Romeo Talks! (1936)

Romeo Talks!

Fresh from Hollywood, where he played the part of Romeo in “Romeo and Juliet,” Leslie Howard tells the inside story of this most controversial of all the year’s big Hollywood productions. (In a Film Weekly interview with J. Danvers Williams)

When Leslie Howard left England a few months ago for Hollywood, a Film Weekly representative was one of the last to bid him goodbye.
“No,” were his parting words, “I shall never play Romeo.”
Yet, here he is, back in England, having done it. And here is his explanation of why he changed his mind, given in an interview for which filmgoers all over the world have been waiting.

I had always sworn that I would never play Romeo on stage or screen. I meant it.
Romeo is, perhaps, the Shakespearian character I like least. I always felt that Shakespeare himself could not have been much interested in him. He was enchanted with Juliet, but I really don’t believe he had much time or patience for Romeo. And rightly so! Of what possible interest is a young man in love?
During the early part of the play Romeo is of no interest, not to me, at any rate. Later on, when the tragedy tightens around him and he is drawn inevitably toward his doom, he assumes a Hamletish quality that is much absorbing (and this, incidentally, is the side of Romeo I tried to bring out). But for long stretches of the play he is nothing more than a bore.
You may well ask why I eventually decided to play the part. A year ago, Irving Thalberg asked me to take it on. I was quite adamant; most definitely I wouldn’t.
Thalberg subsequently sent invitations to every eligible actor in the world. Nobody would do it. But when Thalberg has set his heart on something he is not easily daunted. When I was appearing on Broadway he paid me a special visit. He explained that this was one of the greatest experiments of his life – and his life has been full of experiments. He told me that I could play the part exactly as I wanted.
There were other things to be considered, of course. I was no more sure that Shearer would make a good Juliet than that I would make a good Romeo. But Thalberg was convinced she would. Ultimately, he convinced me. Why the hell shouldn’t I do it? I thought. Thalberg stands to lose a fortune, and Shearer, by her complete change of role, stands to lose her reputation. But, since an actor is much less easily dislodged than an actress, I stand to lose nothing. If they have sufficient faith to do it, why shouldn’t I? How could I possibly refuse?
In spite of my reluctance to play in it, Romeo and Juliet is of tremendous interest as a production. It is the greatest screen experiment in years. If it turns out to be a failure, Shakespeare and the screen will never meet again. No other producer would dare to film one of his plays if a Thalberg production flopped.
If, on the other hand, the film is a success, it will show,quite definitely, that Shakespeare can be turned into popular entertainment for a great cinema public in all corners of the earth. Other Shakespearian productions will follow, and will probably be improvements upon this one.
My own view now is that the experiment has come off. Our Romeo and Juliet seems to me better than the average stage production. I know that is just as impossible to catch every poetic implication of Shakespeare’s as it is fully to appreciate the beauty of Virgil on the first reading. But I am convinced that this production comes very near the real thing. After all, it is no more difficult to say the lines naturally on the screen than on the stage. In fact, it is simpler. Close-ups and other cinematic tricks make the action of love scenes, for instance, far more intimate and real.

Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer

Whether the public wants Shakespeare, whether they will respond to it, is another matter.
Some people may think that, in one respect, we have made the same blunder as Reinhardt, and given too much thought to the spectacle. They will say that the elaborate settings and huge crowd scenes are florid, and that the expenditure of two million dollars was a great mistake. I admit, quite frankly, that that is the fundamental weakness of this and all other attempts to screen Shakespeare. He got along quite nicely with no stage props other than a notice-board or two, stating that “This is a wood”, or “This is a street of Verona.” He relied for his effects purely on the dramatic value of the poetry.
It might be argued from this – and quite reasonably – that a Shakespearian play is an art-form in itself, and should not be modified, modernised, given realistic backgrounds, or tampered with in any way.
But if you are going to argue like that, then the idea of producing Shakespeare at all must be abandoned, and his works left in book form, so that people may read them and build up their own backgrounds from imagination.
The point I am trying to make is this: the screen is no more foreign to the spirit of Shakespeare than the artificial atmosphere of the modern theatre. in fact if a Shakespearian film is courageously made -and Thalberg has courage- it should be nearer to the truth.
The screen is necessarily a naturalistic medium, and if a picture is to be good, it must be realistic. This was the great problem which Thalberg had to face.
With characteristic courage he solved it by broadening the entire action. He filled the crowd scenes with hundreds of extras in an attempt to capture atmosphere, and he gathered around him the cleverest technicians and lighting experts he could lay his hands on, to help him complete the illusion.
Take the scene in which Mercutio is murdered, and Romeo is urged to defend the honour of his family by avenging the death. The sequence opens in the spacious market square of Verona. All the life and hubbub of a big city is there. Partisan crowds gather around the miscreants. When I saw the “rushes” of that scene, I was amazed to discover how splendidly an excitable Italian atmosphere had been created.
Romeo is then seen rushing along the dark and tortuous alleys surrounding the square, seeking his vengeance. This, coming directly after the petulant dialogue between Tybalt and Mercutio, seems to reach an absolute pitch of suspense – suspense I have never seen achieved in a stage version. It leads up perfectly to Tybalt’s murder by the inflamed Romeo. You can feel the inevitable closing down on him.

Leslie Howard as Romeo
Again, in the scene in which Romeo climbs into Juliet’s garden, Thalberg decided that, instead of having a small wall, he would build something more nearly approaching a rampart. At first sight, this looks like a rare piece of Hollywood extravaganza, but if you consider the matter carefully you will see that the impetuous youth, as Shakespeare drew it, would be quite capable of scaling any barrier, in order to gaze upon the woman he loved. The idea of a formidable wall seems to underline Shakespeare’s meaning, and somehow shows, symbolically, the great gulf which separated the lovers.
Thalberg’s difficulties were accentuated, at times, by the attentions of the Hays Office, which is supposed to keep an eye on producers and to see to it that “Purity” is upheld.
A deputation from Will Hays’ department hovered over us like a swarm of flies throughout the entire production. But Shakespeare was a bit too much for them. They insisted that many of Mercutio’s more obviously lewd lines should be cut, but they didn’t understand the choicest bits. They thought they were just Shakespeare’s flowery way of saying things. John Barrymore, as Mercutio, had a great time putting over these lines with their correct meaning. Barrymore makes a most hilarious, most bawdy Mercutio.

Leslie Howard, Reginald Denny and John Barrymore

“Bedroom” Scene

Naturally enough, the bedroom scene also worried the Hays people. They did not mind a bed being introduced, but they made us lie on it at an angle of “not less of forty-five degrees.” There is some absurd rule or other that nobody must be seen lying flat on a bed on the screen. So we had to be elevated, by the careful arrangement of cushions, to exactly forty-five degrees!
This censorship was more amusing than harmful. We really had very little difficulty in “squaring” the gentlemen concerned.
I think you will find that Thalberg has not fallen into any of the mistakes Reinhardt made in regard to treatment and dialogue.
Reinhardt followed the letter of the law. Thalberg has concentrated on the spirit of the thing, and has taken as many liberties as he thought fit.
But, although he has imbued the whole production with naturalness and suspense, he has by no means forgotten the essential nature of the dialogue.

Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer

Norma’s Hard Work

Whereas in the Dream, most of the spectacle was incidental, it does, in Romeo and Juliet, accentuate the poetry. In Reinhardt’s film, it was apparent that insufficient thought had been given to the dialogue. The muddled way in which many of the characters spoke their parts denoted clearly that they didn’t know what they were talking about.
In a way, this was quite understandable. Believe me, it is the most difficult thing on earth to speak blank verse as if you really meant it. One has to go away for hours at a time and grapple with the lines until one really begins to feel their power and beauty.
Norma Shearer worked on her part for nearly a year, and though her performance may lack the glorious spontaneity of girlhood, it is, at any rate, very intelligent. I am not going to say she is the perfect Juliet. There isn’t an actress in the world who could fully capture Juliet’s fragrance and beauty, but Shearer comes remarkably near to it.
Her intelligence and sophistication which, at first sight, might be considered a draw-back, proved to be assets. Good acting is a matter of intelligence and hard work – not emotion. And Norma has certainly worked hard.

(Film Weekly, May 30, 1936)