Sunday, September 16, 2007

dvd review: shakespeare collection

I'm going to probably bring some of you down "school memory lane" with this one. Did your teacher bring out some of the classic films while you studied Shakespeare in English class? Mine did. And I took to it, like a duck takes to water. I've told you before I have a theater background and brief film/commercials background, so Shakespeare is something I love and enjoy. But even I have to admit I'd rather watch it than read for class. I've been in several Shakespeare productions, and I have to tell the language is tough and it requires discipline and talent to really pull it off. And when it comes together just right it is something special.

Wait a minute- maybe you didn't watch Shakespeare or even read his stuff in class. I hope you did, but I'm hearing from some high school graduates, now college students, who tell me their teachers never even so much as suggested they read Shakespeare. Pitiful. The difficulty of the language is a lame excuse, read some plays- get some guidance (after all isn't that what English teachers are for?) and once you read the first few, you'll start to get the hang of it.

Or better yet watch some of the great Shakespeare films. Like the ones in the Warner Brothers Shakespeare Collection that came out August 14th. Is the set good? Is it worth your hard earned money? Will Shakespeare (ha!) lovers like it, or even more important, will those new to the bard like it and find a new interest. Read The Shelf's review of the Shakespeare Collection and find out!

The Hard Facts:
Shakespeare Collection
Four Discs in individual keepcases
Studio: Warner Home Video
Black & White (some extras in color)
Original Studio: WB, MGM, National Theatre (UK)
Release Date: Aug. 14, 2007
Rated: PG-13 for Hamlet, NR for rest
Stars: various

Disclaimer: WB was not able to send us a review copy of one of the films in the set, Hamlet. Therefore the review will be based on the other three films.
Over the years film makers have gone back to Shakespeare's plays not only for inspiration, but even to adopt as source material. Silents like King Lear in 1916 were only the beginning. Type in any handful of plays and you are likely to get dozens of different adaptations per title. It's easy to understand why; Shakespeare's stories are not only universal but the themes transcend time. Human frailties, fears, passions and trails are found in all of them. Film makers all the world over have made films from Shakespeare's plays. Hollywood has made many a good one and included in this set are a couple of adaptions of perhaps Shakespeare's better known plays.

The Films:
I'm not going into the full synopsis of each of the plots into the reviews, most Shakespeare fans will know them already and those new to the plays and films really need to watch.

Included in this set is Kenneth Branagh's 1996 version of Hamlet (which we did not review), Max Reinhardt's famous 1935 production of A Midsummer's Night Dream, the 1936 production of Romeo and Juliet and Lawrence Olivier's 1965 production of Othello.

A Midsummer's Night Dream (1935):
Director: Max Reinhardt
Stars: James Cagney, Olivia De Havilland, Joe E. Brown, Dick Powell, Jean Muir and Mickey Rooney

Max Reinhardt put on a legendary production of A Midsummer's Night Dream at the Hollywood Bowl in 1934. All of Hollywood's who's who came to see the film, including Jack Warner. Warner convinced Reinhardt to come to Warner Brothers to commit his production to film. He came and brought at least two of the original stars to reprise their roles: Mickey Rooney and Olivia De Havilland, in only her third film. The production was different for Warner Brothers, who's biggest draws have been gangster films up until now. But this film would add a touch of class and professionalism to the studio that Jack Warner felt it needed. Even if it didn't make money (which it did), securing Reinhardt was a coup for the studio and for Jack Warner in particular. The film won two Academy Awards: Best Cinematography and Best Film Editing.

Mickey Rooney as Puck could be a bit annoying at times, but put in a fine performance nonetheless. Dick Powell was miscast as Lysander, but most everyone else does a great job in the film. Standout performances include Olivia De Havilland as Hermia, Victor Jory as Oberon and Jean Muir as Helena. Although the choice of James Cangey was criticized, he proved to be quite good when allowed to show off his comedic talents. Warner Brothers actually pulled off a win with Joe E. Brown, Frank McHugh and Hugh Herbert rounding out the rest of the "good players" who put on the riotous play Pyramus and Thisby for Theseus. All in all, a wonderful film, and an excellent introduction to the play. The print was also outstanding. The last VHS print I saw was terribly dark. Being able to see this restored print, enables you to see all of Reinhardt great touches for the film.

Extras include: Commentary by film historian Scott MacQueen, Screen test for Olivia de Havilland, Original short made for the premiere: A Dream Comes True, gallery of 6 teaser trailers showcasing cast members, Warner Bros. Studio Café teaser trailer, musical short Shake Mr. Shakespeare and the theatrical trailer.

Romeo and Juliet (1936):
Director: George Cukor
Stars: Morma Shearer, Leslie Howard, John Barrymore, Edna May Oliver, and Basil Rathbone

In the wake of Warner's success with Midsummer, MGM's Irving Thalberg pulled a different Shakespeare stage success to adapt for the screen. Romeo and Juliet is, along with Hamlet, perhaps the most famous of Shakespeare's plays. MGM had no shortage of stars, but they stuck with tried and true screen icons for this one. Leslie Howard played Romeo. George Cukor was brought in to direct and it perhaps surprised no one that Thalberg's wife, Norma Shearer played Juliet. At the time the film premiered MGM's screen teen lovers has a real life combined age of 75 years old. In fact the whole film was cast that way. Most of the actors are really old for their parts, but the acting is still first rate. John Barrymore plays a wonderful Mercutio (whom he had played before), C. Aubrey Smith portrays Capulet, Juliet's father. Basil Rathbone turns in a particularly hard edged performance as Tybalt and Edna May Oliver is a raucous Nurse to Juliet. The movie was excellent and the actors present a fuller understanding of the language, but at time it's difficult to suspend the fact that the actors portraying the teenage lovers are really too old for their parts. Aside from that, the acting is first rate, especially with standouts Barrymore and Edna May Oliver, whose portrayal of the Nurse is one of the best in the film. New comers to Shakespeare and to classic films may find the film a bit stale and the overall direction of the drama too straight forward and stilted. Classic film fans will enjoy the cast and the performance, and lovers of Shakespeare will appreciate one of the better performances of the language- they might even turn on the audio only and sit back and enjoy the actor's wonderful handling of the script. One sad side note: this was the last film the Irving Thalberg personally produced. He died the same year it was released.

Extras Include: Vintage short Master Will Shakespeare, Classic MGM cartoon Little Cheeser and the the theatrical trailer.

Othello (1965):
Director: Stuart Burge
Stars: Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, Frank Finlay and Derek Jacobi.

This film may be the most difficult for some audiences. It is one of Shakespeare's most powerful films, with themes of jealousy, betrayal, rage, love and deceit that are all too human. It has been one of the most filmed of all of Shakespeare's plays, and yet perhaps one of the hardest to truly capture on film in the way it deserves. One of favorite adaptations is Orson Welles' 1952 version which always divides critics.

Olivier, one the 20th centuries most renowned actors, tackled Shakespeare on film many times. In the 1960s, he and the National Theatre had a critically acclaimed production of Othello in the UK. When the opportunity to film it came, Olivier wanted to make it seem like an actual stage production as much as possible. Most of the play was included for the film. So what comes across is one of the more traditional theatrical performances of Shakespeare to be captured on screen. The cast is terrific: Maggie Smith as Desdemona, Frank Finlay as a particularly vicious Iago, Derek Jacobi as Cassio, Robert Lang as Roderigo, and Olivier as Othello. What may difficult for some audiences to get past is Olivier in fairly realistic black makeup as Othello (and one of the last actors to do this onscreen). It may be offensive to some, but no one can question Olivier's talent.

Extras Include: Vintage featurette Olivier Talks About Othello and the theatrical trailer.

The restoration of A Midsummer's Night Dream is a wonderful piece of work. It's great to see this film done right after languishing on VHS with an inferior print. Othello and Romeo and Juliet are excellent as well; crisp color for Othello and black and white for Romeo and Juliet. The audio is well done as well, and that's important when you are dealing with something like Shakespeare.

The Bottom Line:

Overall this is nice set for any fan of Shakespeare, although I would have like to have seen some more of the film adaptions that are out there to round out the set. While Hamlet is being marketed as the centerpiece of the set, I can't say much about the new two disc edition of that film (which I have seen before). That being said, for me the true revelation in the set is A Midsummer's Night Dream. A fine introduction to Shakespeare- black and white, dreamy, mystical, lyrical, and delightfully funny. If you don't care for Shakespeare, obviously this set probably won't make it to your shelf, but I think that everyone should at least give it a whirl. If you are a classic film fan I give it a hearty recommendation. Film is one of the best ways to introduce someone to Shakespeare, especially if it's done right. It allows someone to be able to see the action and hear the language. And as they hopefully read the plays, they will have an easier time visualizing the play and developing an ear for the language. See your English teacher knew a thing or two after all.

Review Rating:
Individually grading the films, they would earn the following:
A Midsummer's Night Dream = A
Romeo and Juliet = B-
Othello = + B

Overall rating: 4 stars (Groucho Glasses)(Handicap: Hamlet not included)

Oh, I know it's a penny here and a penny there, but look at me. I worked myself up from nothing to a state of extreme poverty.

Lord, what fools these mortals be!


Rynn said...

I remember watching Midsummer in Drama class in HS! I loved it. I'm looking forward to getting it- if COstco is carrying it! They don't always carry classic stuff where I am.

Anonymous said...

There's always online...

Jay Cam said...

did you hear that shakspeare might not be that actual creator of the works above? i forgot who people say might have done it, but i think it was an earl of something.

Jay Cam said...

Care to trade links? My site is

If would like to trade, post my link, then comment or email me and I will post yours on my site as a permanent link. Send what you want to your link to be called and your link please.
I would appreciate the linkage, Thanks!


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