Dino Di Luca
Guido Brignone (1887-1958)
Director of Photography
Rossano plays the title role of Edmund Kean (1789-1833), described as “one of the greatest English tragic actors, a turbulent genius noted as much for his megalomania and ungovernable behavior as for his portrayals of villains in Shakespearean plots.” Indeed, his passions inflamed and scandalized all of London society … and while this film has played a bit loose with the historical Kean, Rossano captured what may have been his passionate personality magnificently. A brief mention of the incident appears in his earliest biography, by Myriam Peverelli Zeppegno:
“As a result, when Brignone, after his success with Dumas’s “Kean” in the theater wanted to make a movie of the play, he didn’t hesitate in offering this huge role (which had frightened well known and famous actors) to Rossano Brazzi, who was not yet twenty-four years old. Rossano’s choice for the role had already been discussed, although perhaps more for entertainment than seriously. To the critics, it seemed impossible that this youth, this little boy, with the face almost of a baby, could give life to the difficult part of Kean. But the public, with its sincere, spontaneous reaction that gives to the soul of any artist the strength to give passionate life to his characters, shouted their enthusiasm, proclaiming Rossano to be one of the most sensitive, intelligent and perfect actors in the Italian cinema.
After “Kean”, Rossano’s mail increased (a method of evaluation that will seem childish, but it is that exacting figure that can give an evaluation of the artist) to hundreds of letters a week. Thrilled women had almost reached a state of … delirium … Rossano laughs at this, almost timidly surprised, that it happened to him.”
In fact, this is the role and the performance that put Rossano Brazzi on the national map in Italy – it is a stunning, breathtaking performance, made even more so when you realize how young he was – only 24 – when he successfully captured the emotional maelstrom of a “turbulent” middle aged actor. His carefully calibrated performance increasing slowly in intensity, reaches an unforgettable catharsis on a Drury Lane stage scene in London. That this film was never made available in the United States is definitely one of our theatrical losses. It is only available in Italian.
Some historical background on Edmund Kean: “the bastard son of an itinerant actress and street hawker, and Edmund Kean, a mentally unbalanced youth who committed suicide at the age of 22. During his formative years, he was in the charge of Charlotte Tidswell, mistress of Moses Kean, his father’s eldest brother. Tidswell, then a small part member of the Drury Lane Theater Company, was the cast-off mistress of Charles Howard, the 11th Duke of Norfolk. Extremely ambitious for her adopted child, she gave Edmund both an early stage training and the rudiments of a general education. Her efforts to provide a disciplined home background were defeated however, by his willfulness and vagrancy, and for much of his childhood he lived as a waif and a stray.
Fifteen years of apprenticeship helped him develop the style for which he was famous but also frustrated him and sent him on the road to alcoholism. The acting style then in vogue was artificial, declamatory and statuesque. Leading actors were men of classic good looks, imposing figure and vocal eloquence. Although Kean had handsome features, notably unusually expressive eyes, he was small, with a voice that was harsh, forceful and commanding rather than melodious. He could never have hoped to compete with the actors of the time, so he had to become an innovator as well as a virtuoso. On January 26, 1914, when he made his Drury Lane debut as Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice he was an overnight sensation and quickly came to specialize in villains, notable Richard III, Iago and Macbeth.
As an actor, he relied on his own forceful and turbulent personality and on sudden transitions of voice and facial expression. There was nothing improvised about his performances, however. Technically, they were carefully planned, and it was said of his portrayal of Othello that, with its varying tones and semitones, rests and breaks, forte and piano, crescendo and diminuendo, it might have been read from a musical score. The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge said that Kean revealed Shakespeare by “flashes of lightening”.
… In 1825, he was successfully sued for adultery with the wife of a city alderman. This provided the pretext for a virulent press campaign, in which he was subjected to hostile demonstrations in England and during his second, and last, tour of the United States. The last eight years of his life were a story of slow suicide by drink and other excesses, and he died at age 44.”
The film opens in 1827 (which, historically, fell 2 years after the scandal had taken place), and Kean is engaging in one of his favorite pastimes: bare-fisted (and bare-chested, for those who appreciate such things) boxing matches at the local pub. Winning the match easily (not difficult a stretch for Rossano, with his boxing experience), Kean celebrates his victory with the those with whom he feels most comfortable, the lower classes of London society. Even though he is successfully straddling the line between these higher and lower echelons, these are the people with whom he feels most comfortable. The messenger between the two camps is a street urchin named “Pistol”, who dresses and acts very much like Charles Dickens’ “Artful Dodger” character in Oliver Twist. “Pistol” is almost a son to Kean, who treats him with love and affection and tenderness, much to the bewilderment of his household staff. When not employing his tender side for scenes with Pistol, Rossano’s Kean is a fiery, dramatic, larger than life character, using bold, sweeping gestures and a rapid fire, confident, arrogant manner of speaking that he hasn’t employed very often in his career.
After the match Kean performs his role in Hamlet, at the Drury Theater and his performance enchants Anna, the beautiful daughter of London’s Lord Mayor, which horrifies her father and her intended, a London businessman. After the performance, she seeks him out to commend him, hoping to see him again. Kean says he will be at home the following day. But Anna, despite her beauty, does not interest him – his heart has been completely captured by a countess, Elena, with whom he is conducting a clandestine affair. Their conduct at a royal soiree sets London whispering.
Meanwhile, Anna is forbidden by her father to see Kean perform again, and in defiance, she leaves home and moves into a suite of rooms in London. Her father hires a detective to find her and avoid a scandal. From her rooms she sends Kean a note, asking to meet him at the pub he frequents, so that she might speak with him, although this note is intercepted by the detective. The detective and her father compose a false note in return, agreeing to her request for a meeting. However, when she appears, they attempt to kidnap her and bring her home with them. But Kean and his companions, hearing her cries from a back room, rush out and wrest Anna away from them. When he realizes that her kidnappers sent her a false note in his name, he sends her to his home, as his guest, by threatening to expose the Lord Mayor’s involvement in the kidnaping plot of his own daughter. Beaten, the Lord Mayor retreats.
Still unaware of Anna’s feelings for him, Kean continues to pursue the Countess, who is the powerful mistress of the Prince. During a pre-performance tryst, she accidentally drops a fan, which is discovered by the Prince’s retinue. He ridicules Kean for his pretensions in thinking the Contessa would ever marry anyone of his social standing. Kean is devastated, and needs to be coaxed by Pistol to appear on stage at all. When he does, he is so shaken and distracted by the Prince’s words that he forgets his lines and needs to be coaxed from the director’s box. Suddenly he notices that the Prince has joined the Contessa in the audience. The prince continues to make his point clear to Kean, on stage, by courting the Contessa during the performance.
Unable to endure having these romantic overtures flaunted in his face, Kean abruptly ends the performance by stopping in mid-line and fixing the Prince and his mistress in the Royal Box with a thundering, glowering expression of rage. The audience, shocked, begins to murmur in bewilderment, while the cast labors to return him to his performance with stage whispers. But he is oblivious to them. He stands stock-still upon the stage, glowering at the Royal Box in silence.
Finally, he erupts in a screaming rage, ripping off his wig and costume and battering the scenery, before finally collapsing in front of the horrified audience. The next morning’s papers tell the story, “SCANDAL AT DRURY LANE!” We find Kean at home, recovering from his breakdown, being comforted by Anna. He expects to have heard some word of comfort from Elena, but when his manservant brings him the list of callers, he finds she is not among them. Dressing to leave the house and find her, he instead encounters her maid. He is told that Elena has been sent out of London until the scandal is over, and that she will not see him again. His stunned, devastated face reflects the effect that this news has had on his shattered heart.
The final scene: Kean is preparing to sail to America and perhaps the hope that when he returns, all will be as it was. Anna is traveling with him. He does not love her as he loves Elena, but she loves him more than enough for them both, and that is enough for her, as their ship sets sail.
While the drama isn’t as accurate as some might prefer (Kean at the age of the scandal should have been in his 40’s, rather than his 20’s, and he was already married), Rossano’s performance as Edmund Kean is electric: covering the wide range of lower class brutishness, confidence, arrogance, gentility and tenderness, to violent madness, bleakness and despair with ease, all reflecting the many sides of Edmund Kean. His mid-performance breakdown is riveting and memorable, and even those who don’t understand Italian will appreciate the truly remarkable performance in this film.
Additional information on Edmund Kean provided by Encyclopedia Britannica.
Di Luca’s real name was Guido Di Luca. He also worked on Silenzio, si gira
Lotti also worked on Silenzio, si gira!, and I dieci comandamenti
Paolieri also worked on I dieci comandamenti.
Scelzo: see Il ponte di vetro.
Brignone also directed Maria Malibran.
Fatigati: see Ritorno.
Smith also worked on Il re si diverte and Silenzio, si gira.
Martelli also worked on Il bravo di Venezia and Il terrore dell Andalusia.
To learn more about Edmund Kean, click on the title below:
Edmund Kean, by Harold Newcomb
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