Is Dying for Love a Thing of the Past? (1936)

Is Dying for Love a Thing of the Past?

Is the tragedy of “Romeo and Juliet” possible to-day? Read the interesting and varied opinions of the artistes cast in this picture

by Gladys Hall

The most beautiful love story in the world is screened, Norma Shearer and Leslie Howard, as

The most beautiful love story in the world is screened, Norma Shearer and Leslie Howard, as “Romeo” and “Juliet,” find that all of happiness and all of grief lie within the circle of their arms

Is dying for love outmoded to-day?
Could Romeo and Juliet live and love and lose their lives for love in this push-button-and-get-girl Twentieth Century? Or rather, would they?
Would the young Romeo of 1936 keep that fatal final assignation in the Tomb of the Capulets—or would he go on to other assignations, less fatal and certainly less final, with other and less sleepy Juliets?
Would the young Juliet of 1936 look upon the lover lost in death and wield the blood-red blade or would she dial another Romeo and wield the blood-red lipstick?
Do we die for love to-day ?
Or do we live–and love–again ? And then again–and yet again?
I asked the starry cast of ” Romeo and Juliet.” I asked Norma Shearer, who is Juliet. I asked Leslie Howard, who is Romeo. I asked John Barrymore and Basil Rathbone and Edna May Oliver and most of that glittery galaxy which, on the M.-G.-M. lot, was bringing that immortal love and those immortal lovers to the silver screen.
I said to each and every one of them separately and individually: “Tell me, is dying for love outmoded, out of date to-day? Is the will to die for love as dead as the two young lovers? Is the tomb–or the cocktail bar–the final rendezvous of love to-day? Did Great Love die in Verona in the tomb of the Capulets?”
I asked Juliet herself. Norma, in the broidered robes of the young Juliet, as we sat on a marble bench directly beneath that legendary balcony from which wafted the immortal love words–and there were pear trees in the Spring all round about us… real pear trees an it please you… dripping white blossoms upon her lovely head–and it seemed, not Norma, but Juliet herself who spoke to me, her young eyes prescient of that last long sleep she was to sleep for love… it seemed not a set wherein we sat, but veritably the garden of the Capulets.

“Yes, oh yes,” murmured Norma, her usually direct, incisive voice hushed by the burden of beauty, “yes, I do believe that young people of to-day love just as desperately as they did in the time of Romeo and Juliet. Conditions are easier for them now, that is the one great difference. Situations of such stress do not so frequently arise and so the boys and girls of our time are not so often compelled to summon death as their sad solution. Parents, not young hearts, have grown wiser. For I believe that if parental opposition to young love were as strong and as prejudiced to-day as it was in those days, we would read of many more suicide pacts than we do.
“It isn’t,” continued Norma softly, that love is weaker to-day but that freedom is greater. Freedom to love. There are no obstacle to-day other than financial obstacles or, perhaps, ill-health. And Youth, given wings, given freedom, is so gloriously courageous that now, instead of dying for love, it lives for love.
“No it isn’t great love nor the capacity for great love which has been removed from the hearts of men and women, boys and girls of this our day… The change comes from without, not from within. For love, like Time, never dies…”
Thus spoke Juliet in the scented garden of the Capulets…

I sat with Romeo in a motor-bus!
I had wandered forth to the back lot of M.-G.-M., there to keep my date with young Mr. Leslie Howard Montague. The back lot stretched before me, transformed into a street scene in Verona. And there, armed with a tiny camera, taking shots of the scenes in which he does not appear, was Leslie Howard Montague, clad in sky-blue doublet and hose, a pair of horn-rimmed spectacles atop his classic nose, a crimson bath-robe girt about his middle, his golden hair curling about the nape of his neck. He suggested that we find a secluded spot wherein to hold sweet converse. And we found a seat in the back of a mammoth bus parked near the set in readiness to take the several hundred extras to and fro.
Romeo in a bus!
Did I–or Shakespeare–ever?
Said Romeo, sensibly “Yes, there is just one stratum of society left to-day in which the catastrophic tragedy of Romeo and Juliet might happen–namely, among the gangsters!
I gasped. Romeo lit a cigarette.
“No, but figure it out,” quoth Romeo with sweet reasonableness, “the Veronese were a desperate lot, most of them. Feuds existed among the Montagues and the Capulets even as feuds exists among the gangster of to-day. In no other class of society do such feuds exist except, perhaps, among some remote mountain tribes. Yes, the Montagues and the Capulets still carry on among our passionate Public Enemies from one to one hundred. Mercutios are slain. Bloody Tybalts still fester in their shrouds. The sword has been replaced by the machine-gun, the fiery steed by the armoured car, but the results thereof compare quite favourably . So much for that.
“Then, too, there are no women in any class of society to-day who are so secluded, so jealously guarded, so spied upon, so puritanically protected as are the gangsters’ ‘Molls’. Fancy the ‘Moll’ of one gang leader going over to an opposing gang leader–suicide and murder would be inevitable. Yes, it is quite conceivable that in the ranks of the still medieval Underworld a Montague and a Capulet feud might bloodily arise, a Mercutio and a Tybalt meet their deaths, a young Romeo and Juliet die, caught in the tangle of love and fear and complexity.

“There are a great many analogies once yo get started. The Veronese of the 14th Century lived with imminent death for their daily bread. They never knew, in the morning, whether they would be among the Quick or the Dead by night. Ditto, certainly, our gangsters.
“Yes, yes,” continued Leslie, amused with his amazing similes, “among the gangsters the Capulets and the Montagues live again. And, even as these old Veronese lived, richly caparisoned and housed, armed with dark vendettas and secret cabals and mysterious intermediaries, so do our underworld brethren live to-day. In the dank tomb of the Capulets young Romeo and Juliet fled a life too sinister, too complex, too arrayed with dark forces, dark poltics and passions for them to cope with. In the dank cellar of gangsterdom to-day, it is conceivable that young lovers might also flee a life too sinister, too complex in its politics and passions for them to cope with.
“it’s a novel thought, at any rate,” smiled Leslie, bemused, “and I really think it’s true that in no other social sphere to-day would such a desperate love be liable to exist. There’d be no reason for it in any other sphere. There are many Don Juans to-day, but few, very few Romeos.
“Modern times and casual circumstances make it difficult, really, for young men to follow in the footsteps of the world’s most poetic lover. It is very hard to imagine any modern young man loitering beneath milady’s balcony making a plea for his beloved’s undying love, when, no doubt, a telephon is jangling to right of her, a radio blaring swing music to left of her and a cacophony of motor horns in the street is adding punctuation to his appeal.

“Some men still die for love, of course,” said Leslie, more gravely now, “but I think they die living deaths. I mean, I think they go about much as they always did, living to all outward appearances, but with death in their hearts, where life and love once reigned, disillusionment in their soul, which once harboured dreams… a living mental and spiritual death rather than the final and perhaps more dignified death of the body.
“And I do believe this–that whenwe see Romeo and Juliet on he screen, we are going, for the first time, to understand them fully; we are going to understand the really complex and ingenious plot of the play as we have never been able to understand it before because of the limitations of the stage. We will underastand fully and in detail just why they died… Not only was parental law against them but civic and military as wel. Romeo had murdered a man. He had that to face. He never got the message which was to tell him that Juliet was but feigning sleep. That whole business–the plague infected area which trapped the message–the whole involved and intensely thrilling plot will be made clear as it never has been clear before.”

At which exact moment Mercutio, in the dramatic person of John Barrymore, rose from the dead and came toward me… Leslie Made way for his friend. John joined me in the motor-bus. […]

(Picturegoer, August 29, 1936)