People do crazy things for love.
In producer Irving Thalberg’s case, he wanted to give his wife Norma Shearer—then the undisputed queen of the MGM lot—the chance for the crowning artistic achievement of her career. The Boy Wonder desired to bring his favorite Shakespeare play to the screen: Romeo and Juliet, with Shearer starring as the thirteen-year-old Juliet. Though Shearer was in her mid-30s and completely lacking experience with Shakespearean drama, this did not deter Thalberg, who thought the part would allow her to reach new dramatic heights. He spared no expense, lavishing two million dollars on grand sets, gorgeous costumes, and an exhaustive shooting schedule. Several actors turned down the Romeo role, which eventually went to forty-three-year-old Leslie Howard. With bright stars, a high budget, and a classic tale at the heart of it, Thalberg expected a smashing success.
Thalberg’s Romeo and Juliet was ultimately as star-cross’d as Shakespeare’s lovers. Though much ballyhooed before release, the film was indifferently received. While attendance was okay for a more moderately budgeted film, it was not nearly enough to cover this super-productions’s immense cost. Unlike the 1968 Franco Zeffirelli film (also known as “the one where Romeo looks like Zac Efron”) and the 1996 Baz Luhrmann adaptation, this Romeo and Juliet did not strike a chord with the zeitgeist beyond inspiring a vogue for “Juliet caps.” By the end of its run, the film lost almost one million dollars, failing to live up to Thalberg’s hopes. To make matters worse, Thalberg died shortly afterward, ending his career on a disappointing note.
Some derided movies gain prestige over time, with new audiences discovering their merits. This never happened to Romeo and Juliet. If anything, its reputation soured. The ages of the main cast members became more of an issue once Zeffirelli’s version famously used actual teenagers in the lead roles. The buttoned-up love scenes were absurd compared to the explicitness permitted in a post-code world. Shakespeare scholars scorn the film, finding it unimaginative. Norma Shearer fans positively resent its existence, feeling her overgrown Juliet takes away attention from her superior performances in better movies. On the whole, it’s a laughing stock, even among classic movie fans.
But is the movie all that bad? When approached with an open mind, is it a better experience than the critics say?
First, the elephant in the room—yes, Norma Shearer and Leslie Howard are way too old to be playing teenagers. At youngest, Shearer could pass for a twenty-something, whereas Howard always looks like a man at the dawn of middle age. While more mature actors could get away with playing these roles on the safe distance of a stage (for example, nineteenth-century stage star Charlotte Cushman played Romeo well into her forties), the camera is less forgiving, even with flattering make-up and lighting.
Hot take: their ages aren’t as big a deal as people make them out to be.
Shearer and Howard might not pass for teens, but their chemistry was enough to get me to stop caring that they weren’t high schoolers. By the time they lock eyes at the Capulet ball, the two have me utterly sold. In the text itself, Shakespeare signals to the audience that the immediate attraction between Romeo and Juliet is something extraordinary by having the two speak a shared sonnet before their first kiss, and Shearer and Howard help sell this development with their body language. There’s a wonderful blend of sweetness and burgeoning passion in the both of them– especially Shearer, who portrays Juliet’s awakening sexual desire brilliantly.
Shearer’s performance here is often held up as antithetical to her more celebrated pre-code work. Pre-code historian Mike LaSalle derides her turn as Juliet with terms like “queenly” and “embarrassing,” but I find that her Juliet shares commonalities with her more famous roles. Shearer’s characters are often marked by dramatic transformations, usually related to defying society’s double standards, such as Jerry in The Divorcee, who “balances the books” when her husband casually cheats on her, or Elizabeth in The Barretts of Wimpole Street, who breaks from a controlling, possessive father to be with the man she loves.
Shakespeare’s Juliet is a triumph of characterization, going from a young girl willing to allow others to chart her life’s course to a bold young woman willing to sacrifice everything to pursue what she wants, even if it goes against the wishes of her family or the dictates of society itself (which, remember, demands daughters unquestioningly obey their fathers). Chasing her own desires, defying patriarchal authority—doesn’t sound too different from what Shearer was doing in the early 1930s to me.
While Shearer’s acting dominates the film, Howard is no slouch, even though his take on Romeo takes a little getting used to for those of us reared on latter versions. Howard is quite subdued compared to, say, Leonardo DiCaprio in the Luhrmann version (“I AM FOR-TUNE’S FOOOO-OOOOOL!”). Howard’s schtick was playing sensitive, gentle guys, and his Romeo continues in this tradition, though he also gets to be the bold wooer familiar from the play, eagerly pulling Juliet to him moments after they lock eyes on the dance floor. While hotter blood might have improved certain scenes, Howard’s Romeo is nevertheless properly romantic through and through.
A common complaint is that the film renders this most horny of plays utterly sexless due to the constraints of the Production Code. Before rewatching the movie, the dominant image my mind associated with the film was Cukor’s depiction of Romeo and Juliet’s post-coital embrace: Juliet lays across the bed buttoned up to the chin and Romeo is draped across her with both feet on the floor.
Color me shocked when upon revisiting the movie I found that the filmmakers snuck a great deal of spiciness past the censors. Mercutio’s “bawdy hand upon the prick of noon” line (accompanied by raucous laughter from the dirty-minded Nurse) is only the most audacious example. Mercutio still gets to conjure Romeo’s initial infatuation Rosaline by her eyes, forehead, lip, foot, leg, thigh, and “the demenses that there adjacent lie.” Juliet retains part of her pre-wedding night soliloquy, which is all about how eager she is to lose her virginity. Even the bedroom scene I just mocked has a bit more heat than I remembered. Howard is out of his doublet, and the actors share a languid intimacy that strongly suggests this Romeo and Juliet have done more than just lay around holding hands in the dark.
Most of the supporting cast is strong. Edna May Oliver is delightful as the bawdy Nurse, Basil Rathbone’s Tybalt simmers with barely contained menace, and Reginald Denny exudes a calm presence as Romeo’s friend Benvolio. If I have any complaint, it’s with John Barrymore as Mercutio. By this point in his career, Barrymore’s image was on the verge of self-parody, and he was often uncooperative on the set due to his alcoholism. His Mercutio is less the life of the party than an unpleasant, overgrown frat boy on crack. The character’s famous “Queen Mab” speech is reduced to sped up nonsense, and the character’s dying moments lack the bitterness needed to sell it as a proper turning point in the story.
If the MGM Romeo and Juliet has a fatal flaw, it isn’t the actor’s ages—it’s the lack of an original vision for the story. I hate to keep making comparisons with the Zeffirelli and Luhrmann adaptations, but they make a good contrast because they succeeded where MGM failed in having stronger takes on the material. Zeffirelli emphasizes the play’s themes of youth and age, highlighting the generational conflict and making the young people feel like ordinary teens in their idealism, self-absorption, and impulsiveness. Luhrmann makes extensive use of religious imagery and juxtaposes it against a violent, profane, and decadent setting, making Romeo and Juliet’s love more precious by contrast. These films make bold choices that are not spelled out in Shakespeare’s text, but that’s part of bringing the Bard to life for new audiences.
The MGM film does not have any such “take” on the material. It keeps to the text without doing much to draw out particular themes or ideas, save for linking the lovers with pastoral imagery: Romeo is introduced listening to a shepherd sing in the hills, Juliet is introduced in an orchard feeding a pet deer like a Disney princess, and the lovers’ sexual consummation is depicted through a montage of nature imagery. Perhaps this is meant to contrast their love with the artifice of the city and the corruption it represents, but the film does little to develop that idea beyond its borderline noirish depiction of the apothecary’s shop. Thalberg famously flew in academics to oversee the production, claiming they were there to “protect Shakespeare from us.” He was terrified of doing it all wrong—he probably figured the script would take care of itself and that all MGM had to do was supply opulent visuals.
The film is certainly dripping with visual beauty—the magnificent sets and elaborate costumes were meant to evoke medieval Italian artists like Botticelli and Gozzoli– but it’s all empty spectacle that doesn’t do much to evoke the passionate, oppressive atmosphere of the play’s Verona. The nature of the production also put its director to a disadvantage. George Cukor did his best work with more intimate comedies and dramas. A larger canvas rarely yielded his best efforts. In the case of Romeo and Juliet, so much emphasis is already placed on the spectacle that the drama is often in danger of being pushed to the side altogether.
Undeniably, Thalberg’s Romeo and Juliet is a labor of love, and this is both its greatest strength and ultimate undoing. The good there is comes from Howard and Shearer’s tender chemistry, luminescent and resonant despite their shared maturity. For advocates of 1930s Hollywood and the artificial but enticing soundstage worlds they conjured, Romeo and Juliet’s make-believe Verona is a visual treat. That it doesn’t fully stick the landing is a shame, since so much effort was poured into the endeavor– however, I don’t think those efforts were 100% wasted. I am reminded of an anecdote from the great Shakespeare scholar Northop Frye:
“… why is the story of the tragic love and death of Romeo and Juliet one of the world’s best loved stories? Mainly, we think, because of Shakespeare’s word magic. But, while it was always a popular play, what the stage presented as Romeo and Juliet, down to about 1850, was mostly a series of travesties of what Shakespeare wrote. There’s something about the story itself that can take any amount of mistreatment from stupid producing and bad casting. I’ve seen a performance with a middle-aged and corseted Juliet who could have thrown Romeo over her shoulder and walked to Mantua with him, and yet the audience was in tears at the end.”
For all its imperfections and interpretive timidity, I was still moved by the finale of this Romeo and Juliet. It might not be anyone’s favorite telling of the classic tragedy, but it still has enough treasures for anyone willing to give it an honest chance.
The Barrymores: The Royal Family in Hollywood by James Kotsilibas-Davies
George Cukor: Master of Elegance by Emanuel Levy
Norma Shearer: A Life by Gavin Lambert
Norma: The story of Norma Shearer by Lawrence Quirk
On Shakespeare by Northop Frye