My mother once went through my home media collection and told me I didn’t have enough comedies in there. It is true that I tend to prefer horror, psychological thrillers, satire, Shakespearean tragedy, dystopian sci-fi, and noir to, well, fluffier fare, but my taste isn’t completely devoid of whimsy. If I was, then I’d hardly be recommending Christmas in Connecticut, pure concentrated Yuletide cheer in cinematic form.
Barbara Stanwyck plays Elizabeth, a magazine writer whose readership thinks she’s tending to a baby and cows on a Connecticut farm, whipping up delicious homecooked meals and searching for the perfect rocking chair. In reality, she lives in a messy NYC apartment, spends her salary on mink coats, and probably couldn’t whip up a bowl of instant potatoes, let alone roasted duck. However, her publisher has no idea that Elizabeth isn’t who she claims to be and to boost sales, insists Elizabeth have war hero Jefferson Jones over for Christmas. Rushing to get a husband (a long-time admirer will have to do), a farm (luckily the long-time admirer has one), a baby (borrowed from a local woman while she’s off at work), and someone who can cook (Elizabeth’s chef pal “Uncle” Felix), Elizabeth also finds herself falling for the handsome Jefferson… too bad he thinks she’s a married woman!
The whole story is essentially a farce, not to be taken too seriously whatsoever. What always sticks out to me most is how borderline naughty the romance between Elizabeth and Jefferson is. For 90% of the runtime, he assumes she’s a married woman, and he reacts to her open flirting with a mixture of shock and titillation. Stanwyck and co-star Dennis Morgan have a great deal of chemistry, making their scenes a delight, and they get wonderful support from Sydney Greenstreet as Elizabeth’s publisher and SZ Sakall as Uncle Felix (his constant use of the term “honky-donky” always cracks me up).
So yeah—I’m not all gloom and doom! I can recommend Christmas films other than the moody Alastair Sims’ Scrooge or nihilistic noir like Blast of Silence!
Blogging around Thanksgiving can be tough. Unlike Halloween or Christmas, there really aren’t that many Thanksgiving movies, certainly none considered seasonal classics like the Universal horror lineup or It’s A Wonderful Life. However, there are plenty of movies I’m thankful for: movies that introduced me to a beloved artist, movies that remind me of a family member or friends, movies that I associate with a fond memory.
So I decided to highlight one such movie today: William Wyler’s 1939 adaptation of Wuthering Heights. Why am I so thankful for this movie? Because it led me to what is now my favorite novel of all time, though not in the way you might expect… especially since I technically read Wuthering Heights before seeing the movie.
My introduction to Emily Bronte’s 1848 gothic masterpiece was typical of most readers: it was assigned reading during my senior year of high school. Now, today I am a great lover of what we call “classic lit.” Back then though? I hated pretty much everything for assigned reading in school, save for Shakespeare and Edgar Allan Poe. Having to read what I considered depressing, confusing stuff during my three months off didn’t make me relish the likes of The Great Gatsby, Of Mice and Men, or Wuthering Heights. Wuthering Heights especially drove me mad as it is a demanding work for an adult, let alone for a teenager.
Set in 18th century England, the story centers on Heathcliff, an orphan foundling adopted into the Earnshaw family, who belong to the landed gentry. When his doting adopted father takes ill and dies, Heathcliff is left at the mercy of the Earnshaw heir Hindley, who forces him to the level of a servant. Heathcliff’s lone solace is his relationship with his adopted sister Catherine, a fellow free spirit who enjoys mischief and long hours on the nearby moors. Hindley’s attempts to keep the friends apart only serve to strengthen their kinship– that is, until Catherine catches the eye of handsome Edgar Linton, the heir of the nearby Thrushcross Grange. As much as she loves Heathcliff, Catherine is seduced by Edgar’s fine breeding and wealth, and opts to marry him so she can be the finest lady in the county and then use her newfound influence to take Heathcliff out of her brother’s power. Feeling betrayed by his one friend and unaware of her hope to rescue him from servitude, Heathcliff runs away, much to Catherine’s horror.
A few years pass before Heathcliff returns, now the owner of a decent fortune. Overjoyed, Catherine longs to resume their friendship, but Edgar isn’t fond of Heathcliff and Heathcliff has a mind to have his revenge on everyone that wronged him. And his vengeance is so great that it threatens to consume not just Catherine, Edgar, and Hindley, but also the next generation and even Heathcliff himself.
Covering roughly three decades, the book is not written in a conventional way: there is a framing story set in 1800, but much of the novel is presented in flashback, told by the former Earnshaw servant Nelly Dean, who, by the way, is not always the most unbiased narrator. Characters often have similar names (Edgar and Catherine’s daughter is named Catherine; Heathcliff’s son by Isabella Linton is named Linton Heathcliff; Hindley has a son named Hareton), a device meant to emphasize a sense of cyclical repetition but one that only served to send me to Sparknotes constantly just to keep track of who was who.
And then there are the characters, who are almost uniformly unlikable. The books and movies I enjoyed featured main characters who were sympathetic and easy to root for, so I didn’t know what to make of Wuthering Heights, where victimized characters often become vicious victimizers and the central pair of lovers engage in obsessive, cruel behavior. Heathcliff is a particularly monstrous sort, treating others with sadistic relish once he comes into power and doesn’t have to take anyone’s crap anymore. Bronte initially makes it seem as though Heathcliff will be a diamond in the rough who can be transformed through love– and then she pulls the rug out under the reader, with his undying love for Catherine being the thing that only just barely makes Heathcliff seem vulnerable and human at all.
Honestly, I was too young to properly appreciate the uncompromising nature of the story or the psychological complexity of the cast. That, and I just wanted to spend hours on my PS2 and nowhere near some old book I’d have to write a report on before August. When I was done with the novel, I shoved the paperback in a drawer and never thought I’d ever touch it again.
Wuthering Heights entered my life again about a year later. Throughout senior year, I was in the early phase of my film geekdom and my way of sampling a variety of genres and eras was to go through the American Film Institute’s many curated lists. You know– the Top 100 American films, Top 100 Thrills, etc. Included on the Top 100 Passions list (a compilation of the best romantic American films) was William Wyler’s 1939 version of Wuthering Heights.
I don’t remember what my response was to seeing this title on the list. Probably an eyeroll. But I dutifully watched it… and wouldn’t you know, I was crying at the end and haunted by the film for weeks after seeing it. I literally stayed up all night thinking about it once. When that happened, I knew I had to reread the book.
And what do you know? I loved it and stayed up all night thinking of Bronte’s characters once again. I haven’t stopped thinking of them ever since.
Twelve years on and I still love Wyler’s Wuthering Heights. It’s a golden example of the exquisitely mounted melodramas the big Hollywood studios put out during the 1930s and 1940s. The black-and-white visuals perfectly evoke that desired gothic, haunted atmosphere in which ghosts chill the air and even the strongest love possesses undercurrents of yearning and pain. Director William Wyler creates a sharp contrast between the exteriors and interiors, mirroring the way Catherine is torn between her desire for the moors (where she and Heathcliff can be free of the class distinctions that keep them apart) and the seductive comforts of high society. But of course, the heart of the production is the chemistry between Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon– passionate, obsessive, and borderline sadomasochistic in their onscreen interactions. Both actors do well bringing these charismatic but infuriating people to life. That they have any chemistry at all is impressive, given that the two performers were reportedly at each other’s throats on set.
I know as a fan of the novel I’m supposed to hate this movie. As an adaptation, Wyler’s movie is hardly faithful to Bronte’s original. The setting was changed arbitrarily to the 1840s rather than the late 18th century purely on the whim of the producer Sam Goldwyn. The screenwriters toned down the nastiness of the characters. The entire second half of the book was cut from the script, thwarting the book’s focus on how abuse can beget more abuse and how the second generation of characters decide they will not repeat their parents’ mistakes.
Without the second half, it is true that the story loses much of the source material’s uniqueness and power, becoming a far simpler romantic drama about the unfairness of the British class system. If I have one big complaint about the film today, it’s that the ending seems so abrupt without the later stages of Heathcliff’s revenge. However, that might only seem so problematic to me because I am now thoroughly familiar with the novel. Back then, I was satisfied with the ending and other viewers might argue this ending works well in the context of the movie. Indeed, on its own merits, the film remains a beautifully mounted gothic drama, among the best of its era. I always enjoy seeing it– I prefer to think of it as a study in Wuthering Heights, much as Olivier saw his 1948 Hamlet film as “a study in Hamlet” due to its truncated nature.
Today, I am a certified Wuthering Heights junkie. I’ve read the novel over ten times and own several editions of the book. I’ve seen most of the film and TV adaptations. I’ve even watched the enjoyably cheesy 1996 Cliff Richard musical.
But all of that love only blossomed because the Wyler film inspired me to give the book another chance. For that, I will be forever grateful.
(I’m changing my Short of the Month bit to Movie of the Month. I’m sure there will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth lol.)
In observance of Noirvember, I’m recommending the last noir I watched, Don Siegel’s The Lineup. Set in San Francisco, it’s a taut little crime thriller that cuts between two plot threads: a trio of crooks out to recover smuggled narcotics and the cops on their trail.
While the first fifteen minutes leave the impression that you’re about to get a standard police procedural, the moment the criminals appear, it’s clear you’re in for a treat. Each of the crooks is given a strong personality and the dynamic between them is uneasy throughout. One is more restrained, hoping to get the job done as quietly as possible, while the driver is an alcoholic with a bottle hidden on his person.
The shining star of the whole thing is a young Eli Wallach as “Dancer,” the most violent of the smugglers. Brimming with pent-up rage beneath his deadpan manner, he leaves a trail of bodies in his wake as he goes to uncover his illegal goods. He’s so engaging that he makes the more heroic characters look absolutely colorless by comparison.
The movie’s most noirish element has to be that undercurrent of danger in a seemingly civilized society, that sense that no one can truly be trusted. At one point, Wallach puts on a courtly, charming manner to persuade one of his marks to take him back to her apartment where his next shipment is hidden inside her daughter’s doll.** There’s something understated yet dreadful about how this woman– and indeed, so many other characters in the film– takes Wallach at face value, never suspecting his unsavory occupation or violent nature. It’s as if she thinks the truly evil parts of the world will never touch her and her upper-middle class life– by the end of the movie, it will be clear that there is no real insulation from evil for anyone.
** I just realized between a trio of bad guys searching for heroin and one of the shipments being placed inside a child’s doll, this sounds an awful lot like Wait Until Dark, which I just did a big project on last month– I swear to God, my picking this movie was just a coincidence, I’m not that obsessed (I hope).
Here’s a first for me: an audio commentary of the 1967 thriller Wait Until Dark, an underrated gem and a top five personal favorite of mine.
If you’ve never seen the film, don’t bother with this commentary until you do. It’s a great little cat-and-mouse thriller in the Hitchcock mold: Audrey Hepburn plays a recently blinded housewife who finds herself targeted by a trio of criminals out to find a stash of heroin that accidentally ended up in her possession. The story is packed with twists and turns, and the suspense slowly builds to a boiling point. The final twenty minutes are truly nail-biting, with Hepburn fending off the most dangerous of the thugs (played to perfection by a young Alan Arkin) in a battle to the death.
It’s a unique movie in the Hepburn canon, one of the few thrillers she ever did (think of it as the suspenseful but romantic Charade‘s more sinister cousin). She walks the fine line between vulnerability and tough-minded resourcefulness, and the result is one of the best performances of her entire career. She finds the perfect onscreen nemesis in Alan Arkin, whose master criminal is every bit as intelligent as she is. And then there’s the fine direction, the great script, Henry Mancini’s queasy yet gorgeous score– but you can hear me gush about all that in the track.
In the commentary, I cover the following:
How Wait Until Dark started out as a stage play by Frederick “Dial M for Murder” Knott, but the screen rights were purchased by Warner Bros. at Mel Ferrer’s request well before the show even opened on Broadway
How Wait Until Dark was adapted for the screen without resorting to obvious “opening up” tactics to make it more cinematic (courtesy of screenwriters Robert and Jane-Howard Carrington and director Terence Young)
The numerous differences between the play and the film
Frederick Knott’s style as a thriller playwright and the running themes/motifs between his three plays (Dial M for Murder, Write Me a Murder, and Wait Until Dark)
Wait Until Dark‘s long stage history, including the ill-fated 1998 Broadway revival and Jeffrey Hatcher’s noirish 2013 adaptation
The almost-constant conflicts between Team Hepburn (which includes producer Mel Ferrer and director Terence Young) and the studio over everything from Hepburn’s wardrobe to where the interiors would be shot
How Alan Arkin’s characterization choices (based on his actual interactions with criminals and drug addicts in early 60s Chicago) initially baffled the film’s crew and the movie critics (though apparently charmed a decent number of teenage girls who sent the alarmed actor love letters)
Hepburn’s extensive research of blindness and her friendship with a visually impaired college student
Richard Crenna being underrated as hell
My (mostly nuanced, I think) thoughts on the irritating husband character
And much more!
Making my own commentary has long been a dream of mine, but for years, I felt I wasn’t good enough and putting my voice on something terrified me. However, over time I’ve become less self-conscious and decided, hey, why not? Other people have recorded fan commentaries (I was particularly inspired by the Batman and James Bond commentaries on the This Damn Fool Idealistic Crusade channel on YouTube and Chris Meadows’ 2006 fan commentary of The Castle of Cagliostro)—why shouldn’t I give it a try? Even if it isn’t Criterion-worthy, creating something is better than just dreaming in vain forever.
To be frank, this commentary project is one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done. It involves more than just talking—I had to make sure my vocal delivery was audible and figure out where to talk about what subject within the movie itself. I also had to make sure I was able to comment on scene-specific details amidst more general information about the film’s production. I confess I wasn’t able to share all the research I did either– 108 minutes goes by fast!
I admit I feel a bit vulnerable in posting this. I’m comfortable enough cranking out a written review, but expressing anything with my voice makes me feel exposed in a way that a normal essay does not. (I have to wonder if silent film actors making the transition to talkies experienced much the same dread in being heard for the first time?) I tried my best not to sound “academic” or dry. I think I succeeded there and maintained a casual (if very geeky) tone throughout (especially with my many jokes about Alan Arkin’s delightful wigs), but you can still detect a bit of my nervousness now and then.
Still, it’s good to do things that scare you. I’d been in a creative rut for a while and having to learn new skills to work on this commentary rejuvenated me. I hope it’s a fun listen.
You’re welcome to play the track along with the film or to just listen to it like a podcast. Whatever suits you—I tend to have commentaries playing while I’m cooking or doing housework.
Below, I’ve also posted a list of the main sources I used when researching the film, as well as the sources for the interviews I directly quote in the track.
One last thing: I made two errors in the commentary, both luckily minor. First, I claim My Fair Lady was the biggest film of 1964, but that was actually Mary Poppins (Julie Andrews really got her revenge, didn’t she?). Second, during the scene where Jack Weston is interrogating Hepburn for the first time, I say something like, “When Carlino patted Mike on the shoulder a few moments ago”—only for the aforementioned pat to occur about a minute after I said that. That was meant to come out as “When Carlino pats Mike on the shoulder in a few moments” but my brain shorted out and I got the tense wrong, and just never picked up on it until yesterday. So if you’re watching along with the film, don’t think you’re off-sync—I’m just being an idiot.
“A Look in the Dark,” the making-of featurette included on DVD and Bluray versions of the movie
“All for Knott” by Joan E. Vadeboncouer for Syracuse Herald American (NY)
Audrey: Her Real Story by Alexander Walker
Audrey: The Life of Audrey Hepburn by Charles Higham
Audrey Hepburn by Barry Paris
Audrey Hepburn: A Biography by Warren Harris
Blood on the Stage, 1950-1975: Mileston Plays of Crime, Mystery, and Detection by Amnon Kabatchnik
Stanley Donen’s Charade is one of those classic movies so tied with its era that it’s hard to think anyone would ever be insane enough to remake it. Well, this happened twenty years ago in the form of The Truth About Charlie. Directed by Jonathan Demme of The Silence of the Lambs fame and starring Thandiwe Newton and Mark Wahlberg in the Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant roles, The Truth About Charlie scrounged only $7 million on a $60 million budget. Critics were aghast, classic movie fans were enraged, and everyone else opted to buy tickets for Jackass: The Movie.
No one talks much about Demme’s remake, but when they do the inevitable course they take is to compare it to Charade. And compared to Charade, that effervescent gem of a Hitchcockian thriller, Charlie is a dud. Newton and Wahlberg share no chemistry at all, the villains are all boring (you could accuse Charade‘s baddies of being cartoonish, but cartoonish leaves more of an impression than “the tall one with cardiovascular issues,” “the tough lady who randomly becomes sympathetic later,” and “that third guy”), and the attempt at a playful yet edgy tone is awkward rather than exhilarating. Charade balanced thrills, comedy, and romance, while Charlie tries all of these tones without being success at one, let alone competently blending all three.
It’s easy to pick Charlie apart as a remake, but I’m interested in another element of its conception. You see, Demme was not interested in a standard remake. While rewatching Charade with a group of friends, he pondered how while Donen was in Paris filming one of the last great Old Hollywood pictures, nearby young French New Wave directors Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard were rewriting the rules with their irreverent, energetic projects.
That’s when it hit him. Why not retell Charade using the techniques of the French New Wave?
For those unaware, the French New Wave was a movement lasting from 1958 to about 1970 mostly helmed by young film critics turned filmmakers. The movement rejected the conventions of traditional filmmaking and possessed a general countercultural spirit. Avant-garde editing, non-traditional storytelling, and an iconoclastic sensibility touching everything from social norms to politics prevailed. The influence of the French New Wave was immense, most notably spilling over into American film and resulting in the New Hollywood movement of the 1960s and 1970s. But by the early 2000s, even something as radical as the French New Wave had a touch of nostalgia to it, particularly for cinephiles. For some, it represents golden age of young, enthusiastic rule-breaking. No doubt Demme was among this lot.
Now, was combining an Old Hollywood classic with a New Wave sensibility an inherently dumb idea? Not necessarily. A similar approach was used for one of the French New Wave’s bonafide classics, Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player, which adapted an American hardboiled crime novel with cinematic playfulness. In fact, Shoot the Piano Player was Demme’s primary stylistic inspiration for The Truth About Charlie.
I suppose it would be helpful to lay out the stories of these two movies. An adaptation of David Goodis’ hardboiled crime novel Down There, Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player follows Charlie, a down on his luck pianist who works at a seedy bar. A mild-mannered, shy fellow, he’s drawn into a gang conflict when his criminal brother comes begging him for help. Charlie doesn’t want to get involved: he’s already on the run from his own tragic past and trying to deal with his burgeoning romantic feelings for a pretty waitress at the bar where he works. However, as it is with noir, the past isn’t so willing to lay down and die.
This synopsis makes the movie seem almost normal if you’ve never seen it, but don’t be fooled. Shoot the Piano Player is an odd duck of a film. It jabs at cinematic conventions (when Charlie has a woman in bed with him, he pulls the sheets over her bare breasts and says, “That’s how they do it in the movies”—Truffaut’s way of gently kidding cinematic standards of taste), injects silly comedy into otherwise serious scenes, stops the story for a weird music number, and de-glamorizes its noir protagonist by making him awkward with the woman he loves (he tries holding her hand but cannot—shades of Buster Keaton unable to take Kathryn Macguire’s hand in Sherlock Jr.).
If you’ve seen Charade, then you’ll already know the basic premise of Charlie, as it’s pretty close structurally. Chic young Reggie Lambert discovers her mysterious husband has been murdered and a trio of dangerous types are after money he stole from the US government. They think Reggie knows where the money is, but she hasn’t a clue. Along the way, Reggie is aided by a mysterious stranger named Joshua Peter who isn’t what he seems, and even though she can never be sure if he’s friend or foe, he is awfully cute…
The Truth About Charlie employs self-conscious techniques to emulate the experimental qualities of the French New Wave. For example, when Regina meets Joshua Peter, Demme cuts between panning close-ups of the two actors. During a conversation between Regina and another character, we get constant jump cuts, copying similar technique in Godard’s Breathless. Like Shoot the Piano Player, there is a musical number and weird comic interludes, though they’re not half as enjoyable. Somehow, they result in mood whiplash rather than the charm of spontaneity.
So why does Truffaut succeed with his experiment and Demme does not?
It could be the amount of plot each movie juggles—and Truffaut has the easier deal. Shoot the Piano Player is straightforward: man has a broken heart, man’s happiness with a good woman is threatened by criminal associations, man has to fight to protect his possible future. Anyone can get that easily, so Truffaut’s improvisational style works well. He can divulge into weird musical numbers and goofy slapstick without giving the viewer a headache. The shifting from comedy to action to melancholy drama might not appeal to every taste, but you can follow the movie without tearing your hair out in frustration.
Charlie tries to be playful, but its constant zooms and jump cuts and shaky cam and weird close-ups feel more like obnoxious film student antics than anything. The mishmash of tones feels awkward, like Demme was copying Truffaut’s technique without understanding what made it work. Beneath the clowning, thrills, and noirisms, there is a strong strain of melancholy throughout Truffaut’s movie. The protagonist’s broken heart gives the movie a sense of consistency, even when it’s being silly. Charlie just jerks the viewer between thriller boilerplate and awkward romantic comedy, with no beating heart beneath. There are attempts at drama, particularly during the climactic confrontation, but it’s sloppy and too little, too late. The climax might actually be the worst offender in that regard– shot exclusively in close-up for some reason, incredibly anti-climactic, and trying for pathos for a character the film barely bothered to build up.
Truffaut is also comfortable with just riffing on Goodis’ story, changing plot points at will. Considering how hard Charlie is trying to be playful in the French New Wave mode, it shocks me how closely it hues its screenplay to Charade, which is famous for how convoluted and twisty its plot is. Any time the movie stops trying to feel improvisational and then gets back to its central mystery, the plot screeches the momentum of the pacing to a halt. All the jump cuts and shaky cam in the world cannot make exposition interesting, not without strong characters and fine performances—and aside from Newton, the movie’s got nothing to work with there.
Demme’s adherence to Charade‘s screenplay also reveals another shortcoming, perhaps the biggest one of all: this does not feel much like a New Wave movie. Oh sure, Demme uses jump cuts during his expositional conversations, doing his best imitation of Godard’s Breathless. He has his abrupt musical numbers. He shoots handheld footage of Paris to give a “you are there,” cinema verite quality not unlike The 400 Blows or Cleo from 9 to 7. Agnes Varda, Anna Karina, and Charles Aznavour show up in odd cameo roles. But at its most basic level, the movie is a by-the-numbers romantic thriller. There is no sense of true, youthful experimentation like you had with the New Wave filmmakers. Compare Charlie to truly visionary New Wave works like Shoot the Piano Player and Alphaville, and it becomes plain how skin-deep the homaging is. It’s an homage to someone else’s homage.
It’s also half-hearted in its iconoclasm and iconoclasm was a huge part of the French New Wave. Truffaut maybe less so than, say, Godard—but Truffaut is still sending up Old Hollywood conventions in his film even while it’s clear he enjoys those movies. Demme doesn’t really jab too much at the Old Hollywood elements of Charade, besides deliberately making Wahlberg an “anti-Cary Grant,” deglamorizing Paris, or having Newton get nude in the shower (a “reversal” of Cary Grant’s fully clothed shower). As I’ve tried to make clear, Demme is more interested in the French New Wave part of the film than redoing Charade… but his attitude towards the French New Wave is reverential. One of the last images in the film is even a shot of Truffaut’s grave.
Does that kind of reverence have that much of a place in this style of filmmaking? The New Wave filmmakers did eat, sleep, and dream movies, but they were radicals at heart. They smashed idols or at the very least lampooned them, but Demme has made these iconoclasts idols in and of themselves. Is that a paradox? I genuinely don’t know– I don’t want to suggest that this means you can’t homage the French New Wave– but I think it does somewhat compromise the film’s desire to feel like those movies.
So maybe after all this rambling, what I’m trying to say is The Truth About Charlie is so much more than a crappier Charade. Its failure is far more interesting than that. And I have to afford it some respect—if you’re going to fail, then fail spectacularly.
Despite brimming with gorgeous production design and iconic moments, Singin’ in the Rain‘s thirteen-minute Broadway Ballet sequence is the most controversial episode of the entire film. Gene Kelly thought it was too long. Co-director Stanley Donen’s distaste for the sequence was so great that he actually doctored a print requested by fellow filmmaker Julie Dassin, cutting more than half of the ballet out because he thought it interrupted the flow of the narrative to no purpose. Go online and it isn’t uncommon to find this sort-of exchange among movie geeks:
Movie geek 1: “What’s the point of the Broadway Melody scene?”
Movie geek 2: “Satisfying Gene Kelly’s ego.”
Considering how Arthur Freed was the one who pushed for a big ballet sequence rather than Kelly (whose original conception of the “Broadway Melody” number was more modest), this isn’t the right answer. However, the question still stands– does the Broadway Ballet have any true justification beyond “we need a showstopper to bookend the movie”?
It is true that the ballet does not progress the main plot of Singin’ in the Rain (though neither does the big fashion show segment of “Beautiful Girl” or the entirety of “Make ‘Em Laugh”). It’s best to compare the Broadway Ballet to the most celebrated dream ballet of them all, the seventeen-minute dance sequence in the 1948 classic The Red Shoes, itself a big inspiration for Gene Kelly.
What makes the ballet of The Red Shoes tower above others of its kind is the way it delves into the psychology of the protagonist. The sequence is openly surreal, with the young dancer projecting the two men in her life onto the other characters. Reality and fantasy blur, illustrating the dancer’s inner conflict between art and real life. Singin’ in the Rain is a much lighter movie than The Red Shoes, but the Broadway Ballet is arguably a similar psychological projection for Kelly’s swashbuckling hero, Don Lockwood.
Consider his character for a moment. In the first few minutes of the film, we learn that Don comes from a dance background. When success on vaudeville eludes him, he resorts to film work, first as an on-set musician and then as a stuntman. He stumbles into movie stardom in a manner that suggests anything but his “dignity, always dignity” motto, becoming successful but arrogant and complacent. The talkie revolution endangers his star status. The great irony is that a return to his undignified song and dance roots is what salvages Don’s career, making him a perfect fit for changing times.
Now, what does this have to do with the ballet sequence? A lot since the ballet both reflects Don’s character development and the Hollywood milieu in which he works.
A breakdown of the sequence
The Broadway Ballet stuns from the very start, pulling back from Gene Kelly to reveal a massive set dominated by vibrant neon signs and colorfully-clad dancers. The nameless protagonist of this sequence– who I’ll refer to as “the hoofer”– is almost entirely the opposite of Don’s swashbuckling hero persona. If Don the silent movie star is a mash-up of Douglas Fairbanks and John Gilbert, then the hoofer is pure Harold Lloyd, the great slapstick comedian who took on an enthusiastic but hapless everyman persona. His characters tended to long for success in the social world just as the hoofer craves Broadway stardom.
After passing a series of colorful characters on his way to the theater, the hoofer makes his audition rounds, only impressing the third and final agent. He is ushered to a speakeasy, which is presented as a weird kind of haven for those who “gotta dance.” I have always wondered why. Is it because the speakeasy represents a space where normal, stifling social rules no longer apply? Is it a space where the joy of dancing for its own sake can be appreciated? It would seem to be a liberating place given how easily the misfit hoofer is able to energize the crowd, but the presence of mobsters complicates this romantic view. In that sense, the speakeasy might be a bit like Hollywood itself, a place where art and money uneasily sit side by side.
Enter Cyd Charisse as the vamp.
With her Louise Brooks bob and smoke curling from her nostrils, Charisse’s vamp dominates this whole sequence with her slinky sexuality. Her green dress calls to mind both the dollar bill and the serpent in Eden, tempting the hoofer into the cynical, covetous side of show business. The dance between the two evolves from a seduction to a borderline tryst, ending with the vamp seemingly on the verge of submitting before the sparkle of a diamond bracelet lures her back into the arms of her coin-flipping mobster lover.
I’ve seen some claim the vamp is a dream stand-in for the power-hungry Lina Lamont, but I think she’s a general representation of what the hoofer (and Don) could potentially become: a sellout uninterested in art for its own sake.
Before the hoofer can become too broken-hearted, the stage agent wrenches him off and we get a short “rise to the top” montage. Ditching the Harold Lloyd look for a Harpo Marx makeover, the hoofer becomes a burlesque star. He moves onto vaudeville, dressed in a snappy striped suit and a boater, before moving onto the top hat and tails world of the Ziegfield Follies.
Whenever I watch this movie with other people, no one ever fails to note how much less involved the dancing becomes with every supposed upgrade to a ritzier venue. The burlesque and vaudeville dancers crackle with energy, while the beautifully gowned Follies showgirls barely move. The same applies to the hoofer once he’s made good: he puts more effort into tugging at his immaculate cuffs than impressing with any creative choreography. It’s definitely funny, but also a subtle indicator that success for an artist can breed stagnation.
Fading out to images of applauding hands and then a spinning roulette wheel, the film transitions to a casino where the hoofer makes a grand entrance. The carousing inside suggests the post-premiere party Don attends at the start of the movie. His success is cemented, but the sudden presence of the vamp in white creates a mood of longing.
For all his success, it is clear something essential is missing from his life. Convention suggests it might be the desire to share his success with a romantic partner, but arguably, there’s something else at play.
The casino morphs into a pink, Dali-style dreamscape populated only by the dancer and the vamp, suddenly transformed into a long-haired ingenue with a white veil trailing behind her in the wind. This is a dream sequence WITHIN a dream sequence, with the hoofer projecting his romantic aspirations onto the vamp.
Just as some link the green-clad vamp with Lina Lamont, it is also common to see the ingenue figure as a stand-in for Kathy Selden, both because of her romantic innocence and because the pink set is reminiscent of the movie stage setting of “You Were Meant for Me.” That’s a legitimate connection, but continuing with my more abstract interpretation, I think the ingenue is the artistic reverse image of the vamp, representing creative passion unsullied by greed. It’s notable that when the dream ends and the hoofer eagerly approaches his would-be lady love, she tosses him a coin before slinking off to the mobster. She rejects his artistic idealism, suggesting that at the top (and by extension, in show business in general) there’s only room for money.
If we are to see Kathy Selden in anyone in this sequence, I would actually argue she’s better represented by the fresh-faced dancer the hoofer encounters outside the casino. Dressed in the same Harold Lloyd glasses and banana vest get-up, this newcomer’s unspoiled joy in his art rekindles the hoofer’s passion for dance, not unlike the way Kathy helps Don revitalize his endangered movie career by reminding him of his undignified “hoofer” background, now the key to rescuing his career. In the end is the beginning, to use an old cliche.
And then, after the sequence comes to a glorious end and we return to the “real world” of the film, studio head RF claims he “can’t quite picture” Don’s cinematic flights of fantasy. Though Singin’ in the Rain treats RF sympathetically (considering he’s a studio head), he is in the end a money man, ever practical. It’s fitting that even the closing joke of the entire sequence emphasizes the ballet’s presentation of the tension between art and business.
“Broadway always wears a smile”
Picking a favorite number in Singin’ in the Rain is like picking a favorite child. It just seems wrong. For me, it’s a toss up between “Make ‘Em Laugh,” “Singin’ in the Rain,” and this massive ballet sequence. But out of the three, the Broadway Ballet strikes me as one of the finest examples of what Hitchcock once called “pure cinema.” The choreography, editing, sets, costumes, and strong visuals tell a story that is compelling on its own, even without its connections to Don’s journey as an artist or the tug of war between money and artistry in Hollywood. To cut a single frame seems a sacrilege (my apologies to Stanley Donen).
BFI Classics: Singin’ in the Rain by Peter Wollen
Dancing on the Ceiling: Stanley Donen and his movies by Stephen M. Silverman
Singin’ in the Rain: The making of an American masterpiece by Earl J. Hess and Pratibha A. Dabholkar
Wyler’s career lasted from the silent era to the dawn of the New Hollywood. He worked with many of the Old Hollywood’s biggest stars and put out a number of films which are now considered classics. And yet, he is rarely listed as one of the ultimate masters of cinema, despite his excellent track record.
You can blame the so-called “auteurist” critics who started dominating film criticism in the 1960s. The auteur theory essentially views the film’s director as the “author” of a movie. When applying auteurist analysis to a film, you’re essentially trying to discover connections between a filmmaker’s body of work. What are the repeated themes, motifs, and techniques? Think of Ford’s presentation of the old west, Kubrick’s cynical vision of society, or Hitchock’s affection for “the wrong man” trope. I’m not at all anti-auteurism and do believe this type of analysis can be applied to particular filmmakers. However, it becomes problematic when the romanticized notion of a “unified” body of work allows critics to turn their noses up at a great craftsman like William Wyler.
I’ve come to disdain the idea that a “well-directed” movie equals a self-consciously stylish movie. With Wyler, you never notice any stylistic flourishes on a first viewing because he utterly absorbs you into the world of the story. His direction of actors and choice of compositions are often second to none. His versatility with many genres goes to show he was a man who disliked repeating himself. What makes him uninteresting to the aueturists is ironically what makes him such a top-notch director.
I’m going to close out with my top five favorite Wyler movies. The man made such a number of classic films that it was honestly torture to narrow the number down so much, but if you were to ask for recommendations, these are the ones I would offer up as definitive examples of Wyler’s cinematic mastery.
Poignant is the best word to describe Carrie. Based on a grim urban novel by Theodore Dreiser, the film version strikes me as more emotional and tragic, with less of a clinical eye on its central characters, a young woman and her older lover whose fortunes progress in opposite trajectories. Wyler recreates turn of the century Chicago with great skill and doesn’t overplay the potential soapiness of the scenario. I also think this film showcases the career-best performance of Laurence Olivier, which is no small feat. He is truly heartbreaking.
Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights is my favorite novel of all time. It is a complicated, emotionally raw work of art that has yet to be adequately adapted into a visual medium. The Wyler adaptation is often scorned by Bronte purists because it cuts off half of the novel, de-emphasizes the themes of cyclical abuse, and sands the more unpleasant edges off Catherine and Heathcliff, the novel’s doomed lovers. But I don’t care: Wyler’s Wuthering Heights is a glorious example of gothic melodrama with its chilly black-and-white cinematography and powerful performances. It has the same passion and quiet menace as later “Hollywood gothics” of the 1940s, like Gaslight or Dragonwyck.
Even though Wyler loved tackling different genres, this dark psychological thriller seems such an odd fit for him. The story of an obsessed bank clerk who imprisons the woman he’s desired from afar in his basement, the material is disturbing, with heavy psychosexual themes and a complicated power dynamic between captor and captive. Considering this was also filmed during the 1960s, a period of radical change in both society and the film industry, one might think the older Wyler would not be up to the task. To the contrary, he does stunning work, keeping location fatigue from creeping into this one-setting thriller with his sharp eye for dramatic compositions and drawing out fantastic work from Terence Davis and Samantha Eggar.
Roman Holiday is known one of the great “a star is born” movies. I cannot imagine a more perfect first starring role for Audrey Hepburn, a sheltered princess who finds love and adventure with a charming journalist in Rome. While most discussion of the film focuses on Hepburn, Wyler’s direction is also deserving of praise. I love the subtle ways he generates humor, like the parallel shots of the princess looking up at the elaborate carvings along the ceiling in her lush bedroom, then later awaking in Gregory Peck’s apartment to ugly industrial pipes shot from a similar angle. And of course, there’s the wonderful handling of tone, which blends light humor with a bittersweet lyricism, building to one of the most perfect endings in film history.
I have not yet seen all of Wyler’s films (The Best Years of Our Lives is my biggest oversight in that regard), but to date, I think The Heiress is his masterpiece. Adapted from a play which was itself adapted from a Henry James novella, The Heiress follows a timid, affection-starved heiress (played by Olivia De Havilland in a career-best performance) in love with a handsome charmer who may or may not be more interested in her money than her heart. It’s a movie that could have easily devolved into campy melodrama, but the characters are all complicated, with even the antagonists showing a great deal more ambiguity than you would expect of such a film. Once again, Wyler shows great skill with the material. Beneath the mannered drawing room surface, this is one emotionally brutal, even cruel movie, so packed with little nuances in the acting and visuals that it absolutely merits repeated viewings.
During the early sound period, producer Joseph Schenck commissioned a series of live-action shorts set to classical music. The series was short-lived, but it did produce one minor classic in the form of The Wizard’s Apprentice.
Ten years before Paul Dukas’ musical interpretation of Goethe’s famous poem became forever linked with Mickey Mouse, pioneering art director William Cameron Menzies and his collaborators created a low-tech fantasy with more charm in its ten minutes than a great many features with slicker effects and bigger budgets. Menzies is arguably the best known production designer of early Hollywood. He was a major asset on the films which employed his skills, from the Arabian Nights fantasy of Fairbanks’ The Thief of Bagdad to the HG Wells-helmed science-fiction epic Things to Come. Here, he meshes a medieval storybook world with gothic touches common to many horror films of the time.
Though this short was produced in the early talkie period, the influence of the late silent era still lingers in every aspect of the production. The atmosphere is right out of the German expressionist classics of the 1920s. The performers’ emoting and full body gestures would be right at home in films from the earlier part of the silent era. They’re operatic and grand, which suit this fairytale narrative perfectly. In fact, the wizard was played by silent film veteran Joseph Swickard, best known as Valentino’s guilt-stricken father in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The other two major performers—Fritz Feld as the apprentice and Greta Granstedt as the diminutive love interest—would go on to have long Hollywood careers in supporting and bit parts for decades to come.
While the film’s special effects are simple, they are effective, especially the brooms. Little more than painted matchsticks with legs, the brooms are surprisingly creepy, perhaps due to how jerky their movements are. The eeriness is a side effect of the primitive technique, a quality which evades the smoother animation of Disney’s broomsticks.
One weird touch I never see mentioned in other reviews of this movie: the funky editing trick that occurs whenever the wizard enters or leaves his study. The shape of the doorway rapidly shifts between high and longways, adding a bizarre dreamlike vibe to the proceedings.
An absolutely classic short—it makes great viewing with Disney’s more iconic take on the poem.
William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come by James Curtis
This piece was supposed to be for May the Fourth—whoops.
To be honest, it switched focus many times—it was originally a simple analysis of the different 1950s movies which influenced Attack of the Clones, the second film in George Lucas’ Star Wars saga. However, I got caught up on one of these movies, a film that has a long-standing relationship with the Star Wars saga—John Ford’s The Searchers.
When you think about it, Ford’s movie seems an odd inspiration for a Flash Gordon-esque space opera. Yes, Ford was a master of composition and his images of the natural world have inspired a great many filmmakers, but when you look at the story proper, it doesn’t seem like Lucas inherited much of it at all—at least, not at first.
Set in post-Civil War Texas, The Searchers opens with the return of Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), a Confederate soldier turned wanderer, to his brother’s homestead. His homecoming is interrupted by a Comanche raid in which most of the family is brutalized and killed. Ethan’s two nieces are captured by the tribe, leaving him and the family’s adopted son Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) to pursue the captives across the wilderness.
The older of the girls turns up dead and the search for the younger takes so long that it is almost a guarantee that she’s been integrated into the tribe, possibly even married to one of the men. Ethan’s hatred for the Comanche is so strong that it becomes clear he plans to kill the girl rather than rescue her. The only one in his way is the principled Martin, but will he be able to change Ethan’s mind before it is too late?
The Searchers is no simple adventure. Suffused with rage and despair despite its comic scenes, it questions the traditional “Cowboys and Indians” narratives of earlier westerns with a main character whose homicidal bigotry is hard to reconcile with his “compelling strength” as critic Edward Buscombe once observed in his book-length analysis of the film. It’s little wonder the film garnered more appreciation in the jaded 60s and 70s than when it was originally released. New Hollywood’s shining stars tend to list the movie as a favorite. George Lucas is no exception.
The Searchers is often touted as a major influence on the original Star Wars film (also referred to as A New Hope once it became clear Star Wars would become a series), but the connections always seemed thin to me. Sure, you could draw broad comparison between weary war veteran Obi-wan Kenobi with weary war veteran Ethan Edwards—both fought on the losing side of a civil war, both serve as mentor figures to an idealistic younger man. However, Obi-wan is a positive figure while Ethan certainly is not, so the comparison does not run too deep. There’s also the famous quotation of the destroyed homestead in which Luke’s return to the Lars farm openly recreates Ford’s compositions in the 1956 movie. Otherwise, the original Star Wars is a light adventure in which grief and rage are shunted to the side. The movie quotes The Searchers without actually dealing with its themes. This is not a problem, mind you—any wallowing over the barbecued Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru would bog down the film and clash with the pulpy tone it’s going for.
However, A New Hope is not the end of Lucas’ quotations of The Searchers. There’s more of Ford in another, less regarded film in the Lucas saga—Attack of the Clones. Released in 2002, it was the second of the oft-maligned prequel trilogy and usually touted as the worst of the three, even in light of current re-evaluations of the prequel films. Mock the cheesy love dialogue all you want, but rewatching this movie again, I was struck by how much more meaningful the references to Ford’s film are.
One of the major plot threads in Attack of the Clones concerns Jedi apprentice Anakin Skywalker’s (Hayden Christensen) search for his mother Shmi (Pernilla August), who was left enslaved on the desert planet Tattooine at the end of the previous movie in the series. Plagued by nightmares of his mother’s distress and convinced these visions are prophetic, Anakin rushes back to Tattooine in the hopes of finding her. Instead, he discovers that Shmi, though briefly liberated and happily married to a farmer, was captured by the Tusken Raiders, a nomadic tribe hostile to outsiders. Anakin tracks down the Tusken camp and finds his mother just as she is dying, presumably from weeks of beatings. Enraged, Anakin kills every Tusken in sight—(in)famously “not just the men—but the women—and the children too!”
This chapter of the film almost operates as a condensed remake of The Searchers. Anakin’s scouting out the camp and the later funeral scene openly quote shots in Ford’s movie. And then there’s the basic dramatic trappings: the quest for a captive loved one, the obsessed warrior driven by hatred and grief, and even, to a smaller extent, the emphasis on the individual’s psychological need for belonging in a community. Ford extensively explores that third point through the romance subplot with Laurie (Vera Miles) and his depiction of close-knit settler families, while Lucas makes those notions more implicit in Anakin’s alienation from the stoic Jedi Order and how this divide pushes him to the dark side.
Everyone talks about how Anakin is meant to evoke James Dean’s red-jacketed teen hero in Rebel Without a Cause, but he shares way more DNA with Ethan Edwards. For both characters, the genesis of their never-ending rage comes from the violent death of a mother (we see it plainly in Attack of the Clones, while this bit of Ethan’s backstory is only evidenced by the information on Mrs. Edward’s gravestone). Erotic transgression troubles both characters as well: Ethan is in love with his brother’s wife Martha (Dorothy Jordan) and the supposed-to-be-free-of-romantic-attachments Anakin is in love with Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman). For these anti-heroes, love becomes twisted into something obsessive and ugly, turning each into monsters unable to connect with anyone. In the end, both are redeemed by love, though neither will ever fully escape their isolation from the greater community.
Beyond showing George Lucas understands film history, what does all this referencing really do? It’s easy to take the standard cynical view that it’s yet another example of the shallowness of postmodern art. While damning the similarly allusion-happy Sergio Leone, Peter Bogdanovich once accused Lucas and others of his generation of “simply making movies they grew up with, over again.” Bogdanovich’s criticism suggests a man caught up in his childhood loves, doomed to a grotesque Peter Pan career.
But I can’t go there, especially since Attack of the Clones shows a decided upping of the ante in Lucas’ engagement with The Searchers. He’s in dialogue with Ford in a way he was not before, actually dealing with Ford’s themes head-on. Maybe it’s because Lucas was older by the time he got to the prequels and therefore better able to understand the tragedy of The Searchers than when he was young. In that sense, he’s not only having a dialogue with The Searchers, but with A New Hope, and arguably with his younger self as well. This suggests not some Peter Pan with a camera, as Lucas’ detractors would define him, but an artist whose worldview evolved between youth and old age. Whatever one thinks of the overall quality of the Star Wars prequels, one cannot accuse Lucas of treading water with them or with his relationships to the movies that shaped him in his youth.
In producer Irving Thalberg’s case, he wanted to give his wife Norma Shearer—then the undisputed queen of the MGM lot—the chance for the crowning artistic achievement of her career. The Boy Wonder desired to bring his favorite Shakespeare play to the screen: Romeo and Juliet, with Shearer starring as the thirteen-year-old Juliet. Though Shearer was in her mid-30s and completely lacking experience with Shakespearean drama, this did not deter Thalberg, who thought the part would allow her to reach new dramatic heights. He spared no expense, lavishing two million dollars on grand sets, gorgeous costumes, and an exhaustive shooting schedule. Several actors turned down the Romeo role, which eventually went to forty-three-year-old Leslie Howard. With bright stars, a high budget, and a classic tale at the heart of it, Thalberg expected a smashing success.
Thalberg’s Romeo and Juliet was ultimately as star-cross’d as Shakespeare’s lovers. Though much ballyhooed before release, the film was indifferently received. While attendance was okay for a more moderately budgeted film, it was not nearly enough to cover this super-productions’s immense cost. Unlike the 1968 Franco Zeffirelli film (also known as “the one where Romeo looks like Zac Efron”) and the 1996 Baz Luhrmann adaptation, this Romeo and Juliet did not strike a chord with the zeitgeist beyond inspiring a vogue for “Juliet caps.” By the end of its run, the film lost almost one million dollars, failing to live up to Thalberg’s hopes. To make matters worse, Thalberg died shortly afterward, ending his career on a disappointing note.
Some derided movies gain prestige over time, with new audiences discovering their merits. This never happened to Romeo and Juliet. If anything, its reputation soured. The ages of the main cast members became more of an issue once Zeffirelli’s version famously used actual teenagers in the lead roles. The buttoned-up love scenes were absurd compared to the explicitness permitted in a post-code world. Shakespeare scholars scorn the film, finding it unimaginative. Norma Shearer fans positively resent its existence, feeling her overgrown Juliet takes away attention from her superior performances in better movies. On the whole, it’s a laughing stock, even among classic movie fans.
But is the movie all that bad? When approached with an open mind, is it a better experience than the critics say?
First, the elephant in the room—yes, Norma Shearer and Leslie Howard are way too old to be playing teenagers. At youngest, Shearer could pass for a twenty-something, whereas Howard always looks like a man at the dawn of middle age. While more mature actors could get away with playing these roles on the safe distance of a stage (for example, nineteenth-century stage star Charlotte Cushman played Romeo well into her forties), the camera is less forgiving, even with flattering make-up and lighting.
Hot take: their ages aren’t as big a deal as people make them out to be.
Shearer and Howard might not pass for teens, but their chemistry was enough to get me to stop caring that they weren’t high schoolers. By the time they lock eyes at the Capulet ball, the two have me utterly sold. In the text itself, Shakespeare signals to the audience that the immediate attraction between Romeo and Juliet is something extraordinary by having the two speak a shared sonnet before their first kiss, and Shearer and Howard help sell this development with their body language. There’s a wonderful blend of sweetness and burgeoning passion in the both of them– especially Shearer, who portrays Juliet’s awakening sexual desire brilliantly.
Shearer’s performance here is often held up as antithetical to her more celebrated pre-code work. Pre-code historian Mike LaSalle derides her turn as Juliet with terms like “queenly” and “embarrassing,” but I find that her Juliet shares commonalities with her more famous roles. Shearer’s characters are often marked by dramatic transformations, usually related to defying society’s double standards, such as Jerry in The Divorcee, who “balances the books” when her husband casually cheats on her, or Elizabeth in The Barretts of Wimpole Street, who breaks from a controlling, possessive father to be with the man she loves.
Shakespeare’s Juliet is a triumph of characterization, going from a young girl willing to allow others to chart her life’s course to a bold young woman willing to sacrifice everything to pursue what she wants, even if it goes against the wishes of her family or the dictates of society itself (which, remember, demands daughters unquestioningly obey their fathers). Chasing her own desires, defying patriarchal authority—doesn’t sound too different from what Shearer was doing in the early 1930s to me.
While Shearer’s acting dominates the film, Howard is no slouch, even though his take on Romeo takes a little getting used to for those of us reared on latter versions. Howard is quite subdued compared to, say, Leonardo DiCaprio in the Luhrmann version (“I AM FOR-TUNE’S FOOOO-OOOOOL!”). Howard’s schtick was playing sensitive, gentle guys, and his Romeo continues in this tradition, though he also gets to be the bold wooer familiar from the play, eagerly pulling Juliet to him moments after they lock eyes on the dance floor. While hotter blood might have improved certain scenes, Howard’s Romeo is nevertheless properly romantic through and through.
A common complaint is that the film renders this most horny of plays utterly sexless due to the constraints of the Production Code. Before rewatching the movie, the dominant image my mind associated with the film was Cukor’s depiction of Romeo and Juliet’s post-coital embrace: Juliet lays across the bed buttoned up to the chin and Romeo is draped across her with both feet on the floor.
Color me shocked when upon revisiting the movie I found that the filmmakers snuck a great deal of spiciness past the censors. Mercutio’s “bawdy hand upon the prick of noon” line (accompanied by raucous laughter from the dirty-minded Nurse) is only the most audacious example. Mercutio still gets to conjure Romeo’s initial infatuation Rosaline by her eyes, forehead, lip, foot, leg, thigh, and “the demenses that there adjacent lie.” Juliet retains part of her pre-wedding night soliloquy, which is all about how eager she is to lose her virginity. Even the bedroom scene I just mocked has a bit more heat than I remembered. Howard is out of his doublet, and the actors share a languid intimacy that strongly suggests this Romeo and Juliet have done more than just lay around holding hands in the dark.
Most of the supporting cast is strong. Edna May Oliver is delightful as the bawdy Nurse, Basil Rathbone’s Tybalt simmers with barely contained menace, and Reginald Denny exudes a calm presence as Romeo’s friend Benvolio. If I have any complaint, it’s with John Barrymore as Mercutio. By this point in his career, Barrymore’s image was on the verge of self-parody, and he was often uncooperative on the set due to his alcoholism. His Mercutio is less the life of the party than an unpleasant, overgrown frat boy on crack. The character’s famous “Queen Mab” speech is reduced to sped up nonsense, and the character’s dying moments lack the bitterness needed to sell it as a proper turning point in the story.
If the MGM Romeo and Juliet has a fatal flaw, it isn’t the actor’s ages—it’s the lack of an original vision for the story. I hate to keep making comparisons with the Zeffirelli and Luhrmann adaptations, but they make a good contrast because they succeeded where MGM failed in having stronger takes on the material. Zeffirelli emphasizes the play’s themes of youth and age, highlighting the generational conflict and making the young people feel like ordinary teens in their idealism, self-absorption, and impulsiveness. Luhrmann makes extensive use of religious imagery and juxtaposes it against a violent, profane, and decadent setting, making Romeo and Juliet’s love more precious by contrast. These films make bold choices that are not spelled out in Shakespeare’s text, but that’s part of bringing the Bard to life for new audiences.
The MGM film does not have any such “take” on the material. It keeps to the text without doing much to draw out particular themes or ideas, save for linking the lovers with pastoral imagery: Romeo is introduced listening to a shepherd sing in the hills, Juliet is introduced in an orchard feeding a pet deer like a Disney princess, and the lovers’ sexual consummation is depicted through a montage of nature imagery. Perhaps this is meant to contrast their love with the artifice of the city and the corruption it represents, but the film does little to develop that idea beyond its borderline noirish depiction of the apothecary’s shop. Thalberg famously flew in academics to oversee the production, claiming they were there to “protect Shakespeare from us.” He was terrified of doing it all wrong—he probably figured the script would take care of itself and that all MGM had to do was supply opulent visuals.
The film is certainly dripping with visual beauty—the magnificent sets and elaborate costumes were meant to evoke medieval Italian artists like Botticelli and Gozzoli– but it’s all empty spectacle that doesn’t do much to evoke the passionate, oppressive atmosphere of the play’s Verona. The nature of the production also put its director to a disadvantage. George Cukor did his best work with more intimate comedies and dramas. A larger canvas rarely yielded his best efforts. In the case of Romeo and Juliet, so much emphasis is already placed on the spectacle that the drama is often in danger of being pushed to the side altogether.
Undeniably, Thalberg’s Romeo and Juliet is a labor of love, and this is both its greatest strength and ultimate undoing. The good there is comes from Howard and Shearer’s tender chemistry, luminescent and resonant despite their shared maturity. For advocates of 1930s Hollywood and the artificial but enticing soundstage worlds they conjured, Romeo and Juliet’s make-believe Verona is a visual treat. That it doesn’t fully stick the landing is a shame, since so much effort was poured into the endeavor– however, I don’t think those efforts were 100% wasted. I am reminded of an anecdote from the great Shakespeare scholar Northop Frye:
“… why is the story of the tragic love and death of Romeo and Juliet one of the world’s best loved stories? Mainly, we think, because of Shakespeare’s word magic. But, while it was always a popular play, what the stage presented as Romeo and Juliet, down to about 1850, was mostly a series of travesties of what Shakespeare wrote. There’s something about the story itself that can take any amount of mistreatment from stupid producing and bad casting. I’ve seen a performance with a middle-aged and corseted Juliet who could have thrown Romeo over her shoulder and walked to Mantua with him, and yet the audience was in tears at the end.”
For all its imperfections and interpretive timidity, I was still moved by the finale of this Romeo and Juliet. It might not be anyone’s favorite telling of the classic tragedy, but it still has enough treasures for anyone willing to give it an honest chance.
The Barrymores: The Royal Family in Hollywood by James Kotsilibas-Davies
George Cukor: Master of Elegance by Emanuel Levy
Norma Shearer: A Life by Gavin Lambert
Norma: The story of Norma Shearer by Lawrence Quirk