In this version of Shakespeare's great romantic tragedy the star-crossed lovers are depicted as mature adults instead of as adolescents.
In Verona the feuding Capulets and Montagues fight in the street. Benvolio (Reginald Denny) tries to stop it, but Tybalt (Basil Rathbone) fights him. Prince Escalus (Conway Tearle) ends the brawl and threatens capital punishment. Paris (Ralph Forbes) asks Capulet (C. Aubrey Smith) for Juliet's hand. Romeo Montague (Leslie Howard) tells Benvolio that he pines for Rosalind. Romeo and Mercutio (John Barrymore) go to the Capulet's masked ball. Romeo sees Juliet Capulet (Norma Shearer), who turns from Paris to him. Tybalt spies Romeo as a Montague, but Capulet restrains him. Romeo dances with Juliet and asks for a kiss. Romeo learns that Juliet is a Capulet, and she discovers he is a Montague. After the ball Mercutio conjures Romeo. Romeo finds Juliet on her balcony and offers to change his name. Juliet responds to his love, and they exchange vows. She asks him to arrange their wedding secretly.
Mercutio welcomes Romeo and jokes. Romeo tells Juliet's nurse (Edna May Oliver) to send Juliet to Friar Laurence. Juliet begs news from her nurse. Friar Laurence (Henry Kolker) marries Rome and Juliet. On a hot day Mercutio and Tybalt quarrel. Tybalt calls Romeo a villain; but Romeo says he loves the Capulets. Mercutio fights Tybalt with a sword, and Mercutio is mortally wounded when Romeo intervenes. After Mercutio dies, Romeo fights Tybalt and kills him. Romeo flees, and Prince Escalus exiles him. Friar Laurence tells Romeo he is banished. The nurse tells Juliet that Tybalt is dead and that Romeo is banished. Romeo wants to kill his own name, but Friar Laurence mollifies him. Romeo climbs up to Juliet's balcony, but he must leave at dawn. He kisses her good-bye, and she has a premonition of his death.
Lady Capulet (Violet Kemble Cooper) tells Juliet that she must marry Paris. Juliet refuses, but the angry Capulet insists or he'll disown her. The nurse advises Juliet to marry Paris. Juliet finds Romeo's knife and considers suicide. Juliet goes to Friar Laurence in desperation, and he gives her a potion to imitate death. He sends a message to Romeo in Mantua; but the messenger discovers a pestilence and is locked up. The night before her expected wedding Juliet takes the potion. The nurse can't wake Juliet, and Lady Capulet tells Capulet she is dead. Romeo writes to Juliet; his messenger returns to say that Juliet is dead. Romeo buys poison from an apothecary even though it is illegal. Friar Laurence learns that Romeo did not get his letter. At the tomb Romeo breaks in and is challenged by Paris. In a sword fight Romeo kills Paris. Romeo removes the veil from Juliet's face and drinks the poison. Friar Laurence comes in and finds Paris and Romeo dead. Juliet awakes and learns that Romeo is dead. She sends the friar away and stabs herself in the heart. In the final scene the mourning Capulet and Montague promise to end their feud.
Even though this movie is considered long, much of Shakespeare's play was cut. Yet only Shakespeare's lines were used, and their brilliance makes this a powerful and enlightening experience for movie-goers. In this classic story male belligerence and violence overcome young love; but maybe the audience will learn.