UPON FURTHER REVIEW: Good Night Sweet Prince

February 15, 2010
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         By Brad Eastland, Dr. of Ancient Filmology

 The great thing about watching historical films, those so-called “period pieces”, is that there’s a chance you might actually learn something.   And in my world, that of a Berkeley-educated history major who just happens to adore old movies, that is something.

  Such is the case with this week’s ancient celluloid selection, “Prince Of Players”, made in 1955 and set during the middle part of the 19th century.   It’s a chance for y’all to actually learn something.  

  Prince Of Players” refers to the finest and most famous actor of his time, a man called Edwin Booth.   In the years prior to the invention of motion pictures stage actors were like rock stars, and Edwin Booth was indeed a man to be mobbed during the 1860s.   On two continents.   His Shakespearean performances were legend in both Europe and North America, and on our side of the pond he strode the stage from Boston to Washington and all the way to Sacramento and the rough & ready mining camps of California.   Some theater historians rate Booth’s Hamlet as the best Hamlet of all time; certainly the best of that era.   In “Prince Of Players” Booth is ably portrayed by Richard Burton, who does a pretty darn good Hamlet himself.   Just to see Burton run through the famous “to be or not to be” soliloquy is worth the price of this film’s rental on Amazon.com. 

      If you lived back then, you’d surely say that the Booths were the First Family of the American theater.   Before there were the Fondas or the Barrymores there were the Booths.   Edwin Booth’s father, Junius, was one of the most celebrated actors of his time.   And all three of his sons were accomplished, famous actors as well, three chips off the old block; Edwin of course, Junius Jr., and the youngest, Johnny.   Oh, by the way, Johnny’s full name was quite the flowery handle.   John Wilkes Booth.  

      That’s right, film fans.   The younger brother of Edwin Booth, the greatest actor in the world, was John Wilkes Booth, the man who assassinated Abraham Lincoln.

      Amazing, isn’t it?   This is why truth will always trump fiction.   The younger brother of the most celebrated and famous actor of his time, and a noted actor himself, kills the president of the United States in the ultimate political protest statement in history???   Here’s the best present-day fantasy analogy I can come up with, so that we all might better conceptualize what the Lincoln assassination must have been like for theater-goers in 1865: What if Sean Penn, one of the greatest and most famous actors of our time and son of actor Leo Penn, woke up on the morning of April 15th, 2003 to find that his younger brother, the noted though less celebrated actor Chris Penn (younger by exactly five years, just as John Wilkes was exactly five years younger than Edwin), had gunned down George W. Bush the night before?   What if Sean read in the paper that the reason his younger brother assassinated the president on April 14th was to protest the Iraq War, sparked by indignation over U.S. soldiers toppling the huge Saddam Hussein statue in Baghdad less than a week earlier, on April 9th?   After all, it was on another April 9th, April 9th 1865, when Lee surrendered to Grant, triggering southern-sympathizer John Wilkes Booth’s last act of desperation, namely to shoot Lincoln less than a week later, on April 14th.   And we know how much Sean Penn hates George Bush and hated his Iraq policies, why wouldn’t Chris Penn hate Bush too?   See, I just created an irony with that April 9th/April 14th thing; albeit a contrived irony.   I know, I know—with apologies to the Penn brothers, I know it sounds crazy.   But that’s exactly what happened in 1865.

      There are more ironies.   The Booth patriarch, Junius, had a middle name that will make you laugh.   Brutus.   Junius Brutus Booth.   That’s right, the middle name of the father of the man who assassinated Abraham Lincoln was the name of the man who assassinated Julius (as in sounds like Junius) Caesar!   And the man who played Junius Brutus Booth in “Prince Of Players”, Raymond Massey, was famous primarily for his portrayals on film of none other than Abraham Lincoln.   No, I’m not making this up.   And I know it’s confusing.   I suggest reading this column two or three times to better absorb it all.

      And if you think everything you’ve read up to this point is weird and ridiculous and implausible and hard to believe, brace yourself.   A year before Lincoln was assassinated, in 1864, his eldest son Robert was at a train station in Jersey City, New Jersey (of all places) and was accidentally pushed off the platform by the crowd of people squeezing onto the train.   He would probably have been killed were it not for somebody in the crowd grabbing him by the collar and pulling him to safety.   Robert Lincoln’s savior?   Edwin Booth.  

      Summary: The president’s son’s life is saved by the brother of the man who would take the president’s life less than six months hence.   Ya gotta love it.   Here’s how Robert Lincoln described the incident over forty years later:  The incident occurred while a group of passengers were late at night purchasing their sleeping car places from the conductor who stood on the station platform at the entrance of the car. The platform was about the height of the car floor, and there was of course a narrow space between the platform and the car body. There was some crowding, and I happened to be pressed by it against the car body while waiting my turn. In this situation the train began to move, and by the motion I was twisted off my feet, and had dropped somewhat, with feet downward, into the open space, and was personally helpless, when my coat collar was vigorously seized and I was quickly pulled up and out to a secure footing on the platform. Upon turning to thank my rescuer I saw it was Edwin Booth, whose face was of course well known to me, and I expressed my gratitude to him, and in doing so, called him by name.”    God sure has a sense of humor.

      Burton is wonderful as Edwin in “Prince Of Players”.   His rich, booming baritone voice is a joy.   I could listen to Richard Burton ordering fast food at a drive-through and be entertained by it.   And a young John Derek (husband of Bo) is surprisingly good as John Wilkes, and just as handsome.   Good film.   Great story.   Gargantuan ironies.

      One last thing.   The ironic thing about historical films and bio-pics and such is that they are rarely—if ever—historically accurate.   In fact I can’t recall a single period-piece film off the top of my head that doesn’t contain at least a few historical errors and inaccuracies.   Same with “Prince Of Players”.   The relative ages of the brothers are askew, they get the year Edwin’s wife died wrong, and I doubt very much if Edwin took the stage in Washington less than two months after the Lincoln assassination, as Hamlet, only to be pelted unmercifully by tomatoes and lettuce and then wildly cheered a few short seconds later for his courage.   That’s Hollywood for you.   But that’s not the point.   Movies aren’t meant to be an exact history lesson, rather they are a fanciful window into history.   Best to let the minor inaccuracies roll off your back, and let the story and the ironies come to you.   If I and my history degree can take it, surely you can.


Brad Eastland, aka the Dr. of Ancient Filmology

Brad Eastland, our Dr. of Ancient Filmology, is a movie buff and film historian, as long as the film was made before 1985 or so.  (If you want to hear about new-release films, pick up a

Times).   Special effects and gratuitous anything have no place in his celluloid world.   Primarily a fiction writer, Brad has written four novels and over 20 short-stories.  Here are some samples of his best work:








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