Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Romeo and Juliet (dir by George Cukor)


You know the story that’s told in this 1936 film already, don’t you?

In the city of Verona, Romeo Montague (Leslie Howard) has fallen in love with Juliet Capulet (Norma Shearer).  Normally, this would be cause for celebration because, as we all know, love is a wonderful thing.  However, the House of Capulet and the House of Montague have long been rivals.  When we first meet them all, they’re in the process of having a brawl in the middle of the street.  There’s no way that Lord Capulet (C. Aubrey Smith) will ever accept the idea of Juliet marrying a Montague, especially when he’s already decided that she is to marry Paris (Ralph Forbes).  Things get even more complicated with Juliet’s cousin, Tybalt (Basil Rathbone), kills Romeo’s best friend, Mercutio (John Barrymore).  Romeo then kills Tybalt and things only grow more tragic from there.

It’s hard to keep track of the number of films that have been made out of William Shakespeare’s tale of star-crossed lovers and tragedy.  The plot is so universally known that “Romeo and Juliet” has become shorthand for any story of lovers who come from different social sects.  Personally, I’ve always felt that Romeo and Juliet was less about love and more about how the rivalry between the Montagues and the Capulets forces the young lovers into making hasty decisions.  If not for Lord Capulet throwing a fit over his daughter’s new boyfriend, she and Romeo probably would have split up after a month or two.  Seriously, I’ve lost track of how many losers I went out with in high school just because my family told me that I shouldn’t.

Producer Irving Thalberg spent five years trying to get MGM’s Louis B. Mayer to agree to greenlight a film version of Romeo and Juliet.  Mayer thought that most audiences felt that Shakespeare was above them and that they wouldn’t spend money to see an adaptation of one of his plays.  Thalberg, on the other hand, thought that the story would be a perfect opportunity to highlight the talents of his wife, Norma Shearer.  It was only after Warner Bros. produced a financially successful version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that Mayer gave Romeo and Juliet the go ahead.

Of course, by the time the film went into production, Norma Shearer was 34 years old and a little bit too mature to be playing one of the most famous teenagers in literary history.  Perhaps seeking to make Shearer seem younger, Thalberg cast 43 year-old Leslie Howard as Romeo, 44 year-old Basil Rathbone as Tybalt, and 54 year-old John Barrymore as Mercutio,  (In Barrymore’s defense, to me, Mercutio always has come across as being Verona’s equivalent of the guy who goes to college for ten years and then keeps hanging out on the campus even after dropping out.)

In short, this is the middle-aged Romeo and Juliet and, despite all of the good actors in the cast, it’s impossible not to notice.  There were few Golden Age actors who fell in love with the authenticity of Leslie Howard and Basil Rathbone is a wonderfully arrogant and sinister Tybalt.  Norma Shearer occasionally struggles with some of the Shakespearean dialogue but, for the most part, she does a good job of making Juliet’s emotions feel credible.  As for Barrymore — well, he’s John Barrymore.  He’s flamboyant, theatrical, and a lot of fun to watch if not always totally convincing as anything other than a veteran stage actor hamming it up.  The film is gorgeous to look at and George Cukor embraces the melodrama without going overboard.  But, everyone in the movie is just too old and it does prove to be a bit distracting.  A heart-broken teenager screaming out, “I am fortune’s fool!” is emotionally powerful.  A 43 year-old man doing the same thing is just not as effective.

Despite being a box office failure (it turned out that Mayer was right about Depression-era audiences considering Shakespeare to be too “arty”), Romeo and Juliet was nominated for Best Picture of the year, the second Shakespearean adaptation to be so honored.  However, the award that year went to another big production, The Great Ziegfeld.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: The Barretts of Wimpole Street (dir by Sidney Franklin)


The 1934 best picture nominee, The Barretts of Wimpole Street, takes place largely in one room.

That room is a bedroom located in a mansion that sits on Wimpole Street in London.  The room is occupied by Elizabeth (Norma Shearer), a sickly woman who has spent years in bed and who is barely able to walk.  She is the eldest of 11 siblings and all of them live in the house together, under the watchful eye of their tyrannical father, Edward (Charles Laughton).  Edward has forbidden any of his children from ever leaving home.  None of them are to get married.  In fact, none of them are to have even a relationship.  Even when he hears that a trip to Italy could actually improve Elizabeth’s health, he sternly forbids her from leaving.  Edward is obsessed with sin.  As he explains it, he was once a sinner himself.  In fact, he was such a sinner that he sometimes lost control of himself.  Now that he’s a father and a widower, Edward deals with his less savory impulses through constant prayer and he’s determined to never allow his children to fall into sin as well.

Despite her father’s attempts to keep her isolated from the outisde world, Elizabeth has managed to find an escape.  She’s a poet and her words have won her admirers from around world.  One of those admirers is another poet, a young man named Robert (Fredric March), who frequently writes her letters about his love of her work.  One day, in the middle of a snowfall, Robert shows up at the house on Wimpole Street and requests to see Elizabeth.  Robert tells her that her poetry has not only inspired him but it has also caused him to fall in love with her.  When Elizabeth explains that she is dying and cannot leave the bedroom, Robert says that she’s going to live forever.  After Robert leaves, Elizabeth manages to stand and, for the first time in years, walks over to the window to watch as he departs.

Sounds like a perfect love story, right?  Well, there’s a problem.  Edward has absolutely no intention of allowing Elizabeth to leave the house, regardless of how much her health improves after her initial meeting with Robert.  He is determined to keep her in that bedroom and, this being a pre-code film, it becomes obvious that there’s more to Edward’s behavior than just being an overprotective father.  Though the dialogue may be euphemistic, Edward’s incestuous desires are plain to see.  It’s there every time that he leers as his daughters while also saying that he’ll be sure to pray for their souls.  It’s there in the film’s final moments, when Edward makes a request that’s so dark and cruel that it will take even a modern audience by surprise.  Charles Laughton played a lot of villains over the course of his long career but Edward is perhaps the most monstrous.

As a film, The Barretts of Wimpole Street is undeniably stagy and it’s a bit overlong as well.  Charles Laughton so dominates the film with menace that he threatens to overshadow not just March and Shearer but also Maureen O’Sullivan, who plays one of Elizabeth’s sisters.  But no matter!  I absolutely love The Barretts of Wimpole Street.  The house is gorgeous, the plot is wonderfully melodramatic, and Shearer and March both have a wonderful chemistry.  You can debate whether or not March and Shearer are credible as poets but, ultimately, what matters more is that they are totally believable as soul mates.  From the minute they first meet, you simply buy them as a couple that is meant to be.  Robert’s earnestness is perfectly matched with Elizabeth’s growing strength and it’s impossible not to cheer at least a little when Elizabeth first manages to walk down a staircase without collapsing.

Of course, as any student of literature should be aware, Robert is Robert Browning and Elizabeth is Elizabeth Barrett.  In real life, Robert Browning did arrange a meeting with Elizabeth after having read her poetry and, as well, it’s been said that Elizabeth’s father did not approve of her relationship with Robert.  It’s also apparently true that Edward actually did disinherit any of his children who married.  As for the other details of Edward’s depiction in The Barretts of Wimpole Street, it’s unknown how close to the truth Laughton’s performance may have been.

The Barretts of Wimpole Street is a wonderful historical romance.  It was Oscar-nominated for best picture, though it lost to a far different romance, It Happened One Night.

6 Trailers In Memory of Robert Evans


As Jeff reported earlier today, the famed Hollywood producer Robert Evans passed away this weekend.  As a student of both Hollywood and history, I have to say that I always found Evans to be a rather fascinating figure.  It seemed inevitable that his name would pop up whenever I read a book, an article, or even just an interview concerning the films of the 60s, 70s, and 80s.  Robert Evans was nice enough to follow me on twitter and we even exchanged tweets on occasion.

As a producer, Robert Evans is probably more associated with gangster movies like The Godfather and The Cotton Club than horror films.  But Evans was involved in a few “scary” and horror-adjacent films, both as an actor and a producer.  So, tonight’s edition of Lisa Marie’s Favorite Grindhouse Trailers is dedicated to Robert Evans.

  1. Man of a Thousand Face (1957)

As an actor, Evans began his career by playing Irving Thalberg in this biopic of Lon Chaney, Sr.  Evans was specifically chosen for the role by Thalberg’s widow, Norma Shearer.  Not surprisingly, the trailer below concentrates on James Cagney’s performance as legendary horror star, Lon Chaney, Sr.

2. The Fiend Who Walked The West (1958)

One of Evans’s rare starring roles was in this western-horror hybrid.  Yes, that’s Robert Evans as the “kooky killer.”

3. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

As head of production at Paramount, Evans was responsible for greenlighting this classic horror film, starring Mia Farrow.  Reportedly, Evans arranged for his friend, Jack Nicholson, to screen test for the role of Rosemary’s husband.

4. Marathon Man (1976)

Evans produced this film.  Technically, Marathon Man was a thriller/spy movie.  But the scenes of Dustin Hoffman in the dentist chair definitely qualify as horror.

5. Sliver (1993)

After spending the 80s financially bereft and an almost forgotten figure, Evans made a comeback by producing this incredibly silly “erotic” thriller.

6. Jade (1995)

Sliver did well enough at the box office that Evans followed it up with another, similarly silly thriller.

Of course, while it’s tempting to laugh at films like Jade and Sliver, it should be remembered that Evans was also involved with some of the best and most important films of all time.  Next time you watch The Godfather, be sure to say a little thank you to Robert Evans.

R.I.P.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: The Divorcee (dir by Robert Z. Leonard)


Before I get into reviewing the 1930 best picture nominee, The Divorcee, I want to share something that I recently posted on twitter:

I’m not just sharing this because it’s one of the best things that I’ve ever tweeted.  I’m also sharing it because it’s a beyond perfect description of Jerry (played, in an Oscar-winning performance, by Norma Shearer), the lead character in The Divorcee.  (Whenever you tweet something that is beyond perfect, you’ve earned the right to make sure everyone else knows it.)  The Divorcee came out in 1930 so, needless to say, it’s a bit dated but I totally related to the character of Jerry and that’s perhaps the main reason why I enjoyed this film.

The Divorcee tells the type of story that, today, would probably make for a memorable Lifetime film.  It’s a film that follows four friends over several years.  They are the idle rich, the type who go to parties, dance on tables, and cheerfully ignore the ban on liquor.  Jerry (Norma Shearer) loves Ted (Chester Morris).  Dorothy (Helen Johnson) loves Paul (Conrad Nagel).  However, Paul loves Jerry and when Jerry announces that she and Ted are engaged to be married, Paul doesn’t handle it well.  In fact, Paul gets drunk, Paul drives a car with Dorothy in the passenger’s seat, and eventually Paul crashes the car, leaving Dorothy so disfigured that she spends the rest of the movie wearing a black veil.

The years pass.  In order to make up for horribly disfiguring her, Paul agrees to marry Dorothy.  Jerry marries Ted.  They’re happy until they’re not.  On the day of their third anniversary, Jerry discovers that Ted has been cheating on her.  So, Jerry cheats on Ted.  When Ted gets upset, they file for divorce.

Suddenly, Jerry is …. (dramatic music cue) … THE DIVORCEE!

Ted becomes an alcoholic, the type who makes scenes at parties and destroys ornate wedding cakes.  In the past, I assume Jerry would have been forced to wear a scarlet D and she would have made it work because there’s nothing that Jerry can’t do.  However, since this film takes place in the 1920s, Jerry spends her time flirting and plotting to steal Paul away from Dorothy.

And it would have worked too if not for the fact that Dorothy is a complete and total saint…

Drinking, sex, adultery, disfigurement, and Norma Shearer!?  That’s right, this is a pre-code film!  The Divorcee is actually a pretty typical example of a type of film that was very popular during the 1930s and actually remains rather popular today.  This is a film where rich people do stupid things but look good doing it.  When an audience watches a film like this, they can both look down on the rich and vicariously experience their lifestyle.  No wonder these movies are so popular!

Anyway, I liked The Divorcee.  It’s an incredibly silly little film but it’s hard for me not to enjoy something this melodramatic.  Chester Morris and Conrad Nagel are stuck playing heels and Helen Johnson is a bit to saintly but it doesn’t matter because the film is pretty much designed to be a showcase for Norma Shearer, the most underrated of all of the Golden Age actresses.  (Far too often, Shearer is dismissed as simply being Irving Thalberg’s wife.)  Shearer gives a great performance.  She seems to be having the time of her life and it’s fun to watch.

The Divorcee was nominated for best picture but it lost to a far different picture, All Quiet On The Western Front.

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Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee and It’s Damn Important: The Hollywood Revue of 1929 (dir by Charles Reisner)


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Last night, I really needed a break from thinking about this stupid, asinine presidential election that we have coming up here in the U.S.  Fortunately, TCM provided me with one by showing The Hollywood Revue of 1929!

The Hollywood Revue of 1929 is probably one of the most obscure film to ever be nominated for best picture.  It’s a plotless collection of songs and comedy bits, all performed by actors who were under contract to MGM.  In fact, the movie might be best described as a two-hour commercial for MGM.  The message of the film seems to be: “Now that movies have sound, look what MGM can do!”

With the exception of Greta Garbo and Lon Chaney, every MGM star makes an appearance in Hollywood Revue.  Everyone sings a song and does a dance, even if some of them are better singers and dancers than others.  The revue is hosted by Conrad Nagel (who looks very dapper in a tux but still seems to be strangely uncomfortable with his hosting duties) and Jack Benny (who plays his violin and gets annoyed every time he’s interrupted by an MGM stock player).  Joan Crawford (who Nagal describes as being “one of my favorites”) sings, “Got A Feeling For You,” and she may be off-key but you can’t help but appreciate the fact that she’s doing her best.  Buster Keaton does a dance.  Laurel and Hardy perform a magic act that doesn’t go very well.  Marion Davies does a tribute to the military and I’m sure that, somewhere, William Randolph Hearst was smiling.  Chorus girls sit in the background and smile at the camera and, as someone who knows what it’s like to be in the chorus, I enjoyed watching as a few of the smarter and braver ones attempted to steal the audience’s attention away from the headliners.

At one point, Jack Benny reached into his suit jacket and revealed that a miniature version of actress Bessie Love was apparently living in the pocket.  He held Bessie in the palm of his hand and proceeded to have a conversation with her and all I could think about was the end of Mulholland Drive, when that tiny old couple cornered Naomi Watts in her apartment.  When Benny placed Bessie on the ground, she grew to normal height and sang a song.

During the second half of the film, silent screen star John Gilbert plays the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, opposite Norma Shearer.  First he does it in Shakespeare’s words and then he does it again in 1929 language.  Lionel Barrymore directs them.  Interestingly enough, Shearer (who was married to The Hollywood Revue‘s producer, Irving Thalberg) would later play Juliet in 1936’s Romeo and Juliet.  Barrymore, though best remembered as Mr. Potter from It’s A Wonderful Life, actually was a prominent film director in 1929 and would even invent the boom mic.  As for Gilbert, legend has it that the Hollywood Revue was the first time that audiences actually heard him speak and they were so unimpressed with his voice that his career ended.  Having now seen Gilbert speak — well, he didn’t have the greatest or sexiest voice but he still sounded better than Jean Hagen did in Singin’ In The Rain.

Speaking of Singin’ In the Rain, that song was specifically written for Hollywood Revue!  The entire cast sings it at the end of the film.

Seen today, there’s something charming about how old-fashioned and corny The Hollywood Revue is.  I imagine that some people will laugh at it but, honestly, it’s still more entertaining than that stupid live version of The Sound of Music that they put on TV two years ago.  The Hollywood Revue is basically the classic film equivalent of a high school talent show, where everyone does their best and a good deal of the charm comes from seeing how silly it all is.  If you love TCM, you’ll enjoy seeing all the Golden Age performers trying to do their best.  If you don’t love TCM, then go to Hell.

The Hollywood Revue is usually listed as being a nominee for best picture.  Actually, the truth is a little bit more complicated.  For the 2nd annual Academy Awards, there were no nominees.  Instead, the awards were determined by a select committee and only the winners were announced.  Much like the Cannes Film Festival, no film received more than one award.  Broadway Melody (which starred Hollywood Revue‘s Bessie Love) was named best picture.

However, notes were kept of the committee’s meeting and those notes indicate that Hollywood Revue was considered as a possible pick for best picture.  Hence, Hollywood Revue is considered to be a best picture nominee even though there were no official nominees that year.

Anyway, if you’re a classic film lover, keep an eye out for Hollywood Revue the next time that it shows up on TCM!