The last Shakespeare production I wrote about was Orson Welles’ moody take on Macbeth. George Cukor’s movie of Romeo and Juliet was made only 12 years earlier, but seems to belong to another world. Where Welles’ Poverty Row film looks rough around the edges, Cukor’s gives the Bard the full gleaming Hollywood treatment. MGM under Irving Thalberg poured two million dollars into this production, with half of that spent on building an ambitious replica of Verona on a backlot, while the budget also ran to enormous crowds of extras. Kenneth S Rothwell’s book Shakespeare on Screen, which I’m finding invaluable for background on these older adaptations, recounts how the studio did even consider filming in Verona itself before deciding against.
Given the lavish feeling of the whole production, it’s quite surprising MGM didn’t go for Technicolor. Instead, they stuck to black and white, but the emphasis is very much on the white, with many scenes shot in brilliant sunlight, and Norma Shearer as Juliet dressed in a succession of flowing white gowns by Adrian – a long way from Welles’ cardboard crowns. At times I must admit I find the sheer glossiness of it all a bit much, and the opening shot of Shearer feeding a pet deer in a jewelled collar, as orchestral themes from Tchaikovsky swell in the background, reminded me of Disney. (Snow White was released the following year.)
I’ve watched quite a few 1930s and 40s films giving down-to-earth portraits of men’s working lives, including a number about the armed services – but haven’t come across all that many older movies about women at work, or at war.
However, thanks to the UK TV station Film 4, now I’ve seen this British wartime propaganda film about the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service), directed and narrated by Leslie Howard, which was quite an eye-opener to me. It isn’t a masterpiece, but I think it has worn pretty well, despite the patronising title and an occasionally heavy-handed commentary from Howard, for instance, quoting lines from poems about women’s traditional role as they are seen carrying out military tasks. He is only briefly glimpsed from the rear – in what sadly turned out to be his last film appearance before his own death in the war.
After Howard opens the film by picking out seven women in a crowd at a railway station to be his heroines, the rest of the movie gives what looks to be a realistic portrayal of life for these characters, all from different backgrounds. I was impressed that there is no attempt to make any of them look particularly glamorous, and the real hard work is not glossed over. The meals and dormitories seem very realistic.
I watched this soon after The Petrified Forest, also starring Bette Davis and Leslie Howard – but the two movies couldn’t very well have been more different. About the only similarity is that Davis plays a waitress in both, but the fiery “bad girl”, Mildred, who she portrays in this movie, filmed in London, is very different from the idealistic young girl in the later film.
I think this is a great film and has some amazingly powerful scenes, especially the confrontations between Howard and Davis. It’s a shame Bette didn’t get an Oscar for this one. Her Cockney accent is a bit dodgy, but I just don’t care!
I had heard of The Petrified Forest as a gangster film, so was surprised to find that it is really a stage play, largely set in one room (a remote cafe at an Arizona petrol station) – and has a static, talky quality. Although this is known as a star-making performance for Humphrey Bogart, in fact the male lead is Leslie Howard.
He plays a failed writer turned failed drifter, who lands up at this restaurant in the middle of nowhere and strikes up a tentative relationship with waitress Gabby (Bette Davis), the daughter of the owner – who is desperate to get away and discover the outside world. I was intrigued to discover how literary a lot of the conversation between Howard and Davis is, with them both reading poems aloud – everything from Francois Villon to TS Eliot. I like Davis’ performance as the ambitious young dreamer frustrated by her surroundings Continue reading →