*. The Winter’s Tale is usually classified as one of Shakespeare’s late romances or problem plays, a couple of labels that indicate how troublesome it is. I’m not sure how popular it’s been on stage, but the fact that this early version, produced by the short-lived Thanhauser Company, is one of only a couple of films of it that have been made in over a hundred years is another red flag. We’re entering dangerous waters.
*. I’ve never been fond of the play myself. I find it hard to follow, with the only parts that stick in my mind being a brief discussion of the works of art and nature, a moony speech made by Florizel to Perdita, and the two dramatic highlights: Antigonus exiting “pursued by a bear” and the “statue” of Hermione coming to life at the end.
*. Well, obviously we don’t get to hear the discussion of nature’s bastards or Florizel’s speech since this is a silent film. And we don’t get a bear, or even a guy dressed in a bear suit, to chase Antigonus off stage. And finally, we don’t get the big scene of the statue coming to life because apparently that part of the film has been lost.
*. That’s three pretty big strikes against this Winter’s Tale and I’m afraid they pretty much drain if of interest. What we’re left with is mainly just the usual posing in costume.
*. Given how complex a play it is I imagine a twelve (or fifteen, or whatever) minute version must have been baffling. In her helpful commentary, Judith Buchanan addresses this point directly and provides some background: “intelligibility . . . was partly dependent on some foreknowledge of the plot among its audiences, a sort of foreknowledge that actually probably could be depended upon in large swathes of the early twentieth-century American audience” (Thanhouser was an American company).
*. I think it’s fair to assume that those “large swathes” of a sophisticated moviegoing audience have entirely disappeared. I’m certain I don’t know anyone without an English degree who has read The Winter’s Tale. And even if the audience had read it at some point, I still think they’d need some help. So, according to Buchanan, contemporary showings had live narration provided by lecturers, a practice that was “particularly desirable for Shakespeare films”
*. Buchanan is most taken by the clown or fool character who appears in the foreground of some of the court shots. Which is worth noticing because I don’t think there is a clown in the play (just a wandering rogue figure). More curious is Buchanan’s comment that “Thanhouser understandably balked at the bear.” I actually found this not so easy to understand. Sure, however they decided to represent the bear it was going to look silly — this was 1910! — but it’s also one of the play’s signature moments. If I’d been in the audience I would have felt cheated not seeing it. Monsters and trick effects were (and remain) a big part of the moviegoing experience. This is a Winter’s Tale without the magic, which is a diminished thing.