Sunday, October 6, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #59: "As You Like It" (1936)

ELISABETH BERGNER (and some dude named Laurence Olivier) star in As You Like It.

The flick: As You Like It (Twentieth Century Fox, 1936; United Artists, 1949) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 5.9

Director: Paul Czinner (The Rise of Catherine the Great; Romeo & Juliet [1966 version])

Peter Bull
Actors of note: Elisabeth Bergner (49th Parallel; Oscar-nominated for Escape Me Never, which was directed by her husband, Paul Czinner, who also directed this movie), Laurence Olivier (Spartacus, Rebecca, Wuthering Heights, Marathon Man, Clash of the Titans, The Betsy, much more; won directing and acting Oscars for 1948's Hamlet; nominated ten more times; often cited as the greatest Shakespearean actor of the 20th century), Sophie Stewart (Things to Come, Devil Girl from Mars), Henry Ainley (British stage actor; played "Victor Drew" in a series of 1920s mystery films; this was his last and best-known picture), Leon Quartermaine (another British stage actor; didn't do many movies but appeared in Escape Me Never with Elisabeth Bergner; served as a dialogue supervisor on this movie), Peter Bull (best known as Russian Ambassador Alexi de Sadesky in Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove; appeared in The African Queen, Yellowbeard, Hitchcock's Sabotage, The Lavender Hill Mob, etc.), John Laurie (Hitchcock's The 39 Steps; Olivier's Hamlet; played Darrow in The Abominable Dr. Phibes), Felix Aylmer (Becket, Olivier's Hamlet), Mackenzie Ward (Caesar and Cleopatra, The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll)

Other notables: The play was adapted (in part) by J.M. Barrie, who was the creator of Peter Pan and the subject of the 2004 biopic Finding Neverland, in which he was portrayed by Johnny Depp. The editor was David Lean, who went on to direct Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Doctor Zhivago, A Passage to India, and much more. Lean won Best Director twice and was nominated several more times; he was also an Oscar-nomated editor and screenwriter. Not exactly a lightweight. The score was by William Walton, who would become Laurence Olivier's go-to composer for such Shakespeare adaptations as Hamlet, Henry V, and Richard III.

A poster highlighting Laurence Olivier.
The gist of it: France, early 1600s. Handsome, virile Orlando (Olivier) is sick of being treated like a peasant by his vengeful older brother, Oliver (Laurie), so he decides to leave home. Elsewhere, fair Rosalind (Bergner), is living with her uncle, Duke Frederick (Aylmer), who usurped Rosalind's father, the rightful duke (Ainley). Obviously, Frederick doesn't get along well with Rosalind's dad, but he lets his niece stay with him because she's such close friends with Celia (Stewart), his own daughter. Meanwhile, the exiled duke is living in the enchanted Forest of Arden with a loyal band of merry men, like Robin Hood.

Orlando travels to Frederick's castle and wins a big wrestling tournament, instantly winning the love of Rosalind. Grouchy Duke Frederick kicks his niece out, and she takes Celia with her, along with a jester named Touchstone (Ward), who acts as the duo's sassy gay friend. Rosalind and Celia travel under false names to the Forest of Arden, with Rosalind taking on the male persona of "Ganymede." Orlando's also in the forest, pining for the lost Rosalind and writing poems about her, which he hangs on the trees. Before long, "Ganymede" and Orlando run into each other, and the former gives the latter some "macho" advice about romance.

Still, Orlando pines for his one true love. Luckily, he then saves Oliver from a lioness, thus winning back his brother's affection. All the major characters reconvene in the town for a big wedding, in which Rosalind and Orlando -- along with several other, lesser couples in the story -- are married. The celebration is made all the happier by the news that Frederick has renounced his dukedom, so Rosalind's father can reclaim his former title.

My take: There is little doubt that Laurence Olivier was one of the most acclaimed stage actors of the previous century. His movie career, though, is a bit spotty. Truth is, Sir Larry never quite got the hang of screen acting, even though he made dozens of films from the 1930s to the 1980s. Minimalism and naturalism aren't his strong suits. He's stiff, stentorian, and pompous, never seeming truly "human" or relatable on camera. He carefully recites his lines in that perfectly-enunciated Masterpiece Theater accent of his, as if he's trying to project his voice to the back of a crowded theater. In his campy later films, like The Boys from Brazil (1978) and Clash of the Titans (1981), his acting is shamelessly hammy and over-the-top, making him an unintentional figure of fun. As You Like It was one of Olivier's earlier movies (only six years into a six-decade career) and his very first Shakespearean role in a film. This fact alone makes it a historical curiosity.

The film's critical reputation isn't so great, though, and it's easy to see why.

This film has a bad case of "Clark Kent Syndrome."
To be blunt, As You Like It is not a very good movie. At times, it's even outright bad. Part of the problem, alas, might be the source material. This feather-light, extremely contrived comedy cannot be one of Shakespeare's very best, even though it contains his immortal "all the world's a stage" speech. The plotting is especially torturous, and Shakespeare isn't shy about having otherwise-useless characters shuffle onstage to explain certain plot points to one another. Yep, the Bard was the king of the so-called "infodump."

Olivier's a dullard as Orlando, but maybe there's not much he -- or anyone -- could do with such a bland, shallow role. The character has all the emotional depth of a cocktail napkin. Most of the actors here overplay their roles a bit, to little comedic or dramatic effect. Touchstone should, by all rights, be the life of the party, but instead he's a dreary drag.

The film's chief asset -- and simultaneously its chief liability -- is Elisabeth Bergner as Rosalind. I say "asset" because, in many scenes, she's the only one keeping this rather lethargic film's energy level up. Plus, the camera adores her, so she at least commands the audience's interest when she's onscreen. Had this been a silent movie with subtitles, As You Like It might have been a minor success. As it is, though, it's a misfire. Bergner hails from a region of Austria-Hungary we now call the Ukraine, and her thick accent sets her very noticeably apart from everyone else in the cast. Plus, even more problematically, Bergner makes little to no effort to differentiate between Rosalind and "Ganymede." That duality is crucial for this plot to work, but Bergner doesn't sell it at all. The wardrobe, hair, and makeup people have done her  no favors either, because they strive at all times to make the actress look glamorous. As a viewer, I couldn't help but wonder why Orlando was fooled by "Ganymede" for even half a second. Is he blind and deaf? Maybe this kind of thing plays on the stage, but it just doesn't work in a movie. To put it simply, Rosalind makes Clark Kent look like a master of disguise in comparison.
NOTE: Matthew M. Foster's brutally honest review will tell you everything you need to know about this misbegotten movie. Go read it.

Wrestling As You Like It magazine.
Is it funny: Decidedly not. Touchstone's catty putdowns are poisonously unfunny, and some of the film's extended comedy sequences are excruciating. In particular, there is one scene in which several of the characters gather in the forest and publicly declare their love for various other characters. This person loves that person, who in turn loves that other person, etc. The conversation goes in a loop, always coming back to "Ganymede," who proudly declares that "he" feels love "for no woman." It's like the "Janet! Dr. Scott! Janet! Brad! Rocky!" scene from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, only much wordier. By the third moronic variation on this tiresome joke, I was audibly heckling the actors, all of whom are long dead.

In truth, I did find some amusement -- if not exactly laugh-out-loud humor -- in certain elements of the story.

Of all the things I expected to find in a Shakespeare film, wrestling was not among them. I honestly had no idea that wrestling was such a big sport in Bill's day. I could not help but compare the highly theatrical, carefully scripted professional wrestling of our time with the public performances of Shakespeare's plays at the Globe Theater in the 1600s. They both serve the same basic function, don't they? Shakespeare "belongs" to the academics and the intellectuals now, but his work was originally intended as popular entertainment. After all, this very play is called As You Like It, with the word "you" likely referring to the audience, i.e. "this is the kind of story you, the public, will enjoy." Then I remembered something extraordinary: there was actually a wrestling magazine called Wrestling As You Like It. This seemed too good to be true, like my memory was playing tricks on me. But a quick Google Image search showed me I was right.

So is wrestling the Shakespeare of our time, or was Shakespeare the wrestling of his time? Either way, the Bard and Vince McMahon are pretty much in the same profession. When you think about it, Shakespearean actors and professional wrestlers are both famous for wearing tights!

My grade: C-



P.S.  - No racial stereotypes here, but this movie does reinforce the stereotype that Shakespeare's plays are about a bunch of sissified morons prancing around in the forest, spouting flowery gibberish to one another.

3 comments:

  1. It wasn't until you got to the first mention of wrestling that I remembered I had seen this play before. I'm still not entirely sure why Kenneth Branagh felt the need to transpose the action of 19th-century Japan, but at least it gave us the spectacle of Brian Blessed in samurai armor.

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    1. He might have transposed the play to Japan as a distraction from the original play's rather weak and convoluted storyline. I'd actually be interested now in seeing Branagh's film. It could only be an improvement over this one.

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  2. Interesting note: Bernard Shaw believed that this play was written as a parody of Shakespeare's contemporaries, who were churning out drivel not unlike this one. Hence the title, "As You Like It", is basically Shakespeare saying to his prospective audience; "You like this crap? I can write this crap if this is as you like it!"

    (This is Philip Frey commenting under my very inconspicuous pseudonym.)

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