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Internet Shakespeare Editions

Introduction: The Silent Era

Shakespeare on Screen: A Chronicle History -- page 2 | next


The Silent Era (1899-1929)

The brave new world of Shakespeare movies dawned in 1899 with the filming by William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson, an Edison associate, at the British Mutoscope and Biograph Companyís Embankment studio of scenes from Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree's King John (#238).[1] Discovered only recently in an Amsterdam film archive (McKernan),[2] the surviving fragments show the kingís death by poisoning at Swinstead Abbey (5.7). Apparently the film was projected from a 68mm print to a huge screen on September 20, 1899, at the popular Palace Theatre on the same night as the playís opening at the more soignée Her Majestyís Theatre. Tree's production was then what would be called today an "exploitation film," in the sense that it used the work of William Shakespeare as an advertisement to aggrandize either the reputation or income of its producer.

For the next several decades, the Bardolaters, the self-appointed centurions of the Shakespeare establishment, were more than eager to denounce Cineastes for their liberties with Shakespeare. They often conveniently overlooked the amiable eccentricities of stage directors, such as Tree himself, who instinctively understood that "pure" Shakespeare, as performed in an Elizabethan playhouse in 1600, could never be quite recaptured anyway. Whether on stage or on screen, all Shakespearean representations are acts of mediation. The compromises that film and television directors make are simply different from those made on stage. As Lorne Buchman has argued, film and television are not so much rivals to the stage, or "better" than the stage, as " . . an experience never assumed to be at the expense of stage production or in a contest with it" (Still in Movement, 3). But if the screen is not an artistic threat to the stage, it is certainly an economic one. The gypsy bands of actors who roamed America a century ago have vanished. And therein may lie the root of the turmoil.

At the outset, though, it must be granted that the term "silent Shakespeare movie" is in itself one of the great oxymorons. How could the master of the English language be represented in silence? Thus the efforts in France of the fabled Sarah Bernhardt to play Hamlet in 1900 on screen at the Phono-Cinéma-Théâtre (Ball 24) during the Paris Exposition (#484), as well as the Shakespeare films of the pioneering Georges Méliès (1861-1938), who produced a 1907 Hamlet (#485) and a Julius Caesar (#197), remained mere novelties. When the French did take the infant art more seriously, movies emerged in the shadow of theatre. The Film d'Art company was not so much dedicated to making better films as to making records of France's greatest theatre artists at the Comédie Française. Paul Mounet acted in a 1910 Macbeth (#286), while his more famous brother, Sully-Mounet, appeared in a fragment of Hamlet (Ball 108). If the films were no longer regarded as a joke, they were at least safely encapsulated in bourgeois conformity.

To the south, the Italians with an analogous Film d'Arte tradition and an industry in the control of men of educated tastes (Katz 604) specialized in making costume dramas from Shakespeare's Roman and Italian Renaissance plays. Director Enrico Guazzoni (1876-1949), who was world famous for his 1912 Quo Vadis, brought his flair for costume epic to a 1910 Brutus (#201) and 1913 Marcantonio e Cleopatra (#10). The latter featured a barge of sufficiently ample proportions to prevent its sinking under the weight of a Giovanna Terribili Gonzales' well-fed Cleopatra. And Giovanni Pastrone (1883-1959), the director of the 1914 Cabiria that inspired D.W. Griffith's super colossal Intolerance, may or may not have had something to do with a 1908 Julius Caesar (#200). Through the accident of their love of spectacle in grand opera, the Italians, somewhat like Michelangelo's Captives, broke out of the proscenium of theatricality into the spatial/temporal continuum of cinema.

In England, where it had all begun in 1899, filmmakers felt the sting of upper-class disdain for anything so vulgar as movies. That Bardolater mentality, which went along with veneration of the Queen, the English Church and the British Navy, was bound to result in an ideologically certified Shakespeare. The way to sanitize the rowdy new art form was to entice London's Shakespearean actors away from the stage and put them in front of a camera. A paradigm is Cecil M. Hepworth's 1913 Hamlet (#82), which transferred the entire cast from the famed Drury Lane theatre to an outdoor location in Dorset. None other than Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson, premiere Shakespeare actor of his time played Hamlet, even though he was by then a somewhat superannuated prince at age sixty. That didn't matteróthe elegant Sir Johnston looked to the public the way that Hamlet should look. And thousands who could never have seen him on stage were allowed an opportunity to view him on screen. As for Sir Johnston apparently he began to enjoy acting before the camera and did everything he could to translate words into actions. A still shows him at Lulworth Cove in Dorset reacting to the appearance of the ghost.

British reluctance to sully Shakespeare on celluloid left a vacuum into which the Americans were not all reluctant to move. Indeed in 1916 D.W. Griffith imported Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree to Hollywood to play the title role in Macbeth (#289) for what was then considered a staggering salary of $100,000 (Ball 229). Despite the attractions of the great British actor and of Shakespeare, the American public remained unimpressed and the movie of Macbeth failed at the box office. Earlier, however, J. Stuart Blackton and William Ranous working at the New York City Vitagraph studios in Flatbush were the leading producers of Shakespeare films. Their one-reelers (ten minutes) included Rose Coghlan in a 1912 As You Like It (#32), Tefft Johnson in Cardinal Wolsey (#195), William Ranous as Antony in Julius Caesar (#199), Julia Gordon as Portia in The Merchant of Venice (#354), William Ranous as Othello (#436), Florence Turner in King Richard III (#496), Florence Lawrence (the "IMP" girl) in Romeo and Juliet (#515), and Florence Turner as Viola in Twelfth Night (#641).

Typically the first silent movies were made side by side in a row of stalls on rooftops or in warehouse-like studios with glass roofs. Scenery was likely to have been borrowed from Broadway or hastily put together by a makeshift crew that even included the actors. They were destined to be shown in the Nickelodeons, where, following vaudeville tradition, they shared the bill with an eclectic array of other short movies that might project everything from belly dancing to trained seals. They must be seen, however, to grasp how one can be misled by such generic stereotyping. Some were set on location. Viola apparently comes forth from the water to Illyria on the south shore of Long Island, perhaps near Bay Shore (Ball 315). Others were filmed out of doors in city parks and in their brief one-reel existence do their best to capture the ambiance of the Shakespearean world. Very early on, despite their role as orphans in the storm, these films were beginning to define their own non-theatrical, cinematic codes. The binary of theatre/film still privileged "theatre" but the seeds of subversion had been planted.

By far the most distinguished producers of Shakespeare films in America, however, were Edwin and Gertrude Thanhouser, who combined a passion for theatre with a gift for movie making. Their 1916 King Lear (#246), with the American Shakespeare actor Frederick B. Warde in the title role, retold the Lear story in the idiom of both stage and movie. Warde's nineteenth-century histrionics were supported by battle scenes and horsemen reminiscent of Griffith's epic The Birth of a Nation (1915). The film struggles to free itself from the constraints of page and stage. It moves from the opening mise-en-scène with a man reading in a chair (which is spatial), to the close-up of the Lear text (which involves montage), to the Méliès-like stunt of dissolving Warde into Lear, and then to the device of title cards for narrating the play's plot. The director has highlighted the world of the library (the page); used a well-known actor of the time in the title role (the stage); and literally framed his movie (the screen) between the pages of a book. Page, stage and screen, the triad of Shakespearean incarnations, momentarily interface, though the tension generated among the three inevitably favors disconnection of the filmic from page and stage. To accomplish that, the book and the reader are figuratively and literally dissolved, an icon for the usurpation by cinema of the previously uncontested cultural reign of page and stage.

There were other feature length Shakespeare films made in the U.S. during the silent period. In 1916 arch rival movie companies, Metro and Fox, each released a Romeo and Juliet (#520, #521). Metro's starred the great Francis X. Bushman as Romeo with Beverly Bayne as Juliet; and the Fox version surprisingly offered the famous Vamp,Theda Bara, as Juliet with Harry Hilliard as her Romeo. Bara reverted to type in a Cleopatra (1917) of epic dimensions. Unfortunately none of these prints survive, though stills remain in fan magazines to give a hint of the grandeur that was Hollywood Shakespeare (Ball 224, 256).

Despite the efforts of the British and Americans, however, it must be said that the best silent Shakespeare films came from the Germans, whose avant garde expressionism made them peculiarly sensitive to the emerging cinematic art. A case in point is the Hamlet (1920) directed by Svend Gade (1877-1952), and Heinz Schell. Gade, a stage actor and decorator turned film director, which cast a woman, Asta Nielsen, as Hamlet. She had played many classic roles on film including Hedda Gabler and Miss Julie, and also appeared in a The Street of Sorrow (1925) with Greta Garbo. Her genius was that she thoroughly understood the kind of understatement required for acting in the silents. Indeed Miss Nielsen's career in films ended with the advent of sound in 1929, and she never joined the burgeoning community of European exiles in Hollywood. Her pallid, expressive photogenic face, made many critics speak of her as a kind of precursor to Greta Garbo.

The film, Hamlet. The Drama of Vengeance (#86), offers a cinematic version of a pseudo-scholarly theory advanced by the American professor E.P. Vining in 1881 in his The Mystery of Hamlet. An Attempt to Solve an Old Problem. Vining reviewed the sources of the play and stressed the differences of Q1, Q2, and Der bestrafte Brudermord in the presentation of Hamlet's character which he saw as becoming more feminine in successive versions. Vining concluded that "Hamlet was actually a woman in love with Horatio and jealous of Ophelia." The film's chiaroscuro lighting, its huge studio interiors for the great hall at Elsinore, its close analytical shots, coupled with the curiously prophetic gender theory about Hamlet, set it worlds apart from any previous Shakespeare film. Motifs of intrigue, deception, poisoning, and uncertainty that trace directly back to the play are shrewdly embodied in the film text. An analytical shot of Claudius retrieving a poisonous snake from a pit of vipers, for example, serves as a metaphor for the poisoned kingdom. Hamlet's obsession with Horatio brings to the surface a hidden emotional agenda familiar enough to post-Freudian critics. As its chief student, Dr. J. Lawrence Guntner, has said, it is "arguably the first cinematically successful example of how Shakespeare can and has been re-appropriated for a particular purpose" (SFNL 13.1 [Dec. 1988]: 3).

To a lesser degree, many of these same Germanic elements also surface in the Dimitri Buchowetzki 1922 Othello (#442), starring Emil Jannings in the title role and Werner Krauss as Iago. Its two stars were prominent in the expressionistic movement in the German film industry, and Jannings subsequently received an Academy Award in Hollywood, where he had joined the many other British and European movie people who had flocked there for sunshine and big money. Krauss in a long career that included 100 silent films, achieved cinematic immortality as the famous Dr. Caligari. The ostensive acting style of the film, the excessive theatrics, eye-popping, mugging and frantic semaphoring, were nurtured by the Reinhardt school of acting. When Jannings literally chews on Desdemona's handkerchief, he gives one of the most striking examples imaginable of Vsevolod Pudokvin's theory of the "expressive object." That is to say, the human subject and the theatrical object come into contact in an "indefinite realm" where "'no exact limit can be drawn between them'."[3] Jannings' berserk chewing on the handkerchief becomes synecdoche for the spiritual desolation of the brilliant Venetian general duped into disloyalty by a treacherous subordinate. Luckily for Jannings, however, the general public often interpreted hammy screen acting as High Art and had a tendency to underrate the subtle gestures of the best silent screen actors such as Lillian Gish or Buster Keaton.[4] It was said that Lillian Gish could project the most profound emotions with the flicker of an eyelash.

Subsequently Werner Krauss appeared in another German Shakespeare silent, a grotesquely off-beat 1925 A Midsummer Night's Dream (#391) but with the advent of talking pictures fresh challenges confronted the making of Shakespeare films. The wonderful silence yielded to dialogue in the fifth reel of the MGM Hollywood Revue of 1929 (#525), which was essentially cinematized vaudeville. After a song and dance number by Joan Crawford, a magic show by Laurel and Hardy, and so forth, Norma Shearer and John Gilbert did the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet while Lionel Barrymore directed. Supposedly Gilbert's squeaky voice killed his career, though in this brief excerpt I didn't find it that egregiously bad. His role as Romeo, however, in being the coda to his own career also signalled the end of Shakespeare in the silents. The Hollywood revue closed with the entire cast performing "Singin' in the Rain," which is a talisman of making the best of adversity. And that's in general what the story of Shakespeare on silent film was.

The silent Shakespeare film, however, had made a frontal assault on the dominant cultural icons of the century. The advent of sound added fresh incentives to capture Shakespeare on a screen freed at last from the great oxymoron. And paradoxically it had taken a greater rather than a lesser knowledge of Shakespeare's texts to follow the miming of the silent movie actors. Talkies would open up Shakespeare even more to the general public by allowing it to hear as well as to see. With the silents there had been a proleptic fulfillment of John Russell Taylor's belief that often the best filmed Shakespeare is based on the assumption that the audience knows the play. The film "affirms" but does not "record" (Shakespeare: A Celebration 113).


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[1] Numbers following film titles indicate the location of the entry in the main filmography. [Back]

[2] For works cited parenthetically, see bibliography in appendices. [Back]

[3] James Naremore, Acting in the Cinema (Berkeley: U of California P, 1988) 85. [Back]

[4] Blake Lucas, Acting Styles in Silent Films,î in Magillís Survey of Cinema, I, ed. Frank N. Magill (Englewood Cliffs: Salem Press, 1981) 1-11. [Back]