The Grub-Stake Revisited

The Grub-Stake Revisited Synopsis: Pre-dating Chaplin’s classic film The Gold Rush by two years, The Grub-Stake is a riveting silent film, created in 1923 by Canadian pioneer filmmaker Nell Shipman. It tells the tale of a spirited gal who journeys to the Klondike during the 1898 Gold rush to find love and prosperity, only to discover that greed and villainy rule the day in Dawson City.

The Yukon Film Society’s “revisited” version, a huge hit at the Vancouver International Film Festival, features six actors and five musicians who perform with the film for 75 hilarious minutes. Using a script compiled entirely from the works of Shakespeare and a new musical score to accompany the on-screen melodrama, this is a film experience like no other — a brilliant collision of culture and art from across three centuries.

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The Grub-Stake Revisited 6.5

eyelights: the uniqueness of the production. the live music.
eyesores: the print. the voice acting.

I honestly had no idea what to expect when I went into ‘The Grub-Stake Revisited’. I had never heard of ‘The Grub-Stake’ before that morning, when my partner and I were looking for something to do to jumpstart the weekend. I stumbled upon the listing and, based on its brief description of live readings of Shakespeare, live music and humour, we decided it might be original enough to be worth seeing.

So we made a point of lining up for it. You know, the way one used to line up to go to the cinema in the good ol’ days (thank goodness the weather was nice enough!). Advance tickets were sold out, but the box office was selling a few tickets before showtime and we beelined for the box office as soon as we could. That was fun. I miss how going to the movies turned into an event back in the day.

The cinema we went to was of the old school variety: only one screen, only one entrance, and two aisles separating three sets of seats. It was built in the ’30s so it has the style of an actual theatre, having kept its allure ever since even though some upgrades have been done over the years. It’s nothing like the Bijou in ‘The Smallest Show on Earth‘, though; it’s a cozy place with a terrific ambiance.

We walked in and the performers were all fiddling about, making final tweaks before going live. The musicians were all lined up in front of the first row, just below the screen, and the voice actors were set up on either side, in sets of three. It looked slightly makeshift, but it was exciting; we knew that this was going to be very different than merely seeing the blockbuster du jour at the local multiplex.

And it was.

The film itself is a silent Canadian classic from 1923, written, directed and starring Nell Shipman. It’s about a young woman who is lured to the Yukon by a rich man only to discover that his intention is less than honourable: he intends to sell her off to a dance hall. Devastated, she runs away with her aged father and a crusty miner in tow, looking for some lost gold – with the rich man hot on her heels.

For ‘The Grub-Stake Revisited’, the Yukon Film Society produced a spectacle, removing the original intertitles and replacing the dialogue with lines from Shakespeare’s works, taken completely out of context and adapted to the film’s action. The Longest Night Ensemble, under the direction of Daniel Janke, performed a brand new score to add texture to this tale of greed, dishonesty and adventure.

Personally, I found the story somewhat mundane, but it was done as well as any motion picture of the era. Chaplin did a better “gold rush” story, and Carl Theodor Dreyer had more style, but ‘The Grub-Stake’ is a perfectly respectable production and it has its entertaining moments. The key issue is in the choice of Shakespeare for the text, because, unless one is well-versed in The Bard, the subtleties are lost.

Furthermore, the use of Shakespearian-era English made it challenging for anyone less familiar with it. Since I haven’t bothered with Shakespeare since high school, I found my mind racing to try to follow the dialogues; the basic story was pretty self-explanatory, but I was missing out on all the jokes and the more intricate elements of the exchanges. Eventually, I became slightly bored, enjoying what little I could understand.

The voice work wasn’t exactly helping. While the cast did what it could with the text, some of the actors affected unconvincing accents and spoke their lines in tones that were completely off, unnatural. It made for a strange reading. Because, that’s what it was, a reading – not acting. The lead actress, in particular, spoiled almost every line. Had she been playing secondary characters it would have been fine, but she had -by far- most of the lines.

The score, however, was quite good. This is what I focused on for the duration of the presentation. The Longest Night Ensemble, who are but a half-dozen members, kept the beat and moved from one scene to the next with agility, changing styles to suit the action. There were a few ill-chosen bits of music, but, for the most part, I found that they did an excellent job of supporting the picture and the cast.

In the end, we all walked out feeling as though we had experienced something quite novel, even though none of us was bowled over by the end result. I suspect that fans of Shakespeare might get a lot more out of this one than the average movie-goer. Still, despite this issue, it was enough for me to want to see the movie in its original form, to see how it holds up, and to compare it to this unique presentation.

I will no doubt revisit ‘The Grub-Stake’someday.

Date of viewing: May 2, 2013

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