As You Like It (1936)

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.

Laurence Olivier with Elisabeth Bergner and Sophie Stewart

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.

One of the original posters highlighting Bergner

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.

A poster from the rerelease with Olivier’s name now prominent

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12 thoughts on “As You Like It (1936)

  1. Judy, I do know this version well, and lamentably must concur with you on the issues with the otherwise talented Elisabeth Bergmer’s performance. This is a serviceable film, and Olivier is wonderful in pre-Hamlet and Henry V form, but it wouldn’t be a favored way to introduce someone to one of the greatest comedies ever written, one that needs to be more vibrant and less mannered. I had the fortune of seeing a fine stage version just months ago in Manhattan, and I di think the Branagh version has much to recommend, even with the odd Japanese scenery and extensive cutting.

    It’s interesting, but I hadn’t realized that this was the absolute first British Shakespeare film of the sound era. That Max Reinhardt connection is most interesting, as is this entire engaging post!

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    • Thanks for your thoughts on this one, Sam – I’m planning to watch the Branagh version again in the next few days. I do agree this wouldn’t be a good introduction to this play for anyone who hadn’t already read it or seen it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen ‘As You Like It’ on stage, sadly, though I hope to do so in the future. I will be seeing an outdoor production of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ next week.

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  2. Since people do Shakespeare regularly, we can compare old and newer films. It seems to me people do Shakespeare more naturalistically than they once did, and some of these older films just don’t “work” any more because we’re not used to the older high artifice or stylization and fancy costumes don’t go over the way they once did. We like our Shakespeare franker too — I saw the tailend of the David Tenant and Patrick Stewart Hamlet (picture on your other blog) and liked it much — it exemplifies what I mean when compared to this Olivier’s. Ellen

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    • Interesting, Ellen – I do agree that the way of speaking can seem artificial in these older films, and that the greater frankness/naturalism in modern productions appeals, although I do love the way that Olivier and Gielgud speak Shakespeare’s verse. I think it is very interesting to compare the older and newer productions, and to see the plays on stage too wherever possible.I’m glad you have seen part of the Tennant and Stewart production as I did really like that one.

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  3. I loved this movie when I was a teenager. It was on a local TV station with a limited library of british films – seems I watched this film, Things to Come, and Dark Voyage every month and loved them, grainy images and all. I rented As You Like it on DVD a couple years ago and couldn’t watch it due to Bergner’s thick accent.

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    • Thanks for commenting, Muriel. Sorry to hear the movie didn’t live up to your teenage memories – must say I’ve found the same with some favourite movies or TV shows from my youth that I’ve gone back to years later, too.

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  7. Thank you for the review–I was not aware of this film and will seek it out eagerly! (As it is a British film, I am sure the costumes will actually be setting-appropriate (REALLY, Adrian) and there’s nothing *quite* like a young Larry Olivier … :)

    Have fun on your holiday and be sure to share your Stratford-Upon-Avon photos on your blog!

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    • Thanks, Kitty – I’m not a very good photographer but will see what I can do! Since you’re a fellow fan of Olivier I think you’ll find the film worth seeing, though it definitely isn’t the best version of ‘As You Like It’ and isn’t up there with Olivier’s other Shakespearean roles. Will be interested to hear what you think of the costumes in this – I quite liked them.

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