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Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet(1936)

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teaser Romeo and Juliet (1936)

It is rare for a film's art direction to drive its publicity. But a syndicated headline appeared in papers across the country on March 7, 1936 that read, "Balcony Scene Will Be Gorgeous in Romeo and Juliet." While the article praised the beauty of the design, it paid most attention to the scope of the MGM's new film.

Romeo and Juliet (1936) was shot on the world's largest sound stage at that time. The Capulet castle and garden from the famed balcony scene covered 52,000 square feet. Though art director Cedric Gibbons objected, director George Cukor brought in Oliver Messel from England as a design consultant for the elaborate sets and costumes.

Gibbons, head of the MGM art department for over thirty years, is another Hollywood rarity - an art director whose name the public recognized. As MGM's Supervising Art Director, Gibbons accumulated 1500 screen credits over his career. In fact, when the studio was formed in 1924, Gibbons already had a decade of art direction behind him. Gibbon's name appears on projects that range from Greed (1924) and A Night at the Opera (1935) to The Wizard of Oz (1939) and An American in Paris (1951). Some question Gibbon's actual hands-on involvement in the design process. He did, as stipulated by his contract, receive design credit for almost every film produced at MGM during his time there (an impossible 70 plus films a year). Others point out Gibbon's total control over design decisions, personnel and overall vision that colored every film whether he ever picked up a pen or not.

Regardless, Cedric Gibbon's legacy in Hollywood cannot be overlooked. Married to actress Dolores Del Rio, Gibbons was a founding member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He even designed the Oscar statue, which he won 11 times. He was nominated a total of 39 times, including his shared Oscar® nomination for Best Art Direction on Romeo and Juliet.

Director: George Cukor
Producer: Irving Thalberg
Screenplay: Talbot Jennings (based on the play by William Shakespeare)
Cinematography: William H. Daniels
Editing: Margaret Booth
Music: Herbert Stothart
Cast: Norma Shearer (Juliet), Leslie Howard (Romeo), John Barrymore (Mercutio), Edna May Oliver (Juliet's Nurse), Basil Rathbone (Tybalt), C. Aubrey Smith (Lord Capulet), Andy Devine (Peter), Conway Tearle (Escalus), Ralph Forbes (Paris).
BW-125m. Closed captioning. Descriptive Video.

by Stephanie Thames

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teaser Romeo and Juliet (1936)

MGM pulled out all the stops for its lavish 1936 production of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet directed by George Cukor and starring Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer as the famous star-crossed lovers. Bringing Romeo and Juliet to the screen was something MGM Production chief Irving Thalberg had wanted to do for a long time. Thalberg, known as MGM's "Boy Wonder", saw the project as an opportunity to bring added prestige to MGM with a first-rate production. It would also provide a showcase for his wife, actress Norma Shearer, known then as the "Queen of MGM". Although Shearer was in her mid-thirties at the time, Thalberg believed she could easily pull off the youthful, love struck Juliet. "I believe Norma can play anything and do it better than anyone else," he said. He intended Romeo and Juliet to be one of Shearer's final films, along with Marie Antoinette (1938), which was then in the planning stages at MGM. "Marie Antoinette and Juliet mark the end of Norma Shearer's acting career," announced Thalberg. "Too many stars stay on camera too long. I want her to bow out at her highest point."

While Irving Thalberg was enthusiastic about the project, studio head Louis B. Mayer had to be convinced. Eddie Mannix, Thalberg's assistant at the time, later said that Mayer "was ready to have an apoplectic fit when Irving sprang that one on him." Mayer didn't think a Shakespeare tragedy would be commercial or accessible enough for the movie-going masses. When Thalberg told Mayer that Warner Bros. was in the midst of filming an all-star version of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream under director Max Reinhardt, Mayer replied, "If Jack (Warner) wants to make a fool of himself messing with Max Reinhardt and that Shakespeare high-falutin' stuff, that's his funeral! Why should we run Jack a race to bankruptcy court?" Eventually, however, Mayer relented and greenlit Romeo and Juliet.

Irving Thalberg handpicked George Cukor to direct Romeo and Juliet. Cukor, who was relatively new to Hollywood, had never directed any Shakespearean works. However, he had already established a reputation as a fine director at MGM with such films as Dinner at Eight (1933) and Little Women (1933). He looked forward to the challenge of tackling a Shakespeare film adaptation.

Norma Shearer was excited to play Juliet, but nervous at the same time. She was a talented Oscar®-winning actress, but she had no stage training and had never tackled a full-length Shakespeare production before. The only Shakespeare she had ever performed was the balcony scene opposite John Gilbert in The Hollywood Revue of 1929. Shearer committed herself to the role and worked diligently with acting coach Constance Collier, focusing especially on making the complex Shakespearean speeches sound as natural as possible.

Finding the right actor to play Romeo was one of the biggest challenges that faced Romeo and Juliet. MGM's first choice was Fredric March, but the actor felt he was too old for the part and refused. "I would have looked like a damn fool in tights climbing balconies and making pretty speeches," said March years later. "I was 38-years-old at the time! I would have totally lost my audiences bouncing around like a 16-year-old kid!" Clark Gable was next on the list, but he too refused. "I don't look Shakespeare. I don't talk Shakespeare. I don't like Shakespeare, and I won't do Shakespeare," he said. Laurence Olivier, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Robert Donat and Brian Aherne were all considered for the part. Aherne and Norma Shearer went so far as to rehearse the balcony scene and film a screen test of it together. Like Fredric March, however, Aherne felt he was too old. "I thought (Norma) could probably bring off the part," he said several years later, "but there was no chance for me." Eventually Irving Thalberg convinced British actor Leslie Howard to play Romeo. Howard was in his forties at the time.

Irving Thalberg wanted John Barrymore to play the flamboyant supporting role of Mercutio. Barrymore was a legendary actor with a long and distinguished career, but in the 1930s his career was in rapid decline due to his severe alcoholism. His behavior was unpredictable, he had trouble memorizing lines, and he was known to show up to work drunk. He hadn't appeared in a film in two years and needed to work. Hiring him would be a major gamble for MGM. However, Barrymore was still considered one of the greatest living actors, and George Cukor had directed him successfully in two other films (A Bill of Divorcement [1932], Dinner at Eight). The studio agreed to take a chance on him. There was a condition, however; for the duration of the shoot, Barrymore would have to live at Kelley's Rest Home, a sanitarium near the studio, where he would be constantly monitored.

Rounding out the outstanding cast of Romeo and Juliet were Edna May Oliver as Juliet's nurse, Basil Rathbone as Tybalt and Reginald Denny as Benvolio.

Thalberg made sure that no expense was spared in the preparation of the Romeo and Juliet production and brought in top professionals to work on the film. Designer Oliver Messel was brought over from England to supervise the intricate sets and costumes. Thalberg sent Messel with a camera crew to Italy to photograph various architecture and art around Verona for inspiration. The resulting sets created at MGM were massive, taking up several acres and soundstages.

Cornell University English Professor William Strunk (author of the famous writing guide The Elements of Style) was brought on board as a literary advisor. Thalberg instructed him, "Your job is to protect Shakespeare from us!" Writer Talbot Jennings adapted Shakespeare's play, trimming roughly a quarter of the verse to accommodate a reasonable screen running time. Meanwhile, dancer Agnes de Mille was brought in from New York to choreograph the Capulet ball sequence.

Filming commenced on Romeo and Juliet in late 1935. Everything on the production went relatively smoothly with one exception - John Barrymore. Despite the strict conditions at the sanitarium, Barrymore still found ways to drink. He showed up late to the set drunk, blew his lines, clowned around and sometimes disappeared for days. "At fifty-four...John was too old for the role; he was very unsure of himself...and he was drinking and unreliable on the set," said co-star Basil Rathbone. "It was so sad to see him in such a state - the greatest Shakespearean stage actor of his time, who had forgotten more about acting than most people around him would ever know."

Barrymore's drinking got so bad that at one point MGM tried to replace him. Irving Thalberg asked actor William Powell to take over the role, but Powell refused. Barrymore had been good to him over the years, Powell said, and he didn't want to be disloyal to his friend. Norma Shearer personally intervened on Barrymore's behalf and convinced L.B. Mayer to keep him, reminding him what a great star Barrymore had once been and how much money he had made for the studio. Barrymore managed to get his act together enough to finish the film without further incident. Co-star Reginald Denny said, "(Barrymore) was a miracle at times like that. He somehow pulled himself together and was his old, great self, for as long as the camera held on him."

Romeo and Juliet was well-received by audiences and critics, though it ultimately fell short of the triumph that Thalberg had hoped for. It ended up costing 2 million dollars (a huge amount for the 1930s) and ultimately failed to make a substantial profit. The New York Times said, "Metro the Magnificent has loosed its technical magic upon Will Shakespeare and has fashioned for his Romeo and Juliet a jeweled setting in which the deep beauty of his romance glows and sparkles and gleams with breathless radiance. Never before, in all its centuries, has the play received so handsome a production...All that the camera's scope, superb photography and opulent costuming could give it has been given to it here. Ornate, but not garish, extravagant but in perfect taste, expansive but never overwhelming, the picture reflects great credit upon its producers and upon the screen as a whole. It is a dignified, sensitive and entirely admirable Shakespearean-not Hollywoodean-production." The Hollywood Reporter raved, "...everything about the production will make you proud to be a movie fan. There isn't anyone we can think of who will not love it, who will not wonder why Shakespeare has been so long neglected or viewed with such pedantic awe."

Romeo and Juliet received four Academy Award nominations including Best Picture. It was the last film that Irving Thalberg personally oversaw through its entire production at MGM. Thalberg, who suffered from heart problems and had been in poor health his entire life, died on September 14, 1936 at the age of 37.

Looking back years later, Norma Shearer felt proud of her work in Romeo and Juliet. "It was my last (film) with Irving and he put so much of himself into it; he so wanted it to succeed," she said. "And I feel I did expand my range, and I had the benefit of some good coaching that stood me in good stead for the future, and the cast surrounding me would have been an asset to any actress!"

Director George Cukor could only think of things he would have changed about Romeo and Juliet when asked about the film later on. "I wish I had given it more of an Italian flavor," he said. "I wanted to catch the period, scale it down, make it a little more intimate. When I see it now I see so many things I would have changed. But Norma and Leslie and John Barrymore were wonderful-couldn't be improved on...But in 1936 we were all caught up in production gloss, giving a film a big, stately look...So I guess I got caught up in all that and the picture suffered a bit-maybe more than a bit." In an interview during the 1970s Cukor added, "...It was unfamiliar territory for me, I suppose. It's one picture that if I had to do over again, I'd know how. I'd get the garlic and the Mediterranean into it. And then there was a tug of war about the way the picture should look. On one side there was (costume designer) Adrian and the resident MGM art director, Cedric Gibbons. On the other there was Oliver Messel. Irving Thalberg sat like Solomon and never committed himself. I wanted to go with Oliver, but I didn't succeed in breaking the barrier. The result is what you see, neither one thing nor the other. It's original at moments - like the ball scene with Agnes de Mille's choreography - and conventional at others."

Director: George Cukor
Producer: Irving Thalberg
Screenplay: Talbot Jennings (based on the play by William Shakespeare)
Cinematography: William H. Daniels
Editing: Margaret Booth
Music: Herbert Stothart
Cast: Norma Shearer (Juliet), Leslie Howard (Romeo), John Barrymore (Mercutio), Edna May Oliver (Juliet's Nurse), Basil Rathbone (Tybalt), C. Aubrey Smith (Lord Capulet), Andy Devine (Peter), Conway Tearle (Escalus), Ralph Forbes (Paris).
BW-125m. Closed captioning. Descriptive Video.

by Andrea Passafiume

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teaser Romeo and Juliet (1936)

Leslie Howard was 43 and Norma Shearer was 34 when they played the tragic title characters in George Cukor's movie version of William Shakespeare's ever-popular Romeo and Juliet, released in 1936. As usual with this play, the stars exceeded the ages of their characters by an amusingly wide margin: Juliet is 13, according to her Nurse, and while Romeo's age is never specified, the main source Shakespeare used for the story - the 1562 play Romeus and Juliet by Arthur Brooke - says that on his "tender chin, as yet, no manlike beard there grew," which makes him pretty young as well. Following a long tradition, Howard and Shearer deal with this discrepancy by ignoring it, relying on charisma rather than veracity to bring the "star-cross'd lovers" alive. They pull it off like the experts they are, and Shearer earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress.

The film got an Oscar® nomination for Best Picture, and chief credit for this goes to Cukor for his down-to-earth directing. No one in the traditional canon of American auteurs was more fond of screenwriters than Cukor, who regarded dialogue as a driving force no less important than acting and visual style; when I interviewed him in 1979, he said screenwriters are the real "authors" of a film and the director is basically a "kibitzer." Accordingly, he worked with some of the best, Shakespeare included. Romeo and Juliet was one of two pictures Cukor completed in 1936. The play was "arranged for the screen" by Talbot Jennings, who trimmed it to about 120 minutes' running time, keeping a little less than half of the original text; this works nicely for Romeo and Juliet, where the Prologue famously refers to "the two hours' traffic of our stage." The result is Shakespeare la Hollywood in the classic studio manner, full of famous MGM faces and tasteful to a fault.

For those who haven't brushed up their Shakespeare lately, here's a quick refresher on the play. The setting is Verona, where the Montague and Capulet families are embroiled in a vicious feud. When a fight breaks out involving Benvolio (Reginald Denny) of the Montagues and Tybalt (Basil Rathbone) of the Capulets, the angry Prince Escalus (Conway Tearle) proclaims that any further violence will bring a harsh penalty to the offenders. Romance is also in the air: Romeo (Howard) adores Rosaline (Katherine DeMille), who doesn't return his affection, and Juliet (Shearer) is thinking about marrying Paris (Ralph Forbes), an excellent catch who happens to be her parents' first choice. Romeo sneaks into a Capulet party in disguise, hoping he'll run into Rosaline there. Instead he sees Juliet, and she sees Romeo, and kaboom! it's love at first sight.

Soon thereafter they secretly get married, helped by Juliet's faithful Nurse (Edna May Oliver) and Romeo's friend Friar Laurence (Henry Kolker), who thinks matrimony might end the family feud; but then Romeo kills Tybalt in a new eruption of violence. The Prince banishes Romeo as punishment, just as Juliet's parents (unaware of her secret marriage) decide she must wed Paris immediately. The future looks bleak for the lovers, but Friar Laurence comes up with a rather complicated solution calling for Juliet to take a potion that will make her appear to die, whereupon Romeo will whisk her out of the family tomb and escape to Mantua, where they can live happily ever after. Instead everything goes wrong and everyone ends up dead or miserable. "For never was a story of more woe," the Prince accurately remarks in the play's last lines, "Than this of Juliet and her Romeo."

MGM decided to tackle Romeo and Juliet after Warner Bros. made a splash with A Midsummer Night's Dream, a 1935 release directed by theater virtuoso Max Reinhardt and featuring an all-star cast. Shearer's husband, MGM production chief Irving Thalberg, was the (uncredited) producer who gave Romeo and Juliet a budget of more than two million dollars and sent a team of designers to Verona in search of maximum authenticity. Not surprisingly, the picture starts with signifiers of its high-culture credentials - a painted Renaissance curtain, a Shakespeare medallion, opening titles on unfurling scrolls, and so on.

With this out of the way, Cukor makes every effort to keep the story clear for moviegoers with rusty Shakespeare skills. Each significant figure in the tale is introduced at the beginning by character name and actor name as well as a brief description and on-screen portrait. The performances are plainspoken and direct; the dialogue is never rushed or mumbled; and the visuals parallel the text in crisp, logical ways that complement Shakespeare's verse instead of competing with it. MGM's literary consultant for the film was Professor William Strunk, Jr., whose 1918 book The Elements of Style influences usage of the English language to this day, and true to his ideas, the movie refuses to get stuck in purist ruts, always making clarity and transparency its top priorities. The music takes a similar route, mixing lyrical excerpts from Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet ballet with Herbert Stothart's original score.

Howard and Shearer are fully in sync with Cukor's approach, generally not overplaying their parts or waxing overly poetic with their speeches, which they treat as serious movie dialogue that just happens to be blank verse. The supporting cast follows suit, enhancing the movie's entertainment value with touches of old-fashioned Hollywood corn. John Barrymore gives Romeo's friend Mercutio a blend of droll energy and campy charm; the inimitable Oliver makes the Nurse both prissy and likable; and gravel-voiced Andy Devine makes a big impression in the little role of Peter, a servant of the Capulet clan. Rathbone, lean and mean as Tybalt, deserved his supporting-actor Oscar® nomination. A nomination also went to Edwin B. Willis, Fredric Hope, and trusty Cedric Gibbons for the unfussy art direction, which calls attention to itself only at key moments, as when beautiful, white-robed Juliet lies unconscious in the dismal burial vault.

Romeo and Juliet has been filmed more frequently than any other play ever written, according to some authorities, starting with a French silent movie in 1900 and continuing with such well-known versions as Franco Zeffirelli's hugely popular 1968 picture (with a 17-year-old and 15-year-old playing Romeo and Juliet, respectively) and Baz Luhrmann's hyperactive Romeo + Juliet (1996), with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes as the lovers. (A new adaptation written by Julian Fellowes, with Damian Lewis and Hailee Steinfeld as the lovers and Stellan Skarsgrd and Paul Giamatti in secondary roles, is due in 2013.) Cukor's picture did poorly with audiences and critics in 1936, souring Hollywood on Shakespeare until Zeffirelli's box-office bonanza turned things around in 1968. It isn't likely that the Cukor edition will replace the Zeffirelli or Luhrmann versions in the hearts of younger viewers, and Cukor himself wasn't crazy about his film in retrospect: if he had a do-over, he said years later, he would "get the garlic and the Mediterranean into it." His movie is an important entry in the annals of Shakespearean cinema, though, and the story it tells is as touching as ever, even when the star-cross'd adolescents are played by unmistakably grownup Hollywood stars.

Director: George Cukor
Screenplay: William Shakespeare; arranged for the screen by Talbot Jennings
Cinematographer: William Daniels
Film Editing: Margaret Booth
Art Direction: Cedric GibbonsSettings: Cedric Gibbons and Oliver Messel; associates: Fredric Hope and Edwin B. Willis
Dance Direction: Agnes de MilleMusic: Herbert Stothart
With: 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 (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 (Montague), Virginia Hammond (Lady Montague, wife to Montague), Reginald Denny (Benvolio, nephew to Montague and friend to Romeo), Violet Kemble Cooper (Lady Capulet, wife to Capulet).

by David Sterritt

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