In the film world, as in so many aspects of contemporary culture, all that exists is: Now. Right now! And nothing else matters.
On one level, this is understandable if you’ve just made and are about to market a film that is a remake or whose story has been previously told by others. You will want the spotlight on the new work, which is your work, and you will act as if the previous version or versions are unimportant and even nonexistent.
This is true today, and it is true in the past. Once upon a time, I interviewed director Bob Rafelson on the occasion of the release of his reworking of James M. Cain’s THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE. This version starred Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange, and was released in 1981. The story previously had been filmed three times: in France in 1939; by Luchino Visconti in Italy in 1942; and in the U.S. in 1946, with John Garfield and Lana Turner.
I asked Rafelson about these films, and he promptly dismissed them. He told me, “The first film nobody’s ever seen. The second was really a purloined story; we were at war with Italy at the time. The third wasn’t even set during the Depression, but after the (Second World) War.”
Cain published POSTMAN in 1934, the year that MGM purchased the rights to the novel, but fear of censorship prevented its filming for twelve years. Because of Production Code rules, the amoral ambience of the book had to be eliminated.
Rafelson continued, “I realized the story hadn’t been made. While in the traditional sense my film is a remake, I don’t think the story had been made at all.” Was Rafelson offering up some truth here? Or was he self-importantly dissing the earlier versions to highlight his interpretation?
The same holds true for current films. Take, for example, 42, the Jackie Robinson biopic that was released theatrically earlier this year. Way back in 1950-- that is 63 years ago-- Jackie Robinson’s struggles were depicted in a film titled THE JACKIE ROBINSON STORY. Here, Number 42 starred as himself, with a young Ruby Dee cast as Rachel Robinson, Jackie’s wife.
The material covered in both films is essentially the same. So I asked Thomas Tull, the film’s producer, if he had seen THE JACKIE ROBINSON STORY. The occasion was his presence back in July in Cooperstown, where he was being honored by the Baseball Hall of Fame. “I’ve seen clips, but I haven’t seen the entire film,” was Tull’s response. And he added, “I talked about it with Rachel. But it was a different voice, and I didn’t want it to influence 42.”
The key here, perhaps, is Tull’s reference to the earlier film as a “different voice.” On one level, it is understandable that the creator of a new film will not want to invite comparisons between it and earlier, similar films. Perfectly understandable, because the filmmaker will want his work at center stage as it is being marketed to the masses.
In the case of 42, as Tull explained while addressing the crowd at Cooperstown’s Doubleday Field, 42 is “the most important film I’ll ever do.” He added, “I had the privilege of bringing Hank (Aaron) to set. And I can assure you, even Harrison Ford was nervous that day.” (Ford is cast in 42 as Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers executive who signed Jackie Robinson to his professional contract.) Finally, Tull observed, “After making BATMAN, SUPERMAN, and other superhero movies, the greatest ‘superhero’ movie that could be made is about Jackie Robinson.”
I can understand Tull’s pride in 42, just as I can relate to Rafelson’s feelings about his POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE. But the historian in me stresses that the earlier films just may have their own special merits. In other words, in this regard, there is more to the world than merely what is happening... NOW.
Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.
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