Screen Studies - Sound Shakespeare
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Adaptations in the Sound Era: 1927–37
Adaptations in the Sound Era: 1927–37

Deborah Cartmell

Deborah Cartmell is Professor in English at De Montfort University, UK, and Director of the Centre for Adaptations. A founding member of many organisations (including Literature on Screen and the Association of Adaptation Studies), she is Secretary of the Council for College and University English. As well as being general editor of the Screen Adaptations series, in 2010 she authored Screen Adaptations: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (2010). Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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Bloomsbury Academic, 2015

Subjects

Content Type:

Book chapter

Genres, Movements and Styles:

Classical Hollywood cinema

Related Content

Sound Shakespeare[1]

DOI: 10.5040/9781501300356.ch-002
Page Range: 23–54

Perhaps the most demanding challenge for film adaptation in the first decade of sound was Shakespeare. Sound afforded film a chance to adapt not just Shakespeare’s stories, but to reproduce his words for the first time; and the manner in which the words were reproduced was met, on the whole, with disapproval, from both critics of Shakespeare and the movie-going public, what F.R. Leavis would define as minority culture and mass civilization. Shakespeare films, of this period, were regarded as neither cultural products nor entertainment, but somewhere in the gap between the two, a place inhabited by the vast majority of adaptations of canonical literature (neither belonging to English or Film Studies) for most of the twentieth century.

This chapter considers the marketing and reception of Shakespeare adaptations from 1929 to 1937: Sam Taylor’s Taming of the Shrew (1929 – both directed and written by Taylor), Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935 – adapted by Charles Kenyon and Mary C McCall Jr), George Cukor’s Romeo and Juliet (1936 – adapted by Talbot Jennings) and Paul Czinner’s As You Like It (1936 – with a treatment by J.M. Barrie, a scenario by R.J. Cullen and an uncredited adaptation by Carl Mayer), films covertly recalled in the retro silent film, The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius, 2011), in which a voice-test of a leading actress, reading from Shakespeare, is dismissed by the uncontrollable laughter of the stubbornly silent leading man. The coming of sound to Shakespeare movies is accurately represented here; it was met with a mixture of anxiety, amusement and contempt, possibly the reason why Louis B. Mayer, head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, reportedly proclaimed that Shakespeare films were ‘box office poison’.[1] The stakes were loaded against early talking Shakespeare films: unlike their silent predecessors, talking Shakespeare films ostracized a global audience through the employment of complicated English, insulted ‘purists’ who insisted that Shakespeare be spoken in full and with an English accent and outraged cineastes who regarded Shakespeare’s language and theatrical expression as damaging to the development of cinema. Sound was bad news for the Shakespeare film and by association, film adaptation. No matter how they were pronounced, changed or ignored, words – or more precisely, long, archaic, obscure, unpronounceable or thought-provoking words – were a guarantee of box office failure, at least in the first decade of the sound film.

The Taming of the Shrew, 1929: ‘the first ever’ adaptation of Shakespeare

There is surprisingly hardly any critical attention given to the coming of sound in the first ever talkie Shakespeare: Sam Taylor’s Taming of the Shrew (1929). While clearly chosen as a star vehicle for the most famous couple of the silent period, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, as a play ultimately concerned with the silencing of a woman, it can be regarded as both a peculiar and appropriate choice for the first mainstream film to give Shakespeare back (some of) his words. The fetishization of this adaptation through its employment of Shakespeare’s language becomes the unique selling point of the film in its publicity materials, a feature that bestows upon this adaptation, and its successors, perhaps for the first time, its very credentials as an adaptation. The film marks an important point in the history of screen adaptation and in Shakespeare and screen studies.

One of sound film’s more famous opponents was Aldous Huxley who outspokenly attacked the talkies in his journalism as well as in his novel Brave New World (1932). While inviting comparisons with Shakespeare’s Tempest in its title, implicitly identifying itself as an adaptation of Shakespeare, Huxley’s novel savages film adaptation of Shakespeare through ‘the feelies’ (or the recently introduced ‘talkies’); Othello becomes debased and unrecognizable as ‘Three Weeks in a Helicopter, “AN ALL-SUPER-SINGING, SYNTHETIC-TALKING, COLOURED, STEREOSCOPIC FEELY. WITH SYNCHRONIZED SCENT-ORGAN ACCOMPANIMENT” ’.[2] Following from what many of Huxley’s contemporaries regarded as the debasing vulgarity of the ‘talkies’ were the ‘smellies,’ enthusiastically anticipated by an author or authors writing under the pseudonym ‘John Scotland’ in a monograph, published in 1930, welcoming and explaining the technology of the talkies: ‘In America the “Smellies” have actually arrived, and the firm of Metro Goldwin Meyer are claiming to be the pioneers of the latest pandering to yet a further sense.’ According to Scotland, the idea of ‘ “atmospheric” cinema theatres is taking hold and just around the corner’.[3] The ‘smellies’ were a long way off – and mercifully forgotten today – but the ‘talkies’ were beginning to take hold and given that Taylor’s film was the only mainstream Shakespeare talkie released at the time in which Huxley is writing, it is possible that it is The Shrew that is being satirized here as part of the ‘brave new world.’ The repulsively seductive and debasing experience produced by this adaptation echoes Aldous Huxley’s feeling of nausea after watching The Jazz Singer – ‘I felt ashamed of myself for listening to such things, for even being a member of the species to which such things are addressed.’[4] In spite of his initial repugnance to the talkies, within a few years Huxley, like most of his literary contemporaries, warmed to the art of screenwriting, even settling down in Hollywood as an adaptor himself.

Not all literary critics saw cinema, in particular, the talkie, as threatening, parasitic and patronizing. As I have noted, in 1936, Renaissance scholar Allardyce Nicoll optimistically saw film not just as the new Literature but as ‘the new Shakespeare,’ and in sound, new possibilities for cinema. Paraphrasing Will Hays, Nicoll claims that the recognition of film ‘by the great universities’ will mark ‘the beginning of a new day in motion picture work, paving the way for the motion picture’s Shakespeares’.[5] For Nicoll, cinema, especially, the talkie, potentially offers a window into the past, in the uncertain age of modernity, a vehicle for a return to an ‘authentic’ version of Shakespeare. At the time, Nicoll, as an academic, was in a minority in his enthusiasm for introducing film studies into academia and in his defence of the talking picture, indeed of the Shakespeare adaptation. The bringing of words to Shakespeare films occurred within a climate in which both adaptations and talkies were met with scorn from literary and film critics alike. An adaptation, as Nicoll observes, is doomed as impure cinema:[6] too popular, too commercial and too dependent upon literature and theatrical traditions to be of any value as ‘art.’ Huxley was not the only one to identify Shakespeare ‘talkies’ as implicitly the most despicable form of film. As Neil Forsyth has argued, so too did art historian Erwin Panofsky in the much discussed essay, ‘Style and Medium in the Moving Pictures’ (revised version published in 1947). Panofsky, like Nicoll, singled out the Reinhardt–Dieterle film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), which he condemns at great length as ‘the most unfortunate film ever produced’[7] in its falling victim to the pitfalls of the ‘talkies,’ in its over-reliance on theatrical rather than filmic traditions.[8] Rather than provide film with artistic kudos, the use of Shakespeare’s language (and by implication, that of other canonical writers) is seen not to uplift (as has often been argued), but to devalue cinema. Curiously, there is little, if no mention of an earlier Shakespeare film in academic debates on the talkie adaptation. Given that Sam Taylor’s The Taming of the Shrew (1929) is the first feature-length Shakespeare ‘talkie’, it deserves a very special place within the canon of Shakespeare on screen and within the history of film adaptation.[9]

Overshadowed by the Reinhardt–Dieterle film of 1935, surprisingly Taylor’s Shrew has not been read in relation to its use of sound in the little scholarship devoted to it, a peculiarity given the context in which it was produced. The film’s notoriety is down to its infamous credit line, ‘by William Shakespeare with additional dialogue by Samuel Taylor,’ and, possibly, for this reason, largely overlooked in Shakespeare and film scholarship. Roger Manvell, in Shakespeare & the Film (1971), devotes only two and a half pages to it, citing anecdotal evidence of the film’s designer, Laurence Irving’s (son of the famous Henry Irving) attempts to persuade Taylor not to make himself a laughing stock by adopting the credit.[10] While the film is still best known for its credit line, there is no evidence that it was ever used and close scrutiny of the film reveals only a few ‘additional’ lines.[11] Samuel Crowl gives it short shrift in his survey of Shakespeare films, preferring like those before him to concentrate on the 1935 Midsummer Night’s Dream.[12] The scant attention the film has received, rather than contextualizing it within the new sound era, instead focuses on gender. Russell Jackson has argued that Mary Pickford’s wink to Bianca at the end of her lecture on wifely obedience brings Katherine into the twentieth century, making Petruchio the one who is duped.[13] Barbara Hodgdon, on the other hand, sees Katherine’s momentary triumph allayed by the alleged cruel treatment of her by her co-star (her husband, Douglas Fairbanks) while on set and in the final moments when Petruchio ‘stops her mouth’ (to paraphrase from Much Ado) with a final forced kiss.[14] Diana E. Henderson is somewhere in the middle in her reading: Katherine becomes ‘the sneaky servant rather than the Stepford wife of patriarchy’.[15] Taylor uses leading actors Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks together in the title roles for the first time. Undeniably a star vehicle, the film can be seen to expose voyeuristically and exploit their well-known relationship (which, unknown to the audience, was troubled at the time of shooting). The actors’ success in the silent period (Pickford was exceedingly well known as ‘America’s sweetheart,’ while Fairbanks’ fame was based on his death-defying athleticism and masculinity) is referenced throughout the film. Fairbanks runs everywhere at amazing pace, demonstrates superhuman strength and agility in restraining Katherine and picks up and hurls his servants around as if they’re made of feathers. Pickford is continually shown in quintessentially Pickfordesque poses, especially in close-up, emphasizing her famous bow-shaped lips and with quivering eyes looking pleadingly at the camera.

Released simultaneously as a talkie and a silent film,[16] this is a very pared-down version of Shakespeare’s play. In the film, the central pair find that their love of brandishing whips is something that they have in common; on meeting Petruchio for the first time, Katherine gazes at Petruchio’s exceptionally long and heavy whip and instantaneously hides her much smaller weapon behind her back;[17] or as the pressbook stresses: ‘Her whip, which had lashed the back of many a suitor, looked small and puny when compared to his blacksnake.’[18] The whips function as visual correlatives to the whip-like tongues of the central pair, with undeniably phallic associations.

As Ann Thompson has observed in the 1984 Cambridge edition of The Taming of the Shrew, David Garrick’s 1754 adaptation, which prevailed until the mid-nineteenth century (and upon which this film is based), included a line indicating that Petruchio ‘shook his Whip in Token of his Love’ and a whip was later added as a property by John Kemble in his 1788 production.[19] According to Thompson, the whip became a standard property for future stage performances, but the Taylor film extends the significance of the whips by including the property in virtually every frame of the movie. Katherine carries hers around as if it is a handbag. Easily recalled as ‘the film with the whips,’ these seemingly gratuitous strips of leather are the dominant image of the film, and while the whips can be explained as signifiers of the central characters’ sadomasochistic sexuality, their use can be interpreted as a means of achieving discipline and silence: a whip, of course, is a word used to refer to both a person who ensures discipline and a call issued to stamp out deviance in the interests of harmony. It seems a peculiar accident, if it is an accident, that the first mainstream Shakespeare ‘talkie’ is an adaptation of a play concerned not with the celebration of words but with the suppression of words, and that it makes this theme blatantly apparent through the extensive use of the silence-inducing whips.

But the film’s pressbook repeatedly emphasizes that this is a talkie. While contemporary ‘so-called serious’ writers on film condemn sound movies as popular, formulaic and infantilizing, unsurprisingly the writers of the pressbook, whose motives are purely to sell the movie, continually stress the uplifting quality of sound. Numerous articles in the very detailed pressbook for the film, while overly keen to praise, inadvertently allude to anxieties about the film’s reception in its capacity as an ‘all-talking’ adaptation of Shakespeare. Indeed, the publicity materials covertly address the anticipated criticisms of the likes of Aldous Huxley and Erwin Panofsky. The book arms itself against purist objections to the production of a talking Shakespeare film by directly and audaciously addressing the question of fidelity. In brief, the message of the pressbook is that sound allows for the first time fidelity on screen.

The most striking notion to emerge from the pressbook is its perception of The Taming of the Shrew not just as the first mainstream talking adaptation of Shakespeare but as the first adaptation of Shakespeare (obliterating all silent predecessors). The pressbook reiterates in its summaries that this is the first film adaptation of the play: ‘in this screen story of the Bard’s immortal comedy, brought to the screen for the first time in the history of motion pictures’[20] or ‘the glorious comedy which has come finally to motion pictures after four centuries of success on the legitimate stage’.[21] It could be argued that the publicity writers failed to do their research or refused to acknowledge earlier adaptations of the play (1908, 1911, 1923, the first directed by D. W. Griffith). But it is more likely that these adaptations were not forgotten but cunningly disqualified as adaptations due to their lack of words. Mary Pickford herself echoes the repeated assertion – ‘Shakespeare brought to the screen for the first time’[22] – in an interview by Julian Arthur:

Also there is another reason why we wanted to be the first to bring Shakespeare to the screen. It somehow seems an advance towards a higher standard in talkie dialogue, and there is something really worthwhile and constructive in this idea. The great mass of people who are unfamiliar with Shakespeare will be introduced to him in a manner that will make his work attractive. We have spared no pains to preserve authenticity in every detail and we have lost none of the spirit of the play in the transcription.[23]

Pickford (or someone pretending to be Pickford) claims that Taylor, Fairbanks and herself are ‘the first to bring Shakespeare to the screen,’ declaring again that what went before was definitely not Shakespeare. The pressbook repeatedly asserts that this is an adaptation for the very reason that it contains the words of the adapted text.

Pickford’s reported speech contains a number of well-known arguments for the justification of filming Shakespeare: to uplift the value of film; to bring culture to the masses; and to somehow capture ‘the spirit’ of the original. Clearly, the film’s producers anticipated that the latter point would be contentious and the pressbook has a number of articles reassuring us of the film’s authenticity. In short, it is the words that constitute the film’s ‘authenticity.’ Beginning with the catchline, ‘The big three – Mary, Doug, and Bill’,[24] the pressbook features an imaginary interview with ‘the big three’ with Pickford, Fairbanks and Shakespeare pictured drinking tea, discussing the movie.

Fairbanks opens with the introduction, ‘Mary, this is Bill Shakespeare. He wrote our last picture’[25] and goes on, with the help of Mary, to convince Shakespeare that if he were alive in 1929, he would be writing for the movies and that this film of his play is ‘better the way we have shortened it’.[26] The imaginary interview alleviates any fears that the film is a departure from the ‘real Shakespeare’, with Shakespeare himself giving it the thumbs up and Fairbanks concluding: ‘a lot of people have said they wondered what Shakespeare would say about our doing him on the screen. I am certainly glad he dropped in and now I can tell everybody that he is perfectly satisfied’.[27] In another article in the pressbook, ‘Adapting Shakespeare to the Talking Picture Screen,’ Arthur J. Zellner declares that ‘orthodox worshippers of Shakespeare who clothe his every word with an aura of sanctity should not take offense’,[28] pointing out some examples of successful theatrical truncated versions, such as Garrick’s (whose eighteenth-century production, Catherine and Petruchio, is claimed as inspiration for the film). Critic James Agate writing in The London Pavilion (1929) introduces the film to cinema audiences, confidently averring that ‘it is safe to say that if the cinema had been known in Shakespeare’s day, there is nothing in the present picture which Shakespeare would have disowned.’[29]

The pressbook mixes pseudo scholarship with tabloid-style journalism, clearly in anticipation of attacks from Shakespearean ‘purists,’ the likes of Aldous Huxley, who will not abide Shakespeare’s words being spoken on film. As mentioned earlier, the dominant theme of the pressbook is the film’s fidelity to Shakespeare, a subject quite clearly instigated by the use of sound in this production. Repeatedly, we are told that all the words are those of Shakespeare:

… not one bit of the glorious Shakespearean dialogue has been sacrificed when in keeping with the fast moving comedy, director Sam Taylor has re-told the story with the deftness so characteristic of his work ….[30]

Every line of dialogue used in the picture stands as written by the Bard himself.[31]

… every bit of dialogue spoken in the film was taken from the original Shakespeare and every bit of atmosphere, from the characters to the sets, is in keeping with the customs of the fifteenth century.[32]

These repeated assertions of pure authenticity seem to have been swallowed by contemporary reviewers, in spite of the publicists’ ignorance (in the passage quoted above) of the very period in which Shakespeare was writing.

Figure 2.1. Pressbook, Taming of the Shrew, 1929


Without doubt, the sound by today’s standards is dreadful, with Pickford and Fairbanks shouting out all their lines with little trace of emotion. Pickford claimed to be disappointed with her own performance, retiring from acting shortly after making the film; rather than presenting Katherine as an equal to Petruchio in strength and wit, she felt that she played the part like a ‘spitting kitten’.[33] Most critics have claimed that Fairbanks steals the show, with Pickford looking uncomfortable and out of place throughout.[34] But this discomfort is with the spoken words and strikingly, all the emotion in the film is conveyed in the nonspeaking sections, as Taylor’s film oscillates between the talkie and silent modes, very much a film aware of its transitional and dual status. Given the talkie was seen as a purely commercial enterprise and despised by those advocates of pure cinema and literary critics who saw the coming of sound as a further invasion and violation of their artistic territory, the contrasting styles, the talkie and the silent, are indeed pertinent. It is worth noting that the sound version of the film is framed by much talking while the middle section is dominated by silence that ‘upstages’ the overly theatrical opening and closing. The shouting of the central actors is in sharp contrast to the superiority of their silent performances.

Significantly, the first mainstream Shakespeare talkie is a play about the ‘successful’ suppression of the dangerous female tongue, as mentioned, blatantly visualized by the whips in this production. But it is a success that is not altogether unqualified, given that Katherine finds a voice (albeit one that is music to the ears of a patriarchal society) at the end of the play. The film on one level exploits the fame of the central couple while on another self-consciously juxtaposes the visual with the verbal, the silent film with the talkie. Surprisingly, in the sound/image war, silence wins over words in the final impression of the film as Katherine’s spectating is far more eloquent than Petruchio’s verbal declarations. Take the scene in which Petruchio sends Katherine to bed and returns to eat the rejected food. Diana E. Henderson’s observation that Katherine ‘remains the one who sees more than her husband, creating a silent connection between her perspective and the filmmaker’s own’[35] can be extended into regarding the film’s oppositional aesthetics: Katherine sees and Petruchio talks, reflecting the debate, here a veritable battle, between silent and talking cinema.

Katherine, after miraculously undergoing a makeover from a mud-soaked and bedraggled wreck to a perfectly groomed starlet complete with diaphanous white peignoir, opens the bedroom door and gazes down at Petruchio who is at the table with his dog, Troilus. At this point of the film, Katherine has been transformed from bad to good girl, symbolized in the change of costume from black riding suit (worn at the outset of the film) to pure white. Positioned at the top of the staircase, she literally and metaphorically looks down at Petruchio. Unable to speak, she is visually superior and given a voice in her enforced silence, and in contrast to Shakespeare’s Katherine her tactical advantage enables her to triumph over this Petruchio’s unguarded scheming:

          PETRUCHIO:
Troilus, good dog for a hearty meal
Thus have I politicly begun my reign,
And it is my hope to end successfully.
Today she ate no meat and today she shall not sleep.
Last night she slept not, nor tonight she shall not.
As with the meat, some fault
I’ll find about the making of the bed,
And here I’ll fling the pillow, there the bolster,
This way the coverlet, another way the sheets.
And amidst this hurly I pretend
That all is done in loving care of her;
And then forsooth she’ll watch all night,
And if she chance to nod I’ll rail and sing,
And with my singing keep her still awake.
This is the way to kill a wife with kindness,
And thus I’ll curb her mad and headstrong humour.
Does thou know better how to tame a shrew.
[Dog barks]
                              Nay, good Troilus, nay. (The Taming of the Shrew, 1939)[36]

The eavesdropping Katherine speaks visually throughout the sequence, gradually moving from the shock of the spectacle to plotting revenge (in anticipation of the finale, concluding with a knowing wink to the camera). Petruchio, oblivious to the fact he is being watched and overheard, brags to the dog (which has physically and symbolically taken Katherine’s place at the table). The juxtaposition of the two characters, one silent and the other carelessly and unnecessarily wordy, reflects the film’s transitional status between silent cinema and talkie. Clearly, the more eloquent of the two is Katherine and in the debate between what Gilbert Seldes refers to as ‘the talkies’ and ‘the movies,’ the talkie is shown to be vastly inferior: stupid, infantile and lacking in subtlety due to its unnecessary wordiness.[37] Against the grain of the pressbook’s valorization of the wordiness of Taylor’s The Taming of the Shrew, the film seems to be at pains to reinforce the old adage that a picture speaks louder than words or that the central pair, especially Pickford, are making a final and fruitless plea for the survival of silent cinema in anticipation that the new talkie will end both careers. Retrospectively, Pickford lamented in her autobiography: ‘The making of that film was my finish. My confidence was completely shattered, and I was never again at ease before the camera or microphone.’[38]

This is Shakespeare with and without words: Katherine is ‘silenced’ (as Pickford writes in her autobiography she was asked to adopt Pickfordian characteristics in her portrayal of Kate)[39] and while Petruchio’s words are victorious, sound is vastly outplayed by silence and the end product is in direct opposition to the publicity surrounding it. (Significantly, Sam Taylor himself makes no contribution to the pressbook and its valorization of words.) Claims that this is the first ever Shakespeare film and declarations about its fidelity to Shakespeare in its preservation of the words are contradicted by the primacy of the visual over the verbal, or the silent film over the talking adaptation. Indeed the film itself, contrary to the message of the pressbook, seems to fight against its status as an adaptation, or that of an ‘all-talking’ film.

The Taming of the Shrew’s pressbook audaciously reveals that the coming of sound enabled the birth of adaptation and while the promoters of the film do their utmost to proclaim the film as an adaptation, indeed the first Shakespeare adaptation ever, the film itself does the opposite, demonstrating the superior eloquence of silence. While the pressbook of The Taming of the Shrew repeatedly marvels at Shakespeare’s words on screen, the image of the whips suggests throughout that this is a film that fiercely asks its characters to ‘shut up.’

Shakespeare shorts and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1935

The acquisition of sound, or more precisely, words, transformed the way that Shakespeare adaptations were regarded in the early sound period and beyond. As I have argued, Sam Taylor’s Taming of the Shrew (the first mainstream Shakespeare talkie of 1929) enacts a flirtatious tussle between sound and silent film, especially through its employment of the omnipresent silent-inducing whips that simultaneously make an impressive noise for those seeking the thrills of sound cinema while asking the Shakespearean speakers to be silent. The Shakespeare films that followed in the thirties (while seemingly wilfully forgetting the existence of the earlier Taming of the Shrew) made similar claims about their position as the first adaptations of the plays (and the necessity of speaking the author’s words to qualify as an adaptation) while simultaneously reflecting anxieties about the introduction of Shakespeare’s words into mass media entertainment.

The extraordinarily daring Taming of the Shrew (in its covert plea for a return to silence) did much to warn off any further attempts to film Shakespeare during the following years. As Scott Eyman has observed, the film was the beginning of the end for its stars Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks,[40] a film which provided a cautionary tale for all stars of the silent screen not to aim too high – not to attempt Shakespeare before they had proven that they could talk at all. Indeed, shortly after its release the film was undeservedly reduced to a laughing stock; according to Scott MacQueen, in the early thirties Hollywood fell to sniggering about the first Shakespearean ‘train wreck’ of talking cinema.[41] Theodore Dreiser, writing three years after the film’s release remembers that ‘Douglas Fairbanks was Douglas Fairbanks and none other most of the time; he forgot that Shakespeare wrote this play around a character, Petruchio, and not around himself as an athletic and grimacing motion-picture star.’[42] This attitude to the film, as more Hollywood than Shakespeare, is still prevalent in the relative neglect the film receives in Shakespeare and film criticism, regardless of its status as the first mainstream ‘talkie’ adaptation of Shakespeare, not to mention the audacious claim in the publicity materials that this is the first ever Shakespeare film adaptation.

It was not until 1935 that another major Shakespeare adaptation appeared: Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, produced by Warner Brothers, featuring the contract actors of the company, including James Cagney (Bottom), Olivia de Havilland (Hermia), Dick Powell (Lysander), Joe E. Brown (Flute) and Mickey Rooney (Puck). But prior to the extravaganza of Dream there were some shorter and less adventurous attempts at talking Shakespeare. 1929 saw each studio presenting a variety act film, each showcasing its big stars and newly found talking abilities. Two of these attempted Shakespeare. Norma Shearer appears as Juliet in MGM’s Hollywood Revue (1929) followed by John Barrymore as Richard III in Warner Brothers’ Show of Shows (1929), both performances are amidst an array of vaudeville, acrobatic, music and comedy acts. Both performances situate Shakespeare in relation to popular entertainment, a sign of things to come. The Show of Shows presents a talking John Barrymore as Richard III on top of a hill of bodies (one disturbingly moves at the end of the sequence); his dramatic, highly theatrical recitation is preceded (and undermined) by an introduction in which we’re informed that Richard will dispose of his enemies ‘with the graceful impartiality of Al Capone’.[43]

Hollywood’s efforts to make Shakespeare accessible in the sound era are explicitly mocked in the first of these variety extravaganzas, MGM’s Hollywood Revue, which features two versions of the balcony scene with Shearer as Juliet and John Gilbert (star of the silent screen and whose career was allegedly ruined by the talkies) as Romeo.[44] After a ‘straight’ rendition of the scene, the pair are congratulated by director Lionel Barrymore who simultaneously receives ‘a wire from New York’ which reads ‘don’t change a thing, but the main title and the dialogue’; in a film now re-titled, ‘The Necker’, the two dutifully repeat the scene in 1929 slang (‘Now listen, boyfriend you have a nice line in chatter but how do I know you care for me in a big way?’/ ‘Julie baby, I’m ga-ga about you’). Dismissed as a ‘shrivelling failure’ by Scott Eyman,[45] the skit jokingly forecasts that Shakespeare may confront even more insurmountable obstacles than those of the film actors playing him in making the transition from silence to sound.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream can be seen to take heed of this warning and on one level, is defiantly anti-theatrical in its choice of cast (none of whom have significant theatrical pedigrees), deliberately employing a decidedly cinematic style of acting. A similar ‘wire’ to that sent in the 1929 Hollywood Revue was delivered to Irving Asher, head of Warner Brothers’ London studio, asking that the play be rendered ‘more colloquial’ for the 1935 film.[46] Accompanied by Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, the trailer begins ‘America applauded! Europe cheered! Asia thrilled! The whole world hailed this screen masterpiece! And paid $2.20 to see it. Now at last it comes to you at popular prices.’ The trailer stresses the film’s democratic credentials, appealing to a global audience, oblivious to its use of Shakespeare’s notoriously difficult language, and emphasizes its cheapness (compared to premiere prices), so as to capitalize on film’s potential to provide culture for next to nothing. (Indeed a major departure from the play, is the democratization of the dramatis personae, with Bottom – played by James Cagney – reinvented as a character to be applauded rather than laughed at for his social presumptuousness.) As it has been argued, the choice of the play, on one level, may be a response to the imposition of censorship on the cinema (with Warner Brother productions very much on the defensive in their alleged glorification of violence through their popular gangster films from which Cagney established his reputation); normally thought of as one of Shakespeare’s ‘safer’ plays, this adaptation brings themes of sexual violence and repression disturbingly to the forefront of the production, commencing with the explicit allusions to Hippolyta’s violent abduction by Theseus and ending with a menacing Puck (played by a teenage Mickey Rooney) sneakily following Theseus and Hippolyta into their bedroom at the film’s conclusion; these themes of enslavement or imprisonment and perverse surveillance could strike a chord at a time in which Jewish filmmakers, including Rienhardt and Dieterle, were banned from working in Germany.

One aspect of this film forgotten today is the fact that it was made within the first decade of sound cinema and that like its predecessor, The Taming of the Shrew, it juxtaposes verbal with non-verbal sequences in a playful confrontation between the two styles. The 1935 film begins with a possible allusion to the 1929 film in the figure of the silenced Hippolyta. Like Katherine at the end of The Shrew, Hippolyta is in the last stages of her taming (having been ‘wooed by the sword’) and she is introduced into the film as what only can be described as a quivering wreck, wearing a tight-fitting chain-mail helmet and a snake entwined around her neck which restrains her right arm in a loose form of a straitjacket. The snake is a possible reference to the whips in The Taming of the Shrew and a visual correlative to Oberon’s description of Titania’s bower where a ‘snake throws her enamelled skin, / Weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in’ and Hermia’s account of her nightmare (revealed to an absent Lysander in which a ‘serpent ate my heart away, / And you sat smiling at his cruel prey’).[47] While the original screenplay included a prelude or back-story of the conquest of the Amazons by Theseus, the initial impression of Hippolyta here compactly retains the story of a woman who has reluctantly surrendered, now visually crestfallen and conquered.[48] The back story is also omnipresent throughout the film in Theseus’s fantastic palace with its phallic undulating pillars, which Jack J. Jorgens describes as contributing to the film’s dark, post-Freudian reading of the play.[49] Allegedy Verree Teasdale, the actress who plays Hippolyta, was heard to exclaim a ‘hundred times during the lengthy production’, ‘my kingdom for the privilege of sitting down for five short minutes’[50] as her first costume contained rings which cut into her flesh if she created too much movement. The life-like snake featured in the first costume reappears as an artificial one in Hippolyta’s next appearance, where she wears a dramatic sculpted black and silver dress with an ornamental snake outlining the bodice. While stunningly majestic, she remains a prisoner of the costume. She ends the film in a third dress – a lighter and sparkling gown with pronounced fairy-like ruff. However, Theseus’s all too proximate dark-caped figure seems to swallow her up at the pair’s departure, possibly recalling the now famous ‘Nocturne’ sequence in which Oberon’s billowing black cape envelopes and brings darkness to the fairy world.

The film’s daring, explicitly disturbing opening – like the subject matter of The Taming of the Shrew – concerned with the silencing of a woman, is extended throughout this adaptation, in arguably one of the most ‘outspoken’ of all Shakespeare movies. Without doubt, the most memorable sequence in this film is the ‘Nocturne’ choreographed by Bronislova Nijinska which thematically mirrors the message of the opening sequence through the invasion of the male fairies and subsequent subduing of Titania. In the play, Oberon – who in the film is depicted in a black jumpsuit full of sparkles, evocative of a ‘Prince of Darkness’ – opens Titania’s eyes to the reality that she is in love with an ass (both Bottom and Oberon himself) and at the same time demanding ‘Silence a while’ (4.1.79). In the film, he engulfs her with his snake-like black mantle, bringing, with his dark-costumed entourage, a masculine darkness to the world of the female fairies. The stunning sequence is easily the most memorable in the film, a sequence which brings silence to a world of sound, an ominous message for Titania and her troupe; it nonetheless provides a bold and defiant display of how images can speak more eloquently than words, even Shakespeare’s words.

The film’s use of sound, or of words, was met with a mixed response. Writing for the radical New Theatre & Film, ‘Charmion Von Wiegand’ (names in this left-wing journal were changed in order to protect their authors’ positions) lamented how ‘Shakespeare is reduced to Ziegfeld Follies in a forest’ and complained about filming a Shakespeare play in a time of mass unemployment and with a war looming.[51] Graham Greene praised the cinematic fairy sequence while condemning the spoken poetry as serving merely to delay the action.[52] In other words, Greene liked the action but hated the words. Harley Granville-Barker in ‘Alas, Poor Will’ (The Listener, 1937), ranted that the filmed words ‘not merely mutilated, but [were] occasionally even re-written from Elizabethan English into plainer American. What is one to say of such an outrage?’[53] Alfred Hitchcock, while defending the film in opposition to Harley Granville-Barker’s ‘purist’ attack, agreed, too, that the words get in the way and the ‘general public will not be talked at’.[54] As mentioned earlier, no one could be more horrified by Shakespeare’s words spoken on screen than art historian Erwin Panofsky, who singled out the Reinhardt-Dieterle film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935) as ‘the most unfortunate film ever produced’[55] in its falling victim to the pitfalls of the ‘talkies’ in its over-reliance on theatrical rather than filmic traditions – that is, its dependence on words.

But the publicity materials proclaim otherwise – the film is regarded as both popular entertainment as well as educationally uplifting. The pressbook insists on the film’s pedagogical value, echoing Nicoll’s yearning for ‘quality’ audiences, setting up a club to endorse the film for a certain ‘class of people’ and it features a section entitled ‘Spreading the News Round Schools’ with plenty of ideas as to how to inspire youthful attendance at a Shakespeare film without ‘forcing it down their throats’.[56] The educational value of the film, marketed at parents, is extended through the production of study guides and teachers’ manuals ‘for school tie-ups on this picture’[57] and the pressbook even includes a photograph of ‘Professor’ Reinhardt with the cast, sitting around a table, studying the play. It seems that the pressbook is trying to persuade its readership that this film ‘is the real thing’ due to the fact that it’s speaking Shakespeare’s language. Claims of its uniqueness – that this is a first – are not understated in the pressbook. Exhibitors are told ‘THREE HOURS OF ENTERTAINMENT THAT WAS THREE CENTURIES IN THE MAKING’, ‘THE SHOW THAT THE INVENTOR OF MOTION PICTURES DREAMED SOME DAY WOULD BE MADE’ and ‘WARNER BROS., WHO BROKE THE SILENCE OF THE FILMS WITH TALKING PICTURES, NOW BRINGS THE MIGHTY VOICE OF SHAKESPEARE TO THE SCREEN.’ [58] The implied association between Warner Brothers (‘WHO BROKE THE SILENCE OF THE FILMS’) and Shakespeare’s ‘MIGHTY VOICE’ suggests that this is Shakespeare’s language with a modern twist that is accessible to all. Exhibitors are encouraged to lure the public to the movie with statements such as:

That Shakespeare wrote for all the people rather than any one class is being proven twice a day at ________ Theatre where the Bard’s greatest comedy, ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ is playing.

Students of grade schools sit beside professors of literature and taxi drivers touch elbows with dignified solons, in common enjoyment. [59]

Suggestions for reviews include the likes of ‘It’s the swellest show I ever attended,’ reported _______ who drives Yellow Taxi No. ______.’[60]

The chief selling point of this film seems to be the accessibility of Shakespeare, with words spoken with a new accent – that is in the language of Hollywood. The trailer celebrates the film’s global appeal and cheap prices, the film’s stars’ introductions to the film proclaim it to be a significant moment in the history of Hollywood; for both Jean Muir (Helena) and Frank McHugh (Quince), the film is ‘as new to the talking screen as sound was to the silent’.

Warner Brothers’ extraordinarily eccentric and irreverent promotional 20-minute film, Shake, Mr. Shakespeare, directed by Roy Mack, goes one stage further, presenting a screenwriter at his desk having been tasked with reading all of Shakespeare following the imagined stupendous overnight success of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Faced with the newspaper adverts, ‘coming’, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Othello, Hamlet, the writer falls asleep and visions appear. Typically ‘loud-mouthed’ American Shakespearean characters pop out of their books and proceed to ‘modernize’ their characters so that Romeo sings a ditty (‘Romeo and Hollywood, what sublimity / Does anyone know if Miss Garbo / Has a bal-con-y?’), Hamlet performs a jazzy dance sequence backed by a group of Hamletettes and Antony entertains with a song and dance number which begins ‘Friends, Romans, and Countrymen, lend me your feet / To the tune we love, the rhythm of Forty-Second Street’. Finally, Shakespeare himself appears, complaining ‘Is it for this that I spilled so much magic ink?’ and Hamlet concludes, ‘today the screenplay is the thing’.[61]

Figure 2.2. Screenshot, Shake, Mr. Shakespeare (Warner Brothers, Roy Mack, 1936)


Figure 2.3. Screenshot, Shake, Mr. Shakespeare (Warner Brothers, Roy Mack, 1936)


The promotional short is a tour de force of satire and musical direction, but as an entrée to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it could not be further from the film it promotes.

Reinhardt’s declared suspicion of American talkies and his prioritizing of the music, as suggested by his desire to keep Erich Wolfgang Korngold – who arranged the music for the film – on the set, intimate that Shakespeare’s language was of secondary importance.[62] Indeed the actors were asked to speak to the music, almost as if they were singing their words to Korngold’s score. The universal language of music and the emphasis on visuals serve to upstage the words and in this respect, the film harks back to the silent period of film-making in its attempt to appeal to a global audience. The flippancy of the promotional films, especially Shake, Mr. Shakepeare insisting on the translation of Shakespeare into ‘American’, reveals an anxiety about the words and the realization that they would (and did) stand in the way of the film’s box office appeal.

Romeo and Juliet, 1936

Undaunted by the mixed success of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the following year saw the release of two other adaptations of Shakespeare: George Cukor’s Romeo and Juliet, starring Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer, and the British film, As You Like It, directed by Paul Czinner, with Laurence Olivier in the role of Orlando. Within the short period of sound cinema, much had changed. While in 1929 promoters of The Taming of the Shrew repeatedly boasted verbal authenticity, by 1935 it was clear that words were getting in the way of entertainment. Like the Warners’ Midsummer Night’s Dream, MGM’s Romeo and Juliet betrays anxieties about promoting the words in its publicity materials, focusing on the universal appeal of the well-known story. Nonetheless, like A Midsummer Night’s Dream before it, promoters were not shy to boast originality with the pressbook opening with: ‘Boy Meets Girl – 1436 – ROMEO AND JULIET – 1936’ and followed by the claim that ‘now, after five hundred years [Romeo and Juliet], has for the first time been transformed in all its beauty and breathless excitement to a medium perfected for its reception – the motion picture screen’,[63] thus claiming the film to be the first adaptation of the play in spite of the numerous versions of Romeo and Juliet that went before.[64]

Figure 2.4. Pressbook, Romeo and Juliet, 1936


The promotional short film Master Will Shakespeare (MGM, Jacques Tourneur, 1936) tells the story of Shakespeare’s journey to London in search of recognition, made explicitly analogous to those who currently seek their fame and fortune in Hollywood: the voice-over compares Shakespeare’s ambitions with Hollywood hopefuls: ‘You’ve heard that call little stage-struck Sally, haven’t you? And you too footlight fascinated John, who has a play tucked away as Master Will Shakespeare had’.[65]

Figure 2.5. Master Will Shakespeare (MGM, Jacques Tourneur, 1936)


While making the obligatory comparisons between Shakespeare’s stage and Hollywood film (in particular, the smoking and portly Burbage is unmistakeably evocative of a cigar-smoking Hollywood mogul), the film it promotes, Romeo and Juliet, is less ‘American’ than its predecessor, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The mainly British cast (among the most notable exceptions to this is Andy Devine, whose broad American accent was an abomination to British reviewers)[66] was something of a risk. The film’s producer, Irving Thalberg (Shearer’s husband and model for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Monroe Stahr in The Last Tycoon) takes most of the credit for the film which, like A Midsummer Night’s Dream,[67] is marketed in the trailer through its value for money; first performances were a staggering $2.20 but we are now reassured that the film is available ‘at popular prices’. The price distinction between premiere prices and normal seats is shorthand for the marketing of the film as cheap cultural capital, erasing the division between high and low culture, elite and mass entertainment. The cover of the pressbook, as Russell Jackson observes, forecasts the film’s (misguided) sense of its marketability: ‘The World’s Greatest Love Story Becomes Your Guaranteed Box-Office Attraction.’[68] With pictures of the leading pair, Norma Shearer and Leslie Howard, the trailer humorously reduces the plot to a typical Hollywood Romance with ‘This Girl, This Boy’ (ironically they were aged 33 and 43, respectively).

Their performances are marred – perhaps due to their advanced ages – by an underlying sense of embarrassment throughout and thus the film lacks emotional conviction. The restraint of the central pair may be a response to the Motion Picture Production Code, a reserve reflected in the interior shots, which are cold, clinical and church-like. Juliet’s bedroom with pulpit-shaped balcony, her Madonna-like poses and the elaborate Botticelli-inspired but unrevealing costumes contribute to an overall lack of passion. This highly ‘respectful treatment’ of Shakespeare is evident in the pre-eminence given to the literary consultant, Professor William Strunk, Jr, of Cornell University, in the film’s opening credits. For the most part, the language is heavily punctuated with action as if to give viewers a break from the words. Even more pronounced than in A Midsummer Night’s Dream are the contrasting film styles – wordless, visually stimulating sequences (the dances in Capulet’s feast) with scenes that are heavily theatrical and seem overly wordy (for example John Barrymore’s (Mercutio’s) Queen Mab speech is spoken with indecent haste, as if to get it over with as quickly as possible). The quietest of all scenes, Juliet’s false funeral, is stunningly shot with numerous mourners zigzagging down a dramatic hillside lined with cypress trees.

Harley Granville-Barker regarded the pretension to academic scholarship an offence to Shakespeare. Not deigning to name Professor Strunk, Jr, he refers to ‘a gentleman placarded upon the screen as a Literary Advisor’.[69] In writing of this so-called academic, he vents his hostility to the translation of Shakespeare’s words to screen: ‘Was it he who advised them to leave out more than half the text, or occasionally to hand a speech belonging to one character over to another, or to chop the verse into pieces, and time and time again quite wantonly to cut the rhyme out of the rhymed couplets?’[70] Although poles apart, it is as clear to Granville-Barker as it is to Louis B. Mayer that Shakespeare’s words do not mix with film:

Of the cinema’s second-best foot – so to call it – the mechanical reproduction of speech, there is little that need yet be said. The delicate colouring and fine gradations demanded by the speaking of poetry are still beyond its technique (in that filmed ‘Romeo and Juliet’ a surprising proportion of the inhabitants of Verona seemed indeed to be afflicted with cleft palates). But bring it to perfection, it will still hardly oust the picture side of the cinema from pride of place.[71]

These views, that of the Hollywood mogul and the literary critic, on Shakespeare films as being too wordy and not wordy enough are possibly why Hollywood drew a halt to what Granville-Barker calls ‘the mechanical reproduction of [Shakespeare’s] speech’. In the mid-thirties there were plans for other Shakespeare films: a Warner Brothers’ Twelfth Night (directed by Max Reinhardt) and As You Like It (from the MGM studios with Shearer suggested as Rosalind and John Barrymore as Jaques) but tellingly there were no further major Shakespeare films until the next decade. As a measure of Romeo and Juliet’s failure, Leslie Howard’s theatre production of Hamlet the following year was deemed a flop, eclipsed by the rival John Gielgud performance. Howard failed to cash in on his starring role as Romeo and we can only assume that those who saw him as Romeo did not want a repeat Shakespearean performance.

As You Like It, 1936

Produced in the same year as Romeo and Juliet, As You Like It rarely gets more than a few words in Shakespeare and film criticism but it deserves to be considered alongside the above films produced between 1929 and 1936 as a Shakespeare product of the new sound era. As with the previous films, there is a noticeable disjunction between the movie itself and how it is marketed; the reverential and serious tone of the production is clearly at odds with the emphasis in the promotional materials on the film’s popularity. As You Like It, the first major talkie of a Shakespeare play filmed in England (UK: Inter Allied/20th Century Fox), was hailed as a star vehicle for the now virtually forgotten actress Elisabeth Bergner, with co-star Laurence Olivier. This was not the first British Shakespeare talkie film however. A 1935 biopic, The Immortal Gentleman (directed by Widgey R. Newman), depicts Shakespeare in a tavern in Southwark, where he observes to Ben Jonson and Michael Drayton, how customers recall characters from his plays. Dismissed as ‘as dreadful a film as has ever been made, meanly produced, ill-lit, ill-staged, scarcely directed at all, with some howlingly bad excerpts from the plays … the nadir of filmed Shakespeare’, the movie has sunk into oblivion.[72]

As You Like It may have suffered a similar fate, if it were not for the presence of Olivier. Like Norma Shearer, Bergner’s role in As You Like It may have been compromised by the involvement of her husband (the film’s director) and she fails to live up to the hype of the pressbook, which applauds her performance on every page. Although, like its predecessors, the film promoters tried to capitalize on the pedagogical uses of the movie, they were also anxious to attract a global market – the pressbook notes the foreign accent of the star as an asset for universal appeal[73] while the posters and advertisements ‘protest too much’ about the film’s easy intelligibility. A typical ‘review’, for instance reverts to the film’s combination of authenticity and accessibility: ‘With an astonishing lack of reverential awe with which everyone ordinarily views Shakespeare, the producers of “As You Like It” have brought the play to the screen as Shakespeare intended it should have been produced in one of the screen’s great achievements.’[74] In contrast to the pedagogical activities suggested to exhibitors, the promotional advice featured in the pressbook insistently proclaims ‘Highbrow? Art-y? Forget it! Shakespeare is fun’.[75] Cartoon images include two young women in twin beds assessing the film (‘BUT DID YOU EVER SEE A MAN LIKE THAT ORLANDO BEFORE? HO-HUM! PLEASANT DREAMS!’), a young boy eagerly accompanying his mother to the film and men at work, with an overly muscular tattooed and toothless builder affirming that As You Like It is a film totally suited to his tastes (‘YEAH I THINK IT’S FULL OF EXCRUTIATINGLY COMIC OVERTONES!’).[76] The lengths that the pressbook goes to in order to stress the accessibility of this production reflect a concern that the film would indeed be perceived as too highbrow and too British.

The idea that Bergner’s foreign accent would appeal to a global audience could not be more misguided – it is hard to imagine a more unlikable Rosalind. She bellows out her lines incomprehensibly and in the guise of Ganymede irritatingly waves a duster-shaped twig at everyone she encounters. Her performance is excessively theatrical, as if she is speaking to a huge audience with gestures to match. The immaculately dressed forest party seem not to lack in any comfort and thus it is no surprise that so many arrive for the lavish wedding party at the end. Olivier, perhaps unwittingly, upstages Bergner (even though he felt the film a failure)[77] but he also seems to keep at arm’s length from her throughout, never allowing us to believe in a love story. Kenneth Rothwell disagrees, seeing in Olivier’s performance ‘a sullen pupil called on to read aloud in class’.[78] In truth, he does appear to distance himself from the role, even the poster image for the film shows him looking beyond Rosalind, a strange image to select for a romantic movie.

In spite of a treatment suggested by J.M. Barrie and a score by William Walton, the film is disappointing even compared to its American counterparts. Bergner’s performance, rather than liberating the film from the difficulties of Shakespeare’s language, magnifies its incomprehensibility. She may look the part, but she sounds dreadful. Among the survivors of this film are David Lean (the then young film editor), who went on successfully to direct adaptations of Great Expectations (1946), Oliver Twist (1948), Doctor Zhivago (1965) and A Passage to India (1984), and Laurence Olivier, who was to later become identified with cinematic Shakespeare, but who at this stage of his career, felt that Shakespeare and film did not mix, reminiscent perhaps of those in the late twenties and early thirties who were similarly cynical about the longevity of sound.[79] This view that Shakespeare was unfilmable prevailed into the next decade.

Hidden Shakespeare

The words of Shakespeare in this period did not flourish on screen but the stories found modernized counterparts that proved successful indeed. The rationale for choosing plays in the early sound period is easy to gauge: The Taming of the Shrew offers audiences entrance to the private life of a famous Hollywood couple, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a play allowing for a display of ‘a galaxy of stars’, Romeo and Juliet is a vehicle for George Cukor who became renowned for making films appealing to women and As You Like It can be seen as exploiting the success of the screwball, romantic comedy genre. But try as they did, these movies did not succeed so well as the films which employed Shakespearean plots without the words, such as the gangster films which, like Richard III or Macbeth, gave eloquence to the criminal mind, or the romantic comedies such as multi-award winning It Happened One Night (1934), directed by Frank Capra and starring Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable. The film begins with a story resembling Romeo and Juliet (a father preventing his daughter from marrying the man of her choice) and ends, like Much Ado About Nothing with a couple married in spite of their initial contempt for each other and with the full backing of the bride’s father. Colbert’s character undergoes a series of humiliations, including food deprivation and a spanking, recalling, above all, The Taming of the Shrew. Perhaps the most successful ‘non’ Shakespearean Shakespeare films of this period are the biopics, The Private Life of Henry VIII (Korda, 1933) and Cleopatra (DeMille, 1934). Both movies have escaped scrutiny by Shakespeare film critics, perhaps due to their flaunting of the differences between Shakespeare’s language and that spoken in 1930s popular cinema. While Cleopatra, starring Claudette Colbert, roughly follows the storyline of both Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, its verbal departure from Shakespeare is peculiarly observed in reviews. In The New York Times, Mordaunt Hall implicitly dismisses it as not Shakespearean (as if viewers are expecting some Shakespeare): ‘There are moments when the dialogue is reminiscent of the Shakespearean speech and other occasions when it is so modern that one almost expects Mighty Caesar to have a typewriter and telephone at his elbow.’[80] It is revealing, however, that the only vaguely potentially Shakespearean films are successful – both The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) and Cleopatra (1934) were box office successes and Academy Award winners – because they are only vaguely or potentially, but not quite Shakespearean.[81]

But we enter here into the game of determining when is an adaptation not an adaptation and certainly these films were not applauded in relation to their potential Shakespearean origins, in fact as Louis B. Mayer famously proclaimed, the name of Shakespeare is best not mentioned at all. But what is significant is that in this period Shakespeare was a commercial flop and that Shakespeare films could not be regarded as such unless they contained the words of the playwright.

The latter requirement seems to have filtered into a general conception of adaptation, without it ever being explicitly stated: to qualify as an adaptation, authorial words must be spoken. That Shakespeare films begin in the sound period seems to be a notion generally accepted. Even Graham Greene, initially an opponent of sound, in his reviews of these films counts them as the only movies to date that adapt Shakespeare. How soon the past is forgotten![82] In the field of Shakespeare adaptations, the introduction of sound results in a (at least temporary) cultural forgetfulness of all the silent adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays with an emerging assumption that it is the words, and the words alone, that matter.

These talkie adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays were marketed for both their retention of Shakespeare’s words (making them the ‘first’ adaptations of the plays) and their global appeal, special selling points which were, in hindsight, a contradiction in terms. Words were indeed both requisites and poison for the translation of Shakespeare to screen, and these contradictory requirements would haunt the entire field of adaptation studies for most of the twentieth century. While continuing to claim film’s pedagogical potential, Shakespeare’s cultural capital was not worth a lot and film-makers needed to look at ‘lesser’ writers for source material. In this early era of sound film, Shakespeare was at his best when either silent or forgotten.



[1] This chapter is an expansion of two short essays which provided the impetus for this book, appearing in A Companion to Literature, Film and Adaptation, ed. Deborah Cartmell (Oxford: Blackwell, 2012), 70–84, and Screening Text: Critical Perspectives on Film Adaptation, ed. Shannon Wells-Lassagne and Ariane Hudelet (Jefferson and London: McFarland, 2013), 9–21.

[1] Quoted in Robert F. Willson, Jr, Shakespeare in Hollywood 1929–1956 (Madison, WI: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2000), 7.

[2] Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (London: Vintage Press, 2004), 145.

[3] John Scotland, The Talkies (London: Crosby Lockwood and Son, 1930), 149.

[4] Aldous Huxley, ‘Silence Is Golden’, in Authors on Film, ed. Harry M. Geduld (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1972), 68–76, 73.

[5] Allardyce Nicoll, Film and Theatre (London: George G. Harrap, 1936), 163.

[6] Nicoll, 124.

[7] Erwin Panofsky, ‘Style and Medium in the Moving Pictures’, in Film Theory and Film Criticism: Introductory Essays, 4th ed., eds. Gerald Mast, Marshall Cohen and Leo Braudy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974), 233–48, 238.

[8] Neil Forsyth ‘Shakespeare and the Talkies’, in The Seeming and the Seen: Essays in Modern Visual and Literary Culture, eds. Beverly Maeder, Jürg Schwyter, Ilona Sigrist and Boris Vejdovsky (Bern: Peter Lang, 2006), 79–102.

[9] As Kenneth Rothwell points out, the first ‘talkie’ of a Shakespeare play was a ten-minute trial scene from The Merchant of Venice in 1927. A History of Shakespeare on Screen: A Century of Film and Television (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 29.

[10] Roger Manvell, Shakespeare & Film (London: J.M. Dent, 1971), 24–5.

[11] Thomas A. Pendleton notes that the print of the film in the Museum of Modern Art (Fairbanks’ copy) contains no tagline and very little additional dialogue. According to Pendleton, additions include ‘O Petruchio, beloved’ (after Katherine hurls a stool at Petruchio’s head), her howl passing for ‘I do’ at the wedding and lines lifted from Garrick’s adaptation of the play. At the end of the wooing scene and after arriving at Petruchio’s estate, Katherine states: ‘Look to your seat, Petruchio, or I throw you / Cath’rine shall tame this haggard; or if she fails / shall tie her tongue up and pare down her nails.’Thomas Pendleton, ‘The Taming of the Shrew, by Shakespeare and Others,’ PMLA 108 (1993): 152–3.

[12] Samuel Crowl, Shakespeare and Film: A Norton Critical Guide (New York: Norton, 2008).

[13] Russell Jackson, ‘Shakespeare’s Comedies on Film’, in Shakespeare and the Moving Image, eds. Anthony Davies and Stanley Wells (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 99–120, 112. See also Shakespeare & the English-speaking Cinema (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 70.

[14] Barbara Hodgdon, The Shakespeare Trade: Performances & Appropriations (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998), 15.

[15] Diana E. Henderson, ‘A Shrew for the Times, Revisited’, in Shakespeare the Movie II: Popularizing the Plays on Film, TV, Video and DVD, eds. Richard Burt and Lydna E. Boose (New York: Routledge, 2004), 120–39, 125.

[16] Willson Jr, 19–20.

[17] Maria Jones has pointed out some confusion over the whips in the film. Jackson argues that Katherine throws Petruchio’s whip into the fire, thereby disarming him while Hodgdon sees Katherine as throwing her own whip into the fire in an act of capitulation. ‘His’ or ‘Hers?’ The Whips in Sam Taylor’s The Taming of the Shrew’, Shakespeare Bulletin, 18, 2000, 36–7.

[18] Taming of the Shrew, Pressbook (1929), 10.

[19] Ann Thompson, ‘Introduction’, in The Taming of the Shrew, ed. Ann Thompson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 19.

[20] Pressbook, 9 (my italics).

[21] Ibid., 10.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid., 15.

[24] Ibid., 4.

[25] Ibid., 5.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid., 30. He loses some credibility when he refers to ‘the stilted phrases of the 15th century’ (16).

[29] James Agate, London Pavilion, no. 768, November 11, 1929.

[30] Pressbook, 10.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Willson, 26.

[34] See Hodgdon.

[35] Henderson, 125.

[36] The italics indicate where words have been changed or added. For instance ‘pretend’ replaces ‘intend’, ‘loving’ replaces ‘reverend’ and ‘sing’ replaces ‘brawl’. The text is taken from the soundtrack and compared to The Taming of the Shrew, 4.1, 177–99. This speech is not in Garrick’s Catherine and Petruchio. From The Taming of the Shrew, ed. Barbara Hodgdon (Methuen: London, 2010).

[37] Cultural commentator Gilbert Seldes distinguished between ‘movies’ and ‘talkies,’ the latter often ‘a chaos distasteful to the orderly mind’, An Hour with the Movies and the Talkies (London: J.P. Lippincott Co.), 1929, 8.

[38] Quoted in Henderson, 124.

[39] As Jackson (20) and Henderson (124) note, Pickford claims in her autobiography, Sunshine and Shadow (1956), she was told to rely on her silent tricks rather than attempt something more dramatic.

[40] The Speed of Sound (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 276.

[41] Scott MacQueen, audio commentary on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1935, DVD, Turner Entertainment Co and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., USA, 2007.

[42] Theodore Dreiser, ‘The Hollywood Experience’, from Liberty, June 11, 1932, reprinted in Authors on Film, ed. Harry M. Geduld (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1922), 206–22, 213.

[43] The Show of Shows, John G. Adolfi, dir., Frank Fay, J. Keirn Brennan, scr., Warner Bros. Pictures, 1929.

[44] This sequence is available on YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vbMDp8OkU7E (Accessed 19/02/12).

[45] The Speed of Sound, 315.

[46] Scott MacQueen, audio commentary on A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

[47] 2.1. 255–256 and 2.2.155-6, respectively. From The Complete Works, ed. Stanley Wells, Gary Taylor, John Jowett and William Montgomery (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988).

[48] For an account of this, see Russell Jackson, Shakespeare Films in the Making: Vision, Production and Reception (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 28.

[49] Shakespeare on Film (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1977), 51.

[50] ‘Shakespearean Art Makes ‘Martyrs’ of Film Stars’, A Midsummer Night’s Dream Pressbook, 1935, 26.

[51] Charmion Von Wiegand, ‘Reinhardt’s Dream’, New Theatre and Film: 1934–1937 (San Diego, CA and New York: Harcourt Brace, 1985), 279–83, 281.

[52] The Spectator, 18 October 1935, in The Graham Greene Film Reader: Mornings in the Dark, ed. David Parkinson (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1993), 38.

[53] The Listener XVII, 425, 3 March 1937, 387–9, 387.

[54] ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, reprinted in Shakespeare on Film, Television and Radio: The Researcher’s Guide, ed., Olwen Terris, Eve-Marie Oesterlen, Luke McKernan (London: British Universities Film & Video Council, 2009), 145–8.

[55] Panofsky, 233–48, 238.

[56] ‘Spreading the News Round Schools, A Midsummer Night’s Dream Pressbook, 1936, 6.

[57] ‘Teachers’ Manuals’ from Hays Office’, Pressbook – see A Midsummer Night’s Dream, ed. E. Edward Edleson (New York: 1936), 6.

[58] ‘Catchlines’, Pressbook, 21.

[59] ‘All Ages and All Classes Join in Praise of ‘Dream’, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Pressbook, 29.

[60] Pressbook, 29.

[61] Available on the DVD special features on A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

[62] Scott MacQueen, audio commentary on A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

[63] Boy Meets Girl - 1436, ROMEO AND JULIET – 1936’, Romeo and Juliet Pressbook, 1936, np. The authors of this go on to claim that a film of Romeo and Juliet was previously impossible, as there was not a producer who could rise to the challenge before Irving Thalberg came along.

[64] The Internet Movie Database lists eleven with matching titles alone.

[65] ‘Master Will Shakespeare’, Jacques Tourneur, dir. Richard Goldstone, scr., Romeo and Juliet (1936), Turner Entertainment Co., 2007.

[66] Russell Jackson, 159.

[67] Ibid., 46.

[68] Jackson, 154.

[69] The Listener, 388.

[70] Ibid.

[71] Ibid.

[72] Luke McKernan and Olwen Terris, Walking Shadows: Shakespeare in the National Film and Television Archive (London: BFI, 1994), 190. A brief discussion of this film can be found in Megan Murray-Pepper, ‘The “tables of memory”: Shakespeare, cinema and the writing desk’, The Writer on Film: Screening Literary Authorship, ed. Judith Buchanan (Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palagrave, 2013), 92–105, 94–5.

[73] Bergner’s ‘Rosalind’ Her Best-Loved Role’, As You Like It, Pressbook, 1936, 14.

[74] ‘As You Like It, Grandest Fun Ever Brought to Screen’, Ibid., 15.

[75] ‘So you think you don’t like Shakespeare?’, Ibid., 11.

[76] Ibid., 11–12.

[77] Crowl, 8.

[78] Kenneth Rothwell, A History of Shakespeare on Screen: A Century of Film and Television (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 50.

[79] See Crowl, 8 and John Cottrell, Laurence Olivier (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1975), 101–3.

[81] Charles Laughton received the Oscar for Best Actor (1934). Cleopatra was nominated for ‘Best Picture’, ‘Best Sound, Recording’, ‘Best Film Editing’, Best Assistant Director’ and won for ‘Best cinematography’ (1935). See Chapter 5.

[82] In his review of Romeo and Juliet, Graham Greene writes of this fourth attempt to screen Shakespeare (following The Taming of the Shrew, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It). The Spectator, 23/10/1936, in The Pleasure Dome: The Collected Film Criticism 1935–40, ed. John Russell Taylor (London: Secker & Warburg, 1972), 109–11, 109.