Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Romeo and Juliet (1936)

Director: George Cukor
Starring: Norma Shearer, Leslie Howard, John Barrymore

 MGM brings to the silver screen the most highly adored love story ever penned by an English author in Romeo and Juliet. Produced with the mindset of being a prestige picture for the acclaimed Hollywood studio, this adaptation of the Shakespearean classic contains all the attributes brought to the minds of the most common American audience member. Willed into production by MGM’s golden boy producer, Irving Thalberg, Romeo and Juliet was not intended to be a massive hit at the box office, but rather a picture that flexed the muscles of the only studio that thought they could do justice the classic tale by William Shakespeare.

Romeo and Juliet is a classic adaptation of the Shakespearean tragedy about a love between two youths who are members of rival families, a passion shared in forbidden love that eventual tears their lives apart. As two families with great distaste for each other bicker at even the site of each other, two youths, Romeo (Leslie Howard) and Juliet (Norma Shearer), share a romance together in secret despite their family quarrels. With a love so strong and rivalry so fierce, their passion for each other becomes so unbearable to lose, going to ultimate extremes from having their families keep themselves apart. As a tremendous measure of being only with her love,  Juliet falsifies her own death in hope to start her life anew with Romeo, but with a lack of knowledge of her intent Romeo commits suicide out of heartbreak at the site of her presumed dead young bride. Awakening from her self-inflicted coma, Juliet, devastated from the sight of her lifeless husband, too commits suicide as the sign of ultimate love for him; a tragic end to a tragic romance.

This particular version of the Romeo and Juliet plays straight the classic notes that have come to be engrained in the minds of most when they think of a Shakespearean classic. With period costumes, sets that seem very much authentic (regards to the deep pockets of MGM), oratory performances that can only be described to many as “Shakespearean English,” and a tragic tale, the film really only lacks one aspect to the overall production, youthful energy. Despite all the necessary editing to the original play to fit the story into the package of an average motion picture, the film plays well considering it a classic-styled presentation of the Romeo and Juliet. The film’s greatest weaknesses are the over-the-top performances of the fairly well known cast to Shakespearean tale, and their overall age which is far more mature than the teenage characters they portray. With youths being played by actors as old as the 54 year old John Barrymore, who portrays the flirtatious Mercutio, the film becomes less believable as an actual love story, and is evident as a film produced for the credit of being on MGM’s list of prestige pictures. Instead of being drawn in by a story of forbidden love, you are walked through the tale by the hand, in a mere reenactment of a classic, as if forced to watch a classic play in school.

The scope of the detail in a scene between the two rival families.
A prestige picture a film produced with the intent not to make a grab for box office glory, but rather a film assembled for the sake of the art of filmmaking, to showcase the top talents of film artists and actors with the mind of winning honor and accolades for the press, critics, and more refined movie goers. The story of Romeo and Juliet as a production is in fact the story of its producer, Irving Thalberg. Thalberg had made himself into the most powerful producer at MGM, and most respect producer in all of the business by his 30s. He always dreamt of bringing to the screen the classic love story, but resistance from studio head Louis B. Mayer had always kept him from doing so, that was until Warner Bros. began production on another Shakespeare play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Not to be out done by the competition, Mayer would greenlight the production for Thalberg. With great care and production authenticity Thalberg would will the production into the feature it would become, attempting to keep as true to the source as possible.

The balcony scene.
Thalberg would cast his own wife, Norma Shearer, in the role of the lovely Juliet. Shearer, a very popular actress from as far back as the silent era, had kept her esteem up as an actress through the transition of motion pictures, both from silent to sound eras, and the in transition in ethics with the advent of the Production code in 1934, effectively shedding her more “free soul” image to being the prim and proper lady of the silver screen. To make sure she looked and performed her best Thalberg hired George Cukor, who was commonly thought of as a “women’s director,” always getting the best out of his female actresses, as well as being a well respected director on his own accord. All this was antended to make Shearer the most beautiful lady of all the screen.

Like Shearer, the complete cast was comprised by Hollywood actors instead of Broadway stars or experts on Shakespearean performances. The dutiful task of playing Romeo went to Leslie Howard, an actor with the attribute of playing sensitive lovers, but with his age in the mid 40s plays a bit old for the role. The same can be said for the rest of the cast which included noble actors of the MGM staple of stars including John Barrymore as Mercutio, the aged Edna May Oliver as Juliet’s Nurse, Basil Rathbone as Tybalt, and 73 year old C. Aubrey Smith as Lord Capulet. Their ages belayed the effectiveness of the roles as each actor plays characters that are less than half their age, much more spry and youthful that what the actors attributed to the parts. To aid in their Shakespearean efforts Thalberg would hire acting couches to teach each of them how to play a Shakespeare role correctly. Some would say these couches failed.

After much toil and care Tahlberg would not see the release of the picture, passing away the day of the gala Hollywood premiere at the age of only 37. The opening was a somber occasion and it would be a time of great mourning for all the industry to lose a great man of the business.

Despite the oblivious superior attention to detail, the passion the actors had for their roles in the highly regarded story, and the top to bottom overall production value, the picture falls desperately short of being anything of a classic. The picture failed in the box office, ultimately losing money for the studio. Critics panned the film with its poor acting, the age of the stars, and the overall “artsy” feel to the film, lacking in entertainment. With the failure in major cities, the picture did do responsibly well in the more remote, rural parts of the United States, where culture was a bit harder to find; this was their way of seeing Shakespeare’s great tragedy. At the Academy Awards, despite Romeo and Juliet’s overall poor marks, the film was honored with four nominations, Rathbone for best supporting actor, Shearer for best actress, a nod for best art direction, and the honor of Thalberg in the category of best picture. Of course the film won no awards, but MGM would hold the picture in high regards for years despite its obvious lack of greatness.

Not all prestige can be willed into greatness. Many of the actors in Romeo and Juliet turned down other roles to be in this picture, and for years the names associated with the film helped make it a marketable credit to MGM. Contemporary audiences see the feature as a run of the mill Shakespeare film, when in fact few could even pull off that with the difficulty of Shakespeare works being brought to the screen. It would be another decade before anyone would attempt to do a Shakespeare film again. It was a gallant attempt by the studio and Thalberg, but it was just not meant to be. Romeo and Juliet has since been used as an education tool, for many English courses to introduce many to the work of Shakespeare to many youths, with the hope of a small few will fall in love with the works of famed English playwright, but sadly with no understanding of the background of the very film’s production.

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