It seems the success of A Midsummer Night’s Dream the year before had emboldened Hollywood to film adaptations of the Bard, so why not try and go for the mack-daddy of them all; surely it’ll be a guaranteed success, right? Well, it appears only Hollywood could figure out how to screw up an adaptation like this. Anyone who’s anyone knows Romeo and Juliet, so this film will have to have quite the selling points in classic Hollywood to draw people in, and selling points this has. Shakespeare, complete with dialogue? Check. Stars Norma Shearer and Leslie Howard, with Basil Rathbone thrown in as a supporter for good measure? Check. Director George Cukor? Check. Producer Irving Thalberg? Check. So, why then does this fail as surely and widely as it does? If I had to wager a guess, it’s that Hollywood was too concerned with selling points than actually making a good or even decent film out of the selling points it has.
Do I even need to describe the plot of Romeo and Juliet? Two young ones meet and fall in love, despite their families’ eternal feud with one another; how then will they find happiness with each other, etc etc? C’mon, you know this one. So, what’s different about this adaptation? Well, for one, the two leads aren’t young ones, but the early-middle-aged Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer, which would be okay if the film had changed the dialogue any to accommodate the actors’ ages, which they didn’t, and thus the film instead seems hilariously miscast. Other than that, and some shifting around of plot elements to make the stage play come across better in the cinematic medium, this is pretty much an attempt at being quintessential cinematic Shakespeare. I use the word attempt, however, because in my opinion, the film tries too hard at being a Hollywood version that it completely misses the mark of what made Shakespeare’s original so beloved, and this is coming from someone who has never really taken to Mr. Billy Shakes. The acting is so overblown and the dialogue read almost by rote that I spent most of the film cringing at the ensemble’s attempt at making Shakespeare palatable to an average audience. Even Howard and Shearer seemed not entirely sure of what they were doing, but they tried anyway, so I can’t fault them too much. At least Edna May Oliver, who plays Juliet’s nurse, tries to be a character, if even only a bombastic one. I will give the film this, though; the production itself was so full of excess that I actually began to wonder how much this film cost the studio and whether they ended up making any real profit off of it; it wasn’t too much, but it was right along the line of being so, so heads up if you intend to watch this one.
I just realized I went this whole review without mentioning how ambivalent I am to George Cukor’s work, a personal opinion that was once again reassured with this film. So, we have George Cukor directing a Shakespeare adaptation, with actors probably twice the age of the characters they’re playing, and with a producer so invested in the project that the money and production value simply cascades off the screen. In all honesty, I’m actually surprised I wasn’t convinced going into this that it would not be for me at all, but that conclusion swiftly made itself known as I trudged through the two hour running time this had to offer. Once again, I’m left with the same thing to say as almost every other Shakespeare film adaptation I’ve seen: if Shakes is your thing, this might have more to offer you than it unfortunately did for me.
Arbitrary Rating: 5/10