Richard III (1955)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 2 January (12.00 midnight)
Channel: Talking Pictures
IMDb Link

Laurence Olivier directed and starred in three big screen adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays – there were halted preparations to film a version of Macbeth, featuring his wife Vivien Leigh as Lady Macbeth, which sounds like it has the potential to be delicious viewing, but the legacy remains Henry V, Hamlet and Richard III. The best known of these is probably his Oscar winning Prince of Denmark, and you can sort of see why it was acclaimed at the time – must of the fat cut away, all those sweeping, portentous shots of castle staircases and corridors, but of the trio it’s my least favourite and without doubt it’s been done better elsewhere. Henry V is an astonishing technical achievement. Beginning as a contemporary troupe of actors performing it on the boards at the Stratford Globe, at some stage the ‘filmed play’ transforms into Hal and his fellow soldiers crossing medieval France and building to a genuinely breathless and superbly mounted Agincourt. It was made as a propaganda exercise, a rabble rouser for the troops, and it’s great viewing, a virtuous attempt to show how such old material can have relevance and entertainment value in more modern times. Perhaps the Branagh update, with its heavy emphasis on the sweat, grime and blood of battle, carries more resonance, but there’s a lot to be said for Olivier’s romantic and patriotic interpretation.

Then there’s Richard III, quite a different character on whom to focus and a moderate success compared with Olivier’s two previous adaptations, and yet in hindsight perhaps the best one. It’s undoubtedly my choice. Fans of the political drama series House of Cards, with its fourth wall breaking of Francis Urquhart/Underwood sharing his plans and feelings with the audience, need look no further than this one for its inspiration. Olivier’s impish Duke of Gloucester waits for the other characters to leave the scene, before turning to the camera and outlining what’s on his mind with the viewer, sometimes making to take us by the arm as he talks, as though we’re a silent witness at the court, knee deep in his machinations and sworn to keep his dark secrets. I think it’s great fun, and Olivier seems to be having fun also, playing Richard as a smiling villain, utterly without scruples in his wiping out of anyone who stands betwixt himself and the crown. Those seeking a more cinematic comparison might see Richard as akin to the charming yet murderous Louis in Kind Hearts and Coronets, narrating his schemes throughout with little feeling of remorse.

As with his two previous adaptations, Olivier cut and amended scenes from the text to produce a more cinematic and muscular movie, and to increase Richard’s Machiavellian villainy. The early scene where he courts Anne (Claire Bloom) becomes more diabolical as he tells her he plans to marry her, having disturbed her procession into the church with the coffin containing her Lancashire supporting husband, killed in battle by none other than Richard himself. As disgusted as she is by his proposal, she capitulates when he makes her choose to either run him through or marry him, knowing she’s too faint-hearted to do the former. He expedites the death of his own brother Clarence (John Gielgud), and plays a more direct role in bringing about the death of the king and his oldest brother, Edward IV (Cedric Hardwicke).

In one of the film’s most powerful moments, the young Duke of York (Andy Shine) makes a joke about Richard’s hunchback, and suddenly the feigned jollity falls away; Olivier turns and fixes the child with such a malevolent glare that he physically backs away, terrified by the monster that was always there, beneath his uncle’s exterior, and now unmasked. This bit of stage direction was invented by Olivier for the film, adding layers to the character’s evil for, as we know, the Duke  and his brother are fated to be the Princes in the Tower.

For all Olivier’s cuts Richard III remains more than two and a half hours in length. It’s a meaty play, a lot to take in, and yet it’s completely compelling thanks in part to the star’s performance, the amazing way he has of making Richard a charismatic protagonist, to such an extent that you almost come to wish he won’t suffer the end that’s coming to him. He’s by some distance the most interesting character in the story, funny and engaging, despite the stoop of his disabilities someone who towers over the court, a sharp contrast with and leagues ahead of its stiff manners and bland gallantry.

Production levels were high, as London Films supported Richard III with a £6 million budget following the commercial success of Henry V and Hamlet. Most of it was filmed at Shepperton, Olivier making painstaking efforts to create as authentic a late medieval environment as possible, going so far as to change a piece of heraldry on the set when it was pointed out to him that the original decoration was incorrect. Olivier didn’t want to direct, aware of how debilitating it was to have to do two key jobs on set, and initially offered the job to Carol Reed. His misgivings proved justified as Richard III developed into an arduous shoot, particularly when the production moved to Spain to film the Battle of Bosworth scenes. Along with sitting on a horse that was suddenly mounted by another, he took an arrow in the leg (fortunately for the shoot it was Richard’s lame leg) and was so ‘in the moment’ that he checked how well the accident would hold up on film before seeing the doctor.

Richard III’s almost ridiculously classy cast was not the group of players Olivier intended to assemble. He wanted Richard Burton, Richard Attenborough and John Mills. Orson Welles was his preference for the role of the duplicitous Duke of Buckingham. Instead, he worked with the actors routinely considered the stage titans of their century – Gielgud, Hardwicke and Ralph Richardson, not to mention Olivier himself. Helen Haye, who had been acting on film for as long as there’d been a British industry, made her screen swansong as the Duchess of York. There were roles for not inconsiderable presences like Andrew Cruikshank, Laurence Naismith, Douglas Wilmer, and Stanley Baker played the future Henry VII, while Hammer staples Michael Gough and Michael Ripper took small parts as Richard’s hired executioners, getting the ghoulish delight of drowning Gielgud’s Clarence inside a barrel of wine.

Olivier’s performance earned him a BAFTA and an Oscar nomination, yet perhaps the film would have done better but for producer Alexander Korda’s fateful agreement with NBC. For a fee of $500,000, Richard III made its American premiere on the small screen as well as being theatrically exhibited. This no doubt had an effect on its box office takings, and dismayed Olivier who felt that the film’s widescreen production would not be showcased to best effect on television. Korda might have argued that Richard III wasn’t Olivier’s most cinematic offering. Until the climactic Bosworth scenes, it’s filmed as though shooting a play, the focus on the characters and their dialogue rather than interpreting the action with a screen audience in mind, as in Henry V. It’s justified because the material is so good and Olivier’s adaptation crackles, but the 1995 version starring Ian McKellen takes a more imaginative approach to the text.

For all his attempts at accuracy, Olivier ignore the revisionist approach that makes it clear this Richard III is almost entirely fictional. The play was written by Shakespeare for a Tudor audience and ties in with the propaganda following Henry VII’s ascendance that Richard had been a murderous usurper. Shakespeare toed the line, turning his minor physical defects into outright deformities and his circuitous route to the throne a consequence of ruthless scheming against family members. None of it is actually true, or at least it’s unsubstantiated. though at least its presentation of the villainous king as a reader of The Prince, Machiavelli’s guide book for rulers that was in circulation at the time, sounds about right. Personally, I would love to see an interpretation of the play that hints at the string of deaths as being ambiguous rather than pointing the finger squarely at Richard. There’s no doubt, however, that Olivier’s playing of him as a blood-soaked monster allows him to let rip on the character, performing Richard with twinkle-eyed glee and remaining true to his potential as the Bard’s most thoroughly entertaining baddie, leaving viewers to feel somewhat unsettled by their enjoyment while following his mounting crimes.

As a footnote, I am happy to refer to the BFI’s comment that in being screened on American network television and watched by audiences of up to 40 million, Olivier became responsible for Richard III being seen by more people than the total of its entire theatrical run since 1592. It’s a little sad that they didn’t get to enjoy the full Vistavision presentation, which we can thanks to recent restorations. I own the Network Blu-Ray, which contains a glorious print, and includes as an extra The Trial of King Richard the Third, a BBC production from 1984 that determined Richard’s guilt or innocence via the means of a courtroom trial.

Richard III: ****

The Holly and the Ivy (1952)

When it’s on: Monday, 25 December (2.10 pm)
Channel: Talking Pictures
IMDb Link

I confess I had never heard of The Holly and the Ivy before watching it for this piece, and it’s easy enough to see why the film slipped gently into obscurity. Its British middle class setting has little resonance in an era that was being taken over by the kitchen sink, while World War Two, though mentioned in the film, was better remembered in a string of compelling releases throughout the 1950s. Moreover, it’s an adaptation of a play by Wynyard Browne, ensuring the story takes place for the most part in a confined set and focuses on characters talking at the expense of any real action. Relatively short at little more than 80 minutes in running time, there’s an air of lightness, even of whimsy, and a suggestion that the film is inconsequential and eminently missable.

My main reason for acquiring a copy was for the presence of Celia Johnson, one of those actors whose name on the bill guarantees my interest. I haven’t seen many films starring her, principally because she made limited appearances on celluloid and favoured the stage, however she’s always a treat. Best known for Brief Encounter, Johnson was the epitome of that tragic English lady, saddled with duty and what’s expected of her while her emotions and longings are buried as well as they can be. In her case, the feelings would be expressed in her lamplight eyes, the little jawline set as she looks on to some distant horizon to which her dreams are vanishing, wanting to follow and knowing she cannot. In The Holly and the Ivy, she plays Jenny, the eldest daughter of Reverend Martin Gregory (Ralph Richardson), trapped in a life of serving him dutifully while wanting to marry David (John Gregson) and go with him to his job in South America. The contract runs for five years, which means if she doesn’t go then her opportunity for wedded bliss will be over. It’s the quintessential Johnson role in other words, and she doesn’t disappoint.

Her story is one in a sequence of dramatic threads that play out over the course of the narrative. The family is returning for Christmas to the little Norfolk town where Martin lives in his parsonage. For some, like Aunt Lydia (Margaret Halstan, reprising her role in the play), it’s a reprieve from her widow’s existence of living in hotels. To others, the cossetted little world to which they return holds little meaning, as it does for Margaret (Margaret Leighton), Martin’s other daughter who works as a fashion journalist in London. Margaret appears to be the the classic ‘flown the roost’ child who’s moved on to bigger and better things, but she carries a dark side, lapses into alcoholism, which has its origin in a devastating secret that she’s kept for some years. As the family gathers for a happy time together, the demons and resentments they carry will be prised out, and reveal much about how everyone is playing a part so that they don’t upset the Pastor in his Christian and supposedly limited world view.

The comment on tensions between family members at Christmas strikes a note that can resonate with everyone, and there are references to the time it was made that add to the charm. The Holly and the Ivy is set in early 1950s Britain, still an era of post-war austerity that affects everyone, even this middle class family that can’t afford the services of a housekeeper for Martin, in which post-dinner cigars are handed out as a rare treat rather then the norm. Martin’s son, Michael (Denholm Elliott) is in the army, a temporary move he has made to put off his decision over whether to go to Cambridge University, which he knows will be costly. The family’s relationship with their head of the household Pastor is one of falseness, a series of bland pleasantries in which their paramount sensibility is not to upset his beliefs and values, yet withholding information from him is doing him a disservice. As Michael points out, his role isn’t only to provide sermons but to help people, and that includes his own family.

The story therefore builds up to a happy conclusion of sorts, one in which the sources of stress are largely resolved and point to a more hopeful future. In that sense it’s a little pat. The most tragic element of kitchen sink dramas is that there was often no happy ending. No matter what was overcome during the course of the film, the troubles of a difficult working class life remained and always would, so the neat climax as shown in The Holly and the Ivy was simply one battle won in a war of endless attrition against poverty and privation. And in that sense, you can see how this one carries little that can be identified with. That however isn’t the fault of the film, which is set within its own circumstances and remains a nicely acted drama, its characters largely drawn well and calling on memorable turns notably from Johnson, Richardson, Leighton, and Maureen Delaney as a caustic, well meaning Scottish Aunt, played largely for comic effect.

It’s certainly worth a watch, for its ultimate message of hope and its fine acting, also because it’s been very nicely restored and looks good. Fans of Celia Johnson will have much to enjoy; I know I did. As a drama it’s refreshingly adult in tone, one that dwells not at all on fantastic elements or those appealing to children, but rather on the theme of Christmas as a family time, with all the problems and potential for optimism that comes with it.

The Holly and the Ivy: ***

Just to wish everyone who reads these pages a very happy Christmas! Thank you for your support and for reading – love and peace to you all 🙂