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Romanoff and Juliet

Romanoff and Juliet(1961)

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Romanoff and Juliet (1961)

Writer, director, and star Peter Ustinov's 1961 Cold War parable Romanoff and Juliet is one of those pictures that's so much of its own time, it doesn't quite fit into any other: It has languished, mostly forgotten, in the years since its release, though its gentle pleasures shouldn't be underestimated. Ustinov stars as the leader of a tiny, fictional European country, Concordia, which holds the deciding vote in an important United Nations initiative, one that could result in peace or discord between the United States and Soviet Russia. Ustinov retreats to his home country. At the same time, young Juliet Moulsworth (Sandra Dee) shows up in Concordia to visit her parents - her father is the U.S. ambassador stationed there. Although she thinks she's in love with a young man back home, she meets and falls for Igor Romanoff (John Gavin), the son of the Russian ambassador to Concordia. Their romance - analogous to that of the young lovers in Romeo and Juliet -- changes the fate of nations.

Before Romanoff and Juliet was a movie, it was a successful stage play, first in London and then on Broadway. In 1956, a brief notice in the New York Times described the play's reception in London: "Drama critics here have welcomed 'Romanoff and Juliet' as a gem of satire and situation." The article also mentioned that the Times of London had called it a "delicious piece of diplomatic fooling." The next year, the play - produced by David Merrick and directed by George S. Kaufman -- opened on Broadway, running for 389 performances. Ustinov was nominated for a Tony Award in two categories: Best Play and Best Actor in a Play. The show's success, plus Ustinov's 1960 Best Supporting Actor Oscar win (for his portrayal of Batiatus in Spartacus), helped open the door to a film version. As Ustinov wrote in his 1977 autobiography Dear Me: "Universal Pictures, who had been the producers of Spartacus, were very hospitable after my Oscar.... They said they would be interested in a film version of my play Romanoff and Juliet, so long as it cost no more than $750,000." He added, wryly, "Those were the days."

Filming commenced in the summer of 1960 in the small medieval town of Todi, in the Umbrian Foothills north of Rome. According to a report in the New York Times, the actors cast in the film - many of whom, including Akim Tamiroff and Ustinov's wife at the time, Suzanne Cloutier, had appeared in the stage production at one time or another - were eager to work with Ustinov, who was well organized and had things running ahead of schedule. He had just about everything under control: He'd even designed the statue of his character, the General, that had been erected in "Concordia's" town square. According to the Times, the statue momentarily confused some German tourists who happened to be trekking through the streets of Todi during filming; they couldn't locate the monument in their guidebooks. Eventually, though, they joined a group of schoolchildren who'd gathered on the steps of the town's cathedral to watch the day's shoot.

At the time, Ustinov struggled to explain to the Times reporter exactly what this film version of his gently satirical stage play would be like. Would it be a comedy? "Well," Ustinov said, "I wouldn't want people to think they're not going to have fun - they are. The film is naturally also intended to be amusing, yet I often contend that comedy is merely another way to be serious." Ultimately, he said, "Without wanting to sound pretentious, I think you might call this film an entertainment."

The film, however, appears not to have been as well received as the earlier stage versions, even though Ustinov received a Directors Guild of America nomination for it. New York Times critic Bosley Crowther called it "a tinkling reminder of 'The Mouse That Roared,'" a similarly themed picture that had opened two years before. He called Ustinov's performance "a lot of bombastic clowning," but called the Todi locale "very pretty to look at." He concluded, "If you like [Ustinov's] ponderous clowning, you should have fun."

Ustinov himself didn't seem too happy with the film. "I have always found it difficult to digest the same meal twice, and perhaps I was too eager to keep those moments which had really worked in the play intact, even if it was part free-wheeling fantasy and part photographed play," he wrote in his autobiography. He also seemed to feel his hand had been forced in casting Dee and Gavin, who were Universal contract stars at the time and who had recently starred in Tammy Tell Me True. Ustinov wrote that "although they tried manfully, neither of them was ideally suited to the style of the text, and the film suffered from an intrinsic incongruity, although it had many elements I was satisfied with." He may have been a little too hard on the film: Though it's a bit of a curio - definitely of its era - it has more than a few flashes of dry wit and charm. Early in the film, after speaking at a UN meeting and discerning that he's about to become a pawn in a game between nations, he hustles into a car and bids his assistant, "To the airport as quickly as possible! We've got to get out of here before the Americans have time to give us aid."

Producer: Walter Thompson, Peter Ustinov
Director: Peter Ustinov
Screenplay: Peter Ustinov
Cinematography: Robert Krasker
Music: Marion Nascimbene
Film Editing: Renzo Lucidi
Cast: Peter Ustinov (the General), Sandra Dee (Juliet Moulsworth), Igor Romanoff (John Gavin), Akim Tamiroff (Vadim Romanoff), Alix Talton (Beulah), John Phillips (Hooper Moulsworth), Tamara Shayne (Evdokia Romanoff), Rik Van Nutter (Freddie).
C-103 m.

by Stephanie Zacharek

The New York Times
Peter Ustinov, Dear Me, Little Brown & Co., 1977

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