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King Lear

A long unseen Orson Welles vehicle hits DVD

King Lear

Studio:E1 Entertainment
Director:Andrew McCullough
Cast:Orson Welles, Natasha Perry, Arnold Moss, Bramwell Fletcher, Alan Badel
Release Date:1953

By Lee Gardner | Posted 3/17/2010

THE MOVIE: Can you imagine today's CBS broadcasting live made-for-TV Shakespeare between NCIS and your local news? And yet in 1953, that's more or less what the Tiffany Network did, and it even lured famed actor/director Orson Welles into his debut television appearance for the occasion. On the heels of the Criterion Collection's recent The Golden Age of Television set of classic 1950s live-TV drama comes this release of King Lear as produced for the long-running cultural grab-bag Omnibus, unseen since the evening of its performance and broadcast 56 years ago.

Even host Alistair Cooke's introduction is a bit of shock; you're just not use to such erudition coming out of the idiot box in any era. (Good Night, and Good Luck aside, you're also likely to double-take at Cooke smoking on camera, as he does in one of the extras.) After Cooke sets the stage, Welles seizes it. A mere 38 at the time, the actor packed on padding, heavy make-up, and a jutting fake beard to make his aging sovereign a mountainous heap of a man (and a bit of a ringer for Welles in his later life). Esteemed British stage director Peter Brook strips away all subplots to focus on Lear and his attempt to divide his kingdom among his three daughters and spend his final years basking in filial piety, only to wreck his family and his mind.

In certain ways, TV suits this brisk 82-minute Lear. The close-ups of Welles channeling goggling madness would be too much on a big screen, and the tight confines of the frame squeeze the cast together, making Regan and Goneril's request that their father discharge his retinue of knights seem not all that unreasonable. Welles struggles with keeping his beard in place here and there, but he is masterful, at times literally pulling close and pushing away those closest to him, as if wrestling with them, and with his feelings. And even on live TV at the dawn of the form, this production makes the most of overhead shots and the kind of atmospheric effects that few theaters could pull off. It's no substitute for a well-done theatrical version or full-bore cinematic take (e.g., Akira Kurosawa's Ran), but it's a revelation nonetheless.

THE DISC: In addition to a cleaned-up (though not wholly undamaged) transfer of the main attraction, the extras include a backstage preview of the production of Lear and three more Shakespeare-centric Omnibus presentations: an absolutely fascinating segment featuring critic/playwright Walter Kerr dissecting how the staging of Hamlet has changed over the centuries, a bit in which scholar Frank Baxter discusses Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, and a Cooke live remote at the 1954 Yale Shakespeare Festival. It makes you think twice about what passes for "smart" television these days.

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