Lady For A Day

Frank Capra
"Lady for a Day" (1933)/"Pocketful of Miracles" (1961)
Synopsis: Annie, an aging indigent apple seller has maintained a ruse for years to her Europe-raised daughter that she’s a high-class woman of wealth. When her daughter comes to visit her in New York with her aristocratic fiance and his father, Annie’s street friends, her bootlegger patron and his girlfriend rally round to help create the illusion.
Why the Remake? No stranger to self-remaking, having already fashioned "Riding High" (1950) after "Broadway Bill" (1934), reportedly Capra had wanted to do a remake of “Lady for a Day,” the first film for which he got a Best Director nod, for years, but had been repeatedly turned down by studios who felt the material was just too old-fashioned. So Capra bought the rights himself and brought it to United Artists, planning to shoot it as a period film set in the 1930s anyway. He probably regretted his decision—the shoot was miserable and Capra was somewhat railroaded into casting Glenn Ford by Ford offering to co-finance. Ford and Bette Davis didn’t get along, and Capra began to suffer health problems related to stress (it would be his last directorial feature), and ended up taking a bit of a bath on it when it made a loss.

Similarities/Differences? With the remake a full 40 minutes longer than the original, and shot in lush color, ‘Miracles’ is far broader in scope, and fills in, sometimes to the point of redundancy, the back stories of many of the characters whose personalities are rather more stock in the first iteration. For example, ‘Lady’ has Dave the Dude’s girlfriend, nightclub owner Missouri Martin (Glenda Farrell) the archetypal wisecracking, fast-talking gangster’s moll with a heart of gold. In the remake, a whole prologue occurs in which we find out that the equivalent character, Queenie Martin (Hope Lange) is in fact the daughter of an associate of Dave’s, a “good girl” who turns into a showgirl star in part to pay off her father’s debt to him. Queenie, however just wants to get married, where Missouri never mentions that (and we like her a lot more for it). Glenn Ford’s Dave is also embroiled in a subplot involving a kind of turf war with a rival, where Warren William, the Dave in ‘Lady’ has no such distractions. Apple Annie herself is also given a different spin by the two actresses: May Robson in ‘Lady’ is irascible and faintly contemptuous of the classist trappings that the Count sets so much store in. Bette Davis in the same role however, shifts the orbit of the film somewhat: she’s an undeniably great actress and she really makes us feel for Annie, but that’s almost part of the problem. Imagine if Capra had cast Brando in the Jimmy Stewart role in “It’s a Wonderful Life” and you might see what we’re getting at. In Davis’ reading of the character, Annie is a far more tragic figure, riven with doubt and self-loathing, even when she’s in her gin-swigging beggar persona. And so the later film feels like an awkward mix of broad false-identity comedy and real pathos, which Capra only masks with lashings of rather unconvincing sentimentality.

Which is Better & Why? While neither is essential Capra, both feature the familiar Capra hallmark of people surprising the protagonists, and themselves, with their kindness and the community coming together to help out one of their own. But not only does the “people are fundamentally decent” moral feel a little hackneyed by 1961 standards, but the later film actually wears the mix of poverty and wealth rather badly, knitting a kind of grubbiness into the story that makes the fact that Annie will be consigned back to a life of begging once her daughter leaves feel really quite cruel. As Capra had feared, Ford is nowhere near as convincing a “dude” as William, and Ann-Margret in her first role is almost as insufferably cloying as the godawful child’s-voice rendition of the title song. As much as Capra wanted to hold on to the old values he’d so delightfully espoused many times before, you can practically feel the real world nipping at the heels of ‘Miracles’ so that what works as escapist fantasy in “Lady for a Day” becomes twee, or maudlin, or otherwise out of touch in 1961. That said, “Pocketful of Miracles” does contain the single greatest performance given in either film: Peter Falk’s disgruntled sidekick Joy Boy is an absolute scene stealer (and was Oscar-nominated), and it really feels like of everyone in the later picture, it was only he who nailed the tone. "Lady for a Day" [B-], "Pocketful of Miracles" [C]

Funny Games

Michael Haneke
"Funny Games" (1997)/"Funny Games" (2007)
Synopsis: A loving family head to a lakehouse for the weekend, only to be menaced by a pair of mysterious intruders
Why The Remake? The original 1997 version of Haneke's playfully horrible endurance test "Funny Games" was in fact intended to be set in the U.S. all along, but with Haneke not yet a major force in world cinema, it was difficult to get funding, and he was forced to set it closer to home, in Austria. The director had always wanted the film to reach American audiences (the film's subject of screen violence and their consequences being rather more pertinent), but a reluctance to embrace arthouse films, particularly ones as austere as this, meant his hopes were thwarted. Haneke seemed to put the idea out of mind, until producer Chris Coen ("Wristcutters: A Love Story") approached him at Cannes suggesting an English-language redo to help it connect with its intended crowd. Haneke agreed, but on one condition: that he could cast Naomi Watts in the role played by Susanne Lothar in the original (whose role had itself been turned down, trivia fans, by Isabelle Huppert).

Similarities/Differences: Given that he used a virtually identical scripts (with a few quirks of translation, or slight updates for the 2000s—references to laptops et al), and even filmed in the same house, with many of the same props, the film is virtually identical; a true shot-for-shot remake. To their credit, the actors—Tim Roth, Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet joining Watts in the principal roles—haven't set out to replicate the work of their predecessors, which was very much the filmmakers' intention ("They are people, after all, not marionettes," Haneke said in an interview). But otherwise, it's probably as close to a facsimile of the 1997 original as you could ask for, Haneke going as far as to reproduce shots or set-ups that, in retrospect, he wasn't happy with. He told Cinema Blend at the time: "In order to decide to do a shot-by-shot remake, you have to be masochistic to some point, because it is a much greater challenge. If you do an original film, and you don’t like a scene, you just cut it out. But if you do a shot-by-shot remake you don’t have that option; you have to be sure it succeeds... If I did it again the first time now, given that I’m older or whatever, I would do maybe one or the other cut differently. But since I made the decision to do a shot-by-shot remake, there wasn’t even an option... If you go with a principle you should adhere to the principle."

Which Is Better & Why: Though the film presumably has some power for those who'd previously shunned the German-language version, the remake failed to get much more of an audience, taking less than $1.3 million in the U.S. and never playing more than 300 screens, so Haneke's scheme to bring the film to a wider audience didn't really pay off (we do wonder what would have happened if Warners had gone wide and deliberately mis-sold it as something like "The Purge"—rioting in the theaters, probably...). The remake isn't bad—the actors are very strong, and what wasn't broke hasn't been fixed—but it is pretty much pointless, and doubly so for anyone familiar with the original, because it is to all intents and purposes the same film. Then again, we've never put "Funny Games" among the first rank of Haneke's work anyway. There's an undeniable punk-rock power to the film, and the 'rewinding' scene remains a real shocker. But compared to "Code Unknown" or "Caché" or "The White Ribbon," it's a crude piece of work that's somewhat lacking in texture. Still, if the original is one of his most simplistic films, the remake is certainly his most unnecessary. “Funny Games” (1997) [B], “Funny Games” (2007) [C]

The Vanishing

George Sluizer
"The Vanishing (Spoorloos)" (1988)/"The Vanishing" (1993)
Synopsis: After a woman disappears at a roadside gas station, her boyfriend becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to her, for years afterward. The kidnapper himself becomes fascinated with the man’s tenacity and eventually makes contact with him, wanting to see what price he’s willing to pay for the answers he seeks.
Why the Remake? A low-budget European, foreign-language arthouse hit, with a director looking to make the leap across the Atlantic? “The Vanishing” more or less wrote the book on this sort of thing happening, especially considering the the early nineties saw the flowering of independent U.S. cinema, and if Hollywood could steal in on the act by taking promising foreign films that shared that sensibility and repackaging them for easy distribution stateside, then it must have seemed like a no-brainer. We can only hope that Sluizer got paid an enormous amount of money, or that, indeed, possibly his motive for making the remake was to highlight by stark contrast just how great the original was.

Similarities/Differences? If there’s a poster boy for why getting the same director to remake his own foreign film for the American market is anything but a guarantee of success, it’s probably, sad to say, 1993’s “The Vanishing.” The ending, so chillingly nihilist in the original, was literally ruined by a completely counterproductive “happy” Hollywood version in which good wins out after all (totally contrary to well, everything the film was actually about). The psychology of the kidnapper is also altered from one version to the next: the original has Raymond a fascinatingly weird character, with a certain twisted logic to how his mind and ego games play out; he is the embodiment of the detached, alien curiosity of a true psychopath. Jeff Bridges’ Barney is by contrast, a far less threatening presence, despite his weird slurred accent, who becomes an adversary to outwit, rather than an unknowable and vaguely amused force of malevolence. And of course the new girlfriend role is radically altered in the remake, with Nancy Travis getting a lot more ho-hum backstory to her relationship with Kiefer Sutherland, because in the U.S. version, somebody, obviously, has to save the day. But hey, the missing girl is played by pre-bigtime Sandra Bullock so there’s that.

Which is Better & Why? The original is better in that it’s actually good, where the remake is essentially a laundry list of every terrible cliché that springs to mind when you hear the words “Hollywood remake.” I know we’re harping on about the ending, but this is the sort of story where altering the ending actually fundamentally changes the film, and so many things that are irritating about the remake are merely the reverberations of that change echoing back through the story. Where the original is about the infectious and corrosive nature of obsession and can almost be read as an allegory about curiosity and biting into the forbidden apple, the remake's drive to a good-conquering-evil ending totally sells that out. In fact the raw existentialism of the original, which is what made it so unsettling—the fact that it played out largely inside the mind—is so tediously externalized in the U.S. version that the boogey monster can actually be vanquished with a goddamn shovel. Oh, man this is making us angry all over again. Suffice to say, the original is a sparse, elegant chess game played to neat checkmate (reminding us a little of a low-key “Seven” in how it plays out), where the remake employs all the cunning and strategy of Chutes & Ladders to deliver a completely anonymous Hollywood product. "The Vanishing (Spoorloos)" (1988) [A-/B+], "The Vanishing" (1993) [C-]

A Song is Born

Howard Hawks
"Ball of Fire" (1941)/"A Song is Born" (1948)
Synopsis: A naïve and bookish professor working on an encyclopedia with seven fusty male colleagues, has his life overturned when a sassy nightclub singer sees them as her ticket to avoid the police, who are after her for the testimony she could give against her gangster boyfriend.
Why the Remake? Hawks revisited the wonderful original a mere seven years later, but not without misgivings already then. Designed as a way to capitalize on the growing popularity of jazz, and featuring a plethora of huge names from the big-band era, often playing themselves (Tommy Dorsey, Lionel Hampton and Louis Armstrong among others, with Benny Goodman actually given a character role leading to frequent “Benny Goodman? Never heard of him” jokes), the shoot was an unhappy one, with star Danny Kaye going through a divorce and being, according to Hawks “about as funny as a crutch.” Later on Hawks was blunt about his motives: “Because I got $25,000 a week, that’s why.” Which, you know, good reason.

Similarities/Differences? The original features only a couple of musical numbers, as Gary Cooper’s adorably befuddled professor ventures out into the world of nightclubs and boogie-woogie to better inform his encyclopedia chapter on slang. In the remake, as a further excuse for more songs and improv jazz numbers, the professors are working on an encyclopedia of music specifically, and are alerted to their ignorance of jazz, sending the not quite as adorably befuddled Danny Kaye out into the night, and it makes the remake an altogether flashier, but emptier affair. With regard to paramours, Virginia Mayo does a decent job in the remake, in fact it’s probably one of her best performances, but it’s destined to be outshone by the earthy manipulative sexiness of the ultimate bad girl-gone-good, Barbara Stanwyck, in the original. But aside from cast, the original’s pacing, which doesn’t have to screech to halt every few minutes for an (admittedly impressive) clarinet jam, feels much more organic, and if it is more laconic than Hawk’s rapid-fire signature “Bringing Up Baby” or “His Girl Friday”-style ratatat, the overall tone is gentler too, but no less winning. The machinations of the plot too are slightly altered from one version to the next, leaving some of it feeling slightly truncated in the latter, like where the tiny engagement ring the professor gives her (as opposed to the massive rock from her sugar daddy) plays a more pivotal role in the original, in the remake it’s really a single gag and gone.

Which is Better & Why? No contest. The original adheres much closer to the Billy Wilder script, which is possibly all you need to know—he was reportedly on set throughout the shoot. Not that Hawks needed any help with direction, in fact the first film is a lovely example of all parts working in harmony, and there’s genuine chemistry between Stanwyck and Cooper that Kaye and Mayo, for all Mayo gives it her all, just can’t match. But seriously, Stanwyck could probably have manufactured sparks with a toilet brush. The remake’s raison d’etre, of course was the inclusion of all those jazz greats, and while there is some interest to be borrowed from seeing them perform, it does both slow down the narrative pace and date the film, and not in such an endearing way as the wacky slang (“give him a call on the old Ameche” is a favorite) featured in the 1941 version. In fact, while it’s often adversely compared to the pinnacles of Hawks’ output, we have to say we think that’s unfair, and the original, with its softly, loopily screwball take on Snow White and the Seven Dwarves deserves reappraisal as a sweethearted romance that’s exactly as uncynical as story about love conquering cynicism should be."Ball of Fire" [A-], "A Song is Born" [C+]