Classic Movies Most People Don’t Realize Are Remakes

The recent mantra of many people is that Hollywood needs to stop remaking movies, especially ones that are held near and dear in our hearts.  After all, there are currently nearly 40 remakes in the works, which angers many people.  As part of the backlash, some have pointed out that recent remakes have not done well at the box office.  However, it would surprise many people to know that some of the most beloved films of all time were actually remakes themselves.

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

The Wizard of Oz (1939 film)

We seem to be in an era obsessed with The Wizard of Oz, with a multitude of projects in the works based on the famous children’s book series.  To some, this is sacrilege.  After all, how can any remake compare to the original 1939 Judy Garland classic?  The only problem is that the musical is not the original.  In fact, it was the fourth version filmed, though the first to be a musical and, in fact, the first with sound.  The actual original was a 13-minute short called “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” made in 1910 and was ironically an adaptation of a stage musical.

Four years later, Oz author L. Frank Baum took a crack at writing and producing his own trilogy of silent features based on his book: The Patchwork Girl of Oz, The Magic Cloak of Oz, and His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz (later renamed The New Wizard of Oz).  For anyone who thought the idea of movie trilogies was something new, here’s proof to the contrary.

In 1925, Baum’s eldest son Frank J. took a crack at adapting his father’s novel (with two other screenwriters) for another silent feature version of The Wizard of Oz.  This film is very different than what we have known and loved of Oz: the story is told by a toy maker, played by the film’s director, Larry Semon, and chronicles 18-year-old Dorothy who was left on Aunt Em and Uncle Henry’s doorstep as an infant, only to learn that she’s actually a princess of Oz.  A love story, courtroom dramatics, and political intrigue ensues.

By the time the musical was produced 19 years later, audiences were well versed in the land of Oz, even if each version provided something completely different.  For those purists who don’t want their classic story altered, it makes the argument weak when you realize that the “original” version was just one of many that was changed radically throughout the years.

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Cover of "The Maltese Falcon (Three-Disc ...

When you think of classic film noir detective movies, John Huston’s 1941 The Maltese Falcon is probably one of the first that comes to mind.  In his directorial debut, Huston made Humphrey Bogart a movie star playing detective Sam Spade.  The amazing supporting cast included Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, and Sydney Greenstreet.  The black and white cinematography is held up as the epitome of great photography.  Critics agree that this is one of the best movies ever made.

For those who insist that remakes are always terrible, again, here’s proof to the contrary.  Not only was The Maltese Falcon a remake, this was the third time the Dashiell Hammett novel was adapted for film.  The first time was in 1931, a mere decade before Huston took his crack at it.  Ricardo Cortez played Sam Spade.  Who is he?  Exactly.  While not a bad movie, it’s in no way the amazing cinematic experience that the later film was.  Also, it was made prior to the Hayes Code that limited adult situations on-screen, so it was rather racy for its time.  What’s interesting is that the 1941 film used the screenplay for the 1931 film, just changing things that were no longer allowed thanks to the Hayes Code and adding some scenes from the book that were only alluded to previously.  Most critics agree that the remake was a vast improvement even using mostly the same dialogue.

In between these two adaptations was Satan Met a Lady, which headlined Bette Davis (in a role she hated) and was a re-working of the story written by one of the original screenwriters.  Character names were changed and the famous falcon statue was converted into a ram’s horn filled with precious gems.  Critics hated it and it disappeared into cinematic obscurity.

It’s amazing that after a decent movie and a terrible remake, that the third film version is the one that’s remembered decades later as a masterpiece.

House of Wax (1953)

House of Wax, Busy Bee Cafe, Ventura, CA

Image by Randy Son Of Robert via Flickr

In our recent spat of horror film remakes, it’s inevitable that some Vincent Price classics will get a modern facelift.  Along with The Fly, House on Haunted Hill and The Last Man on Earth, the 1953 Price vehicle House of Wax was remade in 2005.  It received critical scorn and was a box office dud while the earlier film earned more than 23 times its budget back and is considered a time-tested success.  In fact, during its theatrical run, it made use of groundbreaking 3D effects for its time.

Of course, this was a remake.  In this case, the original was 1933’s Mystery of the Wax Museum, directed by Michael Curtiz, who would later make Casablanca.  This version was a mystery while the Vincent Price and the 2005 remake were horror films.  This movie was considered lost for decades until a poorly maintained print turned up on the Warner Bros. lot that was later bought by Turner Entertainment and badly colorized.

Just think, 72 years later, Paris Hilton would be featured in a remake.  She didn’t end up covered in wax, but she was speared in the head, so there is some justice in the world.

The Children’s Hour (1961)

The Children's Hour (film)

The depiction of homosexuality in motion pictures and television has become commonplace in recent years, but in the past it was taboo.  After all, only two decades ago, the TV show thirtysomething caused a stir by showing a gay couple in bed together, though nothing sexual was going on, prompting advertisers to pull their sponsorship of the show.  Now we have gay teenage couples shown as having a sexual relationship, and the only ones who seem to care is the Parent Television Council given that the ratings for that episode held strong and it was considered one of the best episodes of the series by critics.  During the days of the Hayes Code, sex on-screen in general was prohibited, let alone anything dealing with homosexuals.  By the ’60’s, the Code’s requirements began to loosen as filmmakers pushed against the constraints of this industry-approved censorship.

One of the first motion pictures that dealt with this touchy subject was 1961’s The Children’s Hour, which featured Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine as women who ran an all-girls school who found themselves being accused by a trouble-making student as being lesbian lovers.  They weren’t, but it was revealed at the end that the MacLaine character actually had feelings for Hepburn, leading her to commit suicide.  This was shocking material during this era.

The movie was based on a play written by Lillian Hellman in 1934, who adapted it in the screenplay for the film.  The play was a big success on Broadway, despite there being a law in New York State prohibiting any mention of homosexuality on stage.  Of course, perhaps it was acceptable both on stage and in film at that time because there wasn’t any actual girl-on-girl action, and the one who professed to having same-sex attractions offed herself, thereby penalizing those feelings.  Much like today’s movie industry, if something was a hit in another venue, it didn’t take long for a movie to be made about it.  In 1936, the play was filmed.  However, unlike the ground-breaking ’61 version, this cleansed the plot of any homosexual content, instead changing the plot to where the accusations are about one of the women sleeping with the other woman’s boyfriend.  The title was changed to These Three, possibly to distance itself from the hit play it was based on.  Its theme was still about the disastrous results of unfounded rumors, especially regarding educators, but the subject of the rumors wasn’t quite so compelling.

It makes one wonder what the plot would be like if this story was to be remade today, since characters being gay, even in an all-girls school, wouldn’t be very shocking.  Maybe the women would be lesbians and one of them is accused of sleeping with a man.

One Million Years B.C. (1966)

One Million Years B.C.

As the Hayes Code grew weaker in the ’60’s, sexuality grew more robust on-screen.  This was evident in the explosion of exploitation films, such as One Million Years B.C. that made the most of Raquel Welch’s two biggest assets–her flowing hair and winning smile.  It may have featured other attributes the actress had as well, as she was clad in a low-cut animal-skin bikini.  Along with Jane Fonda in Barbarella, Welch’s cavegirl image was iconic as a sexy woman from another time.  The film also made use of cutting edge special effects with stop-motion dinosaurs and giant iguanas pretending to be dinosaurs (the filmmakers seemed to not realize that humans didn’t exist with dinosaurs).

While it was the epitome of ’60’s film cheese, it was also a remake of a movie from 1940 called One Million B.C. (apparently the remake needed to specify Years).  The original was directed by Hal Roach, who was responsible for discovering the Our Gang/Little Rascals kids and starred Victor Mature and Lon Chaney, Jr., rather than Raquel Welch.  While the remake had special effects by FX God Ray Harryhausen, the original’s effects were so groundbreaking that they were re-used by movies through the ’60’s (though apparently not its own remake).  Like the ’60’s version, this film used animals dressed like dinosaurs, but the cruelty to animals caused it to be pulled from home video (or maybe it was because of a man dressed as a T-Rex).

It makes you appreciate Jurassic Park all the more.

Solaris (1972)

Cover of "Solaris - Criterion Collection&...

When George Clooney and Steven Soderberg teamed up for the third of seemingly dozens of times in 2002 for the remake of the Russian science fiction classic Solaris, many fans of the previous film were in an uproar because the Andrey Tarkovsky-directed Solyaris is considered one of the all-time cinematic classics.  It is considered true science fiction about themes and ideas rather than aliens and explosions (well, there are aliens, of a sort), made in 1972, an era where filmmakers tried to explore intellectual concepts and social commentary with films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green, Silent Running and Logan’s Run instead of just using the genre for big-budget exploitation.  The story is about an astronaut sent to a remote space station to replace one who died, only to find his dead wife who is possibly some alien incarnation.  It’s an exploration of love and loss, something not usually found in SF motion pictures.

It’s understandable that with the overwhelming critical praise of the original that people were skeptical of a remake, which was met with generally positive reviews and almost no audience.  Of course, the original was anything but original–there was a Russian TV movie made four years prior to it.  This Solyaris was broadcast in black and white and had a very stagey early-TV feel to it, so it’s understandable that it got a big-screen treatment a few years later.  It’s also understandable that most people in the West have no idea that this adaptation of the Stanisław Lem novel exists.

Next we’ll find out that there was a previous black and white version of The Empire Strikes Back.  Oh wait…

copyright © 2011 FilmVerse

6 comments on “Classic Movies Most People Don’t Realize Are Remakes

  1. I was going to bring up The Maltese Falcon if you didn’t. What’s cool is that on the DVD, you get BOTH earlier versions as well! It’s neat to compare them. Satan Met a Lady is sort of funny, but not very good overall. The early Maltese with Ricardo Cortez really is good, and remarkable for how utterly different it feels from Bogart’s version despite having basically the same script. But Bogart’s is supreme, no contest there.

    You could also mention Ben-Hur. I haven’t seen the silent epic, which is supposed to be pretty great itself, but I’ve never heard anyone deny the Heston version as infinitely superior, one of the greatest epics ever, if not THE greatest. (And I recently had the honor of seeing it on the big screen! Amazing!)

    • Thanks for the suggestion. I think (though I may be wrong) that most people know of the silent versions of both “Ben Hur” and “The Ten Commandments.” It’s interesting that Heston went from these Biblical epics to post-apocalyptic and disaster films of the late ’60s and ’70s (Planet of the Apes, Earthquake, The Omega Man, Soylent Green, Airport ’75).

  2. I wouldn’t be surprised if most people didn’t realize that The Magnificent Seven is a remake of Seven Samurai. Excellent well-researched post, Jamie.

    • Thank you. It was just brought to my attention that Zero Hour! (the dramatic film that Airplane! parodies) was actually a remake of a TV movie that aired the year before Zero Hour! was produced. That film was called Flight Into Danger and starred James Doohan and was written by Arthur Hailey, who later wrote the novel Airport.

  3. An enjoyable and informative post, Jamie. Thanks.

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