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Cry Justice & Affair in Sumatra

Dullsville

     The two Screen Directors Playhouse episodes I watched this week were the first disappointing ones among those I have seen, one moreso than the other. One of the greatest compliments I have given to these half-hour TV movies are that they somehow fit a whole film plot into a short timeframe and do it without feeling rushed. That was not the case for Affair in Sumatra.

     You might have also noticed me questioning whether Ralph Bellamy is capable of playing a romantic lead. To that I got my answer: no. The older Bellamy in Affair in Sumatra is a doctor who travels to a jungle land to act as physician/surgeon and also conduct research on jungle diseases. When driving into the village where he will be stationed, the man’s Jeep splashes mud onto a native-looking woman who refuses to answer him as he tries to apologize. Not long after he re-meets this Lotti (Rita Gam) who is the owner/director of the hospital. Bellamy’s Dr. Kelog convinces the woman to invest more money into the dreadful supply and sanitation conditions of the hospital –it seems the hospital director played by Basil Rathbone has been siphoning off excess money– but does not give her enough romantic attention.

     The romance between Bellamy and Gam feels abrupt and rushed if not utterly unnatural. The woman lures him into kissing her the first time and follows up with a slap before allowing the second kiss to proceed. When their relationship hits the rocks, Bellamy’s expressionless face and eyes show how uncommitted he is to the role’s romantic requirements. Also, being half white, half Sumatran, Lotti for some reason opted to return to Sumatra to start the hospital but is utterly unhappy because the natives do not like her, which raises the question of why she remains there. Affair in Sumatra Director Byron Haskins fails to connect the audience with both the love affair and the moral obligations of the story.

     Director George Sherman‘s Cry Justice is mildly better but clearly would have been improved if offered as a full-length feature. Gil Foster (Macdonald Carey) and Jim Wheeler (Dick Haymes) are attorneys in a western town who have a brief spat at the open of the movie over Jim being jealous of his colleague. Later the sheriff (James Dunn) approaches Gil to say Jim is afraid of him because of an alleged threat on his life Gil made during their fight. The next day, Gil visits his friend’s house to find it torn apart with pools of blood evident, some of which gets on his jacket. Bringing this matter to the sheriff, Gil is eventually put to trial for Jim’s murder when officials find bones and boots burned up in the victim’s fireplace.

     Newlywed Gil goes to jail for 10 years on the circumstantial evidence and spends that time petitioning the Supreme Court to rule on whether the “double jeopardy” constitutional amendment applies to all crimes. Gil suspects that Jim faked his death, so after his release from prison, the convict goes looking for the man who wronged him, eventually finding him.

     Cry Justice was not bad but could have been better if more time was put into the plot and if it were not so obvious that the victim was still alive. The portion pertaining to the young fiancée, played by June Vincent, who loses her husband first to prison then to the man hunt could also have been finessed to heighten the emotional pull of the story.

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Romeo and Juliet (1936)

Gasser 

Romeo and Juliet (1936)

     I have been avoiding the various incarnations of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” for a number of years based on the conclusion that the story is far too compelling and therefore horribly depressing. My aversion, to put it simply, is that I can find no way to not be crying and frustrated by the conclusion. Nevertheless, I opted to delve into the much proclaimed MGM take on the tale of star-crossed lovers and found that perhaps my emotional curse with this story is lifted; although, that is not a compliment to the picture.

     Unlike the most recent adaptation of the play directed and artfully reimagined by Baz Lurhman, the Romeo and Juliet starring Norma Shearer and Leslie Howard keeps much of the dialogue that the newer version found unnecessary. I do not count this as a virtue, however. Mercutio, who is well played by John Barrymore, spends many a minute rambling through fanciful descriptions of dreams and fantasy, the words from which fly by so quickly that one would mentally exhaust himself if he tried to understand what the hell that man was rambling about. I find it hard to believe that audiences in 1936, the majority of which were less educated than we are now especially with the likes of Shakespeare, were able to find enjoyment in this style of English that in some of the relays of dialogue is utterly impossible to understand even by me. Count me stupid, I suppose.

     What perhaps did appeal to audiences was the grand spectacle the picture was. MGM pulled out all the stops in putting this film together. A Verona church was constructed in Hollywood, three different replicas of Juliet’s balcony were used so as to avoid the use of a camera on crane, and exotic animals such as peacocks and monkeys lurk in the backdrop in some scenes. More than 2,000 extras were used on set. Also of interest is that the movie was filmed twice: once on set and again with actors in rehearsal against a screen. The latter technique is particularly obvious during the party scene when our lovers are dancing together but in front of a back projection screen where the remainder of the party guests dance in time.

     This was the last picture that MGM Producer and “wonder boy” Irving Thalberg produced before dying in 1936. His involvement and push to have this movie made were why audiences got the leading lady they did. Shearer was his wife, and he instantly marked Romeo and Juliet as a great vehicle for the then-queen of MGM. Shearer’s star power would lose clout at the studio after her husband’s death. As far as the gal’s performance, I found it agreeable but not stunning. She is quite different from the roles she had become known for in playing sexually liberated women before the Production Code cut back on such characters. Shearer is young-spirited and air headed at times as the dreamy-eyed Juliet. Her leading counterpart Howard does a better job, I think, but neither seemed to bring strong enough emotion to their parts to get me weeping or feeling sorry for their plight by the end. When Mercutio dies, we get nearly no emotion from Romeo before he dashes off to kill Tybalt (Basil Rathbone), but perhaps that was the way of men in those days.

     The MGM 1936 Romeo and Juliet is a high-rated film by critics and contemporary viewers, so I’m likely to be chastised when I say that I was not thrilled by it. Frankly, I was falling asleep trying to endure the dialogue, which I think at times obscured emotional acting from the players, that runs on for more than two hours. I have mentioned before my slight lack of appreciation for Shakespeare, which I am sure had some play here, but the actors gave me little to cling to otherwise. Barrymore is the only actor I think was perfectly cast. Howard does fine but he is not the most manly of men. The part was offered to Clark Gable, who turned it down by famously saying, “I don’t look Shakespeare. I don’t talk Shakespeare. I don’t like Shakespeare, and I won’t do Shakespeare.” I think it is best he was not hired for the part, and I am not sure who would have done better. Cagney? Kidding.

Sources: Ben Manckiewicz, TCM.com

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