Romeo and Juliet – Announcements and Press Campaign
Romeo and Juliet – Announcements and Press Campaign
- [Norma Shearer taking dance lessons], Screenland, March 1936
- [Director Cukor meets the cast], Hollywood, March 1936
- The Balcony Scene, Film Weekly, April 18, 1936
- An Epilogue To ‘Romeo’, The New York Times, April 19, 1936
- Giulietta e Romeo, Lo Schermo, May 1936
- Howard and Shearer in Romeo and Juliet, Modern Screen, June 1936
- The Immortal Romance by Ida Zeitlin, Movie Classic, June 1936
- Prof. Strunk of Cornell Returns From a Hollywood Year With ‘Romeo and Juliet’ by Eileen Creelman, The New York Sun, June 11, 1936
- ‘Romeo and Juliet’ For Posterity, The New York Times, August 9, 1936
- Romeo and Juliet, The Cinema, September 9, 1936
- Romeo and Juliet, Film Weekly, October 17, 1936
(Screenland, March 1936)
(Hollywood, March 1936)
The Balcony Scene
Film Weekly presents the first picture to arrive from Hollywood of Norma Shearer and Leslie Howard in the famous balcony scene, as depicted in Irving Thalberg’s production of “Romeo and Juliet.”
(Film Weekly, April 18, 1936)
Dr. Strunk, Pundit, Went West to Scoff And Stayed for Teas and Musicales
Hollywood.– To hear the lads at Metro tell it, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was merely a well-intended effort of the local literary society at the Odd Fellows Hall. It was all right in its way, they say, but as for being what Shakespeare should be on the screen, well, of course–and they smile a superior smile. In fact, to hear them talk, one gathers that the million performances that have been given during the hundreds of years since the billboards stated “personally supervised and directed by William Shakespeare” have been the work of some amateur hour troupes. “Romeo and Juliet” is to be de luxe and colossal, just the way the Bard would have presented it.
The attitude at the MGM studio certainly is different from that which pervaded the Warner lot when they were taking art seriously. In Burbank, when the name Shakespeare was mentioned, they all bared their heads; when Max Reinhardt walked on the set they bowed and spoke in whispers. At Metro, the way the subject is treated, one might easily imagine that “Romeo” is Faith Baldwin’s latest serial. Irving Thalberg, they tell you, is not interested in uplifting the masses or popularizing Shakespeare; it’s just that he thinks “Romeo” is a bang-up yarn that, with the cast he has given it, will do well at the box office.
After a year of preparation and shooting, the picture is now in the cans. With the exception of Norma Shearer, the principals are hardened Shakespearean actors. They say, however, that while every performer does his role with gusto, almost with abandon, there is no scenery chewing in the piece. Until the climax there is no hint that it is a tragedy. Metro’s “Romeo” is a rollicking, gay affair.
* * *
From Hollywood’s standpoint, the most interesting figure connected with the production is Dr. William Strunk Jr. of Cornell, known on the lot as “the professor.” It is possible that Dr. Strunk is as startled by the industry as the industry is by him. From that day a year ago when the Folger Library in Washington recommended Dr. Strunk as one of the land’s distinguished authorities on Shakespeare, each day has been a surprise both to the professor and the industry. Academicians have never been popular with the town. They invariably insist, when they are called upon as experts, that things be done to suit them. But Dr. Strunk hasn’t wrestled with undergraduates at Ithaca for thirty-five years for nothing. Amiable, shrewd, seemingly bewildered, he has molded the production so that, he believes, the most ardent student of Shakespeare will not only find no fault but will applaud. He found that a director or a producer is no harder to handle than a freshman, if you know how.
* * *
Originally, Dr. Strunk was hired for but six weeks, along with Dr. John Tucker Murray of Harvard, to lend a note of culture to the venture. Dr. Murray returned to the classroom, but Dr. Strunk remained. He asked for an additional six weeks’ leave from the university and got it; then asked for the term and finally for the year. He has spent every day on the set, has watched every scene made and listened to every line of dialogue. He has become such an institution on the Metro lot that they wanted to use him in “We Went to College,” a forthcoming epic of Class B vintage. The professor’s amiability vanished at the suggestion.
Dr. Strunk hardly knew what to expect when he arrived in Hollywood. He had attended the movies once or twice a week for years and he had heard stories about the town. When the first act of the script was laid in his hands when he arrived he shuddered a little. But when he read it he says that he was surprised to see how faithfully they had adhered to the original.
“The film is an excellent medium in which to present Shakespeare,” he said. “The continuity of plot is more natural. Stage audiences are accustomed to listening, but picture audiences want to see things happen. In this the narrative has been resolved into action. The limitations of the stage necessitated many omission that can be restored in the film.
* * *
“On the stage it was necessary for Balthasar to meet Romeo on the street apparently by accident. Now Romeo would be stopping somewhere, wouldn’t he? So Balthasar goes to his lodging. This gives movement and suspense. For physical reasons Romeo bought the poison from the apothecary in front of the shop. The film permits a change of scenery without any loss of time and so Romeo enters the shop in a natural fashion and the situation is improved. We show things whenever they can be shown without adding any dialogue. A more fluid product results.”
Thus has the professor endeared himself to Hollywood. He realizes that the medium is different and that the limitations of the stage can be improved upon. Too, he views writings of Shakespeare as vital, lively words, not to be approached with a pseudo reverence. One of his first statements when they were gingerly approaching him about the feasibility of abridging certain speeches relieved the studio of all fears.
“Shakespeare never said anything in six lines,” he commented, “that could be said in twenty-four.”
The professor’s stay has been pleasant. He has toured some of the night spots and has had dinner at the Trocadero. He has had lunch at the Thalbergs. He was invited by Mrs. Franchot Tone personally to a musicale in her home, proof enough that he has arrived. He attended the academy dinner and stood in the foyer pointing out celebrities to a newspaper man who should have known them, but did not. He did an astute article for a trade paper on Shakespeare in the cinema and put a pretty profound title on it. It was published under a somewhat altered heading, “The Professor Goes to Town.” A Metro executive has described him as the only person in Hollywood who wears dark glasses because he needs them.
Dr. Strunk says that when he returns to Cornell he will carry an alarm clock that will ring when he has talked about Hollywood for fifteen minutes. He will fine himself a dollar, he says, every time he introduces the subject of Hollywood into a conversation. “But if someone else brings the matter up, Heaven help him. He will have asked for it,” he threatens.
* * *
While in some respects “Romeo” is just another picture on the Metro lot, it is being done with lavishness and a complete disregard for expense that is noteworthy. It was to cost what it cost, but it had to be good. Oliver Messel conducted months of research in Italy and brought back trunks full of material.
When Miss Shearer’s costumes were designed she began to live her role night and day. Her evening apparel was copied from the dresses in the play. Her street clothes bore the mark and style of Verona. She wore her hair in public and in the studio in the exact manner of Juliet. When rehearsals were called, she was in the spirit of the thing. First the cast was rehearsed in the complete play. They learned their lines and Leslie Howard commented that it was the first production he had ever been in in Hollywood where they couldn’t change the dialogue after he had memorized it. Talbot Jennings, who wrote the script, had resolved all the script, had resolved all the poetry into the form of prose so that there would be no inclination to read it other than in natural fashion. When they were letter perfect in their parts, the whole was photographed and the players studied their actions against plain backgrounds. Then they went on the sets, confident in their characterization.
* * *
The square on which stood the Church of San Zeno was built on the back lot and covered eight acres. Streets leading from the square held sets in which some of the incidental action took place. The palace and the garden of Juliet’s home were built indoors. The famous balcony was duplicated three times, the players moving from one to another to take care of the camera angles. The finished scene lasts only nine minutes and fifty-three seconds, but the filming of it took days and it was found more expedient to have the three balconies than to put the camera on a crane and move it about. Shooting began in January and has just been completed. For six weeks the picture proved a boon to the extras, 300 of them being used every day. The wardrobe made 1,250 major costumes for the cast.
Strangely, the matter of censorship was one of the studio’s gravest concerns. Realism had to be tempered out of consideration for the Hays office. Undue stress on certain passages of dialogue could have raised merry Ned with the censors. The boudoir scene between Romeo and Juliet after their marriage had to be played with a restraint that nettled the performers. Some of the troupe were all for indicating that life in Verona was not as saintly as the casual reader might presume and this kept the censorship contact men on pins and needles for weeks. Eventually the whole thing was filmed without casualties.
Hollywood is awaiting the preview with considerable interest. The town, frankly, didn’t care much for “Dream,” but Metro promises that this will be different. If the money and thought and care that have gone into “Romeo” result in box-office success, then other of Shakespeare’s works will be filmed. But if this fails, the town’s strivings toward culture must find another outlet. The Bard will be regarded as one of Hollywood’s major flops.
Sulla falsariga del dramma shakespeariano lo schermo sta risuscitando dalle ombre storiche e leggendarie del passato il più classico episodio d’amore del nostro Rinascimento e il più popolare: “Giulietta e Romeo”. Il nome della produttrice responsabile — la Metro Goldwyn Mayer — è avallo decisivo sulla bontà della riesumazione; i particolari di realizzazione ad oggi conosciuti sono più che sufficienti a confermare la preziosità, giustificando in pieno l’atmosfera di attesa e di interesse che già si è creata intorno al film.
Alla più armoniosa e alla più femminile fra le attrici dello schermo mondiale, a Norma Shearer, che seppe far rivivere, in tutta la sua dolorosa dolcezza, la poetica figura di Elisabetta Barrett, è stato affidato il difficile incarico di dare oggi anima e volto alla deliziosa figura leggendaria di Giulietta dei Capuleti.
La ricerca di un Romeo, capace di elevarsi all’altezza della situazione, — a quanto raccontano le cronache hollywoodiane — fu invece lunga e laboriosa, ma felice. La scelta cadde su Leslie Howard, già compagno di Norma Shearer in “Catene”. Chi lo ricorda e lo ha seguito nella sua ulteriore ascesa artistica non farà fatica a convincersi che “La Primula Rossa” ci presenterà un Romeo idealmente romantico e romanzesco.
Alla coppia dei protagonisti principali fa corona un seguito altrettanto eccezionale: John Barrymore, Edna May Oliver, Basil Rathbone, Reginald Denny, Aubrey Smith, Ralph Forbes, Violet Kemble Cooper, ecc. La regia è di George Cukor, il realizzatore di “Davide Copperfield”, uno specialista di ricostruzioni storiche, assistito per la circostanza dal professore William Strunk dell’Università di Cornell, riconosciuta autorità shakespeariana, e da James Vincent, direttore da nove anni di un’accademia di recitazione classica.
Un capitolo a parte meriterebbe la messinscena. Per i costumi, gli interni ed altri numerosi particolari, hanno servito da modello le opere dei più grandi pittori italiani del Rinascimento. Gozzoli, Botticelli, Carpaccio, l’Angelico, ecc., che ci hanno tramandato a traverso i loro capolavori tutto il fasto dell’epoca, rivivono nella cinematografia del classico di Shakespeare. Un Botticelli, che si trova a Verona, ha, ad esempio, ispirato l’abito di Giulietta nel primo incontro con Romeo nella cella di Frate Lorenzo, mentre l’ambiente è stato ricostruito da un quadro del Carpaccio. Anche la piazza di Verona, con la chiesa di S. Zeno e il Municipio, è risorta da un affresco del Gozzoli che si trova in una galleria fiorentina.
A questi elementi devesi aggiungere una collezione di 2600 fotografie riprese sul luogo da una squadra di esperti appositamente inviati da Hollywood in Italia la scorsa estate.
Di fronte ad una somma di valori interpretativi ed ambientali così preziosamente selezionati e genialmente impiegati non sembrerà esagerazione affermare che il film “Giulietta e Romeo” farà rivivere intera l’anima cinquencentesca di Verona in tutta la severa architettura dei suoi palazzi e nel clima ardente delle sue lotte intestine fra Capuleti e Montecchi.
Behind the scenes with Romeo and Juliet–the greatest love drama ever filmed
“Have you been on the Romeo and Juliet set?”
“They say Mercutio died today–it was marvelous.”… “Look–there goes one of the ladies in the ballroom scene.”… “They’ve got pigeons drinking out of the fountains, and peacocks strutting around on the balconies.”… “I sneaked into Juliet’s bedroom when no one was looking–you’ve never seen anything like it, I give you my word.”… “Did you get a peek at the Romeo and Juliet set?–you lucky devil!”
So it goes today on the ordinarily blasé M-G-M lot. Wherever you see two or more people gathered together, eyes blazing, words tumbling from their lips, you can take a ten-to-one shot that they’re talking about the glories of Romeo and Juliet. Or, more accurately, one is doing the talking–the lucky devil hereinbefore mentioned–while the others open wide their ears to absorb whatever exciting tidbits he may offer.
For Romeo and Juliet is one of those productions touched with the magic which makes its every detail exciting. And because you who read are invisible, you are granted a privilege denied to the solid flesh–that of slipping through the iron door, past the Cerberus on guard, and in among the lights and shadows, the cables and cameras, the grips and actors, whose good fortune it is to be here by right and not on sufferance.
Standing at the edge of the set, you peer into a shadowy chamber whose dim gray vaults seem to recede mysteriously to infinite distance–the tomb of the Capulets. In the foreground stands the carved stone bier of Juliet, with four thick ivory candles in their tall, gray wrought-iron holders, like four sentinels at the corners, strangely suggestive of the child’s prayer: “Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, guard the bed that I lie on.” Gray, shading to black, is the keynote of the scene, highlighted only by the emerald-green garb of Paris, lying dead in Romeo’s arms at the foot of the bier, and by the gaily-colored flowers of death, but simple, innocent little blooms, with something pathetic in their vigil, as though they wondered what they were they were doing here, far from the sunlit fields where they belong.
Romeo, who has just killed Paris in the duel he couldn’t avoid, is in somber black, his white face so haggard with grief and despair as to recall inevitably Friar Laurence’s earlier words:
“Affliction is enamour’d of thy parts,
And thou are wedded to calamity.”
George Cukor, whose Little Women and David Copperfield forever bear judgement to his flawless taste, stands beside the cameraman, directing the scene. His voice is quiet, his gestures quiet–only the brilliance of his eyes behind their glasses, the involuntary movements of his body as they follow the actors’ movements, betray the intensity of his absorption.
Romeo drags the body of Paris to a stone recess in the wall. “Cuts!” calls Mr. Cukor. Paris jumps up and becomes Ralph Forbes. Romeo relaxes and is Leslie Howard.
Huliet has not yet appeared. But the knowledge of her presence in her dressing room, a few feet away, lends an added glamor to the occasion. Fr if Juliet means to you what she does to most people–the essence of all the color and light and warmth in Shakespeare’s greatest romance–then you won’t be able to suppress a throb of excitement at the prospect of your first climpse of her in the person of Norma Shearer.
Here, while they make ready for the next scene, is your chance to look about. Genial Reginald Denny, playing “Benvolio,” enters with a towel draped shawl-like round his head, as though he were emerging from a Turkish bath. Acutally he is emerging from strenuous fencing practice for his fight with Basil Rathbone as “Tybalt.”
A small figure, whose straight fair hair swings in what used to be known as a Dutch cut, has taken over the wardrobe man’s job for the nonce, and is vigorously applying a whiskbroom to Mr. Howard’s doublet and hose. Now that you think of it, wasn’t that same figure perched on the bier a moment ago, eyes glued to her father’s face as he mourned over Paris! For if you fail to recognize her as Leslie Howard’s daughter from the resemblance between the two finely-chiseled faces, there’s something indefinable in his attitude which leaves no room for doubt–a protective tenderness in his arm round her shoulders, a swift stooping to kiss her hair in a caress of which he’s almost unconscious.
“Hello, Leslie.” The voice has a familiar ring, and your heart jumps a little as you realize it’s the voice you last heard speaking the lines of Elizabeth Barrett–that you have only to turn your head to see the Juliet who is bound to make screen history–the first Juliet of the talking films.
You turn, and your eyes are met by a radiant vision in shimmering white. A chaplet of gold leaves binds the smooth crown of her head, and from under it a cascade of dark curls escapes, framing the face and lying softly along the nape of the neck. An antique chain and pendant seem almost too heavy for the delicate throat they clasp. The bodice and filmy sleeve puffs are banded with exquisitely tiny leaves, and the arms from band to wrist are sheathed in chiffon.
Decked though she is in the bridal finery in which they buried her, she remains for the moment a merry Juliet–the laughing girl whose tenderest love passages were threaded with a vein of delicious humor. She holds the shining folds of her gown well above her silver-shod feet, to keep them from the dust of the floor, and her lips part and her eyes crinkle in the brilliantly sweet Shearer smile as she holds out her hand to the little Howard girl who comes running towards her.
“I’m so glad to see you,” says Miss Shearer. “I’ve been wanting to congratulate you on your work the other night.”
It seems that Leslie–named after her father–took part with him in a recent radio sketch. Her face lights up. “I was so terribly nervous,” she confides earnestly. “My legs wobbled, and the paper shook in my hand–till I said the first word. Then suddenly I wasn’t nervous any longer.”
Miss Shearer nods in sympathy. “I know that feeling–I’ve had it so often myself.” There is no hint of that offending patronage affected by so many people in their dealings with children. She speaks, not as an adult to a child, but as one self-respecting actress to another.
“Yes,” she replies, in answer to a question. “There is a difference between playing a Shakespearean role and any other–if I can judge from my single experience. First, you’ve got to be letter-perfect. Changing or forgetting a word isn’t ordinarily a tragedy, but you can’t take any chances with Shakespeare. That may not seem an important difference on the face of it, but knowing the lines so well makes them a part of you, and they change from beautiful verse into the real talk of a real girl. Which is very important. Because unless you read the lines sincerely, better for you if you never read them at all. Just because it’s poetry–an artificial form of speech to us–the feeling behind it has to be sincere, or else you’re lost. And I’ve noticed another difference,” she says, smiling a little. “I’ve kept my enthusiasm. No matter how much you like a part, there always come moments when you’re tired and discouraged and feel it’s not all you hoped it would be. But the longer I stay with Juliet, the more I love her.”
Bill Daniels, magician among cameramen, comes over for a word. Daniels is the man of whom John Barrymore once said: “He could make me look like Jackie Cooper’s grandson–if I wanted to look like Jackie Cooper’s grandson–which I don’t.” He is as sought after as any star–he is a star in his field. But to work on this Shearer picture is as much a labor of love with him as of duty–not only because he thinks she’ll make “the loveliest Juliet of them all”–not only because she’ll stand uncomplainingly all day, if need be, experimenting with makeups and costumes till he gets what he wants–but because she’s been a prime favorite with him ever since the time when he had to hustle back and forth between her and Garbo, doing retakes of The Barretts while he started shooting The Painted Veil. “She knew what a stew I was in,” he tells me later, “and she did her best to hurry things up for me. I’ll never forget how she looked at me, sort of teasing, and smiled and said, ‘Now you can run along back to your sweetheart'”.
In a corner yonder, waiting to be called, sits Friar Laurence, hood thrown back from his tonsured pate with its fringe of white hair–hands emerging from the wide sleeves of his habit and crossed placidly over what would have been a paunch if he’d been a fat instead of a lean monk–on his face a look of supreme benignity. For this production has spelled a little romance of his own to Henry Kolker.
Assigned first to the part of old Montague, Mr. Kolker was pleased. An experienced Shakespearean actor, he asked nothing better than to be associated in whatever capacity with this stirring adventure on the screen, to take any part in it, however small. “Of course,” he was heard to remark one day, “the part I’d really like to play is Friar Laurence. Oh, I know I’m not the type–they’ll probably use a round-faced man for the friar–.” And though a note of wistfulness may have crept into his voice, his disclaimer was obviously sincere as he launched into an enthusiastic description of how this same imaginary round faced man should look and act in the coveted role of the friar.
A few days later the telephone rang. “We want to test you for Friar Laurence,” he heard or thought he heard Mr. Cukor say, though it sounded more like one of those things that happen in a waking dream. “Think you’d like to try it?”
Tonsured and clothed in the habit of a Franciscan monk, he made his tests. And when he saw them, even the scrupulous Mr. Kolker was forced to agree that there might be something in the theory of a lean faced monk. But he still refused to believe the best. “Well, anyway,” he comforted himself, “I’m still old Montague.” Till the telephone rang again. “You’re it, Henry,” Mr. Cukor told him. Miracles do happen. And that, in case you should be curious about it, is why the friar sits in his chair, looking as though everything were for the best.
You’ve probably been wondering about the white-smocked little man, standing unobtrusively at his easel, a palette in one hand, a bouquet of brushes in the other, intent on the picture of the tomb scene he’s transferring to canvas. In the formality of his wing collar and bow tie against the informality of his smock, topped by his face of a wise, shy, lovable gnome, he looks like a character out of Dickens. “He must be somebody,” you decide. He is somebody–Sir John Lavery, eminent English artist, lover and creator of beauty, drawn here by the already far-famed loveliness of the Cedric Gibbons sets.
He tiptoes over and whispers in Miss Shearer’s ear, eyeing her half hopefully, half anxiously meantime, as a troubled boy might eye his ever-helpful mother. They both glance toward the set, hidden from view now by tall black screens. Miss Shearer give him a conspiratorial nod and vanishes behind the screens. Two minutes later they’re removed. The fairy god mother’s eyelid droops in a solemn wink at Sir John who, beaming like a cherub, returns to his canvas.
Only once more this afternoon is his work interrupted. Once more the screens obstruct his view and yours, but when they are parted this time, they reveal a loveliness worth waiting for.
The chill of the tomb has been warmed to life. A lustrous pall of palest gold satin, from which the lamps strike subtle lights and shadows, covers the harshness of the bier. The candles burn. Juliet lies under a gossamer web, weighted with pearls to keep it from floating away. Her dark head in its coronet of leaves rests on a gold-stitched pillow, her palms meet as if in prayer. And though the semblance of death has closed her merry brown eyes, you feel an impulse to cry with Romeo:
“For here lies Juliet, and her beauty makes
This vault a feasting presence full of light.”
The profile turned toward you is so pure, so young, so innocent–the attitude so moving, the whole poignant picture so magically what it ought to be, that suddenly Juliet and Norma Shearer melto into one, and you long to see her dancing at the Capulet ball, leaning over a balcony to tell a strange young man how much she loves him, losing patience with the nurse, defying her father to marry her to the count. All the beautiful scenes Shakespeare has written for her pass before your mind’s eye. Today you saw Juliet dead. And the sight has sent your heart leaping ahead to the day that will bring her to life for you in all her gaiety and graciousness, on the screen.
(Movie Classic, June 1936)
Howard and Shearer in Romeo and Juliet
(Modern Screen, June 1936)
This time Metro cast to type. Whatever they did with the rest of the picture, however incongrous might have seemed the casting of John Barryore as the gay, youthful, witty Mercutio, there is no doubt about the fitness of William Strunk Jr. for his part in the production of “Romeo and Juliet.”
He looks exactly like an English professor. More, he even looks like a Cornell professor with a vast knowledge of Shakespearean drama. His manner is mild. He wears thick glasses. He has a quiet, pleasant sense of humor. He likes Hollywood, and, although he’d never express it that way, he’s quite crazy about the movie of “Romeo and Juliet.”
That sabbatical year, or sabbatical eleven months to be exact, in Hollywood has probably left the professor externally unchanged. He is not even slightly tanned, nor has he become a sun-worshipper. His clothes still look more like the East than like Sunset Boulevard. He never once said “whoopee.” He would, during the interview, drink just one glass of beer.
But he’s learned a good deal about movies, about Hollywood and it might be about Shakespeare. He’s a little vague about just how he happened to go to Hollywood; but he thinks John Quincy Adams of the Shakespeare Memorial Library in Washington suggested him. He had intended to stay out West only a few weeks. He remained eleven months, obtaining a leave of absence from his own university. It seems to have been a happy as well as an illuminating experience. “I liked the people a good deal better than I had liked some of the pictures they turned out,” Mr. Strunk confided.
He hadn’t known exactly what his duties were to be.
“But as soon as I learned it was to be a picture of ‘Romeo and Juliet,” he confessed, ” I started doing some research. Even before I went out to Hollywood, I brushed up my knowledge of Italy. I read everything I could, and tried to become familiar with the period.
“After all, I didn’t want to be the only person who might seem ignorant about it.”
That wasn’t so odd as it sounded. He found, when he arried in Hollywood, that everybody seemed to know all about “Romeo and Juliet.”
Certainly, the producer, Irving Thalberg, did; and George Cukor, the director, and Talbot Jennings, the adaptor. Mr. Strunk was a little dazed whether he was an authority on Shakespeare. Hollywood, he finally admitted, probably supposed that he was.
“But they seem to have an expert for everything out there,” he said, “an expert for this costume and for that piece of architecture. My position seemed to overlap with a good many others. I didn’t know just what I was to do at first, except to talk over the adaptation with the others.”
Then he made some work for himself. Talbot Jennings, after turning over the script to Cukor, buried himself in “The Good Earth.”
“And there seemed to be some kind of feeling about the studio,” the professor remarked mildly, “that Talbot Jennings was not to be disturbed.”
So, when speeches had to be cut, or cuts had to be restored, or bits of background action had to be thought up, it was to Prof. Strunk that they appealed.
“They consulted me about all kinds of things,” Mr. Strunk admitted, “but of course I have no way of telling whether or not they took my advice. Even when the things got in the picture, it might have been at some one else’s suggestion too. They probably consulted a lot of people. But they were always nice about asking me.”
As the picture went into production, there seemed to be a good deal to ask about. Prof. Strunk himself had never even wondered about such problems as arose several times a day. During all his years of lecturing about Shakespeare and about drama, he had never stopped to think what a Veronese apothecary shop might look like. No one before had ever inquired what kind of drugs would be on sale, in what bottles or jars they would be contained, what furniture such a shop would boast. No one had brought up the problem of Friar Laurence’s cell.
“It had always been just Friar Laurence’s cell,” he explained. “Just those printed words at the opening of a scene.
“In Hollywood it became a real place. They had to know how big was Friar Laurence’s cell, whether it had a window, whether it had a window, whether it had a bed. They asked if Friar Laurence would have a table in his cell, or a desk; and whether there would be a Bible on this desk, or a cross, or a cross above his bed, and what kind of a cross. They had to know every detail of that cell. It had to become solid, and real, and pictorial.”
Well, Prof. Strunk might not have known all or any of these minor facts; but he did know where to find them out. He went through books, all kinds of books. He brought out photographs of pictures, thousands of them. There were pictures of the period, more or less, by Botticelli, Fra Angelico, and scores of others. There were drawings and engravings, some of them more modern. A few even depicted an apothecary’s shop. The hairdresser copied Norma Shearer’s Juliet coiffure from another.
The drama began to seem very real. Prof. Strunk, between excursions to the library, between demands by the publicity department, watched the actual filming. He was entranced by the duels, and quoted Basil Rathbone as saying he had never been in a better one.
“You actually held your breath during them,” Mr. Strunk declared. “It didn’t seem possible that one person or another wouldn’t have an ear or a nose cut off. The sound was terrifying.”
He admired Leslie Howard’s Romeo, and grew quite excited over John Barrymore’s Mercutio. Andy Devine’s portrayal of the nurse’s servant he found particularly comic.
(The New York Sun, June 11, 1936)
[…] Though people have cheerfully, ever since the existence of the medium, paid their money at movie box offices to see the “Romeo and Juliet” theme, boy meets girl, in shabbier versions and in as many variegated forms as the minds of Hollywood authors could twist it, they want to know, and rightfully, what Mr. Thalberg and MGM plan to do with the classic love story, embellished by the great poetry of Shakespeare.
* * *
Mr. Thalberg’s own words were reassuring: “The picturization of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is the fulfillment of a long-cherished dream. It is ten years since I first formed the plan of bringing this drama to the screen. But for the presentation of Shakespeare, the spoken word is indispensable. It was not until sound has been successfully united with the camera in the now highly developed art of the talking picture that the plan could be realized.”
For two years all the resources of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios were concentrated on the preparation of the play. Conscious of the risk he was taking, Thalberg felt that this picture was to be made, not in the actual filming, but in the preparation. Here was a curious combination of museum piece to be placed on record for posterity as no stage production could be, and a love classic that had thrilled playgoers for centuries. There could be no mistakes, whether in performance, setting or costume. It was the first time Shakespeare’s love story would take concrete and final form. No minute detail in preparation could be overlooked. Still more important, and more fundamental, the balance between a big spectacle and a simple dramatic love story had to be maintained.
To guide him Mr. Thalberg called on two of the foremost Shakespearean authorities in America, Professor William Strunk of Cornell and Professor John Tucker Murray of Harvard. He placed before them the two years’ research that had been going on under the direction of Nathalie Bucknall. Together they conferred with Talbot Jennings, himself a Shakespeare student, and author of a play, “This Side Idolatry,” on the dramatist’s life.
Every known version of the play was studied, the quartos, the folios and the acting versions of hundreds of stage performances. Versions such as Davenant’s, prepare in 1622, and Otway’s “Caius Marius” of 1680, both provided with happy endings, were glanced at and discarded. The adaptations of Garrick and Henry Irving met same fate. It was decided to forget the stage and retain Shakespeare. This was Thalberg’s first break with stage tradition.
Another came in setting the period for the play. Stage producers had often set the lovers in Elizabethan England, or in Verona of that day. Thalberg felt, with his advisers, that Shakespeare’s intention was to set the lovers in the midst of the excitement and luxury of the Italian Renaissance, in its height about the middle of the fifteenth century.
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To make certain that the atmosphere of the Renaissance would be re-created in the studios, he invited a young designer of brilliant reputation, Oliver Messel, of London, to join the company as artistic consultant. Messel was immediately dispatched to Verona with a crew of camera men. For three months they photographed everything that might be incorporated in the film–old painting to give ideas for the costumes, portions of old buildings, scores of balconies, churches, museums.
The casting of the title roles has occasioned much comment. Miss Shearer, who has never played on the legitimate stage, went through a rigorous novitiate before she took her screen test for the part. She immersed herself in books of the period, read the memoirs of every Juliet of importance, and, during the course of her study, became almost an authority on the Elizabethan and the Renaissance periods in history.
The choice of Leslie Howard to play Romeo, as well as that of Edna May Oliver to play the nurse, C. Aubrey Smith, Lord Capulet, and the other notables of the cast was made on the basis of their work in the films.
The little Italian town, thousands of years in the building, was recreated in the studios in a period of three months. Covering four acres, the Cathedral Square was surrounded on the lot by noble Gothic and Romanesque buildings, the Cathedral of San Zeno, the Guild Halls and several stately palaces. On other stages were the palace of the Capulets, the great ballroom, and the garden with the famous balcony visible at one end. Though beauty and authenticity in settings and costumes are no novelty in motion pictures, rarely have the films given such a setting to a story.
(The New York Times, August 9, 1936)
What Leslie Howard described in Film Weekly as “the greatest screen experiment for years” has now been completed, and Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” has become “the two hours’ traffick” of the screen.
As everybody knows, the film was the last work, before his recent tragic death, of Irving Thalberg, who put into it everything he knew and everything he could command from others as th production chief of the vast M.G.M. studios.
Although it cost a fortune, Romeo was to a large extent an idealistic enterprise on the part of Thalberg, who did so much to raise the tone of popular screen entertainment. For Norma Shearer, who spent a year studying the part of Juliet, it was, too, the fulfilment of a long-standing ambition.
Directed by George Cukor (the painstaking maker of David Copperfield), Romeo is played by a company of 1,200 in settings which might be described as museums of accurate period details.
And the words are Shakespeare’s own–exactly as he wrote them.
(Film Weekly, October 17, 1936)