Tuesday, 24 August 2010

1909 - A Midsummer Night's Dream - Charles Kent & J. Stuart Blackton

If 2009 may have been the year of the vampire, 1909 was certainly the year of the fairy. The appearance of Puck and the other fairies in this first cinematic adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream means that three of the four films we have looked at so far have involved fairies. Puck’s mischief making in this film has more in common with the playfully troublesome fairies in Princess Nicotine than the benevolent fairy in the Fairy of the Surf.

Thanks to Tinkerbell and the tooth fairy, we assume that fairies have positive characteristics. However, fairies used to be associated with the following:
Much of the folklore about fairies revolves around protection from their malice, by such means as cold iron (iron is like poison to fairies, and they will not go near it) or charms of rowan and herbs, or avoiding offense by shunning locations known to be theirs.[6] In particular, folklore describes how to prevent the fairies from stealing babies and substituting changelings, and abducting older people as well.

The representational nature of the fairy has therefore shifted more than any mythic creature and is a suitably apt mascot for early film. Although film was gaining credibility and recognition by 1909, there was no certainty as to whether it would develop as a major art or what effect it would have on its audience. From the films that we have looked at so far in 1909, it has become apparent that the year sees film beginning to find the technical means to match its loftier ambitions for its further development. The uncertainty of what film may represent during this period correlates with the uncertainty of what fairies represented (which ranges from demoted angels to demons). I suspect that there are a number of issues and interpretations that can be raised here, but I will delay mentioning them to see how the symbol of the fairy develops over the next decade.

The film itself differs significantly from the first Shakespeare play we looked at, The Tempest. Firstly, unlike The Tempest, it was made across the Atlantic by Vitagraph. They were developing a niche of making prestige films based on esteemed cultural sources such as Shakespeare.

Unlike the 1908 version of The Tempest, A Midsummer’s Night Dream is at times guilty of being ‘stage bound’. This is particularly true of the opening scene, where it feels as though the camera is merely filming a theatrical adaptation of the play on a set rather than attempting to create a movie that can attempt to stand independently of its source. And given the limitations of a ‘one-reeler’ such as this in conveying the entirety of a Shakespeare play, this is a significant setback.

An even greater problem with the film is that around a third of it is missing, including one of the play’s finest moments, Bottom and his motley crew’s take on Pyramus and Thisbe. Given that the film is attempting to be a play on film, this only serves to confuse and alienate the audience, as the missing plot developments result in a surviving film riddled with inconsistencies. This may be a tad harsh on the film, but if it had been more visually imaginative and braver in interpreting its source material, the film would have been a far greater success.   

The film may be more flawed than most of the ones we have looked at so far on the Film: Ab Initio list, but it does have some amiable qualities. The performance of Puck is delightful; energetic, colourful and playful, her first appearance breathes life into what until her arrival had been an insipid take on Shakespeare’s play (see image above). The film also decides to replace the role of Oberon with a female fairy called Penelope. We can only speculate as to why Vitagraph decided to make such an adjustment, but this decision adds a level of intrigue that benefits the film.

And finally, I am normally quite sceptical when it comes to most modern audio commentaries on films, but the commentary for this film and the Silent Shakespeare DVD in general is worthy of praise. Judith Buchanan provides us with an insightful, passionate look at the film, revealing useful pieces of information, such as the fact the film’s release may have been delayed so that it could be released on Christmas Day or the fact that Hermia, played by Julia Swayne Gordon was Vitagraph’s principal leading lady in this period. If only more early silent films had such useful commentaries!

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