This treasure trove for Shakespeare fans is also an excellent primer on Hollywood's recurring dilemma when it comes to filming the plays of arguably the greatest master of the English language, a mastery becoming increasingly obsolete (if not irrelevant) as various dialects and colloquial usages dilute and mutate the potent serum from which Shakespeare concocted his heady brews (a mutation which, frankly, Shakespeare, ever the playful language tweaker and word-coiner, would probably applaud). These adaptations run the gamut from the purported "complete" 1996 Kenneth Branagh Hamlet to the questionably cast 1936 Romeo and Juliet to the radically reimagined and rewritten Max Reinhardt 1935 Midsummer Night's Dream to the towering (if, again, revised) 1965 Laurence Olivier Othello. The true student of Shakespeare will have a field day following along with the original texts to see how radically different filmmakers from completely different epochs approached the conundrum of maintaining some fealty to these undisputed masterworks while attempting to make them resonate both for modern audiences and the medium of film.
To take these films chronologically, if not necessarily in ascending order of quality:
A Midsummer Night's Dream. This mammoth production, ostensibly co-directed by theater visionary Max Reinhardt and film pioneer William Dieterle (Mickey Rooney has stated that Dieterle was the only director on-set), was the result of Reinhardt's 1934 stage performances of the play at the Hollywood Bowl. Warner's chief of production Hal Wallis was one of the tens of thousands who saw the production and decided it was the perfect project to put a little polish on Warner's street-tough, blue collar image. Filling the cast with both Warner contract players (Jimmy Cagney an unlikely and last minute Bottom as well as Dick Powell), newcomers (a radiant Olivia de Havilland in her screen debut), and a host of brilliant character actors and then major stars in various supporting roles (Mickey Rooney, Anita Louise, Victor Jory and a host of others), and saturating the screen with both the stagecraft of Reinhardt and film smarts of Dieterle, this over the top production may not be Shakespeare for purists, but it is an eye-popping and often surprisingly well-played adaptation.
Reinhardt brought in Erich Wolfgang Korngold to adapt Mendelssohn's music for underscoring (and the occasional sung moment), and, after a brief skirmish with original cinematographer Ernest Haller, Wallis brought in Hal Mohr to film the story, and these two men's contributions to the finished product, along with editor Ralph Dawson, cannot be overstated. Korngold became something of a primo don on-set, giving line readings in tempo to the actors to match his pre-composed music (years before Michael Powell's "composed films"), and Mohr created many startling and then-innovative effects (along with Byron Haskin) that bring an otherworldly sheen to the proceedings. In fact Mohr won an Oscar for his cinematography, in spite of not being nominated, when an unprecedented write-in campaign took the Academy by storm. Write-ins were soon thereafter banned.
This is a legendary film, more for its production design, cinematography and scoring than for its performances (which have been hotly debated since the film's premiere), and it is well worth viewing if only for the spectacle.
Romeo and Juliet. This typically glossy MGM production (the studio one would have thought would have done the Reinhardt Dream), the last production the legendary Irving Thalberg personally supervised before his untimely death, hews much closer to its source material than Dream does, but it is hampered both by its leads' ages (decades too old for the roles they play, something that would not be properly addressed until Zefferelli's filming of the play in 1968 with age-appropriate actors) and their occasional forays into the then in-vogue over-theatrical acting style. Leslie Howard fares better than Norma Shearer (Mrs. Thalberg) in this regard, but Shearer for the most part brings a surprisingly contemporary spunk to her Juliet despite her occasional "look at me, I'm acting" moments. Howard, as befits someone of his stage training and continental background, speaks the text beautifully and with a great deal of heartfelt emotion. These may be middle-aged lovers, but their passion quietly burnishes the screen under George Cukor's sensitive direction. John Barrymore as Mercutio and Basil Rathbone as Tybalt chew the scenery with their usual flair and bring their mellifluous voices to the unmatched poetry.
Othello. This 1965 filming of Olivier's stage performance has its equal share of admirers and detractors. While many consider Olivier's Hamlet the definitive film performance of that role (despite its wholesale textual revisions of Shakespeare's original), his Othello may in retrospect be his finest Shakespearian achievement, a tour-de-force whirlwind through both historical and contemporary acting styles that seemed to confound some reviewers at the time of the film's release, but now seems bracingly honest and completely integrated. Despite the perhaps over-strident reaction to Olivier's blackface makeup, his characterization is unerringly deep and nuanced as a man never quite the master of his own fate.
While most filmic adaptations of Shakespeare attempt to "open up" the proceedings (Olivier's own adaptations are no exception), this Othello is unashamedly stagebound, but does not suffer for it. This is one of Shakespeare's most intimate character studies and the sometimes claustrophobic atmosphere of the proceedings only helps to elevate the tensions between Othello and the fork-tongued Iago (brilliantly portrayed by Frank Finlay). An impossibly young and lovely Maggie Smith makes a touching Desdemona and brings subtle nuance and shadings to a role that too often becomes a dumbfounded victim. Director Stuart Burge's work is unobtrusive, which is for the best considering the explosive performances that are at the center of this piece.
Hamlet. Just a few years after Franco Zefferelli filmed the play with Mel Gibson and Glenn Close, wunderkind Kenneth Branagh brought forth this epic version which he claimed was the first "complete" film of the play. While it cannot be contested that the various previous versions (notably Olivier's) had wholesale edits and restructuring of the Bard's text, Branagh conveniently forgot to mention that the archival sources for the play exist in at least three different versions of various lengths. And length is perhaps this version's only real downfall: Branagh is not content to, as any film student will tell you, "show rather than describe," he consistently shows in addition to describing, a trait that becomes tiresome long before the film's 4 hour plus running time comes to a close.
That said, this is certainly the definitive Hamlet for our time, not only for its uniformly superb performances (everyone from Julie Christie to John Gielgud to Charlton Heston to Robin Williams--and all of them beyond reproach), but for its beautiful production design, cinematography and editing. Some may find fault with the ubiquitous underscore of Patrick Doyle, but even it is lush and appropriate.
This version also benefits from an enhanced sense of its historical context (Denmark with its tribulations seems an actual character in this version), something Branagh obviously culled from Olivier's own Richard III and Henry V.