Thursday, May 16, 2013

Mary Pickford And Douglas Fairbanks: The Taming Of The Shrew (1929)

By 1929, silent movies were as dead as disco and even the biggest stars of that suddenly bygone era found themselves struggling to connect with audiences eager for the next big thing.

Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks were no exception. Although they had enjoyed an unbroken string of box office hits dating back more than a decade—Pickford even had an Oscar on the mantle—Hollywood's first power couple faced the necessity of reinventing themselves as stars of the newfangled "all-talking" pictures.

It was an uphill battle all the way.

As I've written before, talkies were essentially a different medium from the silent movies that preceded them, related in the way that, say, poems and novels are related, but in the end requiring very different methods and skill sets, grounding pictures in an unforgiving reality, minimizing what were once strengths and revealing previously irrelevant limitations. John Gilbert was no longer a mythic lover but an ordinary man spouting cliched gibberish. Harold Lloyd no longer floated effortlessly up the sides of buildings but groaned and grunted as all too real bone and sinew waged a war against pitiless gravity. And Pickford and Fairbanks, who had made fortunes playing, respectively, tweener ingenues and swashbuckling supermen, suddenly became a middle-aged couple groping, like everybody else, for a way forward.

The different paths Fairbanks and Pickford chose at this point say a lot about what they thought about themselves and their careers.

Fairbanks, perhaps more than anyone in Hollywood history, loved being a star, and he loved playing the parts that had made him one. Though he was too old to swashbuckle anymore, he chose to continue playing exuberant, over-the-top men of action, essentially offering his fans what he had always given them, only now with sound.

Pickford, on the other hand, was determined to chart a new course, bobbing her hair and playing a tragic flapper in her first talking picture, Coquette. "I'm sick of Cinderella parts," she said, "of wearing rags and tatters. I want to wear smart clothes and play the lover."

Although Coquette succeeded in luring a curious public into theaters and won Pickford an Oscar—after she campaigned her heart out for it—the film hadn't placated the star's old fans or won her any new ones, and her future was still very much up in the air.

For her next picture—Fairbanks's talkie debut—Pickford chose The Taming of the Shrew, the Shakespearean comedy about a marriageable young man in search of a rich bride, even one as sharp tongued as Kate Minola. The picture boasted at least two firsts: it was the first all-talking version of a Shakespeare play, and it was the first time (not counting cameos and promotional shorts) that Fairbanks and Pickford had ever starred in a picture together.

And as long as you're not looking for a faithful interpretation of the original text, The Taming of the Shrew is pretty funny, and at 65 minutes, sprightly enough after a drink or two (I recommend the Mary Pickford cocktail) for a fun evening in front of the DVR.

If you're not familiar with the play, The Taming of the Shrew is the story of Petruchio (Fairbanks), a young man on the make looking to marry the richest maiden he can find—and right quick, because he's got important business to attend to. Unfortunately for him, the most readily-available woman is an ill-tempered shrew (Pickford) who cracks a whip, hisses and spits, and breaks lutes over the heads of hapless music teachers.

But Petruchio is unconcerned. He's certain he can curb her temper and break her to his will.

"I am as peremptory as she proud-minded;
And where two raging fires meet together
They do consume the thing that feeds their fury"

How Petruchio tames the shrew—or appears to—is the core of this truncated version of the play. And despite drawing dialogue from Shakespeare, it's largely a slapstick reading of the original text.

Director Sam Taylor, a veteran of Harold Lloyd's heyday, puts a whip in Pickford's hand, and a bigger one in Fairbanks's. He has Fairbanks show up for the wedding dressed in rags and wearing a boot on his head, eating an apple throughout the ceremony then throwing Kate on the back on his horse and heading home in a driving rain before the wedding feast has even begun. There's a pratfall in a pigpen, a soliloquy delivered to a dog, and roughhousing enough for a Three Stooges short.

In little over an hour, Pickford and Fairbanks reduce Shakespeare to a Laurel and Hardy comedy—and I mean that as the sincerest of compliments. Sometimes we get so caught up in the iambic pentameter that we forget that Shakespeare was writing for the masses. He had a fondness for lowbrow humor and I think the Bard would have approved of the slapstick and irreverent staging.

And if he didn't? Well, so what. This is a movie not a literature class, and Taylor's approach is largely a cinematic interpretation of the story, dispensing with heaps of speeches and instead showing what Shakespeare only describes, an approach that will no doubt upset the purists but which appeals to someone like me, a silent movie fan who sometimes find all the yammering chat projected on the big screen since 1927 not only noisy and maddening but unnecessary.

The scene with the dog, for example, is not just funny: by having Petruchio talk aloud to the dog and allowing Kate to overhear him, Taylor eliminates the need for a third character and several more expository speeches. It's not pure Shakespeare, but it is pure cinema, and at a time when Hollywood was in thrall to the talk-talk-talk of the Broadway stage, a refreshing development.

But for those of you who care, just how faithful is this version to the original Shakespeare? Well, it is faithful to the basic plot involving Kate and Petruchio, and the dialogue comes from the text, but the film dispenses with roughly 80% of the play—Kate's sister Bianca and her multiple suitors, the comedy of mistaken identity and the framing device of Christopher Sly and the merry pranksters who sport with him.

In fact, no matter what the opening credits say, this Shrew is actually based on David Garrick's eighteenth century adaptation Catherine and Petruchio, which reworked the original text into a one-act two-person scenario—it's all the meat with none of the bones.

Despite Shakespeare's standing as the greatest playwright of all time, many of his works are problematic and The Taming of the Shrew is no exception. Left unanswered in the original text is an explanation for Kate's behavior, especially her final capitulation which even in 1592 was considered pretty sexist. How a production handles her character will largely determine whether the play is a success or a failure.

This film version opts for what I would call a "feminist" interpretation. Kate is attracted to the first man she can't intimidate but doesn't really falls for him until she "combs his noodle with a three-legged stool" and mothers him back to consciousness.

And for his part, despite the rigid gender roles society has set for them, maybe he likes it that way.

What is the old saying—he chased her until she caught him? Shakespeare seems to be saying that romance is a battle of wills that only ends in true love when a man thinks he has prevailed and a woman knows that she has.

At least that's this film's interpretation.


Despite the equal billing, The Taming of the Shrew is more Fairbanks's film than Pickford's. Kate is a thankless role—blame Shakespeare—but though Pickford later expressed dissatisfaction with her performance and called the experience the worst of her life, she does with the part what she can, pouting beautifully, cracking a mean whip and, most importantly, turning the famous final speech into a winking bit of feminist subterfuge.

Fairbanks, on the other hand, was essentially playing a variation on his best roles, the larger-than-life, hale and hearty, well-met fellow who despite his oddball antics is a loveable guy. Petruchio requires an actor who can chew the scenery and make you like it, and Fairbanks does not disappoint. Despite behind-the-scenes tension that made for an unhappy production, Pickford admitted that Fairbanks's performance was one of the best of his career.

On a budget of $504,000, the film grossed a million dollars at the box office, but despite turning a profit, it didn't serve its essential purpose, to make its stars fashionable again. There were further attempts to crack the commercial cocoanut, but The Taming of the Shrew was the last box office success of either star's career. Pickford and Fairbanks separated soon after filming ended and divorced in 1936.


Erik Beck said...

Arrgh. I was just about, in my next Nighthawk Awards post, going to write about this as the worst film of 1929-30. Now I may have to re-figure on what to do. Not that I don't think it's the worst film of 29-30, though it's a close race with The Divorcee.

Mythical Monkey said...

You won't hurt my feelings if you say it's the worst picture of 1929-30 -- everybody brings their own experiences and aesthetic criteria to a film, and are bound to draw different conclusions.

I tell you what: I promise I'll post a link to your post slamming The Taming of the Shrew and then our legion of readers can draw their own conclusions. I suspect there will be more people on your side than on mine.

Mythical Monkey said...

Oh, and in case you were wondering, I didn't decide to review The Taming of the Shrew after you mentioned you were planning to write about it. We happened to watch it a couple of weeks ago after seeing a couple of Mary Pickford films at the AFI-Silver and I've been making notes ever since, but I was too lazy to finish them. But now I've got big plans for a couple of weeks and won't have an opportunity to blog at all, so I wanted to get it off my plate.

Erik Beck said...

Understandable. Ironically, before a couple of weeks ago, even though I have seen probably 50 film adaptations of Shakespeare, I had never seen this one. And as I believe I already mentioned in my Coquette review, the version I saw didn't have the infamous credit "with additional dialogue by Sam Taylor."

Hope your big plans go well. Now I have to go finish my Conan review because my 1929-30 posts aren't even close to ready.

Anonymous said...

Would you two get a room. ?

Mythical Monkey said...

Would you two get a room. ?

That you Douglas?

Mythical Monkey said...

By the way, I think my least favorite movie of 1929-30 was Their Own Desire, the other Norma Shearer nominated movie. I think I liked it even less than The Divorcee.

But then later I loved her in A Free Soul and Private Lives. I tell you, even a year or two made a big difference in the pacing and quality of sound pictures.

Anonymous said...

I like Shrew a lot but I LOVE the Divorcee. Neither of these could be the worst of any year.

Anonymous said...

The Divorcee is such an interesting film that I can't imagine anyone not liking it.

Anonymous said...

I've never seen any print with that credit. It's highly likely that there never was one. Will never know but if it did it was switched out early & nothing of it survives.

Anonymous said...

Shrew was technically superior to other talkies from the same period. The two producers, Pickford & Fairbanks, had deep pockets so they could afford the best of everything. The film was well reviewed & I think holds up pretty well. I've shown it to audience who enjoyed it very much. In 1965, at a Pickford retrospective in Paris, it received a standing ovation. I quite like it myself. To each there own.

Mythical Monkey said...

The Divorcee is such an interesting film that I can't imagine anyone not liking it.

I've had a Norma Shearer hang-up for a long time -- working through it to find stuff I like, enjoy and recommend, leading to an acceptance and even appreciation of her work is the closest thing to a spiritual journey I've ever undertaken as the Monkey.

You know, Pilgrim's Progress this isn't, but between the lines, there's quite a bit of self-revelation.

Unknown said...

It gives us silent film fans a chance to step back in time and to watch Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks perform together.

Mythical Monkey said...

In 1965, at a Pickford retrospective in Paris, it received a standing ovation. I quite like it myself. To each there own.

Katie-Bar-The-Door and I really enjoyed it. It's genuinely funny and I think for anyone who has never seen one of their films and is reluctant to see a silent, this would be a fine choice.

But mix a Mary Pickford or two. Surprisingly tasty.

As for seeing movies in Paris, Katie and I will both attest that seeing any movie in Paris is the best place to see a movie in the world. Boy, I miss the days when Paris was an hour away on the plane ...

Mythical Monkey said...

It gives us silent film fans a chance to step back in time and to watch Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks perform together.

Which to me only makes the movie better -- it plays like a very funny meta commentary on their careers and marriage. But it also works as a stand alone movie if anyone is wondering whether to see it.

Available for streaming for free from Amazon Prime, by the way, if you're a member. We have it hooked through our HDTV.

Letitia Fairbanks said...

After reading this Mythical Monkey's review of "The Taming of the Shrew" I bought it - and fell in love with it. What a magnificent romp! As you wrote, Doug & Mary reduce Shakespeare to a Laurel & Hardy comedy and that's meant as the highest form of flattery. This is a great movie, a marvelous riff on Shakespeare's original plotline, and a memorable film in its own right. Thanks for writing this positive review of Letitia Fairbanks' uncle Doug and aunt Mary in their only role together.

Mythical Monkey said...

Wow, that is such a great compliment! I'm glad you liked the movie -- we thought it was great.

Who Am Us Anyway? said...

Sir Myth, your ess-sayyyy was so nice i had to read it twice (#truth), but one aspect put a bee in my bonnet, a wrench in my works, rained on my parade, and otherwise totally spoiled my party, to wit: Well, to be honest, I forget. But that doesn't matter because my whole point was that apart from THAT ... thanks: We'll watch the dang thing! :-)

Also: your novel aside (ha!), what about making a book of these essays? Has your agent offered an opinion? If not, I will gladly speak for him or find you a new one, the lazy sot ...

Mythical Monkey said...

but one aspect put a bee in my bonnet, a wrench in my works, rained on my parade, and otherwise totally spoiled my party, to wit: Well, to be honest, I forget.

I like to think it's that the review is about three weeks old and yet the most recent thing I've written. We just got back from a 15-day trip to Alaska Monday evening and I'm only beginning to get back into my normal routine.

Not sure what I'll write next -- How I Spent My Summer Vacation, or Douglas Fairbanks's The Three Musketeers. One or the other.

As for a collection of blog essays, well, I need more of them, I'd think. Maybe after I've finished seeing every silent movie ever made and written about them ... say, around 2027.

FlickChick said...

Monkey - that was a great review. I have read so much about th is, but have yet to see it. It's on my list. And thanks for cutting the film some slack. I am going nuts over the "purists" trashing of The Great Gatsby this summer. Film is different than the written word. Period. Get over it!

Mythical Monkey said...

Film is different than the written word. Period. Get over it!

That's the key. You have to judge a film adaptation by how good a movie it is, not by how faithful it is to the book.

Take Hemingway, for example. The best movie based on his books is To Have and Have Not -- and it worked because it took the few characters who were interesting and the handful of situations that moved and otherwise threw the book away.

To my mind, books and movies are related in the same way music and paintings are related -- both works of art, but with completely different elements, pushing different emotional buttons.

Maggie said...


Mythical Monkey said...


Three facts:

1) "Huh" is a palindrome, spelled the same forward and backward.

2) Monty Python once asserted that "The palindrome of Bolton is Notlob!"

3) Katie-Bar-The-Door and I have been to Bolton. It's in northwest England, near Manchester.