Classically Better: 6 Classic Movies That Were Actually Remakes

Marilyn Monroe and Tony Curtis in 'Some Like It Hot'/Image © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc
Marilyn Monroe and Tony Curtis in 'Some Like It Hot'/Image © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc

From the late 1920s to the early 1960s, Hollywood’s Golden Age produced a prolific number of classic films -- quite a few of them remakes that have become iconic. These golden oldies took previous elements that were merely bronze (or downright leaden) and elevated them to “the stuff that dreams are made of.” Here’s a look at our favorite films that got it better the second (or third or fourth) time around.

"The Maltese Falcon" (1941)
By the time detective Sam Spade says the above quote about the titular statue, this bird has soared beyond its 1931 predecessor -- and the inexplicable 1936 comedic remake "Satan Met a Lady" with Bette Davis. Writer-director John Huston injected the intricate screenplay with the sass, sauce, and sexual tension of great film noir, and star Humphrey Bogart carved a permanent niche in pop culture for Dashiell Hammett’s flinty hero without even breaking a sweat.

"The Wizard of Oz" (1939)
Somewhere over the rainbow, before Judy Garland donned those ruby slippers as the innocent Dorothy Gale, filmmakers created at least three prior adaptations of L. Frank Baum’s book about the land of Oz. One, in 1925, departed widely from the novel, making Dorothy older, placing her in a love triangle, and depicting the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion as costumes for the farmhands, not actual characters. Director Victor Fleming’s version hewed closer to the book, mixed black-and-white footage with Technicolor, and brought back the magic and fantasy. No wonder it dazzles.

"The Ten Commandments" (1956)
Like Alfred Hitchcock and other directors, Cecil B. DeMille didn’t mind revisiting an earlier project. His first crack at the story of Moses was a silent film in 1923, showing the biblical tale in one half of the film and modern men dealing with the commandments in the other half. He ditched the modern part for the Charlton Heston version, adding pure spectacle with the burning bush, the plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, and a “cast of thousands” including statuesque Yul Brynner, brash Edward G. Robinson, and gushing Anne Baxter (“Oh, Moses, Moses, you stubborn, splendid, adorable fool!”).  An extravagant but entertaining marvel.

"Some Like It Hot" (1959)
Hard to believe this comedic confection stemmed from a German film about two male musicians who cross-dress to work in an all-female band (1951’s Fanfaren der Liebe). Director and co-writer Billy Wilder added a layer of danger by making the men witnesses to a mob hit during the Depression. Mix in the wit and crack-comic timing of Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, and sexy-sweet Marilyn Monroe for frothy fun.

"Ben-Hur" (1959)
Director William Wyler’s Oscar-winner -- the first movie remake to be named Best Picture -- is epic in every sense. The 1925 silent original, based on Lew Wallace’s novel, was itself the most expensive silent movie ever made (with Wyler an assistant director). The update reportedly used more than one million props and three hundred sets, and processed about 1.25 million feet of color film. Charlton Heston is solid as the betrayed Jewish prince sent into slavery who pursues revenge and learns forgiveness, but it’s the breathtaking chariot race that leaves us spellbound. Wrote The New York Times: “It is a stunning complex of mighty setting, thrilling action by horses and men, panoramic observation and overwhelming use of dramatic sound."

"His Girl Friday" (1940)
Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's play “The Front Page” first reached the screen in 1931. Get me rewrite! The update gets extra zing by changing ace reporter Hildy Johnson into a woman, the editor’s ex-wife. Under director Howard Hawks, Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant spar so fast that we feel the rush of being on deadline. (Try saying this fast: “If I ever lay my two eyes on you again, I'm gonna walk right up to you and hammer on that monkeyed skull of yours 'til it rings like a Chinese gong!”) The love story takes a backseat to the news story, befitting two people who love storytelling more than anything -- and understand that best about each other.