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Introduction: Spinoffs and Modernizations

Shakespeare on Screen: A Chronicle History -- page 4 | next


Spinoffs and Modernizations

Shakespeare's plays also inspired dozens of films that stubbornly resist classification because of their many overlappings and protean shapes. Testimony to the pervasive influence of Shakespeare as a cultural symbol, and all of them moving steadily in the direction of popular culture, they may variously be labeled "derivatives," "offshoots," "travesties," "spinoffs," "modernizations," and "musical/ operatic/dance" versions. In the silent era, movie makers found the Shakespearean canon a happy hunting ground for titles even when the scenario may have had virtually nothing to do with the Bard's work, as, for example, a 1909 Much Ado (#420) and a 1913 Italian film, Measure for Measure (#347).

Other movies, often without Shakespearean titles, borrowed bits and scraps from the bard: a 1922 Day Dreams (#87) in which Buster Keaton imagines himself as Prince Hamlet; a 1933 Morning Glory (#90) in which Katharine Hepburn as an aspiring actress livens up a dull party with a recitation of the "To be or not to be" soliloquy; and a 1946 My Darling Clementine (#96) in which traveling thespians perform Shakespeare in a frontier saloon. Another type vaguely weaves Shakespearean plot elements into their own design: for example, Maurice Elvey's 1916 Love in a Wood (#33) with overtones from As You Like It; the 1910 Romeo Turns Bandit (#517) with its garbling of Shakespeare's plot; the 1956 Jubal (#458) starring Ernest Borgnine whose fit of sexual jealousy may or may not shadow forth Othello's; and the 1954 Broken Lance (#251) starring Spencer Tracy whose scenario includes a Cordelia-type figure and mirrors the Gloucester plot in King Lear. The difficulty in making these assessments is that Shakespeare and the Hollywood scenarists were often drawing on a common sourceóthe universal human condition.

Links between Shakespeare and the living film often emerge in the sub-genre of backstage films about Shakespearean actors who in one way or another confuse their stage and real identities. For some reason Othello has stimulated three major examples: the 1936 Men Are Not Gods (#444) in which an actor playing Othello (Sebastian Shaw) develops an unhealthy need to smother Desdemona (Gertrude Lawrence) for real on stage; the classic 1947 film noir A Double Life (#446) in which an actor playing Othello (Ronald Colman) transfers his smothering activities from an on-stage Desdemona to an unsuspecting offstage victim; and the 1962 All Night Long (#461) in which jazz musicians in a London luxury flat incongruously housed in the East End restage the Othello story in the fierce jealousy between a white drummer and a black band leader over the affections of a vocalist. A non-Othello type variation on this kind of plot is Ernst Lubitsch's 1942 To Be or Not to Be (#93) in which the movie action is entangled with Jack Benny's delivering of Hamlet's soliloquy on stage. In 1983, Mel Brooks did a re-make of the same story (#147).

More challenging to evaluate are adaptations that recontextualize Shakespeare in a contemporary and sometimes even in a post-modernist idiom. The beautifully photographed 1949 French film, Les amants de Verone (#534), based on Romeo and Juliet, carries the young lovers in and out of a glass factory and into a complicated meta-cinematic love affair. The 1945 film noir Strange Illusion (#94) rediscovers Freud's Oedipal theory and puts the Hamlet story in the context of American upper middle class family life. Ken Hughesís 1955 Joe Macbeth (#306) with Paul Douglas in the title role as a Chicago gangster masks debts to Shakespeare's tragedy behind the facade of a commercial film. Paul Mazursky adopted that same strategy with his 1974 Harry and Tonto (#260) and 1982 Tempest (#626), which betray thoughtful connections with King Lear and The Tempest. Surely one of the most recherché modernizations, however, is Claude Chabrol's 1962 Ophélia (#111) whose camera work re-appropriates the fractured world of Hamlet into a post-modernist vision of a village in France. And in a slot by itself is Fred Wilcox's 1956 Forbidden Planet (#611), a wonderful science fiction reworking of The Tempest starring Walter Pidgeon. Everybody's favorite Shakespeare "spinoff" film may well be the 1965 James Ivory Shakespeare Wallah (#695), which in narrating the poignant tale of a down-at-the-heels British acting company in India also crams in some superb Shakespearean acting. The genre persists as demonstrated by such recent examples as a 1999 10 Things I Hate About You (#000) a high school version of The Taming of the Shrew; the 2001 O (#000), yet another high school film only this time based on Othello and the activities of the schoolís basketball team; and the 2002 Scotland PA, a black comedy drawing on Macbeth (#000).

Problems in taxonomy become even more thorny as one moves into the genre of musical/operatic versions of Shakespeare. Most are really films of Shakespeare adaptations previously mounted on stage but still they appear on screen or television and invite consideration in this treatise. Such outstanding popular hits as the 1940 Boys from Syracuse (#48) based on The Comedy of Errors, the 1953 Kiss Me Kate (#591) based on The Taming of the Shrew (but also with a backstage plot), and the 1961 West Side Story (#544) offer obvious examples. Lesser known is the 1973 Catch My Soul (#466), a rock opera version of Othello that began its life as a stage production in London and became a film in the American Southwest. These kinds of musicals then segue into operatic and dance treatments that with rare exceptions represent recordings of stage productions. One such exception is Franco Zeffirelli's 1986 film of Verdi's Otello (#478), which was planned and made as a movie. For the most part, however, recordings of staged operatic and dance versions exist on the periphery of this screenographyís principal concerns. They cannot be entirely ignored if one is to have a full overview of the entire field but they also require the attention of music and dance critics.

Finally, before moving on from film to television, a word needs to be said about a huge category of Shakespeare movieóthe educational film. The Shakespeare film primarily made for classroom exhibition is often non-narrative, a "talking head," as it were, in the style of Dr. Frank Baxter, learned host of the 1960's "Fair Adventure Series," speaking with the aid of a few stage props on the topic of "Shakespeare's London" (#688) . A more up-to-date series constructed along these lines and called "Shakespeare in Perspective" brings a galaxy of first-rate intellects, such as Dr. Frank Kermode on King Lear (#269), to analyze the BBC Shakespeare plays. Another species, such as Hugh Richmond's 1982 "Shakespeare and the Globe" (#736), may stitch together film clips and stills to give a first-hand sense of the atmosphere of Shakespeare's Britain. Still another variety features repertory actors both acting and explaining their craft in a workshop format, as in the highly successful 1984 series, called "Playing Shakespeare," distributed in the U.S. by Films for the Humanities and hosted by John Barton. Finally, some educational films offer condensed versions of the plays, or individual scenes for study. The best of the former to my knowledge are the National Geographic series (see, for example, the Walsh Romeo and Juliet at #564# and #565), and of the latter the series produced by the Stratford, Canada, Shakespeare Festival (see, for example, the 1985 Taming of the Shrew, #606). In 1985 there emerged yet another sub-speciesóa film made for the student who wants animated crib notes (#151.1). Indeed there are many options for the interested teacher to select or to reject from and they are best found by surfing through the alternatives offered in the main entries.[8]


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[8]Educational films about a particular play are included under the title of the play; topics of a more general nature, such as "acting," or "verse," are listed in chronological order at the end of the entries under the heading "Documentaries." [Back]