Monday, April 12, 2010

"Prince of Players" 1955

In one way or another, my three blogs this week, “New England Travels,” “Tragedy and Comedy in New England” and this one, all intertwine with connecting stories about two historical events which occurred on April 14th. One is the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, and the other, the Titanic hits an iceberg and sinks in the wee hours of the 15th. Today we begin, surprise, surprise, with a movie.

“Prince of Players” (1955) tells the story of Edwin Booth, possibly the most famous and accomplished actor of the 19th century. Noted especially for his Shakespearian repertoire, Edwin Booth played the tragedian with such depth onstage perhaps because he knew so much tragedy in his personal life, which seemed stage-blocked in life, and certainly in this movie, between two colossal bookends: his alcoholic and mentally ill father, the great actor Junius Brutus Booth; and his brother, actor John Wilkes Booth, who murdered President Abraham Lincoln.

Richard Burton plays Edwin Booth, and though his obvious command of both Shakespeare and the camera make Mr. Burton a pleasure to watch in this film, his portrayal of Booth was perhaps not exactly on the mark from an historical perspective. Edwin Booth did not follow in his famous father’s footsteps so much as he stumbled in them for many years before coming into his own as a great actor. Burton is polished from the start. Ironically, Booth’s own fame grew from what was seen as a more natural and heartfelt performance in his roles, rather than the very bombastic and artificial style of acting of the generation before him, which included his father, to some extent, his brother John Wilkes Booth.

And Edwin Booth did not speak with a Welsh accent. Despite the majesty of Shakespeare’s plays and the beauty of a talented thespian like Burton speaking them at full throttle, it would have been more historically accurate, and perhaps even more poignant, to demonstrate that these Booth sons were natives of an agrarian America, who plied their trade as actors in mining camps and saloons. They were from Maryland. They may not have sounded quite like Richard Burton.

It is also interesting that this film harkens back to a less sophisticated era when, conversely, even the most humble common dirt-poor worker was familiar with the works of William Shakespeare. Education was much harder to obtain then, but seemingly much more prized. Even a little was something to be savored.

Another acting brother, Junius, Jr. was omitted from the script, but though the film skips through different pivotal events in Edwin’s Booth life, it does a pretty fair job of illustrating the era. Raymond Massey plays the impossibly great, impossibly doomed patriarch, Junius Brutus Booth, with the kind of utter majesty Junius Booth himself must have demonstrated.

John Derek is the flamboyant, troubled John Wilkes Booth, competitive with his brother Edwin’s fame, firey and tempermental, lazy and charming, whose depraved act of murder deprived this country of one of its finest presidents. Derek demonstrates John Wilkes Booth’s impatience and hostility, his eagerness for the limelight at any cost, but since we don’t really see too much of his character, it is forced at us in a kind of simplistic cartoon image. Perhaps after a century and a half of legend, it’s hard to paint John Wilkes Booth any other way.

Maggie McNamara, fresh off her breakout role in “Three Coins in a Fountain” the year before, plays Edwin’s wife. It’s a 180-degree turn from the shallow prince-chasing girl of that film to the more nuanced 19th century young woman and actress she plays in “Prince of Players”. Reliable Charles Bickford plays Edwin’s manager. He is one of the few Hollywood actors who really looked comfortable in 19th century roles. Something so stately about his appearance and his speech that added to his believability.

The real joy for many viewers of this film is likely the very long, leisurely scenes from different plays by Shakespeare that get a nice showcase. “Richard III” in a mining camp out west, a snippet from “Romeo and Juliet” in the courtyard of a New Orleans bordello, and “Hamlet” of course, Edwin Booth’s signature role, on opulent stages lit by gas or candle footlights.

Early in the film, a drunken Raymond Massey applies his makeup in his dressing room singing Festes’ song “Hey, Ho, the Wind and the Rain” from “Twelfth Night”, and it is later reprised by a drunken Richard Burton bellowing out the same song in his magnificent Welsh choral voice.

Edwin’s source of genius, and his source of pain, is from his father, whom while a boy he attends on cross country tours like a page assisting a knight, until his dissipated father, from whom he has learned Shakespearean passages by rote, can no longer go on. Edwin must carry on the name, which in real life he did somewhat reluctantly, insecure about his own talent.

A rivalry develops between the brothers when John Wilkes Booth, with more dash and bravado than technical skill, tries to wrest the actor’s crown away from Edwin. But, he’s unable to do that, and with his increasing obsession over the South’s fortunes during the end of the Civil War, attempts to secure his fame in a different manner.

We get a re-creation of the night at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C., where President and Mrs. Lincoln went to see the comedy “Our American Cousin”. John Derek makes his way into the box, plays out the theatrical scene of assassination, hollers his infamous line, “Sic Semper Tyrannis!” which is the quote most often attributed to Booth. Derek looks like John Wilkes Booth, but this famous awful moment comes off as a tableau. Perhaps that is inevitable.

The end of the film shows a morose Edwin Booth, weighed down by the death of his young wife, and by his brother’s evil deed bringing shame on the family name. Actually, Edwin’s life was in danger for a time by angry mobs wherever he went, more than just the tomato throwing in this film.

If you’re interested in reading more on how Edwin heard the news of the assassination and what happened to him in those days, hop over to my “Tragedy and Comedy in New England” blog this Wednesday when we discuss the anniversary of that horrific moment when Edwin got snagged and helplessly entangled in his brother’s infamy.

“Prince of Players” is worth seeing for the eloquence of the Shakespearean scenes and for the history the film represents, but like most biopics of the day, is very simplistic in its telling and almost as notable for what it left out as what it left in. These are people and events worth another look, and one wonders why modern filmmakers have neglected this American tragedy and its compelling players.


panavia999 said...

Excellent comment "even the most humble common dirt-poor worker was familiar with the works of William Shakespeare." If a big studio made a bio pic of Edwin Booth now, they would not show so much Shakespeare performance because people don't want to see that "old stuff". It would probably star Robert Downey Jr. And there would be sex. And the assasination scene would feature flying blood. And it would not be as good as Burton and Massey's film.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

I guess you're probably right.

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Oh my god, is this on DVD? I want to watch it. I've always thought Burton would have made a great Byron. John Derek though as John Wilkes Booth? He's certainly pretty enough.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Welcome, Elizabeth, and thanks for stopping by. I don't know if it's on DVD, but the Fox Movie Channel runs it occasionally. If I'm not wrong, I think they even ran it again this morning.

Troy said...

Thanks for your blog. I'm a big fan of Booth thanks to that biography by Eleanor Ruggles. I've seen this film and liked it as well although I agree pretty closely with your assessment of the flaws. I often walk by the statue of Booth in Grammercy Park and I occasionally stop by to look at the Player's Club where he lived and think about his life a little. It's about as melancholy as it gets but there is a very strange beauty to it as well and that's what keeps him interesting (more interesting than his crazy brother to be sure). I happened to play David Herold (One of John Wilke's co-conspirators) in an episode of Unsolved Mysteries so my life has strangely intertwined with the Booth family. To me it would be very interesting to really explore the relationship of grief (or any great emotion) to the development of an artistic technique. Eleanor Ruggles puts it very nicely when she says, "As his grief became more manageable, his technique absorbed it." I wonder if that's true.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thank you, Troy, for your kind remarks and for adding your own deep appreciation of Edwin Booth. Your experience playing David Herold on "Unsolved Mysteries" must have been fascinating. I write plays, and have come to appreciate and respect how actors use the exploration of mood and emotion to sketch out a technique to play a certain character.

That's a nice quote from Eleanor Ruggles. I agree that Edwin was much more interesting than John Wilkes.

Thanks again for your thought-provoking comment.

Anonymous said...

I stumbled on this blog, this morning (11-17-10). Do you know how someone can view this movie?
Would love to see an accurate -- I say accurate -- portrayal of the Booth Family. I've been surfing the web for two days now, and oh my, the connections (Lincoln, U.Grant,Lt. Col. Bardeau, Font Hill Castle (Riverdale, NY, The Players). Fascinating history.
I am off to continue reading your blog. Thank you.
A New Fan

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

I don't know if it's on DVD or VHS, however, the Fox Movie Channel is showing it next Friday - November 26, 2010 - at 6 a.m. Good luck.

James Corry said...

Hi Jacqueline! I was just made aware of your blog by "Laura" at "Laura's Misc. Musings".....I'll certainly put you on my list of "favorites" now! "Prince Of Players" marked the directing debut of Philip Dunne, the great screenwriter who penned "How Green Was My Valley","The Ghost And Mrs. Muir" and "David And Bathsheba" to name only a few. "Prince" was also one of the early "CinemaScope" (anamorphic widescreen)films and the first one with the dubious distinction of losing money at the boxoffice. Studio boss Darryl Zanuck and Dunne both felt that being hampered by a, as yet unknown star, (Burton) plus a subject that hardly anyone knew about helped to seal the film's fate. It's a fate that is undeserved. "Prince Of Players" is a terrific picture which only gets better with age, from the acting, to the directing, to Bernard Herrmann's tremendous music score (Dunne specifically asked Herrmann to write the music for this film) it's a winner all the way. "Prince" has never been on home-video of ANY sort (in fact I've never seen it in it's widescreen incarnation; it's always been shown panned-and-scanned on the Fox Movie Channel.)BUT....keep you fingers (and toes) crossed for the niche-market DVD-Blu-Ray label "Twilight Time" to release this unjustly neglected gem from 20th Century-Fox great CinemaScope days......


Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Welcome James, and thank you for the background information on this interesting film. You're right, it is an unjustly neglected gem. Perhaps that will change.

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