Considering that much of the impact of William Shakespeare’s works lies in the beautiful poetry of his spoken dialogue, it might seem odd to find that hundreds of movies were made of his works during the silent film era. Or maybe not – while that gorgeous poetry is undeniably a cornerstone of the Bard’s cultural endurance, it must also be observed that those plays are overflowing with some extraordinarily visual – and visceral – scenes, packed to the brim with murder and battle and sudden death, and romance and sex and comedy, and all the things that generally make for a riveting story no matter how they’re told. Granted, to really make the leap from theater stage to silent screen, you need writers who can pare those plays down to the barest of essentials, and a director who can build a coherent narrative out of those stripped-down masterpieces.
That’s one of the reasons that the 1908 Percy Stow film version of The Tempest is so remarkable. Taking a three hour play and chopping it down to twelve minutes while still keeping a more or less recognizable thread of the story is quite a feat – though it still helps immensely if you’re familiar with the play. But what really makes the production stand out is how visually interesting the whole thing is to watch. Not content to simply film on a sound stage, Stowe takes the camera on location to film some scenes, and combines them with an interestingly designed set and some rather impressive special effects for other scenes. The result is a dynamic telling of the story that certainly doesn’t drag, but still manages to convey a lot of the story in its short running time. If the film has a drawback, it’s that none of Shakespeare’s text made it onto the title cards, but that’s a very small complaint indeed, given the ambitious nature of the production and how well it succeeds on other levels.
By contrast, when legendary filmmaker D.W. Griffith decided to bring The Taming of the Shrew to the screen, he went in completely the opposite direction, not even making an attempt to keep the story intact. Instead, standing at the fountainhead of a great Hollywood tradition that continues to this day, he stripped out everything that was, to his mind, non-essential – like most of the plot -and opted instead to craft the play into something more to his liking. Like a slapstick comedy.
How well does it work? Well, that depends on how much you like slapstick – and how much of a stickler you are when it comes to Shakespeare. Working with about 10 minutes of film, Griffith doesn’t exactly stick to what little of the script he retained. The whole thing reeks more of the Keystone Kops than the Bard of Stratford-on-Avon.
But for all that, this is a very funny piece of film that careens along at breakneck pace. Silent movie icon Florence Lawrence, generally regarded as America’s first bona fide movie star (she was Canadian). makes for a beautiful, funny, and fierce Katherina, and honestly, you might find yourself too busy snickering at the pratfalls and comic brawling to really register the fact that there ain’t much Shakespeare in this Shakespeare adaptation. And hey – it’s only ten minutes or so.
Not quite as wild as The Taming of the Shrew, and not quite as visually interesting as The Tempest, but still quite a lot of fun to watch, is the 1909 version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which marks that play’s first appearance on the silver screen. Like The Tempest, the makers of this delightful diversion wanted to cram as complete a story as possible into a 12-minute running time, but this production opts for detailed intertitles in order to explain the plot as opposed to the rather terse intertitles of the earlier film. Strangely, this version also ditches the fearsome fairy king Oberon in favor of a new character, Penelope, to quarrel with Titania and send Puck about his mischief.
Why did they make the change? Could they find no suitable actor for Oberon? Were they trying to accommodate the inclusion of a producer’s niece? Or was the idea of a husband, as a prank, magically tricking his wife into an adulterous affair to teach her a lesson a bit too, ah, European? Alas, we shall perhaps never know.
But the real delight in the film is 13 year old Gladys Hulette. As Puck she is charming, playful, and delightfully naughty. It’s a star-making performance, and indeed she did graduate to a rather successful leading lady career in silent film, although most of her body of work has unfortunately been lost to time and bad storage techniques. In point of fact, no complete version of this film is known to exist, with most available versions cut off about a minute or so too soon, ending on Bottom telling the wild tale of his night of romance with the fairy queen while stuck with a jackass’s head. Hopefully, a more complete version will turn up in somebody’s basement or attic – I’m just dying to know how the story turns out.
Sir Frank Benson’s 1911 film of Richard III, which he starred in as well as directed, was one of a series of filmed performances of Shakespeare’s plays that included Julius Caesar, The Taming of the Shrew, and Macbeth, though the rest of these films seem to have been lost to the sands of time. It’s a shame, because this film is well-acted and easy to follow, thanks to concise intertitles that even retain choice quotes from the play’s text to embellish the action on screen. Of particular note is the interesting handling of Richard’s bad dream the night before the fateful Battle of Bosworth Field, where he is tormented by the ghosts of those he has murdered, thanks to his guilty conscience and the magic of some decent special effects.
Though this is far from being a complete presentation of the play, clocking in at less than half an hour, the longer running time does allow for a few narrative flourishes and more engaging set pieces than the shorter films that preceded it, giving the whole affair what must have seemed at the time a bit of an epic flair.
Sadly, we’ll never know what silent Shakespearian gems we’re missing out on, as so many have been lost or destroyed, as it is with far too many of the movies from film’s infancy – an estimated 90% of films made before 1929 are forever lost to us. But what survives gives us an interesting insight into the early days of cinema, when artists struggled against the limitations of the technology available to them to deliver some dazzling entertainment to the public.