The role of Romeo was originally offered to John Gielgud, who had just had a triumph in a stage production of the play in London in which he alternated the roles of Romeo and Mercutio with Laurence Olivier. Gielgud not only turned the part down (thinking that Shakespeare couldn't effectively be presented on screen), but was so disgusted by the finished film that he walked out of the theater after watching only fifteen minutes of it.
Barrymore got actor William Powell the first big break of his career, so it is understandable that when Irving Thalberg and MGM wanted to replace Barymore, who was playing Mercutio, Powell declined to do it out of loyalty.
This was the last film producer Irving Thalberg personally produced before his death. The film's Los Angeles premiere took place at the Carthay Circle Theater on September 14, 1936, the night of Thalberg's death. Frank Whitbeck, the radio announcer for the broadcast of the premiere, decided not to interview the stars of the movie on the air. The actors were so grief-stricken that Whitbeck was afraid they would break down crying, so he simply announced their names as they arrived.
John Barrymore had been drinking heavily during filming, and studio chief Irving Thalberg insisted that he live in Kelley's Rest House for the rest of the shooting and had studio security stand watch over him. Despite these precautions, Barrymore was able to procure drink and was drunk in several scenes including the garden and Queen Mab sequences. At the end of the latter, when the company applauded, the actor responded with, "F... the applause... who's got a drink?"
The role of Mercutio was the only Shakespearean role that John Barrymore ever played complete onscreen. His only other screen appearances in Shakespearean roles were in a screen test for a never made film version of "Hamlet", a soliloquy as Richard III in The Show of Shows (1929), and a role in Playmates (1941) as a hammy Shakespearean actor.
An autographed copy of the script adaptation, containing the signatures of 27 cast and crew members (including Rathbone, Howard and Shearer) was donated to the University of Idaho library by Talbot Jennings in 1939.
According to syndicated film news columnist Eileen Percy, Leslie Howard made it a point to have his own blond hair in the film, rather than dye his hair or wear a dark wig to give him a more Italian appearance. The MGM research department confirmed that there were "not only blonds but many redheads to be found in Verona" at the time: "Romeo, far from being the dark Latin type, was in all probably a Lombard, with blond hair and blue eyes".
Because she wanted to play the Nurse in this film, Edna May Oliver turned down Universal's offer to reprise her stage role of Parthy Ann Hawks in the 1936 film version of Show Boat (1936). The Nurse turned out to be Oliver's only Shakespearean role.
In The Hollywood Revue of 1929 (1929), Norma Shearer plays Juliet in a comedy skit, with then-screen idol John Gilbert as Romeo. In the skit, they are being "directed" by Lionel Barrymore. After performing the famous "balcony scene" together, they get a "phone call" from "The Boss" (i.e. producer Irving Thalberg, Norma's husband), who tells them to jazz up the language in the scene, and try to make it more appealing to modern audiences. Shearer and Gilbert try a version of the balcony scene using 1920's slang (i.e. "Julie, baby, I'm ga-ga over you!"), but quickly agree that you can't improve the original language of Shakespeare.
One minor complaint about this film version, according to many fans of the play, would be that Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer were physically too old to portray teenage lovers. At the time of this film's release, Howard was 43 years old; Shearer was 34 years old.
The film's literary consultant was Professor William Strunk Jr., co-author of the famous treatise on the English language, Strunk and White's "The Elements of Style." Producer Irving Thalberg hired Strunk to work with the screenwriters to make sure that the Hollywood adaption of Shakespeare's play stayed true and respectful to its original source. Thalberg told Strunk, "Your job is to protect Shakespeare from us."
Different reports exist as to whether or not this film was a box office success, but four different Shakespeare films had been made between 1929 and 1936, and after 1936, no further Shakespeare films were made in English until 1944.
George Cukor was Irving Thalberg's choice of director from the outset, mainly for his ability to elicit strong performances from his actresses. Above all else, Thalberg wanted the film to be a showcase for his wife, Norma Shearer.
Basil Rathbone earned the first of his two Academy Award nominations for Best Supporting Actor for his work in this film, but lost the Oscar to Walter Brennan. He would do again two years later when he was nominated for If I Were King (1938).
Special non-skid felt shoes were designed for Leslie Howard, John Barrymore and Basil Rathbone for their dueling scenes. Research at the time disclosed that felt soles were prepared with a resinous compound brought from Scythia. A similar compound was made up by a druggist and the soles were carefully treated for filming the scene on the flagstone of the public square set.
Irving Thalberg pushed MGM head Louis B. Mayer for five years on the idea of making a film of the play. Mayer held firm as he felt that Shakespeare was way over the heads of the masses. It was only after Warners had a hit with their all-star version of A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935) that he relented.
Irving Thalberg wanted to make the production as authentic as possible, drafting in famous Shakespearean intellectuals John Tucker Murray from Harvard and William Strunk Jr from Cornell. Researchers were also sent to Verona to photograph the city while the art department was instructed to study the paintings of Botticelli, Bellini, Carpaccio and Gozzoli.