Four months into his career as a director, D.W. Griffith took on William Shakespeare. In one reel. Yes, that is about ten minutes. The short stars the legendary Florence Lawrence as the titular hellion and Arthur V. Johnson is her suitor. But did you know that Mack Sennett was also on hand in a supporting role? I wonder what will come of that…
Click here to read my debate partner, Margaret Perry, share her thoughts on the film.
Lawrence of Padua
Florence Lawrence is commonly known as the first American movie star. She was Canadian but the title stuck. In spite of being listed and briefly profiled in almost every film history book, Miss Lawrence herself is elusive. Her career was in tatters by the time the feature film era arrived and most of her work was in silent dramatic shorts, the hardest type of silent film for modern audiences to embrace.
While there are scratchy prints of her Biograph work available on DVD, sparkling and pristine prints of her work are rarely released. The Taming of the Shrew is one of these rare releases.
You see, good prints are especially important for films of this period. Close-ups remained exceedingly rare during the nickelodeon era and the casts were usually shown full-length. Details of expression and gesture are very difficult to make out in so-so prints. This is also why I recommend watching films from the 1900s and early 1910s on as large a screen as you can find.
In 1908, Lawrence was still working for Biograph and, as we all know, D.W. Griffith was on his way to becoming one of the burgeoning film industry’s top directors. His first directorial effort, The Adventures of Dollie, had been released in July of 1908. The Taming of the Shrew was released on November. Throughout summer and autumn of that year Griffith had churned out dozens of films, nearly two dozen of them with Lawrence.
During this period, motion pictures were seen as tacky entertainments that no one who valued their reputation would take part in. Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish and Miriam Cooper all recalled their chagrin at trying to get a job in the flickers.
The movies responded by trying to class up the joint. Stage plays were regularly adapted for this new art. Slowly but surely, stage stars were lured to the screen. (This transition started gradually but by the mid ‘teens, movie people had to beat off the stage actors with a stick. The dam really burst with the coming of sound but that is another story.)
Of course, taking a play that may run from one to two hours and contain pages and pages of dialogue and turning it into a silent film that would run anywhere from five to twenty-five minutes… Well, things had to be cut. Most moviemakers handled this challenge by using vignettes. For example, a movie version of Romeo and Juliet might show the lovers meeting, the balcony scene and the climax without anything between other than a few title cards to bridge the gap.
Griffith could have used this approach for The Taming of the Shrew but he didn’t. Instead, he did what would become a proud tradition in Hollywood: Throw out all the complicated stuff, add lots of kissing and lots of people getting hit upside the head. Cut! Print!
You know what? It actually works pretty darn well.
Most of us know the story but here is the basic version. Pretty Bianca (Linda Arvidson, who had been married to Griffith since 1906) wants to get married but her rambunctious sister, Katherina (Florence Lawrence) stands in the way. The loutish Petruchio (Arthur V. Johnson, another Griffith regular) shows up and offers to take Katherina off of everyone’s hands. They are wed and a thus begins the famous psychological warfare as Petruchio aims to “tame” his bride.
I will leave the aspects of sexism and abuse off the table for another writer to discuss. I can do so in good conscience because this Taming of the Shrew doesn’t really have all that much of it.
Basically, Griffith sliced off Shakespeare’s oft-debated final scene (in which Katherina urges wives to be obedient—or does she?) and ended the whole thing with Katherina and Petruchio brawling with their servants and then falling into one another’s arms. The pair is presented as equally off-kilter. The two eccentrics in the room found one another. Hurrah for the rest of us.
This is not great Shakespeare but it is a fun little costumed marital comedy. Does it come as a surprise that Mack Sennett (one of Griffith’s more successful disciples) had a small role? In fact, I shouldn’t wonder if Sennett had some part in egging on the cast, encouraging a more slapstick approach. (How slapstick? At one point, Petruchio dropkicks Katherina’s hat.)
I liked Florence Lawrence very much in this. She is energetic, saucy and every inch the hellion. This is by far her best role, at least from the footage I have been able to view. It showcases her beauty to perfection and her liveliness makes her popularity immediately understandable and relatable. And I loved the way she posed over her vanquished foes like an Italian Boudicca.
Everyone in the cast mugs but it works in the context of the film. After all, this is played as an extremely broad comedy. Everyone is in on the joke and seems to be having a splendid time.
The Taming of the Shrew is not at all respectful of its source material, nor is it faithful. Don’t use it to cheat on your English exams. However, it is a rather entertaining way to spend ten minutes and it is a chance to enjoy the charm and personality of Florence Lawrence, a star who is all too often trapped in the still photos of history books. You truly have to see her in action to understand what all the fuss was about.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★½
Where can I see it?
The Taming of the Shrew received high-quality release on Kino’s Othello (1922 version) disc. The source is a Library of Congress paper print, so it is not pristine but is still pretty good. (Many early films are preserved, not on film, but on lengths of photo paper for copyright purposes.) It features an excellent piano score from Jon Mirsalis. The disc also has a Max Linder Shakespeare spoof, an early screen versions of Macbeth and a Danish short about the married leads of Othello discovering that life imitates art. The set is a treasure box of obscure delights and comes highly recommended.