King Lear (1916)

*. Let’s talk about Goneril and Regan. Together they have about 11% of the total lines in King Lear, which ranks them alongside Edgar and Gloucester and second only to Lear himself. In other words, they’re a big part of the play. But they rarely get a lot of consideration, perhaps because they’re overshadowed by Edmund’s evil, or their own perverse lust for the same.
*. This oversight is something I’ve thought about after seeing a number of productions of King Lear, including several film versions. When you watch the play on stage, Goneril and Regan can loom even larger, while on film this can be nudged along by giving them lots of cutaways and more screen time. In several film versions I’ve seen they stand out as among the most dominant elements.
*. Which is a long way of introducing some thoughts on this early film adaptation directed by Ernest C. Warde (Ernest, who plays the Fool, was the son of Frederick Warde, who is playing Lear and who had earlier starred in a version of Richard III). As with other Lears from the silent era (and I presume on stage at the time as well) Lear looks like an Old Testament prophet, hurling his imprecations out from behind a flowing white beard. See, for example, the 1909 and 1910 adaptations. But Goneril and Regan (played here by Ina Hammer and Edith Diestel, respectively) are familiar in appearance too. They tend to look not just older than Cordelia but beefier. Maybe not masculinized, but rougher, more proletarian, in sharp contrast to Cordelia’s otherworldliness and delicacy.
*. They are a gruesome twosome who come across as less evil than hungry, in a carnal sense. In Grigori Kozintsev’s 1970 film of Lear they’d have a similar fleshiness and coarseness to go with their will to power and lechery. No need for dialogue cards or subtitles. These women are thick with animal spirits.
*. At just over an hour, I think this was the first feature-length version of King Lear, and it does end with a pretty good battle scene. So give it some marks for ambition. I also liked the way the furs, horned helmets, and drinking horns evoked a primitive Britain. No Stonehenge, but not far out of the stone age.
*. Given that is was a fairly big production I was surprised at the sloppiness of some of the dialogue cards. For example “Is queen of us” becomes “I queen of us,” and “I would speak with her” becomes “I would speak with his.” You don’t see that very often in silent films. It seems strange nobody caught such obvious mistakes. Then the line “Old fools are babes again,” which is delivered in private by Goneril in the Quarto is given to Oswald here, who speaks it directly to Lear. I guess they wanted to underline just how insulting he was being to the ex-king, and they needed a zinger to make the point. It’s just one way silent films had to work around a text.
*. Unfortunately, the print I watched was in rough shape, with a really cloudy image that only occasionally took on a kind of accidental poetry. For its time though it’s pretty impressive, though probably of little interest aside from the historical today.

6 thoughts on “King Lear (1916)

  1. Bookstooge

    I was going to ask how the sound was since the film itself was so bad and then caught myself 🙂 Of course, the title cards didn’t appear to be that great either :-/

    1. Alex Good Post author

      In a lot of these movies they actually have decent modern scores added to them, but yeah, no original sound. Unfortunately, this movie wasn’t in good shape.


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