"Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents' strife."
In 1936 movie sound was still in its relative infancy, having been introduced less than a decade before. Studios were scrambling to find things to show off the new medium of "talking pictures," and what better material than the poetry of Shakespeare? The year before, Warner Bros. had produced "A Midsummer Night's Dream" with an all-star cast, so MGM probably figured they could do just as well with another of the Bard's popular plays, "Romeo and Juliet." However, despite the lavish attention they spent on the cast, the sets, and the costumes, the result was less than perfect.
Yes, MGM did their best with the film. They even hired Professor William Strunk ("The Elements of Style") to oversee the play's authenticity and George Cukor ("Little Women," "Dinner at Eight," "Camille," "The Philadelphia Story," "Gaslight," "Born Yesterday," "A Star Is Born," "My Fair Lady") to direct.
Sure, the filmmakers cut the play, a common practice in movies, and they made it somewhat silly and stagey in parts, but the dialogue comes off quite poetically and the sets are often wonderfully elaborate.
The problem lies in the casting. Norma Shearer and Leslie Howard had scored a hit in the movie "Smilin' Through" a few years earlier, so MGM decided to pair them again. The trouble is that in Shakespeare's play, the author tells us that Juliet is in her early teens ("She hath not seen the change of fourteen years"), too young for the girl's father readily to agree to her marriage to Count Paris; and even if Shakespeare does not specify Romeo's age, he hints at mid-to-late teens. Unfortunately, Ms. Shearer was in her mid thirties at the time of the shooting, and Howard was just over forty. Stage audiences are used to older actors performing the roles--Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, even Basil Rathbone had played Romeo on stage--but movie audiences are not always as willing to suspend their disbelief as live-theater audiences. Naturally, literature is all about imagination, but trying to imagine Shearer and Howard as teenagers is a stretch, and without their being teenagers, one rather loses the point of the story.
These star-crossed lovers should be the very image of impulsive, reckless, foolhardy youth. Instead, the two leads are middle-aged matinee idols. When the tragedy sets in and Shakespeare tells us the two youngsters are reduced to "Blubb'ring and weeping, weeping and blubbering," the two actors seem merely uncomfortable with their lot. For the good, Howard strikes a suitable balance between starry-eyed dreamer and foolhardy lover; for the worse, Shearer seems a bit out of her depth, relying too often on overripe histrionics.
The rest of the casting is also hit and miss, MGM putting some of their biggest stars of the day in the picture as much for name recognition as for their appropriateness to the roles. Henry Kolker is convincing as the well-intended but disastrously meddling priest, but Edna May Oliver is a bit too sedate as Shakespeare's bawdy, boisterous nurse. Celebrated Shakespearean stage actor John Barrymore is a joy as the unpredictable, bigger-than-life punster, Mercutio, but he looks old enough to be Romeo's father, not his friend. Andy Devine adds some unnecessarily broad comic relief as the nurse's servant, Peter, and his foolishness during the opening fight scene establishes entirely the wrong tone for the film. C. Aubrey Smith adds a compensating note of gravity as Juliet's father, Lord Capulet, but it's hardly enough. Reginald Denny is properly bland as Romeo's closest friend and confidant, Mr. Nice Guy Benvolio. And Basil Rathbone proves once again that the villain is often the best part of any drama as he struts his way through the role of the cocky, hotheaded Tybalt. Rathbone also has the most commanding voice of the lot, and his magnificent delivery is a pleasure to hear.
Trivia notes on the play: As was Shakespeare's customary practice, he based "Romeo and Juliet" (which he probably wrote around 1591) on earlier sources, in this case Arthur Brooke's "Romeus and Juliet" (1562) and William Paynter's "Palace of Pleasure" (1567), their accounts based in turn on earlier Italian versions of a story that possibly went back all the way to second-century Greece. When the play opens, Romeo has no idea who Juliet is; he's pining away for a girl named Rosaline. Yet he forgets all about her the moment he sets eyes on Juliet, proving what a fickle-minded romantic he is. The entire action of the play covers only a few days but seems longer. Romeo and Juliet meet one evening, marry the next day, and part the morning after. In Shakespeare's day, a young boy would have played the part of Juliet, so I suppose we should be glad to get Ms. Shearer. Juliet's father insists that Juliet marry a persistent suitor, Count Paris; Juliet's nurse recommends she commit bigamy; and the priest, even goofier than the nurse, suggests Juliet fake her own death and be buried alive. In no other Shakespeare play have so many people done or suggested so many preposterous things. Meanwhile, the peace-loving Romeo kills several people and himself by the play's end, and the graveyard contains two fresh new bodies and a third that had died before!
Warner Bros., who now own the film, again come up with a good print, a good refurbishing, and a good transfer. They offer up the 1.33:1 (1.37:1) ratio movie in excellent black-and-white contrasts and in excellent definition for standard-resolution reproduction. There is a small degree of fine film grain and the occasional age mark, but one hardly notices.
Remember, this is early sound, so don't expect too much. Still, the Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural presentation is easy on the ear and conveys the all-important words of Shakespeare more than adequately. Although the frequency extremes are limited, the midrange is realistic enough, and the low-level background noise should not be a problem unless one turns the volume up excessively high.
Among the most-important bonus items on the disc are an eleven-minute vintage short, "Master Will Shakespeare," which traces the life of the playwright and poet with a voice-over narration by Carey Wilson, and a nine-minute Technicolor cartoon "Little Cheeser," both made in 1936. Then, there are thirty scene selections but no chapter insert; an original theatrical trailer; English as the only spoken language; and English, French, and Portuguese subtitles.
The Internet Movie Database lists thirty-four big-screen and television versions of "Romeo and Juliet." Compared to some of them, you could do worse than watch this 1936 account. The actors may be well past their "Use by" date for the teenage roles, but they deliver Shakespeare's lines quite lyrically, and the MGM folks went out of their way to provide the best production values they could muster. In its way, this film beats putting guns rather than swords in the hands of the young people, as Bas Luhrman's 1995 film did, although it doesn't capture the impetuosity of young love nearly as well as Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 production, which cuts out even more of Shakespeare's lines than this one, yet comes closer to the spirit of the thing.
Warner Bros. have made "Romeo and Juliet" available singly or in a box set, the "Shakespeare Collection," which also includes "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (1935) with James Cagney and Joe E. Brown, "Othello" (1965) with Lawrence Olivier and Maggie Smith, and "Hamlet" (1996) with Kenneth Branagh and Julie Christie.
"A glooming peace this morning with it brings;
The sun for sorrow will not show his head:
Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things;
Some shall be pardon'd and some punished:
For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo."