AYL: the 1936 film (or “OH-livier!”)

So, as part of my due diligence, directing As You Like It, I like to go back and look at some of the past versions of the play that I can find on film or video.

First, up is the 1936 version…

The 1936 version has some interesting pieces of history connected with it (in many ways, more interesting than the film itself): it was the first speaking version of As You Like It filmed. It was also the first filmed Shakespearean role by Laurence Olivier, who played Orlando; and the only time that he performed Shakespeare in a theatrical release for which he wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award. The director, Paul Czinner, and his wife, Elisabeth Bergner, who played Rosalind, were both Austrian Jews who had fled their native countries to escape persecution. For them, the concept of the Forest of Arden was less and idyllic pastoral setting, and more of a metaphor for escape and flight. The film’s treatment (or screenplay outline) was written by J.M. Barrie, the author behind Peter Pan, and the film’s editor was future great director David Lean (of Lawrence of Arabia fame).

As for the film itself… well, it’s… from the 30’s, so it’s pretty stagey, and extremely edited (down to just over an hour and a half). And the editing wasn’t just for time. As the Hayes Production Code was beginning strict enforcement in Hollywood, there’s an interesting change in dialogue. In the play, when Celia asks Rosalind if she is upset over her father (following the wrestling match), Rosalind responds, “No… my child’s father.” Pretty risque, eh? Obviously too risque for 1936, as the line was amended to “No, my father’s child”… which of course, renders Celia’s playful use of wrestling terms in her following speech nonsensical at best. And of course the “I am not a slut” stuff is excised completely.

Olivier is one handsome dude, and Bergner is winning, even with her inexplicable (for the play) German accent. And her Rosalind is certainly having a blast as a man, and Berger and Olivier’s scenes together are the best part of the film. Certainly better than the Jaques sections, which are pretty stiff; seemingly, the filmmakers felt this as well, as much of his storyline is cut.

At the end, the messenger who arrives to tell of Duke Frederick’s conversion is not Jaques de Boys, but rather just a knight, and the melancholy Jaques, doesn’t depart the camp. The Epilogue begins stagey, but is surprisingly cinematic: Rosalind begins the speech, but then her image dissolves to that of her in her Ganymede dress (as he addresses the women in the audience), then back to Rosalind (when she addresses the men, and closes the speech).

All in all, not a bad production… just nothing to get too excited about. Check it out if you’re a completist or want to check out a young and handsome Olivier. The 1936 version is available for streaming on Amazon and on many other video streaming sites.


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