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Romeo and Juliet (1936)
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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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