Thursday, July 29, 2010

Page-to-Screen: the Top 10 Most Faithful Movie Adaptations from Novels of All Time

Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier are psychologically
haunted by Olivier's first wife in Rebecca.
As amazing as it can be reading The Lord of the Rings and picturing the elf-haven of Rivendel or the white city of Minas Tirith in your head, how much more amazing was it to see a lavish, real-life rendition of it on the screen for the first time? Or watching the Bennett family embarrass themselves at the Netherfield Ball in full Technicolor?

When looking for an engaging story, the motion picture industry has always utilized works of literature because those works have already proved themselves as enduring narratives. This, however, does not mean that they have always used them well. Rather the reverse, the number of grossly inaccurate adaptations far outnumber the quality productions, and bibliophiles such as I are often lead to the brink of despair.
But O Philologists! Let not your hearts be troubled! This is a list of the top 10 most accurate film adaptations of all time, films that so perfectly capture the spirit of their print originals that we can picture their authors looking down from heaven and saying, "It's exactly as I pictured it!"

Please note: it was extremely difficult to narrow down the list, thus I have quite a few honorable mentions to get out of the way before I reveal the winners.

Honorable Mentions:

As good as these films were, their pacing was perhaps too frenetic, especially in Fellowship and The Two Towers. Much has been made of Jackson's purposeful and glaring omissions of Tom Bombadil and the Scouring of the Shire, but I tend to think the latter a far more important mistake than the former. Tolkien's point of having the Shire overrun with Sauroman's henchmen when the hobbits return was to show the bitter irony of how wrong things can go when no one is looking and the consequences of war in general. The very frailty revealed through that episode is just like the frailty of Gollum accidentally destroying the ring, and speaks much of the mature mind of its author. I grant you that the denouement for Return of the King is extremely long, and we are lucky Peter Jackson filmed as much of it as he did, but as a true Tolkien fan, this does not stop me from griping about it when I'm in a bad mood. Apart from this, I must object to these movies on the basis of how much they sacrificed the nobility of Faramir's character for a little arbitrary drama. As Faramir and Eowyn are my favorite characters in the story, I found that unforgivable. They were not the only ones to feel the blow of needless dramatic tension, however. Aragorn is changed to be vacillating on whether or not to take his place as king, Arwen becomes unnecessarily torn between her true love and her people, and Frodo and Sam have tension built into their relationship to the point where Frodo actually tells Sam to go home on the way to Sheblob's cave (It was at this point that I had to be restrained from leaving the theater I was so livid). So yes, Peter Jackson, visually your movies were a spectacular glimpse into the world of Tolkien, but as a whole, they were not quite in line with his visionary story.

This is the third medium into which the work has been transfered. It started as a radio play, then as the best-selling sci-fi/comedy series, and finally author Douglas Adams wrote a screenplay for it, which was produced posthumously in 2005. Just as Adams changed his original radio plays when he did the novelizations, the movie differs on many levels from the book. The reason this makes the list, however, is that because the author wrote the screenplay, we can say that this production exactly matches his vision of how his book should appear on the silver screen.

David Niven, left; Peter Ustinov, center; and Bette Davis, right,
part of a stellar cast which also includes Angela Lansbury,
Mia Farrow, Maggie Smith, Jack Warden, and Olivia Hussey
Death on the Nile (1977)
Before David Suchet became the quintessential Poirot, Sir Peter Ustinov charmed audiences with his portrayal of Agatha Christie's famed Belgian sleuth. Although Ustinov was far too tall for the role, he showcased the jollity and quirkiness that readers came to love in Poirot so well that we forgave him the flaw in stature (certainly he was a far cry from Albert Finney's grating, staccato performance in Murder on the Orient Express three years prior). It also features a huge cast of great stars from both sides of the Atlantic, all of whom give memorable performances. The only reason this film doesn't make the list is because they cut back the list of suspects, making the plot slightly clunky at times to fans of the book.

Jeeves and Wooster (1990-1993)
At the time Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry where Britain's premiere comedy duo and perfectly suited to take on the roles of Bertie Wooster and his impeccable valet Jeeves from P.G. Wodehouse's famed comic novels. With his musical talents in addition to his prowess at physical comedy and playing an idiot, Laurie embodied the spirit of the lovable but slow-witted British gentleman while Stephen Fry's deadpan demeanor and ability to spit out multi-syllabic words made him shine as Jeeves, the manservant who is never at a loss. While the production values for this series were high, I have two major qualms with it. The first was their tendency to combine multiple plots into one, and the second was the way they kept switching actors every season, especially with Aunt Agatha and Aunt Delia. They even took on actress who was playing Madeline Basset one season and recast her two years later as Lady Florence Craye.
Some may argue that the horrible American accents on the show detract from it, but I disagree. As this is a comedy, the bad accents actually make the show funnier at points, and its amusing from an American perspective to see how we are thought of among other cultures.

We forgive Emma Thompson for being too old. We forgive Hugh Grant for being too handsome. We forgive the omission of characters like Miss Nancy Steele and Lady Middleton. The script for this adaptation might have streamlined the book to a certain degree, but they did so well with what they left in that we somehow don't seem to care. Kate Winslet is never more beautiful than she is as Marianne Dashwood, and she captures her impressionable romanticism and stubbornness perfectly. Just by being himself Hugh Grant embodies the awkward diffidence of Edward Ferrars to the point where every other performance of the character seems a hollow imitation. Emma Thompson exudes the quiet wisdom of Elinor Dashwood, suffering in silence through the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Alan Rickman breaks our hearts as Colonel Brandon, the older man hopelessly in love with Marianne, and makes a strong counterpoint to the vivacious charm of Greg Wise's Willoughby. House fans also beware of Hugh Laurie as the outrageously hen-pecked Mr. Palmer, who shows himself to be a much better person that we thought by the end.

Inigo Montoya and Fezzik the Giant support Wesley, who
is recovering from being mostly dead in The Princess Bride
There's a lot of debate amongst fans about which is better: the book or the movie. Certainly nobody really thought much of the book until the movie came out, but the novel has its merits too. Whereas the novel satirizes the need to abridge certain Victorian mammoth-novels like Les Miserables and War and Peace, the film is just a tongue-and-cheek romp through the world of the fantasy genre, with characters like Fezzik and Inigo Montoya holding our attention much more than Wesley and Buttercup. Billy Crystal nearly steals the show as Miracle Max, for whom true love is the greatest thing except an MLT sandwich (it was cough drops in the book).

My Top 10:

See my post on the Greatest Movies of 1939 for why this movie works. To sum it up briefly, the cast is excellent, the screenplay cuts material but keeps the essence of the book, and the production spared no expense to get everything right. The main reason why it doesn't rank higher is because of the material cut, especially a good portion of Rhett's charm and perception, which is why women have always loved this book.

9. Persuasion (1994)
This production was close to achieving Austen's vision, so close that including it on this list was a no-brainer. It was quiet and understated, just like the book, and had great performances from Amanda Root as Anne Eliot and Cirian Hines as Captain Wentworth. Particularly, the letter scene was handled perfectly, which is more than I could say for other adaptations of the book. It was also filmed beautifully on-location in Bath and Lyme Regis, which significantly enhanced those scenes. There were, however, two major flaws. The first one was that the film was not friendly to audiences that hadn't read the book because the history between Anne and Captain Wentworth is not very well explained. My other complaint is that everyone is too unmannered, doing things in public like yelling, slouching, and chewing with their mouths open that people back then would find highly contemptible. While this trait isn't quite as glaring in the easy-mannered Musgroves, it significantly mars characters like Sir Walter and Elizabeth Eliot, who are supposed to be obsequious in that regard.

8. Rebecca (1940)
Along with being Alfred Hitchcock's first American film, Rebecca was also the only one of his films ever to nab a Best Picture Oscar. Joan Fontaine's voice begins with the famous narration "Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again..." and from then on the audience finds itself completely immersed in the world of Daphne du Maurier's psychological Gothic. We flinch with Fontaine's mousy character, every bit as unsure of her as she is herself, and we fall in love with the simultaneously charming and Byronic Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier at his most handsome with a pencil-thin mustache). The production of this film was so good that it would have ranked much higher on the list had not the Hayes Code necessarily turned Rebecca's murder into an accidental death, and Hitchcock himself taken liberties by having Mrs. Danvers die in the fire at the ending.

7. Count Dracula (1977)
The title of this fairly obscure BBC miniseries may not be an exact match for Bram Stoker's classic horror novel, but it's by far the most faithful adaptation ever to grace the silver screen. Normally things like conflating Arthur and Quincy, making Lucy and Mina sisters, and the fact that Dracula doesn't turn younger from drinking blood would earn this title a lower spot on the list, but considering the vast proliferation of extremely bad versions of this very popular work, these minor quibbles can easily be overlooked. The feel of the novel and the essence of the characters are translated perfectly onto film, and in the end, that's all the counts (no pun intended).

Emma Thompson has a lot to discuss with with her husband
in E.M. Forster's Howard's End
6. Howard's End (1992)
It was really difficult for me to choose between this film and A Room with a View: both are adaptations of an E.M. Forster novel by Merchant Ivory co-starring Helena Bonham Carter, and both are very true to their sources. This one wins out, however, because the source material is simply superior. As much as I love A Room with a View,  in the end it's just a light romantic comedy whereas Howard's End is Forster's magnum opus, a gripping and tragically human drama about class, sex, and the healing power of forgiveness. The moral ambiguity and sympathy of all the characters in this book really shines through in this production, just as it does in the book. We may not agree with the characters' choices, but we cannot hate any of them; they remain well-rounded creations, not caricatures, something Forster highly prized in fiction. With all the great performances in this film, however, Emma Thompson steals our hearts as Margaret, embodying the nearly perfect combination of passion and compassion that has made audiences adore her since the book was first published.

5. A Christmas Carol (1999)
Who wold have thought that an American made-for-TV movie would be the most accurate version of A Christmas Carol every put to film. These adjectives, "American" and "made-for-TV," are not exactly by-words for quality film-making, especially when used in tandem. Then again, when your executive producer is a Royal Shakespeare veteran like Patrick Stewart, the result can be quite different than expected. -- This is not merely my partiality for Patrick Stewart speaking, either. Being an avid Dickens enthusiast, I've seen countless different versions of his classic Christmas ghost story, but none follows the plot or quotes more of the original dialog than this version. And considering how many times it's been adapted, that's really saying something.

Considered by many to be the Great American Novel, capturing the reality of racial inequality in America alongside the innocence and innate morality of our children, To Kill a Mockingbird was one adaptation that a producer couldn't skimp on. Any production that failed to captured those qualities with faithfulness and integrity would have been immediately tarred and feathered. Since this movie is in the top 10 of AFI's Greatest Movies, however, it must have done a pretty good job. Gregory Peck gets the role of his life as Atticus Finch, the lawyer fighting a losing battle on behalf of a black man falsely accused of rape in the South. The seriousness of the situation contrasted against the clairvoyant innocence of Atticus' children Jem and Scout creates a blinding glare of truth that sears to the heart of all who watch.

I once heard a reviewer remark that this wasn't so much an adaptation as it was the book incarnate, and I believe that's the highest praise you can give one these films. Were it not for Daniel Day-Lewis' unconvincing American accent, in fact, this film might very well be on the top of my list. Michelle Pfieffer captures both the appeal and tragedy of Ellen Olenska, making her breathe with a vibrancy and heart that all the other characters seem to lack, just like in the book. Wynona Rider is also excellent as the sheltered but surprisingly strong May Welland whom we cannot seem to hate despite her being Ellen's rival. The filming somehow seems to capture the sterility and claustrophobia of New York City in the late Victorian Era in a striking manner. Visually everything seems gilded but hollow, and the plot seems to echo that feeling. Perhaps the best part of this adaptation, however, is that rather than dispense with Edith Wharton's wonderful narrative voice, the movie actually has a woman reading right out of the book at key scenes.

2. Bleak House (2005)
Andrew Davies' adaptations occupy the top two spots on my list for a good reason. Davies is undoubtedly the master at refining books into film-able productions that are accurate enough to please bibliophiles and entertaining enough for the masses. Thus he seemingly effortlessly transforms a Victorian mammoth-novel into eight hours of quality television without ever losing his audience's attention. In this production a multi-faceted plot with literally dozens of key characters is juggled while remaining firmly centered upon the character of Esther Summerson. Gillian Anderson does a spectacularly good job as the tragic Lady Deadlock, proving that American actors can do just as good jobs with British accents as the Brits can with American accents. The make-up artists also did an excellent job with Esther's smallpox scarring and how it gradually fades over the course of the series. As it's such a pivotal part of the character's development, I was glad to see it handled well. My only real complaint with this version is that Esther and Lady Deadlock didn't really look alike enough for there to be any danger of their relationship as mother and daughter being discovered. My compliments especially go out to the actor portraying Mr. Guppy, who not only looked just like the engravings Dickens commissioned for the book, but also managed to capture his creepy awkwardness, making him both repellent and strangely sympathetic.
Jennifer Ehle captures the essence of one of literature's most
delightful heroines, Elizabeth Bennet of Pride & Prejudice

This BBC mini-series established a new gold-standard for adaptations of classic novels. They proved that you could do a 5-hour (6, if you count commercials) adaptation that stuck like glue to the book and would appeal to a much wider audience than just classic lit buffs. This edition of P&P was so popular, in fact, that half the women of Britain fell in love with Colin Firth, the actor portraying Mr. Darcy.
What was the secret to the success? Many feel that it was the screenplay by Andrew Davies, which maintained fast pacing and superb sense of comedy and drama, which kept the film from bogging down despite its length. I agree with that assessment, but I want to add that a key augmentation in this process was the score by Carl Davis, which maintained the emotion during important scenes and transitions.
The casting was also fairly near perfection. Since Austen was a master at creating memorable minor characters, it was essential that every part in this production capture the essence of those characters, and they succeeded brilliantly. I give them special commendations for their portrayal of the Gardeners, whose roles are so key to the plot yet so often downplayed or misrepresented. They truly shine as the only relatives for whom Elizabeth--to quote Austen--"Need not blush."
Of course, however, the actors who deserve the most credit for making this production work are Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth and Darcy. Of all the movie versions of P&P, Ehle did the best job at portraying the "combination of sweetness and archness in her manner that made it impossible to offend," (Austen's words again) in Elizabeth. Without exception every other actress that played Elizabeth made her too serious, especially Kiera Knightley who somehow turned her both selfish and prigish, rebellious but lacking in true mirth. Similarly, while most portrayals of Mr. Darcy are wooden in the extreme, Colin Firth imbues the character with life long before his miserable proposal to Elizabeth. We watch him smolder, flinch, and even smirk during a feeble attempt at flirtation. Not only that, but we see his admiration for Elizabeth so clearly before she does that her ignorance becomes wonderfully comical.

Buy them on DVD:
The Lord of the Rings - The Motion Picture Trilogy (Platinum Series Special Extended Edition)The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (Widescreen Edition)Death on the Nile,Jeeves & Wooster: The Complete SeriesSense & Sensibility (Special Edition)The Princess Bride (20th Anniversary Edition)Gone with the Wind (Two-Disc 70th Anniversary Edition)PersuasionRebeccaHoward's End (Ws)To Kill a Mockingbird (Collector's Edition)The Age of InnocenceBleak House (Special Edition)Pride and Prejudice (Restored Edition)

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Best-of-the-Decade Special: the 1939 Bumper Crop

The burning of Atlanta provides the back-lighting for this
iconic kiss between Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) and Scarlett
O'Hara (Vivien Leigh) in Gone with the Wind
1939 marked two major milestones in the history of Western Civilization: the outbreak of World War II in Europe, and the undisputed greatest year in movie history. Each of the ten films nominated for Best Picture that year would have taken home the Oscar had they been made any other year, but pitted against each other and the worldwide sensation that was Gone with the Wind, they did not get the acknowledgment they deserved. The ten nominated films themselves had stiff competition just for the spot at contention, with several four-star movies not even making the list.

As spectacular a year as it was for the movie industry, however, 1939 sadly marked the end of quality film-making for most of the '40s because of the devastation of the Second World War. This list, therefore, represents the swansong of a golden age of Hollywood production that shall never be equaled.

Had I added these films to my Best of the '30s list, they would have wiped out so many of the other great films made in the decade as to give the impression that Hollywood was a mediocre establishment until that year, which is simply untrue. For this special I shall exceed my limit of 10 to give you my choice of best movies from the greatest year in cinema history.

As with most adaptations of this novel, the ending does not stick with the downer that Victor Hugo originally wrote, but it certainly stay closer to the book than the Disney version. Charles Laughton shows his versatility as an actor by tackling the role of Quasimodo, imbuing the character, with innocence and intuition that make him incredibly sympathetic while his deformities still make him pathetically an outsider, almost a thing. Maureen O'Hara is breathtakingly lovely as Esmeralda, and Sir Cedric Hardwicke as sinister a Frollo as ever graced the silver screen (and certainly more nuanced than his Disney counterpart). Surprisingly, too, Thomas Mitchell makes a great villain as Clopin.

If you haven't heard of this film, you've probably heard of the remake, 1957's An Affair to Remember. Director/writer Leo McCarey wanted Cary Grant for the romantic lead in this film alongside Irene Dunne, with whom he had already made the delightful comedy The Awful Truth. Grant, however, was unavailable, and McCarey had to settle with French actor Charles Boyer, whose delivery of the touching script lacked emotional depth, particularly in the memorable final scene. The movie endures mostly because of the strength of the story and the heartfelt performance of Irene Dunne. If you haven't see it, you should watch either the original or An Affair to Remember ASAP. I won't give away the plot.

This film is generally credited with making John Wayne a star in the western movie genre. More than just a shoot-'em-up, this movie gives us a glimpse of the marginalized people in the frontier west such as Mexicans and prostitutes, as they ride beside the middle-class in a stagecoach. Other characters posses notable vices such as avarice, alcoholism, and obsessive vengeance, but in a pinch they prove their worth, with Thomas Mitchell nearly stealing the show as the drunken Doc Boone.

In her only comedic role, Greta Garbo shines as a straight-laced Soviet commissar who succumbs to the beauty and capitalist decadence of Paris. While light and at times hilarious, it makes a biting commentary on the foibles of both capitalism and communism, including a hilarious scene with a letter from Paris that gets completely censored by the Soviet government. The movie was so popular that it was remade as a musical in the '50s with Fred Astaire and Cyd Charise, but while it's also enjoyable, the remake feels more like Cold War propaganda, despite a good score from Cole Porter.

Probably the darkest of my choices, this film stars Cary Grant and Jean Arthur in a drama about the brutal life of American mail pilots in the Peruvian Andes. Cary Grant plays their leader, whose volatile profession makes him reticent to commit to a relationship with Jean Arthur's character. Great supporting roles by Rita Hayworth as the girl Grant left behind and Thomas Mitchell (noticing a pattern?) as a personable but over-the-hill pilot make this picture a movingly memorable.

This film represents everything that's best about the screwball romantic comedy genre: it's smart, hilarious, and touching at the right moments. Cluadette Colbert sparkles as a would-be gold-digger hired by Mary Astor's husband (a memorable performance, as always, by John Barrymore) to seduce her lover away. Her plan goes horribly awry, however, when the humble taxi driver she loves shows up claiming to be her husband!

Considered in retrospect to be the Star Wars of it's day, Gunga Din has everything a good action film should have: fun characters with heart, a sense of adventure with urgency, and really evil villains. That being said, we do get an idea from this movie about both the good and bad side of British imperialism in India, though it's understated, to be sure. As a woman, I have to admit that I take great pleasure in watching two incredibly handsome actors in this film: Cary Grant and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., both of whom give spirited performances as two very different characters.

Before school films such as Dead Poet's Society, Mr. Holland's Opus, and The Emperor's Club came into being, there was this superb Robert Donat film based on the novella of the same title. It chronicles the development of Mr. Chipping, an almost neurotically disciplined teacher at a British boarding school whose life is changed when he falls in love over a long holiday. The joy he experiences transforms him from one of the most hated to the most beloved teachers in school, and sustains him even through great tragedies. Like the great teacher movies that followed it, this movie is prevented from being sappy by the very human struggles and frailties of its characters. I dare you to keep a dry eye at the ending.

Although this is not a particularly accurate adaptation of the beloved children's book, the movie's iconic status is unquestioned. It made Judy Garland a star overnight, and went down as one of the greatest children's movies of all time. It was helped, of course, by a spectacular array of songs, great character actors such as Ray Bolger and Frank Morgan, and the famous sepia-to-Technicolor transition. With all that said, however, I find the Wicked Witch of the West a little too scary for young children, which is why it falls down my list both of 1939 movies and the greatest children's movies of all time.

I am obliged to put the film that swept the Oscars that year in the #2 spot because I feel it's slightly overrated. Along with being one of the most iconic American films of all time, Gone with the Wind is also a surprisingly good adaptation of Margaret Mitchell's +1000 page novel, condensing it in
to about four hours, which was still an unheard-of length for a movie at that time. What Can I say about this film that hasn't been said? Of course they still had to cut a lot from the book, including Scarlett's children from her first two marriages, but the production still captures the essence of the novel to such an extend that we don't seem to mind very much. The four main characters are played to perfection by Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Leslie Howard, and Olivia de Havilland, and even the supporting cast won Oscars for their incredible work, Hattie McDaniel being the first African-American to win an Oscar, and Thomas Mitchell taking home a statue for his entire 1939 oeuvre, basically.

James Stuart as Sen. Jefferson Smith finds out how politics
really works as his opponents manufacture public opinion.
Frank Capra commented in his autobiography that he had the misfortune to produce his magnum opus the same year as Gone with the Wind, but many in retrospect feel that he actually made the superior film. Edgy and controversial, Mr. Smith was very nearly banned for its honest portrayal of American politics. Both the media and politicians writhed at the negative light in which the film portrays them, but Americans outside those professions have always appreciated this glimpse at the truth.

In what is perhaps James Stuart's greatest role, he portrays a young idealist used as a patsy by his state's political machine. When Stuart's character finds out what's really going on in Washington, he tries to expose the truth, only to find out that with money and the media in their pocket, his opponents are the creators and absolute arbiters of truth (gee, does that sound like contemporary politics to anyone?).

Surprisingly, it's not Mr. Smith's courage and integrity that make him triumph in the end. He does not win by his own power or the power of the people at all. Instead the corruption topples only when one of its own conspirators has a change of heart. So in this movie political machines cannot be defeated by an ordinary American--that's a dark is a dark message indeed. Apart from wonderful plot and filming, this movie also gains from the incredible supporting cast of Jean Arthur as the Dulcinea to Stewart's Don Quixote (reference's to Cervantes' windmill-tilting hero are made throughout the movie), Claude Rains as the idealist who sold his soul to the devil, and Thomas Mitchell again as Arthur's cynical reporter boyfriend.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Best-of-the-Decade Series: The '30s (Minus 1939)

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced in 9 films
together during the 1930s
Although a terrible time for the rest of America, the 1930s were boom-times for the film industry both artistically and financially. With the dominance of the talkie and the advent of Technicolor, not only did filmmakers have a ton of new toys to play with, but they also had millions of struggling Americans clamoring for the escape which movies offered from their marginal existence. While many lament the creation of the Hayes Code as an act of censorship, I look on it as a challenge to filmmakers to use character and plot instead of mere titillation to hold the audience's attention, and they really pulled it off. Inside this matrix directors like Frank Capra and producers like David O. Selznick were at the height of their artistic powers. Talents like the Marx Brothers were imported from the New York stage, and Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced their way into the world's heart.

I have a tremendous love for movies of the '30s, so much so that I am loathed to pick only 10 to represent such a dynamic decade. I've tried, therefore, to pick my favorite from each genre, and I have excluded the 1939 crop because they deserve their own category. So without further ado, a list of the top 10 movies of the 1930s, as deemed by the Supreme Arbitress of Taste

10. A Night at the Opera (1935)
For comedy I prefer the Marx Brothers over the Three Stooges any day. Groucho, Chico, and Harpo Marx all have very different styles of comedy, as well as adding a musical element which the Stooges lack. People will make the argument for Duck Soup being the better Marx Brothers movie, but I take this one better because Harpo gets to play the harp, and we are favored with the superb singing talents of Allan Jones. I love opera, but it takes itself so seriously that it's just ripe for satire, and the Marx Bros. pull it of perfectly with the combination of Groucho's biting quips and Harpo's slapstick sabotage.

9. Showboat (1936)
Operettas were big in the '30s, and although Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy were the established stars of the film genre, the one I think is the most enduring operetta from the decade is the stellar adaptation of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II's great American operetta, Showboat, featuring Irene Dunne and Allan Jones as star-crossed lovers, singing a score that features such classics as "Old Man River," "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man of Mine," and "Only Make Believe (I love you)."

8. A Tale of Two Cities (1935)
David O. Selznick was the the best book-to-film adapter of the '30s, and Dickens was his favorite author. Ronald Coleman famously shaved his pencil-thin mustache in order to play the tragic hero Sydney Carton in this film. While Selznick's David Copperfield is the more famous adaptation, I think this is the superior adaptation. This stems from the fact that A Tale of Two Cities is a much shorter book, and thus adapting it into a 2-hour movie doesn't make it feel nearly as rushed or chopped-up as Copperfield does.

7. Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
Although it was remade with Marlon Brando twenty years later, Clark Gable is a much more likable and credible Fletcher Christian, and Charles Laughton plays one of his best roles as Captain Bligh. Despite Gable's lack of a British accent, his performance is charismatic enough to make us overlook it. I even forgive the anachronistic pencil-thin mustache because the movie is so good.

6. The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
Countless movie versions have been made of the Robin Hood legend, but none can top the 1938 Errol Flynn version. With a fabulous supporting cast including Olivia de Havilland as Maid Marion, Claude Rains as Prince John, and Basil Rathbone as Sir Guy of Gisbourne, this Technicolor extravaganza remains the quintessential Robin Hood film. This movie hits on all marks: funny when it's supposed to be, dramatic at the right moments, credibly romantic, and containing superbly filmed action sequences, including a sword fight between Flynn and Rathbone that showcases both actors' considerable skills.

5. Swing Time (1936)
As with my Marx Bros. pick, this Astaire/Rogers choice isn't as popular as their film Top Hat, but it features an equally impressive score, much better dancing, and a move away from the mistaken identity plot previously employed in Top Hat and The Gay Divorcee. Three songs became jazz standards: "Pick Yourself Up," "A Fine Romance," and "The Way You Look," and the dance number "Never Gonna Dance," is considered the finest routine they ever put together.

4. Bringing up Baby (1938)
The Baby of the title is a tame leopard who gives an overworked paleontologist and a ditsy heiress a run for their money. This movie is considered the quintessential screwball comedy, utilizing Cary Grant's considerable physical and verbal comedic skills. The elaborate conceits that Grant and Katherine Hepburn have to find their way out of have to be seen to be believed.

3. The Thin Man (1934)
Crime-solving couples were born back in the '20s with Agatha Christie's sleuthing duo Tommy and Tuppence, but Nick and Nora Charles were the first to make it to the silver screen. William Powell and Myrna Loy are delightful as they booze and bicker their way through a baffling murder. The tongue-in-cheek dialogue and chemistry between Powell and Loy were enough to spawn a litter of sequels, all of which are entertaining and the fist of which is as good as the original.

2. The 39 Steps (1935)
Alfred Hitchcock's first international hit is a comedic spy thriller about a man who accidentally involves himself in a spy conspiracy. The pacing of this movie is relentless enough so that the audience feels just as haggard as Robert Donat's character as he runs across Scotland trying to escape both the police and the foreign agents who want him dead. If you like this title, by the way, check out The Lady Vanishes, another early Hitchcock of similar brilliance.

Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert hitchhike to New York in
one of the best films of the decade, It Happened One Night.

1. It Happened One Night (1934)
This extremely low-budget romantic comedy was the first movie ever to sweep the 4 major Oscars: Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Actress. It was also the first of three Best Director awards Frank Capra would garner during the decade. Clark Gable is at his most charming as a quick-witted out-of-work reporter helping an heiress (Claudette Colbert) escape from her overprotective father. The film also features the famous hitchhiking scene where Colbert hitches a ride by hiking up her skirt.