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 1940s.
Best Source Material
Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain
Cain authored several famed hardboiled crime novels, including The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity. The genre is best known for moral ambiguity and flawed protagonists
Similar to how I evaluate films based on how well they execute what they are trying to be about, Cain was the best in writing about the depravity of human nature, even though I wouldn’t fully ascribe to his dismal worldview.
Hollywood adapted some of his books into film noir. I can hear the voice of my USC film professor reminding me that film noir is not so much a genre as a style found in other genres of the age. The style could be readily evident in a detective whodunit. It could also seep into a family drama and lead character Mildred Pierce.
Michael Curtiz directed the 1945 adaptation better than any attempt since. The grayscale of the production design suits the moral complexity of the story.
Oddly enough, when the color spectrum expands. as in the recent Kate Winslet TV series, the producers swap black-and-white tones for low lighting (similar to a lot of current television), creating for a good deal of confused viewing.
Best Family Film
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945)
One of my earliest memories of education was reading the Betty Smith novel in grade school. I identified with the narrator, Francie Nolan (Peggy Ann Garner), who complements her primary schooling by voraciously reading books from the local library.
The teachers at my public school held the character up as a model for lifelong learning. I took their suggestions to heart: in a typical year I’ll average one to two books read per week.
Recently watching the film for the first time, I can sympathize more with the parents, who though, both flawed (the father, especially) work as conduits for God’s grace to their children.
As an adult, I recognize metaphors I didn’t see before. More literal-minded as a youngster, I thought the tree that features prominently in the book’s cover references the title. At least in the film, I now realize the title more subversively hints at the Christmas tree at movie’s mid-point.
As difficult as inner-city life gets, the family members recommit themselves to doing better in the new year. The film-noir style, then knew its place even in Christmas films of the time.
If looking to convert a loved one to cinema you’d be hard-pressed to find a better entre than Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca. That one of my college roommates, a cynical New Yorker, appreciates the film says something.
The film improves upon the forgettable and out-of-print play, Everybody Comes to Rick’s in just about every facet: from the rogue title character (played by Humphrey Bogart) to the bittersweet plot resolution. It’s near perfect and the gold standard of Hollywood’s Golden Age.
Best of the rest by year:
- 1940 The Long Voyage Home/short plays by Eugene O’Neill
- 1941 The Maltese Falcon/novel by Dashiell Hammett
- 1942 Mrs. Miniver/the character Mrs. Miniver from the newspaper columns by Jan Struther
- 1943 The Song of Bernadette/novel by Franz Werfel
- 1944 Meet Me in St. Louis/novel by Sally Benson
- 1945 The Lost Weekend/novel by Charles R Jackson
- 1946 The Best Years of Our Lives/novel Glory for Me by MacKinlay Kantor
- 1947 Gentleman’s Agreement/novel by Laura Z. Hobson
- 1948 Johnny Belinda/play by Elmer Blaney Harris
- 1949 The Bicycle Thief/novel Bicycle Thief by Luigi Bartolini
Click here to visit Father Vince Kuna’s IMDB page.