Posted by Greg Ferrara on April 9, 2014
As I was scrolling through TCM’s schedule this week, I noticed the 1946 Sherlock Holmes movie, Dressed to Kill, which aired yesterday morning. Years ago, when I first saw the Basil Rathbone series, I was dismayed by the later films in the series that updated the story to the present day. There was something about seeing modern vehicles and appliances in a Sherlock Holmes story. Now, of course, the story has been done in the time period it was written, in the present day of the 21st century and with both genders in the lead role. And it no longer bothers me one bit.
There was a time when remakes of classic movies bothered me. Now, I find myself trying to remember why. I really don’t know anymore. I suppose with age comes the feeling that some things are important, some things aren’t. Other art forms redo classic works all the time. In music, you never cover a lousy song, you cover a great one. In the theater, you don’t do a revival of a failed play, you do one that was a roaring success. Why should it be any different for film?
Last week I watched The Lady Vanishes. No, not the original, which I’ve seen a dozen times and have the Criterion DVD for repeated viewings in the future. I watched the remake, the one made in 1979 with Cybill Shepherd, Elliott Gould, and Angela Lansbury. I’d refused to watch it for years because how dare they remake such a classic! But here’s the thing: Had it been a great remake, it would have gone down as such and it wouldn’t bother anyone. Had it been a stinker, same result. So what’s the problem?
As it turns out, it wasn’t quite a stinker but it wasn’t very good, either. It didn’t bother me either way. When Phillip Kaufman decided to remake Invasion of the Body Snatchers, he succeeded so well that many people still think it’s better than the original. In fact, I’m among them. I think it’s better than the original and as a result, I’ve watched it more times than the original but I should make it clear that I love both. I just think the remake’s slightly better. Since it was so good, you never hear complaints about Invasion of the Body Snatchers being remade in 1978. But when a remake is bad, you hear things like, “They should remake bad movies to make them better, not classics.” I know because I’ve said that myself, many times. But now I don’t necessarily trust that point of view anymore.
Want to remake Casablanca? Go ahead! If the remake stinks, well, no one will be very surprised. If it’s good, they’ll be pleasantly surprised. If it’s great, it will go down alongside the original and people will debate which one they like better, just like they do with Invasion of the Body Snatchers. But here’s what won’t happen, no matter what the movie turns out to be: It will not, in any way, ever, change the fact that the original is a masterpiece. And if it won’t change that, ever, then what’s the problem?
Oh, I know: If the remake’s good, people will never watch the original. Eh, maybe. Even so, enough people will and it will always be there for the watching should someone choose to do so. I remember this coming up twice in the last decade or two, with the remake of Psycho and the remake of Charade. I was among the hoards complaining that Psycho was untouchable and should never be remade. Why? Did I think the original would be forgotten in lieu of the brand new, and in color, remake? I bet I did. I was a fool. And even if the Gus Van Sant remake had struck a nerve with moviegoers and become a modern day classic, I’d always have the original to watch so I’m not quite sure why any scenario outside of Van Sant destroying the original print would bother me. Same with Charade (the remake, directed by Jonathan Demme, was titled The Truth About Charlie), I thought somehow the remake would supplant the original (I know, I must have been on a bender that week). Again, even if it had, who cares?
Quite frankly, the older I get the more I’m in favor of remaking classics instead of bad or disappointing movies. I say, take something that was great in its day and see if you can repeat it. Now, this is a bit selfish on my part because what I’m wishing for here is the filmmaker to spend millions of dollars just to run a little experiment for me. I’m a firm believer that movies are of their time and if you want to remake something, you have to make it for the time in which it’s remade. Even if they take place in a specific period, it will succeed or fail based on how well it relates to the world around it. So when Philip Kaufman remade Body Snatchers, he didn’t fill it with an air of threatening communism but a loss of emotion due to everyone becoming a counter-culture space cadet. It became as much about 1978 and San Francisco as the first had been about 1956 and the threat of communism. So I’d like to see what a filmmaker would do with some of the great classics. Would they be smart enough to update it in the right ways? Van Sant didn’t update Psycho and, he claims, didn’t really want to. He claims he was doing exactly what I’m talking about, that is, running an experiment to see if something from a specific time period would work in a new time period if left unchanged. The answer, I believe, was no.
One problem a lot of us have is clinging to the original regardless of the quality of the remake. I suffer from that with many movies but hopefully, I’m getting past it. I see people get upset about a remake like True Grit and I don’t really understand the fuss. John Wayne’s John Wayne and always will be. Jeff Bridges is Jeff Bridges. I like them both and I like both movies. Why not do Citizen Kane next? How come The Seven Samurai can get remade from The Magnificent Seven to A Bug’s Life and no one cares but Citizen Kane is untouchable? Remake it! No one’s ever going to touch the original but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t be damn curious to see what someone could do with a remake. And stop redoing the original Star Wars trilogy’s special effects. Remake it instead! After the next three get made I say go back and redo the first three. Keep coming up with more original works, too, of course. Much more original than remakes. But when you do a remake, challenge yourself. Pick a classic, like Gus Van Sant did, and see if you can successfully update for a new audience or as an alternate take for the old audience. I won’t complain. Not anymore.
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