The Wizard of Osric

A lovely Dublin bookshop had a large collection of second-hand film books, all dealing with British or Hollywood topics — I got The Westmores of Hollywood (from which much classic movie lore and gossip derives), The Celluloid Mistress or The Custard Pie of Dr Caligari, which I don’t yet know how to describe, and The Film HAMLET, which deals with Olivier’s movie in a pretty in-depth way for 1948, and for such a slender volume.

I was taken with the stuff pertaining to Peter Cushing’s Osric (the film features both Cushing and Christopher Lee, though Lee’s role is minute and they never meet onscreen) ~

“Osric, that sinister Beau Brummell of the Danish Court, fell pat into place. Casting our stage production of ‘Born Yesterday,’ in the autumn of 1946, Laurence and I had seen a clutch of young actors for the juvenile lead, among them a striking looking character, Peter Cushing, who stuck in our minds by a frank refusal even to attempt an American accent. Weeks later, watching another actor at the Q Theatre, I was struck by a performance of the Frenchman in ‘Where the Sun Shines,’ so true in style and accent that I looked for a French name on the programme. It was Mr. Cushing, and he speaks no French. Here evidently was an actor, and his test for Osric disposed of the last of our problems on the male side.”

Casting director Anthony Bushell there.

Cushing must have been thrilled, being a great Olivier fan — he admired Larry’s athletic approach, and you can see his emulation of it in the vigorous climaxes of CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA, and the swashbuckling approach he takes to playing Sherlock Holmes in HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES. Holmes is constantly exulted by his own intelligence, so that he spends the film on an adrenalin high.

Here’s costume and production designer Roger Furse’s sketch of Osric ~

My late friend Lawrie was an assistant on HAMLET, and described the ghost’s appearance in the opening scene — Olivier had wanted a pounding heart on the soundtrack, like Rouben Mamoulian’s in DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE (the director recorded his own elevated heartbeat after charging up and down a flight of stairs), so a junior employee was sent racing around the sound stage to get his pulse pounding. A microphone was pressed to his abdomen — “Nothing but indigestion,” reported Lawrie. When you see the film, the role of the heartbeat is played by a big bass drum.

But the cool thing is the way they’ve used an optical printer to make the shot throb in and out of focus each time the infernal heart beats…

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12 Responses to “The Wizard of Osric”

  1. Back in the early 60′s when I was going to Communist Martyrs High (aka. “The High School of Music and Art”) students in the sophomore English class staged a “10 Minute Hamlet” in what has now come to be known as “Flash Mob” style. Osric was the most sought after role cause it gave the chosen player a chance to camp it up to the Max. After him the other favorite part was “The Janitor” who came in at the end to sweep up the bodies.

  2. At first, I thought the photo was of Basil Rathbone…my official Sexiest Man in Screen History. or is that just me?!

  3. Cushing’s Osric is one the lightest and most delightful elements in what is otherwise a very, very heavy (and foggy!) movie. Still, I think it’s probably the best English-language film of the play, or at least has the most vitality. And I’m grateful Olivier decided to slash the text, rather than go for the four-hour elephantine monster Branagh pulled off. As a director Olivier is perhaps a little undervalued today, though I know stupid critics used to knock Welles’ Shakespeare films by negatively comparing them to Olivier’s. I wish there was had been an opportunity to compare Welles’ Macbeth with Olivier’s almost-made film.

    Returning to Hamlet…excerpts from the film of Richard Burton’s stage performance have been showing up on youtube, and they show how powerful he could have been in a proper movie. John Barrymore came close to filming Hamlet, and made a couple of screentests, though he was long in the tooth by then. Modern audiences would find him too stagey, but I don’t care. Footage from the first screentest can be seen below, with an intro by none other than Welles:

  4. Ace.

    Polanski is a great admirer of Olivier’s Hamlet, which seems to have inspired him at the same time as Welles.

    “I said that I saw Henry V as a painting and Hamlet as a charcoal sketch so it had to be black and white, but the truth is I had just had an awful row with Technicolor.” ~ L.O.

  5. I thought it was Basil Rathbone too, and though I’m not quite on the same page as David W. as regards the SMiSH, I’m definitely in the same book.

  6. Here’s a sad hint of what Barrymore’s Hamlet might have been like. It’s from his last film, Playmates, made in 1941, only a year before his death.

    I have a wonderful book by Michael Morrison, “John Barrymore: Shakespearean Actor” in which he entirely recreates the landmark stage production of the early 1920s using eye witness accounts, prompt books and production notes.

    I too thought it was Basil Rathbone.

  7. Playmates — maybe that should be an entry for The Late Show: The Late Movies Blogathon? I’ve been meaning to watch it for a while, and at the same time, I’ve been afraid to.

  8. Playmates is 98% garbage–it’s a sneery high-versus-pop art vehicle for the gormless Kay Kyser, who should have never been placed before a camera. Barrymore’s hamming was often self-aware and ironic, but here it’s way too broad and the man is obviously tired. The latter is what makes the only great part of the film, “To Be or Not Be,” so moving, since Barrymore emphasizes Hamlet’s weariness in a way I haven’t seen from anyone else. That’s why I’d nominate it as the finest filmed rendition of that soliloquy. Many plaudits to Judy for putting up the video, and for recommending Morrison’s excellent book, which is the work of a true obsessive (it even indicates which words Barrymore stressed in performance). There are a few records floating around of Barrymore performing Shakespeare on the radio in the mid 30s–that along with the excerpt of his Richard III in The Show of Shows, is all that remains of his romance with the bard.

  9. Ca-pony! Never heard it pronounced that way, but it’s probably the correct Italian way, right? We always pronounced Scorsese “Scor-say-zay” and were surprised to hear Thelma Schoonmaker, who ought to know, call him “Scor-sez-ay” — we suspect an American distortion somewhere along the way.

    (In fact, the name is very unusual and he had trouble tracing his ancestors. At one point he thought they might have been Scottish, the name being a corruption of “Scosseze” — meaning “Scottish.”

  10. Thanks, IA. I had some correspondence last year with Michael Morrison about the similarities between Barrymore and Brando, and he told me how he had often talked with Philip Rhodes who as a young man in the 30s was, along with Barrymore, part of the Bundy Drive gang, and later became Brando’s friend and make-up man for over half a century. What I wouldn’t give to have been part of those conversations.

  11. Definite similarities between Brando and Barrymore–primarily how both men were bored by their own virtuosity, and how they almost welcomed becoming self-parodies. How awful it is to be good at something you have contempt for…

  12. Better, possibly, than sucking at something you love. At least some of their glory years were preserved for us.

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