which is the point. They cannot be duplicated today, not with any authenticity. Just as one may examine 20th Century American culture through film and through popular music, the popular novels of an era lend a unique and valuable perspective, particularly on those interesting occasions when the novel is interpreted on film in a similarly authentic voice for its era.


Laura said...

Ooooh, what fabulous old book covers! I've read a number of these. My 13-year-old daughter is currently in the middle of reading MAMA'S BANK ACCOUNT which I discovered at the library around the same age. It took a long time but a number of years ago I found my own copy. :)

Best wishes,

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks, Laura. I think it's pretty fabulous that your daughter is reading "Mama's Bank Account."

Campaspe said...

I read a lot of these as a girl, mostly due to the movies. Mama's Bank Account was one of them; I should get a copy for my daughter at some point because I think they're wonderful stories that hold up very well. Ditto Cheaper by the Dozen and My Sister Eileen. Another book that made a beautiful movie: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I'm pretty sure I read Kitty Foyle and didn't care for it. I definitely read Gentleman's Agreement and didn't care for it--too preachy, and without Gregory Peck or John Garfield not nearly as absorbing to my teenage self.

I was also crazy enough to read most of Edna Ferber, including Show Boat, Saratoga Trunk and So Big. Not to mention Auntie Mame AND Around the World with Auntie Mame.

I think to this day that if a young person sees a good movie they may well read the book, it often worked that way for me. Of course you have to be someone who likes reading to begin with, and when I'm depressed I start to think there are very few of those left.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Hi Campaspe, thanks for your input. I really had no idea anybody but me had read "Mama's Bank Account." I'm surprised, but I suppose I shouldn't be. As you say, they're wonderful stories that hold up well. But they have just such a different tone from today's novels (which have such specific marketing labels - "cozy mysteries", "vampire erotica") - broken down into the most narrow sub-genres, that I would think a breezy old tale like "Cheaper by the Dozen" would be lost among them.

"A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" I would classify in the same vein as "To Kill a Mockingbird" - it doesn't really need the movie to recommend it. It's a giant on it's own, and I would hazzard a guess that more people have read the book than seen the movie anyway. It might even be part of school curriculum, and probably should be if it isn't.

I liked Ferber's "So Big", which reminded me slightly of Willa Cather. The neat thing about these novels is they all give a slice of American perspective. I was a New England girl who wondered what it was like to live on the great prairie, or down South, or out west. Those books took me there. We could see San Francisco through Katrin's eyes, and Brooklyn through Francie Nolan's eyes, and the big wide praire through the eyes of Selina DeJong.

At what point does the continued popularity of these kinds of books and the movies made from them become inter-dependent?

Ladies, how fortunate your children are that you are readers as well as old movie fans, and that you can share with them all these stories. Some day they will appreciate that and likely think of you when they think of these books, as I am invariably reminded of my own mother and father when I think of certain books.

By the way, going back to movies for a minute, "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" hasn't been released on DVD for region 1, has it?

Campaspe said...

No, it hasn't because it had the great misfortune to be made at 20th-Century Fox. I swear if I ever got ten minutes alone with Rupert Murdoch he would not hear a word from me about anything the NY Post or Fox News ever said or did. What he would be hearing about would be 'FREE YOUR LIBRARY!! WHERE THE HECK ARE THESE MOVIES?'

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Yikes, that explains it. Of what possible benefit could it be to freeze the library of films? I'll have to keep an eye out on the Fox Movie Channel, then. I haven't seen it in years.

Campaspe said...

Actually, I might save my final two minutes avec Rupert to rant about Fox Movie Channel! We were moaning about that in the Bigger Than Life thread. Really, really, really bizarre programming there, where they'll run Independence Day three times in a row and never show A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I don't know if I have ever seen the movie come up on the schedule.

Unfortunately for my fantasy meeting, nothing I have read about Rupert suggests he's a cinephile. Believe me, I have tried to find out. :)

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

I agree about the bizarre programming on Fox Movie Channel, a real pain. Your fantasy meeting is funny. Maybe a letter writing campaign by all of us malcontent cinephiles in lieu of you letting him have between the eyes in a closed door session.

Laura said...

Isn't it marvelous when you discover others have read the same relatively obscure books? (Such as when I discovered there was an entire BETSY-TACY Society...)

When I was in my early teens I went through a major Ferber phase. I think GIANT was my favorite. I love to pass titles of old favorites -- which I seem to have mostly discovered as a teen -- down to my kids. My older daughter has worked her way through James Hilton, for example. (My favorite there was RANDOM HARVEST.) I don't think I ever read MY SISTER EILEEN, I will have to look for that one. The Gilbreth books have always been great favorites.

I was fortunate to tape a copy of A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN off Fox Movie Channel a while back, but I certainly share the irritation expressed here with that network. Even with "old" movies they keep repeating the same limited number of titles. Each month if I'm lucky they will show a couple of titles I haven't been aware they've shown lately -- recent titles I've taped or will be taping soon are RINGS ON HER FINGERS and HAPPY LAND.

They need to free Loretta, Linda, Jeanne, Gene, June, and all the rest! I have sent a couple emails to the station urging them to quit showing things so repetitively and show more of their great library, but that was months ago and obviously it didn't do any good (grin).

Best wishes,

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

I really am surprised and pleased as punch that we've all read these books. We could start a support group. Your remark about seeing "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" a while back gives me new hope. I'll keeping waiting and looking for it.

Laura said...

On a whim I just went to the Fox Movie Channel website and input TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN -- and would you believe it's showing on September 30th and October 28th?! Get your recorder ready! :) :)

I share your pleasure at finding others who are familiar with the same great books!

Best wishes,

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Sweet Betsy from Pike! Bless you forever. Marking my calendar we speak. Thanks so much.

Thom said...

Jacqueline, just yesterday I ran into what may be an example of your interdependence theory of film versions and novels keeping one another in print. I just started the 1955 novel THE MAN IN THE GRAY FLANNEL SUIT. Reading the introduction, I discovered that the book was extremely popular in its time, but fell out of print until recently. Then I learned that also recently a DVD version of the film was released. Sheer coincidence or business strategy?

Either way, add me to the list of those who can't resist hunting down novels after seeing a film version. I've also found that writing about movies has led me to read or re-read quite a few of the novels on which the screenplays in question are based--LAST OF THE MOHICANS, FRANKENSTEIN, LITTLE CAESAR, THE SECRET AGENT, etc. I'm still trying to get a hold of PORTRAIT OF JENNY

Oh, and I'll add my voice to the shouts for Kazan's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. We need a release! On Blu-ray! With lots of extras.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Another one joins the club. Glad to have you with us, Thom. Interesting about "Man in the Grey Flannel Suit" possible coincidence or not.

I agree about the lots of extra for a release of "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn." What a shame though that so many people involved with the classic films are not gone and can't give us their input on the commentary. Somebody might have a filmed interview with author Betty Smith maybe, but nobody ever thought back in the day to interview the actors.

"Portrait of Jennie" is a beautifully written book, I think still available in paperback. Blogged on it, the book as a comparison to the novel some time back, and the author of the musical stage play based on the story was kind enough to submit a comment.

Carrie Liz said...

Seems most of the reading I do is of books made into films. Currently I'm alternating between Raffles by E.W. Hornung and The Enchanted Voyage by Robert Nathan. (In fact, your post on Portrait of Jennie is what first alerted me to Nathan's work, and a lovely post it was--thank you for it.) Nathan's Enchanted Voyage was made into Wake Up and Dream (1946), which will be airing on the Fox Movie Channel on October 21.

I had a lovely time, several years ago, reading The Ghost and Mrs. Muir by R.A. Dick. I'm afraid the details are a little foggy to me now, but I believe the Captain does convince Mrs. Muir that their relationship was only a dream, as you wondered in your post about the movie.


Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Hi, Carrie, and thank you so much for visiting us and for your comments. Thanks for your input on "The Ghost and Mrs Muir" novel. I've never been able to find that one. I still haven't read it.

Robert Nathan's work always had that ethereal, otherworldly quality to it. Thanks for the notice on "Wake Up an Dream" coming up.

It seems more people than I realized are hunting down original novels from which so many old movies were made.

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