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.

The Fabulous Forties #3: The Black Book (dir by Anthony Mann)


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The third film in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties box set was 1949’s The Black Book, which was also released under the title Reign of Terror.

The Black Book takes place during the French Revolution.  It is, to quote Dickens, both the best of times and the worst of times.  Actually, mostly it’s just the worst of times.  The Black Book portrays revolutionary France as being a dark and shadowy country, one where the only things that hold the people together are paranoia and terror.  It’s a country where anyone can be executed at any moment and where power mad tyrants excuse their excesses by saying that they are only doing the people’s will.  Considering that the The Black Book was made in 1949, its vision of revolutionary France can easily been seen as a metaphor for Nazi Germany or Communist Russia.  Or perhaps even America at the start of the Red Scare.

(It’s probably not a coincidence that the Nazis also had a document known as the Black Book, one that listed everyone who was to be arrested and executed if Hitler succeeded in conquering Great Britain.)

Maximilien Robespierre (Richard Basehart, giving a disturbingly plausible performance that will make you think of more than a few contemporary political figures) is on the verge of having himself declared dictator of France.  Unfortunately, his little black book has disappeared.  Inside that black book is the name of everyone that he is planning to send to the guillotine.  If the book ever became public, then Robespierre would be the one losing his head.

Robespierre summons a notorious prosecutor named Duval (Robert Cummings) to Paris and gives him 24 hours to track down the book.  He gives Duval the authority to imprison and interrogate anyone in France.  He also informs Duval that, if the book is not found, Duval will be the next to lose his head.

However, what Robespierre does not know is that Duval is not Duval.  He is Charles D’Aubigny, a rebel against the Revolution.  Charles murdered Duval and took his place.  Now, Charles has to find the book without his own identity being discovered.  Not only do some of Robespierre’s allies suspect that Duval may not actually be Duval but some of Charles’s former allies also start to suspect that Charles may secretly be working for Robespierre, even as he claims that he’s trying to bring him down.  At times, even the viewer is unsure as to who is actually working for who.

Oh my God, this is such a good film!   In fact, it was so good that I was surprised that I hadn’t heard of it before watching it last night.  The chance to discover a hidden gem like The Black Book is the main reason why I continue to take chances on Mill Creek box sets.

The Black Book was definitely made on a very low-budget but director Anthony Mann (who is best known for directing several landmark westerns) uses that low-budget to his advantage.  There’s little spectacle to be found in this historical epic but then again, there was little spectacle to be found in the reign of terror.  This is a film that takes place in shadowy rooms and dark, almost claustrophobic streets.  It’s a historical film that looks and plays out like the most cynical of film noirs.  Despite the fact that all of these well-known French figures are being played by very American actors, the cast all does an excellent job of capturing the fear and desperation of people living under oppression.  The subtext of The Black Book was undoubtedly clear in 1949 and it’s just as clear today.  Fanaticism remains fanaticism, regardless of when it happened or what ideology is used to justify it.

There is a somewhat awkward moment towards the end of the film when a French army officer is asked for his name.

“Bonparte,” the officer replies, “Napoleon Bonaparte.”

“I’ll remember that name,” someone snarkily replies.

But, other than that one moment (which immediately made me think of Titanic‘s infamous “Something Picasso” line), The Black Book is an intelligent and effective thriller.  And because it’s in the public domain, you watch it below!

 

Cleaning Out The DVR #23: The Adventures of Robin Hood (dir by Michael Curtiz)


(For those following at home, Lisa is attempting to clean out her DVR by watching and reviewing 38 films by this Friday.  Will she make it?  Keep following the site to find out!)

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Flamboyant.  Athletic.  Joyous.  Determined.  Handsome.  Outspoken.  Bigger than life.  Revolutionary.  Anarchist.  Sexy.  Libertarian.  Is there any doubt why Errol Flynn remains the definitive Robin Hood?

And. for that matter, is there any doubt why the 1938 film The Adventures of Robin Hood remains not only the definitive Robin Hood film but also one of the most influential action films in history?

The Adventures of Robin Hood tells the story that we’re all familiar with.  The King of England, Richard The Lionhearted (Ian Hunter), is captured while returning from the Crusades.  His brother, King John (Claude Rains, in full autocratic villain mode), usurps the throne while Richard is gone and immediately raises taxes.  He claims that he’s only doing this to raise the money to set Richard free.  Of course, the real reason is that John is a greedy tyrant.

The only nobleman with the courage to openly oppose John is Sir Robin of Locksely (Errol Flynn).  Sir Robin protects his fellow citizens from John’s main henchman, Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone, also in full autocratic villain mode).  In fact, Robin is so brave that, on multiple occasions, he even enters Sir Guy’s castle so that he can specifically tell King John and Sir Guy that he has no use for their laws.  This, of course, always leads to Robin having to make a dramatic escape while arrows flies and swords are unsheathed all around.

And through it all, Robin Hood keeps smiling and laughing.  He’s a wonderfully cheerful revolutionary.  He may be fighting a war against a ruthless and unstoppable enemy and he may be the most wanted man in England but Robin is determined to have fun.  One need only compare Robin to his humorless foes to see the difference between freedom and bureaucracy.

(We could use Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood today, though I suspect our government would just blow him up with a drone and then issue a statement about how, by stealing money from the rich and giving it to the poor, Robin was keeping the government from being able to rebuild bridges and repair roads.)

When Robin isn’t exposing the foolishness of organized government, he’s hanging out in Sherwood Forest.  He’s recruiting valuable allies like Friar Tuck (Eugene Pallette) and Little John (Alan Hale, Sr.)  He’s playing constant pranks and promoting revolution and, to his credit, he’s a lot more fun to listen to than that guy from V For Vendetta.  He’s also romancing Maid Marian (Olivia de Havilland) and good for him.  Two beautiful people deserve to be together.

Even better, he’s doing it in glorious Technicolor!  There’s a lot of great things about The Adventures of Robin Hood.  The action scenes are exciting.  The music is thrilling.  The film is perfectly cast.  Errol Flynn may not have been a great actor but he was a great Robin Hood.  But what I really love about the film is just the look of it.  We tend to take color for granted so it’s interesting to watch a film like The Adventures of Robin Hood, one that was made at a time when color film was something of a novelty.  For those of us who spend a lot of time talking about how much we love old school black-and-white, The Adventures of Robin Hood is a film that says, “Hey, color can be great too!”

But what I mostly love about The Adventures of Robin Hood is just the pure joy of the film.  Just compare this Robin Hood to the grimly tedious version played by Russell Crowe.

(True, nobody in The Adventures of Robin Hood shouts, “I declare him to be …. AN OUTLAAAAAAAAAAAAWWWWWWWW!”  Actually, now that I think about it, Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood would have worked much better if Oscar Isaac and Russell Crowe had switched roles.)

The Adventures of Robin Hood was nominated for best picture and it probably should have won.  However, the Oscar went to Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You.

Cleaning Out The DVR #19: The Awful Truth (dir by Leo McCarey)


(For those following at home, Lisa is attempting to clean out her DVR by watching and reviewing 38 films by this Friday.  Will she make it?  Keep following the site to find out!)

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First released way back in 1937, The Awful Truth is one of the most delightful comedies that I’ve ever seen.  In fact, if I could recommend one movie for you to make an effort to see, it would be The Awful Truth.  This is definitely the best film to ever have the word “awful” in the title.

(Speaking of being the best, The Awful Truth is also the rare screwball comedy to receive a nomination for best picture.  However, it lost to the far more serious The Life of Emile Zola.)

Jerry (Cary Grant) and Lucy Warner (Irene Dunne) are young, married, stylish, and rich.  They seem to have it all but, as the result of Jerry’s lies and a misunderstanding concerning Lucy and her music teacher (Alexander D’Arcy), they end up getting a divorce.  Fortunately, they still share a common bond.  They both love their dog, Mr. Smith (played by Skippy, the same adorable and incredibly talented dog who played Asta in The Thin Man).  Lucy wins custody of Mr. Smith and takes him with her when she moves in with her eccentric Aunt Patsy (Cecil Cunningham).

(It’s not a screwball comedy without an eccentric aunt.)

Jerry, however, has weekly visitation rights with Mr. Smith.  It’s during once such visit that Jerry discovers that, with only two months to go before the final divorce decree, Lucy has become engaged to her next door neighbor, Dan (Ralph Bellamy).  Dan is from Oklahoma and spends most of his time wistfully talking about tumbleweed, oil, and cattle.  He also can’t wait to marry Lucy so that they can both move back to Oklahoma City.  Dan is a nice guy but he’s no Cary Grant.  (He’s also dominated by his judgmental mother.)  Realizing that he still loves Lucy, Jerry wants to reconcile with her but complications and misunderstandings ensue.

(It’s not a screwball comedy without complications and misunderstandings.)

Eventually, in order to prove that he is over Lucy, Jerry starts to date a vacuous heiress, Barbara Vance (a hilariously shallow performance from Molly Lamont).  Suddenly, Lucy finds herself in the same situation that Jerry was in with her and Dan.  Now, it’s her turn to try to break up Barbara and Jerry…

Meanwhile, the day of the final divorce decree approaches…

There’s a lot of reasons to love The Awful Truth.  There’s the snappy dialogue, the physical comedy (at one point, three different men are scurrying around Aunt Patsy’s apartment, two trying to hide from each other and one totally oblivious to everything going on around him), and Leo McCarey’s fast paced direction.  There’s Mr. Smith, a dog so talented that even a confirmed cat person like me loved watching his performance.  There’s the wonderful supporting turns of Ralph Bellamy and Molly Lamont.

But the main reason to see the film is because of the wonderful chemistry between Cary Grant and Irene Dunne.  Grant is so smooth and effortless in his charm that it’s a lot of fun to watch him having to deal with the progressively strange world that he finds himself living in.  The Awful Truth works best when Grant simply reacts to all the craziness around him.  Grant could do more with one look than most actors could do with a Shakespearean monologue.  Meanwhile, Irene Dunne … well, who wouldn’t want to get in a time machine, go back to 1937, and be Irene Dunne for a day?  She’s lively, she’s beautiful, she’s witty, she’s classy, and she’s just neurotic enough to be relatable.

The Awful Truth is pure joy.  If you haven’t seen it, you’re missing out.  If you have seen it, watch it again.