America’s Shakespeare: The Bard goes west to Hollywood

Hamlet costumes
The costumes for Alan Bates and Glenn Close in Hamlet (1990). (The Collection of Motion Picture Costume Design: Larry McQueen)

Shakespeare has provided rich material for Hollywood’s film industry over the decades, from The Taming of the Shrew (1967) with Elizabeth Taylor to 10 Things I Hate About You (1999) with Julia Stiles.

Given this, an exhibition about Shakespeare in America (and especially in California), such as the one on display at the Los Angeles Public Library through Feb. 26, 2017, would hardly be complete without a spotlight on the Bard in Hollywood history.

America’s Shakespeare: The Bard Goes West pulls from the Warner Bros. archives at USC, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences archives, the LA Phil’s Hollywood Bowl Museum archives, and private costume collections to showcase Shakespeare from the early days of silent films to more recent movies such as the 1990 Hamlet, starring Mel Gibson.

“There are two films that we are featuring as exemplary,” says curator Stephen Dickey, a senior lecturer in the UCLA English Department. A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935) represents a Shakespeare play pretty straightforwardly transformed into a film, though some liberties are taken with the text, while Joe Macbeth (1955) represents an offshoot adaptation, in which Shakespeare’s plot is used, but not his language.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935)

At a 1934 California festival, Austrian-born director Max Reinhardt directed a stage version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, creating a spectacular performance in the now iconic Hollywood Bowl amphitheater—even bringing in trees to create the forest scenes.

“People talked about it for a long, long time,” Dickey says.

Film executives at the time were under pressure to raise the tone of movies, and Shakespeare offered a potential solution. But would the Bard draw big enough screen audiences? “It’s an interesting cultural moment because Shakespeare is uncertain box office in the cinema,” Dickey says.

1934 A Midsummer Night's Dream
Panoramic photo of A Midsummer Night’s Dream cast at Hollywood Bowl, 1934. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Archives/Hollywood Bowl Museum. On exhibit in America’s Shakespeare: The Bard Goes West.

Based on the stage production’s success, Warner Bros. hired Reinhardt to direct the 1935 film, which had the newest special effects in addition to some of the hottest movie stars of the day. Felix Mendelssohn’s music was extensively used, and dancers and choreographers were brought from Europe. At a time when Hitler was gaining more and more power, “artistic talent was draining out of Europe into America, and heading to California,” Dickey says.

The film won two Academy Awards, for Best Cinematography and Best Film Editing, and was nominated for Best Picture.

Joe Macbeth (1955)

Joe Macbeth
Movie poster for Joe Macbeth, starring Paul Douglas and Ruth Roman. Columbia Pictures. c1955.

The plot for Joe Macbeth was taken from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, but there’s no allegiance to Shakespeare’s language. Instead of a Scottish thane, the title character is an American gangster.

America’s Shakespeare: The Bard Goes West looks at the evolution of the film, with memos from production companies and film executives going back and forth over details with the Production Code office. It took 10 years before the movie was made, and they ended up filming it in England.

“It wasn’t very successful, but it was an early example of the Shakespeare offshoot genre in film, and it spawned many others,” Dickey says.

Just look at Throne of Blood, Men of Respect, and Scotland, PA for a few examples of movies based on the plot of Macbeth.

See the insider documents tracing the development of Joe Macbeth, a Warner Bros. memo about risqué fairy costumes in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, costumes from the Mel Gibson Hamlet and more in America’s Shakespeare: The Bard Goes West.

The LA Library "America's Shakespeare The Bard Goes West" Exhibition Opening on November 15, 2016, in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Nicholas Gingold/Capture Imaging)America’s Shakespeare: The Bard Goes West, is on exhibit at the Los Angeles Public Library through Feb 26, 2017. A partnership with the Library Foundation of Los Angeles, this exhibition presents a broad range of items from the Folger Shakespeare Library, complemented by others from California collections, tracing Shakespeare’s ever-changing role in American culture, from westward expansion and the Civil War to stage, screen, and radio, debates over war, politics, and race, and the latest forms of digital media today.

The core group of items in this exhibition, originally curated by Georgianna Ziegler, appeared at the Folger in April 2016 as America’s Shakespeare.