To present high theater to a moviegoing audience looking for thrills and adventure is often a mistake, although MGM pulled it off in 1936 with its superb presentation of ROMEO AND JULIET, starring Norma Shearer and Leslie Howard. Here Fox offers a portrayal of the first family of
American theater, the "mad Booths of Maryland." Burton delivers a terrific performance as Edwin Booth, the greatest American thespian of the 19th century. The story begins with Burton playing both manager and nursemaid to his obviously talented but demented father, actor Junius Booth, broadly
essayed by Massey. (In real life Junius Brutus Booth haunted the New York prison known as the Tombs, paying jailers to let him sleep in cells next to condemned murderers, and dine with the criminally insane.) Observing Massey carefully through the years, Burton manages to avoid the mistakes his
father has made while still adopting Massey's stage tricks. When Massey dies, Burton becomes an actor. He must then contend with hostile audiences, as well as his berserk brother, John Wilkes Booth, played by Derek. When Derek assassinates President Abraham Lincoln, Burton must bear universal
hostility. Burton steps onto a stage and begins to perform "Hamlet" and is pelted with garbage. Yet he continues bravely, refusing to retreat from the stage. The audience slowly stops abusing him; catcalls and jeers change to applause until the endorsement is thunderous and Burton triumphant.
Though many liberties are taken with the facts, the film is a solid piece of entertainment that strives for and captures high theatrical artistry, offering excerpts from "Hamlet," "Romeo and Juliet," and "Richard III." Burton is moving and mystical as the famous actor and Derek properly brooding
as his mad brother. Massey is the most flamboyant of the lot, but his performance is a bit too hammy. McNamara is wasted in a predictable role as Burton's first wife, but Le Gallienne, in her film debut, shines in her brief appearance as Queen Gertrude in "Hamlet." The sets, costumes, and
early-day stage lighting by gaslight are authentic, and Dunne's direction keeps a steady pace, except for a few lagging scenes.
Edwin Booth did not, as the film indicates, appear on stage shortly after Lincoln's assassination, but immediately retired and wrote a letter of apology to the world for his brother's actions. When he did appear again on stage it was not until January, 1866, to play in "Hamlet," and he was greeted
with a standing ovation from the audience.
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- Rating: NR
- Review: To present high theater to a moviegoing audience looking for thrills and adventure is often a mistake, although MGM pulled it off in 1936 with its superb presentation of ROMEO AND JULIET, starring Norma Shearer and Leslie Howard. Here Fox offers a portraya… (more)