Richard III (1912)

*. I made a lot of comparisons to this film in my notes on Frank Benson’s 1911 adaptation of Richard III. Some of these had to do with the way both films start out with showing us Richard murdering Henry VI, which isn’t actually in this play (it comes at the end of Henry VI Part 3, and was introduced as a prologue to Richard III by Colley Cibber at the beginning of the eighteenth century). I think this helps make the point that Richard is a really bad guy, especially when we see him here killing Henry, then leaving to join the crowd cheering Edward’s entry into London, then going back into Henry’s cell to stab his corpse twice more before disdainfully wiping off his blade.
*. What I really love about this scene isn’t its display of pointless cruelty but the wonderful way we move from Richard killing Henry to his exiting onto the balcony to show him welcoming the glorious summer of the sun/son of York. That’s an incredibly smooth transition for 1912, and it works so well in presenting us with information necessary to the plot while underlining the theme of Richard’s public vs. private face. It’s a terrific sequence, and well ahead of its time. I can’t think of another film this early having such an effective passage achieved mainly through editing. The Birth of a Nation was still a few years away and Griffith is usually considered to be the one who really took the next big step in dramatic editing.

*. The other comparison I made between this movie and Benson’s had to do with the latter being studio-bound while this one has a number of scenes filmed in the great outdoors. There’s even a shot of Richmond’s ship arriving in England that’s a real ship with knights on board. It’s a dull shot, but still impressive. This is a production that must have cost a bit of money.
*. In fact, I’ve heard this described as the oldest surviving American feature-length film (it runs just short of an hour), and the first feature-length Shakespeare adaptation ever made. If true, that makes it an even more notable achievement. And we’re lucky to have it, as it was considered lost and only discovered in 1996.

*. Even if you don’t care about its place in history, this Richard III is still a must-see for Shakespeare fans as well as anyone interested in early film. In addition to that great transition at the beginning, note the strong diagonal in the scene where Anne holds the sword to Richard’s breast in the wooing scene. Or the later scene where she is poisoned, which seems borrowed from Fuseli’s The Nightmare. The young princes are associated with puppies and ponies and are mostly just pathetic, though the movie does manage to fit in the business, easy to miss, where they mock Richard’s deformity at court. There’s also a gloriously mustachioed Richmond that raises a smile.

*. One thing that surprises me a bit is that neither this film nor the 1911 version chose to make anything out of Clarence’s dream of drowning. I can only imagine Georges Méliès jumping at the chance to dive to the bottom of the sea, but here they don’t try to represent it at all. Given how disappointing the ghosts are it may be that the director, André Calmettes, just wasn’t that interested or confident in the use of special effects.

*. Richard is played by Frederick Warde, who is also seen in modern dress at the beginning and end. As was often done at that time, Warde would travel with the film and give lectures on the play before each screening, a practice that this is an awkward nod to. Warde, who would go on to star in a King Lear directed by his son in 1916, is quite good. He doesn’t overplay the role in the manner that was usual in silent film, even choosing to minimize Richard’s deformities. Olivier’s Richard would be more of a grotesque in 1955, which may have been closer to the Vice figure Shakespeare intended. Warde, however, is restrained.
*. Of course it’s far from a polished piece of modern filmmaking. There are a number of overly static shots, like that of the sailing ship I mentioned. The battle scenes are well performed for the time, but still very limited. Editing is sometimes used to bring us closer to the action by a step, but there’s nothing like a true close-up. But for 1912 this is as good as it gets, and I think it’s a movie that’s still worth tracking down as an essential bit of Shakespeare on film.

5 thoughts on “Richard III (1912)

    1. Alex Good Post author

      Well, not subtitles but dialogue and exposition cards to help you out. But this was back in the day when everyone had memorized every line of the text of every Shakespeare play, starting from when they were in grade school. So it was no problem for audiences to keep up.

      Reply

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