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Surveying the Best Adapted Screenplays of the 1920s

December 1, 2020 | By

COVID postponed the Oscars by two months. Given the dearth of films released in 2020, my hunch is that it will be delayed an entire year. This could temporarily bring us back to the beginning when the Academy Awards were held every other year.

At that time, many plays were adapted into award-winning films. Writers and producers pulled off a difficult task, as plays relied heavily on dialogue. Film began as and remains a visual art form -- and that some of the 1920s films were silent, make the adaptations all the more impressive.

Best Adaptation: Seventh Heaven (1927-28) *spoiler alert*

The Austin Strong play of the same name tells the story of a sewer worker, Chico (Charles Farrell) who takes in a street urchin, Diane (Oscar-winning Janet Gaynor), in the days leading up to the World War I.

As well-written plays go, the dialogue reads as quick and witty. Also, the silent film’s Oscar-nominated art direction (Harry Oliver) puts on some theological visuals that one could not come away with by merely witnessing the stage performance of the story.

I’m currently working on a film theory regarding story structuring. Most three-act plays and films contain some structural framework owed to Dante’s Divine Comedy. Diane begins the story in a personal hell, exploited by her absinthe -addicted sister. Oliver dims the opening sequence in shadows.

Chico offers her a place to stay in his Parisian apartment. They must ascend seven flights of stairs in an elaborate crane shot (or are they really Purgatory’s terraces??). When the French Republic calls Chico and his countrymen to war, he passes through a purgation himself, through trenches, minefields and rows of barbed wire transforming an atheist to a man of faith who can utter the phrase, “looking up,” a popular term for believers a century ago.

A beautiful final shot shows Chico ascending the stairs from a bird’s-eye view. The circular staircase depicted from this angle seems to go on forever —I  was reminded of Dante’s Purgatory, essentially Inferno flipped on its end — where now Chico and Diane reunite.

One can discover Divine Comedy story structuring throughout recent movies of a wide variety of genres: Crawl (horror), 21 and Over (comedy) and 1917 (war), among others. Credit Seventh Heaven for being first.

Best Source Material: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30)

I read this novel a year or two ago, and it was more powerful than any fictional work I've read since then. Erich Maria Remarque told the WWI story through the German point of view. This narrative perspective reminds the reader there’s a lot of blame to be meted out to both Allied and Central Powers. Reader, beware of the bleak tone of both the book and subsequent Oscar-winning film. For those soldiers who never came home, the war began and ended in Inferno.

Best of the rest by bi-annual years:

The Jazz Singer (1927-28)/play by Samson Raphaelson, from his story “The Day of Atonement”; The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (1928-29)/play by Frederick Lonsdale; Disraeli (1929-30)/play by Louis N. Parker.

Image: Adobe Stock

Click here to visit Father Vince Kuna’s IMDB page.

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