Norma Shearer had a test-run on Juliet, doing the balcony scene with John Gilbert’s Romeo back in THE HOLLYWOOD REVUE OF 1929. The pairing didn’t amount to much, but it must have made a lasting impression on her husband, studio honcho Irving Thalberg, who went all out on this love-letter/vanity production. (It was part of a long-term plan to wean Norma off her sexy sophisticate roles and reinvent her as the ‘First Lady of the Screen!’ Hence, her move toward stage-tested vehicles originated by legit stars like Gertrude Lawrence, Lynn Fontanne & Kit Cornell, B’way’s Juliet in 1934.) Naturally, the film was assigned to George Cukor, new to Shakespeare, but the resident stage-to-screen specialist, and noted ‘Ladies Director.’ It’s wildly over-produced, large-scaled & dreadfully tasteful, and its never had much of a reputation. But, on its own terms, it’s better than you may recall. Thalberg really did go all out, physically it’s both gorgeous & gargantuan (note the multiple credits for famed London-based designer Oliver Messel), but you keep expecting some stately grand opera to break out, LA GIOCONDA or LES HUGUENOTS. (Or maybe PIQUE DAME to go along with all the Tchaikovsky on the soundtrack.) The whole cast is twice as old as they should be. Well, maybe not twice as old . . . more like thrice as old!; and the text heavily trimmed to allow for plenty of dance & pageantry in the 2-hr running time. But the old-fashioned, well-mannered speaking style has its charms compared to the bland realism & whispering speech patterns of today. If only the players rose above mere adequacy. The film only comes fully to life with the rude vitality of John Barrymore’s Mercutio & Edna May Oliver’s Nurse. (Barrymore looks completely debauched in his first scene*, less so later. But he spent an entire day insisting that one line about Romeo went ‘He speaketh not; he sleepeth not; he pisseth not.’) Along with Basil Rathbone’s Tybalt**, these two troopers are the only cast members unfazed by the boundaries of taste or refinement. Bless them.
DOUBLE-BILL: *Barrymore was living in a sanatorium during the shoot, trying to dry-out after his 1934 breakdown. You can see the ghastly place re-imagined by Cukor in his version of A STAR IS BORN/’54. It’s the scene where studio head Charles Bickford visits James Mason to offer a small role. OR: Cast your own Hollywood Juliet by auditioning the 18 yr-old Olivia de Havilland as she plays Hermia in A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM/’35.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: **Rathbone had good cause to be loose on the set, he'd been Romeo to Kit Cornell’s Juliet on B’way. (And the 19 yr-old Orson Welles was Tybalt!) Meanwhile, poor Leslie Howard, charming, but cool to the touch as Romeo here, doubled down on Shakespeare in ‘36 with a B’way Hamlet that flopped against John Gielgud’s.