Volume I: Narrative History


Chapter 4 (1911): The First Two-Reeler

Romeo and Juliet was Thanhouser's first release of more than a single reel in length. Produced in two reels, the dramatization of Shakespeare's play could not be released all at once, for the Sales Company program was crowded, and Thanhouser had an agreement providing for just one reel each Tuesday and Friday. So, Romeo and Juliet was issued in two parts, the first on September 1st and the second a week later. Seeking to unify the production, Thanhouser suggested that exhibitors show each reel as it was released, then perhaps later, when time permitted, both reels could be shown on the same program as part of a "Romeo and Juliet Night."

In the film Julia M. Taylor took the role of Juliet, perhaps her most important part in any of the many Thanhouser films in which she was seen. George A. Lessey, a relatively unknown member of the Thanhouser stock company of players, was Romeo, Mrs. George Walters portrayed Juliet's nurse, and William Garwood also appeared. Barry O'Neil, who was Thanhouser's most important director, had charge of the production.

The Morning Telegraph reviewed the film:

Anticipating a possible shock of disappointment because of the subject so boldly selected for photo-play production, happily we acclaim our delight over the results so admirably obtained. Nowhere, save perhaps amid the environs of some well preserved ancient European castle, could a film producer find more harmonious or beautiful surroundings for a presentation of Shakespeare's famous romantic drama. The esplanade before the palace, wonderfully broad in its expanse of width and depth, is one of the rarest exteriors utilized by a motion camera operator, and no scene as brought into play - not one - is below caliber, nor is one unsuited to its especial usage or requirement. In fact, directors and producers the world over might well view this production with profit.

The offering is in two reels and is stated to be the first two-reel Independent American production to be released. The play is as closely followed as is consistent with the exigencies of photo-drama, and many of the great bard's famous lines are utilized with good effect between scenes. In the first reel we are introduced to the characters, and the love between the principals is developed, subsequently showing the first depiction of the family feud of the Montagues and the Capulets. Then we have the balcony scene, which is pictured more beautifully than we have ever seen it in play production, and the lack of speech is entirely forgotten. The pair are wedded by Friar Lawrence on the pleading of Romeo, the old nurse meantime acting as their messenger.

The second reel shows their clandestine meeting, after which Romeo breaks the edict against dueling and is obliged to flee to Mantua at the behest of the Friar, who then arranges the plan to send Juliet to him after she has supposedly died after taking a sleeping potion. She is laid in her tomb, and news reaches her lover of her death, the message of Friar failing to be received. Romeo procures his position and returns and slays Paris before Juliet's tomb, which he then enters and ends his own life. She awakens, discovers his dead body, stabs herself and falls prostrate over his form. The interior of the tomb, as well as those of the cell of the Friar and Juliet's boudoir, deserve praiseworthy mention.

As to the cast, George Lessey is Romeo, giving a virile portrayal lacking in the frequently criticized mawkish sentimentally of other presentations. Though slightly mature for the part he is nevertheless exceedingly fine in the character, and his build and face do not seriously hamper the portrayal. Julia Taylor's Juliet is equally commendable, making the part stand out prominently in all scenes, even with a score or more players in the picture, though never playing to the camera to obtain the result. Dave Andrada, as Paris, looks the character and gets as much out of it as is possible. Robert Halt as Friar Lawrence and Mrs. George Walters as the nurse each do exceedingly creditable work, the latter being forceful where required and subservient when needful.

To schools, colleges, clergy and elocutionists; to players, managers and the stage in general, whether of the speaking or the silent drama, we commend this Thanhouser production of Romeo and Juliet, which should have a record breaking presentation in every land where the name of Shakespeare is revered.

For once, Thanhouser seemed to have bested a Patents Company member in the production of the same subject. However, in fairness it should be emphasized that the Vitagraph film in question, released in 1908, was outdated by the time of Thanhouser's 1911 effort. The Moving Picture World had the following to say, but oh so carefully, to avoid offending Vitagraph:

This is the first attempt of an Independent manufacturer to produce a two-reel attraction. The subject was well chosen, for 'age cannot wither nor custom stale' the deathless charm of Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet has been rendered in the moving pictures before, more than two years ago by the Vitagraph Company. The film of the Vitagraph Company possesses rare merit, but the present production has a great advantage - it has more space for the telling of the story, 2,000 feet instead of only 1,000. Nothing could better illustrate the advantage of the two-reel over the one-reel film than a comparison between the productions of these two companies. The Vitagraph story was excellently well told, the acting was superb, the settings magnificent, the adaptation clever. The two-reel production, however, makes the story plainer to a person who has never read the classic tragedy. Note

In the September 16, 1911 issue of The Moving Picture World Clarence E. Sinn, who managed the "Music for the Picture" column, and, judging from many of his naive comments over a period of years, should have been replaced with a more competent authority, in the present instance created a creditable musical program for Romeo and Juliet. It was based partly upon a presentation he had seen and heard when the reels were projected at Sittner's Theatre, one of Chicago's better-known nickel palaces. Seventeen changes of music were suggested for the first reel, and 18 for the second. The Moving Picture News, in its October 6th issue, gave still further ideas concerning musical accompaniment.

In a rare instance of a modern author reviewing a vintage Thanhouser film, Robert Hamilton Ball, who had the opportunity to interview Edwin Thanhouser personally in connection with his research, wrote the following in his 1968 book, Shakespeare on Silent Film:

Synopses prepared and released by the company are confusing and misleading; as usual they were prepared before the picture was distributed. Moreover they do not indicate where in the story Reel 1 ended. However, Reel 2 luckily is available. Its opening with the Tybalt-Mercutio duel and other scattered gleanings imply the content of the first reel. It apparently included the initial brawls, the Prince's edict, the invitation to the Capulets' ball, Romeo's unwilling attendance at the festivities, the meeting of Romeo and Juliet, the first balcony scene, and the marriage at Friar Lawrence's cell; in other words, the essentially pictorial material of the first two acts. There may have been more, for unlike the practice of many early companies, Thanhouser production used carefully prepared continuities for all their pictures, and Mrs. Thanhouser and Lloyd Lonergan were both intelligent and experienced script writers.... The greater length of the film would have been a challenge also to its probable director, Barry O'Neil.

The extant Reel 2 is an excellent print probably from the original negative; it is about 950 feet in length - a final sequence is missing. The photography is unusually good for the period, sharp and well composed, though the camera remains stationary. The first shot of the duels which result in the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt is taken on a terrace of a rather handsome country mansion with spacious grounds on or near New Rochelle....

In the tomb, Juliet wakes (rather quickly), and at first does not see Romeo (a bit ludicrous since he is so obviously there).... The final sequences in graveyard and tomb could have been improved. For the rest, however, the presentation is for the period good, the acting rather better than what would be expected for 1911. Julia M. Taylor was a sweet and pretty Juliet, George A. Lessey as Romeo competent though rather too old and unromantic for the part. The unidentified Friar Lawrence is effective, most of the minor characters without much individuality, including the nurse, Mrs. George W. Walton [sic]. It was a pleasure to see no backdrops; the sets were solid when interior and appropriate where external....

Years after the production was released, Note Edwin Thanhouser recalled that he placed the company's "T. Co." logotype in a prominent position on Juliet's grave, as a protection against unauthorized duping.


Copyright © 1995 Q. David Bowers. All Rights Reserved.