Romeo and Juliet – About Leslie Howard’s Romeo

Leslie Howard’s Romeo

Leslie Howard as Romeo

Leslie Howard as Romeo, by A. Jympson Harman, Lincolnshire Echo, June 2, 1936

Leslie wore blue linen slacks and a white shirt. After the breakfast things had been cleared away, we stayed in the garden and talked of Shakespeare and the movies.
“What a wonderful showman Shakespeare was,” said Leslie. “You know, when I began “Romeo and Juliet” with Norma Shearer I thought I was tackling something rather highbrow for the cinema. Yet it proved to be much more suited to popular taste than some of the modern plays I have been doing lately.
“Shakespeare knew his box-office as well as the best of to-day’s Hollywood showmen. If you examine ‘Romeo’ you will see how cunningly he catered for every sort of taste in his time. He had to, you know. Box-office success was as important to him as it is to any showman to-day.
“Literary language was a theatrical convention of his day, but he had the masses to cater for as well, and right well he did. Look how local and contemporary are the comedy allusions, for instance.
High to Low.
“We found when we came to do ‘Romeo’ as a film that all the necessary popular demands had been provided for. There was low comedy to relieve the love scenes and high drama as a contrast to soliloquy.
“Yes, it was an interesting experience to be chasing Tybalt up a street of old Verona one moment and swooning over love scenes with Juliet another.”
In Leslie’s opinion, Shakespeare would have made a fine movie showman. He wrote in terms of action, though, through the limitations of the stage in his days, so much had to be described in words.
But there was a wider diversity in the classes of his audience than the movie magnate of to-day has to consider. That is why they found “Romeo” had so much for the cinema when it was properly analysed.
Fight in the Vault.
Leslie told me a story to show how well Shakespeare knew what the public wanted.
The talkie was produced by Irving Thalberg, who, besides being Norma Shearer’s husband, is one of the two or three great producers the film has discovered.
“Irving was puzzled by one part of the play,” said Leslie. “When we got to the fight scene between Romeo and Paris in the vault he said to his staff: ‘It seems to me that we shall not want that fight after so much slaughter has gone before. I think that Romeo should go straight into his scene at the bier of Juliet. I don’t like the idea of a fight just then. It is too disturbing.'”
“But Irving was persuaded to have the scene filmed, and they took the picture out to a very tough spot called Pomona, in California, populated mainly by fruit-canners.
It Woke Them Up.
Leslie says just after the scene where Romeo buys his poison, the thing began to sag ever so slightly. Then came the fight in the vault.
“You would have been surprised to see how the audience woke up then,” he said. “It was just the situation needed to carry the play over to the scene at the bier. Until then I had never realised how dead right Shakespeare was in his construction.”
Every opportunity has been taken to break up the play into cinema technique without playing too many tricks with the original.
Suits for 1,200.
The picture shows us a great deal of what life was like in Old Italy, and full advantage has been taken to draw on the colourful costumes and manners of the times.
“Oliver Messel has done some lovely designs for dresses,” said Leslie. Mr. Messel went to Hollywood specially for that purpose, having toured Italy first. More than 1,200 players had to be costumed for the film, I am informed, officially. More than ten miles of cloth were used for the gowns of Norma Shearer, the court ladies and the crowds.

Romeo at Home, by C.A.L., The Living Age, August 1936 (From The Observer )

We began, naturally, with Romeo and Juliet, the film he has just finished in Hollywood with Norma Shearer. ‘Would the public like it better than A Midsummer Night’s Dream?’ I asked.
‘I don’t know what they’re going to say about Romeo. It’s very fine, a beautifully produced picture; much more Shakespearean than the Dream. But then I think the Dream is one of the worst Shakespearean plays, anyway. Fantasy is always bad to act, and Shakespearean comedy isn’t understood nowadays, and when you have both together you’re headed for trouble. Now, Romeo is the ideal Shakespearean play for the screen. It’s a great show and a great romance, and the screen is always supposed to be the most romantic of mediums.’
‘Somebody told me,’ I said, ‘that Thalberg used five hundred pigeons and a heard of goats for the scene in the square. Doesn’t that sort of thing upset Shakespeare a little?’
‘Of course, Hollywood’s cardinal sin is over-elaboration and extravagance; but so long as film producers are going to do everything realistically…’
‘Need they?’
‘Certainly not, but they have done it with such elaboration and for so long that it’s going to be a bit hard to break the habit now. With Romeo, in particular, the whole canvas is so reach by nature that if you’re going to treat it realistically, you might as well be lavish–let your square in Verona be a square in Verona, turn your feuds loose in it, have great masses and a sense of busy life–500 pigeons if you want them–and beautiful dances, pavanes and passacaglias. The whole film is a curious combination of magnitude and intimacy. You see, that thing about background–on the stage, as you say, an enormous background would smother the play. But on the screen you can take the background right away at any moment and it becomes an intimate study of two people…
‘For instance, the farewell scene after their night together. The room in half darkness, Juliet still lying on the bed, Romeo turning towards the window, and the bird’s song outside–the intimacy of that scene is perfectly amazing. By the way, we learnt that there’s one kind of Shakespearean line that is wonderful on the screen–the quiet, philosophic line, and particularly the soliloquies. You can play them as low as you like, whisper them, and the effect is right. On the stage you always lose a little because you have to speak them sharply’
I asked him if he thought Romeo a good actor’s part, and he told me, terrible.
‘I always thought it was a perfectly deadly part, except in the later scenes, where Romeo was something more than just a man in love. A man in love is a stupid thing–he bores you stiff, in real life or anywhere else; but a woman in love is fascinating–she has a kind of aura. Shakespeare was obviously fascinated by Juliet, and it was the woman he enriched. Romeo acquires something in the later scenes, when he becomes the victim of a political feud, and in his tragic moments he’s rather interesting–a kind of adolescent Hamlet. But in the early parts of the play he’s an awful bore. That’s where the film script is so good. It cuts those early scenes ruthlessly.
‘I really took the part,’ he added, ‘because they sent me this wonderful script to read. I had turned Romeo down half-a-dozen times, but now he seemed interesting to me for the first time in my life. No more of the Rosaline business. He jumps in quickly, without any mooning about. Some of the wordless sequences, too, are quite electrifying. The scene where Romeo is looking for Tybalt to kill him, after “Thy beauty hath made me effeminate.” Suddenly galvanized, he picks up the sword Mercutio has dropped, rushes through the alleys where the life of the town is going on, women shopping, builders working, and spies him in a wine booth drinking with the rest of the Capulet gang. He stops dead and shouts the man’s name “Tybalt!”–and by that time the audience is on its toes, ready for anything. That’s a scene you can only do in pictures, and they’ve done it beautifully.’
‘So in the end you came to like Romeo?’
‘It was a very good experience for me, anyway. I’m doing Hamlet in the theater this autumn, and I thought I’d better see what sort of Shakespearean actor I should make. The screen isn’t really an actor’s medium at all, though,’ he added. ‘It’s a very fascinating medium for producer and director. People like Korda and Thalberg get the best thing out of pictures. Quite frankly, if I had to go on year after year acting in one picture after another, without any control over the direction…’
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