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Thursday, August 03, 2017

Enrich Thyself ...

Your Assignment: Go See Romeo and Juliet

Could theatres enrich as well as entertain? Many strove toward that end. It was good for community relations, and tie-in with schools. Of distributors, MGM had deepest backlog derived off literature. Theirs were timeless as text still being issued to pupils, and read, if reluctantly, in classrooms. Many a crowded bus went to matinees of David Copperfield, Pride and Prejudice --- whatever brought books to life for youth jaded by TV, comics, and rock/roll. Widened appeal would lure grown-ups who knew Metro classics from first-run of years before, a group the Loew's Ohio in Cleveland reached to for a 1951 revival of the 1936 Romeo and Juliet. Showmen would risk an oldie where rental was low and reception assured, schools, cultural groups, any mass to fill matinee seats and offset loss from arid evening runs. Many dates were daytime only, management wise to few that would show lest prodded by teacher or club chairman. Ads reflected art house dignity, as here, with emphasis on patron request for the bring-back, and evoking of Shakespeare that clicked previous (Olivier's Hamlet and Henry V). Student pricing at fifty cents went down smoother where you knew crowds were in the bag per prior arrangement. MGM kept enrichers in service long after others retired theirs to TV and even video. Last one I caught was 1948's The Secret Garden at a Gastonia, NC mall theatre in 1981, which lo-behold had the color reel for a finish, and not faded.

Oldie adaptations were seen out for most part by remakes, as would be case for Romeo and Juliet, the play having been pic-done by Brits in the 50's, but not catching fire till teen team of Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey revived, in a big way, fascination for the tragic romance. Impact on youth market was huge, as here was first time casting as age appropriate, Norma Shearer and Leslie Howard absurdly wizened for title parts in 1936. Using kids livened R&J well beyond mere recite from yellowed scroll, and who knows but what fresh viewership might put down Sgt. Pepper records to pick up Shakespeare text? And when had Seventeen magazine last focused on doublet with tights? Whiting/Hussey were dreamy whatever the garb, especially her rolling out of marital bed in a stunning-for-"G" rated frame cap to embed itself in consciousness of boys otherwise snoozing at '68 runs. We could wonder if a new generation of Shakespeare scholarship was spawn by success this Romeo and Juliet was. Of big-deal shows released in the late 60's, it seems least talked about, another instance perhaps of having to be there to have felt its cultural impact.


Blogger Dave K said...

Ha! Had seen the '54 ROMEO AND JULIET (Laurence Harvey and Susan Shentall) at a snoozy mandatory after-school 16mm screening just a year or two before catching the '68 version in a packed house. That one was a college crowd (mostly from a Catholic men's university) and there was a lively reaction to 16 year old Olivia Hussey even before the topless bed room footage.

Going back quite a bit further, I remember a school trip to see the a matinee of Selznick's ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER, re-released sometime in the very late 50's. Boy, we loved that one! And the show included five (count 'em, FIVE!) color cartoons! One of my favorite childhood movie experiences.

9:38 AM  
Blogger Randy said...

I remember being part of a large group of sixth grade students who were bussed to a local theater to see the '68 ROMEO AND JULIET. Much hooting and cat-calling over Olivia Hussey's breasts and Leonard Whiting's naked behind. Teachers later expressed disappointment over the behavior, but realistically I'm not sure what else they should have expected out of a theater full of twelve-year-old boys.

I also remember seeing an abridged version of MGM's HUCKLEBERRY FINN -- the one with Mickey Rooney -- in class one day. I presume the abridgement was done with MGM's blessing, perhaps specifically for classroom use.

1:46 PM  
Blogger Dave K said...

In answer to Randy's observation, there was a bunch of authorized 16mm digest versions of MGM oldies, mostly 1930's literary adaptations, aimed at the schoolroom market. Pretty sure they all ran between 30 and 40 minutes. Other distributors got in the act later. Paramount squeezed the Robert Redford 'Great Gatsby' into one reel. Columbia was a bit more creative; they would suggest a generalized topic for discussion (suitable for lit, sociology or even psychology classes) then provide 20 minutes hacked out of the middle of one of their classics like 'On the Waterfront' or 'Abandon Ship' to illustrate the point!

3:04 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Craig Reardon notes another reason for R&J's 1968 success --- the music:

Hi John,

I (at 64) can certainly attest to the astonishing success of the '60s version of "Romeo and Juliet". It was considered as 'cool' as the latest top 10 hit on the radio. I would go so far as to say that among teenagers it was deemed a "must see".

I also think that Nino Rota's beautiful score for the film was a prime reason. His 'Theme from Romeo and Juliet' may or may not have gotten play on R&R Top 40 stations, I can't remember, but it sure turned up on every other format still holding on then, including "middle-of-the-road". People like pop straddler Henry Mancini put out 'their' versions, and I'm pretty sure it moved some 45s (AKA 'singles') back then. As with many fine scores with 'breakout' tunes, the entire score is a serious and beautifully-crafted one by Rota, and the so-called "song" or "Love Theme" grows organically out of it, in the original version. The young performers were beautiful to look at and it bloody well DID intensify the tragedy immeasurably to see these perfect 'kids' ending it all for love. It was DEVASTATING to 'teens, then, and I daresay it would work today for similarly-aged audiences. Love (and sexual attraction) never go out of style, and neither does the sense of drama and intensity of all that when you're young. Franco Zefferelli's decision (I assume he must have had the idea, or signed off on it) to seek out and cast young players for this famous story was nothing less than a stroke of genius, and it paid off immediately.

Years later I had the pleasure to meet another actor who'd been in "Romeo and Juliet" when he himself was similarly young--26, in fact: Michael York. Just a total gentleman. His intensity in the part of Tybalt, however, was a real performance: fiery, arrogant, and of course doomed.

In contrast, I've NEVER seen the MGM version from the '30s, another vanity project in part for Norma Shearer I'm assuming, set up by her husband Irving Thalberg. (Unless I'm just assuming.)


7:06 PM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

Redford's GATSBY would have been better as a one-reeler in theatres.

Olivia Hussey got lots of 60's young men interested in 'Shakespeare.'

9:50 AM  
Blogger Randy said...

Thank you, Dave K., for the information on MGM's "schoolroom" digests. I had never heard of those.

9:27 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

I don't remember any cut-down films, unless you count "The Boston Tea Party" from "Johnny Tremain".

I do remember field trips to see "Oliver!" and "Gone With the Wind" in glorious widescreen. And in 7th grade, when the 8th graders were off at some picnic ground for pre-graduation "sneak day", they herded us into the auditorium for some old cartoons, a 1930's "Tom Sawyer", and, inexplicably, "Damn the Defiant" (way too much talk for this audience, and even the sea battles got less reaction than a closeup of a biscuit full of maggots). No, this was NOT the day where the girls all went to a different assembly they refused to talk about afterwards.

I also remember drooling over the school's 16mm catalogs from Films Incorporated and one or two other outfits. Mixed in with "real" movies were oddities like "Secret Conclave" (despite the lurid logo art, a League of Decency endorsed docudrama about the selection of a Pope), "The Poppy is Also a Flower" (an all-star anti-heroin epic previously covered by Mr. McElwee), and "Mr. Magoo, Man of Mystery" (a pasteup of "Famous Adventures" episodes). Some of the text descriptions were a bit vague; never certain than "Gulliver's Travels" was the Fleischer version (it was accompanied by an off-model advertising image). The Disney 16mm catalog had reels of classic animated shorts and featurettes, but the features looked to be only those they despaired of ever re-releasing.

My sister-in-law now shows the complete "Johnny Tremain" to her fifth-grade classes AFTER they've read the book. She says it goes over big.

2:12 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

As to those school cut-downs, we didn't get them during my pupil days, but later on I did come across several on 16mm, including a group from Fox that included "Les Miserables" and even an abridged to twenty minutes "The Roots Of Heaven," cropped to full-frame with color gone pink.

5:24 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Ha! John, you've jostled the old memory bank here... a few trillion years ago I too had that 20 minute 16 print 'Roots of Heaven' too! Had forgotten all about that, even while talking about such things. Can't remember having any of the other Fox cut-downs (although, who knows... I couldn't remember ROH in the first place). Scott MacGillivray tells us there was a Fox digest of 'The Big Noise.' Not sure what classroom lesson plan would come with that one.

9:54 AM  
Blogger Tbone Mankini said...

We,too,had a well meaning teacher/showman combination for the re-release of DR ZHIVAGO...5 classfuls of 15-16 year olds PLUS a lot of kids from the opposite shift at the school. Place was packed,concession money must have been enormous and five minutes in the place was pandemonium!!!!...a relocation to the balcony and more amenable ie female company, settled back and enjoyed what was merely an excuse to get out of classes for the day. Although I was a veteran cinema goer from an early age, this was probably the first time I took note of audience reaction...less than 10 years old and already most present thought it clunky and old fashioned....lord knows what they would have made of the 30s R&J or MIDSUMMER NIGHTS DREAM...I enjoyed DZ and still do but within a few years, no right thinking owner would even attempt something like this....and old films were consigned to art house/university venues til the rise of home video...

7:03 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

I remember a show of 1776 like this, but nothing else. I would have given eyeteeth to have classroom tedium relieved by an occasional Shakespeare adaptation, or Paul Muni finding bacilli for biology class, or whatever.

9:20 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

The success of this film owed a lot (100%) to the flash of skin. My dad told me that he and some friends watching a routine cowboy picture spotted a moment during a fight scene when one cowboy's pistol flew out of his pants. They stayed over for the second show to make sure. Yep, it was there. Word went out. This was in Minto, New Brunswick probably in the early 1940's. The next night the theater was packed for all shows. That film wound up being held over for quite some time. Wish I'd had the sense to ask him what picture it was.

11:36 AM  
Blogger Rick said...

I never experienced the cut-down schoolroom features. As a matter of fact, I think the only films we ever saw at school were some documentary thing about the start of the American Revolution and a doc on the refurbishing of Williamsburg, Virginia.

But I did see a couple of twenty-minute cut-downs on airplane flights. I guess the flights were too short for features but they felt as if they should show a movie anyway. One was THREE COINS IN THE FOUNTAIN, and though I've spent a couple of days now thinking on it, I can't remember what the other one was.

3:58 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

One Coin in a Fountain?
The Beast From Right Over There?
A Few Faces of Doctor Lao?
The Adventure of Robin Hood?
The Longest Morning?
The pre-title sequences from two old Bonds?

2:58 AM  
Blogger StevensScope said...

There was an 18-minute FOX CUTDOWN VERSION of "THE YOUNG LIONS"; would you believe a CUTDOWN of a 170 MINUTE EPIC? And YES it was an AWFUL EDIT, and of course all of the wide screeners were made FLAT with 'DELUXE FADE' ("ROOTS OF HEAVEN", ETC.) Most of these short versions, it seemed, looked like they were edited by someone who probably saw the film ONCE, making a few hasty notes on where to cut the scenes! HOWEVER with all logical reasoning aside, ALL of these apparently edited-in-haste VERSIONS remained real collector's items and scarce. The only short versions which I admired as WELL-EDITED and HOLDING IMPORTANT, were the UNIVERSAL HORROR CLASSICS (the running times on these titles around 70 minutes-making an easier edit for a larger home-collector's market AND the editing professionally well-done in most cases). HOWEVER, MUSIC EDITING on these supplied another bone to chew, for those concerned with it as an always-valued Ingredient.

3:46 PM  
Blogger rnigma said...

One class I had in (community) college showed the 1935 "A Tale of Two Cities" abridgment, and the class laughed at the superimposed commentary on the Bastille-storming montage ("Why?...Why?...WHY?") and the undercranked Mme. Defarge-Miss Pross fight.
Back in elementary school, I had a teacher who not only showed the shortened "Johnny Tremain" (I was humming that "Liberty Tree" song for days thereafter), but she had the LPs of dramatized Newbery-winning books (including "Matchlock Gun" and "It's Like This, Cat" in addition to "Tremain") - likely to enable her to grab a smoke break in the teachers' lounge. Another teacher ran one of the Warner Bros. American-history shorts from the late '30s - it had a scene that wouldn't have been out of place in a B-Western, one man bulldogging another on horseback and engaging in a fistfight; we laughed at this because, again, it was undercranked... sped-up fistfights looked silly to '70s kids.

8:37 PM  

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