Shrew Business

Last time I saw Zefferelli’s THE TAMING OF THE SHREW it was on VHS, so when I found a DVD cheap at my favourite charity shop (St Columba’s Bookshop) I acquired it for my Z shelf.

I hadn’t realized that FZ’s career was so odd — something called CAMPING in 1957, lots of theatre and TV, and then SHREW as an abrupt superproduction, produced by the Burtons, cinematically speaking coming out of nowhere.

Having made an extra on THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD I could see where Burton had scooped up the English-language script contributor for his first film as co-producer, ex-black ops commando trainer Paul Dehn, and where he’d recruited Michael Hordern. But I figure Zeffirelli had also seen A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, as proof that Hordern could do farce — both movies have scenes of characters rehearsing their plans in parallel alleyways, with the director cutting back and forth. And both use houses with big central spaces surrounded by a gallery with a stair, staging action on both levels…

Victor Spinetti also comes from Lester; Alan Webb from Welles (CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT, “Jesu, the days that I have seen.”)

Anyway, it’s fun. There are matte paintings done in almost renaissance style, beautiful sets, what is known as lustiness, and a nice moment where Michael York’s soliloquizing draws curious stares from Paduan street characters, as if they’ve never seen anyone do Shakespeare before.

The filmmakers’ solution to the plays more noxious qualities is, basically, to say, “Well, we’ve cast the stars of the twentieth century’s greatest love story, so there can be no question that this is a beautiful romance.” All evidence of torture and gaslighting to the contrary. Burton getting Taylor to say the sun is the moon is uncomfortably similar to the way he gets John Hurt, at the far end of the Rich career, to agree with him how many fingers he’s holding up, in 1984.

The script is quite impressive, since it contains several scenes Shakespeare didn’t think to include, and the characters go on talking in them, as if the blank verse was available. I can imagine Suso Cecchi D’Amico just deciding there needs to be a seen where Petruccio destroys Kate’s bed, and leaving Dehn to figure out what they can say to each other while it’s happening. Hordern can rhubarb amusingly while waiting for the next pentameter. Zeffirelli seems to have told him to wave his arms around in an Italiante fashion, which sits oddly on his frame, but shows off his nice long sleeves.

Burton can combine sonorous versifying with low comedy. Taylor’s fishwife screech is textually justified, as it was in VIRGINIA WOOLF. Her violet eyes get a lot of extreme closeups. Her husband’s bloodshot orbs do not rate such inspection.

Zeffirelli the misogynist (in the editing room, he would say “Cut to the bitch”; women who have abortions should be executed) probably saw no reason to question the four-hundred-year-old play’s sexual politics. It’s funny until the wedding, even with the discomfort of it being a forced marriage as far as Taylor’s Kate is concerned, and then not too funny once the torture starts. Taylor is given some quiet moments early on where she can suggest some attraction towards Burton’s brawling drunkard. And when she falls in line eventually she can hint that this is a fun game to play, master and slave. Can’t escape the problem that she’s been forced into it, though. At the end, they at least manage to make some suspense. Maybe one effect of the passage of time is that the servants are now the most appealing characters.

The Fairbanks-Pickford version was mocked for the credit “Additional dialogue by Sam Taylor.” This one has a jokey but far more respectful title:

THE TAMING OF THE SHREW stars Cleopatra; Thomas Becket; Glaucus; Major Grapple; Joe Beckett; Master Shallow; Max Kalba; D’Artagnan; and Foot.

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8 Responses to “Shrew Business”

  1. I am eagerly awaiting a Blu-ray of Zeffirelli’s HAMLET, which, when I saw it opening weekend in 1990, my then-lover and I agreed was the best film version of “Macbeth” we had ever seen.

  2. bensondonald Says:

    Many years ago saw a stage production that placed the action in the 50s: Petruccio was an American army officer stationed in Italy; Kate was the no-nonsense daughter of restaurant owner, she clearly being the one who ran things.

    The visual joke was that Petruccio had his new bride wearing fatigues — marriage as boot camp. The “taming” was subtle. When he demanded she do or say something, she replied with violent sarcasm … and he’d react as if that’s exactly what he wanted. He even rewards mock obedience.

    En route to the sister’s wedding, he has Kate carrying the luggage — heavy duffle bags, of course — when he insists a guy who looks like a Mafia don is a sweet young girl. She obliges in the most contemptuous tones possible, daring him to be happy with THAT (and fortunately leaving the don and his henchman more confused than offended). Before she can heft the duffle bags again Petruccio scoops them up cheerfully to carry himself. She has a moment trying to digest this.

    At the wedding she wears a smart, fashionable outfit and registers as an assured, upper-middle-class woman. She and her husband appear comfortable, with neither clearly the boss. Her final speech plays less as degradation than here’s the fiction, and we can work with it.

  3. bensondonald Says:

    Another production I know only from description starred Josie Lawrence. It kept Shakespeare’s prologue of somebody telling the tale in a tavern. There was no softening of the taming, no reassuring winks, no hints of romance. In the end Kate’s speech seethes with anger and defiance, the words saying one thing but the performance the opposite. After sucking all the air from the room and all the power from Petruccio, Kate stalks off untamed and dangerous. Then we’re back in the tavern where Petruccio is a lone pitiful drunk.

  4. Hordern could more than “do” farce. Even a decade older, his scene surrounded by a host of dogs nipping at his moldy outfit of pelts qualifies him as a master.

  5. Didn’t identify the movie with Horden and the kennel– it’s JOSEPH ANDREWS.

  6. It’s strange that all Hordern’s pre 1966 films cast him in fairly dry roles. Maybe the effect of getting crumblier of aspect unlocked this possibility. I think in Forum he was a last-minute addition, somebody more in line with Mostel, Silvers and Gilford having dropped out.

    My favourite Hordern moment is in The Missionary, where his amnesiac butler can’t think what he wants to say, so he says “Mmmnn-ahhh…” and then remembers that he wanted to say “Mmmnnn-aaah!” so says it.

    The tavern intro in Shrew at least provides a frame for the sexism which establishes it as a lone male’s account rather than the truth, a useful alibi.

  7. Another play where Charles Marowitz did an interesting autopsy/demolition job.

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