Romeo and Juliet falls to reach any great heights It’s one of Shakespearean best known plays, a tragedy of epic proportions with much to tell us about society, humanity, love, life and death. It features the most well- renowned and celebrated lovers from the vast, dusty pages of Western literature. It presents some of the most famous and recognizable lines ever uttered on a stage ? ‘O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?. The play is a masterpiece and any director who wishes to bring it to the silver screen certainly benefits from the strength of the existing material.
So why is it that Franco Ziegfeld’s 1968 screen version of Romeo and Juliet doesn’t quite hit the mark? A film interpretation of this work of genius should have the audience gasping In shock, balancing precariously on the edge of their seats, laughing and crying (sometimes all at once). Ziegfeld never quite achieves these reactions, although, he sometimes comes close. The movie definitely starts strongly. Young audiences will appreciate the action of the opening scene where hot-blooded Capsules and Montague go at it hammer and tongs. Ziegfeld’s editing and use of the camera enhances the action here.
We are subjected to a series of fast-paced cuts that periodically frame the chaos in extreme long shots, which clearly illustrates the extent of the ruckus. Market stalls explode in a shower of fresh produce and dust, bodies fold and buckle in battle, the people of Verona form a chaotic mob. Interspersed throughout these wide shots are a collection of tight medium close ups, mid-shots and long shots which display frenetic, well- choreographed swash-buckling. While the other action scenes of the film are decent, they do not reach the same great heights as the opening fray.
In fact, the fight receding the death of Mercuric Is decidedly lackluster and, at times, comic to the point of ridiculousness. After watching the opening scene, you might feel yourself shifting gradually to the edge of your seat. However, it is at this point that Ziegfeld slows the pace of the film right down. The staging of the Caplet masquerade where Romeo and Juliet meet for the first time crawls along at the speed of paint drying. The scene features a traditional dance where, for five minutes, an extended cast of extras dance the Morsels, which curiously looks like an early version of the Macaroni.
Ziegfeld then includes a drawn-out performance of capable singing, which drags on and on, and on. The song, What is a Youth? ‘, is used by Ziegfeld to, rather forcefully, impart his message upon the audience ? that nothing lasts forever; that youth fades. Ziegfeld certainly knows how to kill a good party. As the song strains on, Romeo and Juliet make eyes at each other while moving gracefully through an elaborately constructed setting, awash In period costumes that, admittedly, look quite good.
They meet, deliver their lines and then the scene is suddenly over. This is he lovers’ romantic connection. In turn, this then prepares the viewer to feel the full force of tragedy as the story draws to its conclusion. Regrettably, it seems that Ziegfeld was more intent on showing his knowledge of what the parties of 16th Century Italian aristocrats looked like, rather than developing the connection between Romeo, Juliet and the audience. Ziegfeld’s greatest sin, however, is his infernal meddling with Shakespearean script.
At all stages of the story, Ziegfeld tinkers ? omitting some original material and at times including moments of his own invention. Many of his interventions and omissions detract from some of Shakespearean most valuable and thought-provoking commentary about human nature. Ziegfeld does not develop themes evident in Shakespearean original script, such as the role of fate in shaping human destiny, the impetuous nature of youth, the capacity in people for good and evil, or the link between politics and violence.
Ziegfeld’s version would have benefited from the inclusion of any such themes. Certainly these ideas would be appreciated by Australian teenagers who do not shy away from big issues and who would be able to draw parallels between these incepts and their own lives. Instead, Ziegfeld invokes an instrumental version of What is a Youth? In moments of tragedy to hammer home the message that youth is fleeting and nothing lasts forever. The message is obvious, blunt, poorly delivered and of little value to modern Australian audiences.
While Ziegfeld may fall short, the young actors who play Romeo and Juliet consistently hit the mark. Modern teen audiences will be drawn to the performances of Olivia Hushes, who plays Juliet, and Leonard Whiting, who takes on the role of Romeo. The delightful Hushes is stunning ND remarkably believable in her delivery of lines. Even the most cynical of viewers will find it difficult to remain unaffected by her displays of emotion. Her laughter and joy are infectious; her woe and sorrow are harrowing.
The scene in which she finds out that her cousin Table has been slain and Romeo banished, is impeccable. The camera pans and tilts to follow her grief-stricken and stumbling around the confines of her chamber and you get the feeling that she is experiencing some real pain. It’s a very impressive performance from a girl who was only 1 5! Whiting is as handsome as Hushes is beautiful and does a similarly excellent Job. In his final scene, framed in an intimate close up, he delivers his lines with complete emotional commitment in a way that almost, almost has the audience reaching for the tissue box.
By the end of the 138 minutes of Ziegfeld’s Romeo and Juliet you will have seen some wonderful acting, elaborate costumes, gorgeous scenery, authentic renaissance locales and some decent moments of good, old fashioned action and sword-play. These elements can be appreciated by all audiences. Nevertheless, at the same time, you will have been objected to some tryingly drawn-out scenes, a chopped up and highly tinkered with version of Shakespearean play, and a thematic message delivered with all the grace of a baby elephant.
It is these aspects of Ziegfeld’s film which, sadly, outweigh the good parts and are likely to dismay an audience of teenaged Australians. Even so, one should never throw a small infant out with the bathwater. Despite its flaws, the movie is worth a look if not purely to witness the stunning performances of Hushes and Whiting, although you will be tempted to fast forward some of the more drawn-out scenes. Maria VI