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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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The Women

Ring a Ding Ding

The Women (1939)

     It is possible that never a film so remarkably cast or flush with estrogen has been presented to audiences as 1939’s The Women. Based on a play of the same name and remade many times over the years, the story of a slew of gossiping, man-stealing society dames is probably too female-powered to appeal to the stronger sex, but not being a man, myself, I found it quite enjoyable.

     The stars of the picture are really the reason to watch The Women. With a lot of power-grabbing games and spats going on off-screen, it is a wonder the film got made without more than a scar on Paulette Goddard’s leg. Despite five or more big name stars occupying the majority of the screen time, the story is really about Norma Shearer as Mary Haines, wife to Stephen.

     The story starts with super gossip and outright bitch Sylvia Fowler, played by Rosalind Russell, learning from her manicurist that Mr. Haines has been “stepping out” on his wife with a perfume saleswoman Crystal Allen, embodied by Joan Crawford. She spreads word to a friend before the two head to lunch with Mary Haines, and all through the meal Sylvia drops hints about her new-found knowledge. Mary is preparing to go on a Canadian trip with her hubby, but he calls while the woman is entertaining her guests to say he cannot get away. Mary, too, starts to wonder why he has been working late so often. The following day, Mary gets her nails done by that same loud-mouthed manicurist after Sylvia’s insistence and hears some news about herself. She is set on telling her husband off, but her mother persuades the woman, who has a daughter, to keep quiet for a while.

     Meanwhile, Sylvia and Joan Fontaine‘s all-too-innocent Peggy scope out Crystal on the job where we first meet her and discover she is quite the two-faced lady –capable of speaking in a refined, flirty manner one moment and calling Sylvia Fowler “Mrs. Prowler” the next.  Mary and Crystal ultimately run into each other at a fashion show where Crystal is putting the expensive duds on Mr. Haines’ account. The very sweet and rather passive Mary opts to confront Crystal in her dressing room and the two exchange nasty words, but the papers decide –on a front page spread– that Mary in fact socked her sexual rival. Mary now has it out behind closed doors with her husband and we hear the whole affair recounted as gossip among the house servants. Mary heads for Reno, accompanied by a mixed up Peggy, to wait out a divorce. On the way she meets a countess (Mary Boland) and another woman, Miriam (Paulette Goddard) both taking the journey towards divorce.

     Jump ahead to the day Mary’s divorce decree comes through and we learn that a) Peggy is pregnant and will stay with her husband; b) Miriam is having an affair with Sylvia’s husband; and c) Sylvia’s husband has thrown her out and she too is in Reno for a divorce. Once Sylvia discovers via gossip column that the woman she just met is in line to marry her soon-to-be ex, the two get into a physical fight and the bitch bites Miriam in the leg. Miriam, whom we come to like greatly, counsels Mary and convinces her to tell her husband she will rip up the divorce papers. Receiving a call from Stephen, however, she learns he has just wed Crystal.

     A year and a half later, Crystal is conducting an affair while Stephen is miserable in the relationship and the Haines’ daughter is busy loathing “Auntie Crystal”. When Mary hears how unhappy her ex-husband is and that the new bride is anything but faithful, she hits the town out to expose the whole matter, ultimately breaking up that union and getting her man back.

      Shearer’s Mary is continuously noted throughout the movie as being an overwhelmingly kind and sweet woman, thus driving the audience’s sympathy for her. What she does in the end, however, is realize she must drop her pride and essentially become just like the horrible gossips of her friends and drive a scandal to the surface. The act is utterly out of character for the woman, but she finds she must do what is necessary to get the love of her life back. I found this role a different one for Shearer. I am accustomed to her pre-Production Code parts in which she was often the floozy more akin to Crawford’s Crystal. Shearer still offers the same bubbly personality we always see with her. She is almost nauseatingly happy in her life at the film’s start, being superbly in love with her husband 10 years into their marriage.

     For a movie with the tagline “It’s all about men!”, The Women allows none of that sex to walk in front of the camera. With something like 130 cast members, all were female including the dogs and horses also seen on screen. The tagline is not inaccurate, however, as men ultimately drive the entire plot. I am not one terribly in love with gossip, so the whole blithering mouth-running in this movie gets a bit tiring. It is amazing how quickly Russell can talk, but boy does she rock that part.

     Despite being chock full of women, I can see little in this movie that would appeal to men. All dressed in the high fashion of Adrian, the women are not really sexy, nor is there any actual romance happening on screen. Perhaps the only draw contained in The Women for male audiences is a cat fight between Russell and Goddard’s characters. That bite on the leg left a scar on Goddard but the two actresses allegedly remained friends.

      Although filmed mostly in black and white, a fashion show in the middle of the film is done in Technicolor. The start and close of that scene combines a monochrome frame around a small section in the middle of the screen in color. This was a novel technique at the time.

  • The Women is set for 2:15 a.m. ET Aug. 2 on TCM.

Source: TCM.com

Cinematic Shorts: The Divorcee

Gasser

The Divorcée (1930)

     The Divorcée makes for a great study in film history. It not only illustrates the liberal sexual subjects able to be portrayed in the time before the Production Code banned anything seemingly indecent, but it shows all too well the double standard of infidelity between men and women in the 1930s. Additionally, Norma Shearer appears in the type of role that she seemed to own during those pre-code days.

     The film begins with the intensely enamored couple Jerry (Shearer) and Ted (Chester Morris) deciding to get married, much to the chagrin of womanizer Don, a role perfect for Robert Montgomery. Three years later as the couple prepare to celebrate their third anniversary, Jerry learns her husband has been cheating on her. She manages, whether deliberately or not, to sleep with Don, her husband’s best friend. Although she reveals the affair to Ted, she does not say who the man is, and a slimy Don has fled the country to avoid any trouble.

     Although Jerry is willing to forgive Ted’s longtime indiscretion with another woman, Ted is appalled by his wife’s behavior and the two divorce. Jerry now lives life to the fullest with all sorts of men, but prepares to settle down with Paul (Conrad Nagel), who had loved her before her marriage. The trouble is Paul is married, and at the last minute his wife begs to retain him. Jerry and Ted manage to find a happy ending, although one might question to the extent either can be happy given the lives they have lived in the meantime.

     Although Norma Shearer began her career in nice-girl sorts of roles, she managed to use her marriage to MGM Production Manager Irving Thalberg to land the spicy spots for which she would come to be known. The story goes that Shearer had sexy pictures taken of herself, which she provided to Thalberg as proof she could embody such roles. Specifically she was angling for The Divorcée, the first in a long run of racy flicks and one that garnered her the Best Actress Oscar.

     I must add that as much as I love Montgomery and have accepted with open arms the many womanizing and otherwise selfish romantic roles he plays, he was a bit weasly in The Divorcée. As much as I was rooting for Shearer to hook up with him, I hoped it would be permanent, not an awkward day-after situation in which Don had clearly gotten what he desired an now wanted out and away from the danger of an angry husband. I’m sure that was the intention of the role, and he played it well, but I need a redeeming picture to get him back in my good graces.

Source: Robert Osborne

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