Franco Zeffirelli’s The Taming of the Shrew (1967) wasn’t the first time this Shakespeare play was served up with a famous married couple in the lead roles. No, that honor goes to Sam Taylor’s 1929 version starring Hollywood royalty of that era, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. (And whether or not the main title really originally read, “by William Shakespeare, additional dialogue by Sam Taylor,” is hard to say, since Ms. Pickford recut, retitled and rescored the print in the 1960s.) Truth is the play is the perfect vehicle for notoriously battling couples who are larger than life, because it’s almost impossible to overplay Petruchio and Kate—though both actor couples tried (in different ways).
The Zeffirelli film is easily the better of the two films—not only is more of the play preserved, but the director was determined to return the material to its rather earthy roots. This is no subtle entertainment. Rather it’s broad and boisterous comedy where lines are shouted as often as not, and slapstick is never far away. (In some respects, the film visually resembles Richard Lester’s slapstick in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum the previous year.) The results are good, but it’s not great Shakespeare. Zeffirelli can’t bring himself quite to the realm of radical Shakespeare. However, the film is a great vehicle for the two most famous stars of its era. Does it really need to be more than that?