As You Like It (1936)

*. In his Prefaces to Shakespeare the British literary critic Tony Tanner calls As You Like It “unambiguously, the happiest of Shakespeare’s comedies.” It’s a brisk outing, with lots of verbal jousting, more songs than any of Shakespeare’s other plays, and more weddings at the end. Even more than A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it has to approached in a spirit of whimsy, something I’ve found lacking in other film adaptations. Most notably, I finished up my notes on Kenneth Branagh’s 2006 production by saying it “needed a lighter touch. It should have embraced the play’s spirit of artifice and fancy.”
*. I think this early visit to Arden does embrace that spirit. It’s a lot of fun, and is notable as the first appearance of Laurence Olivier playing Shakespeare on screen. And there are a couple of other early credits worth flagging: the score by William Walton (who would go on to score Olivier’s Henry V, Hamlet, and Richard III) and editing by David Lean. I think the latter’s work is most impressive, as it’s as lively as the rest of the film and keeps everyone on their toes. There’s frequent cutting in the dialogue scenes and is pretty seamless throughout. Jaques’s “All the world’s a stage” speech, which many productions try to present as a single take, has several cuts, all perfectly fluid.

*. But the stars here are the stars. First up is Olivier, a young man and quite the boyish heartthrob complete with a dramatic quiff. Every scene he’s in comes to life just from his walking into view. But as lively as he is, he actually takes a back seat to Elisabeth Bergner, who plays Rosalind.
*. At first I was thinking this might be a terrible case of miscasting, as Bergner has a heavy Austrian accent that just didn’t make sense since nobody else at court or in the forest had one. But when she turns into Ganymede in the forest she is transformed. Of course she wouldn’t fool anyone into believing she’s a boy just by going from a dress to a Robin Hood get-up, but her whole character seems set free. She’s all flashing eyes and wide grins and it’s impossible not to fall in love with her, which is how we should feel about Rosalind.
*. On the subject of her accent, it’s been noted that Bergner and her husband, the film’s director Paul Czinner, were both Austrian Jews who had fled their homeland around this time for obvious reasons. So the escape to the forest is read as also symbolizing the exile of refugees from Hitler’s tyranny. This is a nice way of thinking of it, and might even have been something they were conscious of, but I wouldn’t want to lean on it too far.
*. Another point I found interesting is that Bergner was 10 years older than Olivier. This made me think of something I read in the introduction to the Arden edition of the play: “Michael Redgrave reveals in his autobiography, In My Mind’s Eye, that in playing Orlando at the Old Vic in 1936 [the year of this film] he fell passionately in love and had an affair with his Rosalind, Edith Evans, who was then 48.” There’s something to the idea of Rosalind being an older woman who has to coach a naive youth in how to make love to a woman that plays into this.
*. A year earlier Max Reinhardt’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream had come out, which was a far more lavish production and has a much higher profile among cinephiles. Personally, I find Reinhardt’s Dream to be overlong and not all it’s cracked up to be, though it has some great stuff in it. I prefer this movie, which jettisons about a third of the play and pretty much sticks with just having fun. The bad guys are cartoonish, Jaques is a much diminished presence, and you can relax and delight in Orlando and Rosalind courting each other in the magic forest while sheep go wandering about the sets and Touchstone tilts his cap and bells at a milkmaid.

17 thoughts on “As You Like It (1936)

      1. Alex Good Post author

        I was telling everyone during the newsreels to mark my words, we’d have to deal with this Hitler fellow one day.

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