The Folger owns a variety of printed items related to the cinematic history of Shakespeare—screenplays and manuscript drafts, pressbooks and souvenir programs, and still photographs. Generally, there’s a good chance that we also have the related film recording in some form, but that’s certainly not a guarantee. And in some cases, no other libraries (or private collectors) hold the film recordings either. The program shown below, which the Folger acquired last year along with several photographs from the same film, advertises a screening of a 1916 adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, produced by Metro Pictures. Here’s where it gets interesting: there were two adaptations of Romeo and Juliet produced in 1916, and both are considered “lost films”—neither exists today.
Following the development of the motion picture camera in the 1880s and 1890s, and the opening of film studios in the 1890s, it didn’t take long to get Shakespeare on film for the first time: an 84-foot reel (just over a minute of screen time), created in 1899, of Herbert Beerbohm Tree in King John, playing the eponymous king in his death throes.1
The pace of Shakespearean cinema produced in Tree’s wake remained cautious, but steady. Actors and critics alike struggled with the inherent limitation of silent films: how could plays known for their speeches and soliloquies transfer from stage to screen when you couldn’t hear the actors speak? Compounding this, the budding movie industry was viewed with a skeptical eye, with critics unsure that movies, often thought of as “low culture,” were up to the task of presenting Shakespeare’s plays, and concerned citizens worried that the rapidly-proliferating “nickelodeon” theaters would inspire dubious morals in their visitors.
Nonetheless, film companies and actors were game to take on the challenge: the next Shakespearean film, a clip of Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet dueling with Laertes (synchronized to a “soundtrack” of clashing swords) was produced barely a year later. One scholar estimated that roughly 150,000 silent films were made in the three decades following the King John clip, of which 500 were Shakespearean.2 Particularly notable in this era was the Vitagraph Company, which produced a series of Shakespeare films between 1908 and 1912. Vitagraph’s films were 10-15 minutes long, and emphasized scenes recognizable to the casual filmgoer (such as the balcony scene of Romeo and Juliet and the assassination of Caesar).
1916, the 300th anniversary year of Shakespeare’s death, marked something of a turning point in the cinematic life of the Bard. That year saw four separate full-length adaptations of Shakespeare, two of them productions of Romeo and Juliet, filmed by competing studios Metro and Fox.
Metro’s production, described by Metro itself as “one of the most pretentious features ever offered on its programme,” showcased two of the biggest names of the day, Francis X. Bushman and Beverly Bayne.3 Their screen appeal was only increased by rumors of their real-life affair, made public in 1918 when Bushman divorced his wife and married Bayne.4 Both Bushman and Bayne were highly enthusiastic about the production, and had encouraged Metro to film Romeo and Juliet; Bayne designed her own costume, while Bushman was a co-director.5 Metro planned an extensive but selective advertising strategy, slowly revealing details about the film such as the names of its cast and crew. Still shots from the movie were featured alongside Charles Lamb’s retelling of Romeo and Juliet in the September and October issues of Motion Picture Classic.
Barely days before Metro’s film was to be released in October 1916, the studio heard of a rival Romeo and Juliet film. Developed by the Fox Film Corporation, it was filmed and produced in secret to challenge Metro’s more expensive and prestigious version; studio head William Fox had followed the same strategy in 1915 with an adaptation of Carmen (starring Theda Bara, his 1916 Juliet). Fox’s advertisement of its own “Tragedy of Love” prompted Metro to move their release date forward, and both films premiered within days of each other—possibly even on the same day—in the third week of October 1916.6 The program shown below, acquired by the Folger in 2011, advertises a screening of Fox’s film several weeks after both films were released.
Following Fox’s announcement, Metro took out advertisements cautioning the public, “DON’T BE MISLED by inferior imitations of a masterpiece.” Fox fired back with their own ad, asking future audiences, “What is Your Verdict?” and noting that “another producer… invited the parallel.”7 Metro then escalated by planning a series of public appearances by its cast members. The National Courier wryly commented that the films were being advertised “not unlike the circus.”8
At the time of their release(s), Metro’s film, which included music adapted from Gounod and Tchaikovsky, filled eight reels (about 90 minutes); Fox, to its chagrin, had been forced to downsize from seven reels to five due to copyright issues. Ultimately, the films’ competing press junkets may have ended up increasing ticket sales for both films, as many moviegoers wished to see the two and compare them.9 Fox’s adaptation received generally favorable but lackluster reviews, mostly focused on its leading lady Theda Bara, whose capacity to make the jump from her previous “vamp” roles to the ingénue Juliet many critics had doubted.
Metro’s version, on the other hand, received glowing reviews from viewers and popular film magazines alike. A spectator at an October 19th showing of the Metro film was quoted in Motography, “It is a beautiful and absorbing production. It is the first time the real spirit of Shakespeare has been successfully interpreted in motion pictures.” Moving Picture World pointed out the visual advantages offered by film over live stage, in a defense of Shakespeare on film: “I have seen many a performance of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ on the speaking stage, but never such a realistic street in Verona.” Metro had also tried to win over skeptical audiences by presenting unabridged lines from the play on its title cards; its advertising proudly announced that, “Every member of the cast was obliged to learn the words of the play and repeat them, with the proper action, before the camera. If a word was forgotten, the camera was stopped, and the work done over again.”10
Importantly, both productions also received acknowledgements from international organizations: Metro’s version was shown at a 1917 exhibition hosted by the National Association of the Motion Picture Industry, while Fox’s was included on the program for the annual Stratford-upon-Avon Shakespeare Festival, also in 1917.11 This recognition by the film industry and the Shakespearean community, coupled with their favorable reviews, helped to reassure doubters that Shakespeare could successfully be transferred to the silver screen, and helped open the floodgates: today, there are at least 400 direct adaptations of Shakespeare on film, while the Internet Movie Database lists Shakespeare as a “writer” on over 1,000 films. Though many of the early films no longer exist, they are survived by (of all things) their ephemeral materials, which help us to guess at what they may have been like.
- Today, Tree’s performance is available on YouTube.
- Rothwell, Kenneth S. A history of Shakespeare on screen: a century of film and television (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010 (2nd ed.), p. 1.
- Ball, Robert Hamilton. Shakespeare on silent film: a strange eventful history (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1968), p. 235.
- Their marriage lasted until 1925, when they divorced amicably; the Pittsburgh Press mourned “The ‘Perfect Love’ That Died With a Yawn: The Divorce of ‘Romeo’ Bushman and ‘Juliet’ Bayne Reveals the Awful Thing That Might Have Happened If Shakespeare Hadn’t Prudently Killed the Most Romantic Lovers the World Has Ever Known.”
- Ball, p. 237
- Due to the rivalry between the two studios, including several changes to their films’ respective release dates, the release dates can be sometimes unclear. Metro’s release was originally scheduled for October 29th, but was moved forward a week to deny the extra publicity for Fox. To further complicate matters, some sources give October 19th as a release date for Metro, though Judith Buchanan guesses that this was a preview showing. Reviews for Fox’s production give both October 22nd and October 23rd, variously, as release dates.
- Buchanan, Judith. Shakespeare on silent film: an excellent dumb discourse (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), p. 209-210.
- National Courier, vol. 7:no. 29 (1916), page 21.
- Edinburgh companion to Shakespeare and the arts (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011), p. 474.
- Metro Pictures Corporation. “Metro announces William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet,” April 1917(?). Folger ART Vol. f273
- Buchanan, p. 215.