Julius Caesar (1953)

*. Julius Caesar is usually stuck together in my head with A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet as making up Shakespeare’s high school trilogy. Which makes me wonder how often, or even if, Shakespeare is taught in high school today.
*. Well, suffice it to say that once upon a time schoolkids did watch movies like this in class to go along with their reading of the plays. Because it was Shakespeare and it had the kind of cast that seemed very educational. You couldn’t go wrong with names like James Mason and John Gielgud, Greer Garson and Deborah Kerr. Everyone knew who they were.
*. Everyone knew who Marlon Brando was too, though at the time his being cast as Mark Antony was quite a reach. They even had Paul Scofield waiting in the wings if Brando’s screen tests hadn’t worked out. But the jump from Stanley Kowalski in a wifebeater to Antony in a toga (or bare-chested) didn’t turn out to be that great, and Brando took some tips from the pros and always knew how to play to the camera if not on the boards. So he remains the film’s main draw today.

*. I say that because the rest of the cast of Very Fine Actors seem out of place next to him. That’s not usually how it works. A rough American often stands out in a mostly-British (and Shakespearean trained) cast. But here it’s Mason (as Brutus) and Gielgud (Cassius) who don’t belong. Gielgud is surprisingly lean and hungry, but his wig looks ridiculous. Mason, an actor I almost always enjoy, is miscast (though he had played Brutus on stage). He’s just too soft-spoken and frankly wimpy. We can believe his being scared of a ghost. Meanwhile, he isn’t helped by making him into a cowardly assassin, and looking like he’s in drag when done up in his Roman armour. That latter wardrobe error is a huge embarrassment and I don’t know how it got through.
*. Louis Calhern wasn’t a Brit, but he plays one as Caesar. He’s just old stuff-and-feathers and doesn’t have any of the fierceness and steel that we might expect. Yes, Shakespeare’s Caesar is a pompous ass at times, but we can never be sure how much of that is an act. Probably most of it. Calhern seems more like a 1950s chairman of the board and not someone who was ever a warrior.

*. The result is the kind of movie that could reliably be shown to high school students. It’s mostly faithful to the text and you can hear all the lines being enunciated clearly. But today it feels stuffy and stiff. Every single speech seems practiced and rehearsed, and the characters don’t appear to be interacting or engaging with each other but delivering lines for the audience. At times they don’t even look at who they’re talking to but turn away from them to directly address the camera, which goes beyond being merely awkward into downright weird territory. Apparently Joseph L. Mankiewicz was chosen to direct because he was so good with dialogue. He wasn’t showing it here.
*. They were originally going to shoot in Italy, but then decided Italy could come to L.A. Specifically, the sets from Quo Vadis were dismantled and flown from Rome to MGM’s backlot. Oh, the irony.
*. Before Olivier’s Henry V it was thought Shakespeare couldn’t pull box office. Producer John Houseman even said that the success of Henry V led to this film being made. It did well enough, and Houseman later said it made more money than any of his other pictures. But it doesn’t work for me. Still, if you’re cramming for an exam and haven’t cracked open the play yet it might help you make the grade.

8 thoughts on “Julius Caesar (1953)

  1. film-authority.com

    What kind of school did you go to where everyone knew who Greer Garson was? One in the Victorian era? Did the original cast come to your school, or did you know Julius Caesar himself?

    1. Alex Good Post author

      The teachers knew Greer. Or at least knew her name. That was good enough. Culture.

      Didn’t you know her back in the day?

      I once visited Stratford. Slept in Will’s second-best bed.

  2. fragglerocking

    I saw the pic and wondereed WTH Brando was doing amongst the Venerable Brits, but then read your post and wondered WTF the Venerable Brits were doing in a Brando picture.


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