The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.1998  Friday, 27 September 2002

From:           Nancy Charlton <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Thursday, 26 September 2002 11:59:35 -0700
Subject: 13.1976 Olivier on the Big Screen
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.1976 Olivier on the Big Screen

Thanks, Brian Willis, for your insightful post. How much more you saw
here than I did the only time I have seen the Olivier Hamlet.

It came to my hometown of Bellingham WA fifty-some years ago, a few
months after Orson Welles' Macbeth. For that, our senior English class
received a special showing seeing as how we were studying it that
autumn, but the Hamlet was fair game for the entire student body. It's
amazing how 1200 kids suddenly develop an all-consuming interest in
Shakespeare when they get out of classes for the afternoon.

I wish I could say I perceived any of the subtleties Mr Willis points
out, but except for the dirt being thrown at the camera, I'm afraid very
little.  In fact, my outstanding memory was of the short feature. I
guess they really wanted to give us culture that day, because the short
was a ballet.  When the camera caught the male dancer full front and
bulging, the house went up in a simultaneous whoop. It didn't come up in
conversation at our 50th reunion last year but I'm sure this would be
the dominant  memory for most of us--especially since our preparation
didn't go much beyond "this is a GREAT play" or maybe like me had
Polonius's Advice to Laertes declaimed at them by a mom whose own
experience didn't go far beyond precepts to the memory.

Mr Willis notes:

>. . .   Firstly, Olivier's performance does not seem as overdone
>as it sometimes can be on a television.  Perhaps the cinema produces an
>atmosphere more like the theatre than a television.

This film came out about six years before TV became a household staple,
and I doubt that film makers then gave any thought to how their
productions would look on the small screen. As a contemporary question,
do any classes at the HS level, or earlier or later, ever consider
cinematography? If so, do they examine the balance between literary
values and visual ones? If not, why not? Does it create side issues more
properly considered under the head of philosophy, branch of aesthetics?

>I was always convinced that Jean Simmons is a brilliant Ophelia and the
>screen enhances the undervalued subtlety of her performance. I have
>rarely seen a mad scene that works as brilliantly as it does here . . .

This jogged my memory, and I feel just a little rue for not
understanding more of what I was seeing then. Does anyone ever study
people's responses to the same play at different periods of their lives?

>. . . The audience, mostly academy members, actually
>gave small audible gasps at the points where she passes out her flowers
>for remembrance and for rue. It is a remarkable achievement to make such
>a veiled and reference riddled scene have resonance with a modern (and
>non-scholarly) audience.

Come on! Must one be a scholar to be moved by such a scene?

>It is a highly charged moment that does not
>come through fully on a television. Also hard to see are the little
>gestures and tugs of Ophelia at Laertes as Polonius lectures him to be
>true to himself.

Thanks. I'll watch for these. I'm off to Blockbuster to rent a copy of
this film. I'd get the Richard also (which I have seen in both color and
BW) except one major tragedy per 3-day rental period is more than

>Also, it struck me last night that Oliver was perhaps not as wrong as
>previously thought when he declares Hamlet simply as a man who could not
>make up his mind. It could also lead us to the conclusion that Hamlet is
>unaware of the make up of his mind, its composition, and thence can not
>put his mind into order. This Hamlet is intensely aware of psychology,
>sometimes in a Freudian context, and part of that context is Hamlet's
>labyrinthine mind. This film is deeply concerned with that mind, . . .

Wasn't Jones's "Hamlet and Oedipus" all the rage in the 50s?  Certainly
much criticism focused on the Hamlet-Gertrude relationship, and as I
recall this Olivier play Hamlet as being almost obsessed with her. Freud
but not Freude. She  seemed much to staid, too correct, to have had an
affair with her brother-in-law; perhaps this characterization simply
heightened the mother-son tension. Her coolness, then, might have been a
quite deliberate act of keeping the lid on her exasperation with Hamlet
so as not to alienate him or push him over the edge. Olivier, as I
recall, played Hamlet as being quite mature. This shaped my image of the
play, in fact, and so many years and many Hamlets later the Mel Gibson
Hamlet seemed to strain credulity. Though the Leslie Howard/Norma
Shearer R&J is my all-time nominee in that department.

Nancy Charlton

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