I’m having a short Shakespeare season on both my blogs, as I’ll soon be visiting Stratford upon Avon. And what better place to start than with Laurence Olivier? This production of As You Like It was the first time he had played a Shakespearean role on film – and it was also the first Shakespeare film to be made in Britain in the sound era, so very interesting to see from both those points of view.
Unfortunately, the DVD I picked up a while back, produced by AG Plate, isn’t of great quality – really I should have smelt a rat by spotting that the cover picture appears to be of Olivier in Hamlet, complete with blond hair. The print does not appear to be restored or remastered and there is background noise and a poor picture at the beginning, although the quality of both sound and picture improves later. However, there is now a new digitally remastered DVD in region 2, produced by Simply Media, with a lovely shot of Olivier and Elisabeth Bergner on the cover – and there is also a rather pricier region 1 version.
Elisabeth Bergner was originally the top-billed star, and I’ve read that she asked her husband, the film’s director Paul Czinner, to cast Olivier opposite her as Orlando. However, when the film was re-released in 1949, Olivier had achieved stardom and “Sir Laurence Olivier” was the name in big letters on the posters.
Bergner was born in Austria-Hungary, and had given acclaimed performances as Rosalind in Max Reinhardt’s productions of Shakespeare in Germany – I was interested to see this connection, since the gauzy, ethereal costumes and forest sets in this production do have a similar flavour at times to those in Reinhardt’s 1935 Hollywood production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, though the acting styles are very different. J M Barrie adapted the play for this film version, cutting quite a lot out, and is prominently credited, but it has been a while since I read the full text so I didn’t immediately notice what was missing – in any case it seems to flow very well.
I’m sure Bergner must have been great in the role on the German stage, before she and Czinner, who were both Jewish, moved to Britain after Hitler came to power. She is beautiful and does have a lot of vivacity and charm which come across in the film – and she is a fine actress, who had an Oscar nomination for a role the previous year. But unfortunately her strong accent often makes it difficult to understand her lines, and this came in for criticism at the time. At least she is a lot livelier than some of the other actors, who sound rather stilted to a modern ear. However, Olivier is wonderful at speaking Shakespeare’s poetry, as he always was, of course. I also like the performance by John Laurie of Dad’s Army fame, who went on to star with Olivier in several other Shakespearean films, as Orlando’s older brother Oliver.
Despite being only 96 minutes, I felt the production dragged at times – but I still mainly enjoyed it and am glad to have seen it. Now I look forward to comparing the recent Kenneth Branagh version.