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Carnival (1921)


Main image of Carnival (1921)
35mm, black and white, silent, 7400 feet
DirectorHarley Knoles
Production CompanyH K Productions
ScenarioAdrian Johnson, Rosina Henley
AdaptationMatheson Lang, H.C.M. Hardinge
PhotographyPhilip Hatkin

Cast: Matheson Lang (Silvio Steno); Ivor Novello (Count Andrea Scipione); Hilda Bayley (Simonetta); Clifford Grey (Lelio); Victor McLaglen (Baron); Florence Hunter (Nino); Maria de Bernaldo (Ottavia)

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A married theatrical couple find that real-life flirtation and jealousy parallels that of Shakespeare's Othello - the play in which they're appearing.

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Between 1921 and 1936, no fewer than three British films were based on the theme of a production of Othello leading to parallel rivalries and jealousies backstage - the others being the 1931 sound remake of Carnival (d. Herbert Wilcox) and a comedy-melodrama from 1936, Men Are Not Gods (d. Walter Reisch). George Cukor's better known Hollywood film A Double Life (US, 1947) was based on a similar premise.

Unlike the remake, the silent version of Carnival was actually shot in Venice, and at times it seems as though the locations are the primary attraction - much of the film is framed in long shot from a fixed camera position, with the characters dwarfed by the opulence of their surroundings. It's certainly amongst the more eye-catching British films of its era, even if the treatment of the dramatic material rarely rises above the pedestrian.

Carnival was based on Matheson Lang's own successful stage play, whose lead role he had also created on stage (and would repeat in the sound remake ten years later). Its theatrical roots are all too clear: despite the location work, there's surprisingly little 'opening-out', and much of the gondola and carnival footage has a somewhat tacked-on feel.

What isn't tacked on is the integration between the central drama and Shakespeare's play. Several scenes from the latter are performed (with the original text presented in intertitles), and it's clear that Lang was at considerable pains to emphasise the parallels: the film opens with a detailed analysis of his interpretation of Othello's character, though by the climax this has degenerated into stock melodramatics as his protagonist Silvio Steno's obsessive real-life jealousy towards his wife Simonetta (Hilda Bayley, also reprising her stage creation) permits few other options than that he tries to strangle her for real on stage.

Though born in Yorkshire, director Harley Knoles (1881-1936) cut his teeth on American features between 1916 and 1920 before returning to Britain to found his own production company H.K. Productions. However, Carnival was its only feature, and his subsequent career would be far less productive, fizzling out altogether just before the sound era. The film's male co-star fared rather better: Carnival contains the British feature debut of Ivor Novello, who had previously only made films in France. Within a few years, he would eclipse Lang to become one of the British cinema's few genuine homegrown stars.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. Lelio's loan (4:13)
2. The carnival (5:35)
3. The premiere (4:14)
4. Silvio's rage (3:58)
Complete film (1:20:28)
Production stills
Carnival (1931)
Novello, Ivor (1893-1951)
Contemporary Shakespeare
Othello On Screen