This is my contribution to the Great Villain Blogathon, hosted by the Silver Screenings, Shadows & Satin and Speakeasy blogs. Please do visit and read the great range of postings for this event.
For millions who were never lucky enough to see Laurence Olivier play Shakespeare on stage, the nearest we can come is to watch his films of the Bard’s works. My favourite out of his Shakespearean roles is undoubtedly Hamlet – and I’m clearly not the only one, as my review of that film is far and away the most popular posting ever on this blog. (It’s had nearly twice as many hits as the second on the list, which is my own small testament to the power of Olivier’s performance.)
But Olivier didn’t just take on the role of Shakespeare’s most beloved tragic hero. In Richard III, he also relished playing his villain of villains. To be honest, at first while watching this I found the outrageously over-the-top quality of his portrayal a bit hard to take – as he struts, sneers and shouts and is always many times larger than life. He towers over the rest of the cast just as his own misshapen, spidery shadow looms over him, and his mannered speaking sits uneasily with the more naturalistic speech used by most of the other actors.
After watching a great production of Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part I at the Globe Theatre in London this autumn (sadly I didn’t make it to Part II), I was keen to see Orson Welles’ take on Falstaff, Chimes at Midnight. This film is less well-known than Welles’ other Shakespearean movies, and, for complicated reasons of copyright, until this month was only available on Spanish and Brazilian DVDs. I watched it on a Spanish DVD which I borrowed from a friend, with subtitles, which can easily be removed, and a good-quality picture. I have now heard that it has just been issued on a UK DVD as an exclusive from the HMV stores and website – I haven’t as yet heard from anyone who has bought this release and do not know what the quality is like, but a couple of people have suggested it is best to be cautious.
It’s a shame this film is so little-known, because it is excellent, with a towering performance by Welles as Falstaff dominating throughout. Just under two hours long, it brings together Falstaff’s main scenes from both the Henry IV plays, and the account of his death from Henry V. This works extremely well – I didn’t spot the joins and as far as I could tell most of the greatest scenes and speeches from Part I seemed to be intact, although it would have been nice to have a bit more of Henry Percy (Norman Rodway). I have a feeling that rather more of Part II has been cut, but it doesn’t feel rushed. And all the dialogue is taken from Shakespeare’s text, with just a couple of brief pieces of bridging narration by Ralph Richardson.
The last Shakespeare production I wrote about was Orson Welles’ moody take on Macbeth. George Cukor’s movie of Romeo and Juliet was made only 12 years earlier, but seems to belong to another world. Where Welles’ Poverty Row film looks rough around the edges, Cukor’s gives the Bard the full gleaming Hollywood treatment. MGM under Irving Thalberg poured two million dollars into this production, with half of that spent on building an ambitious replica of Verona on a backlot, while the budget also ran to enormous crowds of extras. Kenneth S Rothwell’s book Shakespeare on Screen, which I’m finding invaluable for background on these older adaptations, recounts how the studio did even consider filming in Verona itself before deciding against.
Given the lavish feeling of the whole production, it’s quite surprising MGM didn’t go for Technicolor. Instead, they stuck to black and white, but the emphasis is very much on the white, with many scenes shot in brilliant sunlight, and Norma Shearer as Juliet dressed in a succession of flowing white gowns by Adrian – a long way from Welles’ cardboard crowns. At times I must admit I find the sheer glossiness of it all a bit much, and the opening shot of Shearer feeding a pet deer in a jewelled collar, as orchestral themes from Tchaikovsky swell in the background, reminded me of Disney. (Snow White was released the following year.)
I’ve been meaning to write some more postings about Shakespeare films I’ve seen, but haven’t got round to it and my memories of some of them are starting to fade, so I’m going to do some brief capsule reviews instead of my usual epics – I’m looking to write more frequent and shorter postings anyway, although I’m sure I will continue to write at length occasionally!
The one I saw most recently was Orson Welles’ Macbeth (1948), which I had recorded from TV, and found much more impressive than I’d expected to after seeing some lukewarm and downright scathing reviews. Released the same year as Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, but with a much smaller budget, this production was very much overshadowed by Olivier’s big-budget Oscar-winner – but I’d say there are a lot of similarities between the two, as they both use minimalist sets and atmospheric lighting with a lot of darkness and shadows. Welles’ production is said to be influenced by German expressionism, and also has some weird camera angles.
They also both feature towering central performances by the actor-director – Welles might have a cheap and tacky-looking costume, but his speaking of Shakespeare’s verse is still great, and he completely overshadows all the other actors, including radio actress Jeanette Nolan as Lady Macbeth.
There’s a good background account of the making of this Macbeth in Kenneth S Rothwell’s book Shakespeare on Screen, where he recounts how the Poverty Row studio which released this film, Republic Pictures, made some hefty cuts before release and also forced Welles to rerecord the dialogue, which had originally been done with Scottish accents. The film has now been restored, with the cut footage added back in and the Scottish dialogue restored – I’d have to say the Scottish accents sound a bit unconvincing, but they definitely go with the wild, dark and bleak landscapes of this version.
The real problem with the dialogue, though, is that it was recorded separately, with the actors mouthing their dialogue on camera to go with the soundtrack. Rothwell suggests this method of production shows the influence of Welles’ background in radio. In any case, it didn’t quite work and a lot of the dialogue is noticeably out of synch. I was interested to read that some elements from Welles’ earlier touring stage production of Macbeth with an all-black cast, set in Haiti, have been included, such as the voodoo doll with Macbeth’s head – there is a clip of the ending of the stage version on Youtube, which is very striking and makes me wish it was possible to watch and compare the whole production.
I’m not going to say a lot about this film, but, as part of my mini-Shakespeare season, just wanted briefly to record that I’ve re-watched the Olivier Hamlet andenjoyed it very much – it is much better than his first Shakespearean film role in As You Like It. The fact that he was director as well as the star makes a lot of difference.
One problem in looking back at this film now is that, as it was so influential, some of the decisions which Olivier made as director have now become things we take for granted, such as pointing up the Oedipal aspects of the relationship between Hamlet and Gertrude with the scene where he remonstrates with her on a bed – Kenneth S Rothwell’s book A History of Shakespeare on Screen points out that Olivier had recently played Oedipus on stage.
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.
I just posted this to my other blog on costume dramas, but thought I’d copy it here too as the two blogs mainly have different readerships… so apologies to the couple of people seeing it twice. Shakespeare is on my mind at the moment as next month I’ll be going on holiday to the Cotswolds and visiting Stratford upon Avon – and seeing an RSC production of The Winter’s Tale while I’m there. I was supposed to see an open-air forest production of the same play last year but we couldn’t go as my husband had (suspected) swine flu, so it will be good to see it this year instead.:)
Anyway, I was just thinking it would be nice to watch some Shakespeare productions on film to get me in the mood before going and I’ll probably write (hopefully short) pieces about anything I watch. On my other blog I mentioned that I liked the recent RSC production of Hamlet starring David Tennant, but since this one is more geared to older movies I’ll mention here that I also love the classic version with Laurence Olivier. Does anyone have any other older (or new) Shakespeare productions to recommend?