BOOTLEG FILES 377: “The Tempest” (1960 made-for-TV production starring Maurice Evans and Richard Burton).
LAST SEEN: The film can be seen on YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: On a small VHS label and later as a non-theatrical VHS release.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: An elusive title.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Maybe someday.
Most people today recognize the British actor Maurice Evans from a number of small roles in iconic 1960s film and TV productions: as Elizabeth Montgomery’s warlock father on the series “Bewitched,” as the nefarious Puzzler on the campy TV version of “Batman,” as the treacherous Dr. Zaius in “Planet of the Apes” and as the family friend who recognizes the danger of Mia Farrow’s pregnancy in “Rosemary’s Baby.” While these performances were memorable and entertaining, they were hardly representative of Evans’ depth as an actor.
During the peak of his career, Evans was celebrated as one of the world’s greatest Shakespearean actors. Evans’ theatrical majesty guaranteed sold-out theaters, and his versatility enabled him to run the spectrum of the Shakespeare canon from Hamlet to Falstaff.
During the 1950s, Evans was recruited by the anthology TV series “Hallmark Hall of Fame” to present Shakespeare for the American small screen. However, there was a major catch: since the network programmers would not devote an entire evening for a full-length Shakespearean production, Evans would need to telescope the landmark plays into truncated versions.
Despite this handicap, Evans and director-producer George Schaefer brought several memorable adaptations to “Hallmark Hall of Fame.” Contrary to concerns that audiences were not interested in Shakespeare, the “Hallmark Hall of Fame” productions turned out to be very popular in the ratings.
In 1960, Evans and Schaefer collaborated to bring one of the most popular Shakespeare comedies, “The Tempest,” to television. In concept, it seemed like a surefire hit: Evans would take on the role of Prospero, while Richard Burton was recruited to play Caliban and up-and-coming actress Lee Remick was hired as Miranda. Even better, the production would be broadcast in color, which would enable the creation of Prospero’s wonderland with vibrant art direction and imaginative set design.
However, “The Tempest” was a surprising backfire that failed at almost every imaginable level. Rather than bring the viewer into a rich comic fantasy, the production stumbled about like a third rate pantomime.
In fairness, the problem had nothing to do with the abbreviated nature of the production (the total running time, minus commercials, was 75 minutes). John Edward Friend did a fine job in editing large sections of the source material while keeping the play’s ebb and flow intact. While purists may object to this Shakespeare-lite approach, it serves its purpose for this format.
What doesn’t work, however, is the physical production. “The Tempest” looks like a cheapo black box theater offering, with torn plastic wrap hanging from paper mache trees set against a badly painted rainbow-hued backdrop. In a theatrical setting, no one would think twice about such low rent values – after all, you’re supposed to unleash your imagination when appreciating cheapo theater. But the TV camera magnifies the poverty of the production, and this occasionally creates unintentional laughter – especially when Ferdinand comes marching out in a bizarre outfit consisting of cape, opera gloves, breastplate and a golden thong, but no pants! Really, what can you say about a show where there wasn’t enough money to get a decent pair of pants for the romantic lead?
The camera also magnifies the grotesque nature of the make-up effects. Poor Roddy McDowall’s Ariel is covered in flour-white paint with glitter and assorted horns and spikes. Richard Burton’s Caliban looks like the love child of the Frankenstein monster and the Creature of the Black Lagoon. As for Evans’ Prospero, it is difficult to pay attention to his grandiloquent bloviating without being distracted by his patently false nose and excessively bushy eyebrows. Only pretty Lee Remick emerges looking like a real person – which, in turn, makes her seem like the misfit in the bunch.
There are also a couple of special effects scenes involving Ariel’s being able to shrink in size and become invisible. Let’s just say they are embarrassing and leave it at that.
As for the acting, the tone of the performances makes “The Tempest” seems like the Shakespearean equivalent of an oscilloscope. McDowell roars his lines in a nasally blast, Evans chortles and guffaws like a department store Santa, Burton eschews his traditional scenery chewing for a weirdly benign and hesitant presentation, and Remick gives the impression that she is reading her lines for the very first time from a cue card. The only performance that catches the spirit of “The Tempest” comes from a wholly unlikely source: Tom Poston, a TV comic actor best known at the time as a second banana on Steve Allen’s late night show, is delightful as the drunken Trinculo. Wearing an awful blonde wig and lisping in a silly voice, he captures the buffoonery of the part and the musicality of the text with effortless ease.
“The Tempest” was broadcast on NBC on February 3, 1960 as part of the “Hallmark Hall of Fame” series. Despite its many flaws, it was promoted as a prestige production – and Life Magazine did a generous photo spread on the show. “Hallmark Hall of Fame” may have recognized the limitations of this style of TV production, as Schaefer and Evans followed up the endeavor with a full-length version of “Macbeth” that was shot on film in Scottish locations. Evans won a well-deserved Emmy for his performance as the doomed Scottish king, and many critics consider that production to be the best of his TV Shakespeare acting.
“The Tempest” was not (as far as I can determine) rebroadcast by NBC. The production turned up on the small ETI Home Video label in 1983 and it was later released to the non-theatrical educational market as a VHS video by Films for the Humanities & Sciences. To date, however, there has been no official DVD release.
“The Tempest” has been offered by several collector-to-collector labels, usually with the label art focusing on Richard Burton. The full show can also be seen in an eight-part spread on YouTube.
If “The Tempest” is a disappointment, at least it deserves praise for trying to achieve something different. After all, it is hard to imagine any U.S. network being willing to offer Shakespeare in today’s prime time scheduling. And considering what is being broadcast today, I can easily state that I would always prefer bad Shakespeare to reality television.
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