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Thursday, July 6, 2017

PRINCE OF PLAYERS (1955)

Perhaps it’s appropriate that one of the first CinemaScope pics to fail at the box-office shows up on DVD in cropped Pan-and-Scan format. Fortunately, if that’s the word, it was also the directing debut of long-time 20th/Fox scripter Philip Dunne, and he shows so little aptitude for dramatic composition (WideScreen or Square) the loss is minimal. Line-‘em-up and keep ‘em in focus. (Actually, no small thing with the early Bausch & Lomb lenses.) A lateral tracking shot backstage is rare enough to give off a jolt; and the last shot in the pic startles simply by bothering to come up with dynamic use of space. A shame, because in spite of the film’s poor rep, it’s quite an entertaining piece of factoid hooey on those famous Booth Shakespeareans: alcoholic, a touch mad, brilliant. Richard Burton gets a welcome amount of recitation as the talented Edwin. (Most of the Romeo & Juliet balcony scene, with Moss Hart’s script cleverly placing him in a brothel balcony against Maggie McNamara’s pretty good Juliet standing below.) Raymond Massey flails away as the failing father and mush-mouthed John Derek descends into assassin-mode as John Wilkes. (Twas actor’s jealousy that made him do it!) Too bad Moss Hart, fresh off writing A STAR IS BORN/’54, didn’t take up Darryl F. Zanuck’s offer to try his hand at directing. Most of his great B’way successes were (poorly) adapted by others, but his original Hollywood scripting (GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT/’47; HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSEN/’52; STAR IS BORN and this) make him 3½ for 4. Then again, his next project, back on B’way, was directing MY FAIR LADY. (And after that, CAMELOT with Richard Burton.)

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: In spite of his movie career, Burton truly was born for the stage, often uncomfortable on film. Critic Walter Kerr movingly made the point upon Burton’s return to the stage taking over the lead in EQUUS. (Then, in the 1977 Sidney Lumet film, he overacts it.) Here, some play excerpts come off far less mannered than what we have of his Shakespeare elsewhere. Including the unhappy modern-day/dress rehearsal HAMLET under John Gielgud in ‘64. But one shot of him, in bed with his ailing wife, humming a song to comfort her, has him showing star quality he rarely mustered on screen.

LINK: From 1890, a LO-FI wax cylinder recording reported to be Edwin Booth reciting a bit of OTHELLO. The calm, almost untheatrical delivery typical of his style. Like Eleanora Duse, audiences were often initially puzzled by a lack of grandeur & size, only gradually succumbing to his subtle anti-histrionic effects. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LM82m1MJn_g

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