Category Archives: 1910s

King Lear (1910)

*. As an adaptation of King Lear I don’t think this Italian effort, directed by Gerolamo Lo Savio, is any kind of advance over the 1909 Vitagraph version, but it does go down a lot easier.
*. Not that it gives us a happy ending. I don’t know if anyone has ever filmed the Nahum Tate version of King Lear, even though that was the only version people saw for over a hundred years after the Restoration. No, this one has Lear getting ready to expire on Cordelia’s body at the end, though the only print I’ve seen breaks off just as he’s still crawling toward death.
*. What made it work for me? First of all the text has been cut to its bare essentials. There’s no subplot involving Gloucester and his sons. Indeed, none of these characters is even identified. All we get is the inheritance test, Kent in the stocks, the heath, and the tragic climax.
*. Another point that adds to the fun is the colourization. It’s actually quite well done, and the green of the heath makes it look like a great place for a picnic. Of course, that the barren heath maybe shouldn’t look so much like a park is another question. And there’s no storm at all. But then rendering a storm, especially shooting on location, wasn’t easy in 1910. You needed a lot of light. Probably better to stay in studio and use gimmicky effects, as was done by Vitagraph a year earlier.
*. The final thing that made this enjoyable were the moments of perhaps unintentional humour. A couple of examples. First, Lear strikes at a stone to show the hardness of his daughters’ hearts. This hurts his hand. I thought this was funny. Also, even more incongruously, comes the scene at the end where Lear holds what looks like a long stalk of grass (it’s not a feather, as in the play) to Cordelia’s face to check if she is breathing. What makes this funny is the fact that now there really is a storm blowing. Or at least quite a strong wind. The branches in the trees, the men’s robes, and Lear’s hair and beard are all being blown and tossed about. So the idea that holding the grass over Cordelia’s face is obviously ridiculous. You can see it blowing around in Lear’s hand even before he bends down. You could say this only assists his delusion that she’s alive, but it’s still quite funny.
*. A fun bit of history then, but as with the Vitagraph production it’s not a movie that will add much to anyone’s appreciation or understanding of the play or that points in any new directions in the development of film.

Hamlet (1913)

*. We are first introduced to the two main players: Johnston Forbes-Robertson as Hamlet and Gertrude Elliott as Ophelia. I say to myself, “They look really old.” They are. A quick Internet search tells me that Forbes-Robertson was 60 (!) when they made this movie. That has to be one of the oldest screen Hamlets on record (he was to retire from acting, a profession he didn’t enjoy, the next year). Elliott was 37, which is only not-too-bad relatively speaking.
*. I won’t make anything more of this. Because it’s so obviously ridiculous? No. But rather because Forbes-Robertson is actually very, very good. In fact, he quickly became one of my favourite actors in the part. From the first scene I didn’t notice his age at all.
*. Apparently he was considered one of the finest Hamlets of the Victorian era, and was highly praised by George Bernard Shaw. Of course acting styles change, and what was once thought the epitome of great acting often seems laughable just a couple of generations later, but if you allow for that I think you’ll be impressed.

*. Forbes-Robertson was, obviously, a stage actor. I think he appeared in only a handful of films and this may be the only one that survives. So this is very much a stage performance put on for the camera. At the time it was only just being discovered what a film actor did that was different. That said, his Hamlet here is a perfect fit for the silent screen. The gestures are eloquent, and you can see he’s actually delivering the lines, as are all the actors.

*. I think it was assumed that everyone watching such a film would be familiar with the play. The dialogue cards are little more than intertitles, giving prompt lines. Most of the scenes are allowed to play out in full, uninterrupted. I really appreciated this, and thought it worked well. If you don’t know the play though, I think you’ll be in trouble.

*. There’s more to like here than just the lead performance. Here are some other positives.
*. What a remarkably well-preserved print! Most movies from 1913 don’t look anywhere near this good. Actually, most movies from 1913 are now lost forever, but even among those that we still have this one looks terrific.
*. The direction is, as you would expect, pretty limited. Like the acting in early film it hadn’t developed its own style yet, so the camera mostly just sits and watches. There are few short pans though and they do what they can to work in depth of field. Presenting the play-within-the-play was an impossible task from a fixed camera position and no editing, but I thought it was handled as well as could be hoped for by splitting the audience in two and arranging them on perspective lines leading up to the stage, with Hamlet lolling across the foreground.

*. There’s also one nice directorial touch in showing the close-ups of venom being put on the rapier and poison in the cup before the final swordfight. By the standards of the day that’s actually a pretty daringly imagined bit of cinema.

*. There are three interesting touches in the final scene: (1) Hamlet kills Claudius in self-defence when the king attacks him with his sword. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it played that way. (2) Horatio tries to kill himself by drinking from the poison cup but Hamlet stops him. This is in the play (Horatio’s line is “Here’s yet some liquor left”) but I’ve rarely seen it done in performance. (3) Horatio gives the dying Hamlet, who is on the king’s throne, the crown. Fortinbras isn’t in this cut of the play at all so that actually makes for a nice final tableau.
*. All-in-all then I think this is a great Hamlet for the time, and a production that holds up well. At just under an hour it gets through most of the play with real economy and manages to present the action with energy and creativity. For a silent Shakespeare from the early days of cinema I was very impressed, and don’t see how they could have done much better.

Hamlet (1910)

*. I don’t know much about this one. It’s an Italian production but the intertitles (in the surviving print) are in German. What we have appears to be a fragment. Some scenes are hard to identify with anything in the play, some seem out of order and/or duplicated, others are in very rough shape, and the end of the play is missing (the last scene is Ophelia’s funeral). Still, it’s fascinating to look at.
*. Running only just over 8 minutes, what you get here is mainly a selection of highlights. These highlights in turn tell us something about how Hamlet was imagined over a hundred years ago, and how it was re-imagined for the screen. Ophelia by the riverbank, for example, isn’t a scene in the play but only something described by Gertrude. But it has long been a visual touchstone and here she appears in her traditional guise as the Pre-Raphaelite figure painted by Millais.
*. You’d think they’d have been able to do more with the ghost, but these were early days and he’s pretty underwhelming. Hamlet’s business with the skull is also an iconic moment that gets papered over rather quickly.

*. What stands out is the murder of Polonius. This is nicely done by way of a median split that shows us both characters on screen at the same time. I don’t recall ever seeing it presented this way on film (or on stage, for that matter). The scene is also given a new wrinkle because Ophelia immediately discovers his body, which triggers her next appearance as the mad woman.
*. Baby steps. Like a lot of early cinema it’s very stagey, but actually less so than you might expect. There’s a scene I couldn’t place where Hamlet is discovered declaiming by a waterfall, and the ghost first appears not on the battlements but out in the middle of some field. In sum, it may be quick and in rough shape but it’s still a bit of fun and worth checking out online.

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.

Richard III (1911)

*. 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.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1912)

*. You’d be forgiven for assuming a 12-minute adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde would be a fairly radical abridgement. Actually, most of the familiar moments are here, including the little girl being knocked down at the beginning (however quickly). These are familiar only in the backward-looking sense of our knowledge of the tradition of screen adaptations of the story though, which is just as much based on a stage adaptation by Thomas Russell Sullivan as Stevenson’s book.
*. The big change in Sullivan’s version of the story is to give Jekyll a fiancée, which is something most film adaptations held on to. Sullivan also plays down Jekyll’s own culpability in his degeneration. In Stevenson he’s an ambiguous figure, carrying within himself the seed of evil even before he begins taking the magic potion, someone who is drawn to the dark side. In the movies he’s more of a fallen angel.
*. Jekyll’s motivations, however, can’t be developed much here. Indeed, one wonders how great a scientific breakthrough he is making since “his theory” (as it’s called on a title card) is apparently drawn straight from the pages of a chemistry textbook, Graham on Drugs.
*. You shouldn’t expect much in the way of dramatic transformations, though I think they’re very well handled. We get to see the first two (from Jekyll to Hyde and back again), and they are achieved by simple cuts. Hyde is a hunched, darker figure with what look to be fangs. The later transformations, however, are very nicely handled. They happen offscreen while cutting between different locations and each is dramatically perfect. Jekyll runs away from his fiancée, feeling a change coming on. We see her sitting alone, then cut back to a now transformed Hyde. In another scene Jekyll enters one doorway and comes through the other side as Hyde. For 1912 it’s very fluidly done, and in terms of the editing I don’t think could be improved on much today. A tip of the hat to director Lucius Henderson.
*. I think it’s usual in most versions of this story, most notably John Barrymore’s 1920 film, Frederic March’s 1931 version, and the Spencer Tracy 1941 movie, to have the dead Hyde revert to being Henry Jekyll, just as a final reveal for the benefit of the other players in the drama as well as the audience. That doesn’t happen here, even though I think we expect it, again by virtue of that rear-view mirror. As in the novel, Hyde stays Hyde even in death and one presumes the police and others remain none the wiser.
*. James Cruze plays Jekyll and I believe is also Hyde in most scenes (though apparently Harry Benham stood in some of the time). Assuming it’s Cruze in both roles I think he does a good job selling the different characters just through their mannerisms. It’s not only that Hyde is a hunchback but it’s also the excessively erect way Jekyll carries himself. He often seems to be stretching himself up. That must have been a conscious way of playing up the difference between the two.
*. For a one-reeler from the early days this may not be that exceptional a movie, but I think it’s very good, quite capably put forward in every department. The editing in particular really moves the action along well with a fast-paced, strong sense of narrative in need of few title cards. It’s as neat a little production as you’ll find from this period.

Twelfth Night (1910)

*. Twelfth Night, an attempt at the full play and not just highlights, in just under 11 minutes?
*. Surprisingly, it works pretty well. They manage to pack a lot into the short running time by stacking the frame and giving the proceedings a sense of naturalistic flow. Our introduction to Olivia’s court, for example, begins with Sir Toby Belch, Maria, and the Clown all attending Sir Andrew as he presses his fruitless suit. This isn’t in the play, but it does get everyone on stage together. And then later we’ll see Viola/Cesario wandering distractedly through the garden just before Maria, Toby, and Andrew arrive to place the false letter on a bench. That’s an example of the flow I mentioned, and again it’s put in just for the film.
*. The title cards are there to keep things moving. They just break down what’s happening in the story and don’t give us any lines from the play. The exception comes in the note that Maria leaves for Malvolio to find, and even this adapts the note in the play quite a bit (explicitly identifying itself as being by Olivia and addressed to Malvolio).
*. Alas, poor Feste. In the play the Clown is one of the main characters, but he’s a creation of his language, all word-play and song. Since this is a silent film he’s reduced here to doing a cartwheel at the end and that’s about it.
*. The twins are played by two women: Viola (Florence Turner) and Sebastian (Edith Storey). I think that might have been progressive. In their wigs and costumes I couldn’t tell them apart.

*. Malvolio is played by Charles Kent, who was also the co-director. I don’t think that’s the reason it’s Malvolio’s movie though. The gulling of Malvolio has always been the main draw in Twelfth Night, and seeing as it’s both the most familiar part of the play and the one that works the best in performance it’s no surprise it takes precedence here.
*. A lot of the word play in Shakespeare goes over our heads today. It’s hard enough to pick up on when you’re reading his plays, and on stage it can be impossible. I guess it’s not too surprising then how much fun this one-reeler is. For 1910 it also has a nice sense of how to arrange space and move the narrative. Even today I don’t think you could do much better with the same technical limitations.

Cymbeline (1913)

*. I don’t suppose there are many people today who know the name Florence La Badie but she was a big star in the early days of film, before there really were stars, or a star system anyway. She died in 1917 as the result of a car accident, and her Wikipedia entry remarks that she was “the first major female film star to die while her career was at its peak.” I cite Wikipedia. In the venerable Film Encyclopedia (ed. Ephraim Katz) her birth date is given as 1893 and it’s said she died at the age of 23. Wikipedia says she was born in 1888 and died when she was 29. Alas for the authority of print, I’m inclined to believe Wikipedia.
*. In any event, I don’t think she’s a household name today. She deserved her celebrity in the 1910s though, as she’s quite a presence. I think she gives a great performance here. A lot of it is done with her eyes instead of the grand gesticulations you’d expect. Even watching what looked like an unrestored print in poor condition I was mesmerized by her face. Look at her as she’s watching the battle, or as she changes from moping to cheerful when her brothers escort her from the cave. That’s star power. You’re not paying attention to anything else that’s happening on screen.
*. Aside from her there isn’t much to get excited about. Cymbeline has a complicated plot that is necessarily streamlined quite a bit here by the Thanhouser Company, who specialized in these literary adaptations at a time when film was seen as having a highbrow audience. There is no Jupiter descending in the dream of Posthumus, for example, which might have been fun but probably would have broken the budget. This is a film that looks done on the cheap, with tatty costumes and sets that don’t seem to have had much work put into them. Even the big battle scene is just a handful of actors banging swords on shields.
*. Also downgraded are the villains, with the Queen and Cloten greatly diminished. I’m not sure what happens to them at the end. I think they just got dropped (the actor playing Cloten isn’t even credited). Iachimo, however, is a credibly slimey piece of work, and there are hints of something special happening with the lighting in the scene where he sneaks out of the trunk in Imogen’s bedroom. But only hints. It was 1913 and as I say, the surviving print isn’t in the best shape. SoCal also doesn’t look much like Wales. Yes there are hills, but they aren’t very green.
*. It’s not a play that’s produced very often. I don’t think there was a major film version until 2014, over a hundred years later. It may take us as long to see another.

The Portrait (1915)

*. Nikolai Gogol’s story “The Portrait” runs for just over 60 pages in my English translation and this film is only eight minutes long. There are a couple of explanations for this. In the first place, it’s reportedly all that survives of what was originally a 45-minute feature. In addition, it’s the most filmable part of the story, representing the sole dramatic highlight.
*. In the story a struggling artist buys a haunting portrait of a man in a second-hand shop. When he brings it home it magically comes to life, with the man stepping out of the painting and counting rolls of gold coins, one of which the artist grabs.
*. This is all we have left in what survives of the film, and it works quite well. We don’t even need title cards to explain what’s happening, and there is no dialogue. Gogol’s story goes on to describe the rise and fall of the artist, who has sold his soul to the devil by taking the gold. He becomes a rich and famous artist and then goes mad. Then in a long epilogue some of the back story of the painting is filled in. This part of the story is more thematic in nature, and more involved in making an argument. I could see it working in a silent film, but it would have been a challenge. As it is, I think the best reel survived, and probably not by accident.
*. Stripped of any musings about the nature of creativity, what it means to make sacrifices for one’s art, and the ambiguous blessings of fame, what we’re left with is the scene where Sadako comes crawling out of the television set in Ringu. Early filmmakers had played similar tricks with paintings coming to life, but I can’t think of any who give it the same creep factor. And even though it’s necessarily limited, I think it does a nice job of suggesting the dream/nightmare of the portrait’s transformation by its placement above the painter’s sleeping head.
*. It’s not the kind of film I’d immediately associate with the name of Wladyslaw Starewicz, best known today for his inventive stop-motion shorts involving insects. Then again, it’s not a typical Gogol story either. As we have it it’s hard to evaluate, being only a scene cut from a larger whole. As fragments go, however, it’s one of the most haunting we have.

The Tramp (1915)

*. In 1915 Charlie Chaplin became “the most famous man in the world.” It was an achievement both rapid (just over a year earlier his name would have been unknown outside the music hall circuit) and well prepared for. The Tramp, for example, wasn’t his first appearance as a tramp character. He’d been in development for years. But this film is often said to be the first where the Little Tramp was fully formed, and as such it marked (in the words of Peter Ackroyd) “the apotheosis of Chaplin’s early style” and “a defining moment in his career.” He’d just signed on with Essanay Studios, with a deal whereby he would have creative control and his films would be released as an “Essanay-Chaplin Brand.”
*. That paradox of hard-won, overnight success is also reflective of how Chaplin’s early films were made. They were both improvised and driven by inspiration as well as the product of endless rehearsal. Ever a perfectionist, some of the gags in this film had to be repeated as many as forty or fifty times before Chaplin was satisfied. This was tightly controlled chaos.
*. I’ve said before that I’m not a real big fan of Chaplin, but in a work like The Tramp you can see what made him so successful. There’s pathos at the end, but not as overdone as his late, major works. Instead we get a basic set-up (the dude on the farm, unaware of how cows give milk) and a standard repertoire of gags: a funny walk, lots of pratfalls, the sort of broad physical humour that was made for silent film. This simple stuff still charms, where the more involved set pieces in later films leave me cold. David Thomson: “Their jokes [those in the early shorts] are corny and repetitive, but Chaplin’s attempt to charm the viewer is masterly.”
*. What also works, and what was a revelation for me seeing a nicely restored version of this film, is Chaplin’s face. I don’t think I’d ever seen it as clearly before in one of these early pictures, and seeing it really makes a difference. Without Chaplin’s play of expressions the Tramp would remain a sadistic imp (he’s even armed with a pitchfork this time out!). But there’s more going on than just that. He has the face of a man in pain, even when he’s the one dishing it out.
*. All of which is to say I’d rather watch this movie than Modern Times or The Great Dictator again any day. Work like this showed Chaplin at or approaching his best, while at the same time indicating his limits. Already he seems about to overplay his hand, particularly in his direct appeals to the camera. Maybe the Little Tramp is a figure I can only handle in small doses. He’s an iconic figure, but you can only take so much of an icon. There are times I think he might have played better as someone’s sidekick. It worked for Sancho Panza and Falstaff, after all. But Chaplin was always a — or the — star.