Shakespeare in Silent Films
Pioneer filming of Shakespeare's plays in America started early in 1906, both in Bay Shore, Long Island, where beaches provided a locale for the opening of Twelfth Night, and in Brooklyn's Flatbush, where J. Stuart Blackton—ex-cartoonist, Edison aide, and impresario—had established a considerable physical plant solely dedicated to the manufacture of movies, usually at ten cents a foot.1 The studio's relocation from Manhattan to Brooklyn removed it from the Broadway theater. Subsequently, when New York film companies migrated to California, film making was further liberated to become an indigenous art, unlike the British films that cozily nestled in theatrical venues, such as F. R. Benson's 1913 Royal Shakespeare Company Richard III, or the French film d'art that reduced movies to recording performances of great actors, such as Mounet-Sully's Hamlet.2
It must be asked: What, after all, is an American Shakespeare movie? In this transnational era when movies are financed in one country and filmed in another, the question becomes all the more complicated. Any Shakespeare film, however, that incorporates fundamental American values may be considered. For example, Blackton's Brooklyn Vitagraph applied Henry Ford's assembly line technique to manufacturing a dozen one-reel Shakespeare titles that included A Midsummer Night's Dream, Antony and Cleopatra, As You Like It, Henry VIII (Cardinal Wolsey), Julius Caesar, Macbeth, and King Lear. (A planned Hamlet with Clara Kimball Young as Ophelia never materialized.) The brevity of these ten-to-fifteen minute films gave them a jumpy, nervous look, but Vitagraph adhered to the Motion Picture Patent Company's rigid one-reel standard until 1912.3 A surviving panoramic photograph of the Vitagraph company exposes its late Victorian world view—the women in stylish millinery and coats, the finer gentlemen in bowler hats, the stage hands in cloth caps, the boys confined to knickerbockers, the high moguls like Blackton himself at the center in a black Chesterfield and derby and sporting a huge cigar.
1 See Anthony Slide, The Big V: A History of the Vitagraph Company (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1976); William Urrichio and Roberta E. Pearson, Reframing Culture: The Case of the Vitagraph Quality Films (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993); "Movie Exhibitors Once 'Doubled in Brass,'" Brooklyn Daily Eagle (16 February 1933): M2+; and "Bay Shorers Flipped Over Faces in Flicks," New York Sunday News (6 February 1972): 21B.