Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Young (Cough) Love

Films: Romeo and Juliet (1936)
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

Strap in, folks; it’s going to be one of those reviews again. I knew that as soon the disc showed up in the mail today. The 1936 version of Romeo and Juliet wasn’t at the top of my queue, but it was close to the top, and that meant there was a decent chance that it would be the one that showed up. And, well, here we are. I knew I’d have to get to it sooner or later and I suppose at this point I’ve put it off about as long as I could.

So why my reticence? This had a couple of things going against it right from the start. First, it’s Romeo and Juliet, perhaps my least favorite of Shakespeare’s well-known plays. Oh, sure, I enjoyed it well enough when it was done with zombies as Warm Bodies, but generally speaking, it’s not a story I like. Even West Side Story and its glorious color and choreography are merely a beautifully-realized version of a story I dislike. The second hurdle is nearly as big: Leslie Howard. I’ve liked Leslie Howard exactly once (Pygmalion), and tolerated him a couple of times. Otherwise, I find him to be about as interesting as dry toast.

Anyway, you know this story so I’m not going to get too involved here. In Verona, the Montagues and the Capulets hate each other for some reason. I don’t know if it’s every expressly said why the feud exists. Perhaps both families are just too rich and need a hobby or something. Anyway, everyone associated with one family hates everyone associated with the other. It’s like House Atreides and House Harkonnen.

Romeo Montague (Leslie Howard) is despondent over a woman and is dragged incognito to a Capulet party. It is there that he first sets eyes on Juliet Capulet (Norma Shearer), and the two are immediately gaga for each other. They meet up and get married without anyone knowing about it. Of course, there’s still bad blood between the families, and Juliet’s cousin Tybalt (Basil Rathbone, who was nominated in a supporting role) tries to pick a fight with Romeo. Instead, Romeo’s buddy Mercutio (John Barrymore) gets in the fight and dies, and then Romeo kills Tybalt. Because this has been going on too damn much, Romeo is banished from Verona. But, eventually, he’s going to hook back up with his girl. Because there are miscommunications and no one in the play has an ounce of patience, pretty much everyone we are supposed to care about ends up dead.

One of the inherent problems with Romeo and Juliet in general is that it’s virtually impossible to find anyone who is both the appropriate age for the title characters and who has the acting chops to pull it off. As written, Romeo is supposed to be about 17 and Juliet is 13. The decently-received Baz Luhrmann version had a 17-year-old Claire Danes and 22-year-old Leonardo DiCaprio, which is kinda close. This is essentially the ages of Hailee Steinfeld (17) and Douglas Booth (21) in their 2013 version. Zeffirelli’s version was very close, with an 18-year-old Leonard Whiting and a 17-year-old Olivia Hussey—and they were far from the selling point of that version. For this version, we’ve got a 34-year-old Norma Shearer and a 43-year-old Leslie Howard. It boggles the mind. I mean, I like Norma Shearer just fine, but there’s not even the pretense of thinking that we’re accurate with the ages of the characters here.

Beyond that, there are some odd casting choices, like Andy Devine in the role of Peter, a servant of the Capulets. Peter is likely a clown character, intended as at least mild comic relief, but Andy Devine and that high-pitched, fluctuating voice? That seems beyond the pale.

The truth is that this may well be a much better version of this film than I am willing to admit or even capable of noticing. I tend to be put to sleep by Leslie Howard, and I dislike this story immensely. There’s no getting around that, and with the best will in the world, this was never going to be a movie I liked. There’s some clownish overacting (Tybalt’s death is particularly glorious and a camp sort of way) and Leslie Howard remains bland and the complete opposite of someone capable of igniting the fires in someone as capable as Norma Shearer.

So, I’d say watch at your own risk, with the strong caveat that I’m not an unbiased judge here, and my take is likely to be harsher than may be accurate.

Why to watch Romeo and Juliet (1936): It’s Shakespeare.
Why not to watch: A 13-year-old and a 17-year-old have a three-day romance that ends with six people dead.


  1. Oh brother this movie! As soon as you see the credits roll and think Howard and Shearer should be playing R&J's parents the battle is lost.

    Since this was a vanity project for Norma courtesy of Irving Thalberg I suppose it achieves its purpose of spotlighting her but she was much better served a few years later when he did the same thing with Marie Antoinette. I don't know if any other actor could have done more with Romeo than Howard since anyone selected would have had to be about the same age to make Norma appear younger. Olivier would have been a sensible choice but he wasn't yet thirty in '36 and quite youthful in appearance which could have made Shearer appear matronly. Hardly the thing for young love!

    I agree about Andy Devine, I've always liked him but he sticks out like a sore thumb in this. The rest of the supporting cast is a good one though mostly by the necessity of the age of the leads all older than they should be. Edna May Oliver freed of the constraint since she is playing one of the few characters not age bound is enjoyable as the nurse and I found John Barrymore, though decades too old for Mercutio, very effective. But I can't imagine under what circumstances I would ever watch this again. It's not a favorite Shakespeare of mine either and its been done much better elsewhere.

    1. Yes to all of this. The age thing really is a problem here, too. The entire point of Romeo and Juliet as a play is that they're kids. They're completely impetuous and unable to stop themselves from acting like stupid kids. This doesn't work for people old enough to have kids in high school. You're dead on in saying that Shearer and Howard would be better cast as the parents.

      The Zeffirelli version form 1968 is pretty and watchable. The Baz Luhrmann version is modernized and interesting. West Side Story is everything a Hollywood musical should be and is probably the best movie version of this (but not my favorite). I'd watch any of those before rewatching this far more geriatric version.

      Frankly, it's a lot harder to read any of this as a tragedy because of the ages. Mercutio dying in the play is a tragedy because he's young. Barrymore was 53--still arguably too young to die, but much less tragic than a 20-something.

      By the way, Clark Gable and Gary Cooper were both born in 1901. Neither is a Shakespearean ideal. Just throwing out the fact.

      Why couldn't Shearer opt for playing Lady Macbeth?

    2. Norma as Lady Macbeth is an intriguing idea and it would have suited her histrionic theatrical style of acting but she never would have done it. No amount of studio tinkering could have made that dragon sympathetic and Shearer wanted to be loved by her fans so a full out villainess wasn’t in the cards for her. A shame since Thalberg would let her do pretty much anything she had a real desire to, as Joan Crawford said “She sleeps with the boss! Who can compete with that?”

      Speaking of Crawford, much more adventurous with her roles if given a chance, would have done it but she would have been completely wrong for it. No other actress of her generation was more modern to that time and her few attempts at playing in an earlier one were disastrous. The Gorgeous Hussy is just plain painful to watch as she flounces around in crinolines looking totally at sea.

      I don’t know if Norma really had that much script sense, or if she had she’d lost it by the time of Thalberg’s passing, because the films she chose after his death with the exception of Escape are pleasant enough to not be disasters but are dated things that would have been right at home in the early 30’s. She passed up a terrific opportunity to go out on a high note by costarring with Bette Davis in Old Acquaintance in a role that would have been a perfect fit for her because the character was a bitch and by the end had a grown daughter. She was 40 by this time!

      Since were talking Macbeth I’ll point you towards a 1955 film that moved the story to 30’s America gangland, Joe MacBeth that stars the great and underappreciated pair of Paul Douglas and Ruth Roman. Imperfect though it may be it’s a solid and entertaining take on the material with terrific work by the leads.

    3. I'll take a look for Joe MacBeth and suggest Scotland, PA to you. It's Macbeth as well, but set in the 1970s and in the context of a fast food restaurant. It's surprisingly entertaining.

      Of course the best cinematic Macbeth is still Kurosawa's samurai version.

      Anyway, my plea for Shearer to play Lady Macbeth is more simple frustration than a question of why she wouldn't tackle the role.

    4. I liked Scotland, PA quite a bit. It was clever in its updating if bloodier than necessary. But then I always come down on the side of implied violence being more upsetting than seeing it in vivid detail but most filmmakers nowadays don't seem to trust audiences enough to go that route.