Rogues Guide to Shakes on Film

54. Sam Taylor’s The Taming of the Shrew (1929)

Taming of the Shrew Poster

Thirty-eight years before Hollywood power-couple Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton captivated audiences as Katherine and Petruchio, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford did something similar.

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Apparently, this is the first Shakespeare film with sound, and the performances of Fairbanks and Pickford are not especially good. When their acting gets more physical than vocal, the performances improve a hundredfold.

The slapstick of the play comes off wonderfully, with plenty of people falling down a staircase that is the chief hero of this film.

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I suppose I find myself slightly shocked that the violent tendencies of Katherine could be more cartoony than in the later Zefirelli version, but Pickford is arresting as this female dervish. That she actually wields a whip makes this a kinkier version of Shrew than one should expect from 1929, and when Petruchio woos her, they both have whips. (Behind the scenes, Fairbanks and Pickford’s marriage was on the rocks.)

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Hugo Riesenfeld’s music is delightfully bouncy, insanely melodramatic. It is good along with that staircase.

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At times, Fairbanks is good in a hammy, egotistically clownish way. Pickford’s voice is why her career would not last long into the sound era of film.

Shakespeare’s text was altered and truncated, so much so that the running time is about 65 minutes. It’s like a fun fever dream.

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John King (Episode, well, all of them) holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA from New York University. He has reviewed performances for Shakespeare Bulletin.

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