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Leslie Howard - Star of the Month
Remind Me

Romeo and Juliet (1936)

Monday June, 11 2018 at 11:15 PM
Tuesday July, 24 2018 at 03:30 PM

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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 à 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 Skarsgård 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 Gibbons Settings: Cedric Gibbons and Oliver Messel; associates: Fredric Hope and Edwin B. Willis
Dance Direction: Agnes de Mille Music: 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