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The Bootleg Files: Macbeth

BOOTLEG FILES 698: “Macbeth” (1961 Canadian television production starring Sean Connery in the title role).

LAST SEEN: We cannot confirm the most recent exhibition of this title.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: On a public domain label and a collector-to-collector label.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: There might be some rights issue holding it up.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not likely.

Sean Connery celebrated his 89th birthday earlier this week and social media was a flutter with tributes recalling his star-making performances as James Bond and his fine work in films stretching from the 1960s to the early 2000s. But few people recalled Connery’s role as the homicidal yet tragic Scottish nobleman who killed his way to the crown in “Macbeth.” Indeed, this work remains among the actor’s least known and most curious efforts.

By 1961, Connery seemed to be within grasp of A-list stardom but somehow never quite found his way to the higher echelon of his profession. He achieved attention in Britain for starring roles in film and television productions, but a foray into Hollywood failed to ignite his career to the next level.

An unexpected offer came from the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC), which was planning to mount a televised version of “Macbeth.” Why he was chosen was not clear – his star power on this side of the Atlantic was minimal. While he brought the right accent, Connery was not celebrated as a Shakespearean actor – he had a supporting part as Hotspur in the 1960 BBC epic “An Age of Kings,” but it was hardly a groundbreaking performance and that series did not play in Canada until 1963. Earlier in his career, there were two invitations for him to play Macbeth in British stage presentations, but he turned down one of the offers (the job was taken by a then-unknown Richard Harris) and the other endeavor never made it to the stage. Connery’s then-wife Diane Cilento reportedly worked hard to convince him to take the assignment. Her lobbying powers must have been extraordinary, as Connery received only $500 (Canadian) and a free hotel room for his work.

It seemed that the bulk of the budget for this “Macbeth” went into Connery’s salary and lodging, as the production is one of barest of bare-bones endeavors ever put on camera. Even Orson Welles’ notorious 1948 work for the low-budget Republic Pictures seemed more extravagant in comparison.

Part of the problem was the decision by director Paul Almond to stage “Macbeth” on sets that alternated between the abstract expressionism and shoddy carpentry. There are stairs that lead to nowhere and vast rooms conspicuously absent of furniture, and the surplus amount of shadows could lead one to think that Shakespeare’s characters walked around in the dark all of the time.

Also complicating matters was that this was not intended to be a reverential serving of Shakespeare, but rather a truncated revision aimed at an audience of high school student. Even worse, it was not meant to be viewed in a single broadcast, but was originally shown in five parts that were later stitched together into a cohesive whole. This telescoping of the work resulted in significant edits that resulted in characters and scenes being jettisoned. The result is a “Macbeth Lite” that skims the surface of the classic work – which was pretty peculiar, considering the students who were supposed to watch this were not getting what Shakespeare intended.

Perhaps to speed things along, Almond also decided to record several of the soliloquies and present them as inner thoughts, with the actors emoting in mute pensiveness as their mental notes were played out on the soundtrack. There is nothing inherently wrong with this approach – Welles and Olivier used it in their respective Shakespeare films – but Almond was not in the same league as those titans and the result is labored.

Of course, no one would care about this “Macbeth” had Connery not been in the title role. He is, quite frankly, an unlikely Macbeth who never truly plumbs the emotional torture that the character endures. He spits out his words quickly and recklessly, and he never quite latches on to the emotional tumult of the character. It also doesn’t help that he is saddled with a too-obvious wig and a beard that appears to have been hastily pasted on. Connery’s youth (he was 30 at the time) also failed to give him the degree of aristocratic authority that the role demanded. It was no surprise that Montreal critic Herbert Whittaker questioned whether the CBC was playing too much to its youthful audience by using “a young handsome Macbeth and three slick chicks for witches”

The one saving grace in “Macbeth” is Australian actress Zoe Caldwell as Lady Macbeth. Unlike Connery, Caldwell was a theater-focused performer who held her own in British stage version of “Othello” (with Paul Robeson in the title role) and “All’s Well That Ends Well” (opposite Dame Edith Evans). Caldwell captures the essence of Lady Macbeth with both intellectual and sexual ferocity, and she even survives the indignity of having the shadow of the boom microphone obscuring her face in a crucial scene. Her poise, diction and intelligence make this Lady Macbeth a performance worth studying for any woman hoping to become the star of Shakespearean work.

The “Macbeth” episodes were telecast in 1961 over the evenings of November 30 and December 5, 7, 12 and 14. The complete version was telecast on April 23, 1962 on the CBC series “Festival,” an anthology series specializing in classic drama and highbrow performing arts. There is no record that it was ever broadcast in the United States. Connery’s breakthrough role in “Dr. No” was not released in North America until May 1963, and by that time “Macbeth” had long been forgotten by its Canadian audience.

To date, there has been no official U.S. home entertainment release of “Macbeth.” Crummy versions have turned up on at least one public domain label, even though its copyright is intact, and on a collector-to-collector label specializing in rare works. While hardly great, it offers an interesting view of Connery right before he rode the wave to superstardom.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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