Romeo and Juliet (1936)

The last Shakespeare production I wrote about was Orson Welles’ moody take on Macbeth.  George Cukor’s movie of Romeo and Juliet was made only 12 years earlier, but seems to belong to another world. Where Welles’ Poverty Row film looks rough around the edges, Cukor’s gives the Bard the full gleaming Hollywood treatment. MGM under Irving Thalberg poured two million dollars into this production, with half of that spent on building an ambitious replica of Verona on a backlot, while the budget also ran to enormous crowds of extras.  Kenneth S Rothwell’s book Shakespeare on Screen, which I’m finding invaluable for background on these older adaptations, recounts how the studio did even consider filming in Verona itself before deciding against.

Given the lavish feeling of the whole production, it’s quite surprising MGM didn’t go for Technicolor. Instead, they stuck to black and white, but the emphasis is very much on the white, with many scenes shot in brilliant sunlight, and Norma Shearer as Juliet dressed in a succession of flowing white gowns by Adrian – a long way from Welles’ cardboard crowns. At times I must admit I find the sheer glossiness of it all a bit much, and the opening shot of Shearer feeding a pet deer in a jewelled collar, as orchestral themes from Tchaikovsky swell in the background, reminded me of Disney. (Snow White was released the following year.)

Norma Shearer as Juliet

All the same, there is a lot to enjoy in the beauty of all the costumes and sets, even if it feels slightly over the top, and there are also some fine performances, despite eccentric casting choices, including the 35-year-old Shearer as Juliet and 43-year-old Leslie Howard as Romeo. This casting may be one reason that MGM went for black and white, as it’s more forgiving than Technicolor to older actors in younger roles. Shearer is more convincing as a teenager than Howard to my eyes, though this may just be because I like her better as an actor. She played a young girl again a couple of years later in the early scenes of Marie Antoinette and she seems to be good at somehow changing her movements and voice slightly to give the impression of youthfulness.

Howard isn’t one of my favourite actors (though he is great in Of Human Bondage), as I always find his voice a bit stilted, so I may be being slightly hard on him, but to me he does seem obviously too old and staid for a character as young as Romeo, and I don’t think he pours enough passion into the great speeches. I did like the scene with the apothecary in particular, but wasn’t so sure about him in the scenes with Juliet. It doesn’t help him that the text for this version has been cut quite strangely, often with the second line of a rhyming couplet suddenly missing, so that you are left waiting for the other shoe to drop!

Rapiers at the ready in a fight scene

This is a film where I actually enjoy the performances of the supporting cast more than the leads – I’m not a big fan of Edna May Oliver in general, but must say she has great fun as the Nurse, with a wicked glint in her eye as she thoroughly enjoys all the procrastination and the bawdy jokes (surprisingly, a lot of these have been left in, Hays Code or not!) Basil Rathbone is also intense and fiery as Tybalt, though I can’t see why he got an Oscar nomination in preference to John Barrymore as Mercutio, who has much more screen time and in my book steals the film from the leads. Both Rathbone and Barrymore are of course much older than the characters really ought to be, but this doesn’t matter as much for these supporting roles as for the young lovers.

The main joy of this film for me is watching Barrymore as Mercutio – sadly the only full Shakespeare role he ever filmed, though there are all-too brief clips of him as Hamlet (in a screen test, apparently – I’ve only seen this in colour, not sure whether or not it had been colorised) and as Gloucester in Henry VI part III, giving a taste of what he must have been like as Richard III on stage.

John Barrymore as Mercutio

I know that by the time of Romeo and Juliet he was far too old for the role of Mercutio, and looked even older than 53 as a result of his alcoholism – though whenever he turns his head that Great Profile is still there, undiminished.  According to Basil Rathbone’s account of the filming, Barrymore sometimes turned up drunk on set and the first filming of the sword fight went wrong as a result, as he clumsily injured Howard. But from watching the film you would never know there were problems – his performance is witty and exuberant and reminds you just how many great lines Mercutio actually has.  Barrymore’s acting style is obviously stagier than that of most of his co-stars – but, since Mercutio is such a flamboyant scene-stealing character anyway, it’s a role tailor-made for him, and it works well to have him shamelessly upstaging Leslie Howard. The Queen Mab speech is a stand-out, not surprisingly, as is the death scene, but Barrymore also makes the most of the smaller, jokey scenes in between and all the banter between him and Romeo.  Barrymore often portrays aspects of his own tragic fall in his later roles, and even in this Shakespearean role there’s an element of that, with several scenes where Mercutio is seen sitting at a table in the open air pouring himself drinks, as an adoring crowd of women watch from balconies above – he waves and bows to them, playing to the gallery, and then finally gestures once more in the same jokey style as he is being carried off to his death.

Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer

For me this is the most powerful point of this film and it slightly falls off after that  – but Howard and Shearer both do well with the tragic twists in the final scenes, especially as they are able to seem slightly older here. It helps that the tomb setting is full of atmospheric shadows, less glossy than the sets for the rest of the film. All in all I find this film a bit too sweet and reverential, and think some later adaptations of Romeo and Juliet probably get the bitter-sweet, dangerous quality of the play better – this version of Verona is a glossy paradise rather than a civil war zone.  But I do enjoy watching it all the same, and will probably go back to it in the future. I recorded this movie from a showing on TV, but there is also a region 1 DVD available and it is also included in a Shakespeare box set, again in region 1.

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18 thoughts on “Romeo and Juliet (1936)

  1. Oh, Judy… I think you are being much too kind to this picture. It looks great and you are right about the fine supporting performances but the movie is still pretty bad. Shearer and Howard are distractingly old and, on top of that, neither are strong actors as far as I’m concerned. I think Howard actually does a better job, but Shearer has some laughable moments that remind me of amateur community theater.

    John Barrymore does steal the show though, again, he’s much too old. (How odd that today we complain about everyone being too young in movies.) When watching this movie I started thinking his alcoholism probably didn’t hinder his performance. Mercutio spends most of the picture drunk anyway.

    I am glad that you recognize Edna May Oliver’s great supporting role as well. This part was tailor made for her; she owns it.

    But really, other than Barrymore and Oliver, there isn’t much else to recommend this picture, unless someone wants to see how not to adapt this play.

    Can you tell that I really didn’t like this picture?

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    • Certainly sounds as if I enjoyed it a lot more than you did, Jason, and I probably started gushing too much over the look of it all… but I tried to make clear that I do recognise it has serious weaknesses and that Howard and Shearer are much too old.

      I do like Shearer in general (she’s great in pre-Codes like ‘The Divorcee’ and ‘A Free Soul’) and so enjoyed seeing her in this, but must admit it is very far from being her best role! I mainly like it for the one chance to see Barrymore in a full Shakespearean role, though – I take your point that he is much too old too, but I still love watching his performance. Thanks for giving your views on the movie!

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  2. Judy, I don’t really agree with Jason here. He is way too critical, and the movie is far better than the “bad” label he has affixed on it. Sure there are many better Shakespeare films, but this is a respectable adaptation, with solid if unspectacular performances. You may well be right what you say about the studio going with black and white to lessen the impact of Technicolor on the human face, but I doubt there were any concerted effort here to replicate approximate age. The reading was really the main concern and both leads are solid, especially Howard, who as you rightly note was excellent in OF HUMAN BONDAGE (as he was in THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL and GONE WITH THE WIND)

    Barrymore as Mercutio? The Bard would be proud.

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    • Sam, thanks very much for your comments. I do agree that Howard and Shearer don’t really seem to be trying to play the characters as teenagers, which is a wise decision on their part – I actually like Shearer in the role more than Howard, but do think they both do a good job. Your description “solid if unspectacular” is spot on, though there are flashes of the spectacular from Barrymore. Glad to hear you like him as Mercutio too.

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  4. Shakespeare himself often carries weak productions. This one from your description sounded far too much like a version of Korda/Gainsborough costume dramas, which even if I like them (Tale of Two Cities with Colman and Edna May, Little Women with Edna may in the same typology, Norma Shearer as angelic Antoinette) are not appropriate in mood or feel for Shakespeare. I do like Howard sometimes — best in the tortured male role (say Of Human Bondage). I love Mercutio and swashbuckling can be fun. Color wasn’t thought necessary at the time might be another explanatio (i.e., costs). Ellen

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    • Thank you, Ellen, for your great comments here – I’m especially interested in your comment that Shakespeare himself often carries weak productions. Yes indeed, I do agree – his poetry can often carry a film or stage play through despite miscasting and other problems. I’m interested also in your comparison with Korda/Gainsborough costume dramas, which are a type of film I’d like to see more of. As you suggest, the feeling of this production is quite similar to ‘Marie Antoinette’ starring Norma Shearer, which I’m hoping to re-watch some time and write something about. That is another lavish drama made in black and white, and I do agree that cost would be a consideration – probably the main consideration as so much money was being poured into costumes and sets. But I just thought that the fact it makes the actors look a little younger might have been an extra temptation to avoid forking out for Technicolor.

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  5. I enjoyed reading your comments on this movie, Judy. I’ve watched it a couple of times and have enjoyed it. I confess that this is the only Shakespeare movie or play I have ever seen, so I can’t comment on its authenticity (I recall having to read Macbeth in school but that’s it). So perhaps I viewed this movie as an average filmgoer would rather than someone with an interest in Shakespeare. I had no problem with Shearer’s casting. Her appearance was fresh and lovely and her costumes enhanced her appeal (again I have no idea of their authenticity), however I do agree that Leslie Howard just appeared too old to be believable in the role of a giddy young lover, however not so much that it spoiled the movie for me. I guess if it hadn’t been Shakespeare, and therefore required a certain amount of talent to perform, we may have had a young Robert Taylor or Ty Power in the role (which would definitely have been easier on the eye!). I have the Region 1 DVD of this film and the restoration really enhances the beautiful sets and lighting. I also enjoyed John Barrymore’s performance and the documented troubles on set are not apparent. The only irritating point for me was the choice of music soundtrack, which seems cliched now but was likely more effective at the time of its release. In all, I enjoyed this film and will view it again.

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    • Paul, thank you very much for commenting – it’s interesting to hear from someone who came to this from other films rather than from other Shakespeare productions. If you are tempted to try another 1930s Shakespeare production you might enjoy ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, which I’m hoping to write about soon, and which also looks great as well as having some interesting performances. I do agree that the music in this version of R&J can become rather cloying at times, although, as you say, it was probably not so cliched then.

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  6. Judy, I enjoyed reading your review as I have not seen this version of R&J. Even though the leads really are too long in the tooth to play such young parts, it sounds like the movie would be worth watching just to see Rathbone and Barrymore (both also long in the tooth for this movie, but, hey, what’s a couple long teeth between friends).

    Part of the fun of watching a movie is just going with it, and this may be one of those movies that requires a bit more “going with it” than usual, simply b/c of the ages of the actors. Sounds like it’s worth seeing. Thanks for the excellent and thorough review.

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    • Thank you very much, CagneyFan – I did find it was a case of going with it while watching and enjoying all the good things about this film, while being aware that there are some problems too! Yes, Barrymore and Rathbone are both great. Thanks for the kind comments and I’ll be interested to hear what you think if you get round to seeing it.

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  7. I find later Shearer affected in general – all pose-y hand movements. She’s less insufferable in this than in The Barretts of Wimpole Street though (and she looks gorgeous). (She’s much more interesting in her “naughty” pre-code movies and silents.) But then, I’m a big Howard fan – I really find him the definitive Henry Higgins (in the 1938 Pygmalion). Barrymore and Oliver are both old pro hams – a lot of fun to watch. It’s not a great movie – but it is fun to watch a really superduper A++ no-expense-spared MGM production – much like Marie Antoinette.

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    • I must agree on the lavish production values – it is really something to see all the amazing costumes and sets in this production, and, as you say, the same applies to ‘Marie Antoinette’. I do like Shearer in general but agree she is especially interesting in her pre-Codes – I haven’t seen any of her silents as yet, but hope to do so in the future. It’s ages since I’ve seen ‘The Barretts of Wimpole Street’ and all I really remember from it now is Charles Laughton! I’ll admit to not being a big fan of Leslie Howard, but he is starting to warm on me from some of the performances of his I’ve seen lately. Thanks for visiting and commenting, Cristiane.

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  8. Thanks for the recommendation, Judy. I will check out ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ if I get a chance. I also share your enthusiasm for the lavish and spectacular ‘Marie Antionette’ and the Shearer pre-codes. ‘A Free Soul’ and ‘The Divorcee’ really took me by surprise when I first viewed them in the early 2000s – Shearer is fascinating in that era. I recently saw the silent ‘Lady of the Night’, which is not strong on plot, but is an excellent showcase for Shearer’s talent, and just last Friday night viewed ‘Their Own Desire’ for the first time. Now that one really impressed me – great pre-code drama with Shearer appearing startlingly beautiful in a series of Adrian creations (and also ‘startlingly’ bra-less! – those early talkies never cease to amaze me). The film was a lot of fun, even including a couple of low-key musical numbers, no doubt cashing in on that year’s craze for musicals. Before viewing these two films I’d always been under the impression that Shearer’s screen persona had been rather tame before she transformed herself in ‘The Divorcee’ (of her earlier work I’d only seen ‘The Student Prince’ previously, but she didn’t make much of an impression on me in that one), but ‘Lady of the Night’ and ‘Their Own Desire’ tell a different story.

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    • It sounds as if you have seen more of Shearer’s work than I have, Paul – thanks for recommending these titles. I’ll keep an eye out for them. I’m quite surprised to hear that there are musical numbers in ‘Their Own Desire’. Thanks for the further comments!

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  10. Shearer will always be Juliet for me because this was the first production of “Romeo and Juliet” that I had ever seen when I was a child of 13. That ball scene is to die for where Romeo sees Juliet fro the first time. No actress has ever been so gracefully presented and photographed so exquisitely. The only thing that comes close is the scene in “Queen Christina” where the camera lovingly follows Garbo around the room in the hunting lodge where she’s savoring the moments she spends with her lover John Gilbert.
    The Capulet Ball is more remarkable and Shearer is flawless. There is a blooper if you watch closely where one of the muses trips on her gown and almost falls. I’m surprised that Cukor left that in the film.

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