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Films, the second time around

Producer Alan Ladd Jr. recently abandoned plans to film an updated version of the dark-toned 1955 Robert Mitchum western, The Night of the Hunter.

"It's hard to find the right actor (today) who has the menace of a Mitchum," Ladd said this week, referring to the late star who portrayed a psychotic religious fanatic in Charles Laughton's classic thriller.

"We tried to put it in the modern day and couldn't," Ladd said of the script his company tried to develop for nearly eight months. "We found it worked only in this particular era."

Ladd's decision comes at a time when some studios are steaming ahead with updated versions of memorable movies.

At Disney, for example, the studio is awash in remakes. With the recent success of 101 Dalmatians, Disney is set to release Flubber _ an updated version of The Absent Minded Professor _ as well as The Parent Trap, Mr. Magoo and Mighty Joe Young. The studio also is developing remakes of Peter Pan and Journey to the Center of the Earth.

Coupled with the ongoing _ some would say overworked _ effort to turn retro television shows into feature-length movies, studios are scouring their film vaults in search of material from past films that can be retooled with today's major stars and big production budgets to give them a boost at the box office.

"I don't think there is anything left in the vaults," said producer David Permut, who is in preproduction on a feature-length film version of the sitcom The Love Boat.

But as one top agent sees it, casting today's stars in remakes of Hollywood's most memorable films is a no-brainer.

"There's a new generation of filmgoers who never saw the movie," said Jim Wiatt, president of International Creative Management.

Wiatt's agency recently helped broker a deal in which screenwriter Nora Ephron would reteam with her Sleepless in Seattle stars Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in a new version of director Ernst Lubitsch's 1940 romantic comedy The Shop Around the Corner.

Lubitsch's film about unsuspecting romantic pen pals in a Budapest notions shop starred James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan. In the new version, written by Nora Ephron and her sister Delia, the story would be set in Manhattan and be titled You Have Mail. The lure for Warner Bros. is obvious. Hanks, Ryan and Ephron proved themselves bankable in 1993's Sleepless in Seattle, which made $126-million for TriStar Pictures.

At New Line Cinema, Jim Carrey is attached to an updated version of Danny Kaye's 1947 comedy The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, while producer Diane English is developing a script for Julia Roberts and Meg Ryan based on The Women, director George Cukor's 1939 adaptation of a Clare Boothe Luce play starring Joan Crawford and Rosalind Russell, a movie that itself was remade in 1956 as The Opposite Sex.

At TriStar Pictures, the same team that made the sci-fi box-office hit Independence Day is now at work on a big-budget version of the Japanese monster picture Godzilla. Columbia Pictures, meanwhile, is filming a Sharon Stone remake of the 1980 film Gloria, which starred Gena Rowlands.

MGM is remaking Billy Wilder's biting 1966 comedy The Fortune Cookie, substituting Candice Bergen and Bette Midler for the original stars, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau.

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