Silent Shakespeare (1899-1911)

Directors: W.K.L. Dickson, Percy Stow, Charles Kent, Gerolamo Lo Savio, Frank Benson

Yeah… that plan to revitalise the blog really worked, didn’t it? I don’t know, just got more caught up in reading over the last few weeks than I did in watching anything… So I think it’s time to hit the “respectable” switch again, to see if watching (and rewatching) “good” stuff is a bit more inspiring for me, to which end I’m revisiting an old BFI compilation—seven early short screen adaptations of assorted plays by Big Bill of varying provenance—that I got on VHS over a decade ago but have belatedly upgraded to DVD… I presume the disc actually comes from that tape master, but it’s had a commentary added to it, which is quite useful; certainly I have a bit better understanding of quite why Frank Benson’s Richard III is as dull as it is…

Anyway, I use the word “respectable” advisedly, as the notion of respectability is basically what motivated the production of most if not all of the films on offer here; certainly British Mutoscope, who made the 1899 scene from King John, had apparently caused a minor moral panic with a film they’d made earlier in 1899 and supposedly decided Shakespeare was the easiest way of making themselves look good. Similarly, the Italian productions of King Lear and The Merchant of Venice came from Film d’Arte Italiana, whose raison d’etre (or whatever the Italian for “raison d’etre” is) was to follow the model of the French Film d’Art company, i.e. literary quality over slapstick populism.

The DVD makes for an interesting historical survey, since, for one thing, there’s the whole notion of how the hell do you make a silent film of a Shakespeare play in the first place; when the language is what matters, how do you compensate for its absence? (Notable that the Benson film was the only one to actually use any direct quotes from Big Bill in its intertitles.) And, more to the point, how do you condense plays of that length into a single reel of film? Answer: with varying degrees of difficulty and intelligibility; I have to say in watching these films I fared best with the ones I already had some familiarity with, and I imagine anyone unfamiliar with the originals would have a hard time working them out. Mind you, I also imagine that a hundred-plus years ago, more people would be familiar with Shakespeare as a matter of course than would be the case now…

Also, there’s this interesting tension between theatrical tradition and the new technology of cinema, which is illustrated clearest in the three British films, two of which were based on actual current theatrical productions. The 1899 King John scene is obviously primitive, just a straight recording of a bit of Herbert Beerbohm Tree’s stage version; what’s remarkable is that Benson’s Richard III displays bugger all real progress (apart from its obviously greater length and one nice bit of crossfading) in technical terms; it’s fixed cameras, long takes and single-shot scenes—and it arguably takes a step back from Tree, who at least relocated his sets to an actual studio; Benson filmed his production in an actual theatre (utilising not only his whole stage cast but also scenery backdrops he’d been using since the mid-1880s). Cue decades of sneering at British “cinema”…

Percy Stow’s Tempest presents an interesting mix of both old and new, in that it relies upon studio sets in part but also makes good use of actual locations too, plus a few neat instances of stop motion and other effects Méliès might’ve done. (Also an honest to goodness bit of camera movement.) The Italian Merchant similarly benefits from having been partly filmed in Venice itself. The two American films also represent compromises of a sort albeit in different fashion; Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night both have nice location work going on (particularly the former), but both were directed by Charles Kent, who was by that time a relatively grand old man of English theatre imported by Vitagraph to lead some of their more “prestige” films; these aren’t based upon theatrical productions, but there’s still that sort of background to them. Again, the whole thing about respectability and being culturally improving.

These seven films have travelled through the decades to us in somewhat battered form (indeed, the scene from King John apparently only reappeared in the early 90s, and we still don’t have the three other scenes of it). The commentary notes that what appears to be an amusing stop-motion jump cut in MND actually marks a point where a substantial bit of footage is lost (apparently that camera didn’t even move between breaks to set up new scenes, let alone within those scenes). And lovely though the stencil colouring of the Italian films is, Lear is a bit blighted by having to replace some bits with footage from a non-coloured print, and Merchant is riddled with jumps created by missing frames as well. Still, better to have them imperfect as not have them at all; Silent Shakespeare is the sort of thing where you probably need to have a certain historical interest in it, but it’s the sort of sideline of the past I like going down every now and then.

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