Friday, February 14, 2014


Oddly, given my love of movies and plays, I had never seen or read this classic Shakespeare work before, unless you count WEST SIDE STORY. People kept telling me I should see the 1968 Zeffirelli version, but this is the one I remember seeing part of on TV way back when I was 9 years old. I only saw the first 15 minutes, but it got me fired up about Shakespeare and I precociously bought a complete plays volume, intending to whip through them all before high school. I didn’t get very far then, though I have since read most of the canonical plays—except this one. I don't think a plot summary is necessary—after all, the phrase "star-crossed lovers" is practically welded to any description of the story. This classy production from MGM followed hot on the heels of Warner Bros. star-studded A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM, and it is the sets, costumes and general production values that are most impressive here, particularly in the scene in which Romeo and Juliet meet at a fancy costume ball—I was struck by how much this sequence looked like the "Dance at the Gym" in WEST SIDE STORY. The acting is more hit-and-miss: Norma Shearer (Juliet), in her 30s, and Leslie Howard (Romeo), over 40, are often criticized for being too old to be playing characters that were written to be teenagers, but there are very few lines or situations left that would mark them as that young, so for me, they worked just fine. Shearer occasionally lets the iambic pentameter get the best of her—she feels especially stagy in her big moment when she contemplates going through with her fake suicide—but overall they have nothing to be ashamed of. Edna May Oliver, whom I usually love, goes way overboard hamming up the character of the Nurse, and speaking of hams, John Barrymore as the doomed Mercutio does seem both too old and too showy. I've never liked Andy Devine and he does little to change my mind here as the comic relief servant to the nurse. Basil Rathbone (Tybalt), C. Aubrey Smith (Capulet) and Reginald Denny (Benvolio) are all fine in supporting roles. Low point: in the Mercutio/Tybalt swordfight, Barrymore clearly cannot keep up with the younger, more athletic Rathbone and the scene suffers, even though it looks like a double was used in a few shots. It's fun to hear some of Tchaikovsky's Romeo & Juliet ballet music as part of the score. Perhaps not the best possible screen Shakespeare, but passable. [DVD]

No comments: