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.)
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!
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.
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.
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.