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This adaptation of Shakespeare's "King Lear" is currently available in
two different versions. The DVD from the Thanhouser Company Film
Preservation is among a compilation of the films from the early
Thanhouser production company. Its version of the film is a two and a
half reels abridgement from the original five reels and runs
approximately 36 minutes. The video was transferred from a print from
the George Eastman House, perhaps 35mm. The DVD from TeleVista appears
to show the complete or near-complete film and runs approximately 63
minutes. Yet, the TeleVista version has significantly worse picture
quality, which was surely copied from a contrasty reduction print. This
situation arises occasionally, especially with the older films in the
public domain. "A Girl's Folly" (1917) is available under the same
situation: one version with high picture quality but an incomplete
print and another version that is more complete but of lesser visual
quality. Fortunately for me, I had the opportunity to view both without
purchase. I don't see an easy choice if one were limited to one or the
other in this situation.
This "King Lear" was one of a spew of Shakespeare films made for the bard's tercentenary, although Shakespeare already had been for years a source for numerous screen adaptations. Some of the other 1916 films are now presumed lost: Metro's "Romeo and Juliet" starring Francis X. Bushman and Beverly Bayne, both stars at the time but now largely forgotten; Fox's "Romeo and Juliet" with the vamp Theda Bara; a "Macbeth" featuring Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree; and a conceptually intriguing lampooning of Shakespearian acting, "The Real Thing at Last", which historian Judith Buchanan ("Shakespeare on Silent Film: an Excellent Dumb Discourse") considers the most regretful lost Shakespeare of the silent era.
Frederick Warde who plays Lear here also played the title role in the early feature-length Shakespeare film "Richard III" (1912). Although he and the rest of the cast of "King Lear" are theatrical, the acting is better suited to the screen than that which appeared in "Richard III". The comparatively closer camera views and more scene dissection in the 1916 film as opposed to the static 1912 early feature also help considerably in this respect. Overall, Thanhouser's "King Lear" is a decent rendering of the play's plot and is well paced, but isn't anything special. The swordfights are rather pathetic, but better than those performed in the earlier Thanhouser Shakespearian photoplay "Cymbeline" (1913). Some of Shakespeare's language is well used in the odd font of the intertitles.
According to Buchanan, the film originally included a prologue where Warde played himself reading "King Lear" and then imagined himself in the role, thus introducing the main narrative, but this part is absent from both versions that I viewed.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Director Ernest C. Warde and his players have achieved the almost impossible. They have made a surprisingly dull and dreary film out of Shakespeare's play, despite producer Edwin Thanhouser spending a fair amount of money on actors, costumes, sets and extras. Alas, most of the lead players, Fred Warde, J.H. Gilmour and company obviously hail from the theatre and have not the slightest notion that acting in front of a camera bears only a slight relationship to acting on the stage. Worse still, the director obviously feels likewise namely that making a movie is exactly the same as directing a stage presentation. In one scene, the camera makes a slight pan to the left. I don't know exactly how this happened. Maybe the cameraman noticed the actor was walking out of the shot and had the good sense to move the camera with him. What a royal bawling out he must have received from director Warde. I can just see him jumping up and down and stamping his feet. "Blithering idiot!" he no doubt yelled. "How dare you move the camera in one of my pictures! Who do you think you are? Billy Bitzer! And who do you think I am? D.W. Griffith?" No way, José! No way! At least Lorraine Huling in her last of 26 movies she died in November 1971 makes a pleasing Cordelia. And thankfully the play has been condensed to make its dreary unfolding just a bit less tiresome. It runs just 63 minutes. There is a shorter version on the market, but a reasonably good print of the full 63 minutes effort can be obtained on an Alpha DVD.
Considering that Cineanalyst's review talks about the different
versions of Lear and the abysmal quality of the Televista print, there
isn't a lot of need for me to go over all this again. Suffice to say,
this version I am reviewing is the most complete but also an amazingly
ugly print--something true of every Televista film I have seen. This
company constantly brings the most obscure films to DVD (a major plus)
and never restores them in any way--and many are barely watchable.
Considering how few people want to see these obscure films, I guess I
can understand why no restoration work is done--it's just a shame they
are so gosh-darn ugly.
As far as "King Lear" goes, it may seem pretty poor to modern audiences because the acting is occasionally overdone, there is little in the way of suspense (such as Glouchester immediately recognizing his son in the film) and the costumes are mostly wrong (like they are from some Biblical epic). However, despite these limitations, the film is very good for 1916 and the essence of Shakespeare's tale is all here.
I'll be honest--this is the sort of film that would not appeal to most people. But, if you are a cinephile or silent film freak, it's well worth seeing--especially if you compare it to the various other silent versions (I think this one is best). Not without its charms--this one holds up fairly well today.
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