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J. Searle Dawley
Shakespeare's tragedy of the hump-backed Duke of Gloucester, who rises to the throne of England by chicanery, treachery, and brilliance, only to find that his own methods have prepared the groundwork for his downfall. Written by
Jim Beaver <email@example.com>
Far from being a representation of a typical stage production of the play when the film was made, star Frederick Warde related in his autobiography that "I found the action of the camera necessitated entirely different methods of acting from the stage. Spontaneity must be replaced by deliberation and concentrated expression take the place of words. I had much to learn and considerable to unlearn but the director and photographer were very considerate, although my ignorance of the necessities of the camera must have tried their patience almost to the limit." See more »
The viewer would do well to compare this film with Frank Benson's British film of the same play released in 1911, one year before Warde's. Both the similarities and differences are illuminating. The costumes are of course very similar--it would be years before modern dress Shakespeare would get onto film. The way the scenes of Edward's court are set are very similar. Such scenes were the staple of Victorian Shakespeare. Both films use narrative title cards to explain to the viewer what is going on; later in the silent era they would contain dialogue more than narration. The similarities show us what was the state of Shakespearean production and cinema standards at the time.
The major difference that one sees is that Benson tries to put you in row fifteen of the Drury lane theatre during one of his performances. The camera never moves and every shot is a long shot. You can't see Benson's face in any of them. All have what is clearly a stage set behind them, and the actors move from side to side primarily because they feel constrained by the backdrop and the footlights.
Warde's approach is best shown in a scene where Richard is riding to the Tower to do in Henry VI. It is shot outside on location. The camera is raised above head level. Richard rides from the distance toward the camera passing behind the camera to the right. It is a scene only possible in film; you could never see such a thing on stage.
Warde's camera is consistently closer to the action than Benson's so that the actor's faces are usually visible. He makes use of high level cameras to see Richard on a balcony and a crowd below and intercuts these with interiors so that one imagines the balcony to be attached to the interior.
In other words, the scenes here are conceived cinematically not theatrically. Warde was not the first to do this even in a Shakespeare film but it does make his film easier and more interesting to watch than his contemporary's.
Alas, his characterization of Richard leaves something to be desired; he stomps about like a troll from a Brothers Grimm story. Before closeups became standard, the only tool an actor could use in a silent film was his bodily movement, and Warde's lacks the subtlety to convey anything more than a caricature. As a result the film, despite being of historical interest, reasonably well paced and shot with a cinematic eye, will fail, I think, to really grip most modern viewers' interest.
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