Plum Movies

I had absolutely no idea that the early Wodehouse novel Piccadilly Jim (1918) had been turned into a film. Well it had and as recently as 2004 by director John McKay. The script was by actor and writer Julian Fellowes, the chap who penned Altman's Gosford Park a few years back.

In fact, IMDB informs me that this wasn't the first time the novel had been filmed. They did it in 1936 (Robert Z. Leonard, with - not so promisingly - Robert Montgomery as Jim) and even as early as 1919 (Wesley Ruggles). Curious.

The relations between Wodehouse and the cinema were always a bit strained. They'd been doing his stuff on the silver screen since the 1915 film A Gentleman of Leisure which was based on his play. By 1950 around thirty of his texts (plays, short stories, novels) had been filmed. Basically they seem to have been fodder, all of them pretty much forgotten, and justly so.

The Wodehouse films best remembered might be Her Cardboard Lover (1942) - based on a play only adapted by Wodehouse - by George Cukor with Norma Shearer, Robert Taylor and George Sanders, and George Stevens's re-do of A Damsel in Distress (1937) which had precious little to do with the original novel. Damsel is still quite a good film but not thanks to Wodehouse but the splendid cast: Fred Astaire, Joan Fontaine, George Burns and the simply brilliant Gracie Allen. During the '40s not much Wodehouse was filmed. Then along came Television and his stuff was in great demand once again and continued to be so for several decades. The latest Wodehouse venture worth a mention was Jeeves & Wooster (1990-93) by Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie.

The films and the TV stuff all seems to have one thing in common. There's never much Wodehouse in them. Oh the characters might be called Bertie Wooster or Emsworth, the plots and situations might well follow Wodehouse's original texts, yet something is always missing. The spark, the soul, the Wodehousian spirit. That which makes him unique.

They always get it wrong.

Wodehouse's magic lies in his language. As simple as that. Film makers or TV people never ever seem to grasp just how well and delicately crafted his language is, how finely tuned it is, how it all hangs together and paints the picture with vivid colours. It's like a clockwork. They only concentrate on plot and character, which in his case are secondary, dare I say clichéd, and loose the quintessence of the text. The language elevates the text. It's like music. The plots, though they often are breath-takingly virtuoso like preformances, still never have much importance as we always know how it all will end in the end.

Wodehouse ought to be handled with the same respect and delicacy as Shakespeare because his most important qualities are exactly the same as those of the Bard (whose collected works, by the way, never left his bedside table).

(But of course film and TV people almost always get him wrong too.)

Wodehouse's language, the rhythms and the patterns, the quirky images, must be given priority in any adaptation. Otherwise it cannot but fail and fail spectacularly. The characters are what they say. They are their lines. If their lines are rubbish then so are they.

Then there's another problem. It's not that hard to get the lines right. But how do you incorporate the narrative, the beautiful and funny and lyrical and inventive descriptions on film? That's the real clincher. Without the narrative, without the descriptions the whole story is indeed one-dimensional and utterly emasculated.

Maybe that's why Wodehouse's own plays, the little I've read them, always seem a bit boring. There's never any meat in them, just the bones of the plot. And that isn't enough.

And here I must hasten to add that the Fry-Laurie series is about as good as they come. I cannot imagine anything closer to perfection when it comes to a Wodehouse adaptation. They understand what it's all about and just get it right. Though I do have certain reservations. Jeeves would never dress in a woman's clothes or jump off an ocean liner, he simply wouldn't. But I'll let that slide, just this once.

But by and large, Wodehouse and the film industry never have seen eye to eye.

As evidenced by Wodehouse's stint in Hollywood. Oh yes, in the early 1930s he did his bit in Hollywood, like many another honest and gullible novelist and playwright. Samuel Goldwyn made him an offer. Wodehouse didn't want to go so he asked for a ridiculously large sum of money, fully expecting to be turned down. He wasn't. It was simply too much money to turn down. So he had to heed the sugary siren songs of a large film company, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, sign on the dotted line and move to California. There he at once faced a problem. They paid him large sums of money but they didn't let him work. He'd ask for work, beg for work, but they gave him nothing to do. Nothing but sit around his house - Norma Shearer's actually - and wait. So all day he just sunned himself at his pool, idling away the days sipping drinks and reading the evening papers. What he wrote was his own stuff basically, short stories and the like. Nothing he was actually paid to write.

This pained him a great deal because he was used to earning his money fair and square. These fellows paid him enormous sums and he did nothing to earn it. It just wasn't right. He felt almost a cad accepting their money under false pretenses. $2500 a week - a huge sum!

Sometimes they gave him assignments. And he wrote. Nothing, however, was produced. But fortunately his contract was only for six months. Unfortunately there was an option and MGM used it. So he had to stay on for another six dreary months. He wrote some more. Nothing was used. Ever. Contract ended. Finally. Well and good.

Then came the interview.

This is how Wodehouse's old friend Bill Townend describes it in Performing Flea: "Although his contract had lapsed the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer people rang Plum up one day to ask if he would give an interview to a woman reporter from the Los Angeles Times. Plum said he would be delighted. The woman reporter duly arrived and was received by Plum politely and cheerfully. She asked Plum how he liked Hollywood. Plum said amiably that he liked Hollywood and its inhabitants immensely; he said how much he had enjoyed his stay and added, to fill in time and make conversation before the interview proper began, that his one regret was he had been paid such an enormous sum of money without having done anything to earn it. And that was that." (Plum, by the way, is Wodehouse's nickname.)

This caused an enormous scandal in Hollywood and almost toppled the entire film industry. How come people were paid so much for doing nothing? Everyone was livid, banks and other financial backers were enraged, studios were horrified. This was after all immediately after the great depression of 1929 and money was tight. If the ordinary moviegoer was disgusted by the spending policy of the studios, this might have disastrous consequences, they might not want to go to the movies at all as a protest. No. The spending had to cease. It clearly couldn't go on. And it didn't. Studios started to cut costs, the industry underwent a complete economic metamorphosis. The days of the plentiful cornucopia were over. No more money for free.

And all for something Wodehouse blurted out trying to make pleasant small talk.

After that Wodehouse was not the best beloved fellow in certain quarters. He quickly moved back to England and then to France. (Which is where inadvertedly and through a certain naïveté on his part, during the war, he caused his other cataclysmic scandal - but that's another story entirely!)

Still, he did get something out of Hollywood - a suite of short stories called The Mulliners of Hollywood (published in the collection Blandings Castle, 1935), superbly describing the asinine conventions and incredibly ineffective and immeasurably idiotic mechanisms of Hollywood. Very funny indeed, I might add.

But back to Piccadilly Jim. The movie, that is. In many ways it's a pleasant surprise: the sets are opulent and colourful, the art decoish fantasy world (though ostensibly London and New York in 1930) visually splendid, the cast (Sam Rockwell, Frances O'Connor, Tom Wilkinson, Brenda Blethyn, Hugh Bonneville, Pam Ferris) excellent, the anachronisms deliberate and delicious (who wouldn't love Soft Cell's Tainted Love or Joy Division's Love will tear Us Apart as smooth night club or cool jazz versions?). At the same time it is wildly overproduced and vastly underwritten. There is freshness and energy, the pacing is furious, the twists and turns of the plot come by and large as and where they ought to; yet it never feels Wodehousian. Nice movie as such but not really much at all to do with good old Sir Pelham Grenville and his works.

It did however make me want to re-read Piccadilly Jim, post-haste. Digging out my old copy I find that I don't seem to have (re-)read it since 1990, when I purchased my delightfully orange Herbert Jenkins Piccadilly Jim (twenty-second printing) at one of the finer purveyors of second hand literature in town. Wodehouse is one of those writers one re-reads constantly. And as he hasn't produced much lately there's really no alternative. Either one re-reads or one doesn't read at all. Fortunately his books just get better with each new reading.

Post Sriptum:
John McKay seems to have directed a couple of quite interesting movies for TV. I'd dearly love to see A Waste of Shame: The Mystery of Shakespeare and His Sonnets, as well as Reichenbach Falls. The latter is about a one hundred year old murder mystery and obviously there is a Holmes and Doyle connection, as the name clearly implies. And the fascinating Dr. Bell seems to be included in the cast of players as well, which is nice. The script is based on a short story by Ian Rankin called Acid Test. It isn't included in either of his short story collections. I wonder where it was published and where I could lay my hands on it.

1 comment:

PS said...

After having quickly googled Piccadilly Jim I find that it was actually first published in the US in 1917, a year before the British Herbert Jenkins edition. And even before that, in 1916, it ran as a serial in the Saturday Evening Post. What do you know.