Next to sequels, remakes are the closest thing to free money Hollywood has come up with. The formula’s simple, at least in cynical industry-think: If a movie was a hit 10, 20, 30 years ago, and audiences do in fact have the cultural memory of a Chihuahua, why not film it again with new stars, a new soundtrack, and the same old jokes?
Only it’s never that simple. The 1991 Father of the Bride did big box office, sure, but it didn’t do anything the original didn’t do better. Much more exceptional is Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear, which puts a whole new spin on the psycho-thriller and comes up with something just as good, if not better. In general, though, remakes that even come close to the original are rare. Here are a few that do, seen the way they should be-alongside the movies that inspired them.
Movie: Red Dust/ Mogambo
The Original: (1932, MGM/UA, Directed by Victor Fleming) Indochina plantation boss Clark Gable falls for married Mary Astor, lands in arms of brassy Jean Harlow.
The Remake: (1953, MGM/UA, Directed by John Ford) Kenya safari boss Clark Gable falls for married Grace Kelly, lands in the arms of brassy Ava Gardner.
The Difference: Harlow was incomparable, but Gardner comes darn close. Kelly’s competition helps. So does John Ford’s Africa, teeming with local fauna.
Movie: The Man Who Knew Too Much
The Original: (1934,Republic, Alfred Hitchcock) Killers kidnap Leslie Banks’ little girl in Switzerland to keep him quiet about their assassination plot.
The Remake: (1956, MCA/Universal, Alfred Hitchcock) Killers kidnap James Stewart’s little boy in Morocco to keep him quiet about their assassination plot.
The Difference: Hitchcock’s original had Peter Lorre as villain; his American remake had Jimmy Stewart as hero, plus bonus: Doris Day singing ”Que Será, Será.” Twice.
Movie: Mutiny on the Bounty
The Original: (1935, MGM/UA, Frank Lloyd) Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable) leads mutiny against Captain Bligh (Charles Laughton), lives happily ever after.
The Remake: (1962, MGM/UA, Lewis Milestone) Fletcher Christian (Marlon Brando) leads mutiny against Captain Bligh (Trevor Howard), goes down with ship.
The Difference: Brando’s foppish Christian is a far cry from Gable’s swashbuckler. Still, he’s the best thing about remake. Second best: Tahiti, in color.
Movie: The Postman Always Rings Twice
The Original: (1946, MGM/UA, Tay Garnett) John Garfield and Lana Turner plot to murder her husband, roll around in surf.
The Remake: (1981, CBS/Fox, Bob Rafelson) Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange plot to murder her husband, roll around on kitchen table.
The Difference: The first is a famous film noir; the second is even darker — and hotter. Lange does for silky robes what Turner did for turbans.
Movie: The Diary of a Chambermaid
The Original: (1946,Republic, Jean Renoir) Saucy chambermaid Paulette Goddard upsets delicate balance of bourgeois French household.
The Remake: (1964,Cinematheque, Luis Buñuel) Headstrong chambermaid Jeanne Moreau uncovers the quirks and kinks of a bourgeois French family.
The Difference: Renoir saw this material as a melodrama of manners. Bunuel reshaped it into a razor-sharp satire-and turned it into art.
Movie: Invasion of the Body Snatchers
The Original: (1956, Republic, Don Siegel) Small-town doctor Kevin McCarthy finds alien ”pod people.” Nobody believes him. There’s still hope at the end.
The Remake: (1978, MGM/UA, Philip Kaufman) City health inspector Donald Sutherland finds alien ”pod people.” Nobody believes him. There’s no hope at the end.
The Difference: The original is a sci-fi parable of ’50s Commie paranoia. The remake substitutes a subtext of modern-age anxiety. It’s all the same to the aliens.