Director: George Cukor
Screenwriter: Talbot Jennings
Adapted from: Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
Cast: Norma Shearer, Leslie Howard, John Barrymore, Basil Rathbone, Edna May Oliver
Nominations: Picture, Actress – Norma Shearer, Supporting Actor – Basil Rathbone, Art Direction
For the longest time, MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer resisted adapting the works of Shakespeare for the screen. This in itself is interesting considering that the Bard’s writings have long been in the public domain—meaning there would be no issues in obtaining the rights to his plays and there would be hundreds of years of built-in publicity. It wasn’t until Warner Bros. moved forward with an adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle, 1935) that Mayer flipped his switch and agreed to bringing Romeo and Juliet to the silver screen.
The film is a solid adaptation of the original play. It keeps the focus on the main plot as much as possible, but still allows for all the beautiful character moments that make the supporting roles fun to watch. Of course, the story is condensed, but fortunately, nothing essential is lost.
Most important with any production of Shakespeare, however, isn’t really the play—even if we don’t know specifics, many of us are familiar enough with Shakespeare to know what happens and who it happens to—but the interpretation and production itself. (Seriously, not a lot of people get excited to see Hamlet, but exponentially more people get excited to see, say, Benedict Cumberbatch play Hamlet.) Seeing the formidable John Barrymore’s take on Mercutio is really the only opportunity we have in the 21st century to see the screen legend spout Shakespearean dialogue. The costumes might be a bit much, but the art direction is engrossing and truly gives the action a life and liveliness that helps the film transcend the limitations inherent to mounting a stage production.
Unfortunately, the film has plenty of… not necessarily faults, but imperfections that can’t be ignored. George Cukor is a fine director, to be sure, yet his inability to block and shoot an action/fight scene is disappointing. The sword fights are lackluster, uninteresting, and over before you know it—which is a complete waste considering that Basil Rathbone, one of the greatest cinematic swordsmen in history, participates in two of them.
Then there’s the obvious issue of the age of the actors compared to the age of their characters. Leslie Howard’s receding hairline is easily older than the 16 or 17 Romeo is supposed to be; Norma Shearer looks like she’s loved-and-lost’d once for every one of Juliet’s nubile (almost) 14 years and would have been better cast as Lady Capulet. And while 53-year-old John Barrymore’s performance is topnotch, it’s difficult to not see his Mercutio as a precursor to Wooderson in Dazed and Confused (Richard Linklater, 1993): His flirting isn’t as fun-loving and clever as much as it’s creepy and lecherous coming from the lips of middle-aged man.
Also, if there’s a miscasting more pronounced than Andy Devine rasping Shakespeare, I’ve yet to see it.
As more film versions of Romeo and Juliet came out through the decades, the casting has gotten much better, with Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 take probably topping them all. However, the path to all the adaptions begin with this version. It’s not the best, it’s not the worst, but it gives you the familiar story with Golden Age stars on the forefront.