Classic movie fans are a protective bunch.
Don’t colorize our black and white films.
Don’t stretch our movies to fit modern widescreen formats.
Our classics are sacred. Hands off.
And one more thing: don’t even think about remaking my favorites.
That’s my motto – or so I thought. Then I was reminded how I really felt just by going to the movies.
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On a recent Sunday morning, I was at a screening of “You’ve Got Mail” at the North Park Theatre, a grand Buffalo moviehouse that is old enough to have originally shown many of the films we now fondly call classic. I have a ridiculous soft spot for this 1998 Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan rom-com about two people at odds with each other who fall in love through their anonymous emails. It is witty, smart, endearingly hopeful, sweetly romantic, packed with great characters and performances and, as a bonus, has a passion for the written word.
Every time I see it on TV, even if it’s just the last few minutes, I stop to watch – and usually sniffle a bit, too. There’s another reaction I have, too, as I did at the North Park that day. When Meg Ryan’s character, Kathleen, repeats the “Dear Friend” salutation from her emails, I hear echoes of that same phrase from the Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, movie “The Shop Around the Corner.”
And I was reminded that yes, my favorite modern film is a remake.
Let’s stop and rewind: Miss “Don’t You Dare Remake Classic Movies” here is in love with a film that is a remake of a movie … that is a remake of a stage play … that was remade again as a 1949 film … and again as a play. (That’s four remakes of the source material if you’re playing along at home.)
I knew that from the first time I saw “You’ve Got Mail.” Part of its charm is that the filmmakers were fans of “The Shop Around the Corner.”
Producer Lauren Shuler Donner, director and co-writer Nora Ephron and her sister, co-writer Delia Ephron wanted to celebrate “Shop” with a modern update. They paid homage to the original by keeping some cherished lines and scenes and even warmly named Kathleen’s small bookshop The Shop Around the Corner.
I can’t watch “You’ve Got Mail” enough, so how did I ever get it into my head that I was a “no-remake” person? I haven’t a clue. This seemed like an interesting idea to ponder (and at the same time make fun of myself) for Theresa Brown’s latest classic movie blogathon “Free For All” on her CineMaven’s ESSAYS from the Couch blog.
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I didn’t need to look far to understand the situation. Like any movie fan, all the answers to my life could be found in my movie collection. And there it was: My shelves are filled with remakes.
I have nine “Dracula” films on DVD plus at least three versions each of “Jane Eyre,” “Wuthering Heights” and “Pride and Prejudice” (with additional versions of all on the DVR). There are variations from the big and small screen of “Beauty and the Beast” and multiples of many other films including “King Kong,” “The Prisoner of Zenda,” “Sense and Sensibility” and “The Mummy.”
These are all great films. So what happened to me? More digging and I stumbled across movies I had blocked from my memory. The 1998 “Psycho.” The 1999 updates of “The Haunting” and “The House on Haunted Hill.” The grisly 2005 take on “House of Wax.” And in 2008, there was the double pain of “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and “The Women” (let’s not talk about that last one). Now I understood. A decade of particularly bad remakes of iconic films made me temporarily believe I disliked remakes.
No, I just disliked bad remakes.
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Remakes have been a part of Hollywood nearly as long as Hollywood has been around. The earliest one I could find was from 1918 when Cecil B. DeMille remade his own 1914 film “The Squaw Man” (both were silent). Then in 1931, DeMille did a talkie version of “The Squaw Man.” (At the time, remaking silents into talkies was becoming its own industry, but that’s another story – or book.)
Even the master, Alfred Hitchcock, understood the artistic freedom a remake could offer. In 1956 he took his well-regarded 1934 spy thriller “The Man Who Knew Too Much” and shook it up by adding color and songs – including Doris Day singing what would become her signature song, “Que Sera, Sera.” Many Hitchcock fans believe it’s not as strong a film as the original, but it’s still highly watchable.
So we can celebrate the great remakes like “My Fair Lady” (1964), a superior version of “Pygmalion” (1938), and our beloved “An Affair to Remember” (1957) which perfected “Love Affair” (1939).
We can say nice try to others that tried hard but fell short. Warren Beatty and Annette Bening’s real-life romance lent an unexpected emotional depth to their 1994 film “Love Affair,” but never have a chance of competing with the first two films. Steven Spielberg’s well-made, big-budget update of “War of the Worlds” (2005) lacked the intimate terror of the 1953 George Pal film. Simon Wells, the great-grandson of author H.G. Wells, gave us a well-meaning new take on “The Time Machine” in 2002, but it didn’t have the charming naiveté of the 1960 film I enjoyed.
My on-screen cable guide once promised the 1933 drama “When Ladies Meet” starring Myrna Loy, Ann Harding, Frank Morgan and Robert Montgomery. What a cast! I looked forward to watching it again.
But when the movie came on, it was the 1941 remake with Joan Crawford, Greer Garson, Herbert Marshall and Robert Taylor. Again, what a cast! I sat in my comfy chair and enjoyed it. Why? I like the story and – you guessed it – loved the casts.
A good story is the basis of any good movie. And good stories deserve to be retold. So I’m happy watching either version of “When Ladies Meet.” I admit I have watched back-to-back “Dracula” films. Some day I’ll have a marathon of “The Shop Around the Corner,” “In the Good Old Summertime” and “You’ve Got Mail.” And I’m definitely looking forward to the next interpretation of “Jane Eyre.”
Just don’t touch “Random Harvest” – you can’t improve on perfection.