Our producer-at-large Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., a USC film-school grad, does a regular feature here called BASED ON, looking at literary works adapted into TV or movies.
Here, he continues a series called Best of the Decades, looking this time at the Best Adapted Screenplays of the 1930s.
Best Family Film
Captains Courageous (1937)
Henry (Freddie Bartholomew) falls overboard from a steamship and comes to be rescued by a fishing boat captained by Lionel Barrymore’s character. The crew puts him through a crucible, humbling the spoiled brat who only knew life through the lens of wealth, security and an overworked, absentee father.
Seaman Manuel (Spencer Tracy, in an Oscar-winning role) fills the void of father figure, teaching Henry the rhythms of deep-sea fishing and the (on-the-nose) Gospel stories that emerge from them.
Director Victor Fleming “ups” the “catholic” of the Portuguese Manuel from the original Rudyard Kipling novel. It’s an interesting choice and an aberration as, just two years later, he toned down the Catholic faith of Scarlet O’Hara more present in the unabridged version of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind.
The Life of Emile Zola (1937)
The biography Zola and His Time (1928) by Matthew Josephson covers the famed writer’s life from cradle to grave. The book may only appeal to Francophiles such as me, who has a late great-grandparent nicknamed “Frenchie,” a Parisian artist.
The Hollywood production focuses on the last section of the book, where in the twilight of his life, Zola came to the defense of a Jewish officer falsely accused of spying for the Germans in the “Dreyfus Affair.”
The French military covered up the false accusation, and most of French establishment turned on Zola, cynically referring to him in salons as “a prophet for his Jesus (Dreyfus).” And prophet he was, Zola stated the military brass, as esteemed as it was, should not operate beyond criticism or questioning.
If attention is not paid in small matters with Dreyfus, who’s to say those sitting in judgment hold the country’s best interests in mind? The Great War followed just a decade after Zola’s death.
Best Source Material
Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
I prefer the more nuanced 1985 version (The Bounty) to the Clark Gable and Charles Laughton 1930s adaptation. Both films are indebted to the Charles Nordhoff book, based on the 1787 historical tragedy.
The book reads as well as any seafaring novel by Patrick O’Brian (Master and Commander series) and C.S. Forester (The African Queen; Greyhound) … skimping on the minute detail of the former author and equaling the action sequences of the latter.
The book hits the best theological notes when the crew mutinies against what they perceive as tyrannical rule. The revolt’s success comes with a double-edged sword … the crew is relieved at ousting the hated Bligh, yet nautically deprived, as he was the best man to manage the high seas.
The divided numbers dwindle without him. It’s a fitting metaphor for every culture or community that turns its back on God. Yes, they’re afforded the euphoria that may come with a newfound “freedom," but wandering the desert, or in this case, the ocean, comes with consequence.
Best of the rest by year (in the early 1930s, the Oscars were still held bi-annually): 1930-31: Cimarron/novel by Edna Farber
- 1931-32: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde/novel by Robert Louis Stevenson
- 1932-33: Little Women/novel by Louisa May Alcott
- 1934: It Happened One Night/story Night Bus by Samuel Hopkins Adams
- 1935: The Informer/novel by Liam O’Flaherty
- 1936: After the Thin Man/story by Dashiell Hammett
- 1937: Stage Door/play by Edna Farber
- 1938: Boys Town/story by Eleanore Griffin
- 1939: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington/story by Lewis R. Foster.
Click here to visit Father Vince Kuna’s IMDB page.