Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Romeo and Juliet (MGM, 1936)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was the 1936 MGM version of Romeo and Juliet, a movie I’d heard about for years without getting the chance actually to see. It was a pet project of MGM producer and sometime studio head Irving Thalberg (who left the U.S. on a medical leave of absence in 1932, whereupon his immediate boss and partner Louis B. Mayer reorganized production on the lot to the so-called “unit system,” whereby Thalberg and his assistant producers each got their own unit and developed their own projects using MGM’s stars, directors, writers and other personnel) to showcase his wife, Norma Shearer — when the opening credits billed “Norma Shearer and Leslie Howard” I joked that Thalberg had probably wanted to change the title to Juliet and Romeo — one in a series of prestige roles for her that also included Elizabeth Barrett in The Barretts of Wimpole Street (filmed two years earlier) and the title role in Marie Antoinette (filmed two years later, after Thalberg’s death). It wasn’t the first time Shearer had played Juliet in an MGM film: in the plotless musical Hollywood Revue of 1929 she and John Gilbert had appeared in a two-strip Technicolor version of the balcony scene, first played come scritto and then gussied up with “modern” 1920’s slang dialogue. Romeo and Juliet was a troubled production, humorously described in Gary Carey’s book All the Stars in Heaven: Louis B. Mayer’s MGM, and the first problem was getting it greenlighted; Mayer pointed to the box-office failure of the 1929 The Taming of the Shrew with Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks (the one with the infamous writing credit: “By William Shakespeare. Additional dialogue by Sam Taylor”) and the 1935 A Midsummer Night’s Dream (directed by Max Reinhardt at Warner Bros. and, though in English, based on his famous 1920’s production of the play in Berlin, in August Schlegel’s German translation) and, according to Carey, “Thalberg argued that the Reinhardt Dream and the Pickfair Shrew had failed because they were bad films, not because they were Shakespeare. Mayer wasn’t buying that, but when [MGM president Nicholas] Schenck and the New York office okayed the production, he grudgingly bowed before the inevitable.” The next task was casting the rest of the parts, notably Romeo: Fredric March, Shearer’s co-star in The Barretts of Wimpole Street, was Thalberg’s first choice, but he turned it down. The American Film Institute Catalog lists quite a few actors who were considered, including Robert Montgomery, Brian Aherne, Clark Gable (no kidding!), Robert Donat, Laurence Olivier (then making his first Shakespearean film, As You Like It, with Elisabeth Bergner in England), Franchot Tone, Robert Taylor, Paul Muni and the one Thalberg finally signed, Leslie Howard.

Critics at the time the film was released scorned MGM for casting the 42-year-old Leslie Howard and the 36-year-old Norma Shearer as Shakespeare’s star-crossed teenage lovers, and that’s been a point of ridicule for this movie ever since — unfairly, at least in Howard’s case. Yes, he’s clearly a quarter-century too old for his part, and MGM’s makeup people probably applied his makeup with a trowel to try to make him look suitably adolescent for the camera, but Howard was an accomplished British stage actor, fully trained in how to play Shakespeare (though it had never been one of his favorite roles, he had played Romeo on stage), and his relatively high voice, superb breath control and “musical” line delivery are actually quite pleasant and believable for the character. The supporting cast was also intriguing, notably John Barrymore as Mercutio; Basil Rathbone as an almost psycho Tybalt (he got an Academy Award nomination); and Edna May Oliver as Juliet’s nurse (though she’s supposed to be playing a sympathetic character, she’s crotchety enough one can well imagine why she was MGM’s first choice to play the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz: alas, both she and the studio’s second choice, Gale Sondergaard, turned it down); as well as Ralph Forbes (he was known in Hollywood as the guy you signed if you couldn’t get Leslie Howard, so it’s something of a surprise to see him and Howard in the same film!), wasted as usual in the trivial role of Paris, the young man Juliet’s family, the Capulets, wanted her to marry. Talbot Jennings received sole credit for the screenplay, though Professor William Strunk of Columbia University (best known these days as the author of The Elements of Style), who’d previously worked with Romeo and Juliet on Katharine Cornell’s stage production, was credited as “literary consultant” and, according to Carey, helped prepare a script “which expunged most of Shakespeare’s bawdyisms but otherwise provided an acceptable acting version of the original.” (Not all of Shakespeare’s bawdyisms, thank goodness: among the best parts of the movie is John Barrymore’s delight in getting to do a pun on the word “prick.”)

British designer Oliver Messel was brought in as a sort of all-around consultant, working with Cedric Gibbons and the rest of MGM’s art department on the sets (apparently a research crew was sent to the real Verona, Italy to take pictures as guides); they built three different versions of the balcony set so they wouldn’t have to use a camera crane; and they brought along at least two dialogue coaches, Constance Collier for Shearer and Margaret Carrington for Barrymore. (He’d used her on his successful stage productions of Richard III and Hamlet.) George Cukor was assigned to direct, and he decided that he wanted the play filmed in sequence even though, as Carey noted, “this plan meant an expensive and very lengthy shooting schedule for a picture that was already costing enough to send Mayer, Schenck and the New York executives into mass cardiac arrest. The long shooting schedule kept getting longer every time Barrymore stepped before the cameras. Cukor had worked with Barrymore on A Bill of Divorcement and Dinner at Eight; there had been no problems then, he expected none now. But three years had passed, hundreds of gallons of liquor had been consumed, and Barrymore now looked like a final sketch for the portrait of Dorian Gray. He was also beginning to have trouble memorizing lines, and take after take was ruined as he lost his way through the maze of Shakespearean verse.” It got so bad that Cukor asked Thalberg to replace Barrymore with William Powell, but Powell refused because he’d got his start in films in Barrymore’s 1922 movie Sherlock Holmes (making Romeo and Juliet a “doubles” movie in that it features two movie Holmeses, Barrymore and Rathbone, and offers the interesting spectacle of one killing the other) and he wasn’t going to take a part from the man who had helped launch his film career. “So for better or worse, Thalberg and Cukor were stuck with Barrymore, who plays Mercutio as a flaming queen,” Carey notes. “By all conventional standards, he’s perfectly awful, and yet he’s rather wonderful too. The sheer perversity of his performance is galvanizing, and the film needs all the energy it can get.”

Ironically, for a film that came from such a troubled production process and was ridiculed then and since for the overage leads, the 1936 Romeo and Juliet emerges as quite a fine movie, much better than its reputation and one of the brighter spots in the generally sorry history of Shakespeare on film. Most of the acting is quite good — Howard’s, Barrymore’s and Rathbone’s in particular (and for all Carey’s whining about Barrymore playing Mercutio “like a flaming queen,” his performance is appropriate and even beautiful, especially in the “dream” speech: I think it’s the single earring Barrymore wears on screen, more than anything he says or does, that gives the impression of queeniness) — and Herbert Stothart’s musical score is deployed with commendable restraint, except for the two sequences (the end of the balcony scene and the one night Romeo and Juliet sleep together) where he uses the cheaply gushing main theme from Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet overture (if he had to rip off a classical composer’s take on Romeo and Juliet, why didn’t he use the far more beautiful and subtle treatment by Berlioz?). If there’s a problem with this film it’s its raison d’être, Norma Shearer, who clearly simply isn’t as comfortable with Shakespeare or blank verse as Leslie Howard. She’s actually pretty good in Juliet’s quieter moments, but when the script forces her to turn up the emotions the best she can get out of herself is a low simmer — and the mismatch between her and Howard in terms of stage experience in general and Shakespeare experience in particular makes her seem worse than she would have with Robert Taylor or another American “movie” person as her co-star. It’s become a sort of in-joke between Charles and I how often I say that such-and-such a movie from the classic age that Barbara Stanwyck wasn’t in would have been better if she had — but I’m going to say it again: she may not have had any more experience playing Shakespeare than Shearer did but her emotional intensity and her astonishing versatility (name me one other actress, then or now, who could have played such wildly varying roles as Stella Dallas, The Lady Eve and Double Indemnity — all right, maybe Meryl Streep) could have led her to a Juliet for the ages, one who could have made the final scene heartrending instead of merely sad.

And speaking of Romeo and Juliet itself, it’s long struck me as the ultimate disconfirmation of the rather silly idea that in order to be a great tragedy, a play has to make the protagonist’s fall “inevitable.” There’s hardly a less “inevitable” tragedy than Romeo and Juliet; the plot is so strongly driven by coincidence and happenstance that one can point all the way through it to plot junctures where if only y had happened instead of x, Romeo and Juliet would either never have met each other or would have survived, stayed together and lived to a ripe old age. The MGM Romeo and Juliet is a quite honorable and moving adaptation of the play, it’s well worth seeing and it’s a much better movie than its reputation (like a lot of other films since — can you say Waterworld? — it was reviewed as much on the basis of the trouble and cost of making it as it was on its own merits as a film), though many of its strongest scenes are purely visual and don’t involve Shakespeare’s dialogue — including the almost Gothic appearance of Friar Laurence’s hideout and an effective shock scene in which Romeo charges straight at the camera to challenge Tybalt to a duel. For some reason in his introduction on Turner Classic Movies Robert Osborne said it was a box-office hit whereas every other source I’ve seen said it was a costly flop. (According to Gary Carey, it cost over $2 million to make and lost almost $925,000.) Romeo and Juliet wouldn’t become movie box office until the 1960’s — first in the modern-dress musical version, West Side Story, in 1961; and then in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 version of the Shakespeare original, which was not only filmed in Italy but employed teenage actors Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey in the title roles and took advantage of the greater sexual freedom of 1960’s films to show them half-naked and depict their attraction far more lubriciously than it ever had been before.