Romeo and Juliet (1935)

George Cukor's Romeo and Juliet is an honorable flop, and not just because the leads, particularly Norma Shearer, were too old to play adolescents. Though faithful to the spirit of Shakespeare, the MGM movie is unsuccessful as either a passionate romance or a costume epic-drama.

In June 1935, Thalberg announced his intention to do Romeo and Juliet with his wife Norma Shearer under Cukor's direction. Once again, Louis B. was against the idea, reminding Thalberg that neither he nor Cukor had experience with Shakespeare and, more to the point, the public did not want to see a Shakespearean film. But Thalberg argued convincingly that a good production of the classic would enhance the studio's prestige. The film was finally approved, but Thalberg was urged to keep the budget way down. The casting of Romeo proved to be difficult. When Cukor's first choice, Fredric March, declined the role, he suggested Douglas Fairbanks Jr., who was young and could project a passionate lover image, but Thalberg was not excited. Both Laurence Olivier and Robert Donat were considered, but the chances of getting either English actor were slim. Franchot Tone was also a possibility, but Cukor had doubts about Tone's romantic appeal. Cukor and Thalberg finally settled on Leslie Howard.

Cukor was not particularly happy about his two leads, knowing that neither Howard nor Shearer could convincingly play the passionate and fiery young lovers; they were too old and too stodgy, even humorless.

Realizing her limitations, Shearer was intimidated by the part. However, fueled with Cukor's enthusiasm, she labored diligently on her diction. Cukor instructed Shearer to work with character actress Constance Collier and to read poetry out loud every day. He wanted her to grasp the cadence of Shakespeare, without speaking in an artificial classical manner. His goal was to make the language real and comprehensible to contemporary audiences. Cukor managed to get Shearer's readings clear but, not much of a dramatic actress, her performance never rose above adequacy.

It was Thalberg's idea to cast John Barrymore in the role of Mercutio. Barrymore had been drinking heavily, and Thalberg insisted that the actor live at Kelley's Home (for alcoholics) in Culver City; he even assigned studio police to guard him. Despite precautions, Barrymore showed up for the first day of shooting hours late–and drunk. He told Cukor, who had been waiting all morning for him, that he had lost his voice. Trying to make the best of the situation, Cukor shot the duel scene first, thinking it might be easier for Barrymore to handle. There were a few harrowing moments, however, when Barrymore almost hit Howard during the duel.

As usual, Barrymore was hard to handle–playing around with his lines, making jokes out of Shakespeare text. When Cukor could not control the actor's shenanigans, Thalberg was brought onto the set to straighten things out. Miraculously, in the next take, Barrymore said his lines correctly. Not taking any chances, Cukor ordered, "Print!" With his ranting and grimacing, Cukor thought Barrymore gave an atrocious, performance, missing the opportunity of being a great Mercutio.

A grand-scale production, Romeo and Juliet was Cukor's biggest assignment to date, and he took great care in planning the medieval sets and costumes. But the prestige of the literary source–the first and only Shakespeare Cukor ever directed–made him nervous. Playwright Thornton Wilder was going to do a treatment of Romeo and Juliet, with samples of dialogue in modern adaptation. In the end, Talbott Jennings prepared the script, with a Cornell professor brought in as an adviser "to represent the interests of the author."

Short on passion, the whole picture is inhibited by MGM's concept of "literary prestige"–the movie is too stately. Cukor considered it his fault that the film lacked a "more Italian" look. It was one picture, he said, that if he would do again, he'd get the "garlic and the Mediterranean" into it. Cukor failed to get his way at Metro about how a period picture should look until Camille, his next movie. Indeed, there was a tug of war about the right style. On one side were costume designer Adrian and resident art director Cedric Gibbons, and on the other were Cukor and Oliver Messel, who did the sets. The result was an incoherent look, pleasing neither side.

Romeo and Juliet is conventional cinema, including the ball scene, which was choreographed by the young Agnes DeMille. Messel's ideas were severely bullied by the studio's art department; Cukor later regretted not being more forceful with MGM, though at the time he lacked the clout for winning such combats.

Other than the style issue, Cukor respected Thalberg's feelings completely. Once he moved to MGM, Cukor got closer and closer to Thalberg, which Selznick resented. Cukor's trust in Thalberg was implicit: he displayed better literary and cinematic taste than Selznick. Generous and gentlemanly, Thalberg's arguments with Cukor were intellectual and always congenial. MGM's wonder kid was better read than Selznick, whom Cukor began to perceive as pretentious and a bit superficial.

Thus, when they shot the parting scene, Cukor thought it was moving, but Thalberg claimed the actors were too glum. "But Irving," Cukor said, "they're partying in the morning." "No," said Thalberg, "it could be done with a smile." Cukor saw his point: What Thalberg meant was tenderness, a more romantic way of saying goodbye.

Curiously, one of the best and most complex scenes, the potion scene, was done with the least amount of trouble. It was shot in one take on a Saturday morning, while Thalberg had gone to the desert to work on another script. The understanding was that nothing would be filmed during his absence–Thalberg insisted on seeing every scene rehearsed before it was shot. But that Saturday morning, the set scheduled for shooting was not fully dressed, and the only one ready was Juliet's bedroom. Cukor asked Shearer is he would like to try the potion scene "What about Irving" she said, quite concerned. "Let's just knock it off and see what we get," Cukor said.

The suicide scene was done as one long, uninterrupted shot, from the point Juliet's mother leaves the room through Juliet's long soliloquy, to the taking of the potion. Though the sequence hadn't been fully rehearsed, Shearer was up in her lines and Cukor decided to go ahead and work out the camera movements. Then, just for luck, they did one take. "Okay, print it!" Cukor said, "We'll let Irving see it on Monday." The stagehands were stunned by Cukor's gutsy determination. Thalberg was a bit angry that Cukor shot the scene without his permission, but when he looked at the rushes, he agreed that the footage had spontaneity and intimacy that could not be improved upon.

Shooting wrapped on May 7, l936 and the picture was released on August 20. Romeo and Juliet was another movie running over 2 hours. The negative costs of the opulent production had skyrocketed to over 2 million dollars, way above Thalberg's original $800,000 estimate. With added costs of advertising and distribution, the film actually lost money at the box-office. But the response of the more literate viewers was favorable and Cukor and Thalberg felt the effort was justified; Louis B. just kept quiet.

Still, Cukor wished he had given the look of Romeo and Juliet a more Italian flavor and also made the interiors more intimate. Unlike other pictures he directed, Cukor continued to feel uncomfortable about this one–it was an incomplete experience, there were too many things he would have liked to change. But back in 1936 he was caught up in what he described as "production gloss," which meant giving the film a stately look. As a result, the picture suffered; there was too much of the old Hollywood in it.