Play On! New BFI Shakespeare Blu-Ray Review
Updated: Oct 12
After introducing a successful screening of Amleto (the Italian Hamlet) at the Watershed last month, we turned to Luke McKernan to give us his thoughts on the new BFI Silent Shakespeare compilation Play On! Not an ordinary compilation of early shorts by any measure, but a valuable addition to the silent film library. The BFI have also supplied a copy for our competition, so fans of the Bard would do well to hang tight til the end for details of how to expand your own silent film library! For now we leave it to Dr McKernan for more insight into this compilation:
In 2004 the British Film Institute released Silent Shakespeare, a video compilation of short films from the silent era of film production. It generated much interest: in part because of the paradox of silent Shakespeare, because of the historic filmmaking few had realised existed, and because – contrary to expectations – the films were so good. Films such as the Clarendon Film Company’s The Tempest (UK 1908) and Film d’Arte Italiana’s Re Lear (Italy 1910) were clearly not just curiosities but distinctive works of art. The compilation was a revelation, and has enjoyed a long life as a touring package, appealing equally to silent film enthusiasts and Shakespeareans.
For the Shakespeare quarter-centenary celebrations, the BFI has produced another silent Shakespeare video release, but one that takes a quite different approach. Play On! Shakespeare in Silent Film is an edited selection of highlights from silent Shakespeare films, divided like a Shakespeare play into five acts (plus a prologue and epilogue), with music courtesy of the composers and musicians of Shakespeare’s Globe. It is not a compilation of short but complete films, as in 2004, but rather a creative work in its own right. It is an entertainment, aimed not at the scholars but chiefly at a general audience who want not to be instructed but to be amused.
On the whole, Play On! succeeds in its ambitions. It is a charming compilation that delights in its subject. The visually most entrancing moments from the films have been crisply edited and set to a particularly successful music score, with five different composers each taking on an act to create a background that is fresh and varied yet always serve the action rather than be music just for its own sake. The title of the video, taken from Orlando’s words at the start of Twelfth Night (“If music be the food of love, play on”), suggests that the music – with its colourful combination of string, brass and percussion – is meant to be as much of an attraction as the films themselves. It would certainly interesting to see the compilation screened with the live musical accompaniment.
The five acts are thematic and general: artifice (highlighting the many trick effects in these early films), spectacle, dramatis personae (Johnston Forbes-Robertson, Herbert Beerbohm Tree, Asta Nielsen and Emil Jannings among the great names on show), performance and favourite scenes. There is a lot of potential overlap with such broad categories, and many of the scenes selected for one act could easily have been fitted into another. There is no drama or thesis expounded by this structure – it is simply a means of marshalling the content into something more easily consumed over the 63 mins of the feature. There is a sense of a missed opportunity here. The compilation of clips suggests one of the video essays increasingly being produced by academics, who use film clips under exceptions in copyright law to illustrate arguments in film history. But here there is no argument, only the desire to amuse.
The films themselves are delightful. There are clips from twenty-five films, all but one from the collection of the BFI National Archive. A few are travelogues (two of which are from the sound era but shown silently). Only one – the minute-long King John (UK 1899) – is shown in its entirety; the rest exist as short extracts (a minute or so), with scenes from the others interspersed throughout, so that players and sets keep coming back like welcome friends. The films come from the UK, France, Italy, Germany and the USA; mostly from the pre-war period when Shakespeare films were short (one- or two-reelers) and plentiful, but with a few scenes from later silent features, including Hamlet (UK 1913), The Merchant of Venice (UK 1916), Hamlet (Germany 1920) and Othello (Germany 1922). There are some surprise omissions: the German feature Der Kaufmann von Venedig (1923), or The Merchant of Venice, is not used, though the BFI has a copy, and still more surprising is the absence of Amleto (Italy 1917), perhaps the best of all silent Shakespeare films, and again held by the BFI.
One of the reasons why Play On! has been structured in the way that it has is on account of how these films have survived. Silent films were exported across the globe, and their descriptive titles were duly translated into the language of the relevant audiences. Extant copies are often only in these alternative language versions, and many of the early Shakespeare films held by the BFI have German titles, though they are not German films. So it was that selection of the original 2004 compilation had to be restricted to films with English titles (which includes non-British films that had survived in an English-titled version). Play On! is not so constrained, because few titles are used at all, allowing it to cut between British, Italian, French, German and Russian prints without the viewer being aware of the liberation.
Film scholars who would like to see the films in their entirety may be frustrated, but given the state of the titles they were unlikely ever to make it onto a commercial video. However, all is not lost. Among the extras on this set are two films previously unavailable given in their entirety – King Lear (USA 1909) and Una Tragedia All Corte di Sicilia, or The Winter’s Tale (Italy 1913), with knowledgeable commentaries by silent Shakespeare expert Judith Buchanan, whose scholarly approach is markedly different to the genial tone adopted by Bryony Dixon for her booklet essay. Both have no music score, alas, while King Lear is one of those titles that has survived only in a German-titled version.
Also, most helpfully, the complete 88-minute 2004 compilation is made available, with its iconic Laura Rossi scores, along with a short introductory film, a short documentary on the music, and a 1924 cinemagazine showing John Gielgud and Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies in scenes from a stage production of Romeo and Juliet. This helps make Play On! an enticing package for both expert and general enthusiast alike. Hopefully it will whet the appetite of both for more, and who knows, if Play On! is successful, perhaps the BFI will be bold enough to release Amleto (1917), and open our eyes still further.