Monday, August 02, 2010

Edwin Booth : Prince of Players

Last week I set my TV to start recording stuff with Shakespeare in it. I was amused to see Vincent Price’s “Theatre of Blood” come up, looking forward to that one.

But first we have Prince of Players, a 1955 movie about the Booth family.  You know, as in John Wilkes Booth.  The dude who shot Lincoln?

We here at the site know that the Booth family were quite famous as Shakespearean actors, so the premise of this movie is fascinating.  We know what eventually happens, of course.  It’s like getting the back story.  Why does John go down the path he does? What of his brother Edwin?

The movie is more accurately the story of Edwin, played by none other than Richard Burton who had his own bits of Shakespearean fame.  We see Edwin grow up on the road with his father, Junius Brutus, memorizing lines while he was supposed to be sleeping or doing his homework. It was young Edwin who had to go drag his drunken father out of the local saloon so he could play Lear, or his famous Richard III.

Flash to the Booth home life where we meet John, the apparent heir to the throne as he runs through the house doing scenes with his father while Edwin settles up the accounting books with his older sister.  We soon learn, however, that Edwin is a much, much better actor than John.  They can both do the lines and do them well, but it is clear to everyone that Edwin is the new king.

This movie has an amazing amount of Shakespeare in it.  These days it seems like we either get a movie version of a Shakespeare play, or we get a movie based on a Shakespeare play, but nobody thinks that today’s audiences can sit through too much Shakespeare in the middle of their show.  Fifty years ago, however, movie makers had more respect for their audiences attention spans (and perhaps the audiences deserved it a bit more than today’s do).  We get to see very large amounts of Richard Burton’s Richard III, Romeo, and Hamlet.

The actual story, though perhaps a bit melodramatic, is still excellent and entertaining.  Edwin marries (his Juliet, actually) and has a child.  When his wife becomes ill and can no longer attend performances, he demands that her box remain empty, which angers the theatre owners who “could sell it 50x over.”  “You have the greatest Hamlet of our generation on your stage,” Booth’s manager responds, “If he wants that box to remain empty, it remains empty.”

What of his more infamous brother John? We see him, enough. Early on it looks as if he too will have a career in the theatre, but it’s clear that the critics prefer his brother. Somehow, perhaps for purposes only of the story, this translates into John’s preference for the South over the North.  I believe it was because he blamed the critics in the North, who preferred Edwin, for killing his own career. 

Edwin tries to rescue his brother from the bad influences he falls in with, including a generous offer to share the stage (“One night you would play Laertes to my Hamlet, the next I would be Laertes to your Hamlet. Then Iago, and Othello.”) that, 150 years later, would have Shakespeare geeks salivating over the prospect.  But just like any Shakespearean tragedy we know how this ends, we know what will happen to John and that Edwin will not be able to save him.


Unfortunately it appears that this movie is not available on DVD at the moment, so you have to keep an eye out for it in the TV Guide.  I believe I found it on the FOX Movie Channel, in case you get that.  Definitely recommended.  Been a long time since a movie from the 50’s kept my interest like that.


JM said...

In my opinion, one of the best performances Burton ever offered. He was very honest about his abilities (in his autobiography) and admitted he didn't know whether or not he would be up to the task--whether or not it would simply come to him. He had no misconceptions about his talent--it seemed to surprise him when it surfaced and he admitted it when it didn't. He was quite young in this flick, no? I wish I could see it again. I tell everyone about it, but it's rarely shown. Good pick, Duane.

Duane said...

If IMDB is at all accurate he would have been about 30 at the time. A perfect Hamlet.

Ed said...

I love the scenes that show Booth doing Shakespeare for the prospectors and miners out West. Reminiscnt of the scenes in "My Darling Clementine" when Doc Holliday bailed out the bibulously challenged actor and completed the "To be or not to be" soliloquy in the saloon.

I've read many accounts of how well loved Shakespeare was on the frontier, yet another example of Will's being "not of an age, but for all time."