It’s time to step back a bit with the history of adaptations. To prepare for what’s coming up during the Fifties, I need to cover the early years of the film industry. I’m still using the compiled list at Filmsite.org as a base. By using what was popular, I hope that the movie titles and the actors are familiar to readers to give an idea of how beloved films came about.
I delayed looking at the early years mainly because of the age of the works. I was expecting the era to be mainly adaptations of works long forgotten. I was also expecting works that were lost to the ages, through neglect, disaster, or other means. Several of the works below have been lost, with only production and marketing stills the only remains. Others, though, have been preserved and enshrined.
The early years of the movie industry didn’t have anything like the MPAA or the Hays Code to limit or even censor content. Censoring was done at the local level, by concerned citizens. Movies could be and were as steamy as they wanted. However, local censors could remove scenes that they felt were offensive to moral standing.
The Great War, as World War I was known prior to 1939, began in 1914. The war began with the armies using tactics from open ground charges as seen even in the American Civil War to trench warfare, due to the weapons used being far more lethal than in previous conflicts. Artillery and the machine gun changed how infantry was used, and the introduction of airplanes further evolved tactics. The War resulted in over 16 million dead and 20 million wounded by the time it ended in 1918.
Prohibition took effect in the United States in January of 1920 with the certification of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1919. The Amendment made illegal the production, transport, and sale of alcohol, though, if one could somehow obtain it without violating the law, private consumption and possession was not prohibited. To assist in enforcing Prohibition, the Volstead Act was also passed, with both the House of Representatives and the Senate overriding President Woodrow Wilson’s veto. The Act prohibited intoxicating beverages, defined as over 0.5% alcohol by volume; regulated the making, selling, and transporting of intoxicating liquor; and ensured there was a supply of alcohol for use in scientific research and for religious rituals. The Twenty-First Amendment, certified in December of 1933, repealed the Eighteenth while still prohibiting the transport of alcohol across state lines when that transport was in violation of state laws.* Moves became a legal form of entertainment, one where audiences didn’t have to worry about money getting into the hands of criminals.
The Nineteenth Amendment fared better. The Nineteenth gave women the right to vote in August of 1920. With the right to vote and the dawning of the Jazz Era, the flapper was born. Women could have a greater influence on their communities, and young women were eager to take the opportunity available. The Roaring Twenties saw an exuberance until it ended with the stock market crash of 1929, heralding the Great Depression of the Thirties.
Movie technology was in its infancy. Most of the films listed are silent movies, unless otherwise noted. The advent of sound was huge. Early films needed someone in the theatre to play the music. As sound recording developed, the musician was replaced by a separate recording that needed to be synchronized with the film. The Jazz Singer, as discussed below, represents a huge leap in audio. Colour was also slowly coming about. Technicolor**, invented in 1916, used a red-green additive process in the early years, but costs could be prohibitive.
The era had a mix of styles as directors experimented to see what worked and what didn’t. Epics, comedies, dramas, the early years had them all. The list below is lengthy, but covers fifteen years instead of the usual ten. Accounting procedures would have had to account for releases moving from city to city instead of a release across the country on the same day.
The Birth of a Nation – adapted from the novel and play The Clansman by Thomas Dixon Jr. This was director D.W. Griffith’s movie about the birth of the Ku Klux Klan and left controversy in its wake.
Intolerance – original. D.W. Griffith made this movie in response to the reaction to the The Birth of a Nation, showing the dangers of prejudice.
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea – adapted from the novel by Jules Verne.
Cleopatra – adapted from several sources; H. Rider Haggard’s novel Cleopatra, Émile Moreau’s play Cleopatre, and William Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. Starred Theda Bara as eponymous ruler and Fritz Leiber, the science fiction author‘s father, as Caesar. Cleopatra has been lost to the ages after two fires destroyed the only full prints in existence, leaving only production stills and fragments of the original film. Bara’s costuming, what there was of it, was considered scandalous at the time and could still be considered risqué today.
Mickey – original. Starred Mabel Normand as the titular tomboy and was produced through her film company.
The Miracle Man – an adaptation of an adaptation, Frank L. Packard’s novel via the 1914 George M. Cohan play, both of the same name. Another lost movie, it starred Lon Chaney.
Way Down East – adapted from the play Way Down East by Lottie Blair Parker. Another D.W. Griffith film, it starred Lillian Gish. The climax has Gish running across an icy river, a scene more famous than the rest of the movie.
Over the Hill to the Poorhouse – adapted from the 1872 poem “Over the Hill to the Poorhouse” by Will Carleton, thus showing that the film industry will adapt other media.
Something to Think About – original. Cecil B. DeMille directed the film that Jeanie Macpherson scripted. The two will combine efforts for several more movies. Gloria Swanson starred.
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – adapted from Vicente Blasco Ibañez’s novel The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Set during the Great War, the film established Rudolf Valentino as the Latin Lover despite being a supporting role.
The Kid – original. Charlie Chaplin wrote, directed, produced, and starred in the film. His co-star was Jackie Coogan, better known today as Uncle Fester from the black and white Addams Family TV series.
Robin Hood – adapted from the legend of the roguish outlaw. Douglas Fairbanks starred as Robin with Alan Hale co-starring as Little John. Hale would reprise the role with Errol Flynn in 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood and with John Derek in 1950’s Rogues of Sherwood Forest. Robin Hood was the first movie to have a Hollywood premiere.
Oliver Twist – adapted from the Charles Dickens novel. The movie had Lon Chaney as Fagin and Jackie Coogan as Oliver.
The Ten Commandments – adapted from the Bible. Cecil B. DeMille directed and Jeanie Macpherson wrote the script. DeMille would go on to do a partial remake of the film in 1956.
The Covered Wagon – adapted from Covered Wagon, a novel by Emerson Hough. Alan Hale played Sam Woodhull, the film’s villain. The movie was dedicated to the memory of Theodore Roosevelt.
The Sea Hawk – adapted from the novel of same name by Rafael Sabatini. The 1940 Errol Flynn movie was originally going to be another adaptation of the book, but went a different direction, using Sir Francis Drake as an inspiration.
The Big Parade – adapted from two sources; Joseph Farnham’s play of same name and Laurence Stallings’ autobiography Plumes. The movie was directed by King Vidor and was set in the Great War. It is considered the first realistic war drama.
Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ – adapted from the 1880 novel of same name by Lew Wallace. William Wyler, the assistant director, would remake the movie in 1950, including a shot-for-shot reproduction of the chariot race. The chariot race itself is influential, as can be seen in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace with the pod-race.
The Gold Rush – original. Charlie Chaplin starred as the Tramp, and also was the writer, director, and producer.
Aloma of the South Seas – adapted from the 1925 play of same name by John B. Hymer and LeRoy Clemems. The movie would be remade in 1941 with the same name, starring Dorothy Lamour and Jon Hall. Once again, the movie is considered to be lost, with no prints known to have survived.
Flesh and the Devil – adapted from Hermann Sudermann’s play The Undying Pass. Greta Garbo stars with John Gilbert.
For Heaven’s Sake – original. A Harold Lloyd action-comedy. Lloyd alternated between character pieces and action/comedy to keep audiences coming out to see his works.
What Price Glory? – adapted from the 1924 play of same name by Maxwell Anderson and Lawrence Stallings. The movie was remade in 1952 as What Price Glory with James Cagney.
Wings – original. Set during the Great War, it starred Clara Bow and saw Gary Cooper in a role as a doomed cadet. Wings was the first film to win an Academy Award. With The Big Parade and What Price Glory?, both above, showing that audiences wanted to see war movies, Paramount played Follow-the-Leader. The studio hired director William A. Wellman because he had experience in airplane combat in the War.
The Jazz Singer – adapted from the the play The Jazz Singer by Samson Raphaelson, which was based on his short story “The Day of Atonement”. The Jazz Singer was the first feature length talkie, at least partially. There was still some synchronization of film and audio recording, but Al Jolson’s singing was integrated with the playback.
Love – a very loose adaptation of /Anna Karenina/ by Leo Tolstory. The movie took advantage of the film chemistry between Greta Garbo and John Gilbert as seen in Flesh and .the Devil, above.
The Singing Fool – original. This was Al Jolson’s follow up to The Jazz Singer. Still only part-talkie, but that was the music, which audiences were coming out to hear.
The Road to Ruin – original. The movie was an exploitation film that warned against the dangers of alcohol and sex. Helen Foster stars as the unlucky teenaged girl who drinks during Prohibition and sees men. The movie was remade in 1934 with sound with Foster in the same role despite being 27 at the time and six years older than the actor portraying her boyfriend. Since alcohol was legal in 1934, it was replaced by drugs in the remake.
The Broadway Melody – original. It was a musical that took advantage of the new sound technology. Also had a Technicolor sequence, influencing a trend of musicals using colour. The Broadway Melody was the first all-talking musical, unlike Jolson’s movies above which were only partially talkies. The film won the Academy Award for Outstanding Picture (now called Best Picture). Three sequels were made, The Broadway Melody of 1936, The Broadway Melody of 1938, and The Broadway Melody of 1940. The movies was also remade in 1940 as Two Girls on Broadway.
Sunnyside Up – original. Once sound technology became easier to use, musicals, such as Sunnyside Up flourished.
Of the 29 films listed above, 18 are adaptations with the remaining 11 being original works. Of the adaptations, two, The Miracle Man and The Jazz Singer, were second generation adaptations, having adapted material that itself was an adaptation. Two more, Cleopatra and The Big Parade, used multiple sources, with Cleopatra pulling from three different original works and, ultimately, the life of the Egyptian queen herself. Six movies, two of them original works, would get remade; Robin Hood in 1940, The Ten Commandments in 1956, Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ in 1959, What Price Glory? in 1952, the The Road to Ruin in 1934, and The Broadway Melody in 1940. The remakes of The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ will appear in the discussion for the Fifties; the movies were popular in two eras.
With the advent of sound in 1927, especially after The Jazz Singer, musicals became popular. Three of the four movies listed after 1927 are musicals, and they are all original works. Prior to 1928, nine movies, or half of the adaptations, were based on stage plays. Eleven were based on novels, including the movies with multiple sources, such as Cleopatra, and adaptations of adaptations. The Bible, a short story (itself adapted as a play before becoming a film), and a poem account for the remaining adaptations. Plays were an expected source; they’re already written and have had performances on stage. Novels, especially the older ones like Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ, have a good chance of being read by a portion of the audience. The unexpected source was the poem. Over the Hill to the Poorhouse may be unique in this series by being based on a poem.
Colour film processes were still being developed in this era. As mentioned above, Technicolor was pioneering an additive colour process, but it required a camera the split the light into a red and a blue-green stream, landing on separate film. Hand colouring was also done, but was time-consuming. Black and white was easier and cheaper; most theatres only had equipment that could only handle silent black and white films. As seen in the Thirties, though, once colour is introduced, black and white fades away, only returning as an artistic choice***.
Popular movies of the early years of film tended to be adaptations. The main reason is that the years were transitional. Everyone involved was still learning the differences between film, where the camera could move around, and stage, where the audience was the fourth wall. There were still people willing to play with the new medium. Charlie Chaplin’s entries above show him in the four key areas, writing, directing, producing, and starring. The ratio of adaptations to originals is similar to those found for the Thirties and Forties. This ratio, roughly 2:1, won’t change for a few decades; the direction it does change in may be surprising.
* Any resemblance between Prohibition and the War on Drugs is from people not learning from history. Prohibition was killing a wasp with a wrecking ball. The result of the War on Booze was a massive influx of cash to organized crime, since they were the ones supplying illegal alcohol, and a loss of respect for the law. Al Capone could make far more in one day than any fine under the Volstead Act, and the agents working for the Treasury Department’s Bureau of Prohibition could be easily bribed to look the other way.
** Technically, Technicolor is a trademark for the colour processes pioneered by the Technicolor Motion Picture Corporation, now a division of owned by Technicolor SA.
*** Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is a perfect example of the use of black and white filming as an artistic expression.