Romeo and Juliet – Reviews
Romeo and Juliet – Reviews
- Frank Nugent, The New York Times, August 21, 1936
- Brooklyn Daily Eagle, August 21, 1936
- John Mosher, The New Yorker, August 22, 1936
- Flin., Variety, August 26, 1936
- Mildred Martin, The Philadelphia Inquirer, August 30, 1936
- Modern Screen, October 1936
- Graham Greene, The Spectator, October 23, 1936
- The Sydney Morning Herald, December 7, 1936,
- The Tuscaloosa News, February 14, 1937
- Prescott Evening Courier, May 19, 1937
- Morning Bulletin, Rockhampton, Qld., August 25, 1937
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 as that which was unveiled last night at the Astor Theatre. 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.
It is obviously impossible to discuss Metro’s “Romeo” in terms of such predecessors. It would be equally unjust to treat it in the prescribed fashion of drama critics: virtually ignoring the production and estimating the play by the performances. Here the production is fully as important as the acting, and one’s appraisal of the players must be an individual and personal opinion arrived at without application of the yardstick of stage tradition by which we measure our Romeos and Juliets. There is no precedent for this version, no stage or screen tradition to guide us in our consideration of the picture. Logically, if not chronologically, it is the first Shakespearean photoplay.
Hastening, then, into our report: Metro has translated the play into sheerly cinematic terms. It has omitted about a fourth of the verse—sometimes at the behest of the Hays office, which disapproves Elizabethan English, more often because it was repetitious or in explanation of action which the stage cannot show, but which the screen can and does. The best known passages, however, have been spared: the balcony scene has lost a line or two, but Mercutio’s ode to Queen Mab is intact. The Nurse once again is called a bawd and speaks like a female Rabelais. No “additional dialogue” has been added. So much for the mechanics of the script.
In scene and motion, the screen has gloriously released the play from the limitations of the stage. The brawl in the Cathedral Square of Verona splashes over a few acres; the masque at the Capulets’ home is brilliantly colorful; the balcony scene, no longer confined to a miniature window and painted garden, has a lush midnight beauty of physical things which merges graciously with the spoken rapture of the lovers’ lines. Verona, in brief, and all the places within it have spread beyond painted canvas and stiffly standing props to come alive in their proper proportion, tone and hue. In such matters the screen is beyond the reach of the boards and footlights. Shakespeare would have gloried in the medium.
But there is more to “Romeo” than mechanical perfection, and if we seem to have delayed unduly in reporting upon Leslie Howard’s Romeo, Norma Shearer’s Juliet and the others it is because the best news should be kept to the last. Considering the performances en masse, they are splendid. Here and there we can expect imperfections: Miss Shearer was not at her best in the balcony scene, Mr. Howard came a cropper in a few of his soliloquies—there must be some inherent antagonism between the screen and soliloquy—Conway Tearle was a bit on the declamatory side as the Prince of Verona.
Fortunately we need not value a performance as the proverb instructs us to judge a chain. With more pleasure, and with a sense that this memory will endure the longer, do we recall Miss Shearer’s tender and womanly perverse Juliet during her farewell scene with Romeo before his flight to Mantua. Bright, too, is the recollection of her surrender to uncertainty, fear and suspicion before swallowing the potion, and of that scene in which she finds her lover dead beside her in the tomb. Miss Shearer has played these, whatever her earlier mistakes, with sincerity and effect.
Mr. Howard is a pliant and graceful Romeo, overly weak perhaps in those moments when his hot blood should have boiled and he shared some of Mercutio’s fiery spirit. But as a wooer and whisperer of Shakespeare’s silver-sweet lines, he is as romantic as any lady on a balcony might desire.
And then, of course, there is John Barrymore, revelling—poseur that he is—in the rôle of flamboyant Mercutio and dying with dignity and a Shakespearean pun on his lips. And Basil Rathbone, a perfect devil of a Tybalt, fiery and quick to draw and an insolent flinger of challenges. No possible fault there. And Edna May Oliver, the very Nurse of the Bard’s imagining; droll, wise, impish in her humor and such a practical romanticist at that. She is grand. And Andy Devine as Peter—”I do bite my thumb, Sir!”—and spoken like a true Elizabethan clown with a frog’s voice and canary’s heart. For the rest a blanket salute: to C. Aubrey Smith for an admirable Capulet, to Reginald Denny for a carelessly proper Benvolio, to Ralph Forbes as a gallant and fond Paris, to Violet Kemble Cooper for a brisk and matronly Lady Capulet, to Henry Kolker for a troubled Friar Laurence.
Talbot Jennings has adapted the play wisely, and George Cukor has directed it as briskly as the quality of the tragedy permits and the pageantry of the picture will bear. We reach the end of the film with this realization: the screen is a perfect medium for Shakespeare; whether Shakespeare is the perfect scenarist for the screen remains uncertain. Metro’s film of “Romeo and Juliet” is a lovely thing; if it should not be well received the fault will not be Hollywood’s. It will mean only that Shakespeare has become a literary exercise or a matter for a drama cult’s admiration. Somehow we cannot believe that.
(Frank Nugent, The New York Times, August 21, 1936)
Those of us who, with a long list of similar instances to bolster the opinion, expected the moving picture industry to butcher the Bard of Avon’s great play, “Romeo and Juliet” (which is now on view at the Astor Theater), were pleasantly disappointed. In behalf of the version that M-G-M announces it was two years in making, it can be said immediately that it is consistently intelligent; that it shows signs of an immense amount of research among documents that would shed light on Verona of the Renaissance; that the topical references of costume, architecture, hairdress, duelling customs, interior decoration and the rest are exact to a hair. The players give evidence of sedulous industry; they have learned the lies that Shakespeare wrote and every one is spoken; they have studied them for content, emotional as well as intellectual; they know what they are talking about and their entire attitude is redolent of reverence for the work of a master dramatist and a great poet. So here is a production of “Romeo” that you should see, if only to compare it with stage productions you may have seen in the past, and to form your own opinion as to whether the screen is a proper medium for the work of our greatest literary genius.
When this is said, there is still much to say. One of the first things you might say is that George Cukor had directed the film with imagination and skill. Most apparent in his understanding of the methods of handling crowds and groups of people.
Of the performers, the nurse of Edna May Oliver (with occasionl errors of directorial judgment) was humorous, tender, blowsy, vehement, as the action required; the Friar Lawrence of Henry Kolker was, in essential, reverential; the Tybalt of Basil Rathbone was, quite surprisingly, direct and as Shakespeare described him, “fiery.” John Barrymore’s Mercutio was outstanting.
In the leading roles, Leslie Howard as Romeo and Norma Shearer as his ill-starred bride were more than adequate. They were intelligent; they approached their tasks with a realization of the difficulties they would encounter.
Here is a performance of “Romeo and Juliet” that is earnest, reverent and intelligent. It is undoubtedly the first important picture of the new season.
(Brooklyn Daily Eagle, August 21, 1936)
There is certainly nothing rash or unadvis’d about the M-G-M “Romeo and Juliet.” […]The whole thing should have value as a reference film for students of the Elizabethan drama. Vulgarians may overlook the fine points and see in it somewhat the usual costume piece done on a rather bigger than average scale. Both classes, I rather think, though, are bound to notice the sound effects. […] In fact, the triumph of this picture belongs, to my mind, to the electrical engineers, or whatever the men who had charge of the sound machinery are called, and I imagine also to George Cukor, the director. The lines don’t ring in your ears, don’t thunder across the auditorium at you–a point of value, you know, where poetry is concerned.
There is great common sense as well as scholarship in the Strunk contribution. It would be absurd to object to cutting, for the film, as it is, run over two hours, and two hours of any talkie, Shakespeare or not, is a good dose. I think that after her mother has left her command that she marry Paris, Juliet might have been allowed to her outcry, “My husband is on earth.” That is so inevitably the idea which must have been foremost in her mind that you expect it and miss it. And I thought it superfluous to ring in the song from “Twelfth Night,” apparently with the intention merely of introducing Romeo with music. There is enough music; and there are enough birds and flowers in Romeo’s career without any extra touches.
The picture clearly belongs to Norma Shearer and Juliet. There seemed the possiblity that John Barrymore’s Mercutio might bolt off with the honors, and had Shakespeare’s play been otherwise, Basil Rathbone’s Tybalt or Edna May Oliver’s Nurse might have done so. Mr. Barrymore swings his leg over the balaustrade as he speaks, and is in general pretty acrobatic; he looks the part, too, of a Verona gentleman who has lived well. But he doesn’t do much more. It is in the mater of looks that Miss Shearer also is more successful; at least she succeeds, where many a great stage Juliet has failed, in her youth. Actually, for once, we see a Juliet who is a girl. The Botticelli headdress–the great masters are all around here–becomes her well, and she is a very pretty thing in the early scenes. Miss Shearer never seems desperate, and, though her eyes well so richly with tears, seems hardly either terrified or tragic, never inelegantly intense. Her first encounter with Romeo is a delightful scene, and if she seems a little addled in the midst of him, she makes nice comedy of the lines they have together. Altogether her performance of Juliet display very well her talent for light comedy.
Leslie Howard appears to be an intelligent, well-bred, and not quite well Romeo. He is possibly a little chilly in the role. Perhaps it’s one of the great traditions of Romeo, yet I could wish that Mr. Howard had not played the balcony scene with his gloves on. Would it have been too animal of him to have removed that Gozzoli gaulet as he reached for his lady’s fingertips? The balcony scene is difficult anyhow. Hollywood’s standards for height and space have made the balcony so inaccessible and formidable, requiring of poor Juliet that she heave down to her Romeo a most ungainly rope ladder, that it seems regrettable Romeo had to be so aloof. It’s in the later and tragic scenes that Mr. Howard is at his best; and there is a good deal to be said for a Romeo who isn’t the violent gallant so much as the mournful romantic, which is the kind of Romeo Mr. Howard probably intended.
Because the lines are so faithfully and so warily rendered, and because for the first time in the talkies the recording machinery allows for a smooth and pleasant and proper speech, this is really a very definite achievement. But I think the studio has been overwhelmed by Shakespeare; and all the business of the schoolroom and the exact replica of Renaissance art and the like have rendered the film somewhat cumbersome, removed the possibilities of something fresh and exciting. The fault is one we find in the majority of Shakespearean production on the stage. This is a good, sensible presentation of “Romeo and Juliet,” but it won’t be one you’ll hark back when you are discussing the movies as great art, if you ever do discuss them as great art.
(John Mosher, The New Yorker, August 22, 1936)
‘Romeo and Juliet’ as visioned by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, under Irving Thalberg’s production guidance, and George Cukor’s direction, is a faithful and not too imaginative translation to the screen of the William Shakespeare play. As an example of expert picture making, combining fine photography and excellent sound recording, with the use of technical devices to create and enhance emotional effect, it is a superlative effort. In addition, the cast of topflight screen names, headed by Norma Shearer and Leslie Howard in the name parts, John Barrymore, Edna May Oliver and Basil Rathbone, in the pricipal supporting roles, gives the film both histrionic importance and world-wide box office potentialities.
It is a film venture that required unusual courage to undertake, not only because of the obvious difficulties that had to be overcome in shifting Shakespeare from the stage to the screen, but because the screen, purely as a medium of expression, is a rapid recounter of events, capable of speedy communication, and of wide scenic scope. “Romeo and Juliet” is a love-story tragedy, requiring precise pace in order that the beauty of its poetry shall be thoroughly grasped. The fine lyric qualities have been retained, and from that point of view there is every reason to laud the production as successful.
In accomplishing this worthy purpose, however, the tempo is a beat or two slower than the familiar methods of modern story telling. No fault should be found on this count, however. To have struck a faster pace would have meant sacrifice of some of the essentials of ‘Romeo.’ That was the production problem, and on the whole it was admirably handled.
Whether the film will be the box-office socko that the jewelled cast of actors would seemingly guarantee, is likely to be answered by the methods employed in its presentation to the public. It will have to be sold (as Shakespeare always has had to be sold) and the regimentation of the schools, clubs and literary organizations effected. Let there be no doubt as to its attendance possibilities. Wih full blast propaganda behind it, ‘Romeo’ will draw into theatres plenty of the casuals, and the star names will magnetize the regular fans. It will also attract a new crop of cinema patrons from the arty, cultural, literati and dramatic bunch.
To its advantage, as theatre fare, is he fact that the Warner Bros. production of last season, ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ broke the Shakespearean ice. ‘Romeo’ will have easier sailing.
Surprisingly few liberties have been taken with the original text. Preparation for the screen was confined chiefly to condensation, which was expertly handled by Talbot Jennings. The sequences of story-telling hold rigidly to the play construction, with only occasional scenic interpolations. All of these are in key with the original, and some of them, such as the photographic splurge of clouds, trees and camera poetry during the wedding night, touch closely on great beauty.
As presented at the Astor, without intermission, te film runs two hours and 10 minutes. Toward the end it seemed like a long sit.
Miss Shearer adds an important portrait to her gallery of roles, and her Juliet will please all her admirers. It is a part quite different from anything she has heretofore attempted. She seems at ease throughout, more content to participate brightly in the general ensemble than to shine brilliantly in the several chances she might have pressed to her advantage. She never conveys the impression that she is getting a great kick out of the part, and her restraint aids her conception of the characterization of the daughter of the Capulets, a child of 14.
The famous balcony love scene with Leslie Howard is played sincerily and beautifully. She makes the final tragic moments of the play convincing and moving. She is splendid, and her performance will be unversally enjoyed and approved, although the theatre advertisements in the dailies declaing that she is “acclaimed the greatest Juliet of all times” may be stretching a point or two, and creating an anticipation not realized.
Against her child-like figure, Howard and Ralph Forbes, rival suitors, appear years her senior. Apparently nothing could be done about it. Howard’s Romeo is a forthright young man of considerable determination, rather than a head-strong, impassioned young lover. But what illusion is lost in looks, Howard adequately makes up in speech. His lines are clearly spoken. His scenes with Henry Kolker (excellent as Friar Lawrence) and the short scene in te apothecary are among the best of the film.
After a rather hesitant beginning John Barrymore makes a real, live person out of Mercutio. His opening scenes were hurried, noisy and indistinct. But the passages preceding and following the fatal duel with Basil Rathbone (Tybalt) were exciting and thrilling. Barrymore plays in the grand manner, which the part allowed. His is a significant contribution.
As for the others, Basil Rathbone is highly effective as a serious and vengeful Tybalt, true to all Capulet traditions. Edna May Oliver as Juliet’s nurse injects some slight levity to her part. Reginald Denny is a smiling Benvolio. Conway Tearle, astride a charger, impresses as the Prince, and Henry Kolker is splendid as the Friar. C. Aubrey Smith and Robert Warwick are the heads of the warring families.
Several strictly film production highlights are interesting. Novel effect is achieved in the opening of the picture when the players were separately introduced in single frames, and their identification and roles established. An airplane view of medieval Verona carried the audience to the city highways and the early sequences of pageatry, revealed with naturalness. Rather unusual use of the camera, while held on the principals during the longer soliloquies, had the effect of shortening the speeches, as the range varied from close-ups to longer shots.
Costuming is very beautiful and designed by Oliver Messel (a 15th century costuming authority imported from England) and Hollywood’s own Adrian. The film gains little, however, from an adequate but undistinguished musical arrangement by Herbert Stothart. Settings by Cedric Gibbons are very elaborate.
(Flin., Variety, August 26, 1936)
[…] All these recollections, however, only serve to point up and underline the difference a few years can make. 1936’s version of “Romeo and Juliet” is a beautiful, warm and tender translation of a timeless romance into superb screen terms. […] And unless this department is very much mistaken, Norma Shearer’s Juliet is going to take a permanent place in the hall of fame.
Here is no conventional Juliet, cut to a pattern upon performances of the great Juliets of the past. Beautifully young, eager, pathetic, vibrant with life and newly awakened love, Norma Shearer is Juliet down to the tiniest gesture, the least flicker of emotion. Upon her slim, girlish shoulders rests the entire burden of the tragedy. […] Miss Shearer’s wistful, distraught daughter of the Capulets is wholly individual. Scorning moulds, she has depended upon her own gifs, her own knowledge and intelligence and in doing so she was not only brave, but wise.
She speaks Juliet’s exquisite lines not as utterance penned by the world’s most famous playwright with which we are letter perfect from long hearing, but as though they had never been spoken before. Every gesture has the unstudied grace of youth. Her terror as circumstance closes in around her, her hysteria just before she drinks the potion, her despair upon wakening in the tomb to find her young husband dead go straight to the heart.
Miss Shearer’s performance is softly keyed, gentle and utterly charming. With it she reaches the pinnacle of a distinguished screen career for herself and proves that William Shakespeare who has had his ups and downs in Hollywood, is a superb writer of screen as well as footlight drama.
Leslie Howard’s Romeo is more mature than he should be. The hot-headed, warm-blooded Montague requires youthful good looks rather than wistfulness and intelligence–Howard’s chief attributes. Yet the British actor’s performance, while lacking some of the fire and the desperation inherent in the role, is sensitive, understanding and quietly effective.
To Mr. Howard’s everlasting credit it must be said he never attempts to “steal the show” from Miss Shearer, a temptation few actors could have resisted.
John Barrymore’s Mecutio is already dividing critics and fans into opposing camps. Some are finding his swashbuckling, noisy performance a dissy delight, excusing his broad comedy, his facial contorsions and his mania for staring into the camera upon the grounds that Mercutio was the dare-devil and firebrand of the House of Montague.
Others feel a little more restraint wouldn’t have done either Barrymore or his role any harm.
Told at Basil Rathbone’s cocktail party in New York just before the film’s Tybalt sailed for a vacation in England, is an amusing story of the terror Mr. Barrymore’s fencing inspired in the breasts of his adversaries. John, it seems, took his work too seriously. Rapier in hand he set out for blood, anybody’s, and particularly Mr. Rathbone’s. Every one but Barrymore breathed a sigh of relief when the sequence was completed and the rapiers went back to the property department.
(Mildred Martin, The Philadelphia Inquirer, August 30, 1936)
Once more Hollywood brings Shakespeare to the picture houses for what is hopped will be a happy meeting between Avon’s bard and the paying customers. On the whole, “Romeo and Juliet” is an earnest effort to put Shakespeare on film. It’s a lavish production, done with taste and an eye for beauty. The Shakespearean verse is ably handled by most of the cast and the effect, after listeners become accustomed to it, is pleasing. The romance of old Verona, in the hands of Norma Shearer and Leslie Howard, is often compelling and beautiful to watch. Miss Shearer’s “Juliet” is more adequate than brilliant. At times her reading is excellent, but there are moments when her limited voice range fails to give her lines the majesty and beauty that were written into them. Leslie Howard’s “Romeo” is played with more restraint than one would expect of the headstrong and dashing young Montague, but his performance makes up in polish what it lacks in excitement. Of the supporting cast, the outstanding players are Edna May Oliver as the nurse, Basil Rathbone as Tybalt, C. Aubrey Smith as Lord Capulet and John Barrymore as Mercutio. George Cukor’s direction is excellent and it, perhaps, goes without saying that Mr. Shakespeare’s script leaves nothing to be desidered.
For ten years M-G-M has been planning to film “Romeo and Juliet.” Not a word in the screen play has been used that is not Shakespeare. Oliver Messel, an Englishman, was brought over to aid in the designing of costumes. Messel spent two months in Verona, Italy, studying, sketching and photographing works of art, architecture, costumes and hairdresses in museums. Every important work of art of the Fifteenth Century was photographed, and when completed the studio had a library of almost ten thousand photographs. From the countless pictures taken in Verona, Cedric Gibbons, head of the art department at the studio, constructed a city of clay in miniature. From this beginning grew the final elaborate sets used on the lot as the film’s background. Five hundred women were employed for several months to create the 1,250 costumes which the picture demanded. So intricate were the fashions of the period that many of the costumes required countless yards of hand stitching. A hundred and fifty tailors found several months’ employment working on the men’s costumes, which in many instances needed entire hand work also.
(Modern Screen, October 1936)
“Boy Meets Girl, 1436 “—-so the programme heads the story of Romeo andd Juliet, which it tells with some inaccuracy; but this fourth attempt to screen Shakespeare is not as bad as that. Unimaginative, certainly, coarse-grained, a little banal, it is frequently saved—-by Shakespeare—-from being a bad film. The late Irving Thalberg, the producer, has had a funeral success second only to Rudolph Valentino’s, but there is nothing in this film to show that he was a producer of uncommon talent. He has made a big film, as Hollywood recognises that adjective: all is on the characteristic Metro-Goldwyn scale: a Friar Laurence’s cell with the appearance, as another critic has put it, of a modern luxury flat, with a laboratory of retorts and test-tubes worthy of a Wells super- man (no ” osier cage” of a few flowers and weeds) ; a balcony so high that Juliet should really have conversed with Romeo in shouts like a sailor from the crow’s nest sighting land; spectacular beginning with the Montagues and Capulets parading through pasteboard streets to the same church, rather late, it appears from the vague popish singing off, for Benediction; Verona seen from the air, too palpably a childish model; an audible lark proclaiming in sparrow accents that it is not the nightingale; night skies sparkling with improbable tinsel stars; and lighting so oddly timed that when Juliet remarks that the mask of night is on her face, “else would a maiden blush bepaint my cheek,” not Verona’s high moon could have lit her more plainly.
But on the credit side are more of Shakespeare’s words than we have grown to expect, a few more indeed than he ever wrote, if little of the subtlety of his dramatic sense which let the storm begin slowly with the muttering of a few servants, rather titan with this full-dress riot. The picture has been given a Universal Certificate, and one was pleasantly surprised to find how safely our film censors had slumbered through many a doubtful passage : even “the bawdy hand of the dial” had not disturbed the merry gentlemen’s rest. The nurse’s part has suffered, but more from Miss Edna May Oliver’s clowning than from a censor. This part and Mercutio’s suffer most from overacting. Mr. John Barrymore’s middle-aged Mercutio is haggard with the grease-paint of a thousand Broadway nights. Mr. Basil Rathbone is a fine vicious Tybalt, and Mr. Leslie’ Howard and Miss Norma Shearer spoke verse as verse should be spoken and were very satisfying in the conventional and romantic and dreamy mode (one still waits to see lovers hot with lust and youth and Verona fevers, as reckless as their duelling families, “like fire and powder which as they kiss consume “).
It is the duels and violence which come off well, Mercutio’s death and Tybalt’s, and, more convincing than on the stage, the final fight with Paris in the tomb, but I am less than ever convinced that there is an aesthetic justification for filming Shakespeare at all. The effect of even the best scenes is to distract, much in the same way as the old Tree productions distracted: we cannot look and listen simultaneously with equal vigilance. But that there may be a social justification I do not dispute: by all means let Shakespeare, even robbed of half his drama and three-quarters of his poetry, be mass-produced. One found oneself surrounded in the theatre by prosperous middle-aged ladies anxiously learning the story in the programme for the first time ; urgent whispers came from the knowing ones, as Romeo went down into the Capulet tomb, preparing their timorous companions for an unexpected and unhappy ending. It may very well be a social duty to teach the great middle-class a little about Shakespeare’s plays. But the poetry—-shall we ever get the poetry upon the screen except in fits and starts (the small scene between Romeo and the ruined apothecary he bribes to sell him poison was exquisitely played and finely directed), unless we abjure all the liberties the huge sets and the extras condemn us to? Something like Dreyer’s Passion of Jeanne d’Arc, the whitewashed wall and the slow stream of faces, might preserve a little more of the Poetry than this commercial splendour.
(Graham Greene, The Spectator, October 23, 1936)
“Romeo and Juliet”
On two occasions before “Romeo and Juliet” was seen, Shakespearean plays have appeared as talking films. Both times, one felt that the producers had sidestepped the task of sincerely and straightforwardly interpreting their text. “The Taming of the Shrew” became a knock- about farce, adorned with mere snippets and relics of the original dialogue. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was a sort of Christmas pantomime, amusing and beautiful in spots; but encumbered by some of the most over-stuffed acting that has yet been seen on the screen.
In “Romeo and Juliet,” Shakespeare finds clear, understanding and deeply romantic expression. It is plain that the whole thing had been a labour of love on the part of the late Irving Thalberg, who produced the film under the auspices of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Thalberg’s wife, Norma Shearer, had long cherished the ambition to play the part of Juliet. In the version of the play which is now at the St. James Theatre, Thalberg has surrounded her with the most distinguished cast that anyone could wish to see; with sumptuous and spacious settings; and with all the glamorous effects of brilliant modern photography. The result is something which makes motion picture history. Opinions may differ of the value of the screen play, compared with the flesh-and-blood embodiment of Shakespeare’s verse. But even the most exacting students of the text must admit that everyone concerned with the film has worked resourcefully and unsparingly to adapt the story into its new medium. Abridgement has been necessary here and there, and even a little discreet transposition; but the essentials remain. The present length of the film, which is two and a quarter hours, already much exceeds the average. Anything more would have risked tiring the general cinema public.
Wherever possible, visual pageantry has been introduced to enrich the verbal music of the lines. The first brawl between the Capulets and the Montagues takes place in the great cathedral square of Verona; and instead of the mere handful of swordsmen which usually agitates itself on the stage, the screen offers a surging panorama of duels and affrays. The ball at the Capulets’ gives another vivid opportunity to the decorator and the costumier. The festive hall stretches away almost as far as the eye can see; and it is filled with a merry throng, performing dances of the period. The Montagues make their entrance down an enormous staircase, preceded by prancing dwarfs and tumblers. As already remarked, supporters of the living theatre may deprecate so much ornateness as competing with, rather than forming a frame for, the Shakespearean verse. But the screen must be accepted on its own terms.
One’s point of view alters correspondingly, in taking cognisance of the actors’ speech. On the stage, the delivery must be vivid and fairly large in scale, even though the contemporary fashion prefers something quieter than the rhetorical flourishes of the nineteenth century. On the screen, intimacy is the keynote. Thus an entirely new system of values is created. Over and over again, the listener receives a shock on realising how natural and how up-to-date Shakespeare’s lines sound when they are revoiced in this peculiarly cinematic, almost casual way.
This applies particularly to the Juliet of Miss Shearer. Compare her with the famous Juliet of the stage, and her utterance might seem under-scented, almost lifeless. But, on the screen, this murmurous treatment brings certain famous scenes in the play, such as the balcony speeches, and Romeo’s departure for Mantua, into a new and quite exciting perspective. For Miss Shearer’s work has the mark of loveliness upon it. There is here a quality of virginal surprise, of almost breathless wonder, in Juliet’s realisation that Romeo has inspired in her her first overwhelming passion. Even Miss Shearer’s warm admirers would scarcely have considered her likely to give such a tender and admirable performance.
Leslie Howard’s Romeo is also a screen event. Though outwardly rather too mature to represent the hot-bloodedness of the young gallant, Mr. Howard mantles the art about with a gracious romanticism which makes it distinctive. This is a deliberate, highly intellectualized Romeo, whose adolescent love-sickness for fair Rosaline could scarcely carry much conviction–and, in fact, this aspect of Romeo’s career has been noticeably condensed in the screen version. But Mr. Howard’s speeches in the orchard, at Juliet’s balcony, and later, are exquisitely sensitive, flexible, interpretations of Shakespeare.
Among the other characters, the Nurse of Edna May Oliver is outstanding. Always to be depended on for rich comedy, this actress here excels herself. The plebeian coarseness of the Nurse; her twinkling, teasing eye; her talkativeness; and her underlying devotion to Juliet, are all magnificently brought to life. John Barrymore, as Mercutio, is full of fire and capricious droliness. Basil Rathbone makes a still, steely Tybalt; Ralph Forbes a dignified Count Paris; and Reginald Denny a staunch Benvolio. Others who act well include C. Aubrey Smith (Lord Capulet), Andy Devine (Peter), Maurice Murphy (Balthasar), Henry Kolker (Friar Laurence), Conway Tearle (the Prince), Robert Warwick (Lord Montague), Virginia Hammond (Lady Montague) and Violet Kemble Cooper (Lady Capulet).
The film has been directed by George Cukor.
(The Sydney Morning Herald, December 7, 1936)
‘Romeo and Juliet’ To Star Norma Shearer And Leslie Howard
Norma Shearer as Juliet, Leslie Howard as Romeo. In the most beloved romance ever written, “Romeo and Juliet,” penned by the greatest of all dramatists who created for the entertainment of audiences yesterday, today and tomorrow.
The story that has tugged at the heartstrings of the world for more than 300 years, the lovers that can never die, brought t the screen by Irving G. Thalberg, producer of “The Barretts of Wimpole Street” and “Smilin’ Through,” who crowned 1935 with “Mutiny on the Bounty.”
George Cukor, who made “David Copperfield” and “Little Women” live again, was the director.
The lovely Elizabeth Barrett now a radiant Juliet.
The stars who thrilled with their performances in “Smilin’ Through” together again.
Norma Shearer, picked as the ideal Juliet a year ago.
Leslie Howard, selected to play Romeo after a search of many months.
Supported by an unsurpassed cast, John Barrymore as the bawdy, roistering Mercutio, and Edna May Oliver as Juliet’s nurse, a comedy role that tops her Miss Pross in “A Tale of Two Cities.” Basil Rathbone as the fiery Tybalt, Reginald Denny as Benvolio, C. Aubrey Smith as Lord Capulet, Ralph Forbes as Paris, Violet Kemble Cooper as Lady Capulet, Henry Kolker as Friar Laurence, Andy Devine as Peter, Conway Tearle as the Prince of Verona, are others in the list of notable players. Adapted by Talbot Jennings, who received the highest praise for his work on “Mutiny on he Bounty.”
Fidelity to Shakespeare’s immortal poetry assured by Prof. William Strunk, Jr., of Cornell University, who served as literary adviser.
And the production. More than a year of intense research required to recapture the life and spirit of the fabulous Italian Renaissance in setting and costume as a colorful frame for the swift action of the story. The city of Verona reproduced in Hollywood as it was five centuries ago. The famous balcony scene built on the world’s largest sound stage to give it full scope for the first time. The ballroom scene, the tomb scene, the nightingale and the lark scene, and the massive square of Verona, all have given Art Director Cedric Gibbons an unparalleled opportunity for spectacle in setting.
Oliver Messel, brilliant young costume designer, brought from England to assist Adrian design of the 1250 costumes created for the picture. For these costumes and many of the settings the artists of fifteenth century were consulted to assure a truthful picture of the spectacular era which heralded the Renaissance.
The thrilling duels, fought with rapier and dagger and rapier and cloak, were six months in preparation. These duels, arranged by Fred Cavens, noted fencing master, are among the dramatic highlights of the film. The opening scene in which hundreds of men at arms and retainers of the houses of Montague and Capulet, fighting with broadswords and shield. And most magnificent of all, the duel in which Basil Rathbone slays John Barrymore and is in turn killed by Leslie Howard.
Norma Shearer, dancing a Passacaglia in torch-lit halls of a medieval castle. The dance of distinction and unique beauty created by Agnes de Mille. Music produced by lutes, virginals, serpents and age-old instruments seldom seen or heard by modern eye and ear, brought from all over the world by Herbert Sthothart, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer composer and director.
The story, an exciting adventure of four days in the lives of Juliet and Romeo, their meeting, their eager, desperate love for each other, the swift dramatic events that follow, causing Romeo’s banishment and their final reunion in the unforgettable tomb scene.
Here is a picture that beggars description, that has every element of superb entertainment. The love story that in its theme is like a golden thread that binds a tapestry together, always bright and shining, never old, always new. It binds together the intense dramatic moments that from the opening scene to the last move with breathless action.
(The Tuscaloosa News, February 14, 1937)
“Romeo and Juliet” Unforgettable Film
Unchallenged for more than three hundred years as the greatest love story every penned, now made into a photoplay of such delicate beauty and charm, dramatic power and stirring action that it must remain forever an unforgettable memory to those who see it, “Romeo and Juliet”, starring Norma Shearer and Leslie Howard as the world’s most famous lovers, closes it successful four day run at the Elks theater tonight.
This is the screen’s supreme achievement, a motion picture that will live, not alone for today, but for tomorrow. The eternal truth of the love story that is its theme, which has made it the most successful and popular play of all time, gains added luster and even greater scope before the camera. It is proof that the talking picture is the ideal medium for Shakespeare’s unsurpassed sense of the dramatic, his sparkling comedy, his gags–for he has them–and his richly portrayed characters, all aimed at the entertainment of the audience. For “Romeo and Juliet” is all entertainment, rich in every element of romance, drama, pathos, humor and spectacle.
The exciting story of the thrilling and adventurous four days in the lives of these two young lovers of Verona, their eager, desperate love, the bitter hatred of their families that brings about their secret marriage and the swift events that follow, have been magnificently filmed against the colorful pageantry of the fabulous fifteenth century when the Italian Renaissance was at its height.
It is an achievement for Irving G. Thalberg, who made the picturization of Shakespeare’s classic at M-G-M after waiting for ten years for the opportunity to bring it forth. It tops the meteoric career of the great producer who was taken from us at the height of his career.
(Prescott Evening Courier, May 19, 1937)
Romeo and Juliet”
[…] M.-G.-M., particularly in connection with pictures stamped with the seal of the late irving Thalberg, has been responsible for a goodly share of the screen’s advancement. New and profitable fields have been experimented in and the company’s enterprise has seen many results not only to its own good, but to the general advantage and prestige of the business as a whole. In these excursions away from the accepted formula, only one occasion comes to mind of the artistic success not promoting a commercial triumph. Reference might be made to many M.-G.-M. films by which new ground was broken, from “Ben Hur” in 1927 to “San Francisco” in 1936, and now “Romeo and Juliet” is a further demonstration of prestige being built in harmony with commercial success. This effort with Shakespeare is a fine thing for the screen; never has the art of motion pictures been lifted to greater heights. And what matters most is that never before has the work of Shakeapeaie been presented in such manner as to assure a due world appreciation. Any who view this picture, irrespective of what section of society’s strata to which they belong must be overwhelmed with the beauty, action, wit, and enduring romance which make it so varied and balanced in those essentials to appeal to a multitude and please the individual. “Romeo and Juliet” is certain to vastly enlarge the world appreciation of Shakespeare’s immortal works.
It is the virility and fast action which merge with the tender romantic element which distinguish the film, but a dominant memory of the subject is ths charm and artistry with which Norma Shearer takes the role of Juliet. No actress, stage or screen, could possibly have surpassed the convincing performance she gives. It is one of the most outstanding instances of acting greatness in the screen’s history. The sure masculine touch Leslie Howard gives to Romeo is a balancing element to the shy passion of Juliet and a thing which enhances the audience appeal. No love-sick swain is Howard, but instead a vigorous man of adventure, prepared to do battle with those who stand in the way of happiness with the girl of his affection. John Barrymore is sufficiently boisterous as the free-and-easy Mercutio, while in a cast which is perfectly chosen Edna May Oliver, Basil Rathbone, and Reginald Denny stand out. […]
(Morning Bulletin, Rockhampton, Qld., August 25, 1937)