Early Shakespeare films: scripts, stars, and souvenirs

Over the course of my first months as Eric Weinmann Librarian at the Folger, an important date has been looming: Acquisitions Night. I am looking forward to sharing this experience with our staff and visitors and seeing the ways in which people personally identify with particular items. One of the areas I have been involved with in my previous position at the University of Iowa is early film collections, and it is therefore particularly exciting to see how many items related to Shakespeare and film will be included in Acquisitions Night this year. —Greg Prickman


These recent additions to the Folger Shakespeare Library collection relate to a range of early Shakespeare films that represented important firsts, won awards, and witnessed the transition from silent films to “talkies.”

A Silent Film of Hamlet

This program advertises a silent film production of Hamlet starring Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson and Gertrude Elliott, who worked together and married in 1900. The film was one of the first feature films ever made in Britain. Forbes-Robertson was widely considered “the finest Hamlet of his time,” although he disliked acting and only did so to support himself. This Hamlet was based on a stage version performed at the Drury Lane theater in 1913, according to the British Film Institute, which has preserved the film.

Hamlet silent film program
Sir J. Forbes Robertson, Miss Gertrude Elliott and Full Drury Lane Company in Shakespeare’s Tragedy Hamlet. [England: circa 1913]
Hollywood in India

Shakespeare films made in Hollywood cropped up even in far-off places like India. In the 1930s the Wellington Cinema in Bombay, now Mumbai, India, played both Hollywood and Indian movies. This film program advertises a Mumbai showing of a 1929 Hollywood production of Taming of the Shrew. Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks—one of the most famous Hollywood couples from the silent film era—starred. But the production was not well received: Pickford’s and Fairbanks’s acting styles did not translate well into sound film and both stopped acting shortly after.

Hollywood in Bollywood
Wellington Cinema, Bombay, India. Two-page flyer advertising Douglas Fairbanks & Mary Pickford in a Wellington Talkies production of Taming of the Shrew. [Mumbai, India]: 1930
A Critically Acclaimed Midsummer

Like the 1913 Hamlet, Max Reinhardt’s classic film Midsummer Night’s Dream was also inspired by a stage production, one that took place at the Hollywood Bowl in 1934. This is a final script of the film, which was banned in Nazi Germany due to director Max Reinhardt and musician Felix Mendelssohn’s Jewish heritage. Starring James Cagney, Mickey Rooney, Joe E. Brown, Jean Muir, and Olivia de Havilland in her film debut, the film was a critical success, although it initially bombed at the box office. It won Academy Awards for Best Cinematography and Best Film Editing and was nominated for Best Picture and Best Assistant Director.

Final draft of screenplay
Charles Kenyon, 1880-1961. Final draft of the screenplay for Max Reinhardt’s 1935 film adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. [Burbank, California: Warner Brothers], 1934.
Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, in French

This is an original French souvenir program for Laurence Olivier’s highly lauded and controversial Hamlet. It was the first English sound film adaptation of the work and in 1948 became the first British film and the first non-American film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Some critics felt that the film deviated too far from Shakespeare’s text since Olivier removed approximately half of the dialogue and cut the characters of Fortinbras, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern entirely.

Laurence Olivier
Victory Films, Paris France. Laurence Olivier présente et joue Hamlet de William Shakespeare. Paris: Victory-Films, [1948?]

Each year the Folger Shakespeare Library showcases recent additions to the collection at Acquisitions Night, where supporters and members can see these collection items in person and “adopt” them. The items discussed in this blog post are all part of Acquisitions Night 2019.

Want to learn more about Shakespeare and film? Listen to these two Shakespeare Unlimited podcast episodes: Shakespeare on Film and Shakespeare and World Cinema.

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