Thursday, September 20, 2007

As You Like It

As You Like It (1936), a British film starring Laurence Olivier and Elizabeth Bergner, is, I believe, the most successful screen version of a Shakespeare play ever. Shakespeare generally does not film well, as cinema is a visual art and Shakespeare is an art of spoken poetry. This movie cut the hell out of the play to achieve its success, which will not make purists happy, but judging the movie qua movie, I think it was the right choice.

The script is based on a treatment by J.M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan. The editing is done by a young David Lean who would go onto greater glory as the director of such masterpieces as Lawrence of Arabia and The Bridge Over River Kwai. Some of the older actors in the film would have started their careers in the 19th century and acted with the likes of Henry Irving and Ellen Terry.

This movie is a most romantic production of Shakespeare's most romantic comedy. The sets and costumes are stylized and unrealistic, as in a fairy tale, but not grotesque or fantastic. Every detail of the production is chosen to create this romantic world; as a result the viewer is transported to a happy universe that has never existed but ought to exist.

Young Laurence Olivier is relaxed, handsome and heroic as Orlando. His sleepy eyes are suggestive and mesmerizing on film, and he manages to give a slightly written character more depth than he really has. This clip of the wrestling scene gives some idea of his acting and the production values. (Doubtless, if this scene were filmed today by say, Steven Spielberg, it would be more realistic and exciting, with thunderous rock music, laser lights, swooping cameras and sweat, blood and grunts -- but would it be better than this naive production?)

The revelation in this movie is Elizabeth Bergner, which is as it should be, for Rosalind dominates the play and all the other characters are two-dimensional compared to her. In all of Shakespeare's female roles she is second only to Cleopatra in depth and breadth. Bergner plays Rosalind as a young girl whose eyes shine with the innocence of youth. As a young girl, Rosalind's relationship with her best friend and confidante Celia is almost as important as her love relationship. (Women talk to each other about love way more than men do.) The two are giddy, giggling young things and their friendship is one of the most endearing aspects of the film -- a touch other productions might forget as they focus on the Rosalind-Orlando relationship. (Perhaps the Rosalind-Celia emphasis is a J.M. Barrie touch?)

Bergner plays a Rosalind who is madly in love and who has fun being in love. She is light-hearted and gay throughout and the viewer can't help having as much fun as she has. This is not an obvious choice for Rosalind. Many actresses are led astray by Rosalind's bountiful wisdom and good sense to play her as a Goddess of Reason who calmly trains Orlando in the art of love. How much more interesting it is to watch a Rosalind who is a bubbly, vivacious, feminine creature.

I work with a director who constantly urges actors to have more fun in Shakespeare's comedies. As he puts it, these characters lived before TV's and DVD's. Their entertainment was each other. In Twelfth Night Sir Toby and his friends gull Malvolio because they want to have fun; they want to be entertained. Or take the scene in Comedy of Errors in which Antipholus of Ephesus is locked out of his own house. If Angelo and Balthazar, who are onstage during this scene, just stand there watching Antipholus fight to get into his own house, that is a poor choice. Angelo and Balthazar should be laughing their ass off because their buddy is locked out of his own house. The right choice in a comedy is usually for characters to have fun (unless, like Malvolio or Antipholus, they are the object of fun). Bergner never forgets that she is in a comedy and her character immensely enjoys having some innocent fun with the man she loves.

The most astonishing thing about the play is how little actually happens -- and yet Shakespeare's theatrical sense and his poetry make it work. The plot is as thin and light as a fairy tale, hardly worth recounting. Many of the key actions that move the plot take place off stage and are told to us briefly by messengers because they're not important. What is important is the romantic, sunny world of Arden Forest, where Rosalind's father has been banished and lives like a Robin Hood without the mission to steal from the rich and redistribute wealth. Arden Forest integrates everything else in the story; the place is almost a character of its own.

Into this pastoral world Rosalind goes dressed as a boy named Ganymede. She meets her lover Orlando and slyly suggests that he practice wooing Rosalind with Ganymede. Orlando, apparently confident that none of the other men are watching, agrees to playact wooing with this boy. As Shakespeare knew from the Falstaff-Prince Hal scene in which they playact Hal talking to his father (Henry IV), there is something fascinating about watching characters pretend to be someone else onstage; or to put it another way, watching actors play characters who are actors. The scenes between Orlando and Ganymede, in which Orlando acts out his love with a boy who is actually his love are the heart of the play.

The movie is not for everyone. It's in black and white, which many young people refuse to watch these days. Any movie made in England in 1936 is bound to be crude by today's technical standards. When you watch a 70-year old movie, it helps if you have some practice watching old movies. The sound quality is typically poor -- this is especially bad since the script is full of archaic language that is hard to understand under the best of conditions. They cut almost all of Act V, including one of the best parts of the play, when Jaques leaves the Duke. If you can get past all this, you might like it -- especially if you are tired of naturalism and long for a romantic view of life that is forgotten today.

UPDATE: Revision.


EdMcGon said...

I would nominate the 1980 version of "Taming of the Shrew", with John Cleese as Petruchio, as the best modern adaptation of Shakespeare.

Here's a link if you're interested:

Rational Jenn said...

I've always enjoyed Ken Branagh's "Henry V." I will definitely check out this version of "As You Like It." Thanks for this great review.