Saturday, December 5, 2009

Richard Burton does Shakespeare

Richard Burton did quite a bit of Shakespeare when he was on stage, but not so much in film. So, it's an interesting historical document in more ways than one to be able to see Prince of Players, which the Fox Movie Channel is airing tomorrow at 8:00 AM ET.

Richard Burton stars in this movie as Edwin Booth, a name that should sound familiar to Americans at least. Edwin was the son of Junius Brutus (played here by Raymond Massey), and the brother of John Wilkes (played by John Derek). The father and both brothers were Shakespearean actors of the mid-19th century, although of course John Wilkes went on to something much more (in)famous.

Prince of Players opens near the end of Junius' life. This being the days before the movies, actors had to do extensive touring, and this combined with Junius' alcoholism cut Junius' life short, and forced Edwin to spend a lot of time looking after his father when in fact he'd rather be acting himself. Instead, it was John Wilkes who was being groomed by the family to be the actor. But, with Junius' sudden death while on tour, Edwin was forced into action and seized the opportunity, becoming the great Shakespearean actor of his generation. John Wilkes was rather less successful, jealous of his brother's success, and, as a southerner, began developing other interests....

Or so goes the story in Prince of Players. This being a Hollywood biopic, I don't know exactly how much of the movie is accurate, particularly the melodramatic final scene. Still, it's not exactly a bad movie. In addition, it's made more interesting by the fact that, as a movie about a Shakespearean actor, it's got several scenes that involve people performing the Bard's plays. We get to see Raymond Massey do Shakespeare at the beginning, and Burton several times over the course of the film, but no John Derek. (Whether this is a good or a bad thing is a question left to the reader.) Most entertaining might be a re-enactment of the Romeo and Juliet balcony scene, set here at a New Orleans brothel! However, the more worthwhile thing is watching Burton with a couple of people who had started on stage: Ian Keith (who did a lot of movies) plays the ghost of Hamlet's father, and Eva La Gallienne (who did very little film) plays Hamlet's mother.

Prince of Players hasn't been released to DVD, and what makes this doubly sad is that the last time the Fox Movie Channel showed it, they showed a panned-and-scanned version of it. This is particularly ironic considering that the opening frames that introduce the movie as a Cinemascope production, standard to all of Fox's stuff of that era, were left in.

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