Film & Stage Adaptations of Classic Novels

Edna Ferber’s Showboat, from Stage to Screen

Show Boat (1936) began in 1927 as a revolutionary stage musical, with music by Jerome Kern and book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Based on Edna Ferber’s best-selling novel of the same name, the musical follows the lives of the performers, stagehands, and dockworkers on the Cotton Blossom, a showboat on the Mississippi River, beginning in the late nineteenth century.

With themes including racial prejudice and enduring love, the musical contributed such classics as “Ol’ Man River,” “Make Believe,” and “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” to the American songbook.

The arrival of Show Boat was a historic moment in the history of American Theater. The show was a radical departure in musical storytelling and rose above the operettas and light musicals that were in vogue at the time, and it was an equally radical concept when applied to film. Read More→

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The Search for Scarlett O’Hara

“Scarlett O’Hara had an arresting face, pointed of chin, square of jaw. Her eyes were pale green, and above them her thick black brows slanted upward, cutting a startling oblique line in her magnolia-white skin …”

This search for an actress to portray Scarlett O’Hara in what was to become the 1939 film  of Margaret Mitchell’s epic novel, Gone With the Wind, was born of necessity. Before he could make his deal with MGM for the loan of Clark Gable, David O. Selznick was required to fulfill his contract with United Artists for a number of films. Thus he was unable to begin production on “Gone With the Wind” until two and a half years after he had purchased the right to the book.

Ever the showman, Selznick conceived the idea of conducting a worldwide search for the right person to play Scarlett O’Hara. The campaign, directed by Selznick’s publicity chief, helped occupy the public mind during the long months before the producer was ready to begin filming. Read More→

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The Wedding: a Mini-series (1998)

The Wedding , a mini-series that premiered on television in 1998, speaks to the intersections of race, gender and class oppression plaguing America in the mid-1950’s. Based on Dorothy West‘s novel The Wedding,  it starred Halle Berry, Eric Thal and Lynn Whitfield. The miniseries was adapted into a screenplay by Lisa Jones and produced by Oprah Winfrey’s company, Harpo Productions.

The setting of Martha’s Vineyard shows one aspect of wealth available to the main character, Shelby Cole. This character, played by Halle Berry, has access to the privilege of being mixed-race, from an upper-middle class home life and through her relationship with Meade Hall (played by Eric Thal), a white jazz pianist and composer. Read More→

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Betty Smith’s “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” on the Screen

From the original article in The Havre Daily News, July 27, 1945:  Hailed as the perfect filming of a great best seller. Millions eagerly await film version of Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn; choice of cast provoked nation-wide interest and speculation.

With the release of the eagerly awaited 20th Century-Fox film version of Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, the best-selling book in years will — judging by unprecedented Hollywood preview acclaim — become the best-loved picture of a lifetime.

The first copy of Betty Smith’s tender and heartwarming story of the Nolans of Brooklyn had not yet rolled off the presses when 20th Century-Fox acquired the screen rights at the urging of producer Louis D. Lighton. Read More→

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Classic Films Based on Fiction by Women Authors

It’s surprising how many classic films are based on novels by women authors. Here’s just a small sampling.

Cimarron (1931) was based on the 1929 novel by Edna Ferber, starring Richard Dix and Irene Dunne. Centered on the story of the Oklahoma land rush that began in 1889, it was the first Western to have won Best Picture, and would be the last for nearly 60 years, until Dances with Wolves received the same honor. A true epic, the film was quite expensive to make and was more of a critical than commercial success. The film was remade in 1960, also titled Cimarron, and though not as well-received as the original, became better known by way of regular broadcasts on television. This is one of several films based on Edna Ferber’s works. See Giant, up ahead; others include Show Boat, Saratoga Trunk, and So Big. Read More→

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