Robert F. Willson Jr.’s Shakespeare in Hollywood, 1929-1956 is a historical study of several of Shakespeare’s major works and the films which were inspired by them. The book covers productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and Julius Caesar. It also discusses several other Shakespearean films, mostly films such as To Be or Not to Be, and A Double Life that were extremely loose adaptations of Shakespeare, often bearing no obvious resemblance to the original whatsoever except for some ambiguous Shakespearean themes.
In the introduction to the book, Willson discusses the perception of Louis B. Mayer, the longtime head of Metro Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, and how he believed that a Shakespeare film would essentially be a failure at the box office mainly due to lack of interest among the mainstream film going public. However, certain filmmakers had a desire to prove their artistic ability through less commercialized films, and Willson’s thesis argues that studios then made these movies to cement their images as purveyors of the artistic rather than just a studio churning out films which were guaranteed successes. Also, he attempts to establish that certain aspects of these films came to characterize Hollywood cinema as a whole. For example, the idea of adaptations of novels into film that was obviously being done for these Shakespearean films is still a commonplace practice in filmmaking today.
Willson writes about several film adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays, however the chapter of his book which most successfully supports his thesis is the second chapter, called “‘Doing Shakespeare Right’: Warner Brothers’ A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935)”. In this chapter, Willson most clearly demonstrates the studio’s desire for artistic respect, and also shows how the studios tempted a wider audience into seeing these films. A Midsummer Night’s Dream was previewed to women’s clubs and parent and teacher organizations. According to Willson, the reviews from these organizations gave the studio confidence that they were on the right track in their efforts to “elevate the cultural content” of their films. The studios also focused on the audiences who would traditionally be less interested in a film like A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Willson describes the studio’s tactic of using contract players, instead of hiring actors on a film-to-film basis. James Cagney, the actor who plays Bottom in the production was a very well known star and this factor contributed greatly towards the success of the film.
This aforementioned chapter was very persuasive pertaining to Willson’s thesis. When he first argues that studios wanted to make more artistic films to prove their credibility, it is difficult to understand why they would want to do that during such an influential time in cinema, and possibly risk losing loads of money on a film that very few people were interested in seeing. In this chapter though, it is explained well why these filmmakers had confidence in bringing Shakespearean theater to the big screen despite the nervousness that Louis B. Mayer had surrounding the idea. Through their careful promotion of the film to two entirely different audiences they ended up with a success, thus enabling characteristics like the adaptation of plays and novels to film to carry on into modern filmmaking.
For the most part, the other chapters of Willson’s book prove his thesis similarly. However, he does discuss Romeo and Juliet and Othello, and seems to be subtly suggesting the idea that because these films flopped maybe Mayer was correct, and that audiences really were not ready for Shakespearean adaptations. This idea is the only factor that weakens Willson’s thesis, because the other material in the book predominately supports his idea that by selling these films properly to both those interested in culture, and those interested in mainstream film, a Shakespeare adaptation can easily be a success.
The notes and accompanying bibliography in the final pages of the book would prove very useful to someone doing an extensive research paper on a topic in this area. The bibliography lists roughly seventy sources which Willson consulted for his book. The notes are useful as well and there are comments within them that highlight which ones may be of particular use to those interested in similar topics.
Although a general knowledge of Shakespeare’s plots is not essential to understanding this book, a reader would get the most out of it if they were at least aware of the different characters and basic plots in the plays. Therefore, it could be appreciated by people interested in film history or someone just looking to learn about Shakespeare in an interesting way. This text would also prove especially useful to a literature student who has previously studied Shakespeare in depth. Willson’s analysis of the films just further enhances an already solid understanding of Shakespearean texts.