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Damon Runyon Adaptations - Too Precious for Words?


sewhite2000
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I've seen a number of Damon Runyon film adaptations on TCM over the years - and once played Benny Southstreet in a community theater production of GUYS & DOLLS - but I've never considered Runyon's influence too much. I'm too young to have experienced firsthand how much pop culture resonance he had at his height, but I guess the number of film adaptations is some indication. They all seem to share two things in common: the lovable-mug patois ("I remember where the spots formerly was") and the redemption through good deeds of characters who at least on the surface appear unsavory. 

 

I say "appear", because none of Runyon's "lowlifes" ever appear to have any vices worse than gambling. Last night's LITTLE MISS MARKER had moments where the lives of horses and humans both seemed to be in jeopardy, but ultimately no one was killed - heck, for all the Cagney/WB vibe it was trying to put off, especially early on, I don't think even a single gun was drawn. In fact, guns appear to be almost nonexistent in Runyon's world.

 

Anyway, the protagonists in Runyon's scenarios always end staging some elaborate setup or con but for the greater good of an individual or the community instead of for personal gain. In GUYS & DOLLS, a struggling mission and maybe a few souls are saved. In THE LEMON DROP KID, an old folks home is built. In LADY FOR A DAY/POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES, an elaborate con is staged to reunite mother and daughter. Self-sacrifice reaches absurd extremes in THE BIG STREET. And in LITTLE MISS MARKER/SORROWFUL JONES/40 POUNDS OF TROUBLE, a little girl's innocence is restored.

 

In all these scenarios, there's some fun being had of people pulling off a con or getting away with something, but the motivations are always so pure and precious, it feels more like Norman Rockwell/Saturday Evening Post territory than THE STING. Thoughts, anyone?

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Garson Kanin claimed that Runyon was the only writer admired by the studio heads

 

I've seen a number of Damon Runyon film adaptations on TCM over the years - and once played Benny Southstreet in a community theater production of GUYS & DOLLS - but I've never considered Runyon's influence too much. I'm too young to have experienced firsthand how much pop culture resonance he had at his height, but I guess the number of film adaptations is some indication. They all seem to share two things in common: the lovable-mug patois ("I remember where the spots formerly was")

 

The trademark of Runyonesque speech is the lack of contractions ("I am pleased to see you are here"). DR's biographer Jimmy Breslin claims he took this from some old poet (Wordsworth?)

 

none of Runyon's "lowlifes" ever appear to have any vices worse than gambling

 

That's why he was able to romanticize them.

 

The true Runyon auteurist opus is The Big Street (1942). He produced it himself and apparently considered it a masterpiece (he screened it over and over in a Hughes-like obsession). Andy Warhol was a bit closer to the mark when he called it "the sickest movie ever made".

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Runyon on screen:

 

Little Miss Marker (1934)--too sweet to stomach

 

Lady for a Day (1933)--tolerable but bordering on too sweet

 

Pocketful of Miracles (1961)--a Botched remake of fair material.

 

Guys and Dolls (1955)--the music and Frank Loesser's lyrics make this a good ,if overlong, show.  But Marlon Brando as your main singer??!!  With that thin tenor??  That almost sinks the film--luckily, Frank Sinatra's there to save it.  Jean Simmons is a pleasant surprise.  JMO

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I've seen a number of Damon Runyon film adaptations on TCM over the years - and once played Benny Southstreet in a community theater production of GUYS & DOLLS - but I've never considered Runyon's influence too much. I'm too young to have experienced firsthand how much pop culture resonance he had at his height, but I guess the number of film adaptations is some indication. They all seem to share two things in common: the lovable-mug patois ("I remember where the spots formerly was") and the redemption through good deeds of characters who at least on the surface appear unsavory. 

 

I say "appear", because none of Runyon's "lowlifes" ever appear to have any vices worse than gambling. Last night's LITTLE MISS MARKER had moments where the lives of horses and humans both seemed to be in jeopardy, but ultimately no one was killed - heck, for all the Cagney/WB vibe it was trying to put off, especially early on, I don't think even a single gun was drawn. In fact, guns appear to be almost nonexistent in Runyon's world.

 

Anyway, the protagonists in Runyon's scenarios always end staging some elaborate setup or con but for the greater good of an individual or the community instead of for personal gain. In GUYS & DOLLS, a struggling mission and maybe a few souls are saved. In THE LEMON DROP KID, an old folks home is built. In LADY FOR A DAY/POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES, an elaborate con is staged to reunite mother and daughter. Self-sacrifice reaches absurd extremes in THE BIG STREET. And in LITTLE MISS MARKER/SORROWFUL JONES/40 POUNDS OF TROUBLE, a little girl's innocence is restored.

 

In all these scenarios, there's some fun being had of people pulling off a con or getting away with something, but the motivations are always so pure and precious, it feels more like Norman Rockwell/Saturday Evening Post territory than THE STING. Thoughts, anyone?

Did Runyon ever do anything that didn't involve gamblers?

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"The true Runyon auteurist opus is The Big Street (1942). He produced it himself and apparently considered it a masterpiece (he screened it over and over in a Hughes-like obsession). Andy Warhol was a bit closer to the mark when he called it "the sickest movie ever made".

 

-Good point. And why everyone 'hates' Lucy in the end. ;)

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...In all these scenarios, there's some fun being had of people pulling off a con or getting away with something, but the motivations are always so pure and precious, it feels more like Norman Rockwell/Saturday Evening Post territory than THE STING. Thoughts, anyone?

 

My take? Well, not exactly "Rockwell-esque", but because so often in his stories it's the lower rung of society that proves more "noble" than many on the higher rung, I think it might be more the case of his stories subtly pressing the concept of "classic American Populism" to some degree, and a concept with its roots based upon the defiance against the "privileged elites" in our society.

 

(...just a thought)

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One of my favorite "Runyonesque" films is TALK DARK AND HANDSOME, done in 1941 by 20th Century Fox, and later remade by them as LOVE THAT BRUTE (1950). Here you have a Gangster who tries to come off as ruthless, killing off rival thugs, and leaving his calling card for all to fear. However, he hasn't killed anybody, but has the "rubbed out" victims locked up in the cellar of his home, and secretly provides for their families. Quite a fun, entertaining, even sweet movie, although not quite precious.

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  And in LITTLE MISS MARKER/SORROWFUL JONES/40 POUNDS OF TROUBLE, a little girl's innocence is restored.

 

 

Technically, that should read:  And in LITTLE MISS MARKER/SORROWFUL JONES/40 POUNDS OF TROUBLE/LITTLE MISS MARKER... :)

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What distinguishes Guys and Dolls from the other Runyon film adaptations is that it seems to be the only one where the actual "Runyon" manner of speech is employed throughout the movie, most notably in its complete absence of contracted words.  After a while all these "I  am going"s and "he is strong enough"s seem more than a little tedious, but that's the way Runyon wrote, so you can not say it's "inauthentic". 

 

Runyon came up with some terrific characters, and Lady For A Day seems to capture the Runyon spirit quite well, but give me A. J. Liebling's slightly less fictionalized versions of those characters any time.  I'd love to see some indie studio make a movie out of  Liebling's classic series of Manhattan sketches that made up his book, The Telephone Booth Indian, along the lines of Jim Jarmusch's Night on Earth.

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johnm, I had no idea there was a second film with the name LITTLE MISS MARKER. Your comment sent me over to imdb to check it out. Holy cow! A 1980 Universal release, and what a cast: Walter Matthau, Julie Andrews, Tony Curtis, Bob Newhart, Lee Grant and Brian Dennehy! This isn't particularly a storyline I'm clamoring to see again, but with that cast, I would give it a chance. How have I never heard of this? Wish TCM would air it sometime.

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My take? Well, not exactly "Rockwell-esque", but because so often in his stories it's the lower rung of society that proves more "noble" than many on the higher rung, I think it might be more the case of his stories subtly pressing the concept of "classic American Populism" to some degree, and a concept with its roots based upon the defiance against the "privileged elites" in our society.

 

(...just a thought)

I wonder what Runyon would think of Pete Rose.

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The phrase "Too precious for words" in this thread's title reminds me if it being uttered by Hildegard Neff in the noirish NIGHT WITHOUT SLEEP (1952), as she interrogates Gary Merrill on being two hours late for their dinner date. His excuse falls on flat ears, and she says the phrase, dripping with sarcasm, with an initial, "Now isn't that...........". It sound amusing to me because she is saying it with her heavy German accent.

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