one byproduct of endless remakes: originals being sidelined

Things happened before 1990, people…

At the risk of sending off strong “old man yells at cloud” vibes, I had to roll my eyes when I saw this as the lede to a story on a major entertainment news site:

Filmmaker Anthony Hemingway has signed on to direct a present-day remake of the 1996 film “The Preacher’s Wife” from Bassett Vance Productions and Anthony Hemingway Productions.

That lede raises the question of what counts as original source material.

1996’s The Preacher’s Wife, starring Denzel Washington, Whitney Houston and Courtney B. Vance, was itself a remake of the 1947 movie The Bishop’s Wife with Cary Grant, Loretta Young, and David Niven, itself an adaptation of a 1928 novel.

The slight name change was due to the idea of a bishop seeming a bit outdated and…well…white in 1996 if I remember correctly, though the story remained largely the same. But it’s still marked as a remake of the original. At the very least it’s another adaptation of the novel. Either way the foundation of the material goes back to the first half of the 20th century.

It would be like referring to a new version of Miracle on 34th Street as a remake of the 1994 movie instead of the 1947 original. Or someone’s recording “I Will Always Love You” as a cover of Whitney Houston’s song instead of it being Dolly Parton’s.

Then again even the BBC’s YouTube channel has Taylor Swift singing “Can’t Stop Loving You” designated as a Phil Collins cover instead of a White Horse/William Nicholls cover. So I’m not sure why I’m surprised.

It’s somewhat understandable that artists and fans may not always make this kind of distinction. Someone who grew up solely with the 1996 The Preacher’s Wife may simply not have the context to frame a new version appropriately. Just the other day I was thinking about how I grew up with the Kenny Rogers/Sheena Easton version of “We’ve Got Tonight” and went the better part of 10 years before learning Bob Seger wrote and recorded the song five years before it showed up on a record from Rogers.

But we live in the age of the internet and a simple Wikipedia search would provide the necessary background. And the expectations should be higher for anyone calling themselves a reporter. A decent editor should have caught it before the story was published.

To a great extent this tendency to reference the most recent iteration instead of diving all the way back to the source material is a product of the entertainment industry’s fascination with endlessly remaking the same properties over and over again.

That’s not new, either. The Philadelphia Story began life as a play before being made into a theatrical feature twice and adapted thrice for TV productions. But it’s only going to get worse as originals (or initial adaptations) from the early- or mid-20th century are superseded in the public consciousness by new versions from the 90s or 00s which have become for many people the de facto originals.

While I’m certainly not going to insist that everyone see the *actual* originals in order to appreciate the remake – just like I’m not going to insist everyone watch Rashomon in order to fully appreciate the genius of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, though they really should – we can at least ask the people who are bringing us the news of remakes, reboots and reimaginings to frame that news accurately and appropriately.

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The Philadelphia Story – Flashback Marketing

The charm of Hepburn, Stewart and Grant are used alongside MGM’s reputation to sell this 1940 classic.

Focusing on charming, well-liked actors and adding the studio’s reputation as a hit maker helps sell this classic comedy. 

If you were to set out to design the perfect farcical romantic comedy in a lab you’d be hard-pressed to create something more spot-on than the 1940 George Cukor-directed classic The Philadelphia Story, coming to Blu-ray this week courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

Katherine Hepburn stars as Tracy Lord, a Philadelphia socialite who’s both romantic and fiercely independent. She recently married – and quickly divorced C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant). Now she’s getting ready to marry George (John Howard), a ceremony Spy magazine has sent Macauley Connor (James Stewart) to cover with the help of Haven, who also has worked for the magazine. Tracy’s sudden position with three eligible, charming and attractive men – her ex, her fiancee and an amiable nice guy – causes a series of comedic problems and situations for the whole group.

Three-quarters of that group, the most bankable at the box-office, are represented on the theatrical poster, which is done in the idealized but realistic art style of the time. Both Grant and Stewart are placed on either side of Hepburn, clearly both smitten with her. All three of their names appear at the top of the one-sheet above the title. Within the frame of the picture is copy explaining to the audience that the movie is based on “Broadway’s howling year-run comedy hit of the snooty society beauty who slipped and fell – in love!”

That’s quite the sales pitch, notable for a number of reasons including the use of the word “snooty.” Apparent also is the gender stereotype of the period in that a well-off, educated and intelligent woman is described with that adjective, as well as that she’s positioned solely in relation to her romantic entanglements. Finally, as with many other such posters, it provides a glimpse into a time when Broadway productions were held as both high-art and yet were also meant to be accessible to the mainstream audience.

Broadway is used as a selling point and theme in the theatrical trailer, with the opening images showing theater marquees and once more presenting this as an adaptation of the stage sensation. All three of the leads along with Ruth Hussey, who plays a photographer accompanying Stewart, are introduced before we get into the story. That story shows the contentious relationship between C.K. and Tracy, as well as the tenuous romance between her and George. The three men have a face-off when Mike brings Tracy home drunk and we see her being dressed down by her father for being less than the ideal, loving, endlessly-understanding woman. It ends with the promise that yes, it’s another star-studded good time from MGM.

As is often the case in trailers from this era, it’s heavy on studio branding and light on story. Fully half the trailer is devoted to polishing MGM’s own credentials or simply showing the faces of the four actors showcased, with the remaining time allowing the audience to see the characters and the dynamics between them. That’s a shame since it’s hard to imagine a more talented cast of actors than Hepburn, Stewart, and Grant, all of whom handled fast-paced dialogue with ease and excelled at mixing verbal sparring with physical humor.

Did The Philadelphia Story get its due when it was sold to audiences in 1940? It’s hard to argue with an approach that leverages the popularity of the three lead actors like it does while it also ties it to the already-successful material. With the benefit of 77 years of hindsight and perspective, you can see how it greatly undersells the charm and wit of those leads, though it’s likely audiences at the time didn’t need reminders as all three were fixtures on the screen. Still, that seems like an oversight now, though it didn’t hurt the movie’s box-office or long-term reputation at all.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.