Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Best Screenplay Of 1929-30: George Abbott, Maxwell Anderson and Del Andrews (All Quiet On The Western Front)

Now this is how you adapt a classic novel for the big screen.

Being a (failed) writer myself, it has often struck me how few great movies have been based on great books. They are such radically different media—one visual, one verbal—that what works brilliantly in a book doesn't work at all on the screen, and vice versa. I mean, despite at least four attempts (and a reported fifth on the way), no one has ever figured how to translate the last line of The Great Gatsby—arguably the greatest last line in all of literature—into anything other than the most banal cinema.

Faithful attempts to film great books often wind up turgid (For Whom The Bell Tolls), incomprehensible (Even Cowgirls Get The Blues) or nine hours long (Greed). And that's when Hollywood is bothering to be faithful at all. Who can forget the liberties Demi Moore took with The Scarlet Letter to disastrous effect, or the unmitigated mess Brian De Palma made of The Bonfire of the Vanities?

That an adaptation of the best book ever written about World War I should have resulted in the best movie ever made about World War I is, in context, a bit of a miracle.

If you don't know the novel All Quiet On The Western Front, you certainly should. Written by Erich Maria Remarque, it's the story of a schoolboy's journey from gung-ho volunteer to disillusioned war veteran. Remarque had been a soldier, conscripted along with his friends at the age of eighteen, serving in the trenches with the German army in France, and the novel captures both the horrors of war and the lust for empire and glory that led to it. The novel sold 2.5 million copies in the eighteen months after its publication in 1928 and was quickly acquired by Universal Pictures.

The adaptation of Remarque's novel was handled by two celebrated Broadway playwrights with an assist from a veteran Hollywood director of silent B-pictures.

Maxwell Anderson is best remembered now for such Broadway hits as What Price Glory, Anne of a Thousand Days and The Bad Seed. He worked on screenplays throughout his career, with All Quiet On The Western Front earning him his only Oscar nomination. He primarily wrote political dramas and often wrote his plays in blank verse, including Key Largo, later adapted into the classic movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson. In 1933, he won the Pulitzer Prize for his play Both Your Houses, a polemic aimed at seedy Washington politics.

George Abbott began his Broadway career as an actor before turning exclusively to writing. Like Anderson, he was a successful playwright, penning mostly musicals such as Pal Joey and Damn Yankees. He won five Tony awards, became a Kennedy Center honoree in 1982, and, for his play, Fiorello!, a musical based on the life of reform-minded New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, Abbott was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

Unlike his two co-writers, Del Andrews was primarily a director, and not a well-known one either. He directed forty movies, mostly westerns at a time when westerns were strictly B-picture kiddie fare, and comedy shorts featuring actors you've never heard of. So far as I can tell, none of these films still exist, although the westerns did star Fred Thompson and Hoot Gibson, two of the biggest western stars of the Silent Era. I can't tell you much more about him than that—he was born in 1894, he died in 1942, he was married and he had a son—but I'm willing to bet he knew plenty about how to get a story on film in a hurry and I suspect he was paired with Anderson and Abbott, who were great playwrights but knew little about Hollywood, to tutor them on the finer points of movie-based storytelling.

Despite the feeling that you are watching a completely faithful adaptation of the novel, the movie actually differs significantly in its structure. The novel begins in medias res, the novel's hero Paul already a grizzled veteran of a long and pointless war, revealing most of his back story through a series of flashbacks as he muses on how he and his classmates moved from the classroom to the trenches, and for most of them, to the grave. The book is elegiac, both haunting and haunted, and one of the finest anti-war novels ever written.

The movie straight- ens out the chro- nology, beginning with a school teacher's patriotic harangue and then following the students as they first volunteer and then discover the reality of war's horrors. As an audience, you arrive at Paul's conclusions at the same time he does, giving the movie an immediacy and growing tension. Both approaches are effective, but I suspect each approach is best suited for its respective medium.

Writing credits in old Hollywood movies are often confusing and the credits for All Quiet On The Western Front are no different. Del Andrews was credited with the "adaptation," Maxwell Anderson with the "adaptation and dialogue," and George Abbott with the "screenplay." The technical meaning of each is a bit murky, especially since they've evolved over the years, but my understanding is that in 1930, "adaptation" referred to the overall structure of the piece, "dialogue" to the words the actors spoke and "screenplay" to both dialogue and the physical staging of the work.

Further confusing the issue is that the studio released two versions of All Quiet On The Western Front, the sound version we know today and a silent version, with Walter Anthony providing titles, for those theaters which had not yet made the conversion to sound.

Judging from the way the credits read, I would guess that Anderson, with the guidance of veteran director Andrews, decided on the basic flow of the story—which scenes to include and in which order—and then went on to write a draft of the screenplay's dialogue. Then for whatever reason, I'm guessing that the producers brought in Abbott to significantly rework Anderson's draft. But I could just be talking through my hat.

What I do know is that All Quiet On The Western Front is a terrific movie based on a terrific book and for that miracle, its screenplay wins the Katie Award for best screenplay of 1929-30.


Uncle Tom said...

The greatest gift one could ever receive is a copy of "All Quiet on the Western Front" on DVD from their little brother.

Well that or feety pajamas from an aunt in Utah - its a tough call

You meant to write that, but just ran out of room. I just know it.

(I actually agree with the Katie pick in all seriousness - one of the great movies of all-time and for whatever reason, seems to be omitted from discussions about great war movies - maybe because it was made so long ago - or maybe people are just idiots - I vote "B" in that regard)

Mythical Monkey said...

Yeah, little brothers who give their big brothers copies of All Quiet On The Western Front are good little brothers, indeed.

I suspect nobody mentions it as one of the all-time great war movies because (1) it's in black-and-white, (2) it's about (in this country) a mostly forgotten war, and (3) it stars a bunch of people you've never heard of.

But it's one of the greats. You could show it as a double feature with Saving Private Ryan and do very well.

Who Am Us Anyway? said...

A fanatic fact that I take some small but real comfort in: Norman Maclean was born in 1902; his first book, A River Runs Through It, was written in his 70s and published in 1976.