• Poster of the Month

  • My Momentary Celebrity Obsession

    Click to find out why Marlene has me mesmerized.

  • What I’m Reading

  • What You’re Reading

  • Advertisements

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

Advertisements

Of Human Bondage (1934)

Ring a Ding Ding

Of Human Bondage (1934)

     Bette Davis had not been on the Hollywood scene long before making the first of three incarnations of the adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s novel Of Human Bondage. She was sporting the platinum blonde hair she affected at the start of career to take on the look of many saucy starlets at the time. She soon gave that up not long after she would appear in roles showing off her serious talent. But Davis’ talent is not absent from Of Human Bondage. An irritating cockney accent and ever diminishing physical appearance that trends toward what today would be considered the crack-addict look accompany Davis in her role of a conniving young woman who uses a man’s affections to her own advantage.

     Leslie Howard plays the artist/medical student afflicted with a clubbed foot who falls for Davis’ character and cannot seem to shake his bond to her even once she has given him the air and he has found other, more suitable gals. When Davis’ Mildred gets pregnant by a married man, she returns to Howard’s Phillip to take care of her through a pseudo marital relationship. She next leaves to be with Phillip’s best friend who also dumps her, and back she goes. The cycle continues with Mildred becoming increasingly impoverished and run-down. In one scene her rage toward Phillip’s cold approach leads Mildred to slash his beloved artwork and set bonds meant to pay for medical school aflame. Director John Cromwell‘s composition of the story to this point does a great job of making this instance truly loathsome. I felt my blood boil as I witnessed her destruction of the things most dear to Phillip. The man is not home at the time, but I envisioned him stabbing her with the same knife with which she scars his paintings if I had been in his shoes.

      Davis is absolutely the reason to see this film. She was nominated for a Best Acress Oscar after successfully lobbying Warner Bros. to loan her out to RKO for the picture. The folks at Warners finally noticed the 26 year old and from then on began giving her more important roles, including a spot in Dangerous the following year, which secured her first Academy Award.

Source: Bette & Joan: The Divine Feud by Shaun Considine

Feature: Shopping Spree

     I am going to diverge from the usual review post to share the stack of classic movie DVDs I purchased today. It should be known at the outset that I essentially refuse to buy a DVD unless its $10 or less, which is why most of my lot these days comes in the pre-viewed form from places such as today’s vendor: Half Price Books. Oh, what would I do without that place! Now to find a place for them all.

The Petrified Forest (1936)

First up is 1936’s The Petrified Forest. This was Humphrey Bogart‘s screen debut in which he played the same role as he did in the stage version. Bogie, born in 1899, did extensive theatre work before heading to Hollywood, which in part explains why he never really looked young in movies. Leslie Howard and Bette Davis also star in this flick, and I understand Davis was a bit of terror on the set, having just begun her bitch stage. This is a fantastic story about a diner, a fugitive and the desert. I’d give this either a Ring a Ding Ding or a Wowza!

Mrs. Miniver (1942)

Next in line is Mrs. Miniver with Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon. This is my favorite of Garson’s work in movies I’ve seen so far. It is a touching story of an English family during World War II. The flick won Best Picture for 1942 and rightfully so. As she deals with family members in the military, a home partially destroyed during an air raid and an enemy soldier visiting her home, Mrs. Miniver provides the backbone for stabilizing all that is going wrong around her. I’m going to agree with the Academy on this one and give it my first Wowza!

Beat the Devil (1954)

In Beat the Devil a band of con artists go after a bogus uranium mine. The cast includes Bogart, a blonde Jennifer Jones and Gina Lollobrigida, whose name I always associate with her lusty chest  more than anything else. I honestly don’t remember much of this film other than I thought it was good. It is written by Truman Capote , which is usually promising, and directed by John Huston, a plus for any adventure picture. The best my memory can do for me is to suggest a midline rating of Gasser.

East of Eden (1955)

East of Eden was the first James Dean movie I ever saw, and I was instantly caught by his talent. The Academy nominated him for Best Actor for this one. I find it hard to sum up the quality of Dean’s acting other than to say it is breathtaking and haunting. His emotions always seem to come off so raw. In East of Eden he, as usual, is a somewhat ostracized character trying to gain the approval of his father (isn’t he always trying to gain someone’s approval?) This one’s a really enjoyable, emotional piece, so I’ll have to go with Wowza!

Penny Serenade (1941)

Finally we come to Penny Serenade.  I’m pretty certain I have not seen this one, but I could not resist the pairing of Irene Dunne and Cary Grant. The two make a great comic pairing (see My Favorite Wife) but this one appears to be a drama. I like the two enough to want to see how they pull off a story about a couple who endure hardships and find themselves nearing divorce.

Sources: Bette and Joan: A Divine Feud, The Ultimate Bogart by Ernest W. Cunningham.

%d bloggers like this: