Director: George Cukor
Starring: Leslie Howard, Norma Shearer, John Barrymore
Running time: 126 minutes
Today on TCM (February is always a great month to watch, it’s all Oscar winners all month long), they ran the 1936 version of the classic story. Having not seen it, and being interested in some of the cast — Basil Rathbone as Tybalt, John Barrymore as Mercutio (a role I have played myself), Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer in the title roles etc. — I gave it a whirl.
Not as good. Appalling by today’s standards, in fact.
In large part this is due to how old the leads were at the time — in 1936 it was probably considered immodest to actually cast young adults in teenage roles — but Leslie Howard was 43 YEARS OLD playing Romeo (Shearer was 34!). Most of the rest of the company were equally far too old to be in their parts, with the curious exception of the actors playing actual old people (!).
Throw in some truly diabolical overacting by 54 YEAR OLD John Barrymore as Mercutio (admittedly I’m biased), Edna May Oliver as Juliet’s nurse and a completely unwatchable “performance” by Andy Devine as the lummox Peter (idiot servant of Capulet), and even the rest of the production (some parts of which are actually quite excellent) becomes quite unbelievable. Did I mention the awkward male leotards with their Scottish-esque sporrans, by the way?
The American accents in most of the cast don’t help much either … I think we all know that if Shakespeare set the play in Verona Italy, he meant it to be performed in the the King’s English! Hmph and all that! 🙂
The movie isn’t worthless by any means — obviously we’re still talking the beautiful rhyming language of Shakespeare here (except when Andy Devine is speaking), and director Cukor (who went on to do many outstanding films) does good work overall, particularly in the larger scenes (the street fight between the families, the soirée where Romeo first lays eyes on Juliet and so on), and despite their great age Howard and Shearer do the roles justice, but still — a Romeo with a receding hairline is pretty hard to get past.
Some have said that Barrymore was deliberately playing Mercutio as an older guy who just won’t grow up (or, more cynically, likes to hang out with young men), but I’m not buying it. He’s a comic character, yes — but comparing Barrymore’s campiness to Reginald Denny’s much more finely-judged Benvolio shows off which of the two is the better actor, at least in this movie.
The sets, costumes and score are all excellent, but I have to admit that even as big a fan of B&W movies as I am, the story of Romeo and Juliet demands so much passion and exuberance to pull off all that flowery language that the movie not being in colour hurts it (in my eyes, particularly since I’m so enamoured of the 1968 version). Not only that, but the film is very “stagey” rather than naturalistic, which in 1936 might have been perfectly acceptable but looks terribly stiff today.
If you can get past The World’s Oldest Teenagers as the leads, there is obviously more than enough here to commend a viewing of the film if for no other reason than to compare it to the many other versions out there. Basil Rathbone as Tybalt in particular is easily the best version of the character of any film version in my opinion — he’s just flatly terrific in the role of an eager young buck spoiling for a fight, and completely dominates every scene he’s in. But Shearer, despite a fine performance, didn’t get the role based solely on her talents — she was the wife of producer Irving Thalberg, and it was perhaps her casting that made it necessary to make Romeo so old (etc).
Fundamentally flawed in a modern context but still based on what is arguably one of Shakespeare’s most universally-appealing stories (since he nicked it from Tristan & Isolde), this version is lavish and beautiful to watch — but it’s fairly bit hard to listen to.