Friday, February 10, 2012

Nostalgic For A Movie That Was Never Made: Mr. Popper's Penguins c. 1930s

I read Mr. Popper's Penguins for the very first time this week, and it's now my newest favorite Newbery book.  Now, time for the movie.  No, not the Jim Carrey version that was released last summer.  Instead, I want the version that was playing in my head as I was reading.  

Oops.  It doesn't exist.   

 Okay, then.  Put me in a time machine and send me back to the 1930s.  My movie version is a beautiful, silvery black-and-white, crisply directed comedy. In terms of cinematography, it looks like Casablanca..  At first, I was thinking screwball comedy, but I'm under the impression that the screwball designation would  require the movie to have farcical elements and more adult themes, like courtship and marriage.  Mr. Popper's already married and he and Mrs. Popper seem more like a good team, great buddies.  Also, who needs farce with Captain Cook and Greta and all their cute little penguins?  Well, maybe a little farce would work.

I like Paul Muni and Frederic March because they're pretty hammy and always fun to watch, but  I can actually see James Stewart as Mr. Popper.  He can do scruffy and Mitty-ish, coming home from painting houses and always dreaming of exploring in the Arctic.  I was also thinking of Cary Grant, but more for the scenes in which he's training the penguins.  He could show off his early training in gymnastics and tumbling.  But that last scene?  [sorry, spoiler] Who would believe calmly letting Cary Grant run off to the North Pole for 2 years?  I'd be jumping in after the boat, doing my best forward crawl.  Maybe if he blacked out a tooth or two, and didn't bathe or change throughout the whole picture.

For Mrs. Popper, I've got several ideas.  Claudette Colbert (intelligent and resourceful), Joan Blondell (I like her slightly pop-eyed look and she doesn't have a terribly affected voice) but Myrna Loy is my favorite.  She can do that combination of dryly ladylike and good sport effortlessly, like in The Thin Man and she transitioned well to mom roles.

Bill and Janie, the Popper kids?  Doesn't matter, because they are firmly in the background.  There's a picture in the book of the whole family, penguins and all, promenading down the street.  First it's Mr. and Mrs. Popper, then half the penguins, then the kids, then the remainder of the penguins.  That's about the size of it,  so any kids would do.  Not some 30s moppets that would mug shamelessly every time the camera got close.

What about a director?  Frank Capra?  Preston Sturges?  Michael Curtiz?  I thought of the latter because I imagined him cursing the penguins and the animal trainers in his famously fractured Hungarian English.  Plus, his pictures always have nicely fast pacing.  There's also a moment at the end of the book in which there's a sudden and decided change of plans.  Curtiz could totally rock it.  Just look at Casablanca's "Round up the usual suspects" scene.

Adapted for the screen by...?  There was plenty of talent back then, but since I'm having some fun with this, I choose Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley.  They'd probably hate their assignment, but they could go out for a lunch of hot-fudge gins and come back and make it funny and very, very smart.

I can't believe the Golden Age of Hollywood dropped the ball on this one!  If someone is nostalgic for something that absolutely never existed, does it still count as nostalgia?


Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

I want to read this one and I really want to see your version of the movie! Parker and Benchly as the screenwriteres, Jimmy Stewart, etc. it sounds magical.

Tami said...

This was my daughter's favorite book growing up. I gave her a new copy - don't know what happened to the old one - for Christmas only 2 years ago (she was 17). She went to the movie on the day it was released and loved it - although she said the story had been changed significantly.

I still haven't read or seen any version of this story, but your version sounds wonderful.