Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Taming of the Shrew (1929)

"The Taming of the Shrew" is an intriguing idea for a film featuring Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. It is more interesting as a curio than as a Shakespeare adaptation, but also carries with it a sense of fun that cannot be overlooked.

Selected as their first joint-venture into the new realm of the talking picture, the selection of a Shakespeare plays speaks volumes about the shifting values of the cinema. The best Fairbanks and Pickford films had been carefully crafted for the cinema, emphasizing character over plot, and allowing their personalities to carry the film. By selecting a Shakespeare play, we see the immediate prejudice that sound brought to the uniquely artistic medium that had flourished over the past 15 years. The idea of essentially filming a play comes off as stagy, and Fairbanks and Pickford seem frankly out of their league as actors doing Shakespeare.

Of course, this particular adaptation leaves plenty of room for Fairbanks to indulge in some fancy stuntwork. Rather than merely walk up a staircase, he leaps and bounds up to the balcony. His performance is played at a level of 100% energy throughout, filled with hearty laughter. Pickford, on the other hand, is not terribly good in her role. Her performance lacks all of the charm and subtlety of her best work. She later blamed director Taylor for not bringing out a better performance from her. As it is, her performance is played at continual full volume just like Fairbanks, and there are perhaps too many scenes of really over-the-top tantrums and outbursts. This was the same year she was awarded an Academy Award for her performance in “Coquette”, which is at least a more subtle performance.

There are perhaps a few too many slapstick scenes in this version, or perhaps I should say to many moments of physical chaos passing as comedy. The scene that introduces Pickford in the beginning has her throwing her suitor down the staircase, knocking over another man in the process, and throwing plates and furniture wildly around the room as everyone tries to find a safe hiding spot. To top it off, the entire scene is shot at faster-than-life silent speed to enhance the comedy. It’s not bad, of course, but it’s not the kind of thing one expects to see in a Shakespeare adaptation. It also shows, of course, how badly suited the stars were to this kind of material.

The play itself was adapted for the screen by director Sam Taylor. The film’s pacing is actually rather breezy and light compared to many talkies of the same year. There is also a remarkable amount of very fluid camerawork that really helps lift the film out of what could have otherwise been a very dreary cinematic experience. Also, for a 1929 film, the sound recording is remarkably good.

This may have something to do with the fact that circulating copies of the film derive from a 1966 reissue that may have had access to original elements that were better-preserved when compared to what we see for many early talkies today. This version also features new opening credits and a music score which, while obviously not from 1929, adds quite a bit to the film and helps carry the action scenes well. (The voice of the priest is also dubbed, probably by Pickford’s business manager Matty Kemp who oversaw the reissue). Normally, I detest watching films in these kinds of reissues (Fairbanks’ “The Iron Mask”, for instance, features narration in place of the intertitles). But for whatever reason, this particular reissue works.

Also in 1929, Fairbanks would appear in the far superior “The Iron Mask”, the sequel to “The Three Musketeers” and also one of his best silents. He would begin the film with a spoken introduction, and concludes it with his farewell, joining his fellow musketeers in the great beyond, which would seem not to be merely his farewell from the film but a kind of farewell from the art of silent film forever. Pickford appeared in “Coquette”, a rather creaky early talkie for which she won an Oscar, but never again would she (or Fairbanks, for that matter) enjoy the kind of success they had in the silent film.

Watching the film today, one is struck by how quickly the art of silent film crumbled when sound came in to the picture. The acting that had made Pickford and Fairbanks the “King and Queen of Hollywood” rendered their performing style obsolete overnight. One could make the case that Pickford fared better with her work in “Coquette”, but with all due respect to that fine actress, I can hardly see how it was Oscar-worthy. It’s important to remember, of course, that the change brought about by sound had absolutely nothing to do with their deficiencies as performers, but only emphasizes the differences between silent and sound film. Watching a film like “The Taming of the Shrew”, and comparing it to what they were both doing just months earlier, makes a strong case that the silent and sound film are really two entirely different things.

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