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Introduction: The age of sound

Shakespeare on Screen: A Chronicle History -- page 3 | next


The Age of Sound

During a transitional period when many provincial theaters were as yet unequipped for sound projection, Janus-like, the 1929 Douglas Fairbanks/Mary Pickford The Taming of the Shrew (#584) looked backward to the silents and forward to the talkies. Originally a silent, the dialogue and sound effects of this consummate farce were subsequently added. Fairbanks' brash, bravura, bold Petruchio set against a saucy, impish Mary Pickford's Kate, more or less emulated or encouraged a long line of brawling Kates and Petruchios. In one sequence, they turn into ardent flagellants as each attempts to thrash the other with a wickedly cruel looking whip. And when Mary Pickford faces the camera, looks directly at the audience, and winks toward Bianca to punctuate her controversial pledge of obedience to Petruchio, a statement of prime importance on the rights of American women was made. It may not have been what Shakespeare had in mind, but a beloved actress appropriated his work to her own ends.

A 1936 As You Like It (#34), directed by Paul Czinner, starred his wife, Elisabeth Bergner (Rosalind), a Polish actress who had made a reputation in German films, and a youthful Laurence Olivier (Orlando). Lavishly designed by Lazare Meerson, the film's highly stylized studio sets followed the Germanic motifs that Czinner had learned from Max Reinhardt and others. Screened today it seems static and stagy, innovative only in the fact that the actors could be heard speaking Shakespeare's language. By coincidence, the movie fits the screwball comedy genre that Frank Capra popularized in Hollywood during the great depression.[5] Orlando as the unwavering idealist in a cruel world resembles the kinds of starry-eyed characters played by Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, or Gary Cooper in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (Poague, "Screwball Comedy"). In the midst of general despair, these films were a ray of hope shining through hopelessness. With the charismatic presence of Olivier and Bergner, the film contributed its own share of gaiety to a troubled world.

Ironically, the German expressionistic movement in Shakespeare film peaked not in Germany but in Hollywood, U.S.A. Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle teamed up in 1935 to produce the Warner Brothers Midsummer Night's Dream (#392). With a galaxy of Hollywood stars in the cast, the film was the butt of almost as much condescension as the old silents. The sight of Mickey Rooney (Puck), James Cagney (Bottom), and Joe E. Brown (Quince) as Shakespearean actors enraged some and amused others but won admiration from few. The directors in fact boldly re-appropriated Shakespeare's text in a notable effort to make it responsive to contemporary American culture. They committed the heretical act of downloading high to low culture instead of uploading low to high. With a sound track indebted to Mendelssohn's lilting Incidental Music, the movie edged toward the Hollywood dance/musical tradition. It offers exquisite black-and-white dance sequences, a baroque forest, and nightmarish little elves who prefigured Jan Kott's vision of the dream as nightmare.

In the next year, Hollywood returned to the box office frays with yet another major production: the multi-million dollar 1936 Romeo and Juliet (#526), starring Norma Shearer and Leslie Howard, with the great John Barrymore as an aging Mercutio. Although studded with members of Hollywood's British expatriate cabal (Basil Rathbone as Tybalt, C. Aubrey Smith as Lord Capulet, Reginald Denny as Benvolio, Edna May Oliver as Nurse, and Leslie Howard as Romeo), the production and direction of the film were under the Hollywood control of Irving Thalberg (Norma Shearer's husband), and George Cukor. At enormous expense an approximation of Renaissance Verona, modeled from pictures taken in Italy by a studio photography team, was constructed on a Hollywood lot. (Nowadays of course the entire company, or a second unit, would pack up and travel to Italy instead.) Lavish costumes, a Busby Berkeley-like Capulet ball, theme music from Tchaikovksy — all were thought necessary as adjuncts to Shakespeare's language. At one level these efforts succeeded less in supporting than in smothering the play; at another, however, there was a sacerdotal reverence that endowed Romeo and Juliet with a beatific aura. The close-ups of Norma Shearer verify the passionate sincerity of Shearer's 36-year old Juliet. Probably the filmmakers were driven by a consuming anxiety to please Shakespeareans, especially the British who naturally resented the appropriation, or desecration help, of their national poet by the colonials. The producers neither subverted nor confronted orthodoxy but instead acquiesced in academic genteelism. Like the nouveau riche couple who violated a sacred Emily Post rule by committing the unspeakable gaffe of dressing for dinner on the first night out aboard a luxury transatlantic liner between World Wars I and II, the movie was overdressed for a world that would not welcome it under any circumstances. Despite these shortcomings, the film remains, even if overstuffed, a brilliant and touching example of Shakespeare filtered through the lens of Hollywood's Golden Age of classical film.

After the box office problems of its two major Shakespeare films, Hollywood avoided Shakespeare until the post WW II production of the 1953 Houseman/ Mankiewicz Julius Caesar (#214). With a bold head-on approach to the play, neither too stagy nor too coyly cinematic, and with a superb cast, the film is one of the best Shakespeare films ever made. Marlon Brando as Antony is a triumph. He looks sullen and resentful, mumbles, mutters, and shuffles, but his method-style of naturalistic American acting manages to suggest volumes about the essential character of Shakespeare's playboy of the Mediterranean world. With Brando were also John Gielgud as Brutus, James Mason as Cassius, and Louis Calhern as Caesar. It is Shakespeare without tricks and testifies to the myriad ways in which the plays can be successfully filmed. There are no formulas. A subsequent 1969 Julius Caesar (#226), directed by Stuart Burge, despite superb casting that included Charlton Heston as Antony, Jason Robards, Jr., as Brutus, Sir John Gielgud as Caesar, and Diana Rigg as Portia, regrettably turned out to be a dud. Charlton Heston could be honored with the sobriquet, "Mr. Antony," for having turned up in the role so frequently. As early as 1950 he was Antony in a low budget, undergraduate production of Julius Caesar (#211) produced by David Bradley at the University of Chicago. Most recently, however, he was Antony in an epic 1972 Antony and Cleopatra (#20) that he himself produced and directed. With his powerful physique and commanding voice, he seems to have been born for the role.

The Golden Age of Shakespeare on Film lasted from about 1944 to 1970 but glittered most brightly with the three Shakespeare films that Lord Laurence Olivier acted and directed in. These were Henry V in 1944 (#172), Hamlet (#95) in 1948, and Richard III (#503) in 1955. Olivier, who had been previously skeptical about the feasibility of making Shakespearean drama into movies, revealed an astonishing talent for visualizing Shakespeare's verbal genius. In Henry V Shakespeare's lament for "a muse of fire" in the prologue was answered by using the camera as a magic carpet to transport the audience from the raucous interior of the Globe playhouse, a rundown Eastcheap, and "the vasty fields of France," to a fairy-tale French palace, to Agincourt, only finally to return to the raucous world of the Bankside playhouse. At Agincourt in the spectacular charge of the French cavalry, the "muse of fire" is again reified in an analytical close-up that actually shows the horses "printing their proud hoofs i' th' receiving earth."

In a 1948 Hamlet, the late Laurence Olivier offended scholars by reducing the inner conflict of the Danish prince to a question of his being a "man unable to make up his mind." He also sacrificed Fortinbras, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to the exigencies of time, much to the annoyance of purists who judge productions only by counting the number of lines preserved from Shakespeare's Folio and Quarto. On the other hand, following Orson Welles's Citizen Kane (1941), he made the camera a participant in the action. The tracking shots, deep focus sequences, and haunting voiceover soliloquies brought fresh strategies to the rhetoric of Shakespeare on film as well as showing how film can both narrate and interpret a literary work.

In Richard III, surrounded by a brilliant cast that included Claire Bloom, Cedric Hardwicke, John Gielgud, and Ralph Richardson, Olivier re-created Richard Duke of Gloucester as a diabolical antichrist. Shriveled, deformed, pasty faced, Olivier's Richard dragged his way through the world cracking sardonic jokes and radiating a miasma of evil. Structurally the film is beautiful in its symbolic arrangement of the crowns at crucial points of the action both prior to Richard's ascendancy and after his horrible death at Bosworth. Another key metaphor, that of the shadow, also diegetically permeates the film to add a deepened level of consciousness. Later, Olivier was to appear in Shakespeare films directed by others, though the 1965 Othello (#464), directed by Stuart Burge, was more of a recording of a National Theatre stage production than it was a full-fledged movie in its own right. The 1983 King Lear, which saw Olivier self-referentially play the role of the aging monarch surrounded by courtiers, was technically a television drama not a film at all. Still, to witness the evolution of this brilliant actor from the 1936 Orlando to the 1983 octogenarian King Lear (#271) offers a record of performance not available for great Shakespearean actors until this century.

Ironically because of their brilliance and glitter, the Olivier trilogy left the appetite unsurfeited, as though the true depths of Shakespeare's plays had not yet been plumbed. Thus, turning from the work of Olivier to that of the flamboyant Orson Welles is like abandoning the tidiness of an 18th-century garden for the tangled vines of a South American jungle. For his films, Olivier walked away with all the honors. It is doubtful that Orson Welles, even had he been a British subject, would have been honored with a peerage. And yet the greatest work, flawed though it may have been, on filmed Shakespeare was done by Welles. All occasions informed against him. His life was one financial crisis after another, as his plans for great Shakespeare films ran up against the harsh realities of time and money. But mostly money.[6]

When his 1948 Macbeth (#297) appeared, critics fell all over themselves to denounce it. The surrealistic fracturing of surface representation to get at the chaotic, dark forces underlying the tragedy of the Scottish king was either understood and rejected or misunderstood and scorned. There were also technical problems with the sound track that cannot easily be glossed over. Despite these flaws, however, a viewing of the film still leaves audiences with a sense of an artist groping to rediscover the timelessness of a great text. It was not that Welles was at all inexperienced as a Shakespearean. He not only had produced a modern dress Julius Caesar on stage but also a "Voodoo" Macbeth. According to Richard Wilson (see #297), he then directed Macbeth at a Utah Shakespeare Festival as a preliminary to making the film.

The problems with Macbeth were trivial compared to the ordeal of making Othello (#453), as fine a Shakespeare film as has ever been made. Financial problems did not stop the director, however, from producing a movie crammed with Wellesian surprises. As usual, Welles was the victim of his own originality. He opened himself up to the familiar litany of charges about being "self-indulgent" and "drawing attention to his camera." Yet the camera work—the high and low angle shots, the trademark deep focus shots, the gloomy shadows and bars, the analytical close-ups of Iago in a cage—actually reflected the paranoia in the mind of Shakespeare's black hero caught in a white world. Welles, who never made any money out of his Shakespeare films, labored like a latter day Michelangelo to incarnate the Bard's work in celluloid. Recently a refurbished print of the film has been released for theatrical viewing.

His tumultuous career inexorably led to the 1965 Chimes at Midnight (#161—also released as Falstaff), which, though made on a low budget, imaginatively stitched together a collage from the major tetralogy of the English history plays. Playing the role of Falstaff himself, Welles brought a self-referential quality to the tale of an aging humbug that made this poignant film doubly moving. The resourceful use of expressionistic battle scenes, reminiscent of Goya, prefigured the techniques that Jane Howell was to use 17 years later in her triumphant television adaptation of the minor tetralogy (q. v.). (Kenneth Branagh's 1989 Henry V (#182.2) also quotes from the Welles battle scenes.) Falstaff, ruined by his own indulgence (Welles) and ruthlessly cast off by Hal (the Hollywood movie moguls), is turned from a comic to a tragic figure. Thereby Welles unforgettably comments on the horror of the human condition. At another time, though on television not on film, Welles played King Lear in a 1950 "Omnibus" Sunday afternoon production (#250) directed by Andrew McCullough and Peter Brook. As usual his performance was roundly denounced as overblown and sophomoric, though the Kinescope in the New York City Museum of Broadcasting reveals him to have been a King Lear whose anguish over the death of Cordelia reaches down into the very depths of human suffering. He drags her like a rag doll across the stage.

In mid-century, the non-Anglophone world again felt the need to put Shakespeare's work on film. In 1963 Coriolanus (#62) appeared in Italy; in 1933 and 1955 two Hamlets (#90 and #104), in India; in 1950 again a Hamlet (#101), this time in Denmark; in 1960 yet another Hamlet (#110), in West Germany; in 1964, Hamlet (#119) in Ghana; in 1970, again a Hamlet in Brazil (#129); in 1965, an Austrian Merry Wives (#382); in 1956, a Russian Much Ado (#423); in 1942, an Egyptian Romeo and Juliet (#530); in 1954, a particularly ambitious Italian Romeo and Juliet (#538) directed by Renato Castellani; in 1968, an Italian/Spanish Romeo and Juliet (#553); and in 1959, a Mexican Taming of the Shrew (#595),

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The most significant non-Anglophone work, though, came from Japan and Russia. In Japan, Akira Kurosawa (1910-98), widely acknowledged as the country's leading film director, brought out a modernized Hamlet [The Bad Sleep Well] (#115) in 1963, an adaptation of Macbeth [The Throne of Blood and/or The Castle of the Spider's Web (#307)] in 1957, and a version of King Lear [Ran] (#274) in 1985. Throne of Blood has been virtually canonized as the finest possible example of the translation of Shakespeare into the movies on the slippery grounds that the burden of not being hampered by the English language allows the director a freer hand for cinematic invention. The endless circling of the mounted samurai in the primeval forest reflects the embedded references in the play to Duncan's horses making "war with mankind" (2.3.13) and to the labyrinthine fate of Macbeth himself. An inscrutable and enigmatic Lady Macbeth in the best traditions of Noh drama also goads her Lord into the kind of hasty action that brought about the demise of Macbeth. By ferreting out the essence of Macbeth and ignoring surface phenomena, Kurosawa has not so much subverted as re-enshrined Shakespeare's play in another medium. The difficulty arises in estimating exactly what that "essence" is. And can it be captured on film without entirely losing its Shakespearean inspiration? In his 1985 Ran (#274), Kurosawa ostensibly made an adaptation of King Lear, with so many additions, deletions, and transpositions, however, that at times in an uncomfortable sense of déja vu the viewer may feel that he is watching Macbeth not King Lear. The artistry of Kurosawa's films, however, revitalizes the Shakespearean vision into an idiom congenial to all cultures, eastern and western alike.

During this Golden Age of Shakespeare on film and in the midst of the Cold War, the Russians also made important contributions. They may have been thought by cold warriors in the West to have been practicing some sinister brand of cultural imperialism by assimilating Shakespeare into their culture in 1955 with Yakov Fried's lavish Twelfth Night (#648), and Sergei Yutkevitch's (b. 1904) brooding Othello (#456). From another perspective, though, the reaccentuation of Shakespeare with Elizabethan lute songs in Slavic rhythms and gargantuan sets of Eisensteinian dimensions was less an act of cultural imperialism than a tribute to the internationalism of Shakespeare's plays.

It was Grigori Kozintsev (1905-73), a pioneering Soviet filmmaker, who contributed the most to the canon of Soviet Shakespeare films. His 1964 Hamlet (#116) and 1970 King Lear (#257) grew out of painstaking attention to tiny details and profound respect for the mysteries of the Shakespearean vision. In two book-length meditations, Shakespeare: Time and Conscience (1967), and The Space of Tragedy (1977). Kozintsev showed how every scrap of his experience as a film maker was focused on translating the decentered worlds of Hamlet and King Lear into the charcoal texture of his films. His Hamlet showed how, like the Kurosawa 1957 Japanese version of Macbeth (Throne of Blood), Shakespeare on film may fare at the hands of a non-English speaking director. When the phonetics of a particular language no longer govern, film is free to enter into the realm of pure ideograph that is theoretically its special milieu. Kozintsev's dark, brooding, black-and-white images of sea, stone and castle once again showed film's capacity to probe the Shakespearean subtext. Ophelia's rigid farthingale that seemed to be constructed out of iron, for example, served as a visual metaphor for her encasement in the prison house of patriarchal hegemony. Similarly the remarkable use of Dreyer-like faces, of stone fortresses, of burning villages and of a pathetic Fool and a haggard old king made this King Lear (1970) a film that not just renewed but revalorised the epic scale of Shakespeare's play.

Although less experienced as a film director than Kozintsev, Peter Brook with his King Lear (1971) also displayed genius. An Englishman, Brook (b. 1925), with Lord Michael Birkett as producer, released his film shortly after the premiere of Kozintsev's version. The times apparently were ripe for King Lear, which, as so many have said, perfectly embodied the doomsday, post-Holocaust atmosphere of the Vietnam era. Brook's film also captured in charcoal hues and verfremdung cinematic effects (freeze frames, accelerated motion, silent movie title cards, and so forth), the existential despair of Jan Kott's influential Shakespeare Our Contemporary. If as Jan Kott wrote, Shakespeare was "our contemporary," then in Brook's vision (and he made it plain in the credits that this was "Peter Brook's film about Shakespeare's King Lear," not the thing itself), King Lear was indeed about the end of the world that Hiroshima foreshadowed. He even managed to bring in overtones of Beckett's apocalyptic Waiting for Godot in the sequence between King Lear and Gloucester at Dover. There were also bone chilling panoramas of the northern wasteland near Jutland that provided the film's mise-en-scéne for exterior shots. The atmosphere of the film was so bleak and forbidding, so curiously less redemptive than the "Marxist" Kozintsev King Lear, that many found the film not just a subversion but a grotesque distortion of the Shakespeare text. King Lear is, however, a play that stubbornly mirrors each successive age. During the depressing years of the Vietnam war, no one was likely to find anything very optimistic about anything, let alone a play so dark as King Lear. In this sense, Peter Brook was simply re-appropriating Shakespeare for a new generation.

Among directors of Shakespeare films in those miraculous years before television nearly eclipsed movie versions, Franco Zeffirelli must be rated at the very top. His Shakespeare films are perhaps not so urbanely contrived as Olivier's, nor so wickedly subversive as Welles' but they surpass both in their lush seductiveness. True enough, his 1966 The Taming of the Shrew (#598) did privilege the rough-and-tumble antics of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton over the Shakespearean text. On the other hand, as an experienced Shakespeare director with credits from the Royal Shakespeare Company, Zeffirelli had an uncanny ability to visualize Shakespeare's verbal genius. Portions of the Sly and Bartholomew episode in the Induction scene get transposed to Petruchio's activities, and Sly himself appears briefly suspended from a cage at the city gates of Padua as Kate and Petruchio exit for the groom's country house. Of course Burton and Taylor, who were then the uncrowned king and queen of Hollywood, in playing the roles broadly reverted to its origins as a farce about the ancient Battle of the Sexes, not a seminar on feminist issues.

Zeffirelli also revelled in the Italian Renaissance opulence of Baptista Minola's magnificent residence. Minola, as played by veteran Shakespearean actor Michael Hordern, achieved a crescendo of helplessness in his despair over Kate and Bianca. Other highlights were an opening saturnalian street procession reminiscent of the carnival scene in Marcel Carné's Les Enfants du Paradis (1944); a remarkably zestful and lively musical score by Nino Rota evocative of Zeffirelli's operatic background; and an especially winning performance by Michael York as Lucentio.

A smash box office hit, the Romeo and Juliet (1968), starred a teen-age Romeo and Juliet, Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting, who were ideally suited to Zeffirelli's palimpsest. He had filtered Shakespeare through Leonard Bernstein's 1961 West Side Story (#544). Filmed in a hilltop town in Italy, the movie's neo-realism also emulated Renato Castellani's 1954 Romeo and Juliet (#538). Its cultish popularity was by no means undeserved. Its swirling patterns of images, the ball at the Capulets, the duel between Romeo and Tybalt, effectively envision the friar's belief that "they stumble who run too fast." The impassioned scenes between Romeo and Juliet at the balcony, during their marriage, in the aubade scene, and at the tomb, make crafty use of youthful actors because of film's ability to permit generous re-taking and editing. And Nino Rota's score, with its recurring theme of a pop hit, "What is a Youth?," skillfully faked an Elizabethan idiom while keeping audiences almost as emotionally spent as the lovers themselves. This combination of music, spectacle and words was further embellished with superb performances from a threatening Michael York as Tybalt, a manic/depressive John McEnery as Mercutio, and a sturdy Pat Heywood as Nurse.

Astounded audiences not knowing quite how to react also saw released in 1971 the Playboy production of Macbeth directed by Roman Polanski and starring Jon Finch and Francesca Annis. If Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet drew crowds because of its baroque sentimentality, Polanski's Macbeth packed the movie houses with voyeurs. Polanski's text, co-adapted with Kenneth Tynan, included not only about one-half of Shakespeare's text but also traces of the notorious Manson murders in an egregiously violent on-screen stabbing of Duncan. The imagery of blood and Golgotha in Shakespeare's tragedy became a lens for a vision of a world gone mad. The opening shot, a long take that took in sweeping panoramas of deserted beach before closing in on the three hags, served as a prologue to a disturbing cinematic experience. Embedded in the framework of this daring and trendy film (the music was provided by 'The Third Ear Band') was a silent film that privileged Ross (John Stride) in such a way as to make him not only the third murderer but also the butcher of Macduff's family, a major architect of Macbeth's ultimate defeat, and in many respects a mirror image to Macbeth himself. The story of Ross is indeed a silent film nested in the deep structure of Polanski's film. Polanski and Kenneth Tynan apparently borrowed the whole idea for magnifying Ross's importance to the action from an 1893 monograph by a Victorian schoolmaster, M.F. Libby of Toronto. Grafted on to this was a youthful, slender Lady Macbeth who appeared nude in the sleepwalking scene. The film thus conflated Victorian character criticism with Playboy porn in a bizarre but unforgettable treatment of the Scottish play (Rothwell, #324 below).

There have also been full-scale pornographic versions of Shakespeare's plays, one of the most recent being from the impudent Troma Films company, Lloyd Kaufman's 1996 Tromeo and Juliet (#000). And punk/gay has appeared on the scene with Derek Jarman's 1980 counter-cultural punk Tempest (#622), which unfortunately received a hostile reception at the 1980 New York Film Festival, and Celestino Coronado's 1984 Midsummer Night's Dream (#416). In the latter Hermia and Helena and Lysander and Demetrius at one point pair off not with their lovers of the opposite sex but with each other. Although both the Jarman and Coronado movies are serious re-appropriations of Shakespeare's text for modern times, there is a line, difficult to draw, at which these free-swinging adaptations pass over into travesties, and enter into the realm of pop culture, a phenomenon that Richard Burt has recently labeled "Schlockspeare"; in Shakespeare after Mass Media (2002). Robert Hamilton Ball's fine book on the silent Shakespeare film lists dozens, as does also Luke McKernan and Olwen Terris's Walking Shadows. These kinds of movies also are a sub-species of yet another category, Shakespeare derivatives, which are discussed below.

While these big budget cinematic realizations of the Shakespearean text offered the rich texture of film on a large screen, in the sixties and seventies and eighties television production methods became the dominant mode for screened Shakespeare. Actually as early as 1960 George Schaefer had filmed Macbeth (#309) in Scotland prior to showing it as both a Hallmark television and a theatrical release. This, along with a gangster show called The Scarface Mob, was thus one of the first made-for-television movies, a now familiar genre. Of similar origins was a 1960 West German Hamlet (#110) with dubbed-in English starring Maximilian Schell as a teutonic prince. Its expressionistic sets and bare stage hinted at the thriftiness that would soon replace the lavish multi-million dollar films. By far the most successful of the made-for-television Shakespeare films, however, was Lord Birkett and Peter Hall's 1968 A Midsummer Night's Dream (#405), which combined the realism of a hand-held camera in the cinéma verité tradition with the expressionism of fragmentary editing. Costumes suggested the then voguish Carnaby street mini-skirts and Nehru jackets, and the dazed young lovers were lost in a real English wood in a real Warwickshire forest far from Athens. At the same time, they stumbled through an expressionistic fairy land of twinkling lights and jump cuts. With Diana Rigg as Helena, Helen Mirren as Hermia, Ian Richardson as Oberon, and a nubile Judi Dench as Titania, this film remains a sparkling but unpretentious gem.

If not primarily "made-for-television," Tony Richardson's 1969 film of Hamlet (#123) was shot in such a way as to make it eminently suitable for residual television rights. A three-way compromise among film, TV, and theatre, starring the tumultuous and unpredictable Nicol Williamson, it records a stage production at the Roundhouse Theatre in London. Filmed almost entirely in close and mid-shots, the production amputates the actors' legs but magnifies the raw intensity of Williamson's angry Hamlet. Williamson, who had enjoyed a stormy success with the role on stage in New York and London, dug out a subtext that had eluded the sonorities of a John Gielgud and the panache of a Laurence Olivier. While not a Hamlet for all seasons, he was indubitably, a Hamlet for that troubled time, who, as a Time critic wrote, carried with him "the smell of smoldering cordite."[7] Another made-for-television film, starring Laurence Harvey as Leontes, which recorded a 1966 stage production of The Winter's Tale (#672) at the Edinburgh Festival, offered a then rare opportunity to see this play on screen, though without critical or box office success.

In the 1960's, before the development of cable television and home VCR's made the practice anachronistic, the recording of stage performances for subsequent screening in neighborhood movie houses, was briefly attempted. Upscale audiences in the provinces would assemble to watch a recording of a London or Broadway production. A famous one was the 1964 Hamlet (#117), directed by Sir John Gielgud and starring Richard Burton. Recorded on a process called Electronovision by several cameras focused on the stage of New York's Lunt-Fontanne theatre, and performed in rehearsal clothes, it featured a fiery and explosive but unpredictable, indeed stormy, Hamlet surrounded by a stellar cast including Hume Cronyn as Polonius, Alfred Drake as Claudius, and John Gielgud as the Ghost. Burton's inner reserves gave him the psychological strength to portray Hamlet as an angry young man without sinking, as Williamson had done, to unprincely fits of histrionics. Another recording of a stage production was the already cited 1965 Stuart Burge Othello (#464), starring Laurence Olivier as the Moor and Frank Finlay as an unforgettable Iago. For the most part a record of a National Theatre stage play, cinematically it is no match for the lavish 1955 USSR Yutkevich Othello (#456). It was, even so, an actor's triumph for an Olivier whose blackface reminded one critic of the "end man in a minstrel show." In a bold celebration of the miscegenation in the text, a lily-white Maggie Smith was cast as Desdemona to contrast with Olivier's blackness. Finlay's Iago by playing on every weakness of the Moor exemplified a Leavisite view that locates Othello's ruin in his own frailties.


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[5] See Leland A. Poague, "As You Like It and It Happened One Night: The Generic Pattern of Comedy," LFQ 5.4 (Fall 1974): 346-50; and, Robert F. Willson, Jr., "'Ill Met by Moonlight': Reinhardt's A Midsummer Night's Dream and Musical Screwball Comedy," Journal of Popular Film 5 (1976): 185-97. [Back]

[6] For a recent critical study, see Michael Anderegg's Orson Welles: Shakespeare and Popular Culture (New York: Columbia UP, 1999); for a reliable biography, see Charles Higham, Orson Welles: The Rise and Fall of an American Genius (New York: St. Martins Press, 1985). [Back]

[7] Time 93 (28 Feb. 1969): 74. [Back]

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