Saturday, January 10, 2015

Chimes at Midnight and Columbia Presents Henry IV

It became pretty clear at the beginning of this week that the 'fortnight' for the Fortnightly Book will be three weeks this time around; ten Shakespearean plays is a pretty big chunk to bite off, particularly since I am finishing up other things this week. So that will be up next Saturday. But in the course of my reading I also watched Orson Welles' classic film, Chimes at Midnight (1966), and listened to the Columbia Presents Shakespeare version of Henry IV (1937). So I thought I would say something about them now.

Chimes at Midnight is a mish-mash of Shakespeare, drawing from Holinshead's Chronicles (one of Shakespeare's sources), Richard II, the two parts of Henry IV, Henry V, and the Merry Wives of Windsor. It is essentially the story of Falstaff. Orson Welles, who plays Falstaff, regarded the character as Shakespeare's greatest, and he has an interesting take on him. He doesn't regard him, or play him, as a comic character. Witty, yes, merry, yes, but not comic. This seems to have thrown some of the early reviewers of the movie for a loop; they had difficulty making sense of the character. But part of it is that Welles thought of Falstaff as a thoroughly admirable person, with roguish foibles but no harmful failings. That's not an obvious reading of the Shakespearean character at all (indeed, the crimes of Falstaff make a rather serious list that cannot be wiped out by his joking charm), but it makes Welles's version of Falstaff a very good Falstaff: the Falstaff played by Welles is exactly the kind of Falstaff a Falstaff would be. Sir John Falstaff doesn't think of himself as in the wrong. He doesn't see himself as dragging Prince Hal down. He thinks of himself as the partisan of common sense in a crowd of silly people, as the person who sees things as they really are, as the one who knows how to live. And everything that happens confirms this to him: all these noble people with their high sense of honor do little but drag sensible men like himself into a war where he could die, killing people for a word, and what has Sir John done but liberate some coin from people who would not enjoy it as much as he, and spend it prodigally? It's not a sustainable view in the context of the two parts of Henry IV, since he is a symptom of a number of things that are wrong with the England of his day, but it's a view that Falstaff would have of Falstaff.

The result of this larger-than-life and heroic Falstaff, though, is a diminished Prince Hal (played by Keith Baxter), who is moody and unstable, who enjoys the joke but is ashamed of his company, and repudiates Falstaff in the end with something approaching cruelty. The Shakespearean idea that Hal cannot become Henry V except by outgrowing Falstaff is not thrown out. There's an interesting scene in which Falstaff monologues on how honor is but a word. In the movie he's talking to Hal. But Hal is clearly only partly listening: he spends most of the time looking out over the battlefield, because Hal, of course, does not think that honor is only a word. For Hal, honor is his true nature, what he is called to; the Falstaffian life he is leading is one he has always regarded as a dishonorable one, one in which he is not his own proper self, a life to be thrown off eventually. But all of this recedes into the background here; Hal comes across as something of a hypocrite.

Mistress Quickly, played by none other than Margaret Rutherford, is worth mentioning as well; she puts a lot into the character.

Columbia Presents Shakespeare was a summer radio series in 1937 that did about eight plays in total, I think, One of them was a one-hour presentation of Henry IV, combining both parts. What this means is that it is quite condensed; I would guess that only about fifteen minutes of the hour are actually from Part 2. Since this is radio in the 1930s, it has all-star cast: Walter Huston, Dame May Whitty, Brian Aherne, Walter Connolly, and Humphrey Bogart just before his glory years with The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca. (Bogart plays Hotspur, in a solid although not stunning performance.) Prince Hal's dabbling in dissolution is played as a boys-will-be-boys, high-spirits-in-need-of-suitable-outlet way, which works as far as it goes.

One of the oddities of the radio performance is that the styles of acting don't mesh all that well. This is a danger in radio: you are usually reading a script, and you have to communicate everything by voice alone, which means that everyone basically does whatever they have to do to articulate and carry the emotion and meaning. This is particularly important with sound quality in the 1930s. It often works -- you can get a much richer range of potential interpretation of a scene than you can in film, where so much is carried visually, and in good 1930s play the sound fuzziness can even add a bit of character -- but the result here is a very traditionally 'Shakesperean' Henry IV and Falstaff interacting with a rather casual Prince Hal and Hotspur. Each part on its own is done well, but it doesn't quite come together as a whole.

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