Kean (1910) A Silent Film Review

A Danish biopic covering the life of Edmund Kean, the brilliant and self-destructive nineteenth-century English Shakespearean. A stagey but nevertheless interesting picture from a period of cinematic transition.

Home Media Availability: Stream courtesy of the Danish Film Institute.

Kean as mustard

Chances are, if you think about silent film biopics of Edmund Kean, you probably think of the 1924 French production featuring Russian dynamo Ivan Mosjoukine. That production was highly stylized and is most famous today for its hornpipe dance scene as Mosjoukine capers with sailors to the rhythm of rapid film cuts. Remember this little detail, as it comes into play later.

A far more static Kean.

This 1910 Danish production was based on the same source material as the French picture: the 1836 play by Alexandre Dumas, written just three years after its subject’s death. Edmund Kean was a wildly popular actor whose interpretations of Shakespearean villains and antiheroes made him a sensation of the English stage during the late Georgian era. His personal life was even more colorful, with drinking, carousing, profligate spending and (checks notes) playing with a pet lion.

His romantic escapades landed him in hot water when he was successfully sued for adultery with the wife of a government official and he became a target for hatred and mockery in both the British Isles and North America. He collapsed onstage during a performance of Othello and died weeks later.

Ladies here, ladies there…

Obviously, such a dramatic life and death was catnip in the pop culture of the era and the public could not get enough of him. Alexandre Dumas spiced up the proceedings by upgrading Kean’s angry romantic rival to the Prince of Wales himself and the love of his life became a hot Danish aristocrat.

A brilliant artist who has everything except self-control is still a wildly popular subject and so it’s no wonder that Denmark’s Nordisk film company decided to bring Edmund Kean to the movie screen. Unfortunately, only an eleven-minute fragment of what was likely a two-reel (twenty-plus minute) picture survives but what we have is revealing.

Kean carouses.

As with all the Kean motion pictures derived from Dumas, the actor’s predilection for playing sinister characters is ignored in favor of stuffing leading man Martinius Nielsen into Romeo’s tights and romanticizing Kean’s onstage persona. (In real life, Kean’s Romeo was panned and his signature roles were Richard III, Macbeth and Shylock. He was Iago before he was Othello.)

The film opens with a drawing room scene with sparks flying between Kean and the virginal heiress Anna Damby (Thilda Fønss). However, she has caught the eye of Lord M., who sets a trap for her by luring her by letter to a dive bar that Kean frequents. Despite being drunk and quite well along in an off-camera revelry with a group of Roma he befriended, Kean manages to see through the trap and, quite literally, unmask his rival.

He would have gotten away with it too if it hadn’t been for those meddling kids.

And that’s all we have, which is a shame, because I do enjoy some nice “lured with a forged letter” intrigue in my costume pictures. This adaptation had to cut down on the original material, of course, but it seemed to be weaving a smooth narrative out of the few select scenes that had been chosen for inclusion. With Kean, between the real and the embroidered, there would be enough material for a decently long miniseries.

Edmund Kean’s afterlife is interesting because the most popular version of his downfall was dramatized almost immediately after his death and most portrayals since have been derived from the based-on-true-events Dumas play rather than his actual (and quite dramatic) life itself. The legend was printed before the ink of his obituary was even dry.

A drawing room flirtation.

And his story would have been all too familiar to actors of any era. Living fast and dying young has been a constant for a certain percentage of the profession and such a role would give performers a chance to channel both the historical and legendary Kean, as well as any friends they may have lost along the way. Kean’s outlandish behavior also called for dramatic film direction and it is here that the 1910 adaptation runs into trouble.

Director Holger Rasmussen was content to shoot the film as a stage play, politely showing the performers’ shoes at all times. The painted sets, then still in common use but falling out of fashion, enhance the staginess but are not exaggerated enough to add panache. The performers do try, and Thilda Fønss is particularly appealing, but they seem to also have been bitten by the stage replication bug and there is quite a bit of gesticulation and flailing.

Their carousing is so wild, you’re not allowed to see it.

Oh, and that hornpipe dance scene? It’s obviously unfair to a certain degree to compare this 1910 film with a picture made a full fourteen years later but the contrast between Kean’s off-camera carousing here and what was concocted by the Russian emigres later really illustrates the airless and stale staginess of Rasmussen’s direction. While the unchained camera and aggressive cuts were still years away, films of the 1900s and early 1910s were by no means required to mimic the stage perfectly. Pans were reasonably common, closeups had been introduced and cameras had been mounted to moving vehicles since the 1890s.

In fact, Rasmussen’s unimaginative direction can be unfavorably compared to the man he replaced at Nordisk Film: Viggo Larsen. Larsen also made use of painted sets, but he kept his films dynamic with smart blocking and interesting special effects, plus a puckish sense of humor.

On the other hand, the costumes are just wonderful.

However, a fair portion of the 1910 version of Kean is missing and stills from the production do reveal more interesting elements in the lost material. For example, the scene of Kean as Romeo mocking the Prince of Wales was shot with the camera facing the stage set with the backs of the audience in the foreground. This would have given the theater audience the illusion of witnessing the scene themselves as part of the in-film audience.

(I don’t always rely on stills to extrapolate missing scenes but the images of the surviving footage are quite accurate to what appears onscreen, so I think they are a good source of information here.)

He can’t see his hand in front of his blue-tinted face.

I should also note that the unmasking of Lord M may seem awkward to modern viewers because he is shown stumbling blindly around a well-lit inn but when Kean blows out the candle, a splice is clearly visible and the slight change in print contrast indicates that a blue tinted sequence would have been inserted to convey inky darkness. Early films shot on nitrate often lost their hand-applied color or tints in the transfer to safety film. This picture has its flaws but this scene is not one of them.

Kean represented a step back for Nordisk on a technical level but the fact that it was made illustrated the company’s ambition—a near-universal one at the time—to class up the joint with premium material and stage pedigrees. You will recall that the French attempted something very similar with The Assassination of the Duke of Guise in 1908 and the American film industry would flood the market with films featuring top stage talent.

Where can I see it?

Stream for free courtesy of the Danish Film Institute. The title cards are in Danish but the fragment is pretty easy to follow, if you do not happen to speak the language.


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