There was a time, hard to fathom as it might be, when Hollywood picked its prime properties from the wares of 45th Street, rather than the other way around. Adaptation was hit or miss, often depending on the suitability of the material and the ingenuity of the adapters. Sometimes the film version was actually superior, although most often it worked the other way around. On rare occasions, both products were comparable, which is what happened with The Philadelphia Story [Warner Home Entertainment]. Philip Barry's 1939 play holds up well, even today; Barry was a fine craftsman, and in this case he hit on an endearing (and invigorating) trio of central characters.
Philadelphia Story was written as a play, yes, but it was written as a comeback vehicle for Katharine Hepburn. Hepburn had appeared in Barry's earlier hit Holiday, and in Tracy Lord he gave her a role that seemed to match her public persona. If current-day stage productions of The Philadelphia Story are somewhat hampered, that's because the play is suffused in scent-of-Hepburn.
The 1940 film version has Hepburn, all right, and she is quite something. Joseph Cotten and Van Heflin apparently made perfect foils at the Shubert, but who wouldn't gladly trade them in for Cary Grant and James Stewart? The film, directed by George Cukor and with a screenplay by Donald Ogden Stewart, is a joy from start to finish. A jolly good show, on stage or screen.
The Philadelphia Story has been joined, in a box set that Warner Home Entertainment calls Classic Comedy, by adaptations of two George S. Kaufman/Edna Ferber hits of the Depression, Dinner at Eight and Stage Door. Both films are markedly superior to their origins. Dinner at Eight, as we had the opportunity to experience at Lincoln Center in 2002, is necessarily choppy onstage. Merrily it lumbers along, introducing its numerous characters on numerous sets, which must have taken forever to assemble and strike in 1932. (The highlight of the revival, from my seat, was John Lee Beatty's stylish physical production, which benefited from both high imagination and modern-day stage mechanics.) But the main problem with writing a stage play with eight major roles is casting them. Browse through the original cast list and you'll find almost nobody you've ever heard of, and for good reason. (The only exception among the principals was Sam Levene. In small parts was a pre Hollywood Cesar Romero and — as the bellboy — Robert Griffith, who went on to produce musicals like The Pajama Game and West Side Story.)
Stroll over to M-G-M and fill that cast like a Chinese menu, with three from Column A and five from Column B. Two Barrymores, Beery and Dressler and Harlow, and just keep on going. Succulently juicy roles that a celluloid luminary can sink his or her teeth into, without tying themselves up for a lengthy stage run. The stars didn't do it themselves, of course; they had Cukor on hand, as well as scenarists Francis Marion and Herman J. Mankiewicz (with, again, Donald Ogden Stewart). The differences between stage and screen are many; Dinner at Eight is best remembered for that priceless interchange between Dressler and Harlow, which was not enacted at the Alvin by Constance Collier and Judith Wood. Who? Stage Door was another example of casting by number$. The 1936 original featured the beloved Margaret Sullavan atop a cast of 32. M-G-M gave us not only Hepburn, Ginger Rogers and Adolphe Menjou, but up-and comers like Lucille Ball, Eve Arden and Ann Miller. What's more, the script was significantly bolstered by Morrie Ryskind (a frequent Kaufman collaborator) and Anthony Veiller. A disgruntled Kaufman, hearing reports from the west, famously muttered something to the effect that they might as well change the title to "Screen Door" while they're at it. Even so, the film more or less works, while I don't imagine anyone is likely to resurrect the play any day soon.
These DVDs are available separately, but for the price of three you can buy the whole six-film Classic Comedies Collection. Given that the others classics include two of the funniest films ever, you might as well get the bunch. Bringing Up Baby pairs Hepburn and Grant, both of whom hailed from Broadway; and an old show tune, McHugh and Fields's "I Can't Give You Anything but Love," is deftly intertwined with the plot. So let's call it theatre-related, and enjoy it. To Be or Not to Be — not be confused with the 1983 remake of same — is one of my all-time favorites. Lubitsch and Carole Lombard and Jack Benny; yes, Jack Benny, and he's quite good as a great Polish actor born to play Hamlet (badly). If you like satirical comedy with meat on it, this one is not to be missed. If you've managed a whole lifetime without seeing it, you're in for a treat.
These films have been carefully restored in what they used to call glorious black and white, and they look pristine. Warner Home Entertainment has stocked most of them with vintage shorts and (in three cases) documentaries. When you consider that you can get the entire Classic Comedies Collection for less than the price of a current-day theatre ticket — the set retails at $68.98, and major Internet sites are offering it for considerably less — you just might want to get them on your shelf.
Switching to musicals, three specimens of distinctly different sorts have recently been released. The 1981 revue Sophisticated Ladies [Kultur] was one of those shows that managed to overcome severe tryout problems and work its way into the hit column, helped along by the presence of Gregory Hines. Hines isn't on the DVD, which was originally broadcast as a live pay-TV event; Hinton Battle, who won a Tony for his featured role in Sophisticated Ladies, stepped into Hines's shoes for the occasion. (Judith Jamison, the leading lady, also opted out of the telecast.) Even so, we get to see a lavish Broadway revue, circa 1981, more or less as performed in the theatre.
A very different type of revue, from the very same season, was Tintypes [Kultur]. This was a five-person cavalcade of popular song, which started at the Arena Stage in Washington and looked somewhat out-of-place on Broadway. What stood out in Tintypes at the Golden, and what stands out as well on the DVD, is the performance of Lynne Thigpen, who picked up a featured actress Tony nomination for her efforts. Thigpen was not only a marvelous actress, she was a thorough professional; over the years, I never saw her give a performance that was less than sterling. Also in the cast was a singing character-comedian called Jerry Zaks, who moved on to other exploits.
Gypsy [Lions Gate/Hallmark] needs no introduction to readers of this column. This is neither stage nor film, being the 1993 television adaptation starring Bette Midler. As such, there is no need for comparison with all those other Gypsys that you might have known. Yes, I admit that I would rather see Ethel Merman doing the role; but we are not likely to see Merman's performance, not at this late date. Midler, working in a very different medium, more than holds her own. The DVD contains commentary from executive producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron. The packaging boasts breathlessly that Gypsy comes not from the renowned Jule Styne and the legendary Stephen Sondheim but "from the director of Sister Act and Dirty Dancing." So I hereby pass the glad tidings on to any fans of Sister Act and Dirty Dancing who come across this webpage.
—Steven Suskin, author of "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork" [Chronicle Books], the "Broadway Yearbook" series, "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached by e-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com.