“All the world a stage”, or so goes the line from As You Like It, a notable quote from a famous play by the Bard of Avon, a.k.a William Shakespeare, the world’s greatest playwright and sonnet author. Though many may not have actually read the great author’s works or gone to many, if any, of the staged productions of his plays, almost everyone knows Shakespeare’s works to one degree or another, if only by reputation.
It’s not surprising considering the many, many productions staged in all corners of the world and in all the eras since Shakespeare’s actual lifetime in the 17th Century, that the world of film should also have seen, and is still seeing, a number of productions based on the playwright’s works.
Shakespearean plays have been filmed as far back as the early silents (the earliest known American feature film is a 1912 ten minute version of Richard III) and there are always new versions of the works being created, even if sometimes only the storyline is used.
These works are among the best dramatic entities ever and they’re all in the public domain! No listing could ever be truly complete and it would be foolish indeed to say which is the “best”. However, the twenty-five below may be considered outstanding or original versions of these age old stories.
1. A Midsummer’s Nights Dream (1935)
Though the Bard’s works are well known, Shakespeare is rarely big business in the movie world, certainly not in the U.S. Classic Hollywood really didn’t invest many dollars in the playwright’s works. After a disastrous 1929 version of The Taming of the Shrew with Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, Shakespeare wasn’t tackled again until this film in 1935.
How did this come about? Easy, Warner Brothers, the studio built on gangster films and Busby Berkeley musicals (and almost all of them rather good) wanted to show that they were coming up in the world. After the great German director Max Rhinehardt fled his homeland, he staged a much talked about version of the Bard’s story of comically star-crossed lovers and other sundry characters having various adventures during a long summer’s night in an enchanted forest outside ancient Athens, a forest filled with fairies, sprites, magical beasts and other wonders.
The company bought the production and retained many members of the cast, though several of the key roles would be recast with Warner contract players, most of whom had no training on the classical stage. Rhinehardt was hired for what would be his only screen credit, though credited co-director William Keighly actually directed the film.
The result? Rather mixed since some cast members (Dick Powell, Hugh Herbert, Joe E. Brown, Anita Louise) looked like they should be sprouting wisecracks in a modern comedy or musical while others (James Cagney, Victory Jory, Mickey Rooney) looked like fresh and inventive casting.
The play had to be a bit abridged (and somewhat reset in Shakespeare’s own era)but the tradeoff was a film with a visual style unlike any other. The sets were magnificent (though some found them gloomy) and the cinematography was a one-of-a-kind treat.
Veteran cameraman Hal Mohr made the whole thing look like a jewel box come to life and used the sets and lovely costumes as props for shots that could stand alone as great pieces of art in and of themselves (the Academy didn’t nominate him but this came during the short period when write-in votes were allowed and Mohr won the only write in Oscar ever!) Shakespeare may not have been best served but the film world was delivered a stunning artifact.
2. Romeo and Juliet (1936)
The year after A Midsummer Nights Dream, M.G.M decided to show how it should be done with a lavish production of what may well be the most popular of Shakespeare’s works. Who doesn’t at least know the story of ill-fated lovers doomed by feuding families? Producer Irving Thalberg wanted this to be the crowing achievement in the career of his wife, actress Norma Shearer.
No expense was spared with pieces of architecture such as Juliet’s balcony imported at great cost from Italy (all authentic to the Renaissance era), superb costumes, an unbeatable supporting cast (Oscar nominated Basil Rathbone, John Barrymore, Edna Mae Oliver, etc.) and a world class director (George Cukor). How could it lose? Well, it could and did mainly due to overspending and central miscasting.
Romeo was played by Leslie Howard, an excellent but wan actor closing in on forty. Why was he cast? Mostly it was due to Mrs. Thalberg being thirty-six when her character is supposed to be fifteen and Romeo only a bit older. Never before or since have the pair been played by such mature performers. The film lost over a million big ones (in the days when they were big ones). Still, this is a handsome and well made folly.
3. Romeo and Juliet (1954)
As seen by looking at the dates on these entries, almost twenty years would pass before another English-language film version of Romeo and Juliet would again be mounted. This lovingly detailed, well designed, expertly executed version would actually be shot in Italy, albeit with a British cast and crew.
The leads are played by Laurence Harvey and Susan Shentall, and the supporting cast includes such players as John Gielgud, Sebastian Cabot, Flora Robson and a roster of respected British and Italian stage players. The result weren’t that extraordinary but the film is quite good in a conventional way and deserves to be better remembered than it is.
4. Romeo and Juliet (1968)
Finally a hit! Italian director Franco Zeffirelli is often all at sea with contemporary pieces but give him Shakespeare or an opera to film and there is none better. He had made his first internationally known Shakespeare film, The Taming of the Shrew in 1967 (more on that later) but he hit gold with his version of R&J.
Why? Well, this film, as were the previous versions,is a most professional and beautiful production and the score is highlighted by the haunting theme “A Time for Us”, a big hit at the time. However, this version’s big selling point was the casting of Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey, two newcomers, as the title pair. The two actors were then the ages called for in the play.
It would be nice to relate that they pulled their performances off like pros but they really didn’t and didn’t have great careers thereafter (though they did keep on working). The fact of their youth may not seem a big deal now but 1968 was a very youth oriented year and few conventional romantic films with any youth appeal were being made that year. Besides this one was good for book reports and pop quizzes.
5. Romeo + Juliet (1996)
Australian director Baz Luhrman loves things to be fast and furious and eye catching. His films virtually never pause to take a breath. That surely includes this version of the age old story, now set in modern dress in a punky, funky area of southern California and featuring such adventurous casting as comic actor John Leguizamo, Harold Perrineau, Pete Postlethwaite, Paul Rudd and Diane Venora among others.
The leads were played by Claire Danes and Leonardo Dicaprio, both correct in their youth, but experienced in acting even so and, unlike the leads in the 1968 version, up to the demands of the roles. This is not a film for the purists but it did entice a whole new generation to attend and be exposed to Shakespeare’s works.
6. Henry V (1945)
After the inverse hat trick of A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, and a British version of As You Like It in 1936, Shakespeare was persona non grata in the English speaking cinema for almost a decade thereafter since none of those films was a hit.
However, during the World War II years, Britain in particular needed a morale boost and actor Laurence Olivier (who had co-starred in As You Like It) thought that a version of a rousing nationalistic Shakespeare play might well help.
The actor, who was also quite prominent in the classical British stage scene and was in the British navy at the time, chose one of the Bard’s historical plays, Henry V, in which the title monarch rallies the troops in order to defeat the French and reclaim land rightfully belonging to England (never mind that the land later turned out to belong to France and that France was then Britain’s ally in the war at hand).
It wasn’t one of the great Shakespearan plays but it was perfect for the occasion. Though severe wartime restrictions caused difficulties (almost all the metal in the battle scenes is either wood or wool painted with metallic paint) the film was granted precious Technicolor film stock and this was used to stunning effect.
In order not to be forced into using real locations, which was problematic under the circumstances, a bold decision concerning style altered and enhanced the film greatly. The film opens on the day the play first premiered at The Globe Theater.
The first several minutes take place on the stage of the historic theater, which then gives way to an only slightly more realistic France and gradually becomes more naturalistic up until the crucial battle of St. Crispin’s Day, and then begins to regress back to the theatrical style and ends up at The Globe again.
Cleverly, the film thus become a meditation on theatricality, suspension of belief and the tacit agreement on the uses of imagination between audience and the people of the theater. Olivier gave one of his first great screen performances and did a superb job as director and producer as well.
The cast, including Leslie Banks, Robert Newton (wonderful comic relief), Renee Asherson, and Felix Aylmer, among others was first rate. Olivier was award a special Oscar for his combined efforts on the film and it is often considered one of the best of all time.
7. Henry V (1989)
Made under somewhat less dramatic circumstances than Olivier’s version was this retelling by another actor-director-producer, Kenneth Branagh. Though the outer envelop of The Globe has been dropped, it has been replaced with a prolog set in a movie studio, thus keeping the tension between artifice and reality.
While the first version was a patriotic spectacle, this one goes for a grittier effect, one more in keeping with historical facts. Both options are valid and one is not inherently better than the other (both were appropriate for the time in which the respective films were made).
Branagh follows Olivier’s basic blueprint and the results are similarly memorable. Like version one, version two is blessed with a fine cast (Branagh’s then-wife, Emma Thompson, Dereck Jacobi, Christian Bale, Paul Schofield, Robert Stephens, Judi Dench)and his staging is brilliant. The shadow of the previous film was daunting but Branagh comes through with flying colors.