Romeo and Juliet (1936)

Romeo and Juliet (1936)

“My only love sprung from my only hate!”

When a young man (Leslie Howard) in 16th century Italy falls in love with the daughter (Norma Shearer) of the head (C. Aubrey Smith) of his family’s rival clan, chaos ensues — especially when Shearer resists marriage to the man (Ralph Forbes) her parents have selected for her, and Howard engages in a disastrous fight with an enemy (Basil Rathbone).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Basil Rathbone Films
  • George Cukor Films
  • John Barrymore Films
  • Leslie Howard Films
  • Norma Shearer Films
  • Play Adaptations
  • Shakespeare
  • Star-Crossed Lovers

According to Wikipedia, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet may be the most frequently filmed play of all time — especially if you include the many movies it directly inspired, such as West Side Story (1961). This early adaptation by George Cukor retains the play’s authentic language (albeit truncated), and simulates something akin to the original setting. The result is a lavishly produced historical romance with notoriously poor casting in the lead roles: Howard (43) and Shearer (34) are simply far too old to play smitten teen lovers, and all that ensues in the story-line suffers for this unassailable discrepancy. With that said, Howard and Shearer’s actual performances are quite lovely — they do the best they can — and the film is visually sumptuous on every level, with atmospheric cinematography and beautiful sets.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine performances by Shearer and Howard
  • Atmospheric cinematography and sets

Must See?
No, though it’s a decent if flawed adaptation and worth a look by Shakespeare fans. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book. Nominated as one of the Best Films of the Year by the actual Academy (but not by Peary).


One thought on “Romeo and Juliet (1936)

  1. Not must-see.

    ‘R&J’, the M-G-M way!

    I’ll admit this isn’t one of my favorite Shakespeare plays – though the theme of senseless hatred / rivalry is a good one. No doubt it works better for younger audience members. And no doubt this film’s attempt is a sincere one. But it’s still a mixed-bag.

    ~ mainly, yes, because of the casting. Shearer and Howard aren’t, of course, the only ones who are too old. Most of the cast members who should be younger aren’t. But at least in the case of Rathbone (because of his forcefulness) and Barrymore (because of his sheer entertainment value), we mind it less.

    In (slight) defense of Howard and Shearer, part of their difficulty is the roles themselves. These two kids really are a bit much already – so underplaying is almost mandatory. Howard manages that better than Shearer (who, unfortunately, tends to overplay any role she’s in; ‘The Women’ is a rare case – in which Cukor got a more successful performance out of her because she comes off as more grounded in reality). If R&J are to be easier to take, they really need to at least be age-appropriate, so that the extremes of their intense love can resonate better.

    Aside from Rathbone and Barrymore, the two who come out of this best are Smith (as Shearer’s dad) and Edna May Oliver – who strikes a rather fine balance as Nurse.

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