My closest friends know that I’ve recently become a fan of “Good Tickle Brain,” a web-comic/blog done by a fellow librarian in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Her particular obsession isn’t early/silent film, however, it’s Shakespeare, and she draws wonderful versions of the canonical plays using stick figures. Reading it got me excited to watch another silent version of Shakespeare, this time a version of my personal favorite play, the one which serves as the model for all super-villains and baddies, Richard III. It’s been my favorite ever since the Ian McKellen version hit the theaters in the early 90s.
In this version, the movie begins with its star, Frederick Warde, out of costume, standing before a curtain and bowing, to give the full sense of a theatrical experience. There is then a fairly lengthy Dramatis Personae, which was very rare (almost unheard-of) in 1912. The movie actually begins by re-capping some of the action from 3 Henry VI, in which the Lancasters are overthrown and the new Yorkist dynasty taking their place. Richard goes to the cell holding the previous king and stabs him, then steps out to wave as his brother Edward marches into town, and goes back in to stab the dead king a few more times so we know he’s bad. Richard then intercepts Anne, the widow of Henry’s son (also killed by Richard), on the way to the funeral and coerces her into marrying him. Once Edward is installed as king, Richard forges evidence that his other brother Clarence is plotting to kill Edward’s children, then hires some murderers to kill Clarence in the Tower of London. The strain of being responsible for his brother’s death does Edward in, and now the young princes are called in and Richard is made Lord Protector. He sends his crony Buckingham into the city to stir up support and a multitude of citizens show up at Richard’s gate, demanding that he accept the crown. He pretends to be reluctant, but accepts. After his installment, he has the princes arrested and put in the Tower, then sends the same murderers to snuff them out. Meanwhile, he kills his own wife and tries to woo Elizabeth, the young daughter of Edward (so, Richard’s niece, actually), whose brothers he just had killed. Her mom puts a stop to that by writing to the heroic Richmond (played by co-director James Keane), and asking him to bring an army to overthrow the “tyrant” Richard. They show up, most of Richard’s friends abandon him and he loses the battle. England, presumably, becomes a happier place henceforth. The movie closes as the star once again bows at the end.
This movie, which is reportedly the oldest completely surviving American feature-length film, was obviously intended to be a “prestige picture” in a time when most “flickers” were looked down on as inferior art if art at all, and many production companies were more concerned about grinding out numerous short films than in making quality cinema. Its star apparently had hoped that the movie would be such a hit that he could work on making movies for the rest of his career, and not have to appear on stage every night, or tour around the country with productions. It didn’t quite work out that way, because he was called on by the studio to travel with the film and offer some narration and readings from the play for the audiences who went to see it. This movie doesn’t seem to have had the impact that “Birth of a Nation” would have a few years later in terms of people praising it as a cultural success or new direction in filmmaking. My guess is that it didn’t turn make a big enough profit to keep the company making features and hiring big-name actors. Warde himself did appear in a 1916 movie production of “King Lear,” so this wasn’t the death of his career, but it doesn’t seem to have launched anything big right away.
As I said, this is based on my favorite Shakespeare play, so I was probably predisposed to like it no matter what. I did have one major pet peeve, which no one else would probably care about: they changed Richard from “Duke of Gloucester” to “Duke of Gloster,” in the Intertitles, probably to make it more phonetic to a mass audience. It’s reasonably technically advanced for 1912, including camera pans, interesting angles, and relatively fast-paced editing. There are no close-ups at all, and the majority of shots are in long shots that show the actors’ full bodies, sometimes cutting off their feet. Edits within scenes only happen when a character moves from one room to another (as in the killing of Henry VI, or the scene where Richard accepts the crown). There is tinting used to establish mood and time of day. I found the angles of the sets somewhat interesting, especially within the Tower of London, where I would even say that the walls anticipated the Expressionism of a decade later. Unlike many American films, but more typical of the French, the camera was often at a 30-45 degree angle to the walls, but apparently one of the directors called in for this movie was from France, so that may explain the style. Some parts of the play are cut (which is almost always the case with Shakespeare) and there are times when it would be hard to follow without knowing the play. For example, the Intertitles inform us that Richard refuses to pay Buckingham for his assistance, but what we see is Richard getting mad at Buckingham – from the context of the play I know that’s because Buckingham refuses to condone the murder of the princes, but an audience without that knowledge would be lost. Still, given the limitations of trying to perform Shakespeare without dialogue, I’d rate this a pretty good effort, one that I’m glad still survives.
Directors: James Keane, André Calmettes
Run Time: 59 Min
I have not found this movie for free online. If you do, please let me know in the comments.