A prim adaptation of the famous Georgian play. Apparently, the scoundrel of the tale is played by some actor with the remarkable name of Basil Rathbone. I wonder whatever became of him?
Oh, you naughty boy!
Basil Rathbone didn’t start his career in Captain Blood or David Copperfield. In fact, he had been making movies for a decade and a half when he first crossed swords with Errol Flynn and thrashed Freddie Bartholomew. Rathbone had begun his career in theater before the First World War but put his artistic ambitions on hold to enlist in the army. He returned to the theater after the war and then tried his hand at the movies in 1921.
The School for Scandal is Rathbone’s third screen appearance, to my knowledge the earliest surviving footage of his acting, and so you can see how important it is to his fans. (Though if you know of any earlier film clips, I would love to hear about it!
Here are some clippings covering his earlier films:
I confess to not being a particular fan of Georgian dramas but The School for Scandal is generally reckoned to be one of the best. It was written by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, first performed in 1777 and concerns a lot of one-percenters with terribly symbolic names who get themselves into a pickle.
Sir Peter Teazle (Frank Stanmore) has taken a much younger wife, Lady Teazle (Queenie Thomas), and has just inherited guardianship of Maria (Billie Shotter). Lady Teazel is dazzled by London society and soon becomes a member of a venomous gossip club known as the School for Scandal.
Maria, meanwhile, has two suitors. Sir Peter’s nephew Charles Surface (John Stuart) seems frivolous on the, well, surface but is true blue underneath. His brother, Joseph (Basil Rathbone), is the more respectable on the outside but a schemer underneath. Both love Maria but she prefers Charles.
As part of his plan to win Maria and inherit a fortune, Joseph butters up Lady Teazle. She feels it is stylish to have a lover and he playacts at being her paramour, hoping to use this position to win over Maria. However, a rumor goes around the School for Scandal that Lady Teazle is carrying on with Charles. Sir Peter believes that his wife has been untrue and prepares to settle an allowance on her and leave her to her lover in London.
The whole thing concludes with one of those scenes where everyone is hiding in a different part of the room as truths are revealed and it’s not giving much away to say that all ends in wine, song and weddings.
The School for Scandal opened to mixed reviews but time seems to have been kind to it. The film is certainly lovely to look at and the costuming is particularly fine, with the characters looking as though they go about their daily lives in the clothes they wear. The costumes are not costumey, is my point. Director Bertram Philips adds a few clever visual touches, such as Joseph scheming during a dance performance that mimics marionettes.
The performances range from understated to just a little hammy, with Rathbone on the more subtle side of the equation. Billie Shotter isn’t called on to do much more than stand around and look pretty. Queenie Thomas is given a bit more to do as Lady Teazle, though the shortness of the film precludes learning much about her character. Scottish actor John Stuart, who plays Charles, is a bit to merry in his part but he went on to an even longer career than Rathbone. He worked steadily until his death in 1979, playing one of the elders of Krypton in the 1978 version of Superman.
While there were some doubts as to whether the famously loquacious play could make it on the mute screen, there turned out to be certain advantages to the medium. Being a silent film, we are spared the tendency found in adaptations of witty works to deliver a bon mot and then seemingly wait for applause. (For examples of this see nearly any sound Oscar Wilde adaptation. Yes, you’re very droll but stop breaking the fourth wall!)
The School for Scandal is unavailable in its original length (approximately six reels, pretty standard for a silent feature) and what I saw is an abridgement that was released for 9.5mm home projectors. It lasts about ten minutes, counting the title cards, and focuses most of its attention on the Joseph plot. I do not generally review films that are so incomplete but felt that this picture deserves more attention.
The original plot of The School for Scandal was much more focused on the vicious Lady Sneerwell, whose appearance here is reduced to a cameo, and on Sir Oliver Surface, the uncle of Charles and Joseph, who does not appear at all in the film. Other characters like Mrs. Candour and Snake are similarly cut, though they likely appear in the full-length picture as they are included in published cast lists. (You can read a synopsis of the original play here.)
Given the cutesy names and the complexity of the plot, it’s little wonder that few filmmakers have attempted an adaptation since. There have been television episodes but, to my knowledge, the only feature film adaptation after 1923 is the 1930 color version directed by Maurice Elvey and starring Madeleine Carroll as Lady Teazle. That version is missing and presumed lost.
But what is the verdict for the 1923 film? Well, I won’t be able to say for certain due to the short length of the abridgement but the film seems to be a very capable screen adaptation. It has the polite character of a Masterpiece Theater production but I happen to like that style so it suits me very well. Basil Rathbone’s subtle performance may have used just a dash of oomph but he generally acquits himself very well. Here’s hoping we get to see the full-length version soon!
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★
Where can I see it?
The version I saw was a three-reel abridgement released on 9.5mm in the private collection of Christopher Bird. Mr. Bird has offered to put all three reels up on YouTube if my readers wish it. So, if you wish it, give a holler! (The current version on YouTube contains only two reels and less Basil.)
A general (and huge) thanks to Mr. Bird for sharing his film, clippings and research on The School for Scandal.
Update: The School for Scandal has been uploaded to YouTube. Enjoy!