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Romeo and Juliet (1936 film)

Romeo and Juliet
1936 US Theatrical Poster
Directed by George Cukor
Produced by Irving Thalberg
Written by
Music by Herbert Stothart
Cinematography William H. Daniels
Edited by Margaret Booth
Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release dates
  • August 20, 1936 (1936-08-20)
Running time
125 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $2,066,000[1][2]
Box office
  • $962,000 (Domestic earnings)
  • $1,113,000 (Foreign earnings)

Romeo and Juliet is a 1936 American film adapted from the play by Shakespeare, directed by George Cukor from a screenplay by Talbot Jennings. The film stars Leslie Howard as Romeo and Norma Shearer as Juliet.[3][4]

The New York Times selected the film as one of the "Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made," calling it "a lavish production" which "is extremely well-produced and acted."[5]




Producer Irving Thalberg pushed MGM for five years to make a film out of Romeo and Juliet, in the face of the studio's opposition: which stemmed from Louis B. Mayer's belief that the masses considered the Bard over their heads, and from the austerity forced on the studios by the depression. It was only when Jack Warner announced his intention to film Max Reinhardt's A Midsummer Night's Dream that Mayer, not to be outdone, gave Thalberg the go-ahead.[7] A popular 1934 Broadway revival also instigated a film version. It starred Katharine Cornell as Juliet, Basil Rathbone as Romeo, Brian Aherne as Mercutio and Edith Evans as The Nurse.[8] Rathbone is the only actor from the 1934 revival to appear in the film albeit he plays Tybalt rather than Romeo. In the play Tybalt was played by nineteen year old Orson Welles.


Thalberg's stated intention was "to make the production what Shakespeare would have wanted had he possessed the facilities of cinema."[9] He went to great lengths to establish authenticity and the film's intellectual credentials: researchers were sent to Verona to take photographs for the designers; the paintings of Botticelli, Bellini, Carpaccio and Gozzoli were studied to provide visual inspiration; and two academic advisers (John Tucker Murray of Harvard and William Strunk, Jr. of Cornell) were flown to the set, with instructions to criticise the production freely.[10]


The film includes two songs drawn from other plays by Shakespeare: "Come Away Death" from Twelfth Night and "Honour, Riches, Marriage, Blessing" from The Tempest.[11] Thalberg had only one choice for director: George Cukor, who was known as "the women's director". Thalberg's vision was that the performance of Norma Shearer, his wife, would dominate the picture.[10]

Scholar Stephen Orgel describes Cukor's film as "largely miscast ... with a preposterously mature pair of lovers in Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer, and an elderly John Barrymore as a stagey Mercutio decades out of date."[12] Barrymore was in his late fifties, and played Mercutio as a flirtatious tease.[13] Romeo wears gloves in the balcony scene, and Juliet has a pet fawn.[14] Tybalt is usually portrayed as a hot-headed troublemaker, but Basil Rathbone played him as stuffy and pompous.[15]

Thalberg cast screen actors, rather than stage actors, but shipped-in East Coast drama coaches (such as Frances Robinson Duff) to coach Shearer. In consequence, actors previously adored for their naturalism gave stilted performances.[10] The shoot extended to six months, and the budget reached $2 million, MGM's most expensive sound film up to that time.[16]

Like most Shakespearean filmmakers, Cukor and his screenwriter Talbot Jennings cut much of the original script: playing around 45% of it.[17] Many of these cuts are common ones in the theatre, such as the second chorus[18] and the comic scene of Peter with the musicians.[17][19] Others are filmic: designed to replace words with action, or rearranging scenes in order to introduce groups of characters in longer narrative sequences. Jennings retained more of Shakespeare's poetry for the young lovers than any of his big-screen successors. Several scenes are interpolated, including three sequences featuring Friar John in Mantua. In contrast, the role of Friar Laurence (an important character in the play) is much reduced.[20] A number of scenes are expanded as opportunities for visual spectacle, including the opening brawl (set against the backdrop of a religious procession), the wedding and Juliet's funeral. The party scene, choreographed by Agnes de Mille, includes Rosaline (an unseen character in Shakespeare's script) who rebuffs Romeo.[17] The role of Peter is enlarged, and played by Andy Devine as a faint-hearted bully. He speaks lines which Shakespeare gave to other Capulet servants, making him the instigator of the opening brawl.[17][21]

Clusters of images are used to define the central characters: Romeo is first sighted leaning against a ruined building in an arcadian scene, complete with a pipe-playing shepherd and his dog; the livelier Juliet is associated with Capulet's formal garden, with its decorative fish pond.[13]


On the night of the Los Angeles premiere of the film at the Carthay Circle Theatre, legendary MGM producer Irving Thalberg, husband of Norma Shearer, died at age 37. The stars in attendance were so grief-stricken that publicist Frank Whitbeck, standing in front of the theater, abandoned his usual policy of interviewing them for a radio broadcast as they entered and simply announced each one as they arrived.[22]


Box Office

According to MGM records the film earned $2,075,000 world wide but because of its high production cost lost $922,000.[2]

Critical Reaction

Some critics liked the film, but on the whole, neither critics nor the public responded enthusiastically. Graham Greene wrote that he was "less than ever convinced that there is an aesthetic justification for filming Shakespeare at all... the effect of even the best scenes is to distract."[23] Cinemagoers considered the film too "arty", staying away as they had from Warner's A Midsummer Night Dream a year before: leading to Hollywood abandoning the Bard for over a decade.[24] The film nevertheless received four Oscar nominations [14] and for many years was considered one of the great MGM classics. In his annual Movie and Video Guide, Leonard Maltin gives both this film version and the extremely popular 1968 Franco Zeffirelli version (with Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting) an equal rating of three-and-a-half stars.

Today, the most noticeable element of the film, aside from the quality of the acting, is that nearly every actor in it is too old for his or her role, especially those who are playing teenagers. Leslie Howard, as Romeo, was forty-three when he made the film. John Barrymore, who plays Mercutio, was fifty-four when he made the film and, with his looks aged by years of drinking, could not avoid appearing old enough to be Romeo's father. Even C. Aubrey Smith, who plays the role of Juliet's father Lord Capulet, was seventy-three years old and looked it, and Henry Kolker, who portrayed Friar Lawrence, was sixty-six. Subsequent film versions would make use of "younger, less experienced but more photogenic actors"[13] in the central roles.[13] Cukor, interviewed in 1970, said of his film: "It's one picture that if I had to do over again, I'd know how. I'd get the garlic and the Mediterranean into it."[25]


Academy Award nomination Nominee(s)
Best Picture Irving Thalberg
Best Supporting Actor Basil Rathbone
Best Actress Norma Shearer
Best Art Direction Cedric Gibbons, Fredric Hope, Edwin B. Willis

See also


  1. ^ a b Glancy, H. Mark "When Hollywood Loved Britain: The Hollywood 'British' Film 1939-1945" (Manchester University Press, 1999)
  2. ^ a b c The Eddie Mannix Ledger, Los Angeles: Margaret Herrick Library, Center for Motion Picture Study .
  3. ^ Variety film review; August 26, 1936, page 20.
  4. ^ Harrison's Reports film review; September 19, 1936, page 150.
  5. ^ Review in New York Times
  6. ^ Full cast and credits at Internet Movie Database
  7. ^ Brode, Douglas Shakespeare in the Movies: From the Silent Era to Today (2001, Berkeley Boulevard, New York, ISBN 0-425-18176-6) p.43
  8. ^ Romeo and Juliet revival, at the Martin Beck Theatre Dec. 20 1934-Feb. 1935;
  9. ^ Thalberg, Irving - quoted by Brode, p.44
  10. ^ a b c Brode, p.44
  11. ^ Tatspaugh, Patricia "The Tragedy of Love on Film" in Jackson, Russell The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare on Film (Cambridge University Press, 2000, ISBN 0-521-63975-1) p.137
  12. ^ Orgel, p.91
  13. ^ a b c d Tatspaugh, p.138
  14. ^ a b Tatspaugh, p.136
  15. ^ Brode, p.47
  16. ^ Brode, p. 45
  17. ^ a b c d Tatspaugh, p.137
  18. ^ Romeo and Juliet II.0.1-14
  19. ^ Romeo and Juliet IV.v.96-141
  20. ^ Brode, p. 46
  21. ^ Romeo and Juliet I.i
  22. ^ Higham, Charles (Dec 1994) [1993]. Merchant of Dreams: Louis B. Mayer, M.G.M., and the Secret Hollywood (paperback ed.). Dell Publishing. p. 289. ISBN 0-440-22066-1. 
  23. ^ Greene, Graham reviewing George Cukor's 1936 Romeo and Juliet in The Spectator. Extracted from Greene, Graham and Taylor, John Russell (ed.) The Pleasure Dome. Collected Film Criticism 1935-40 (Oxford, 1980) cited by Jackson, Russell "From Play-Script to Screenplay" in Jackson, Russell (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare on Film (15-34) at p.21
  24. ^ Brode, p.48
  25. ^ Tatspaugh, p.136, citing George Cukor. A fuller version of the quotation, used here, appears in Rosenthal, Daniel BFI Screen Guides: 100 Shakespeare Films (British Film Institute, London, 2007, ISBN 978-1-84457-170-3) p.209 (Note that these sources conflict on the date of this interview: Rosenthal says 1971.)

External links