Prince of Players (1955): A Shakespearean Ode to the Beauty and Pain of Life

Edwin Booth lived a life few can ever imagine. Born into a renowned theatrical family, he inherits both his father’s genius for stage acting and the demons that plagued him. His success on the stage stirs the envy of his brother, John Wilkes, driving him to a terrible deed that will echo throughout history.

As personal tragedy strikes, will Edwin be able to weather the turbulence in his life or will the angry winds overtake him?

Prince of Players tells this story.

20th Century Fox’s lavish production gains its source material from the best-selling 1953 biography of the same name by Eleanor Ruggles.

The Patriarch – Junius Brutus Booth

Raymond Massey introduces us to the world of Shakespeare when the curtains rise on Prince of Players. Massey doesn’t just play the character of Junius Brutus, the famed, eccentric nineteenth century actor, he becomes him.

Massey carries himself with an air of grandeur as I’m sure a great Shakespearean actor from the past would, and when he is in a drunken stupor and young Edwin must drag him home and tend to him, his affecting performance brings the gravitas of the film to its center, setting in motion the battles Edwin must face.

The Prince of Players – Edwin Booth

Talk about perfect casting, in the 1950’s, Richard Burton was busy establishing himself as a Shakespearean actor, being hailed as the next Olivier, and completed a season with the Old Vic including a successful run of his popular “moody, virile, baleful” Hamlet.

Richard Burton is impeccable in the role of Edwin Booth. I am of the opinion that no other actor of the time could do the complex man justice while fitting seamlessly into the nineteenth century setting.

Sure, Burton is no American. But he possessed a mesmerizing presence, intensity, tortured quality, and a mastery of Shakespeare that even Olivier praised. Also, the way he can hold an audience without saying a word is something to behold/experience.

The Traitor – John Wilkes Booth

John Derek plays the infamous John Wilkes Booth. Since the film focuses on Edwin, we only get a brief outline of John Wilkes and his nefarious motives and actions, but what is there, is done well.

Derek’s characterization contrasts perfectly with Burton. Derek is outspoken, flashy, with an unbridled madness, whereas Burton is quiet, self possessed, and portrays an inward struggle.

The Peacemaker – Mary Devlin

Maggie McNamara is the Juliet who tames Burton’s Romeo with her gentle, comforting presence. You can sense the belief she has in Edwin’s abilities as an actor and as a man.

Burton’s trust in her to be there for him and his love for her is quite moving as he’s had to go it alone for most of his life and he cherishes the relationship that they share. The connection between the two is beautifully portrayed and convincing.

The Bard – William Shakespeare

Prince of Players treats its audience to monologues from Richard III, Romeo and Juliet, and Edwin Booth’s signature role as Hamlet, among others.

Since playwright Moss Hart is on board as screenwriter and long time screenwriter Phillip Dunne is at the director’s helm, these scenes don’t feel like add-ons, necessary evils, nor do they stop the action. On the contrary, rather they add relevant poignancy due to their thoughtful placement in the narrative.

For instance when Junius does not want to go on stage, Edwin gives his father a pep talk and pleads with him, “I’m proud of you, father. They’ll be seeing you for the first time. They built this theater for you. You’re going on tour where no great actor has been seen before. They’ve waited a year for your coming.” To which Junius responds positively.

While on stage though, Junius begins to forget his lines, leading to this heart wrenching scene while Junius and Edwin are playing Richard III.

Richard (Massey):

And thy assistance is King Richard seated.
But shall we wear these glories for a day,
Or shall they last and we rejoice in them?


Buckingham (Burton):
Still live they, and forever let them last.

Richard (Massey):
Ah, Buckingham, now do I play the touch,
To try if thou be current gold indeed:
Young Edward lives…

(Junius, forgetting his lines, is prompted by Edwin)

Think now what I would speak.

Buckingham (Burton):
Say on, my loving lord.

(Whispering admiringly and sadly) Say on, my loving lord.

(Another prompt from Edwin)

Richard (Massey):
Why, Buckingham, I say I would be king.


Buckingham (Burton):
Why so you are, my thrice-renownèd lord.


Richard (Massey):
Ha! Am I king?

(Searchingly, to his son) Edwin, am I…king?

The Supporting Players

The reliable Charles Bickford gives a solid performance as Dave Prescott, the Booth’s crusty, demanding manager who over time becomes their trusted friend.

Elizabeth Sellars plays Asia Booth, the sister caught between the opposing brothers, and gives a sincere portrayal of concern and care.

Esteemed stage actress, director, producer Eva La Gallienne is credited as the technical consultant for the Shakespearean scenes. She also appears opposite Burton as a fiery Queen Gertrude in Hamlet, marking her film debut.

The Score – Bernard Herrmann

Director Phillip Dune chose Bernard Herrmann to provide the score for Prince of Players based on his experience with the composer on The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, and as usual, Herrmann’s stirring music fits like hand in glove.

According to Herrmann’s biographer, Steven Smith, since childhood Herrmann had nurtured a love of English literature and theater and relished working on the project.

The opening titles sound a fanfare of trumpets and a dignified American march that sets the tone for what’s to come – the grandeur of the theater.

The music takes a different turn as the film goes on underlining the overwhelming drama. Herrmann’s cues resemble Vertigo in the scenes between Junius and Edwin, and Herrmann nails the psychological tensions that belie their relationship.

The love theme for Edwin and Mary is bittersweet and portrays the blissful love and devotion they share.

The Visual Style

Prince of Players handsomely recreates the mid-late nineteenth century through Mary Wills’s costumes (Hans Christian Andersen) and Lyle Wheeler’s art direction (Gone With the Wind), and includes a recreation of the fateful night at Ford’s Theatre. Charles G. Clarke’s cinematography (Miracle on 34th Street) has some particularly striking moments and is very appealing.

Conclusion

Prince of Players is a moving depiction of Edwin Booth’s early-mid life and the emotional pain that befell him as he endured a miserable childhood, struggled to maintain his own sanity and the guilt and shame of his family name, and the ray of light that helped him overcome.

In this way, Prince of Players is a fine study of the struggle of managing and overcoming family ghosts and one’s own personal demons, the importance of purpose, and finally, acceptance of life and that purpose.

Edwin Booth as Hamlet

Edwin’s daughter, Edwina Booth Grossman, on her famous father and his defining role:

…It was long before I could thoroughly disassociate him from the character of Hamlet, it seemed so entirely a part of himself. Indeed, in that impersonation, I think, his confined nature and pent-up sorrows found vent. He told me that the philosophy of Hamlet had taught him to bear life’s vicissitudes.

If that isn’t beautiful, I don’t know what is.

To buy or not to buy

You can find this film here on Amazon. Hopefully one day the powers that be will restore Prince of Players to its former glory and present it as it was originally filmed in Cinemascope. But for now, any form of this hidden gem is worth seeing. Enjoy!

(Note: I am not an Amazon affiliate.)

About Edwin Booth

Enjoy this informative video and learn more about the Booth family’s history while touring Edwin’s beautiful home in which he established The Players – a private social club bringing together creatives and industrialists – in Gramercy Park, New York.

This is my contribution to The Biopic Blogathon hosted by Hometowns to Hollywood.

Thanks for having me, Annette! Head on over and read the rest of the entries here.

15 thoughts on “Prince of Players (1955): A Shakespearean Ode to the Beauty and Pain of Life

  1. I’m surprised TCM has never showed this, given the stellar cast it has. Poor Edwin Booth, I think because he always felt things so deeply, he believed he had to bear the brunt of brother John Wilkes’ deeds. One thing I always remember vividly from one a documentary on the Lincoln Assassination is that Edwin was so distraught over what happened he left theater acting forever, including regaling family and friends with recitals of Shakespeare’s best dialogues. Even today the Booth family still feels the stigma of John Wilkes’ treachery.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I believe TCM has shown Prince of Players as there is an intro by Ben M. on their website.

      Yes, Booth seemed like a burdened man who used his art in a beautiful way. I’ve added a video at the end of my post you might like about the Booths – a tour of his home and the club he founded.

      I’ve been absorbed by his story and I learned that after the assassination in 1865 he retired temporarily but his audience welcomed him back the following year, such was his reputation. He returned to the stage in his signature role, Hamlet, and gave his final performance in 1891.

      Like

  2. You’ve introduced me to another film with which I was unfamiliar! 😀 Thanks to an episode of the old TV show Wagon Train, I only recently realized John Wilkes Booth even had a brother – so it’s interesting to learn more about him here. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad to hear it! 🙂 I haven’t seen Wagon Train, would you recommend it?

      Yes, there was also another brother, Junius Jr. and he was an actor as well but never reached the popularity and fame of Edwin and John Wilkes. In fact the three of them acted together in a play but only once. Junius Jr. wasn’t portrayed in Prince of Players. The filmmakers already had so much ground to cover, such a compelling story and fascinating family!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Wagon Train had some excellent guest stars, and I watch episodes that feature people I enjoy. I actually don’t know the names of the characters in the main cast – but that doesn’t really matter, as each episode seems to stand alone. I do that with similar episodic shows as well (Rawhide, Perry Mason, The Twilight Zone, etc.) – seeking out only episodes that feature actors I’m interested in. If you have a tolerance for old-school TV drama (sometimes schmaltzy, sometimes melodramatic, sometimes convoluted), then it’s a great opportunity to watch a wide variety of performers turn in some fine work.

        With Wagon Train in particular, that anthology-like nature is even reflected in the episode titles. They’re all “The (a different person’s name) Story”. I love Ed Wynn’s episode, The Cappy Darin Story – and I’m sure I have other favorites that I just can’t recall at the moment.

        The episode that introduced me to Edwin Booth is called The Will Santee Story. I watched it for Harry von Zell (whom I had only seen playing himself on the Burns & Allen Show – never as a different character, and never in a drama), but the featured guest star was Dean Stockwell (he’s Will Santee). I believe I watched it on YouTube. It actually is quite serious and a little mysterious. It’s about a family trying to start over and escape the automatic prejudice that comes from a relative having tarnished the family name in a harmful way. And it has one of the best monologues about the absurdity and dangers of prejudice that I’ve ever heard. Shows like this easily get corny or preachy, but this was neither. I found it very timely, too. (Some of the episode IS downright melodramatic, but that speech was great.)

        When it got to Edwin Booth, I remember wondering if he was even a real person. But your post confirms that he was indeed real, and he has a fascinating story of his own. I tend to be a bit of a cynical viewer and assume that Hollywood ALWAYS exaggerates – but sometimes, I guess the actual truth is so fantastic, no embellishment is needed. 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Well said, Jillian! Sometimes, truth really is stranger than fiction. Wagon Train sounds great! Another addition to the viewing list 🙂 Thanks!

        I love Ed Wynn and will look for his episode and The Will Santee Story!

        I had no idea Edwin Booth existed until seeing Prince of Players, and I doubt without this movie that I ever would have. (Although I almost visited Ford’s Theatre in DC so I might have picked up some knowledge of him, but most likely not to this extent!) I love when movies and TV shows can teach us something, whether big or small.

        As always, thanks for visiting and sharing your thoughts, Jillian! 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

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