Monday, February 7, 2011

"All Talking! All Laughing!"

The above quote was the advertising byline for the 1929 film version of The Taming of the Shrew, starring the Hollywood royalty of the day, America's Sweetheart Mary Pickford and her husband Douglas Fairbanks, the well-known action-adventure hero, as Kate and Petruchio!
Pickford plays Kate as a whip-wielding harpy whose ferocity could only be matched by Fairbank's swaggering, piratical Petruchio. It just so happens that BOTH habitually carry big black whips around - most convenient for cracking at dramatic moments. And we have these moments aplenty - this was an age of acting on a large scale, where expansive gestures and dramatic poses were an actor's stock-in-trade. (For a taste of the movie, click here to watch a clip on youtube - the video quality is not so great, and there's the added delight of Spanish subtitles. However, it's an opportunity to glimpse the whips, plus Petruchio's pirate suit!)

Though Emma and I both laughed at some of the old-fashioned acting that seems over the top to us, there is a lot to admire about this movie. Although Pickford and Fairbanks don't perform in the naturalistic style  that we are accustomed to, their energy and magnetism makes it easy to understand why they were stars. The film was one of the very first talkies after the silent era, and it's clear that it's the product of an art form in transition. While Pickford and Fairbanks declaim their lines with gusto, there are also several short comedic routines that are pretty much completely silent.

The production is lavish - much of the visual look and setting of the film, including the rowdy crowds on the street and the scenes outside and inside the church, seem like a possible inspiration for similar settings in Zefferelli's later film.

(Petruchio arriving for his wedding. Are you taking notes, Franco Zefferelli? In case you can't tell, that's an upside-down boot on our hero's head.)

This version is very clearly an adaptation - according to IMDB, one of the film's claims to fame is an unintentionally hilarious author credit: "By William Shakespeare, with additional dialogue by Sam Taylor." The plot is considerably simplified, characters are condensed, and at just over an hour, it's much shortened from the play. As we near the end of the movie, there are also several dizzying plot twists that will leave your head spinning.

In general, the plot variations in this adaptation deal with the question that we've discussed - how can we enjoy a story where all the power ends up resting with only one partner in a marriage? In this Shrew for the modern 1920s, we see a much more even power dynamic where both Kate and Petruchio essentially "tame" each other. 

Ironically, the making of this movie, where the unequal marriage roles of the Renaissance are changed in favor of a more modern, level playing field, was apparently so acrimonious that it contributed to the break-up of the marriage of the two stars and their ultimate divorce. Ordinarily, I would not comment on the personal lives of the actors involved in a production, but I think that this movie is an exception in that the revisionist nature of this adaptation makes a very strong statement about what was perceived as appropriate gender roles and marriage mores for the time. The relationship between the two stars - a "celebrity couple" in a movie-crazy culture that equals our present-day infatuation with Hollywood scandal - feels like a very strong subtext to the whole production, as is shown by the poster above, featuring the two in modern dress, united and smiling at the camera. But it didn't last - no ", and quiet life" (5.2.1625) for this modern American couple.

Ultimately, this movie is fun to watch as a time capsule. It delivers a message about gender and marriage that the America - or Hollywood - of the time perhaps wished that Shakespeare had written, as well as showing two talented actors who made it to the top of the Hollywood tree. However, there are other options if you want to see The Shrew as Shakespeare wrote it - without dialogue help from Sam Taylor.

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