Movies & TV / Columns

Nether Regions 08.24.10: Richard Burton’s Hamlet

August 24, 2010 | Posted by Chad Webb

Nether Regions started as a segment of the Big Screen Bulletin that meant to showcase films that have been discontinued on DVD, are out of print in the United States, are only available in certain regions outside the United States, or are generally hard to find. Now it is a column all its own! You might ask “Why should I care about a film I have no access to?” My goal is to keep these films relevant because some of them genuinely deserve to be recognized. Every time I review a new film I will have a list of those I covered below so you can see if they have been announced for DVD release, or are still out of print.



Starring: Richard Burton, Hume Cronyn, and Alfred Drake
Directed By: John Gielgud
Written By: Williams Shakespeare (play)
Running Time: 191 minutes
Release Date: September 23, 1964
Missing Since: 1999
Existing Formats: Region 1 DVD
Netflix Status: Available
Availability: Very Rare

Richard Burton’s Hamlet refers to the Broadway production of the William Shakespeare tragedy that had a successful run from April 9 – August 8 of 1964 at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in New York City. Footage from 2 (or maybe 3) performances was subsequently filmed using Electronovision and released in theaters for only 2 days. It had 4 showings and has grossed approximately $4 million dollars to date. The financial details of where the money ended up are apparently complex, but it resulted in the acting company getting royally screwed. By contractual agreement, all prints were ordered to be destroyed following the theatrical shows, but by chance a print was discovered in Burton’s garage after his death. His widow allowed it to be released on video.

Before I delve further into Richard Burton’s Hamlet, I will put my Shakespearean cards on the table. There have been hundreds of versions of this tale including those on stage, TV, film, and radio. Of course I haven’t seen them all (who has?), but I have a fair share under my belt. It was written as a play, so stage performances might be what many prefer. As a film buff first, I tend to lean more on that side of the fence. As much as I like this tragedy, I have found myself to be extremely critical when watching any adaptation. I didn’t care for Laurence Olivier’s barebones “Greatest Hits” film that won Best Picture. Franco Zeffirelli’s 1990 film starring Mel Gibson was solid, but unmemorable. My favorite is Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 version, which not only used the full-text, but had vibrant sets and some of the most distinctive interpretations of the characters.

I have debates about which version is superior all the time. It’s fun to exchange thoughts with someone who is equally as fascinated with Shakespeare and all the various incarnations. Unfortunately, many of the well-known film versions are still difficult to find, such as Tony Richardson’s 1969 film, and Grigori Kozintsev’s Hamlet that did not use Shakespearian language. I’m not sure what I was expecting with Richard Burton’s Hamlet. As time passed, I became more obsessed with locating a rare copy on DVD than analyzing the version itself. Eventually I realized it was available on Netflix, and just settled for that. I would advise anyone interested to search under Burton’s resume on the site because that’s where I discovered it. While it does boast some fine performances, this Hamlet is misguided and mediocre.

Richard Burton and
a mysterious skull.

I suppose the summary is obvious, but just in case you forgot, this story focuses on Hamlet (Richard Burton), the son of the King of Denmark. This play picks up after Hamlet has been summoned home for his father’s funeral, followed by his mother’s (Eileen Herlie) wedding to his Uncle Claudius (Alfred Drake). He is upset by the quickness with which his mother Gertrude married again. In a supernatural episode, Hamlet is visited by his late father, who informs him that he was murdered by his Uncle. And so it goes… This is the full-text, but it does have a few minor cuts, one of which is Hamlet’s recital in front of the players.

One of the major complaints I have about this production is that Director John Gielgud elected to allow the cast to wear whatever they wanted. This acts as a sort of a dress rehearsal. Some will argue that this decision was made so viewers could pay closer attention to the language and the performances, but they could be giving Gielgud too much credit. No costumes were used because Richard Burton did not like wearing period outfits. As Hamlet, he sports a v-neck sweater and an ordinary pair of slacks. Its Hamlet’s day off I guess, but at least he’s comfortable. The rest of the cast varies in their clothing choice. Some wear suits, others do wear costumes, and others dress down as much as possible. The sets are also minimal to say the least. Now I will admit to preferring lavish set design, but the set design was not a huge detriment. The “dress rehearsal” approach is a distraction however. Because new characters enter throughout the play, we observe all types of clothing. It struck me as lazy, and broke the illusion of the story on numerous occasions.

This was shot by Bill Colleran, and it was certainly not filmed for angles or other artsy techniques. A handful of scenes include close-ups, but for the most part the camera remains stagnant from the perspective of an audience member who was actually present. It is admirable to try and duplicate the theater experience for those that purchased a DVD, but in theory the objective is impossible if you ask me. Paying for a ticket, waiting in line, filing into your seat and waiting patiently is all part of the experience of watching a staged production. As hard as I try, popping a DVD into my player, and watching it on my TV will not transport me into the shoes of those inside the theater in 1964. Nevertheless, I’ve seen a number of staged plays and musicals on DVD. One can put aside the camera movement and move on to a point. What hurts is not the distance of the camera, but the lack of subtitles and the inaudible quality of the sound. If you crank the volume up high enough, it will get easier, but the clarity is still an annoyance. Depending on how loud and lucid the particular actor is, you could completely miss parts or perhaps be riveted. You never know.

When my hunt for this rendering initially commenced, the desire was to see Richard Burton, a brilliant actor, dazzle viewers in the role of Hamlet. Upon researching this DVD, I found the history to be just as intriguing as Burton’s performance. While Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole were making Becket together, a lighthearted agreement arose where O’Toole felt they should each play Hamlet under the direction of either John Gielgud or Laurence Olivier in either London or New York. Burton won Gielgud and O’Toole got Olivier. Rumor had it that Gielgud possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of the play, but even so it turned out that Burton had trouble finding a groove for Dane. Burton, as well as other cast members, were reportedly baffled by Gielgud’s lack of directorial prowess. Here’s where it gets confusing. Burton’s adoptive father Philip had to intervene to help him. The two had a falling out when Burton left his family for Elizabeth Taylor, and it was Taylor who reached out for Philip’s assistance. Philip had experience in helping stage productions.

Finally Burton and his father presented what is referred to as a Belleforest interpretation, or an old Jacobian revenger. It was intended to be the contrast of the romantic version that Gielgud and Olivier made famous. Oddly enough, after all that, Burton became bored night after night, and changed his approach to Hamlet regularly. According to his own memoirs, he would even play Hamlet as a homosexual! Burton is a fiery and passionate performer, and he commands the stage with gusto and articulacy, but occasionally for the wrong reasons. There is no doubt that this Hamlet is 100% sane. He is angry, casual, courageous, and ahead of the game. Burton is entrancing, but this is not a tormented individual. The hero Hamlet must eventually give way to the one that is overcome by fate and because of this Burton’s Hamlet is hard to become emotionally invested in.

The “Hamlet” that Gielgud and Burton settle on is permeated with comedy. Hume Cronyn’s enjoyable turn as Polonius is responsible for playing most of the lines for laughs, but Burton is not totally free of those intentions either. Cronyn was nominated for a Tony Award for his work here, and it’s not hard to see why as he nearly steals certain scenes from Burton. To Burton’s Hamlet, the whole scenario is an irritating or sick joke, not a family catastrophe. Take for instance when Robert Milli’s excellent Horatio sees Hamlet for the first time after returning home. The two friends smile and smirk about the hastiness of the wedding that followed “hard upon” after the funeral. Hamlet replies “Thrift Horatio thrift”, which is definitely a dose of black humor, but Burton amps the playfulness to the nth degree.

Hamlet converses
with Cronyn’s Polonius.

Later Polonius has a conversation with the King and Queen, making a case that Hamlet is crazy. The entire scene has Hamlet’s possible madness as a source of amusement more than a concern. It is damaging that many scenes are sillier than they need to be because eventually the convoluted plot must turn serious and solemn. When this inevitably happens, the transition is jarring and makes the horrible conclusion anticlimactic and insignificant. Burton also resorts to vocal fireworks at random instances which are ultimately meaningless. Burton is an intelligent Hamlet, one who goes above and beyond the call of duty to convince us he is pretending to be nutty. The “To be or not to be” soliloquy is rushed, as if Hamlet has a hot date to attend. As a result, Ophelia’s genuine shift to mental illness is not believable. Linda Marsh, who was terrific in Elia Kazan’s America, America in 1963, is pedestrian and beleaguered as Hamlet’s love.

Fans will not find the definitive version of any character in this DVD. Alfred Drake is basically a clueless pushover as Claudius. He does deserve applause for his soliloquy in Act 3, which is one of the bright spots of this production. Up until that point though, he is bungling and unremarkable. This is supposed to be the man who killed his brother and assumed the throne? Hardly. Eileen Herlie is decidedly average as Queen Gertrude. Her shining moment arrives when Hamlet chastises her as Polonius eavesdrops. It is a welcomed convincing and powerful altercation after a first half that was bizarrely cheerful. John Gielgud provides the voice of the ghost, and he does so with a languid rhythm and grace that is quite exceptional if you can understand what he’s saying. Gielgud exhibits the phantom as an enormous shadow, which is extremely effective.

Electronovision was not the groundbreaking new medium the developers intended it to be. The whole trend was short-lived since it amounted basically to closed-circuit TV. Only a handful of shows were ever transferred to the screens using Electronovision. In one of the few extras on this DVD, Richard Burton gives a halfhearted attempt to praise it by describing its uniqueness and immediacy. It’s about a 4 minute interview clip, and Burton spends most of it trying to control the sweat pouring from his face. The rest of the extras include some filmographies. It’s disappointing since cast members William Redfield and Richard L. Sterne each wrote books on their memories of this event.

Richard Burton’s Hamlet does indeed lose some of its vitality in this translation. Filming a staged play can be a risk because the camera speaks to the audience in a different way, and in this case Hamlet feels rough, unpolished, and unfocused. To the people in their seats those nights, the “dress rehearsal” idea might have been novel, but to anyone watching at home, it is foolish. Overall this is a crudely shot experiment, and when it comes to Burton, his booming voice will consistently hold your attention, but his flippancy failed to convince me that he gave 100%. Had the rest of the cast all brought their A-game, Burton’s brusque work might not be as glaring, but sadly they too are all over the map.

Richard Burton was no stranger to Shakespeare. He garnered rave reviews during the early parts of his stage career in Henry IV, Part 1, and followed them with Henry IV, Part 2 and Henry V. He frequently juggled theatre with film, appearing in Coriolanus and Othello in the 1950’s. He would only be in one filmed adaptation of Shakespeare, and that was The Taming of the Shrew in 1967. This version of Hamlet went on to break the record for the longest Broadway run of the play with 136 performances. Whether you’re stumbling across this as a Burton fan or a Shakespeare nerd, I recommend it mildly as a curiosity, but nothing more.

Final Rating = 6.0/10.0

Out of Print
The Heartbreak Kid
The Taking of Pelham 123 (1998-TV)
The Stepfather 3
America, America
Salem’s Lot
Latin Lovers
State Fair (1933)
Sleuth (1972)
Johnny Guitar
Children of the Corn 2: The Final Harvest
High Noon Part II: The Return of Will Kane
The Prehysteria! Trilogy
Only Yesterday
Ocean Waves
The Little Norse Prince
Breaking the Waves
Cruel Story of Youth
The Magnificent Ambersons
Two Rode Together
The Portrait of a Lady
The Unholy Three
King Solomon’s Mines (1937)

Now Available
The African Queen
A Return to Salem’s Lot – Available Through Warner Archives
Phantasm II
Red Cliff Part 1 and Part 2 – All Versions Available
The Stepfather
The Stepfather 2

Random Thoughts

–I finished reading a biography of Chuck Connors, who starred in The Rifleman, Branded, and Soylent Green to name a few. The book urged me to seek out some of his films and shows, but author David Fury had nothing even remotely negative to say about Chuck, his films, or his life. I never really felt like I got to know him at all. In the end, I could have learned the same by glancing at Chuck’s IMDB page.

–I picked up the new Buckcherry album All Night Long, which was pretty standard overall, but my copy did have a bonus disc of acoustic sessions which were outstanding.

–As for movies, I’ve been watching a lot of DVDs I own. I did see Divorce – Italian Style from Director Pietro Germi, which is an absolute classic of dark comedy. It stars Marcello Mastroianni (8 ½, La Dolce Vita). I definitely recommend checking it out.

The Top 10 Pet Peeves of 2009
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My Blog featuring Mini-Reviews of New Releases!

“The plural of Chad is Chad?”
–From the movie Recount


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Nether Regions, Chad Webb

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