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no. 383

Saturday, 15 January 2005

Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree and Constance Collier
in an early film version of Shakespeare's tragedy,
Reliance Motion Picture Corporation, Hollywood, USA, 1916

Macbeth, 1916

Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree and Constance Collier
as Macbeth and his lady in an early (now probably lost) film version of Shakespeare's tragedy,
directed by John Emerson for the Reliance Motion Picture Corporation,
distributed by Triangle Fine Arts, Hollywood, 1916

(photo: Reliance Motion Picture Corporation, Hollywood, USA, 1916)

Sir Herbert Tree says his plots are
well suited to screen production.

'"Has the advent of the motion picture created a new form of art? The answer to that, like the answer to so many other questions, is - Yes and No."
'Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, dressed in the gorgeous pre-Elizabethan costume of Macbeth, and with the shaggy moustache and flowing locks of that ancient Scottish ruler, stood smiling at the interviewer who had ventured into the enormous, gloomy, barnlike motion picture studio to ask him that question. Dozens of long, vertical tubes of blazing gray-green light stood here and there in racks and cast a sickly greenish pallor over everything. A moment before Sir Herbert had been tramping across the bearskin covered floor of the King's chamber vividly portraying Macbeth's bitter remorse for the murder. As the click of the camera ceased he promptly slipped back to the normal genial manner of a courteous, kindly English gentleman, and dropped easily into a chair to explain his ambiguous statement.
'"The motion-picture - cinematograph we call it in England - is a wonderful thing. Unquestionably it is a form of art, although it is only within the last year or two that I have been able to say this conscientiously. The purpose of art is to portray human emotion, and the motion-picture does this with a power and perfection directly depending upon the ability of the actor who appears before it. A bad actor produces bad art and a good actor produces good art, and that is all that really needs to be said upon the subject. In some ways it is pleasing to note the motion-picture has far superior artistic possibilities to those of the legitimate stage.
'"Two of the things invented by D.W. Griffith have been of great assistance in making clear the emotion which the actor is endeavouring to convey - the 'cutback' and the 'closeup.' The 'cutback' is a device which inserts into the middle of one scene a brief showing of a previous scene, which is thus made more clear in the mind of the spectator and which is to reveal to him more deeply the true significance of the scene into which it is inserted.
'"The 'closeup' is made by bringing the camera very close to the face of the actor so that every change in his expression is noted instantly. It gives him a tremendous power of delineation - but like most things which bring tremendous power, it brings tremendous responsibly, too. The eye of the camera is the most terrible critic I know. It is absolutely remorseless in the way in which it reveals the weakness of those who appear before it. The camera never flatters - it presents with absolute precision the best and the worst that the actor has to offer.
'"Does it require a special technique to act for the films?" Sir Herbert was asked.
'"I don't like that word 'technique,'" he promptly answered. "I have always thought the less technique an actor knows (in the sense of cold, formal skill, a kind of superior manual dexterity) the better. I believe that any man who is a good actor on the legitimate state ought to be a good actor before the camera. There are, of course, differences between the two forms of art. The presentation of emotion is essentially the same, but it is done, so to speak, in a different tempo, and an understanding of this tempo has to be acquired. I think I have managed to get a fair understanding of it."
'The writer was told afterwards by John Emerson, the stage director, who is guiding the productions in which Sir Herbert is taking part, that the latter had become a competent motion picture actor more quickly than any other person he had ever seen.
'"I am frequently asked," Sir Herbert remarked, "whether the lack of an audience when one is producing scenes before the camera does not constitute a discouragement. With me that is certainly not true. When one is acting before the camera he is acting for posterity, and it behoves him to remember the fact. I used only to think of the thousands on thousands of persons who will see the film after it is completed to get all the inspiration I require. It is true, of course that the production of a play - the production of Macbeth, for example - requires much more emotional force than is required to go through a single performance upon the stage. It is not possible to create within one's self an emotional crisis in a moment or two; one has to arrive at such a state with a gradual flux. We therefore rehearse each scene several times before the camera begins its work, and that is sufficient as a rule to create the necessary dramatic illusion."
'Sir Herbert was emphatic in his statement that the motion-picture of the present time does not by any means give us an adequate idea of what will come with the future development of the art.
'"The story of the cinematograph is a familiar one," he said. "At the beginning it was a commercial affair, and the productions were the work of tradesmen and not artists. Consequently the things they did were not things which could be taken seriously by any cultivated or artistic person. Now, however, we have seen the advent of the artist into the field. Mr. Griffith is a genuine artist, actuated by the same high ideals which govern the author, the playwright, the painter, poet, or musician, and the results which he is achieving show it is high time for the artist to take over the cinematograph and rejuvenate it. Eighteen years ago [sic] motion-pictures were made of my performance of King John and Henry VIII., but they were simply photographic transcripts of the stage productions, entirely meaningless unless one knew the play by heart and could supply from his memory the lines to be spoken at every instance of the action. The production of Macbeth upon which we are now working is one which will be perfectly intelligible to every spectator, whether he has ever seen a performance or even ever read the play or not. The essential dignity of the simple tragedy, with its powerful lesson is carried home by the highest form of pantomimic art. It is true, however, that the screen production will be of most interest to those who know their Shakespeare. In this connection you may be interested to hear that all the titles put upon the screen will be quoted lines from the play [sic]."
'Sir Herbert was asked whether it was necessary to make any considerable adaptation of Shakespeare for presentation on the screen.
'"The difference between the written play and the motion picture scenario is amazingly slight. One would almost think that Shakespeare had prepared the plots of his plays with an eventual production for the screen in mind. They have all the gorgeous wealth of detail, the epic swing, the simplicity and directness which are demanded for narrative in the world of the cinematograph. In our production of Macbeth we have tried to produce the play just as Shakespeare might if he came back long enough to direct the screen performance. Very likely that may seem presumptuous on our part, but I don't think it really is. Shakespeare used every device of his own day to make his work effective upon the stage, and there is no reason to believe that he would not be just as alert and eager to adopt the advanced dramatic possibilities of the motion-picture if he were alive to-day."
'Sir Herbert smiled whimsically.
'"However," he said, "we are not calling our versions of the plays, Macbeth, Lear, Othello, &c. We are calling them Tales from Shakespeare, and in that way we hope to cut the ground out from under the feet of hostile criticism. If Charles Lamb is permitted to make a literary version of the stories of the plays, surely we may be permitted to do the same thing for the cinematograph.
'"The alterations in Macbeth which have been made for the screen version are an interesting illustration of how the epic art of the 'movie' is used to amplify the Shakespearean narrative. For example, the coronation of Macbeth is one of the big scenes in the screen production, although it is not a part of Shakespeare's play. We show the coronation scene with the famous Stone of Scone placed, as we know it was at that time, under a tree in Scotland (although now it rests in Westminster Abbey). The presentation of the battle scenes, of course, is infinitely more realistic than could ever be possible in a production in the theatre, and for the first time in history 'Birnam wood has come to Dunsinane.' Lady Macbeth, Shakespeare hints, eventually goes mad; but, in order to drive home the tragic lesson more completely, the film version shows her actual madness. The historical researches which were made prior to the filming of the story were so complete and far-reaching that the production should have a historical value as showing the costumes, the arms, houses and furniture of that day."'
(Pictures and The Picturegoer, London, Saturday, 8 April 1916, pp.28 and 29, originally published by The Christian Science Monitor; see also Tree's two part article, 'Impressions of America', including details of the making of Macbeth, in The Times, London, respectively 8 and 9 September 1916, pp. 11c/d and 9d/e)

Tree as Macbeth

Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree as Macbeth in the film version of Shakespeare's tragedy,
Triangle Fine Arts, United States of America, 1916

(Pictures and The Picturegoer, London, Saturday, 8 April 1916, p.28b)

'Shakespeare's tercentenary celebration, to take place in April in commemoration of the 300th anniversary of the death of the "Bard of Avon", will be a succession of plays, fetes and pageants throughout the civilized world and especially in the English speaking countries. Sir Herbert Beerbhom Tree, the well-known English actor-manager, who is among the most celebrated of all the interpreters of Shakespeare, is now completing a film spectacle of Macbeth in California. Constance Collier, who had played in London, with Sir Herbert, and who is expected to appear with him in his Shakespearian festival in New York, is the Lady Macbeth. This film will probably be the only cinema contribution to the Shakespearian celebration.'
(Daisy Dean, 'News Notes from Movieland,' The Times-Democrat, Lima, Ohio, Wednesday, 15 March 1915, p.7b)

* * * * * * * *

'Settling down in Hollywood at 1985 North Van Ness Avenue, Tree started work on the Macbeth film in January, 1916. With no responsibilities he was happy and carefree in spirit, and his fellow-workers voted him a "sport". He did not like the new medium, preferring more space and less pace, and said that "at Los Angeles I never had any private life", but he showed intense interest in the job and enjoyed the surroundings. The picture was finished in six weeks, and every one except himself was thrilled by the preliminary "running", at the conclusion of which he was found fast asleep in his seat.'
(Hesketh Pearson, Beerbohm Tree, His Life and Laughter, first published in 1956 by Methuen & Co, Columbus Books, London, 1988, p.225; for an earlier account of this episode, see Constance Collier, Harlequinade, The Story of My Life, John Lane The Bodley Head Ltd, London, 1929, pp.249 and 250)

* * * * * * * *

Macbeth was given its first public showing on 4 June 1916 at the Majestic Theatre, Los Angeles. A few days later on 22 June it received its London premiere at His Majesty's Theatre, London:

'Sir Herbert Tree's Macbeth.
'The coming of the cinematograph has achieved the impossible, and while Sir Herbert Tree is enjoying the plaudits of New York his admirers in London can now flock to see him at His Majesty's Theatre as Macbeth - on the screen. It is a wonderful production this that Sir Herbert journeyed to California to take part in. It is a sheer spectacle, of crowds, of contending armies, of stage pictures, there have been few films yet seen in this country to approach it. The only thing it is not, and naturally cannot be, is the tragedy of Macbeth, as one imagines Shakespeare conceived it, for one misses, as much perhaps in this as in any other film yet attempted, the grandeur of the spoken word, which is not atoned for by the projection of extracts from the play on to the screen. Miss Constance Collier, for instance, contributes a remarkably fine piece of acting as Lady Macbeth, but even this cannot quite carry through the sleep-walking scene, or the tense moments after the murder of the King, without the aid of speech.
'On the other hand, of course, there are many things which the cinematograph can do better than the most ambitious stage-manager. There is an eeriness about the scenes of the blasted heath, a feeling of reality about the Castle of Macbeth, which suggests some historic pile in Scotland rather than sticks and stucco from California, a sense of vitality about the hundreds of actors who take part in the production, that could not be obtained inside the four walls of a theatre.
'We believe that this is the first time Sir Herbert Tree has acted in Shakespeare for "the pictures," and the reception given to the film of Macbeth yesterday should encourage him to repeat the experiment.'
(The Times, London, Friday, 23 June 1916, p.11b)

'Macbeth Filmed, At His Majesty's.
'Macbeth in cinema form; Macbeth robbed of its glorious verse; Macbeth with its poet-hero stricken dumb - what an odd transformation! You must accept the production now offered at His Majesty's as a spectacle, and forget the sacrifice of Shakespeare's language. If you can do that, you will be bound to admit that the spectacle is wonderful and the whole enterprise romantic. Sir Herbert Tree has travelled thousands of miles to figure in these films, and we see now in London [that] it required the atmosphere and sunshine of California to bring to perfection. No more stage-effects have ever matched the achievements of the cinematograph. The blasted heath stretching in such dreary distance, the torch-lit picture of the coronation, the crowded scene of the assault of the Castle - these are triumphs in presence of which the theatre can do no other than confess defeat. There are majesty and forcefulness in the looks of Miss Constance Collier's Lady Macbeth, just as there is picturesque imagination in Sir Herbert's presentment.'
(The Illustrated London News, London, Saturday, 1 July 1916, p.28b)

* * * * * * * *

For further information, see Carl Bennett's Progressive Silent Film List. It is likely that this firm version of Macbeth owed a good deal to Tree's memorable stage production of the play at His Majesty's Theatre, London, 5 September 1911, in which he sustained the title role and Violet Vanburgh the part of Lady Macbeth.

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