HeldenFiles: Should some movies remain untouched

By Rich Heldenfels
Beacon Journal popular culture writer

James Stewart (left) Thomas Mitchell (right) and Donna Reed appear in the 1946 movie "It's A Wonderful Life." (AP Photo)

A few weeks ago, a production company announced plans to make a sequel to It’s a Wonderful Life, still at the top of my list of all-time great Christmas movies.

(To those of you screaming immediately about A Christmas Story, it’s the runner-up, followed by Love Actually.)

The announcement of the film — to focus on George Bailey’s grandson — was greeted by the expected outrage. Paramount Pictures told entertainment publication Variety that it holds the license on the original film and characters and the new guys “have not obtained any of the necessary rights.” The new guys, meanwhile, told Variety that they “have spent a lot of time, money and research that leads us to believe that we are clear on any infractions of the copyright.”

Putting aside the legal arguments, the more basic one is, should anyone have tried to create a sequel or a remake of a classic movie?

The answer, of course, depends on whether the sequel will be any good. Because if there is a chance to make some money, sequels and remakes will happen.

In fact, It’s a Wonderful Life has been reworked once before, for the 1977 TV movie It Happened One Christmas. The movie did a gender reversal of the original: Marlo Thomas was the George Bailey-like character, with her spouse played by Wayne Rogers, Cloris Leachman as the angel in training and Orson Welles as the evil Mr. Potter. It did not compare to the original.

Then there’s The Sound of Music, which was a stage production starring Mary Martin, made into a movie with Julie Andrews and most recently a live TV presentation starring Carrie Underwood.

Underwood’s performance was greeted with enough ire that Underwood tweeted, “Mean people need Jesus.” Whether they needed this Sound of Music is another issue, It did draw a big audience, NBC will repeat it at 8 tonight and many of Underwood’s fans were pleased. But it did not stand up to Andrews’ work. And some viewers were puzzled to see not a reworking of the movie but a return to the framework of the Broadway version.

Returning to A Christmas Story, another incomparable film, in 2012 there was a direct-to-video sequel, A Christmas Story 2, set five years after the original and without the original cast. To be sure, A Christmas Story is part of a larger fabric of productions based on tales by radio star Jean Shepherd. One of those films, known variously as It Runs in the Family and My Summer Story, was shot in the Cleveland area like A Christmas Story.

I saw It Runs in the Family. And a few months ago I found a copy of A Christmas Story 2 in a discount bin at a local video store.

As for watching it, I can’t. Just can’t. I’d feel the same way if there was a sequel to Love Actually.

Should we even talk about the updating of Miracle on 34th Street? Please, no. I’d sooner see a reworking of Casablanca.

Only that happened, too. Twice, in fact.

In 1983, David Soul — not the first name to come to mind when you think of successors to Humphrey Bogart — played Rick Blaine in a TV series for NBC. It proved short-lived.

And in 1955, as Warner Bros. was mining its film archives for ideas for TV shows, Akron’s own Charles McGraw played Rick (this time with the last name Jason) in a briefly seen ABC drama. In his biography of McGraw, Alan K. Rode said the actor was all right, the cast included some supporting players from the Bogart movie and the set and camera work were good by the TV standards of the time. Unfortunately, Rode said, “the show’s main problem was the hackneyed teleplays.”

Only the really big problem was the idea that nothing put onscreen is sacred. We’ve seen that technologically over the years as shows were edited for television, modified for different sensibilities, updated in their special effects and otherwise finagled with to make more money for the folks behind the scenes. We’ve seen it further in the making of follow-ups, whether remakes or sequels, for TV, the movies, theater and online.

People have complained to me more than once about there not being more new ideas on view — but when lacking a new idea, producers are not averse to grabbing an old one. Look at the way movies like Once and Legally Blonde have been turned into stage musicals. Check out the direct-to-video successors Disney has concocted for Mulan, The Lion King and other films. Turn to TV lineups in 2013 and find Hannibal, Ironside, Dracula, Hawaii Five-O, Sleepy Hollow and House of Cards.

Of course, House of Cards turned out very well, Sleepy Hollow is a nutty thrill and Five-O has had enough viewers to last into its fourth season. So somebody did not mind that the ideas had been used before.

At the same time, though, are there ideas that should never be revisited, shows and movies so perfect that they should not be touched? Maybe to you. Maybe, for instance, you loved everything about Gone With the Wind.

And what then did you think in 1994, when CBS made Scarlett?

Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online blog, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or rheldenfels@thebeaconjournal.com.

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