The Montagues and the Capulets, two powerful families of Verona, hate each other. Romeo, son of Montague, crashes a Capulet party, and there meets Juliet, daughter of Capulet. They fall passionately in love. Since their families would disapprove, they marry in secret. Romeo gets in a fight with Tybalt, nephew of Lady Capulet, and kills him. He is banished from Verona. Capulet, not knowing that his daughter is already married, proceeds with his plans to marry Juliet to Paris, a prince. This puts Juliet in quite a spot, so she goes to the sympathetic Friar Laurence, who married her to Romeo. He suggests a daring plan to extricate her from her fix. Tragedy ensues.
Norma Shearer ... Juliet - Daughter to Capulet
Leslie Howard ... Romeo - Son to Montague
John Barrymore ... Mercutio - Kinsman to the Prince and Friend to Romeo
Edna May Oliver ... Nurse to Juliet
Basil Rathbone ... Tybalt - Nephew to Lady Capulet
C. Aubrey Smith ... Lord Capulet
Andy Devine ... Peter - Servant to Juliet's Nurse
Conway Tearle ... Escalus - Prince of Verona
Ralph Forbes ... Paris - Young Nobleman Kinsman to the Prince
Henry Kolker ... Friar Laurence
Robert Warwick ... Lord Montague
Virginia Hammond ... Lady Montague - Wife to Montague
Reginald Denny ... Benvolio - Nephew to Montgue and Friend to Romeo
Violet Kemble Cooper ... Lady Capulet - Wife to Capulet
ROMEO AND JULIET, the scions of old Verona's two most powerful families, become the playthings of fate & the fools of fortune.
This was a Very Big Film for MGM in 1936. No (reasonable) expenses spared. Not only was the Studio tackling The Bard for the first time in a major way, but the extreme celebrity of the original play guaranteed a great deal of public attention. Several choice roles were available for MGM's brightest stars and the part of Juliet would be the desire of every young actress on the lot.
Almost predictably the role went to Norma Shearer, who, as Irving Thalberg's wife, could almost pick & choose what she (or Irving) wanted. However, it should be stated at once that she is splendid in the role. Sweetly demure, innocent, apprehensive, fiercely protective of her love & recklessly heedless of her fate - she is Shakespeare's heroine.
She is matched by Leslie Howard's Romeo. A bit giddy at first with puppy love, he quickly matures into a tender lover & vengeful killer, finally willing, like Shearer, to forego all of his Catholic teaching and commit self-murder, thus dooming himself to Perdition.
Although decades too old for their roles (Juliet was 12, Miss Shearer 34; Romeo about 16, Mr. Howard was 43) they understand and speak their lines much more beautifully & proficiently than any teenager. Shakespeare's lines are really verse of a high order and demands skill & maturity. Howard & Shearer certainly have no problem there. Nor were they the only members of the cast whose ages were rather past the prime.
In his only feature length Shakespearean film, John Barrymore amply displays his celebrated talent in a bravura performance as an aging, sottish Mercutio. Barrymore understood the character thoroughly and he turns this strange, brilliant man into one of the film's chief treasures. Interestingly, much of his dialogue is rather scatological & gross, but being Shakespeare it seems to have flown under the radar of the Hays Office.
Edna May Oliver steals nearly every scene she's in as Juliet's waspish, eccentric Nurse. Basil Rathbone makes a fiery, insolent Tybalt. Reginald Denny adds a touch of distinction in the throwaway role of Benvolio, while wonderful old Sir C. Aubrey Smith & Violet Kemble Cooper are colorful as Juliet's parents.
At first blush, Andy Devine seems an odd choice for a Shakespearean production, but he is very competent as the Nurse's simpleminded servant.
Somewhat lost in this excellent cast is English actor Ralph Forbes in the rather thankless role of the County Paris. His is a somewhat sad story. Although replete with talent & charm, he still never quite reached the top echelons of stardom. He would have made a great Romeo.
Movie mavens will spot Katherine DeMille as the fair Rosaline (her cousin Agnes de Mille was the film's choreographer) and Ian Wolfe as the impoverished apothecary, both uncredited.
The film has wonderful production values - the sets, costumes and background score (borrowing themes from Tchaikovsky) all of the highest quality. For a small chuckle, watch closely during Juliet's dance at the Capulet ball - one of the dancers behind her steps on her dress hem and nearly trips. It's very fast, but worth catching.
This movie, unfortunately, is not one of Norma Shearer's most famous. Even more unfortunately, it is not often given due credit: it is one of her very best. While some tout the film as slow-paced and unfittingly rigid for a film interpretation of one of Shakespeare's most famous plays, in truth it is a lush and hauntingly beautiful production that, in an instant, makes one forget that Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer ever acted in anything else. The impact they make upon the viewer is unshakable.
Leslie Howard, of gentle voice and fair form, plays Romeo, son of the house of Montague, who is branded simply by his name a sworn enemy of the Capulets, whose daughter Juliet he loves. Norma Shearer adapts her beauty to the role of Juliet and makes her character radiate a delicate, ethereal grace which is, nonetheless, suitably innocent. Both speak the elegant, refined words of Shakespeare with a strongly believable conviction and are perfectly paired, despite their ages.
The ever-brilliant John Barrymore gives a flawless performance as witty, merry Mercutio, and Basil Rathbone redefines the meaning of a tyrant as the violent Tybalt, cousin of Juliet, who desires nothing more than to shame all members of the house of Montague.
The settings are as decadent as one would expect those produced by MGM to be, and the costumes, designed by Adrian and Oliver Messel, transform an entire cast of normal everyday actors into players in a beautiful drama. Although two hours and six minutes long, Romeo and Juliet has a relatively fast pace, and although one is left awestruck by the breathtaking last death scene, the viewer is not emotionally exhausted over the course of the movie. Romeo and Juliet is a true screen classic, and one like it is seldom encountered. If you see nothing else, you must see Romeo and Juliet.
Despite the fact we have a 47 year old Romeo, a 36 year old Juliet, and a 54 year old Mercutio; George Cukor's production for MGM of Romeo and Juliet manages to entertain and well.
Of course these protagonists are all teenagers, but these players have all played romantic parts in an age when romance was not something to be cynical about and they do fit their roles well. No Romeo was ever more dashing than Leslie Howard or a Juliet as passionate as Norma Shearer.
John Barrymore as Mercutio is a bit of an exception. I look at him and I think of another Shakespearean character who simply doesn't want to grow up and spends his time with the young blades of his day at the tavern. That would be Falstaff in Henry IV in both parts and if you think of Barrymore's Mercutio in that way, his interpretation makes a lot of sense.
My favorite in this film has always been Tybalt and Basil Rathbone plays him with fire and passion. Rathbone got an Academy Award nomination, the first of two, for Best Supporting Actor in the first year Supporting Actor Awards were given out. He lost however to Walter Brennan in Come and Get It. He's just spoiling for a fight with some Montagues and in the end he unfortunately gets one.
Romeo and Juliet is insightful into the Italy of the times. Italy was a geographical expression not a nation. In fact it was ruled mostly by the German entity, the Holy Roman Empire. But inside the empire and out it was a succession of petty states, constantly at war with each other. Sometimes the causes of the wars were long forgotten, but the hostilities took on a life of their own.
Right down to a couple of wealthy families in the small town of Verona where the prince there has his hands full trying to keep the Montague and Capulet feud from spilling over into violence every time some of them meet in his town.
With this background a young prince of Montague just getting over another bad romance and a princess of Capulet whose father has her slated to marry another meet and fall in love. Even when they find out their respective pedigrees, it makes no difference.
In fact the idea that love can bridge all barriers is what I believe makes Romeo and Juliet as popular as it is. It's a lesson people and nations could learn.
Norma Shearer got an Oscar nomination for playing Juliet, but lost to Luise Rainer in The Great Ziegfeld as Best Actress. George Cukor and the film itself also were up, but lost for best director and best picture.
Andy Devine plays the small part of Peter, a Capulet servant and I'm sure you're wondering what Andy Devine was doing in Shakespeare. So did he when he was cast in the part. The story goes that he went to George Cukor and told him he hadn't foggiest idea what he was doing in a classic Shakespeare play, he'd never done anything like this. Cukor supposedly told him, that was to his credit and that he would be the only member of the cast who would not be telling him how to direct the film. Turned out Cukor was right, but the film got made.
This was the last film producer Irving Thalberg personally produced before his death in September, 1936.
The film's literary consultant was Professor William Strunk Jr., co-author of the famous treatise on the English language, Strunk and White's "The Elements of Style".
The role of Mercutio was the only Shakespearean role that John Barrymore ever played complete onscreen. His only other screen appearances in Shakespearean roles were in a screen test for a never-made film version of "Hamlet", a soliloquy as Richard III in the 1929 film "The Show of Shows", and a role in the film "Playmates", as a hammy Shakespearean actor.
Contains the only on-screen sword fight that expert swordsman Basil Rathbone won in his entire career.
The role of Romeo was turned down by Laurence Olivier.
The role of Romeo was turned down by Robert Donat.
Basil Rathbone played Tybalt in this film even though he had triumphed in the role of Romeo on Broadway in 1934, opposite the Juliet of Katharine Cornell.
Because she wanted to play the Nurse in this film, Edna May Oliver turned down Universal's offer to reprise her stage role of Parthy Ann Hawks in the 1936 film version of Show Boat (1936). The Nurse turned out to be Oliver's only Shakespearean role.
An autographed copy of the script adaptation, containing the signatures of 27 cast and crew members (including Rathbone, Howard and Shearer) was donated to the University of Idaho library by Talbot Jennings in 1939.
The role of Romeo was originally offered to John Gielgud, who had just had a triumph in a stage production of the play in London in which he alternated the roles of Romeo and Mercutio with Laurence Olivier. Gielgud not only turned the part down (thinking that Shakespeare couldn't effectively be presented on screen), but was so disgusted by the finished film that he walked out of the theater after watching only fifteen minutes of it.
William Randolph Hearst campaigned heavily for Marion Davies (Hearst's mistress) to star as Juliet. However, MGM thought Davies would be miscast and should only stick to comedies.