A Short History of Romeo and Juliet on Film

One of Shakespeare's so-called "black" plays -- because any company putting on the show will be guaranteed to be "in the black" (turning a profit) -- it's no surprise that "Romeo and Juliet" has proved to be irresistible for filmmakers since the earliest days of the motion picture. With iconic moments such as the balcony scene, the deaths of Tybalt and Mercutio, and taunting of the Nurse, and the final tragic moments in the crypt, the story speaks as much in visual language as it does in Shakespeare's soaring, heartbreaking verse.

The earliest record of the play on film is a French version from around 1900 -- a mere four years after the public exhibition of films began. Early Hollywood also embraced the work. "Perils of Pauline" hero Paul Panzer played Romeo in a 1908 version opposite a young Canadian named Florence Lawrence: Lawrence was unbilled, but her success in that role and others eventually lead her to abandon her contract with Biograph and become the first nationally publicized "movie star" a couple of years later. In 1916, Metro Pictures (with a version starring matinee idol Francis X. Bushman) raced to get their version of the classic to the screen three days before the Fox version (with smoky Theda Bara as Juliet), with spies from both studios apparently engaging in corporate espionage to bring secrets of production from one set to another.

Since then, productions of "Romeo and Juliet" have tended to be high-profile events worthy of the screen's greatest talent. In 1936, MGM, the "Tiffany" of the movie studios, hired George Cukor to direct an all-star version of the film, with reigning MGM queen Norma Shearer and A-list British import Leslie Howard as the title lovers. Never mind that Shearer was 34 years old and Howard 43 at the time; with stage and screen legend John Barrymore as Mercutio and notorious "bad guy" Basil Rathbone as Tybalt, the film received four Academy Award nominations. The 1954 UK version also earned international acclaim, with young Laurence Harvey ("The Manchurian Candidate") starring opposite unknown Susan Shentall -- in her only screen role. With a stable of renowned character actors like Flora Robson, Mervyn Johns, John Gielgud, and Sebastian Cabot in supporting roles, the Renato Castellani- directed version won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and was named Best Foreign Film by the National Board of Review.

Perhaps the best-known version of the film to date is the 1968 Itailan / UK co-production directed by Franco Zeffirelli. Featuring two young actors who were very close to the age of the characters, audiences flocked to see Olivia Hussey (15 when the movie was made) and Leonard Whiting (17) as the title characters. In the more modern era, the young lovers' passion was most evident in bedroom scenes that featured glimpses of a nude Hussey: eventually, the scenes generated controversy when Hussey was not allowed to attend the premiere of the film because she was underage, even though she was the one who appeared nude. Still, audiences were probably just as much enthralled by the lush location shooting, period costumes, outstanding supporting performances by Michael York (a cold and villainous Tybalt) and Milo O'Shea (a sympathetic if bumbling Friar Laurence),and the haunting "Love Theme" ("What is a youth, what is a maid...") featured throughout the film. The film earned Academy Awards for Best Cinematography and Best Costume Design, and went on to earn nearly $40 million on a budget of less than $1 million.

More recently, the story was taken up by director Baz Luhrmann in 1996 in "Romeo + Juliet," starring then-youthful sensations Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. Though well-received and well-regarded, Lurhmann's film drew some criticism for resetting the action in a contemporary beach community meant to resemble Miami, choosing to represent the swordfights as gunplay, and often deliberately highlighting anachronistic elements in both the visual design and soundtrack. Perhaps most significantly, the famous "balcony" scene became a moonlight swim with the two lovers eagerly embracing underwater as opposed to over a suspended trellis. Still, the film earned acclaim from audiences young and old who appreciated the contemporary interpretation, and helped solidify the young Luhrmann's career in anticipation of his widely praised "Moulin Rouge" (2001).

Even when it is not called "Romeo and Juliet," the story of Verona's star-crossed lovers has helped inspire filmmakers and artists. Several ballets are inspired by the play, and every tenth grader knows that the legendary musical "West Side Story" transplants the basic elements of the story to the streets of New York in the 1950s. The Oscar-winning "Shakespeare in Love" centers around the first production of the play in Elizabethan England (a highly fictionalized, but nonetheless enchanting rendering); the play and film "Romanoff and Juliet" imagines the lovers in the Cold War; the imaginative "Romeo Must Die" with Jet Li is a martial-arts version of the familiar story; and most recently, the animated comedy "Gnomeo and Juliet" imagines the lovers as the garden gnomes belonging to two feuding neighbors. Regardless of the filmmakers' unique take, the presence of the story throughout film history is a testament to the story's enduring appeal and ability to entertain in many ways, shapes and forms.

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