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.
I don’t have anything against her, you understand. Certainly not the blazing hatred that burns in my heart for Barbara Streisand.
And truth to tell, I like a lot of movies that Bette Midler happens to be in: Ruthless People, Outrageous Fortune… Hell, where Hocus Pocus is concerned I can’t even drink anything when it’s on because Kathy Najimy makes me snork it through my nose. Even Sarah Jessica Parker makes me chuckle uncontrollably in that one (and when in the last 20 years could you say that about her, unrelated to something completely ridiculous she was wearing on “Sex and the City”?).
But Bette… I mean, I know everybody just loves Bette, but… awww, shucks, she just doesn’t do it for me. Lily Tomlin is just more my cup of tea. She’s great in everything. I mean, everything. Miss Frizzle, amirite? That episode of “Homicide” she did? And have you even seen “Web Therapy“? Spoiler alert: You should.
There’s this marvelous little farce from 1988 with the infuriatingly generic title Big Business, a modernization of Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, starring Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin as two sets of identical twins who, through a chance encounter, are mismatched at birth and go on to live with wildly opposite sets of parents, and who, through another incredible twist of fate, wind up both being named Rose and Sadie. One set grows up in the care of a wealthy titan of industry, ultimately settling in New York City; the other set grows up with dirt-poor farmers and lives in a nowhere country town, but each one of the misplaced twins feels, somehow, that they are missing out on something essential in their lives. They won’t know for certain, however, until circumstances conspire to have the two sets of twins encounter each other again 40 years later, setting into motion an absurd variety of mistaken identities, slapstick misunderstandings, romantic entanglements, and social calamities.
This is the movie where I ‘get’ the thing about Bette Milder being charming and funny and such, because it’s not really a great movie, but it is still hilarious watching her play the sarcastic high-powered bloodsucking corporate executive Sadie Shelton versus Sadie Ratliff, the wide-eyed country bumpkin with aspirations of citified “Dynasty”-style glamour and sophistication. Of course, it’s a given that Lily Tomlin is fabulous both as Rose Ratliff, a hard-nosed hayseed activist determined to save her hometown from the ravages of corporate shenanigans, and her big-city counterpart, the flighty, compassionate, lovelorn Rose Shelton. There’s a fantastic group of actors backing them up – Fred Ward, Michael Gross, Michele Placido, and Barry Primus make up a quartet of mix-n-match love interests, a young Seth Green runs riot as a Rambo-obsessed brat, and great comedy character actors like Roy Brocksmith and Edward Herrmann fill out the supporting cast.
Let me be clear. Loose reworking of The Comedy of Errors or not, this ain’t Shakespeare. This ain’t even 9 to 5. There’s a lot of stale jokes that would set the movie firmly in dud territory if they had to survive on their own merits. There’s a lot of contrived situations that you just have to see coming a mile off – when city Sadie, for example, starts getting romantic and racy with an Italian businessman, is there any doubt that the poor fellow will encounter innocent country Sadie minutes later and wind up utterly confused? Of course not. And look – if country Rose had stepped out of that hotel room just two seconds sooner, she would have totally bumped right into city Rose, which would have been hilarious, because think about it! TWO of them! Oh, how we laughed!
Yeah, it’s all pretty thin, resting entirely on the ability of the two lead actresses to pump enough life and personality into it to carry it off. So I guess it’s a good thing that they didn’t get Shelley Long and Sally Kellerman. But at the end of the day, this is a rather congenial and inoffensive comedy of the type that they used to make all the time in the heyday of cable tv, until the mid-nineties or so, when somebody somewhere decided at the dawn of the internet age that silly little comedies needed to become grosser and raunchier, and suddenly there was no more room, or money, for movies like Moving Violations or Feds – remember Feds?