*. Richard III is Shakespeare’s second-longest play after Hamlet (the longest if you only compare the Folio versions), and it’s usually cut pretty severely in production. But to do it all in 20 minutes? That takes a lot of hustle.
*. What makes it even more constrained is the way the story begins here with Richard killing Henry VI, which is something that I think was introduced by Colley Cibber in his 1699 adaptation. It’s how David Garrick performed the play as well in the eighteenth century, but aside from the 1912 film version starring Frederick Warde I don’t know of any other productions that have followed this lead.
*. But I actually like starting things off this way. It provides some necessary background that Shakespeare’s own audience might have had in mind based on the earlier trilogy of Henry VI plays. You might compare it to someone trying to jump into a later entry of the Marvel Cinematic Universe without knowing anything about what had gone before.
*. Despite Richard III being a very theatrical performance piece, I’ve always had difficulties with there being so many characters and so much historical material to get through. How do you keep all the widows and their grievances straight, and the different court parties and players like Buckingham and Hastings and Catesby and Ratcliffe? I have a lot of trouble following the political maneuvers no matter how well I know the story or how many times I’ve seen or read the play.
*. But the intro helps, both here and in the 1912 version. After killing Henry the film takes us through all the big scenes: Richard wooing Anne, Clarence being killed (though both here and in 1912 they pass on trying to represent his prophetic dream, and neither has a butt of Malmsey standing around), the murder of the Princes in the Tower (only described in the play, but unavoidable on screen), Richard being upbraided by the mourning women, and finally Richard’s night of bad dreams before the battle of Bosworth (with Richmond’s dreams, as usual, elided).
*. Those are the highlights, and they play well even if it’s impossible for anyone not versed in the history of the period to know exactly what’s going on. Richard is the connecting thread, even though he only indirectly causes most of the action, for example ordering the murders of Clarence and the princes instead of doing it himself. This is another way presenting his murder of Henry at the beginning of the film helps underline his malignity even more. It won’t do for us to think he doesn’t want to get his hands dirty himself. He has to be shown enjoying that side of things.
*. Frank Benson directs and stars as Richard (with little evidence of deformity). Benson was a celebrated actor-manager with his own theatre company, specializing in Shakespeare. This Richard III, however, is the only film that survives of one of his productions.
*. It’s a remarkably clean print, but much as I enjoy Benson’s performance I don’t think he was much of a film director. This is very much a filmed play. The camera stays in position, which is right in front of the stage. And it’s obviously a stage, with painted backdrops and a rug pulled over the clearly evident floorboards even when we’re supposed to be outdoors.
*. That’s fine, and no different from what a lot of filmed plays looked like at this time. What’s more disappointing is how often Benson fails to frame a scene properly, having the main action occurring to either side. On stage this works because the audience is all around, but in a movie like this there is only one point of view. I’m not sure Benson really understood this.
*. So an interesting historical artefact with an excellent lead performance. Just the next year, however, Richard III would truly jump onto the big screen in a production that would make this seem old fashioned even for its time.