Hollywood receives its fair share of criticism for its endless parade of remakes, reboots, and rehashes of the same old stories. It is entirely justified; however, even during the Golden Age of cinema, everything wasn't always fresh. John Huston's The Ashphalt Jungle (1950) was a very influential film noir that featured an ensemble cast engaging in a heist. It inspired plenty of other pictures and the story itself was remade three times. The first remake was The Badlanders (1958), after that as Cairo (1963), and then Cool Breeze (1972). Can't say that any of those remakes were particularly successful, but take a film like Howard Hawks' Philadelphia Story. It starred Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and Jimmy Stewart. This story was remade as High Society and starred Grace Kelly, Bing Crosby, and Frank Sinatra. Again, High Society was not the success that Philadelphia Story was, but it was the ninth highest grossing film of 1956.
The studio system in Hollywood made sure that films were made quickly and actors could star in several films a year. James Cagney starred in a few films before exploding in popularity from his performance in The Public Enemy (1931). After his legendary performance, he starred in countless gangster pictures in the following years. You can buy these movies by the bundle with Warner Bros. Gangster box sets. Cagney did become quite tired of playing similar gangster roles, the same could be said of Humphrey Bogart, before his role in Casablanca. Cary Grant, on the other hand, worked hard to build up an image of himself. He was quite successful at it too, even saying that he'd like to be Cary Grant. Hitchcock used Grant's image and turned it on its head in the masterwork Notorious. Grant could've easily expanded his persona, but he never chose any sort of nefarious role again in his career. It's also easy to see why so many claim that Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne always played themselves in films. Speaking of John Wayne, he and director Howard Hawks loved their film Rio Bravo so much that the duo remade their own film two other times. Rio Bravo co-starred Dean Martin in a dramatic role as the drunken deputy, and in El Dorado, that role is played for comedy by Robert Mitchum. The young gunslinger in Rio Bravo is played by Ricky Martin and in El Dorado that role is played by James Caan. So, the ingredients in these pictures are blended differently, but end up making the same chocolate cake.
Akira Kurosawa's samurai pictures have been remade countless times. Sergio Leone's Dollars trilogy draws heavily from Kurosawa's films, and The Magnificent Seven come directly from Seven Samurai. If you don't know what the Rashomon style of story is, you've at least seen it, whether you know it or not. It was recently announced that 69 of Kurosawa's films were bought to potentially be remade. This brings me to the problem with remakes. The real problem with remakes today, as compared to times past, is the lack of understanding about what makes a good film, a good remake. All of the remakes I've mentioned (except The Asphalt Jungle remakes) are films that I really enjoy. The Magnificent Seven, El Dorado, High Society, they don't match their originals, but they still work. It was rumored that Martin Scorsese was going to remake Kurosawa's High and Low, and I wasn't exactly opposed to it. It was later reported that Chris Rock was going remake High and Low, and I strongly opposed that. Why? Because Rock hasn't proven himself to be a good filmmaker. The real issue is about quality. There's no point in remaking Psycho, ugh, cause you can't improve on perfection. The stories can be remade, after all, Kurosawa took from Shakespeare, hard boiled crime fiction, and Dostoevsky.
These were times when men made movies. The comic book directors today make decent films, but as I experienced with Cowboys and Aliens, it's quite apparent that the filmmakers lack the craftsmanship to make well-made films. They run on the fumes of franchises and hope they strike a good balance between the hardcore fans and the general audience. The fact that they require rebooting after only a few entries indicates that they lack the narrative ability to sustain a good story. Cagney was sick of playing gangster pictures, but when he was able to provide input on his character for White Heat, it was a glorious return for him. If filmmakers worked at constructing a quality story, a quality character, then wouldn't actors not feel burdened by reprising familiar roles every few years. Remakes are nothing new. The real problem is the lost art of picture making. Hitchcock spent a great deal of time detailing his own missteps, yet filmmakers today lack the initiative to learn. That's why Hollywood is running on fumes, and the remakes are dreaded by the audience. Those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it.