Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Probably giddy with their Depression-era profits, MGM went on a 'culture' binge starting in 1934 or so, adapting famous novels in a bid for the kind of upscale notices that lead to Academy Award nominations. Warner's retaliatory effort in this sweepstakes is 1935's A Midsummer Night's Dream, a wondrous adaptation of Shakespeare's play set to the music of Felix Mendelssohn and dressed up with phenomenally successful special effects. Famed stage director Max Reinhardt had floored Tinseltown with a concert and dance version of Dream at the Hollywood Bowl, and Warners signed him almost instantly to recreate the experience on film. The movie is famous for its high production values and excellent, if wildly eccentric, star turns by James Cagney and Joe E. Brown. The result is funny and beautiful -- and truly magical.
In old Athens, Theseus (Ian Hunter) returns from victory with his war bride Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons (Verree Teasdale) and announces a week of celebrations. Lysander (Dick Powell), Demetrius (Ross Alexander), Helena (Jean Muir) and Hermia (Olivia de Havilland) are a mixed-up young foursome that wanders into the forest to settle their romantic differences, on the very same night that the Fairies come out to play. Titania, Queen of the Fairies (Anita Louise) leads her army of pixies in dance while she cuddles her beloved 'Changeling Prince' (Kenneth Anger), a small boy kidnapped from a foreign land. Oberon, King of the Fairies (Victor Jory) is not on good terms with his queen. He orders the mischievous Puck (Mickey Rooney) to to distract Titania with a magic love spell, so he can snatch the Changeling Prince for his own. Also in the woods are tradesmen rehearsing a play to present at Theseus' court, a group that includes Quince (Frank McHugh), the simpleton Flute (Joe E. Brown) and the hammy Bottom, the Weaver (James Cagney). Puck's love potions not only complicates things with the four young lovers, they transform Bottom into an Ass, and make Titania fall in love with him!
Shakespeare experts may not look favorably on the altered tone of this rendering of A Midsummer Night's Dream, which is reportedly both darker (in the forest and in Oberon's character) and sillier (the hammy star turns from Rooney, Cagney and others). To audiences unfamiliar with The Bard's plays, it's still a delight. Directors Reinhardt and Dieterle (we're told that the actors remember Dieterle as their principal director) fashion the movie into a garden of delights. Mendelssohn's music -- from which the traditional wedding march was taken -- leads us into one of the movie world's most magical forests, a vision out of Lang and Die Nibelungen that surely influenced Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Mists of fog and distorting lens filters enhance silvery fairies and forest glades as if the entire night were bathed in glittering magic. Nymph-like ballet corps gallop and twirl like fireflies, literally dancing on special-effect clouds. The lead dancer is Nini Theilade, a strange silvery phantom; her Queen is the lovely Anita Louise, who proceeds to coddle both a kidnapped child and (under the influence of magic) a scruffy tradesman transformed into a mangy, braying Ass. 1
The magic is the work of Victor Jory's Oberon, a black-cloaked King who rides a horse accompanied by a platoon of skulking bat-men. Oberon and Titania are having ... marriage difficulties, as she refuses to sleep with him. Each wants to raise the Changeling Prince without interference from the other, and Oberon is willing to win by cheating. Oberon's eager lieutenant is the horned fairy Puck, played with antic skill by Mickey Rooney, for once putting his exuberance to work in a worthy vehicle. Around the periphery are a pack of wood trolls (?) wearing grotesque masks that remind us less of Shakespeare and more of Christiansen's creepy horror show Häxan. The pagan forest fairyland is a place where anything can happen, a happy alternative to the profane-devout rigidity of Fantasia's "A Night on Bald Mountain".
That's only about a third of the show. Just as delightful is the nonsensical romantic competition among the young lovers. Dick Powell's Lysander and Olivia de Havilland's Hermia elope into the forest after Hermia is forced to choose between Ross Alexander's Demetrius or death. Demetrius follows, himself pursued by Jean Muir's love-struck Helena. Puck's aphrodesiac makes Lysander switch his affections to Helena, causing no end of trouble. Jean Muir is delightful as Helena, especially when threatening a cat fight with Hermia. The big winner in this foursome was Olivia de Havilland, who had already won the part in the stage role by a happy accident; she went from total unknown to major star status with just two films, this comedy and her Errol Flynn vehicle Captain Blood.
For 'ordinary' audiences, the surprise is that established stars like Dick Powell would be adept at Shakespeare, mainly, handling all those complicated speeches. Not only do the collegiate types excel at the fun and games, but so do Cagney and the other play-within-a-play performers from the Warners stock-company. They must have been eager to brush up on their classics, because Frank McHugh and Cagney have a delightful time with their makeshift presentation of Pyramus and Thisbe. Cagney's Bottom is so keen to perform that he wants to play all the roles. When somebody worries that the story is too grim, Bottom suggests that he step out of character to tell the audience that nobody should fear that the bloodshed is real, because he's really a weaver named Bottom.
Cagney has difficulty projecting his dismay when wearing an articulated Ass'es head, and must vie for the biggest laughs with Joe E. Brown, whose big hits of the 1930s aren't shown much these days. A Midsummer Night's Dream allows us to see Brown do a different kind of clown. He dresses in drag to play Thisbe, trying to kiss Pyramus through a chink in the Wall -- the Wall being played by Hugh ("Woo Hoo") Herbert.
We're told that the language spoken behind the camera was mostly German. Warners' top designer Anton Grot gives A Midsummer Night's Dream a strong Germanic look in the massive trees of the dark forest inhabited by Nordic Lorelei-like fairies. The costumes are an amusing jumble of styles suggesting how Shakespeare's time represented old "Athens." Hal Mohr's luminous photography must have looked like heavenly magic in original silvery nitrate prints; he won an Oscar for Best Cinematography -- the first and only time that a write-in vote produced a winner.
Byron Haskin's special effects surely contributed to that win; the opticals and double exposures are much more precise than in the average effects film of the time. Whenever Oberon is on-screen, he's accompanied by a cloud of soft-focus jewel-like points of light. Few seams show in any of these illusions. The graceful ballets turn truly magical when Titania and her fairies suddenly take flight; the wire-rigged takeoffs and landings are perfect, even better than Christopher Reeve's in Superman, The Movie.
Warners' DVD of A Midsummer Night's Dream is a marvel, with clear audio and a better image than I've ever seen before. It's the full 143-minute version, with the Overture and exit music. The film goes to a nicely timed Intermission when Oberon remounts his horse with the Changeling Prince, but the accompanying end of Intermission must have gone missing, because the disc hard-cuts to the next scene. The English subtitles make A Midsummer Night's Dream much more accessible, and also point up the many famous quotes and bits that have become part of the language: "I know a bank where the wild thyme grows."
Scott MacQueen provides a thorough commentary with well-researched information on the year that Max Reinhardt took Hollywood by storm. MacQueen's account of Ms. de Havilland's miraculous rise to stardom is further illuminated when we get to see her original screen test. A Dream Comes True is a good promo featurette marred by a painful racial slur that reminds us that the 1930s was indeed a different time and place. 2 Also included are a set of teasers showing individual stars inviting the public to see A Midsummer Night's Dream, along with an odd promo with Joe E. Brown and Pa O'Brien discussing the film over lunch. A musical short Shake Mr. Shakespeare begins with a studio underling being asked to read all of Shakespeare's plays in one night, so he can tell the boss what they're about in the morning. That's the real Hollywood.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
A Midsummer Night's Dream rates:
Supplements: Commentary by Scott MacQueen, short subjects Shake Mr. Shakespeare, A Dream Comes True, Teasers and teaser trailer, Trailer, Olivia de Havilland screen test.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 19, 2007
1. It's curious that the legacy of A Midsummer Night's Dream would include Kenneth Anger, who has always claimed that he played the role of The Changeling Prince. As a leading experimental filmmaker, Anger would one day make Rabbit's Moon, a weird fable that plays out in a set resembling a forest glade from Dream. The only problem is, commentator Scott McQueen refutes Anger's claim several times in the commentary, although never mentioning him by name. Here's something for a new edition of Hollywood Babylon, perhaps. (thanks to Lee Tsiantis, who listened to ALL of the commentary and straightened me out on this.)
2. A note from Brendan Carroll, 8.21.07: Hi Glenn -- Just to say I enjoyed your review and can't wait to get the disc. Please note that the disc presents the first ever release of A Dream Comes True which has the only known footage of Erich Wolfgang Korngold playing the piano! Worth a mention? All best, Brendan Carroll
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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