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That Movie Was First a Play??!!

The popular film On Golden Pond is based on a short-running Broadway play. Of what other major films is this true? logo
Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn in the film version
of On Golden Pond
So there I was, watching On Golden Pond at the Cort and pretty much enjoying it. I was surprised to hear James Earl Jones say "There are no Negroes in Maine," given that his Norman Thayer and Leslie Uggams's Ethel were living there. I would have thought that the line, which was fine for the original production and its many white-bread revivals, would have been dropped for this African-American version. I later learned that playwright Ernest Thompson had dropped the line but that Jones insisted that it be reinstated because he felt that, indeed, there are no blacks to speak of in Maine. This, by the way, was reported in Variety. As Comden and Green might have written, "Variety says, 'Black Crack Back!'"

How nice to attend On Golden Pond and hear an audience warmly laugh at the many endearing parts, then suddenly go silent when matters became serious. But I couldn't help wondering, how many people out there knew that On Golden Pond -- first a Broadway play, then a film, then a live TV special, and often revived -- was actually a big flop when first produced in 1979? Throughout its 126-performance run, it was among the lowest-grossing shows on Broadway. True, as my buddy Troy Segal pointed out, the production took a three-month hiatus and then landed at an Off-Broadway-sized theater, where it ran for seven months. Still, even such forgotten shows as Mis' Nelly of N'Orleans, Call the Doctor, The Rat, and Page Miss Glory ran longer in their original productions -- one performance longer, in fact, with all of them ringing in at 127.

The reviews for the original Pond were very good but the play received only one Tony nomination, for Frances Sternhagen as Ethel Thayer. She didn't win. In fact, we know that she didn't even come in second, because Carole Shelley (The Elephant Man) and Constance Cummings (Wings) tied for the Tony. Shelley's vehicle, by the way, was the Tony-winning Best Play; Wings was nominated in that category along with Bedroom Farce and Whose Life Is it Anyway? None of these four have proved to have the legs of On Golden Pond.

It was the 1981 movie version, of course, that put the property on the map. The film got 10 Oscar nominations and won trophies for Best Actor Henry Fonda, Best Actress Katharine Hepburn, and Ernest Thompson, who wrote the screenplay from his play. I wondered: Was this the Broadway show with the shortest run that later became a hit movie? Did any show run a fewer number of performances yet manage to catch Hollywood's attention and earn the adoration of the general public? What movies would most surprise people to know that they'd been stage shows in the first place?

In searching for plays that ran 126 performances or fewer, I soon encountered One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, which clocked in at 82 in 1963-64. Though it would become an Oscar-winning classic, the film's opening credits claim that it's adapted from Ken Kesey's novel; Dale Wasserman's stage adaptation merely gets a mention in passing during the end credits. Still, I say that this doesn't count. I was looking for films that said up-front that they were once plays. So here's the top 20 most famous films that ran even fewer performances than On Golden Pond in their original runs, from #20 to #1 in ascending order of importance:

20. Send Me No Flowers (40): A wife must deal with her husband's hypochondriac obsessions. Had the then-wildly popular Doris Day and Rock Hudson starred on Broadway instead of David Wayne and Nancy Olson, the play would have run much longer, but that still wouldn't have made it any good.

19. Avanti (21): The great director Billy Wilder wasn't frightened by the play's short run, though he and frequent collaborator I.A.L. Diamond were apparently frightened by the openly bisexual character that playwright Samuel Taylor included, for they dropped him.

18. I Never Sang for My Father (124): Three Oscar nominations, for Best Actor Melvyn Douglas, Best Supporting Actor Gene Hackman, and Robert Anderson, who adapted the screenplay from his 1968 drama.

17. The Sleeping Prince (60): Retitled The Prince and the Showgirl, who were respectively played by Laurence Olivier and Marilyn Monroe -- two names that '50s audiences never expected to see in the same vehicle.

16. Nuts (96): Barbra Streisand goes on trial -- where, I'm sure, a lot of people would like to put her.

15. Plenty (92): Meryl Streep didn't receive one of her 13 Oscar nominations for this film, but she gave a worthy performance in David Hare's adaptation of his 1983 play.

14. The Tender Trap (102): I'm glad this film was made just so we can enjoy the heavenly Sammy Cahn-James Van Heusen song that was given one of Frank Sinatra's best recordings.

13. Night Must Fall (64): Many people were disappointed with the 1999 revival that starred Matthew Broderick, but at 119 performances, it ran almost twice as long as the original 1936 production of this Emelyn Williams thriller. Still, it's the 1937 film version that most everyone likes best.

12. Summer and Smoke (102): Four Oscar nominations, including one for Geraldine Page as Alma Winemiller and another for Una Merkel as her mother.

11. The Rainmaker (125): This charming N. Richard Nash play had Geraldine Page and Darren McGavin originate the roles that Katharine Hepburn and Burt Lancaster played on film. We all love the 1963 musical version, 110 in the Shade, too.

9. Lovers and Other Strangers (70): I caught this during its Detroit tryout in 1968. It was then a program of six one-act plays, one of which I liked. That was pretty much true of the critics as well. Give credit to original authors Renee Taylor and Joseph Bologna -- and screenwriter David Zelag Goodman -- for fusing all of the stories together to make this delightful 1970 film.

10. American Buffalo (122): It's had two Off-Broadway revivals totaling more than 300 performances, suggesting that Off-Broadway is where the David Mamet drama belonged all along.

8. Billy Budd (105): Yes, of course Herman Melville's novel was the power behind the film, but the credits do say that it was adapted from the 1951 stage version by Louis Coxe and Robert Chapman.

7. Rope's End (100): The film is simply called Rope -- actually, Alfred Hitchcock's Rope, one of those egocentric titles. Rope's End was a London hit before it had a respectable if money-losing run on Broadway. The big-screen version will always be famous because Hitchcock created the illusion that it was made in one continuous take.

6. The Browning Version (69): Originally, this was the second half of a Terence Rattigan double bill. (A witty comedy called Harlequinade was the curtain raiser.) Rattigan, one of England's most popular playwrights in the '40s, expanded it for the excellent film version.

5. The Letter (104): W. Somerset Maugham wrote this as a play in the '20s and saw it filmed before the end of the decade. But it's the 1940 Bette Davis movie, with its seven Oscar nominations, that put it on the map.

4. The Good Earth (56): Here's a title we associate with Pearl Buck, the author of the original novel that helped get her a Nobel Prize; but Donald and Owen Davis's 1932 stage version is listed right along with the Buck book in the credits. Luise Rainer got her second Oscar in a row for playing O-Lan, the selfless wife of a humble farmer.

3. Alfie (21): What was it all about, Alfie, that you couldn't even run a full three weeks on Broadway and yet were made into a popular movie in 1966 (and a not-so-popular one last year)? Yes, you were a British hit, but people in the U.S. didn't care. I'll bet that Burt Bacharach's title tune is one of the reasons why the film resonated with Americans.

2. The Lion in Winter (92): Sure, Peter O'Toole and Katharine Hepburn were marvelous in the movie, but take it from someone who was there at the world premiere of the play at the Colonial Theatre in Boston on February 7, 1966: The original king and queen were great, too. She was Rosemary Harris, he was -- yes! -- Robert Preston in an atypical and non-singing stage role.

1. Everybody Comes to Rick's (0): That's right, zero performances. But that didn't keep the play from being optioned and filmed as Casablanca. I've read Murray Burnett and Joan Alison's original script, and believe me, I fully understand why it didn't get on.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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