Shakespeare on film has always been something of a tough nut to crack. There just seems to be too much starch in those Elizabethan britches for mainstream pop-u-tainment; the bard’s exemplary use of rhyming couplets, soliloquies and grand monologues coming across as something of a stilted waxworks. All the more reason to admire George Cukor’s exquisite adaptation of Romeo and Juliet (1936): a superior achievement imbued with the director’s impeccable pacing and fraught with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s usual penchant for stately grandeur in mind-boggling production values, a la Irving Thalberg’s reign at the studio. In the year leading up to his premature death from a fatal heart attack, Thalberg, then MGM’s head of production, and its’ president, L.B. Mayer clashed on almost every aspect on how to run a successful studio. Mayer thought of MGM as a factory; an assembly line for making movie art. To this end, he committed ‘his’ studio to producing 52 pictures a year – literally one movie every week. Thalberg took a different view of the industry standard. One might say, a more artistic approach, arguing that MGM ought to produce fewer movies per annum but of a quality so far removed from the rest of Hollywood’s output that the public would naturally flock to see them by virtue of their merit alone.
Romeo and Juliet certainly has ‘virtue’ to spare. It is a gargantuan undertaking helmed by the creative genius of its art director Cedric Gibbons, who built both lavishly and full scale, a three-sided recreation of Verona on the studio’s back lot. These outdoor sets would stand for decades until the heresy instituted by Kirk Kerkorian and its wrecking ball that leveled all of MGM’s acreage for profit in the late 1970’s. But Gibbon’s Verona was unique amongst the other facades. It was not just a series of false fronts propped up by rickety plywood trusses, but rather a complete structure that could be photographed from a multitude of angles. The audacity of this construction rather infuriated Mayer who, despite his growing animosity toward Thalberg, could not argue with the producer’s track record of successes. Thalberg seemed to possess that rare knack for knowing exactly what the public wanted to see.
Yet, his gamble on Romeo and Juliet appeared grossly foolhardy – even to his most ardent supporters. Shakespeare had never gelled with audiences on the big screen; a lesson learned the hard way over at Warner Bros. with their own costly flop: Max Reinhardt’s version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935). Thalberg, however, was confident about his aspirations to make the sort of movie Shakespeare himself would have willed into production had he inherited the facilities of a modern movie studio: first, that Depression-era audiences were suckers for a good love story – ideally, one peppered in tragedy – and second; that with his wife, actress Norma Shearer cast in the lead – then one of the reigning divas and notably acknowledged at MGM as ‘queen of the lot’, he could do no wrong. Thalberg’s logic was solid - partly.
At 34, Shearer was, in fact, too old to play the love-struck teenager; a reality compounded by the casting of Britain’s matinee idol, Leslie Howard – then 43 – as her Romeo. Yet, Shakespeare’s intricate prose practically demanded wisdom only age can provide. Properly made up and lit to perfection by cinematographer William H. Daniels, Shearer and Howard became the epitome of the bard’s ill-fated lovers. Each gives a discriminating interpretation of their part, particularly Leslie Howard who, at least, had some classical training.
The film exists in its own exquisitely ersatz never-never land, only superficially faithful to the architecture of the Italian renaissance. Stylistically, the movie owes much more to a curious amalgam of art nouveau and art deco. Adrian and Oliver Messel’s sumptuous costume designs are a glittery assemblage of patterned velvets and diaphanous chiffons. There is even a Busby Berkeley-inspired production number: ‘Blessings on You’ - just one of the tasteful but decidedly contemporary orchestrations in Herbert Stothart’s underrated score. Hollywood’s style gurus from this period were master craftsmen capable of weaving their magic through these worlds without end, borrowing from the spectrum and girth of history’s artistic endeavors, but tweaking and reinventing creation itself as they went along.
Romeo and Juliet is a prime example of this artistic manipulation with no real imitation possible in life; its moonlit gardens and reflecting pools overlooking the Capulet palace (where the play’s quintessential moment of grand amour – the balcony scene – is played out) yield to a hybrid of Juniper and Olive foliage indigenous to the Italian countryside, but herein married to deliciously Californian ivies and hibiscus. In B&W the whole thing photographs rather opulently; the limpid bowers heaving graceful sighs as the lovers emote; Juliet from her turreted balcony retreat with Romeo adoringly gazing upwards from his grassy knoll.
Romeo and Juliet is a movie of moments. Yet these are more than mere vignettes loosely strung together either by dialogue or situation. Perhaps no other rendition of Shakespeare’s most celebrated tragi-romance manages to convey continuity through its characterizations; the lusty bond between men exemplified in John Barrymore’s wily kinsman, Mercutio. Basil Rathbone is a menacing Tybalt; Edna May Oliver, a caustically comical nurse, while Andy Devine is joy itself as the obtuse and often infantile Peter. MGM’s stock company of tried and true excels at breathing life into the play. C. Aubrey Smith’s Lord Capulet is a pillar of strength, Ralph Forbes young Paris, the arrogant peacock, and Reginald Deny, a most benevolent Benvolio. Part of this version’s success derives from the fact that we easily recognize these cherished supporting players from other MGM movies and instantly know the traits they bring to their present assignment. This is a great luxury for both the movie and the audience. No other adaptations of Romeo and Juliet possess it.
The film is more than the play regurgitated verbatim on the screen. It moves - as all movies should - with an effortless liquidity seamlessly held together by its impeccable performances. There is little to deny MGM’s version of this respected masterwork as one of the studio’s most sumptuous feasts for the eye. But Cukor also gives us the heart and soul of the piece to augment these regal visuals. At its premiere, Thalberg was hailed as a genius. “This proves the cinema has at last grown up…” wrote one enthusiastic critic for The Times, “Irving Thalberg does everything but call out William Shakespeare from his grave.” Yet Romeo and Juliet was not altogether a success; particularly with the critics who lambasted the age discrepancies of the principles and likened the experience of the movie to a largely miscast drawing room melodrama. In later years, George Cukor was to add his dearth to this tepid reception, claiming he had sacrificed the ‘garlic and ‘Mediterranean’ earthy feel of the movie in favor of just another prosaic interpretation of Shakespeare – albeit with ‘A’ list production values.
True enough, Cukor has filmed about half the play, choosing – along with screenwriter Talbot Jennings – to prune Shakespeare down (regarded as something of a sacrilege then). However, in the process, Cukor keeps his narrative moving. Far from hampering the impact of the story, Cukor’s meticulous excisions give his adaptation something the others, including the much touted 1968 Franco Zeffirelli version, wholly lack; a spark of visceral energy derived almost exclusively from its visual splendor. Seen as something of a bastardization then, viewed today Cukor’s Romeo and Juliet is an exaltation of Shakespeare via Hollywood’s panache and predilection for ‘improving’ upon the original.
The story, as old as Christendom, that of a blood feud in old Verona, is given over to a renewal or even a revamp that audiences of the day may have considered too highbrow. Yet, in retrospect, Romeo and Juliet plays as a grand interpretation, or even reinterpretation, more than anything else. Romeo (Leslie Howard) is the son of the House of Montague, and therefore an ill-advised suitor for the Capulets’ virginal daughter, Juliet (Norma Shearer). Lord Capulet (C. Aubrey Smith) is contented to let bygones be bygones. But his nephew, Tybalt (Basil Rathbone) is intent on fanning the flames of dissention. Juliet, who is engaged to be married to Paris (Ralph Forbes) falls under Romeo’s spell (and he under hers) at an elaborate masked ball. After reaffirming their love for one another in the much touted ‘balcony scene’, the two steal away and are secretly married.
Tybalt uncovers the truth. A duel ensues whereupon Romeo’s dear friend, Mercutio (John Barrymore) is murdered. In reply, Romeo mortally wounds his arch enemy and is forced into exile. Meanwhile, plans for Juliet’s wedding to Paris proceed. Confiding her predicament to Friar Laurence (Henry Kolker), an elaborate game of pretend is planned so that the lovers can run away together without their families ever knowing the truth. True to Shakespearean form, Romeo arrives to discover Juliet already dead – or so it would seem – having drank a poison. What Romeo does not know is that Juliet is merely in a deep sleep. Unable to bring himself to her loss, Romeo commits suicide, Juliet awakening too late to save her lover and thus taking her own life to remain with his soul – presumably in heaven.
Despite its consolidation of both plot and character, George Cukor’s Romeo and Juliet shares remarkable fidelity with Shakespeare’s intent, if not entirely genuine to the play’s content. True, MGM’s faux authenticity is hardly what the bard would have had in mind for his opening night; the gilded statuary and shimmering laurel swags in the Capulet’s opulent ballroom alone looking more like Macy’s at Christmas than a Mediterranean palace bedecked for its masquerade. But the surface sheen is avidly appealing while never entirely distracting from the dramatic moments. MGM’s Italy by stardust serves the story quite well, much in the way Kenneth Branagh’s vaguely nondescript – but decidedly contemporary – faux European principality, far removed from the dark, brooding towers and craggy moors of Shakespeare’s envisioning, compel and inform his version of Hamlet (1996).
And Norma Shearer and Leslie Howard, in spite of their respective ages, fortify this Romeo and Juliet with a level of mature introspectiveness inherent in Shakespeare’s prose but strangely absent from the various other filmic reincarnations – even Zeffirelli’s. There is much to be said for genuine star power, and Shearer and Howard have both the weight of presence and chemistry to recommend them. We believe Shearer’s faraway look of utter distraction as she lazily dreams of her romantic ideal. We can relate to Howard’s exquisite pang after discovering Juliet’s lifeless body in repose. The actors have merit, and class and guts to pull off the outwardly impossible. It’s hardly a stretch to suspend our disbelief in them as conflicted youth torn asunder by circumstances beyond their control.
If nothing else, Cukor’s version is the ‘Shakespeare light’ for those who might otherwise find old English in general – and Shakespeare in particular – a colossal bore. Cukor’s pacing generates excitement and tangible jabs of pleasure. The staginess of the exercise is gone; the oft’ rigid arras that Shakespeare on screen so often becomes herein woven as a very fine tapestry, free-flowing and magnificently draped in the studio’s top-notch production values. In the final analysis, this Romeo and Juliet is one for the ages; appealing, fresh, bedazzling in spots and overall sublime in its re-conceptualization of the play.
Warner Home Video’s DVD is impressive. Back in the days of laserdisc, MGM/UA Home Video gave Romeo and Juliet a meticulous video upgrade. These restored elements are the basis for Warner’s newly minted DVD, the B&W image exhibiting beautiful tonality and contrast throughout. Blacks are rich deep and solid. Age-related water damage is occasionally present but not distracting. The image is both smooth and refined. The audio is mono, restored and presented at an adequate listening level. The grand disappointment herein?…no audio commentary, or ‘making of’ or both. A production as lavish as this demands respect be paid. It should also warrant a Blu-ray release. Ah me…perhaps, someday. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)