Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Shakespeare

Richard III (Kino Video DVD, 1912, 2001)

richardIII-kinoDVDWorldcat Link: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/49274041

I recently reviewed the feature-length film, but I wanted to also post a few words about the DVD. I bought my copy direct from Kino Video, but it appears that quite a few libraries still carry it, for those interested in pursuing Interlibrary Loan.

Unlike many of the DVDs I’ve reviewed, this is not a collection, but simply a single film released as a DVD with some features. I wish they had managed to include a few other short samples of silent Shakespeare movies, but there are some compensating features. The case is attractive and includes all the basic information you need, and there is a one-page insert with the chapter list on one side, and a brief essay by Douglas Brode explaining the significance of the film on the other. The disc includes a seventeen-minute documentary discussing the preservation and discovery of “Richard III,” a bit of history of Shakespeare on the silent and talkie screen, and some of the available production information about this film. There is also a reproduction of a short (written) interview with Frederick Warde on the disc, which, for once, I was able to read on my screen. I still wish they had reproduced this text in a booklet instead of digitally, but it works.

The movie itself is nicely preserved and restored, with tinting clear and visible, and many good sharp images. Perhaps the biggest feature is the new score, by Ennio Morricone, the fellow who gave us the unforgettable music from “The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly,” and many other great films. Morricone took the movie very seriously, and adds a decidedly dark tone, even to scenes where the ominous situation might not be clear to the audience. Often, he anticipates events, as when Richard visits the aging king in his cell. The actors give no sign of the danger this brings, but the score clearly highlights it from the moment Richard enters the Tower. Some may find this heavy-handed, but I thought that Morricone’s score added greatly to the experience. Richard III is a dark play, after all, and his score keeps that as a focus, where many silent film scores will lapse into jaunty rhythms unexpectedly, disturbing the mood of a movie.

Richard III (1912)

Richard_III_1912_PosterMy 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.

See how my sword weeps for the poor king's death!

See how my sword weeps for the poor king’s death!

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.

Was ever woman in this humor wooed? Was ever woman in this humor won?

Was ever woman in this humor wooed? Was ever woman in this humor won?

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.

Will you enforce me to a world of cares?

Will you enforce me to a world of cares?

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.

A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!

A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!

Directors: James Keane, André Calmettes

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Frederick Warde, James Keane, George Moss, Carey Lee

Run Time: 59 Min

I have not found this movie for free online. If you do, please let me know in the comments.

Silent Shakespeare (1899-1911, 2000)


For the Bard’s birthday, I thought I’d review this collection, but it’s a little tricky because I already reviewed all of the movies it includes. Unfortunately, there are no special features or commentaries for me to discuss, so all I can say is that if you’d like to see a collection of very early film adaptations of Shakespeare all in one place: here it is. I can also mention the music, by Laura Rossi, which is subtle and appropriate to each film, although not what original audiences would have heard (it was composed for the DVD). I was a bit surprised, based on the title, that the most recent film on here was from 1911. That’s appropriate for this project, which only goes up to 1914 (for now), but I’d have thought that there were other, probably bigger, adaptations of Shakespeare in the “Classical Silent” period. Possibly they limited themselves for reasons of access and copyright, and perhaps a new collection with more recent movies will be forthcoming one of these years.

Worldcat link: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/44478627

Richard III (1911)

Richard III

My favorite Shakespeare play gets the silent film treatment in this series of 13 scenes or vignettes, which actually begin with the end of the previous play, Henry VI, Part 3. It stars Frank R. Benson as history’s greatest villain, and he also directed. Each scene is given a brief forward-facing intertitle to tell you what the action will be, and is also preceded by a brief quote from Shakespeare – thus giving us at least some of the traditional dialogue. Viewers familiar with the play will catch certain things that aren’t explained in the intertitles, for example why Richard gestures oddly with his left arm in the scene before Hastings is taken away to be executed, or why Buckingham becomes upset at Richard’s coronation. The production is British and they take advantage of good quality set design and centuries of experience staging Shakespeare to produce a quite acceptable silent version, although of course it is less satisfying than seeing it performed with dialogue. I especially missed the subtlety of the opening monologue and the banter between the hired murderers. I particularly liked the scene of Richard tormented by his conscience in the night before battle with Richmond: simple in-camera effects allowed each of his victims to appear before him in spirit-form.

Directed by: Frank R. Benson

Starring: Frank R. Benson

Run Time: 23 Min

You can watch part of it for free: here. (I was unable to find it complete. If you can, let me know!)

Merchant of Venice (1910)

Merchant of Venice

This is another Italian adaptation of Shakespeare, by the same director who gave us “King Lear” a little while before. This makes sense as an adaptation, since the story is clearly set in Italy, but unfortunately the version we have is incomplete, so it’s hard to rate its success. It feels a bit rushed and overly-ambitious, introducing many characters and showing sub-plots that wind up unresolved. It’s another nice hand-tinted color print, and Lo Savio has taken advantage of some good locations for backdrops to the action. “The Merchant of Venice” is today probably Shakespeare’s most controversial play, sometimes invoking calls for censorship, because its villain is a Jew, who is made to represent all Jews in his greed and inhumanity. In 1910 this would likely have been a lesser consideration, in Italy and most of the continent, however what we have of this version seems to downplay the anti-Semtic theme, making Shylock a victim of his own duplicity rather than a representative of a race or religion. He is, however, trapped at the end by a law prohibiting Jews from spilling “Christian” blood, so an element of the original remains. On the whole, this movie comes across as less successful than the last couple I have discussed, but as I say it may be because of missing footage.

Director: Gerolamo Lo Savio

Run Time: 19 Min (original), 8-9 Min (surviving)

You can watch it for free: here.

Twelfth Night (1910)

Twelfth Night

This Shakespeare play remains a popular film subject, with its themes of gender confusion and romantic frustration, blended into a safe, comedic resolution. This was its first known film rendering, and it suggests that by 1910 we are moving into a different context for silent film adaptations of classical works. This time, we get a recognized “star” in the lead: Florence Turner, who would be in hundreds of movies during her career, and had appeared as Titania in the earlier “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Moreover, this is the first effort I’ve seen to preserve some of the Shakespearean dialogue by placing it into intertitles, about halfway through the film. This movie also generally preserves the full storyline, although it is much shortened to a length of twelve minutes, and the titles give enough information for an audience with no prior knowledge of the play to follow along. One gets the sense that, rather than simply giving a vignette or snippet of the Bard, it was the director’s hope here to actually render the play in the new medium of film. By modern standards, it may be only marginally successful, but it still seems like a sophisticated use of the technology to present something complete in itself.

Director: Charles Kent

Starring: Florence Turner

Run Time: 12 Min 27 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.

King Lear (1910)

King Lear

One of the interesting things about silent movies is how readily they adapt subject matter across cultures. This is the first Shakespeare film I’ve talked about from a non-anglophone country, but since the emphasis is not on dialogue, there’s no sense of anything “lost in translation” between English and Italian. It also is the first film I’ve discussed which includes some hand-painted scenes and some tinting, so, in effect, a color film. There were many color film experiments in the silent era, and some studios employed large numbers of low-paid painters to apply color to movie strips by hand. The effect, when done well (as it is here) is striking and somewhat ethereal, since the hand-painting varies slightly from frame to frame. In terms of telling the story of King Lear and his daughters, I found some of the choices here interesting. The good daughter, Cordelia, is portrayed in the opening as somewhat taciturn, maybe even dour, and one can understand Lear’s preferring his more vivacious-seeming daughters. They also spend a good deal of time on a setup in which Lear compares his unfeeling daughters’ hearts to a stone, which it seemed to me might have been better blended with the previous scene of their betrayal, since all the actor has to do is talk to his servants, where a confrontation with his daughters would have been more visually interesting. There is no attempt to add a happy ending, and this comes off as the most “adult” or sophisticated century Shakespeare thus far.

Director: Gerolamo Lo Savio

Run time: 16 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1909)


This is the first American attempt to interpret Shakespeare that I know about. Unlike the ambitious British efforts I’ve reviewed before, they took Shakespeare’s lightest, most accessible comedy, and gave it a child-friendly treatment. At just over 11 minutes long, it doesn’t get into a lot of the plot complications, and there’s no effort at all to utilize Shakespearean language for the intertitles. Each scene begins with a forward-facing intertitle to tell the audience how to interpret the action, albeit the first one that sets the action is rather complicated (as is the plot of the play, if you think about it). The static camera frames everything in long-shots, and most of the characters are hard to tell apart, although Bottom is quite memorable and over-the-top, as he should be (he also has about the least convincing ass’s head I’ve ever seen). Puck, the fairie, gets most of the effects (and also the skimpiest outfit), which are generally simple appearances and disappearances, with one flying scene that reminded me of “The Dream of a Rarebit Fiend.” Again, I’m inclined to read this as being intended for an audience that was either already familiar with the play, or as an introduction for younger viewers that showed them the light side of Shakespeare without the heavy language.

Directed by: Charles Kent, J. Stuart Blackton

Starring: Willaim V. Ranous, Maurice Costello

Run Time: 11 Minutes

You can watch it for free: here (silent) or here (with music)

The Tempest (1908)


This short attempt to bring the Bard to the screen is rather more ambitious than the previous decade’s “King John.” It not only attempts to tell the complete story of one of Shakespeare’s most fantasy-filled stories in only twelve minutes, it even attempts to backfill the story for the audience by going back to Prospero’s arrival on his island, the taming of Caliban and the discovery of Ariel. Each scene is told in a single intertitle followed by a brief period of action, ranging from a few seconds to perhaps two minutes. Magical effects are managed, as per the works of Georges Méliès, by in-camera trickery. This may be the most Méliès-like version of Shakespeare I’ve seen, although there is a seriousness of tone and slowness of pace in comparison to his better-known works. It seems to have been intended for an audience that was familiar with the story; I find it hard to believe that people would follow the subplots of Antonio and Caliban based on what we see here (unless some of it is missing), but it does have a child-like quality that suggests that perhaps it was intended as a way for parents to bring their children to see Shakespeare in shortened version, before submitting them to an entire performance.

Director: Percy Stow

Run Time: 12 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

King John (1899)

King John

This is the first known example of an adaptation of Shakespeare’s work to moving pictures. It is, of course, silent, and so doesn’t do much justice to the brilliant dialogue of the Bard. It exists today in a two-minute clip from what was probably a rather longer film. Watching it is sort of like looking at an artist’s interpretation of Shakespeare on canvas, or like the above illustration. If you’re familiar with the play, it is a sort of snapshot of a key scene, but it isn’t really a reenactment of the play. It was produced through the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company, an affiliate of the US Biograph studio.


Directed by: WKL Dickson & Walter Pfeffer Dando

Starring: Herbert Beerbohm Tree

Run Time: 2 min.

You Can Watch it for Free: Here