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.

Cecil B. DeMented: MADAM SATAN (MGM 1930)


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It’s wild! It’s weird! It’s Cecil B. DeMille’s  MADAM SATAN, a movie I’ve heard about for decades, but never had the chance to catch, until now. It’s got a little something for everybody, from drama to comedy to musical numbers to half-naked women to jazz baby Lillian Roth! Was it worth the wait, Dear Readers? Well… read on!

Better hold on to your seats though, as MADAM SATAN shifts abruptly in tone throughout it’s running time. It’s slow going the first few minutes, starting out as a stiff drawing-room drama. Angela Brooks (Kay Johnson) is worried about her dissipating  marriage to Bob, who neglects her and stays out all night. Now here comes comedy, with Bob (Reginald Denny ) and his pal Jimmy (Roland Young) trying to sneak in at dawn, two wasted wastrels drunk as the proverbial skunks. Suddenly, out of nowhere, the maid (Elsa Peterson) breaks out…

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Happy Birthday Boris Karloff: John Ford’s THE LOST PATROL (RKO 1934)


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King of Classic Horror Boris Karloff was born on this date in 1887. The actor is beloved by fans for his work in genre flicks like FRANKENSTEIN, THE MUMMY , THE BLACK CAT, THE BODY SNATCHER , and many other screen tales of terror. But Karloff had always prided himself on being a working actor, and stepped outside the genre bounds many times. He excelled in some early gangster classics (THE CRIMINAL CODE, SCARFACE), played George Arliss’ nemesis in HOUSE OF ROTHSCHILD, was a Chinese warlord in WEST OF SHANGHAI, an Oriental sleuth in Monogram’s MR. WONG series, the psychiatrist in THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY, and a scientist in THE VENETIAN AFFAIR . And then there’s John Ford’s THE LOST PATROL.

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The film itself tells the story of a British troop traveling through the Mesopotamian desert circa 1917. When their leader is shot dead by an unseen Arab bullet, the stoic Sergeant…

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Cleaning Out The DVR #5: Around The World In 80 Days (dir by Michael Anderson)


Last night, as a part of my effort to clean out my DVR by watching and reviewing 38 movies in 10 days, I watched the 1956 Best Picture winner, Around The World In 80 Days.

Based on a novel by Jules Verne, Around The World In 80 Days announces, from the start, that it’s going to be a spectacle.  Before it even begins telling its story, it gives us a lengthy prologue in which Edward R. Murrow discusses the importance of the movies and Jules Verne.  He also shows and narrates footage from Georges Méliès’s A Trip To The Moon.  Seen today, the most interesting thing about the prologue (outside of A Trip To The Moon) is the fact that Edward R. Murrow comes across as being such a pompous windbag.  Take that, Goodnight and Good Luck.

Once we finally get done with Murrow assuring us that we’re about to see something incredibly important, we get down to the actual film.  In 1872, an English gentleman named Phileas Fogg (played by David Niven) goes to London’s Reform Club and announces that he can circumnavigate the globe in 80 days.  Four other members of the club bet him 20,000 pounds that he cannot.  Fogg takes them up on their wager and soon, he and his valet, Passepartout (Cantinflas) are racing across the world.

Around The World in 80 Days is basically a travelogue, following Fogg and Passepartout as they stop in various countries and have various Technicolor adventures.  If you’re looking for a serious examination of different cultures, this is not the film to watch.  Despite the pompousness of Murrow’s introduction, this is a pure adventure film and not meant to be taken as much more than pure entertainment.  When Fogg and Passepartout land in Spain, it means flamenco dancing and bullfighting.  When they travel to the U.S., it means cowboys and Indians.  When they stop off in India, it means that they have to rescue Princess Aouda (Shirley MacClaine!!!) from being sacrificed.  Aouda ends up joining them for the rest of their journey.

Also following them is Insepctor Fix (Robert Newton), who is convinced that Fogg is a bank robber.  Fix follows them across the world, just waiting for his chance to arrest Fogg and disrupt his race across the globe.

But it’s not just Inspector Fix who is on the look out for the world travelers.  Around The World In 80 Days is full of cameos, with every valet, sailor, policeman, and innocent bystander played by a celebrity.  (If the movie were made today, Kim Kardashian and Chelsea Handler would show up at the bullfight.)  I watch a lot of old movies so I recognized some of the star cameos.  For instance, it was impossible not to notice Marlene Dietrich hanging out in the old west saloon, Frank Sinatra playing piano or Peter Lorre wandering around the cruise ship.  But I have to admit that I missed quite a few of the cameos, much as how a viewer 60 years in the future probably wouldn’t recognize Kim K or Chelsea Handler in our hypothetical 2016 remake.  However, I could tell whenever someone famous showed up on screen because the camera would often linger on them and the celeb would often look straight at the audience with a “It’s me!” look on their face.

Around The World in 80 Days is usually dismissed as one of the lesser best picture winners and it’s true that it is an extremely long movie, one which doesn’t necessarily add up to much beyond David Niven, Cantinflas, and the celeb cameos.  But, while it may not be Oscar worthy, it is a likable movie.  David Niven is always fun to watch and he and Cantinflas have a nice rapport.  Shirley MacClaine is not exactly believable as an Indian princess but it’s still interesting to see her when she was young and just starting her film career.

Add to that, Around The World In 80 Days features Jose Greco in this scene:

Around The World In 80 Days may not rank with the greatest films ever made but it’s still an entertaining artifact of its time.  Whenever you sit through one of today’s multi-billion dollar cinematic spectacles, remember that you’re watching one of the descendants of Around The World In 80 Days.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #13: Rebecca (dir by Alfred Hitchcock)


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Well, here we are, less than a week into Embracing the Melodrama, Part II, and I’m already running behind!  The plan, as I mentioned back on Monday, is to review 128 melodramatic films over the next three weeks.  And, even though I know that sounds a like a lot, I had it all planned out so that I’d be able to get all that done in just 21 days.  All I had to do was make sure that I reviewed 6 films a day.

And …

Well, life happened.

But no matter!  It may now take me 3 and a half weeks to review 128 films but that’s no great tragedy.  And besides, regardless of how long it takes, I’ve got some pretty good films scheduled.

Take, for instance, the 1940 best picture winner Rebecca.

Rebecca is a film that all women can relate to.  The heroine is played by Joan Fontaine.  I say “heroine” because we never actually learn the character’s name, nor do we learn much about her background.  When we first see her, she’s defined by her job, which is to basically be a paid companion to a wealthy woman.  Later, she’s defined by her whirlwind romance with the brooding and aristocratic widower Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier).  When, after two weeks, they get married, she becomes known  as the second Mrs. de Winter.  She becomes defined by both who she married and who she is not.

She’s not Rebecca, the first Mrs. de Winter.

As soon as Maxim takes his new wife to his estate, the second Mrs. de Winter discovers that she’ll always live in the shadow of the deceased Rebecca.  Everyone she meets describes Rebecca as being a vibrant, lively figure — in other words, the complete opposite of the meek second Mrs. de Winter.  The coldly imperious housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), has perfectly preserved Rebecca’s room and makes little attempt to hide the scorn that she feels for the second Mrs. de Winter.  Even worse, once they return to the estate, Maxim reveals himself to be moody and tempermental.  With the help of the manipulative Mrs. Danvers, the second Mrs. de Winter becomes convinced that Maxim will never love her as much as he loved Rebecca.

Making things even more complicated, a man claiming to be Rebecca’s cousin comes by the house when Maxim is away.  Jack Flavell (played by George Sanders, at his most serpent-like) suggests that there may have been more to Rebecca’s death than the second Mrs. de Winter was originally told…

Rebecca is a classic film, for many reasons.  It’s well-acted, with Fontaine, Olivier, Anderson, and Sanders all bringing their characters to vibrant life.  It’s a gothic romance.  It’s a thriller.  It’s a mystery.  It is the epitome of old Hollywood style.  But, for me, the main reason that Rebecca is a classic is because it tells a story to which almost everyone can relate.  Every relationship that I’ve ever had, I’ve always been curious and occasionally even jealous of who came before me.  There’s nothing more intimidating than living in the shadow of someone who you will never get a chance to meet personally.  The second Mrs. de Winter’s insecurities are everyone’s insecurities and, in some fashion or another, we’ve all had a Mrs. Danvers in our life.  The second Mrs. de Winter’s struggles are our struggles and, as she grows stronger, the viewer grows stronger with her.

Alfred Hitchcock is one of the most influential and acclaimed filmmakers of all time but he never won a directing Oscar.  Rebecca was the only one of his films to win Best Picture.  Producer David O. Selznick brought Hitchcock over from England to direct Rebecca and it’s been reported that Hitchcock resented Selznick’s interference.  (And, while Rebecca is undoubtedly a good film that was directed by Alfred Hitchcock, it’s not exactly a Hitchcock film in the way that Shadow of a Doubt, Rear Window, or Vertigo are Hitchcock films.)  As a result, Hitchcock subsequently made it a point to edit future pictures in camera so that the studios would not be able to re-edit his films.

But, whether you consider it to be a Hitchcock picture or a Selznick production, Rebecca remains a wonderfully watchable melodrama.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #7: Of Human Bondage (dir by John Cromwell)


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“I don’t mind.” 

— Mildred Rogers (Bette Davis) in Of Human Bondage (1934)

For the next three weeks, I will reviewing, in chronological order, 126 cinematic melodramas.  It’s a little something that I like to call Embracing the Melodrama Part II.  We started things off yesterday by taking a look at the silent classic Sunrise.  Today, we continue with a quick look at the 1934 literary adaptation, Of Human Bondage.

Of Human Bondage opens with Philip Carey (Leslie Howard) living in Paris and struggling to make a living as a painter.  The son of a prominent doctor, Philip is self-conscious about both his club foot and his abilities as an artist.  When he invited an older artist to take a look at his work, Philip is informed, “There is no talent here.  You will be nothing but mediocre.”  Philip gives up his artistic ambitions and instead enters medical school.

Philip turns out to be just as miserable and moody as a medical student as he was when he was a painter.  (Indeed, Philip may be one of the most miserable characters in cinematic history.)  However, he does meet and becomes rather obsessed with a waitress named Mildred (Bette Davis).  For her part, Mildred has little use for Philip or any of the other men who are constantly hitting on her.  Whenever Philip asks her out, Mildred replies, “I don’t mind.”  When Philip asks if he might kiss her goodnight, Mildred coolly replies, “No.”

Philip remains obsessed with Mildred, to the extent that he nearly flunks out of medical school because he can’t stop thinking about her.  Mildred, however, eventually leaves Philip for the far more wealthy Emil Miller (Alan Hale).  Eventually, Philip meets Norah (Kay Johnson), a romance novelist who falls as deeply in love with Philip as he did with Mildred.  However, when the now pregnant Mildred reenters his life, Philip abandons Norah and goes back to her.

And so it goes for the next few years.  Philip obsesses over Mildred.  Mildred abandons Philip.  Philip moves on.  Mildred reenters Philip’s life.  With each reappearance, Mildred appears to be growing weaker and sicker but she’s never so weak that she can’t yell at Philip and ridicule him for having a club foot…

It’s a little bit strange to admit to enjoying a film like Of Human Bondage because, when you get right down to it, it’s an unpleasant story about an unlikable man being manipulated by a heartless woman.  But, interestingly enough, it’s Mildred’s unapologetic anger that make her such a compelling character.  If Philip was in any way a sympathetic character, the film would be almost unbearably grim.  But since Philip is such a weak-willed character and is so full of self-pity, you can’t help but be happy that Mildred is around to call him out on his bullshit.  Everyone else in the film is so awful and boring, that you can’t help but appreciate the fact that Mildred never holds back.

Have you ever wondered why, every Oscar telecast, the Academy makes a point of letting us know that an independent accounting firm counted all of the ballots?  Well, it’s because of this film.  Or, more specifically, it’s because of Bette Davis’s ferocious performance.  In 1935, when Davis somehow failed to be nominated for best actress, there was such outrage and so many people assumed that the nomination process had been rigged that the Academy actually allowed people to write in her name on their ballots.  (Davis still lost to Claudette Colbert.)  In order to avoid any future controversy, the Academy hired a private accounting firm to count and hold onto the ballots.  (And if you’re curious about how that desire to avoid controversy is working out for the Academy, I was one words for you: Selma.)  When, the next year, Bette Davis won the Oscar for best actress, it was widely assumed that it was largely to make up for being snubbed for Of Human Bondage.

If you want to see a good Leslie Howard film, go with Berkeley Square.  But if you want to see a great Bette Davis film, watch Of Human Bondage.