The Taming of the Shrew (1908) A Silent Film Review

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.

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.

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.

lawrence-4

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.

Sometimes the details get lost.
Sometimes the details get lost.

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.

Florence Lawrence was one of the earliest stars.
Florence Lawrence was one of the earliest stars.

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.)

I do believe that is pioneering screenwriter and director Jeanie Macpherson in the center.
I do believe that is pioneering screenwriter and director Jeanie Macpherson in the center.

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.

That's what we want!
That’s what we want!

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.

Bianca’s sister ruins all her dates.
Bianca’s sister ruins all her dates.

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.

And hitting. Lots of hitting.
And hitting. Lots of hitting.

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.

Better you than me, honey.
Better you than me, honey.

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.)

Oh, we are goofy!
Oh, we are goofy!

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.

Don’t diss this miss.
Don’t diss this miss.

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.

21 Replies to “The Taming of the Shrew (1908) A Silent Film Review”

  1. As a huge Shakespeare fan, Taming of the Shrew is not a favorite of mine, but this looks great and certainly less icky than the Burton/Taylor version from 1967.

  2. Adding this to my must-see list, Fritzi. Sounds like a hoot. I love the history you include, putting the film in context. I always learn a hell of a lot from you. Terrific entry to the blogathon!! YAY for you and your silent gems!

    Aurora

  3. Great post (especially all the contextual background) and this sounds like a must watch. I think all the fun was taken out of The Taming of The Shrew when I was at school so the fact that this isn’t faithful to the original text is a bonus…!

  4. I’ll be honest about three things: 1. I haven’t read much Shakespeare, 2. I don’t mind Taming of the Shrew a whole lot but, then again, the last time I watched an adaption of it (the 1967 version) I was a stupid teenager who didn’t see how it could be seen as sexist, 3. You and this post are awesome. Thank you for taking part in the blogathon. I agree with Aurora, I live the background information you never fail to provide. You inspire me to provide more context in my reviews. Thanks for the heads up on what sounds like a silly but also fun film.

  5. This sounds like a barrel o’ fun. I really want to see this and – look! It’s on YouTube!

    I can respect a movie that cheerfully throws out the source material, if it makes for a satisfying movie experience.

    1. Was not a fan. It had a lot of issues common to early talkies but the main problem was that Doug & Mary were just too old for their roles. (So were Taylor and Burton but that’s another story.) To be honest, I think a swashbuckler hybrid would have served them better.

      Of course, the version we all see now is a 1960s reworking. As far as I know, the original has never been let out of the vaults and may no longer exist.

      1. I liked how it was less misogynist in having Kate keep her willpower intact to the end and duping Petruchio with her “obedience,” but yeah, it’s mostly dull and embarrassing. It’s a shame that this was the only time they starred in a film together.

        I hate how the original version is unavailable. The music they added feels intrusive and I don’t want “tighter editing.” I want what the director produced in 1929. It’s like slapping CG on an older film to “improve” it.

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