Monday, April 12, 2010
"Prince of Players" 1955
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.
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.
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.
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.