Filming Shakespeare With And Without Words In Settings Familiar And Unfamiliar

Kenneth Branagh (whose full-length version of Hamlet was released on DVD recently) characterized playing Hamlet on stage as “…three hours of dialogue and then a sword fight when you’re exhausted.” What, then, of playing Hamlet on film? How about in silent film?

Sarah Bernhardt portrayed the melancholy Dane in a French version from 1900, Le Duel d’Hamlet, and one is tempted to infer that the adaptation focused on the action of the duel simply because film was silent in 1900. That inference would be wrong, however, since Le Duel d’Hamlet was a sound film that shipped to theaters with an accompanying Edison cylinder recording. Take that, Al Jolson.

There were many silent Hamlets, however, like the one produced in Denmark in 1910, now lost, and others that still survive intact or in fragmentary form.

It is not impossible to create a silent Hamlet. As recently as last June, a 90-minute mime and movement version was presented wordlessly at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. Sarah Kaufman of The Washington Post wrote of the silent performance that “… the suspicions [and] shadows… blare like sirens though the actors, who convey them only through a glance, a gesture and a particular way of moving across the stage.”

The 1916 silent film Hamlet Up To Date, shot by the Lubin Studio in Florida, was perhaps the first film version to recast the story in a modern setting. The trend cotinues: the Ethan Hawke version from 2000 was set in modern-day New York. A 2000 TV adaptation starring Campbell Scott updated the setting to 19th Century New York (and was shot right here on Long Island).

Given the critical attention these productions garnered, it seems unfathomable that arguably the boldest adaptation, a silent film, shot in upstate New York at a time when most film production companies had long since departed for Hollywood to escape the restrictions of Edison’s Motion Picture Trust… remains largely unknown.

That may change, however, since the lone surviving print has now been painstakingly transferred to video and become available for critical reevaluation. Kerry Decker’s decision to set the story in fifteenth century Greece at first seems counterintuitive, but perfectly suits his Hamlet, John Hopkins. Hopkins’s startling performance as the tragic prince is matched in subtlety and nuance by Alan Chapman’s Claudius. The silent Decker version takes extreme liberties with the story and eschews the violence endemic to nearly all productions, on stage or screen, silent or with sound, taking its cue from Claudius’s reaction to the madness of Ophelia, spoken to Queen Gertrude in Act Four, Scene Five: O, this is the poison of deep grief/ it springs all from her father’s death/ O Gertrude, Gertrude/ When sorrows come, they come not single pies/ but in battalions.

Link to Decker’s silent Hamlet.

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News From The Future – A Report On Film Restoration as of Jan. 1, 2150

Do you remember the pre-virtual flatties? Don’t worry… no one does.

But a small band of so-called ‘film preservationists’ at UMCA have joined forces to restore and present these curios to anyone with the courage and patience to “sit through them.” Most flatties are missing and presumed lost, junked due to their near-total lack of commercial value when the first “immersive media experiences” (as they were then called) flashed onto parietal, temporal and occipital lobes around the world.

“What survived, survived piecemeal,” according to Sky Hepburn, who calls herself a ‘film preservationist’ even though, strictly speaking, there is no ‘film’ left to preserve. “We work with a variety of binary source materials which are themselves re-encodings of long-obsolete single-perspective external media. Sometimes we have just one channel of information to work with, so we can only approximate the original experience.”

“Approximating the experience” is challenging, to say the least. We asked Hepburn to comment on her most difficult restoration work.

  • Planet of the Apes (1968) – “We have the picture element and a commentary track by Roddy McDowell. All attempts to recreate the original dialogue through lip reading have come up empty.”
  • Cabin Boy (1994) – “We have a complete set of all the raw footage as well as the soundtrack mix elements from this classic comedy, but no information as to how it was assembled for release.”
  • Follow That Bird (1985) – “Again, picture elements but no sound. We’ve recreated the portion of the soundtrack spoken by human beings, but all Muppet sequences are currently mute.”
  • The List of Adrian Messenger (1963) – “A heartbreaker. The only John Huston film we have, other than Annie – and our print is missing the last reel. Surviving documentation indicates that the film featured Kirk Douglas, George C. Scott, Tony Curtis, Robert Mitchum, Frank Sinatra and Burt Lancaster, but we can only confirm the participation of the first two.”
  • A Cinerama Space Odyssey (2001) – “The last twenty minutes look as if the original negative was exposed to light during darkroom development.”
  • Scent of Mystery (1960) – “Missing picture and track, but we have the smells.”

There have been successful restorations, however. All of the materials survived for Memento (2000), but the film was, according to Hepburn, “…a hopeless mess. After years of fruitless analysis, somebody, I forget who, suggested we reverse the order of the sequences.” This provided a ‘Rosetta Stone,’ although Hepburn admits that the now fully restored film is “…kind of boring.” The ‘tails out’ technique has been attempted with other films for which all elements still exist, “…with mixed results,” according to Hepburn. “It improves some films, like Citizen Kane (1941), which is far more understandable when you know what ‘Rosebud’ is from the outset.” For other films – like those of David Lynch, for example – the technique yields no discernible effect.

Preservationists may differ in their judgment of individual flattie titles, but all are in agreement as to the most rewarding aspect of their work: discovering and identifying titles that have maltinized.

“We don’t fully understand the process,” says Hepburn, “but apparently, as a film ages, it becomes susceptible to maltinization.” Regardless of content, maltinized films expand over the years, ‘growing’ new opening and closing sequences. Thankfully, these are easy to detect, since the added sequences do not involve players or characters seen in the original film, but rather ‘a universal character’ whom Hepburn believes may well have been the most beloved ‘movie star’ of all time, judging by the sheer number of appearances he made. “Like the Greek chorus, this character exists to explain the story and indicate how an ideal audience would react,” says Hepburn, who’s currently working on “Glasses, Beard and Lapel Pin,” a loving two-week tribute consisting exclusively of excerpted maltinized material. “We believe these sequences stand on their own. They deserve to be seen and appreciated without having to endure the 90 to 130 minute ‘feature films’ that follow and/or precede them. You need to know about these ‘motion pictures,’ but you probably don’t want to actually watch them.”

The first program, subsidized by University of Murdoch California funds, will include the maltinizations of They Died With Their Boots On, Angels with Dirty Faces, Little Caesar, Yankee Doodle Dandy, McClintock, and a collection of shorts made by the National Film Board of Canada and Disney Productions.

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