Romeo and Juliet (Thanhouser, 1911)

Romeo and Juliet screenshot 1Romeo and Juliet (Thanhouser, 1911)
Directed by Barry O’Neil
Starring George Lessey and Julia M. Taylor

I’m aware of three extant prints of Romeo and Juliet, Part Two: the Folger Shakespeare Library has a copy, the British Film Institute has a copy, and we have a copy. There may well be countless others, of course, but again, those I know. Where ours came from, who can say? I got it years and years ago from eBay as part of an unidentified lot of films. The seller, I understand, got it from an estate sale in California and was reselling it sight-unseen. It’s a 16mm reduction print on diacetate stock that the edge code dates to 1932. That’s all I know.

As for Part One, there are no known copies. Romeo and Juliet is often called a two-reeler, but that’s not true — it’s two one-reelers. The distinction is important. The ad copy stresses to exhibitors that each is a stand-alone picture and needn’t necessarily be shown with the other. Indeed, for its first run that would have been quite impossible, as part two was released a week after part one. A cue sheet survives that outlines each scene and title card and I at first intended to reconstruct Part One based on it. I did come up with something, but I’m just not very happy with it and decided not to use it. If I had more stills, perhaps it could work, but as it stands, it’s not much more than a string of title cards. For those interested, here it is. It’s unscored — play de Koven’s Oh, Promise Me under it if you like, the cue sheet suggests that for the climax.

Romeo and Juliet screenshot 2Speaking of the score, I’m having a devilishly hard time scoring Part Two. As I’ve said, there is a period cue sheet available. It has eighteen cues. For a fifteen minute short. Eighteen cues. Some scenes (none of which are longer than two minutes, including the title) have three different cues. The average piece of photoplay music is about three minutes long. Now, photoplay music is written specifically to be adaptable, and most pieces can be stretched or compressed considerably, but it’s quite a demand to shorten one to just eight seconds. And the pieces they suggest! Harvest Moon is the friar’s theme, and that’s… that’s just awful. Juliet’s death theme is Heart’s Ease (Lertz’s or Lange’s? The cue sheet doesn’t specify, but it hardly matters as both are ludicrously inappropriate). The only decent suggestion is the intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana, which is a very nice love theme, but when using classical music, you generally want to avoid such recognizable pieces — you don’t want to draw attention away from the picture, which you surely will the moment you make your audience think “where have I heard that before?”

But even disregarding the cue sheet, successfully scoring Romeo and Juliet is hampered by the film having no rhythm at all. Silent films, despite being silent, are very musical in their construction. The action should have a definite and Romeo and Juliet screenshot 3regular beat. This film doesn’t. It’s similar to the difficulty one encounters with poorly done abridgements, where the editor didn’t take care to cut on the beat and the flow of the action is disrupted, but this doesn’t have the excuse of being abridged. It was made like this. I think that’s why there are so many cues for such a short film. There’s so little hope of the music naturally staying in synch with the picture that it becomes necessary to stop and restart so frequently.

I had a similar problem with the closing sequence of Across the Mexican Line, but for a different reason. Beyond the fact that the first scene is missing entirely, the rest of the film also is somewhat fragmentary. There are a few frames missing here, a few there, and most aren’t an issue, but just after Dolores is shot there’s a jump of three or four seconds that just destroys the rhythm of what had been until then a well-paced action scene. Imagine you’re counting out the rhythm — one two three one two three one two three… — and then suddenly it skips — …one two three one tw-one two three one two three… I was sorely tempted to cut out a bit more to at least bring it back to time. In the end, I just awkwardly ad-libbed a bit to skip directly to the end of the repeat.

Romeo and Juliet screenshot 4And what’s more about the film’s construction, there’s the question of when to cue the music. It’s different for late silents, but the general rule for the era of filmmaking I generally deal with is that you cue on action. Say you have one scene, a title card, then another scene. You play one piece under the first scene and through the title card. You don’t start the next piece until the second scene begins. The more I work with Romeo and Juliet, the more I think cueing on action is simply impracticable for this film. I think I’m going to scrap what I’ve done so far (which isn’t much) and try again cueing on title. Romeo and Juliet is weird because the film tries to have it both ways: in some cases, dialogue titles are in-lined — that is, the character begins speaking, the title appears, and after the title we return to the character speaking; but in other cases, the film uses the earlier convention of pre-pending the dialogue — the title appears first, then we see the character speak. One or the other, fine, but mixing them confuses me.

As for the quality of the print, the picture is fine but I at first thought the titles had been replaced by black leader for some reason, but in one or two, you can just barely discern lettering on them, and I found that if you boost the contrast to an insane degree, text does start to appear. Example: here’s a frame directly from the scanner:

Romeo and Juliet title originalLooks black, yes? But if we stretch it, we get this:

Romeo and Juliet title enhancedIt’s still certainly of nowhere near useable quality, but it’s good enough to use as a guide for replicating the title:

Romeo and Juliet title recreatedI should warn those playing at home that you shouldn’t expect to get anything near so legible from the above frame grab, as that’s a compressed 8-bit JPEG. I’m actually working with uncompressed 16-bit TIFs, which have 256 times more dynamic range.

I realize I’ve done nothing so far but gripe and haven’t even mentioned the plot at all, but for Romeo and Juliet, do I really need to? Part Two begins with a strange little scene involving the nurse talking to the camera and waving her finger. It’s as enigmatic as the lantern man in Phantom of the Opera and I always assumed it was just a fragment and the film actually began in some other way, or at least with a title card to explain what the hell that’s all about, but according the cue sheet, nope — that’s exactly how it’s supposed to go. It evidently calls for a misterioso, so I guess the cue sheet was of some help. (I went with Otto Langey’s Misterioso Irresoluto to suggest that the story as continued from part one is still unfinished.) After that, we get Romeo breaking the edict against dueling and the rest plays out like a highly compressed version of the stage play.

Romeo and Juliet screenshot 5The acting isn’t bad — quite broad, but acceptable overall. I rather liked Julia M. Taylor’s Juliet. Robert Halt as the friar and Mary Walters as the nurse are far and away the worst actors here. Halt, especially, is far too animated for the part. George Lessey’s Romeo has his share of wild gesticulations, to be sure, but they suit the character — young, impetuous, self-absorbed, and grandiose. Interesting anecdote I read in Moving Picture News, apparently Walters had a long-lost brother who recognized her after seeing Romeo and Juliet, reuniting them after some twenty years apart. True or not, it’s a colorful story.

As for the cinematography, I suppose it gets the job done. To its favor, I will say that they weren’t afraid of getting the camera in close to the action. There’s the old story of conservative producers saying audiences pay to see the whole actor, feet and all, and it is certainly true that many films from this era tend to be framed as such. There are a couple nice medium-close shots here, like Romeo climbing from the balcony and Juliet hiding from her nurse. The editing is mostly episodic — each scene composed of a single continuous shot — but do notice the axial cut in the balcony scene.

Do I like Romeo and Juliet? I can’t say that I do, but I think that’s largely because of how frustrating it is in re scoring. But beyond that, it’s pretty ordinary fair. Quality Films as a genre interest me, but like I said about Lady Godiva, there’s often not much interesting about them taken on their own.

My rating: I don’t like it.

 

Edit: Well, the scoring is done reasonably to satisfaction. I even managed to keep it cued on action through some creative tempo changes that I hope aren’t too noticeable (there’s nothing abrupt — just gradually speeding up or slowing down to stay more or less in synch with the picture). Ten cues overall, which is less than eighteen but considerably more than I’d usually use for a film of this length.


Available from Harpodeon

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Posted on February 18, 2016, in Don't like it, Reviews and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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