Sunday, July 10, 2011

Hamlet (1948)

"So oft it chances in particular men / That through some vicious mole of nature in them, / By the o'ergrowth of some complexion / Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason, / Or by some habit grown too much; that these men - / Carrying, I say, the stamp of one defect, / Their virtues else - be they as pure as grace, / Shall in the general censure take corruption / From that particular fault... This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind."  Opening Narration, Hamlet (1948)
Hamlet has never been my favorite Shakespearean play.  I can appreciate it, I can enjoy certain scenes, I can even understand it.  But I don't particularly like it.  Hamlet is so damn whiny and self-involved--like most college students home over break.  So you can imagine I was dreading this one.  I wish I could say I finished the film enlightened and moved by a famous tragedian.  I wasn't.  I kept checking the time to see how much more I had left.  And Oliver cut my absolute favorite characters to boot.  Give me MacBeth over Hamlet any day; at least Lady MacBeth follows through.

Opening scene to Hamlet
The opening quote (taken in pieces and modified from Act I Scene IV of the play) above is narrated by Lawrence Olivier, who plays the character of Prince Hamlet.  The lines fade away and the camera pans to soldiers changing shifts atop the castle of Elsinore.  A sentry, Francisco, changes shifts with Bernardo and another sentry, Marcellus, both of whom have seen the ghost of the recently deceased King Hamlet.  Marcellus brings with him the skeptical Horatio, a friend of the young Prince Hamlet, played by Norman Wooland.  The three men see the ghost of the old King, but when they ask him to speak, the ghost hurries away.

Horatio sees the ghost of King Hamlet
Meanwhile, the court is celebrating the recent marriage of Gertrude, King Hamlet's widowed Queen, to his brother, the new King Claudius, played by Basil Sydney.  Gertrude, played by Eileen Herlie, has married Claudius a month after her husband was killed by an accidental snakebite.  Despite entreaties from both the King and Queen, Prince Hamlet sits alone and broods. Horatio interrupts him and brings him to the castle battlements with the story of the ghost.  They wait, and soon the ghost appears and beckons him to follow.  Alone, Hamlet hears the true recounting of his father's death.  He was poisoned when Claudius poured poison in his ear while he slept.  The ghost leaves, after charging him to both be kind to his mother and revenge his father.  Hamlet is tormented with indecision, and decides to pretend madness in order to draw out Claudius's guilt.

Queen Gertrude speak with Hamlet
Polonius, played by Felix Aylmer, King Claudius's chief counselor, watches his son Laertes, played by Terrence Morgan, leave on an extended trip for France.  Before Laertes leaves, he advises his sister Ophelia not to fall in love with Hamlet, as he must marry for the good of the kingdom.  Ophelia, played by Jean Simmons, has exchanged love letters with Hamlet, but first Laertes and then Polonius caution her against his courtship.  Later, when Hamlet begins to act mad, Polonius believes it is because of his love for Ophelia.  He tells Ophelia to return Hamlet's letters, and then hides nearby to see how Hamlet reacts.  Hamlet remains consistently mad, and manages to both frighten Ophelia and break her heart.  Both Claudius and Polonius are convinced of Hamlet's madness.

Ophelia and Hamlet
Hamlet hires traveling players to perform the play, "The Murder of Gonzago."  But Hamlet alters the play to portray how his father actually died.  The play is performed before the court, and Claudius is unable to watch and runs to his room.  Hamlet, convinced now of his guilt, follows Claudius to his room but catches him praying.  Unwilling to kill him while he prays, Hamlet goes instead to confront his mother.  He hears a voice from the curtains and, believing it to be Claudius, runs the curtains through.  After discovering he has killed Polonius, he is only mildly upset and continues to harangue his mother about her swift marriage.  Suddenly Hamlet hears the ghost of his father, reminding him to be good to his mother.  Hamlet speaks with the ghost but Gertrude cannot see it and becomes convinced her son is mad.

Gertrude fear Hamlet is mad
Hamlet is banished by Claudius to England, where Claudius has contrived for him to be assassinated.  But Hamlet's ship is attacked by pirates, and he manages to return to England.  In the meantime Ophelia has been driven mad by death of her father and Hamlet's rejection and spends her days wandering the castle picking flowers and singing nonsense songs.  Laertes arrives home distraught to find his sister mad and his father dead.  He is further disturbed when Ophelia drowns, presumable having committed suicide.  Hamlet returns just as Ophelia is being buried and is attacked by a grieving Laertes.  But Claudius pulls him away and then talks him into revenge against Hamlet by challenging him to a duel with swords.  Claudius will give Laertes a poison-tipped sword that will kill at the slightest scratch.  Claudius also prepares a poison drink, in case Laertes fails.

Laertes finds Ophelia has gone mad
Hamlet accepts the duel and the two fight, with Hamlet winning the first two rounds.  Gertrude sees Claudius making much of a goblet for Hamlet and suspects it is poisoned.  She drinks from it while Claudius watches in horror.  Laertes finally scratches Hamlet who continues to fight, not knowing he will soon die.  In the fight, he switches swords with Laertes and scratches him, fatally wounding him.  At that moment, Gertrude dies, telling Hamlet of the poisoned cup.  With his dying breath, Laertes confesses the plot, and Hamlet attacks Claudius in a fit of rage.  Hamlet kills Claudius, and then staggers to the throne while the courtiers kneel before him.  He then dies himself.  Horatio is horrified, and orders that Hamlet be given a soldiers funeral.  Hamlet's body to brought to the top of the battlements, while cannons are shot off from the castle in respect.

Final scene of Hamlet
British actor Lawrence Olivier had had great critical success with his production of Henry V in 1944, and decided to try again in his second Shakespearean cinematic role.  Hamlet wasn't his first choice; but Orson Welles had just finished filming Macbeth and was starting production on Othello.  Olivier was determined, however, that this be just as great a success as his last film, and he wasn't too concerned with Shakespearean accuracy. Writer Alan Dent, who was helping him with the screenplay, recalled that "one has to choose between making the meaning clear to twenty million cinemagoers and making two thousand Shakespearean experts wince, or not changing a word.  We decided to make the minority wince."  They trimmed the play from four hours to two hours and thirty minutes and changed some of the dialogue to make it easier to grasp.  They hired Jean Simmons, a young rising British star as Ophelia and 28-year-old Eileen Herlie as Hamlet's mother, Gertrude.  Olivier himself was 40 years old.  He also voiced the deposed King himself, by recording it and then playing it back much more slowly.  He died his hair blonde, and even did his own stunts by jumping from the parapet in the scene where he kills King Claudius.  The biggest change that Olivier made was to get rid of the characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, in an effort to focus more on the psychological aspects of the play, rather than the political.

Sir Lawrence Olivier as Hamlet
The inventive camera effects and tricks were greatly inspired by Orson Welles's groundbreaking work in Citizen Cane.  Olivier stuck to his image as a prominent thespian by insisting they keep to black and white film as an artistic premise.  He would later come to admit he was in a heated argument with Technicolor.  But despite, or perhaps because of all the changes, Oliver's turn as the troubled Prince of Denmark was a success, much to the shock of the Hollywood bigwigs. Without much advertising or Oscar plugging, Hamlet was well on its way to sweeping both the awards and audiences.

Hamlet drops on the King
Hamlet wasn't the only big movie in 1948; films like The Red ShoesTreasure of the Sierra Madre, and Johnny Belinda were all major contenders.  But far more pressing on the mind of the Academy members was where they were going to get the funds for this year's banquet.  In past years, the major studio heads had contributed the bulk of the funds, happy to pay for a ceremony that would lend them prestige and increase profits.  But in May of 1948 the Supreme Court told the major studios they couldn't own both their movie theater chains and their studios, as they were in violation of anti-trust laws.  The studios were forced to sell the theater chains, which represented half of their profits.  To make things worse, 1948 also marked the year that the World Series, Milton Berle and Ed Sullivan were broadcast on American television sets.  Movie ticket sales plummeted.  In December the Academy got the bad news--the studios were pulling their funding to cut costs.

The Academy of Motion Pictures Screening Theater
The Academy President, Jean Hersholt, threatened to resign in protest.  As it was he only agreed to stay on through the awards, and then announced that the ceremonies would be held in the Academy's 950-seat screening theater; last year's ceremonies at the Shrine Auditorium boasted 6,700 seats.  Hersholt turned down offers to host the Awards in stadiums in other cities, in the original place of the Ambassador Hotel, and especially for a local television station to broadcast the awards (though this was mostly out of spite for the new medium.)  Academy members lit up the switchboards to complain; their $36 yearly dues would not get them tickets this year.

Madame Karinska receives her first Best Costume Oscar from Elizabeth Taylor
Hersholt opened the ceremonies by dourly announcing his new successor, screenwriter/producer Charles Brackett.  The emcee, a rather smarmy Robert Montgomery, seemed to feel his entire job was to ogle the newest studio starlets who had been hired to distribute the awards throughout the show.  Ava Gardiner, Deborah Kerr, Arlene Dahl, and seventeen-year-old Elizabeth Taylor were among the presenters that evening.  This was the first year an Oscar for "Best Costume Design" would be presented, and legendary Hollywood costumer Edith Head thought she had it in the bag, as she "had been doing motion pictures before the Oscar even existed."  Yet she was forced to sit and watch while Madame Karinska and Dorothy Jenkins won for the "sack-cloths and suits of armor" in Joan of Arc.

Director John Huston and father Walter Huston celebrate their Oscars
The night would include big wins for Treasure of the Sierra Madre director John Huston; he won both Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay.  He also directed his father, Walter Huston, to win a the award for Best Supporting Actor, who then said, "Many years ago...I raised a son and I said to him, 'If you ever become a writer or a director, please find a good part for your old man.'"  Jane Wyman, famous for being Ronald Reagan's first wife (and an actress), won for Best Actress in Johnny Belinda.  Lawrence Olivier was announced "Best Actor" to muted applause, and because of his absence, his friend Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. sheepishly accepted for his friend.  And then actress Ethel Barrymore stepped onstage to announce the winner of Best Picture.

Sir Laurence Olivier gets his Oscar
Hollywood moguls had gawked in some dismay at the increasingly popular films to come out of Great Britain.  And they were very upset to learn of Hamlet's many nominations.  Barrymore in particular was incensed with the film, and very vocally insisted it could not compare to her brother John's onstage performance.  Which was why she was so shaken to open the envelope and discover that same film to be the winner.  Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. accepted the second Oscar as the audience filed out in disgust.  When Olivier, who was starring with his wife Vivien Leigh in a London stage production of School for Scandal, was reached at 9am the next morning he issued a public statement thanking the Academy for the honor given to him and his associates.  When asked how he would celebrate, Olivier said, "Oh, perhaps an extra drink after tonight's show."

Hamlet's dying scene.
Studios were up in arms about Hamlet's win until former president Hersholt announced that their lack of support had led to the change in ceremony, making them look like petulant children.  Tabloids both lauded and denigrated the Academy, but it was the governor of California who said of Oscar, "At the ripe old age of twenty-one, he has shown that he is free to vote as he pleases."  In time, the specter of Hamlet has faded in the face of Olivier's stronger Shakespearean films, Henry V and Richard III.  It is Olivier's acting that has stood the test of time, rather than the film itself.  It is, however, one of only two foreign films to win Best Picture, the second being Slumdog Millionaire sixty years later.

The Verdict?
Well--you can tell this wasn't my favorite.  I tried to like it!  I was an English major.  Shouldn't I be holding a skull aloft and making arcane pronouncements?  I feel like a traitor.  To be honest, I've always felt a bit of a traitor for not being a huge Shakespeare fan.  I do like the Bard, and I can both appreciate and enjoy his plays.  All in all, I find it much easier to recite and/or see his plays rather than read them like a book.  But I prefer his comedies, or even MacBeth.  In the end, I much prefer Oscar Wilde to Shakespeare.  Much more my sense of humor.

Gratuitous melodrama in Hamlet.
And then there are the female characters in Hamlet.  Ophelia, who goes mad after her father dies and her boyfriend dumps her, and Gertrude, who marries her brother-in-law and manages to serve as a kind of Oedipal catalyst.  Neither one is a particularly stirring female character, and Ophelia in particular bugs me as I find myself continually rooting for her to do something.  Stop reciting weird poetry.

Gertrude drinks the poison.
But enough about Hamlet.   I think my biggest challenge in watching a film like this is over-stimulation.  Before I watched this film I had seen several other film representations of Hamlet, gone to a Hamlet production, read the play, and dissected it in English class.  I have even read and seen Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which I much prefer to Hamlet.  Watch it, they play a question game as a tennis match.

But again I digress, again.  This film showed nothing new to me to gain my interest.  When I see a production of Shakespeare, I'm always interested in how the director will bring his own sensibilities to any given play.  Will he place the characters in modern times and arm them with guns as Baz Luhrmann did?  Will the director decide Hamlet truly is going mad, or that Ophelia is indeed pregnant with Hamlet's child?  I once saw a very interesting production of A Midsummer Night's Dream where the scenery became increasingly bare until the end when the actors were just in front of a white backdrop.  I want to know why this rendition of the play is different, and what should make it stand out for me.  I did not find anything in this version of Hamlet.

Hamlet fights Laertes
Again, perhaps I am jaded.  This was the first sound film of Hamlet, and Olivier did make changes.  But I find it was a very average, very unoriginal portrayal of a play I don't really like to begin with.  If I had seen it in 1948, I would have perhaps been more easily stirred.  But I really think that it is not the lack of 21st century bells and whistles I find irritating, but instead lack of imagination I find in this film.  And yet, I would absolutely see Olivier in Richard III.  Olivier has a kind of dark magnetism and cunning strength that I find much more suited to a villainous anti-hero.  Don't worry Olivier, it's not you, it's me.

Enhanced by Zemanta

No comments:

Post a Comment