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Quakers, Cooper and Bogey: Best Adapted Screenplays of the 1950s

June 2, 2021 | By

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 1950s.

Best Family Film
Friendly Persuasion (1956), directed by William Wyler

In 1862 Indiana, the Quaker Birdwell family struggles with the moral dilemma of adhering to the sect's pacificist beliefs or taking up arms against the advancing Confederate army. Wyler situates the drama around this action, a better choice than novelist Jessamyn West, who writes the battle as an earlier chapter and later settles into a typical family drama.

Foreshadowed by the opening-title overture (original song “Thee, I Love”), the film depicts how the Birdwells persuade the enemy. As Quakers, they talk in King James Bible language, using “thee”, “thou” and “thy.” In the novel, I found it a bit of an annoyance. In the film, however, the pleasantly delivered dialogue contrasts with the discordant Rebel yells.

When the Confederate raiders come upon the Birdwell property, they’re stopped in their tracks by Eliza Birdwell’s (Dorothy McGuire) manner of speaking and her offering of a meal. The “thees” activate a sense of the sacred and a willingness to accept the generosity of Eliza.

I thought of the new translation of the Roman Missal, that perhaps a visitor to the Church should hear language and syntax different from what they encounter in the everyday. If receptive to God’s language, it might be a first step to being persuaded by it.


Best Adaptation
High Noon (1952), directed by Fred Zinnemann

Technically speaking, High Noon remains the gold standard for films whose storytelling proceeds in “real-time,” that is, every minute of screen time passing matches a minute in the temporal world in the story. The pacing choice amplifies the tension found in the original short story, The Tin Star by John C. Cunningham.

I appreciated the theme too, when local law enforcement fails, and the town descends into chaos, someone from outside the system (in this case, U.S. Marshal Will Kane (played by Gary Cooper) must enter into the fray and restore the peace.

Co-starring with Cooper is actress-turned-princess Grace Kelly, who made her last film appearance in a 1981 special for Family Theater Productions, filmed in the Vatican. More on that here.


Best Source Material
The African Queen (1951), novel by C.S. Forester

Forester also wrote The Good Shepherd during the same decade, which was recently turned into the Tom Hanks WWII film, Greyhound. Both that book and film structured the plot around the overtly Christian Commander Krause. See previous blog here.

I found values more implicitly reflected in the adaptation of his WWI novel The African Queen. British Methodist missionary Rose (Katharine Hepburn) convinces the noncommittal Canadian Charlie (Humphrey Bogart) to sacrifice for the British cause and convert his civilian boat, the African Queen, into a vessel to strike a German ship, whose crew is burning local villages and conscripting the inhabitants.

In a rarity, even for the time, the filmmakers cut out the co-habitation storyline from the novel, allowing the romance to evolve chastely. The choice heightened the tension between the two characters — one of the reasons the adaptation became a classic.

A small prayer even comes in handy when Rose and Charlie find themselves in dire straits.


Best of the rest by year: 1950: Father of the Bride/novel by Edward Streeter; 1951 The Detective Story/play by Sidney Kingsley; 1952 The Quiet Man/story Green Rushes by Maurice Walsh; 1953 Lili/story Love of Seven Dolls by Paul Gallico; 1954 Rear Window/story It Had to be Murder by Cornell Woolrich; 1955 Marty/teleplay by Paddy Chayefsky; 1956 Giant/novel by Edna Ferber; 1957 12 Angry Men/teleplay Twelve Angry Men by Reginald Rose; 1958 Separate Tables/play by Terence Rattigan; 1959 Ben-Hur/novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace

Image: Shutterstock

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