October 16 would have been the 125th birthday of America’s first truly great playwright, even if his greatness was ultimately sealed soon after his passing.
Eugene O’Neill won four Pulitzer Prizes for theater, and crafted some of the great American stage dramas – from The Emperor Jones to The Iceman Cometh, from Long Day’s Journey Into Night to its sequel A Moon for the Misbegotten. The playwright also has a theater named after him in New York (housing the Tony-winning musicals Spring Awakening & The Book of Mormon), and his papers & notes connected to his work has a home at Yale University. Most of O’Neill’s epics are a stretch to get through when performed on stage, with the plays going to about four or five hours. Despite that pedigree, O’Neill’s work has been scarce on Hollywood screens. Since his debut work Beyond the Horizon, there has been nearly a dozen motion picture adaptations of the playwright’s work – from the major masterpieces to the minor works.
O’Neill’s second full-length work, 1920’s Anna Christie, was one of his Pulitzer winners – and it was also a winner the most film adaptations of the playwright’s career. The drama about a prostitute, her captain father, and the sailor who rescues her has seen three big-screen works, with the first being a silent version released in 1923. Seven years later, MGM producer Irving Thalberg presented an adaptation of Anna Christie – with Greta Garbo starring in the title role. The film was hugely significant for it was Garbo’s first talking picture, and her efforts were rewarded with an Oscar nomination. In 1931, one year after she finished working on Anna Christie for MGM, she did a German-language version.
Another O’Neill Pulitzer-winning play that would get the big-screen treatment was Strange Interlude, which saw a Hollywood film in 1932, nearly a decade after the playwright finished the script; that film featured two Oscar winners in Clark Gable and Norma Shearer. The following year, African-American renaissance man Paul Robeson delivered a stirring performance as The Emperor Jones, a man who escapes jail to become the ruler of a Caribbean island. 1935 saw an adaptation of O’Neill’s sole comic play in Ah, Wilderness!, about a young man’s misadventures during a 4th of July in the beginning of the 20th century; that film boasted mega-stars in Wallace Beery, Mickey Rooney and Lionel Barrymore. It even got remade into a splashy MGM musical in 1948’s Summer Holiday, which featured Rooney along with Walter Huston and Anne Francis.
O’Neill’s passion for the sea life led to four of his shorter works to be combined for the 1940 adventure drama The Long Voyage Home, which featured John Wayne leading a cast directed by John Ford. While the plays were set during the First World War, Ford ultimately transferred the story’s action to World War II. Despite the director’s change of time, The Long Voyage Home received several Academy Award nominations – including one for Best Picture. An O’Neill film was not released again until 1947’s Mourning Becomes Electra, a nearly three-hour family epic featuring Michael Redgrave, Kirk Douglas and an Oscar-nominated performance from Rosalind Russell.
The most significant movie adaptation of O’Neill’s work was that of his sobering family drama Long Day’s Journey Into Night, which only saw the light of day in 1956, three years after the playwright’s death. In 1962, director Sidney Lumet helmed the adaptation with a top-notch cast of Katharine Hepburn, Ralph Richardson, Dean Stockwell, and O’Neill favorite Jason Robards as the Tyrones – a desperate and guilt-ridden family trying to shake off their demons in the summer of 1912. Hepburn received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress for her towering performance as the matriarch Mary, and the cast also earned acting prizes from the Cannes Film Festival.
The last major O’Neill film adaptation came in the form of the playwright’s masterpiece The Iceman Cometh, about a salesman who tries to rally the spirits of hopeless alcoholics in a down-and-out New York saloon – especially when he has a major secret on his hands. In 1973, renowned director John Frankenheimer took on the epic play for the big screen and gave it a nearly four-hour treatment. Oscar-winning actor Lee Marvin stepped into the role of Hickey (the “Iceman” of the title), and also featured supporting roles from Jeff Bridges, Robert Ryan & Fredric March – with this film being the final for the latter two performers.
In the Eugene O’Neill quasquicentennial year of 2013, the celebrated playwright has not seen a major output of film adaptations of his work. Unlike Shakespeare and other American playwrights such as Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, the work of the son of a prominent stage actor has not transcended as highly or more frequent on the big screen than those other three writers. Perhaps it is possible O’Neill’s work can only be suited for a place where a screen isn’t necessarily needed – with several of his plays going to epic length, they may be way too long for cinema audiences to take in. This trend may very well continue, unless big-name stars and/or a top-ranked director takes a chance and proceeds to deliver a quality O’Neill film without compromising the playwright’s vision and/or length.