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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. VII, No. 2
Summer-Fall 1983



4. JOHN ORLANDELLO, O'NEILL ON FILM. Rutherford, NJ: Farleigh Dickinson U. Press, 1982. 182 pp. $27.50. ISBN: 0-8386-2291-7.

[The following comprises a review by Gerald Dorset which the editor, now preparing for the film festival touted on this issue's back cover, wished to augment. Both endorse the book, but the review was not communally constructed. Since it is not possible to indicate whose views are being expressed at a given moment, each suggests that, if you find fault with any passage, the other is to blame. Ed.]

There is no other American writer whom Hollywood has adapted as often and as thoroughly as Eugene O'Neill. Which is small wonder, since his plays have run so often and so long on Broadway, and filmland, by far the junior medium, has always been in awe of its elder, "legitimate" cousin. So a book on the movie versions of O'Neill's plays was definitely in order, and John Orlandello, whose respect and affection for the master dramatist are apparent throughout, covers their first half century in marvelous detail.

The succinct introduction makes it clear that the author is well-versed in the contrasting techniques of stage and screen and is free of any rigid viewpoint about how best to effect transference from the former realm to the latter: "it seems impossible," he writes, "to insist on a single model for effectiveness in adapting stage works to the screen" (p. 14). Accordingly, he offers no wholesale endorsement of the general feeling "that film versions of plays must 'open up' the stage work," but he does insist that filmed plays "remain ... faithful to the spirit of the work on which they are based" (p. 15).

The fascination of the book is really twofold: (1) its painstaking study of the minutiae in the eleven screen versions of twelve O'Neill plays (twelve, since Anna Christie and Ah, Wilderness! were both cinematized twice, but one film, The Long Voyage Home, combined the contents of four of the one-act sea plays); and (2) its grand overview of fifty years of Hollywood evolution—the advent of sound, changing trends in public taste, censorship's dominating fist, the star system, and technical advances in the medium itself. Some will value the book for its thirty-five clear and well-chosen illustrations from the films discussed; others for its detailed filmography; others for its study of O'Neill's changing attitudes (mostly downward) toward motion pictures; and others for the grist it provides for the currently popular trivia mill. What, for instance, would have been the result if Greta Garbo and Katharine Hepburn had played mother and daughter in Mourning Becomes Electra? (Theresa Helburn had suggested Hepburn for Lavinia, and O'Neill liked the idea, but Louis B. Mayer's "Over my dead body" torpedoed the plan; and Garbo, offered the role of Christine, refused to come out of retirement.) Of such what-ifs are film-lovers' dreams woven! Equally interesting as a tangential tidbit is the story of the rediscovery of the earlier Anna Christie (1923), starring Blanche Sweet. The first film version of an O'Neill play, and a towering success with public and critics alike, it dropped from sight and was feared lost forever until the Museum of Modern Art learned of its presence in a Soviet archive, acquired a print, and had its Serbo-Croatian titles translated back into English. So all the O'Neill films are now availablc—except for one, which will be mentioned later.

In his capsule descriptions of the original plays, Orlandello says nothing new, generally settling for pat phrases that make O'Neill sound simpler than he is; but his film analyses, rich in detail, make one eager to see the pictures again, even the bad ones. In comparing the two Anna Christies, he points out how much more faithful to the play the first is, because of the "concession to morality" and the softening of the characters in the more famous Garbo version. Strange Interlude, though it seems ideal for the screen, if only for the movies' voice-over capability, fails because Robert Z. Leonard's screenplay "strips the play of most of its complexity, its reverberation of themes [one of those aforementioned pat phrases], and most of its poetry" (p. 39). (Page 43's act-by-act list of deletions is startlingly long; even the title phrase, originally spoken by Nina, bit the California dust!) The Emperor Jones also pales beside its source, because a tight, expressionistic narrative becomes a ten-year realistic one—a ponderous dog whose tail (O'Neill's own play, tacked on at the end) refuses to wag. Each film is afforded careful scrutiny production details, individual performances, camera work, etc.—the only omission being the William Bendix-Susan Hayward Hairy Ape, which Orlandello could not assess "since the film is currently unavailable through either film archives or film rental." Aside from the first Anna Christie, the best adaptations are shown to be Long Day's Journey Into Night (an example of the wisdom in not "opening up" some plays for the screen), The Iceman Cometh (because of the ensemble performance of a superb cast—even Lee Marvin, whom the author defends at length against the almost unanimous panning of the critics), and, above all, The Long Voyage Home. O'Neill called it "the best picture made from my stuff," and Orlandello agrees, attributing much of its success to the brilliant direction of John Ford: "O'Neill was obsessed with the profound poetry of the sea, in both its romantic and its brutal aspects, and Ford's film captures these qualities both verbally and visually" (p. 101).

O'Neill on Film may not satisfy a long-felt need, and it adds nothing to previous critical commentary on the plays, but it deserves a place in any library whose collections include the history of American cinema, and O'Neill aficionados will find much to enjoy, especially those who will be attending the O'Neill film festival at the Boston conference next March. (And there's no question about who wrote those last words!)

—Gerald Dorset and Frederick Wilkins



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