The Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, once said that if a filmmaker is ever in a slump as to what will be the next hit movie, they should look for a hit play. If only the Hollywood of 21st felt that way. Studio writers would have to develop compelling characters and storylines that were raw and real.
In theatre, if a play isn’t well written or well portrayed, the only things to hide behind are the props. Brutal audiences and critics will bury a stage production bomb, but a film will turn up out of nowhere. However, when a successful play gets revised for the big screen, there is plenty to expand on, but the core is still reliant on the right cast and direction to make an effective success.
1. Arsenic and Old Lace (Frank Capra, 1944)
Mortimer Brewster is a recently married drama critic who goes to Brooklyn to visit his two spinster aunts, Martha and Abby. Upon arriving, he discovers the sweet old ladies have been poisoning lonely, elderly bachelors and getting Mortimer’s brother Teddy, who believes he’s the President Theodore Roosevelt, to bury to bodies in the basement. Things become even more dangerous when a murderous brother, Jonathan, is on the lam and comes home to hide out.
The stage production debuted on Broadway in 1941 and the Cary Grant vehicle was shot in eight weeks that same year. Having joined the Army during World War II, Frank Capra asked for a leave of absence so he could edit the film for the 1942 preview. However, because of the contract between Broadway and Warner Brothers, it wasn’t released domestically until 1944 when play’s run ended. Yet it was shown to American Armed Forces overseas and Grant donated his $100, 000 salary to the War Relief Fund.
2. Hamlet (Laurence Olivier, 1948)
Distraught over the sudden marriage of his mother to his uncle Claudius after his father’s untimely death, Prince Hamlet of Denmark swears revenge. With the help of a ghost and a traveling group of actors, the prince is able to torment the guilty Claudius and confront his mother. He later snaps and kills the father of a woman that he is courting, which prompts the evil uncle the king to banish Hamlet to England to await execution.
“The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark” is William Shakespeare’s longest and most performed play is dated between 1599 and 1602. By the late 1940s, Laurence Olivier would star in and direct the most successful film version. Despite criticism for severing crucial material, it would still win an Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Leading Actor. “Olivier’s Hamlet” would be revered as the definitive film adaptation for its moody black and white cinematography with a stage production atmosphere.
3. Harvey (Henry Koster, 1950)
Elwood Dowd is a likable, non-threatening alcoholic who has an imaginary friend named Harvey, a six-foot rabbit. His domineering sister, Veta, is trying to have him committed, while the rest of the family don’t see a problem with Elwood nor Harvey. Many conflicts erupt within the dynamic of the family and doctors, while the subject of their dilemma remains carefree and blissful.
The original Broadway production opened in November of 1944 and closed in January 1949. A year after it debuted, playwright Mary Chase received the Pulitzer Prize for Best Drama. By 1950, the film version would star James Stewart in one of his most endearing roles. Years later, Steven Spielberg would abort an updated adaptation after the inability to find an actor to portray Elwood.
4. Dial M For Murder (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954)
A former professional tennis player in London discovers that his wife is cheating on him and devise a plan to murder her. Blackmailing a former college acquaintance into doing the job, he establishes the perfect crime. Needless to say, all does not go well as it was orchestrated.
Originally a BBC television production, Frederick Knott’s 1952 play would be his most successful and most inspiring achievement. Two years later he penned the script for Alfred Hitchcock’s film adaptation in 3-D. Anthony Dawson and John Williams, two of the actors from the New York stage play, would reprise their roles in the feature.
5. The Seven Year Itch (Billy Wilder, 1955)
While his wife and child are out on a vacation, publisher Richard Sherman is left behind with his over-active imagination and internal mid-life crisis. He runs into his new neighbor, known only as The Girl, and begins to question his marriage of seven years. His mind begins to flood with fantasy riddled scenarios of infidelity, but utterly worried about the repercussions of his actions.
The stage production debuted in 1952 and ran for three years on Broadway. Tom Ewell reprised his leading role for the film, while the original playwright George Axelrod revised the script with director Billy Wilder. Although actress Vanessa Brown was The Girl in the play, Marilyn Monroe would make the role iconic for the infamous dress blowing up over a subway gate.
6. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Mike Nichols, 1966)
A bitter and aging couple, George and Martha Washington, are immersed in a torturous marriage drenched in alcoholism and co-dependent depression. One night after a work related party, they invite a younger and more naïve couple, Nick and Honey, over to their house for a nightcap. Through the course of the evening, George and Martha play emotional games, argue in taunting ways and drag their guests along for rollercoaster ride.
Edward Albee’s play about marital strife made its stage debut on Broadway in 1962. When faithfully adapted for the big screen, the script had encountered controversy over the dialogue and subject matter. It became the first film to earn the MPAA tag “No one under 18 will be admitted without an adult”. The title earned its name from the Disney song “Who’s Afraid of The Big Bad Wolf”, but the producers of the film couldn’t negotiate with Walt over the rights to use it.
7. Wait Until Dark (Terence Young, 1967)
Suzy Hendrix is a blind New York housewife that receives a doll from her husband, Sam, which was given to him by a woman who later gets murdered. Unbeknownst to the married couple, the doll contains a hefty bag of heroin. While Sam goes out of town on business, three conmen trace the connection and descend upon Suzy with the intention to deceive her and retrieve their product.
Frederick Knott’s third and final suspenseful play premiered in New York in 1966, but only ran for just under four-hundred performances. Shortly after its debut, the rights for the film version were purchased, while the script was re-written by Robert and Jane-Howard Carrington. Released in 1967 starring Audrey Hepburn and Alan Arkin, it became one of the most popular movies that year.
8. Romeo and Juliet (Franco Zeffirelli, 1968)
Two rival families in Verona during the sixteen century encounter tragedy and eventually reconciliation. Teenaged lovers, Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet, are forbidden to see each other, but defy their irrational elders by getting married with the help of Friar Laurence, who hopes to bring peace through their union.
The date of one Shakespeare’s most performed play (next to “Hamlet”), it has pinpointed around the late 1590s. The first stage production was in London within the mid-to-late1600s. Since its insurgence, it has inspired many adaptations from ballets to operas and films. The 1968 feature directed by Franco Zeffirelli is still the most beloved version committed thus far to the big screen and is the last Shakespearean play to receive any nominations for Best Picture.