In 1979, Trent Harris recorded his chance encounter in the parking lot of a Salt Lake City TV station with a celebrity impersonator and would-be star, Richard “Groovin’ Gary” Griffiths. Morbidly fascinated, Harris followed Griffiths to his hometown, Beaver, Utah, to tape a talent show booked by Griffiths, headlining with his own cross-dressing performance as Olivia Newton-John.
Harris dramatized this documentary character-study in two subsequent short films, with pre-celebrity Sean Penn (1981) and Crispin Glover (1985) imitating Griffiths. His three drafts of the same story, palimpsests plainly visible, compose The Beaver Trilogy (assembled in 2001). The shot-on-video Penn short is a mongrel, incorporating documentary footage from Beaver, and burdened by Harris’s worry that he has exploited Griffiths. The last version is a rather stylish 35mm job: Glover gets the right tangle of hurt and twitchy extroversion, and Harris lets his subject’s weird dignity speak louder than his own guilt. Third time’s the charm.
This is the “Auto-Remake,” defined by Anthology Film Archives as a director’s repurposing his own previously used plot in a new movie (no director’s-cut dickering, more common today). Eighteen films, principally the works of studio filmmakers, are arranged as flawed mirror images of auteur careers in different phases.
The comparisons serve to reaffirm the prime importance of those mere vessels known as actors. Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne, or Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr? That’s the choice between Love Affair (1939) or its reiteration, An Affair to Remember (1957), to which director/co-writer Leo McCarey added CinemaScope, ravishingly colored bougainvillea, and a half-hour of material cut from or unfilmed for his original. (The added reels lopside the tricky balance of Remember’s last act, while Boyer and Dunne, despite stiff competition, more gracefully achieve McCarey’s transubstantiation of the saccharine into the sublime in the original.)
McCarey’s congenial, style-effacing style remains consistent; a greater gulf exists between the versions of Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, separated also by nearly two decades. The 1934 British film is a wonderful construction—like the nifty toy train set that chugs toward the camera to open one scene—with Leslie Banks and Edna Best’s married couple all West End flippancy, threatened by Peter Lorre and villains with the jagged, hanger-in-the-overcoat postures of German Expressionism. In the 1956 version with Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day, Hitch gives his American cattle-actors room to range. Stewart delivers another prickly-sweat postwar performance—but the film most valuably gives the lie to received opinion of Day as only a corny actress. She is deeply affecting in her scene of maternal despair giving way to tranquilizer-
induced unconsciousness, and her two distinct performances of “Que Sera, Sera” are extraordinary examples of song being made to serve a narrative.
Closer proximity, however, can lead to harsher contrast. Raoul Walsh’s Western Colorado Territory (1949)—an uncredited remake of his tender gangster tragedy High Sierra (1941)—is by no means a disgraceful entry in the director’s action-filmmaking portfolio, full of daredevil second-unit work and extraterrestrial Southwestern landscapes. But Virginia Mayo’s buxom hard-luck half-breed is pure Hollywood compared with Ida Lupino’s original stamp on the part in High Sierra, playing a sullen, lovelorn dance-hall girl opposite Bogart.
Mayo also surfaces alongside frequent screen partner Danny Kaye in serial self-cannibalizer Howard Hawks’s A Song Is Born (1948), in which her coppery Technicolor locks and body straight off a B-17 fuselage fail to efface the vision of Barbara Stanwyck in Ball of Fire (1941), Hawks’s first draft of Billy Wilder’s story of monastic intellectuals having their ivory tower invaded by a hep kitten. As she does against road-tested Lupino, game-but-glossy Mayo suffers by comparison, lacking the foxy backstage know-how that ex-Ziegfeld gal Stanwyck lays onto her co-star, a prissified Gary Cooper. However one ranks McCarey’s Affairs, each is a personal, cherished work. In the only-for-the-money Song, Hawks’s timecard-puncher inattention is obvious: He lazily redoes a step-up kissing gag that works in the original specifically because of the difference in Stanwyck’s and Cooper’s heights. In remakes, as elsewhere, the crucial thing is for each scene to feel like it’s happening for the first time.