You know the story that’s told in this 1936 film already, don’t you?
In the city of Verona, Romeo Montague (Leslie Howard) has fallen in love with Juliet Capulet (Norma Shearer). Normally, this would be cause for celebration because, as we all know, love is a wonderful thing. However, the House of Capulet and the House of Montague have long been rivals. When we first meet them all, they’re in the process of having a brawl in the middle of the street. There’s no way that Lord Capulet (C. Aubrey Smith) will ever accept the idea of Juliet marrying a Montague, especially when he’s already decided that she is to marry Paris (Ralph Forbes). Things get even more complicated with Juliet’s cousin, Tybalt (Basil Rathbone), kills Romeo’s best friend, Mercutio (John Barrymore). Romeo then kills Tybalt and things only grow more tragic from there.
It’s hard to keep track of the number of films that have been made out of William Shakespeare’s tale of star-crossed lovers and tragedy. The plot is so universally known that “Romeo and Juliet” has become shorthand for any story of lovers who come from different social sects. Personally, I’ve always felt that Romeo and Juliet was less about love and more about how the rivalry between the Montagues and the Capulets forces the young lovers into making hasty decisions. If not for Lord Capulet throwing a fit over his daughter’s new boyfriend, she and Romeo probably would have split up after a month or two. Seriously, I’ve lost track of how many losers I went out with in high school just because my family told me that I shouldn’t.
Producer Irving Thalberg spent five years trying to get MGM’s Louis B. Mayer to agree to greenlight a film version of Romeo and Juliet. Mayer thought that most audiences felt that Shakespeare was above them and that they wouldn’t spend money to see an adaptation of one of his plays. Thalberg, on the other hand, thought that the story would be a perfect opportunity to highlight the talents of his wife, Norma Shearer. It was only after Warner Bros. produced a financially successful version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that Mayer gave Romeo and Juliet the go ahead.
Of course, by the time the film went into production, Norma Shearer was 34 years old and a little bit too mature to be playing one of the most famous teenagers in literary history. Perhaps seeking to make Shearer seem younger, Thalberg cast 43 year-old Leslie Howard as Romeo, 44 year-old Basil Rathbone as Tybalt, and 54 year-old John Barrymore as Mercutio, (In Barrymore’s defense, to me, Mercutio always has come across as being Verona’s equivalent of the guy who goes to college for ten years and then keeps hanging out on the campus even after dropping out.)
In short, this is the middle-aged Romeo and Juliet and, despite all of the good actors in the cast, it’s impossible not to notice. There were few Golden Age actors who fell in love with the authenticity of Leslie Howard and Basil Rathbone is a wonderfully arrogant and sinister Tybalt. Norma Shearer occasionally struggles with some of the Shakespearean dialogue but, for the most part, she does a good job of making Juliet’s emotions feel credible. As for Barrymore — well, he’s John Barrymore. He’s flamboyant, theatrical, and a lot of fun to watch if not always totally convincing as anything other than a veteran stage actor hamming it up. The film is gorgeous to look at and George Cukor embraces the melodrama without going overboard. But, everyone in the movie is just too old and it does prove to be a bit distracting. A heart-broken teenager screaming out, “I am fortune’s fool!” is emotionally powerful. A 43 year-old man doing the same thing is just not as effective.
Despite being a box office failure (it turned out that Mayer was right about Depression-era audiences considering Shakespeare to be too “arty”), Romeo and Juliet was nominated for Best Picture of the year, the second Shakespearean adaptation to be so honored. However, the award that year went to another big production, The Great Ziegfeld.