Dyspeptic in Elsinore

Asides from my making-of Caesar and Cleopatra book, I also have a lovely, if tattered volume entitled The film HAMLET, covering Olivier’s 1948 production. Various heads of department contribute short chapters about their work.

My late friend Lawrie Knight was only a 3rd AD on it, and only for a few days. His story doesn’t feature. Stop me if you’ve heard it before. Olivier, it seems, wanted the sound of a heartbeat to accompany the ghost’s appearance. In the end he used a drumbeat, but perhaps the story of Ruben Mamoulian recording his own heart after running up and down a flight of stairs, for the transformation scene in DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, was already well-known? Olivier, saving himself the strain, sent an assistant off to run around the studio, and then they pressed a mic to his ribcage.

“Nothing but indigestion!” reported Lawrie, with a chortle.

The book lacks that kind of engrossing detail. Olivier’s own piece is rather windy, and devotes a lot of time to justifying his choice to shoot in black and white, though he would later admit that he was having “a frightful row with Technicolor” which played a significant part in the decision. Still, it was a great choice.

Really lovely pic of Larry directing in costume and, it seems, in character.

Producer Anthony Bushell’s thoughts on the casting are more interesting. He starts by recounting an anecdote from his youth as an actor: he tried to secure a walk-on/spear-carrying role in John Barrymore’s London production of the play. Barrymore somehow misunderstood and thought he was angling for Laertes.

“Young man, it is your misfortune that the Hamlet in this production will never see fifty again. You cannot possibly play Laertes with me.”

(Barrymore wasn’t actually fifty yet, but maybe he felt it, or maybe he actually said forty.)

We learn that Stanley Holloway got the role of the gravedigger after “F.J. McCormick, the little Irishman who as the bowler-hatted Shell in ‘Odd Man Out’ enchanted thousands only to sadden them by his untimely death, was first to have played the role.’

I like what Bushell says about Osric.

10 Responses to “Dyspeptic in Elsinore”

  1. David Ehrenstein Says:

    My favorite “Hamlet” is Jack Benny’s. Lubitsch at least supplies him with a motive that makes sense. What Shakspeare wrote was lunatic with all the motivational character of the creepwho shot up a FedEx last night killing 8 (as counted so far) before topping himself.

    I prefer the Bard of “The tempest” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” to this Quentin Tarantino “avant la letter”

  2. It’s true that the character is wildly inconsistent, which I think is why it’s so popular with actors. Lots to choose from. Cutting helps, but there are still erratic gear-shifts no matter what you shave off.

    Keep meaning to watch the Richard Burton recording, and the Asta Nielsen silent.

  3. I like how every real-life John Barrymore quotation sounds like Oscar Jaffe in TWENTIETH CENTURY.

  4. Mike Clelland Says:

    This whole movie reminded me of the Salvidor Dali dream sequence from SPELLBOUND. And that’s good!

  5. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    Hamlet has this myth and cult attached to it that’s almost more overwhelming than the original play. My reading of Hamlet always was that he is a terrible person, a horrible snob, and a psychopath who affects populist traits. I presented a paper on him a week ago and in that I highlighted a little known scene where upon seeing the play-within-the-play Claudius and Hamlet have this exchange and Hamlet tells Claudius, that the play and theater is a “knavish piece of work” but for free people like Claudius and him, “it touches us not”. And that coldblooded line “it touches us not” is a key to understanding the aristocratic world of the character.

    Jacques Lacan’s essay on Hamlet was especially enlightening and more or less confirmed my view of the guy. Lacan, after Freud, pointed out that Hamlet hesitates over murder but also ruthlessly and thoughtlessly murders Polonius, R&G and obviously has no problem with violence.

    I watched the Richard Burton recording, (which is a rehearsal of a play) and it’s fascinating. I like Almereyda’s film with Ethan Hawke because they actually make Hamlet feel like a character and not a collection of famous quotes. Peter Brook’s Hamlet is also great, mostly for casting a very young actor in the part and Brook’s cutting allows you to see the psychopathic aspects of the Prince.

  6. Brook is certainly a great man for cutting Shakespeare to emphasise/change the meaning… I find his Lear a distortion and a major reduction of a great play. But he’s smart and talented. Lacks humour.

    One key reason Hamlet hesitates to kill Claudius, of course, is the fear that a slain Claudius will go to heaven as he’s praying. Plotting the damnation of another soul was seen as dark, dark stuff by early critics.

    Dan: ha!

    Olivier writes about creating an unreal space for the action, stripping out furniture and making all the rooms huge, and then using deep focus. Simple costumes also, with the King and Queen like playing cards. In keeping with his choice on Henry V to stylise. “I was afraid that a film audience would say, “Alright, so that’s a castle and that’s a tree and that’s a field… why is everyone talking so funny?” The visual stylisation makes the language seem natural, in keeping.

  7. revelator60 Says:

    If Hamlet partly comes across as an antihero, that’s because the play partakes of the Revenge Tragedy genre. Hamlet isn’t as big as bastard as some of the antiheroes in Middleton or Webster, but he’s certainly the most reflective and poetic.

    I’m glad to read praise for Olivier’s Hamlet. As a filmmaker he seems out of fashion nowadays; his Shakespeare films are brought up just to be dismissed in comparison with those of Orson Welles—a reversal of the mainstream critics’ attitudes back in the 40s and 50s. Obviously Welles was the greater filmmaker, but Olivier’s films don’t deserve to be dismissed as “academic” or “square,” considering how much thought, artful craft, and occasional eccentricity went into them.

  8. Indeed! He tracks through his own head in this one!

    Polanski regards him as a great filmmaker, and an influence somehow, though his The Tragedy of Macbeth makes the opposite choices regarding locations and realism, behaving as if the poetry weren’t an issue at all.

    I feel like Olivier’s cinematic reputation would be secure if he’d made just a couple more films, but the three Shakespeares ought to be enough in themselves.

  9. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    Olivier’s RICHARD III is a great film, and to me Olivier’s Richard as a performance and spectacle is unsurpassable. Some Shakespeare aficionados like the Ian Mckellen one, but include me out of that one (including the dubiousness of making Richard a fascist, which is the main reason literary Shakespearans like that because they lust after ‘relevance’).

    I like Olivier’s Hamlet as a movie but to me it’s not all there. Olivier’s too old to play Hamlet and the Prince doesn’t come out as a fully-realized character just a collection of speeches – whereas Polanski’s MacBeth, Welles’ Falstaff and Prince Hal, Olivier’s Richard and Almereyda’s Hamlet emerge as fully realized characters on-screen, as does Peter Brook’s. I prefer Jean Simmons as Ophelia in that movie.

    The thing about Hamlet is that he murders cold-bloodedly throughout the play, including people, like Polonius, who had nothing to do with his father’s death and who he murders randomly and upon seeing what he did, he dismisses it as a joke. He’s a misogynist who abuses Ophelia, and then kills R&G for no reason whatsoever. I don’t know how you can look at what the character does in the play and not come to the conclusion that he’s bad news. I mean Macbeth and Richard III murder people but because they’re “usurpers” their bad guys but when a guy defends his bloodline (like Hamlet) does it, it’s all a sign of complexity.

  10. Yes, it’s all about whether the character is pursuing an honourable goal… if they are, they can literally get away with murder (although at the end, nobody gets away with nothing).

    I wonder what Shakespeare *really* thought of Hamlet instructing the actors on how to act…

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