Shakespeare sells: counterintuitive, but seemingly true. The film industry, which pumps out Shakespeare adaptations (of varying levels of creativity) on the regular, has known this ever since it could hardly have had much awareness of itself as a film industry. At the top, we have the only surviving scene from 1899’s King John, where Shakespeare on screen all started.
“The next three decades would see varied approaches to the challenge of filming Shakespeare in a medium denied the spoken word,” writes the British Film Institute’s Michael Brooke, “from the imaginative tableaux-style mime of Percy Stow’s The Tempest (1908) to truncated productions of the major tragedies (Richard III, 1911; Hamlet, 1913).” Excerpts from one of these last, F.R. Benson’s Richard III, you can watch just below:
Early Shakespeare adapters like Benson tended to make less Shakespeare films than, as Brooke puts it, “compilations of memorable moments” from the plays. Then again, every genre of movie attempted simple things back then, and Shakespearean productions would grow far richer in the sound era, which 1929’s The Taming of the Shrew ushered in for the Bard, and with no less a silver-screen legend than Mary Pickford in the role of Kate. Seven years later, the not-yet-Sir Laurence Olivier, “cinema’s first great Shakespearean artist,” would make his Shakespeare debut as Orlando in Paul Czinner’s As You Like It (1936), which you can watch below. He’d almost made this debut as the lead in George Cukor’s Romeo & Juliet, but ultimately turned it down.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.