January 23, 2013
Romeo and Juliet (1936)
The other night I had the great privilege to watch George Cukor's Romeo and Juliet with a former ballerina and choreographer who danced in the movie for her first Hollywood job when she was just fourteen. She later served as assistant choreographer on White Christmas, among her many other film credits. Seventy-six years later, she's still going strong as a popular ballet teacher in Santa Monica.
Cukor's film stars silver screen legends Leslie Howard as Romeo, Norma Shearer as Juliet, Basil Rathbone as Tybalt, and John Barrymore as Mercutio. Frankly, Mercutio has always been my favorite role in the circa 1594 play--I'm sure many of you would agree--and even perhaps a foreshadowing of Hamlet (whose role was written later, most likely in 1600-1601). John Barrymore definitely seemed too old for the part of Mercutio, but he goes for it with admirable gusto. He wasn't the only one: Howard was a practically ancient Romeo at 43 to Shearer's 34 year-old Juliet.
I recently re-watched Zeffirelli's 1968 adaptation for the gazillionth time, so it was interesting to compare the two movies. The most obvious difference would be that Zeffirelli took a completely different tack, going for a less-stylized, more "realistic" look and feel--though it's really unfair to compare the two films since movie-making had evolved so much in the years between the two films. Zeffirelli hired young unknowns for the roles of Romeo and Juliet (after first offering the role of Romeo to Paul McCartney). John McEnery is brilliant as Mercutio, and it's hard for me to imagine a more perfect Juliet than Olivia Hussey.
I was curious to see William Strunk Jr. of Strunk and White's Elements of Style listed in the 1936 film's credits as Literary Consultant. Irving Thalberg, the producer, told Strunk, "Your job is to protect Shakespeare from us." (Source: IMDB)
If you're interested, do visit the film's IMDB page for lots of interesting trivia. --Kim