Saturday, August 29, 2015

Galidor: Defenders of the Outer Dimension (GBA)

In the year 2002, a live-action sci-fi series aired on Fox Kids (called Vortexx at the time I began writing this review before it went extinct) called Galidor: Defenders of the Outer Dimension. The show involved a boy named Nicholas “Nick” Bluetooth (Matthew Ewald) and his friend Allegra Zane (Marie-Marguerite Sabongui) becoming involved in a battle against the evil Gorm (Derrick Damon Reeve and Steven P. Park; voiced by Ian Finlay) in order to save another dimension (despite what you may think, Nick’s last name, Bluetooth, does not refer to Bluetooth technology, which was on the rise at the time, but rather the Danish King Harald “Bluetooth” Blaatand, which the technology is also named after). One major aspect of the show was a power known as “Glinching”, in which two parties can swap body parts with each other by making physical contact (ex. touching heads or left arms to swap them), usually done for one party to gain an ability another has that they don’t (ex. swapping legs can give one super speed). However, Nick is special in that he can Glinch without having to make contact, so one minute he can have a normal arm, the next it’s briefly a telescopic arm or a piledriver and so forth. Usually, Nick used this power to gain the upper hand, although there were also moments where this power would backfire on him. The show even had its own line of LEGO toys, which were made such that each figure had swappable body parts, allowing one to swap parts between toys to recreate the Glinching power seen in the show.

The main cast of the TV series (from left): Euripides, Allegra, Nick, Jens, Nepol

Growing up, I was a major Galidor fan, as was my brother and also my parents to a certain degree, and even now I have some memories of it, even if they are mostly vague (it’s been a while since I last watched the show). Similarly to Bionicle (which has received a reboot since I began writing this), it reached the point where I not only obtained every figure in the LEGO line, including one that actually interacted with the show, but I also got every one of the McDonald’s toys that were made as a tie-in, all of which also featured the Glinching gimmick and could thus interact with the main-line toys.

Gorm, the main antagonist of the series (in lieu of an actual screenshot).

I share my thoughts on this (now obscure) series because on a trip (the same one where I found Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy) I stumbled upon the tie-in video game released for the Game Boy Advance (GBA), also called Galidor: Defenders of the Outer Dimension. Since I then-recently acquired a Game Boy Advance SP, I decided to give the game a go, since I remembered liking the show and wanted a chance to experience something else Galidor related after being away from it for over a decade. While the game itself did allow me to touch base with a show I enjoyed so much and did nothing to hamper it, it does prove itself to be a bit of a challenge for all the wrong reasons.

After landing on the planet Arbo, Nick Bluetooth’s friends are kidnapped and taken to other worlds, forcing him to go rescue them. There isn’t much to the story beyond this, aside from Nick having to face Gorm at the end. However, I wouldn’t entirely call this just an excuse to get the game going, since whenever you rescue a friend they tell you where you need to go next, so I would consider the story loose at best.

The title screen, featuring the main cast in 32-bit glory.

Each world you travel to, of which there are 5, is split up into 4 levels, at least for the first 4 worlds; they usually consist of two platforming sections, followed by a 3D section before switching back to platforming, culminating in a boss fight. The fifth world, Gorm’s Lair, is entirely a boss fight, but I will get into more detail on that later. At the end of each level, you need to find a Keyfrag, which in the show are pieces of the egg-shaped key to opening the dimension Galidor, before you can advance; additionally, you must also enter the TDNM (Trans-Dimensional Navigation Module), aka the Egg (due to its shape), at the end of the platforming and boss sections.

The TDNM, for reference.

Throughout each level, you can pick up one of six different Glinches, ranging from a laser arm to a super jump, all of which are needed to more quickly advance through the area in which they appear. These Glinches also only last for a short period of time, though sometimes another copy of a Glinch you are using will show up within the same level to refill the timer (this can come in really handy during particularly difficult sections). You can also hold up to two Glinches at a time (grabbing a third will override one of the two you have), which can be (de-)activated at will by using the L and R buttons on the handheld. Each of these Glinches has a special power that is usually activated by pressing the A or B button, depending on which power it is. (During swimming sections, press B to accelerate; do this while facing up if you want to jump out of the water. If you plan on playing this game, I just saved you some frustration right there.)

One of several Glinches you can obtain during gameplay.

The platforming sections of the game actually have a good amount of enemy variety, and if you’re not careful, you can take damage before you land a hit (your normal attack is a sort of slide kick, though some Glinches can do the job more effectively). However, I played on Easy mainly so I could get through the game quicker, so I can definitely say that most of the game’s difficulty comes from the level design in the platforming segments. If you’re going through a level for the first time, you will end up running into a lot of blind jumps and more than likely die a lot in the stage, so to get through the level you pretty much have to go through it enough times to memorize it, particularly in the later stages of the game. I will give points for each level being unique from each other, but even some of the harder stages are a little more difficult than others (especially when you need the grappling hook Glinch, which requires very precise timing to swing across ceilings, to get through). Fortunately, each platforming level has a number of checkpoints to ease the struggle, though there are points where it almost seems like there aren’t enough of them. Due to this frustration with some stages, I employed a strategy that helped me get through the game at a somewhat respectable pace: When I got to a particularly difficult section, I took a break and kept my SP on (with backlight off) and constantly plugged in while in this state when able, that way I could continue without having to start the level over again (which you will have to do if you at any point turn the system off).

Another point of frustration is the boss fights, of which there are 5, including Gorm (aka the entirety of the Gorm’s Lair world). For a couple of them, I was able to figure out on my own how to beat them, though with the others I tried looking up strategies on how to beat them after failing to figure it out (they can be kind of cryptic). However, as it is nigh impossible to find a whole lot of information on Galidor online, especially when it comes to the GBA game, the only real guide I could find was a Let’s Play on YouTube, which I only ever used for the aforementioned boss fights. Gorm is especially tough to beat, given that the fight is in three stages that you must go through on a single life bar. With some aid from the Let’s Play on the first two sections, I was able to eventually get through the fight, though it did take me a little bit to figure out exactly how to get past the second part (Tip: using the D-Pad creates momentum after you jump out of the water). However, with some perseverance, I was able to make it through, which gave me an adrenaline rush the closer I got to beating Gorm, which lasted until I finally beat the game.

A sample of gameplay (planet Arbo pictured).

Across each level, excluding boss battles but including the 3D levels, you can also pick up canisters of Qorium, used to power the Egg in the series, of which there are 100. Picking up all 100 in a level nets you a Qorium Bonus; while this does create some replay value, every time you retry a level, the amount of Qorium you find in each level resets, forcing you to search all over for all the Qorium. As I only got all the Qorium in the first level after a couple of tries, I quickly stopped trying to do so after a few levels for the sake of getting through the game faster, so I’m not quite sure what the Qorium Bonus is supposed to be. (As a side note, you can also get a bonus for getting through the level fast enough, but for all the non-3D levels I could never get a time that wasn’t “Way Too Slow”.)

There are also four interactions with the Kek Powerizer toy (Intruder Alert, Shields, Tracking, Road Rocket) that you can obtain over the course of the game in one way or another, usually by finding them in a level or completing a world, the last of which I got for defeating Gorm (getting these interactions eventually became one of my main motivations for completing the game, along with the satisfaction of beating Gorm). The interactions are meant to work by having the GBA next to the toy, which also extends to interactivity occurring during regular gameplay. Unfortunately, even after unearthing the Kek Powerizer sometime after completing the game, I wasn’t quite able to get it to work, but it seems like the four particular interactions may have been to unlock games on the toy, which had already been unlocked (possibly via interaction with the TV series).

This is the Kek Powerizer, in case you were wondering,
which also has swappable parts.

While I don’t have much experience playing on a Game Boy Advance, I would say that the graphics are pretty good for what they are. There’s enough detail that you can tell what everything is supposed to be, and the game has a bright color palette that works in its favor, allowing you to see everything pretty clearly so you can more easily navigate the level. The sound design, for what it’s worth, is decent. There isn’t any voice acting, but there are a few music tracks that play during levels and menus. I got used to the music after a while, and admittedly it stays with you a little while after you beat the game, but it’s generally not really anything to write home about.

Overall, Galidor: Defenders of the Outer Dimension is a decent game. It has interesting gameplay with the Glinching mechanic and there is some variety and replay value, though the music, while somewhat of an acquired taste, isn’t entirely praise-worthy. The level design can get really aggravating after a while, so I suggest keeping the game on at all times while getting through a tough stage, but admittedly being able to beat it on your own skill is mildly satisfying (however, it is extremely satisfying to be able to defeat Gorm on said skill, though I would say it’s okay to get a little bit of assistance). Even though I couldn’t get it to work for me, it’s interesting that the game was made to interact with the Kek Powerizer in the first place, and (now that I think about it) by modern standards is kind of like a reverse-Skylanders (a game adding features to a toy rather than vice-versa).

If, after reading this review, you are interested in seeing what Galidor is like, there unfortunately isn’t a DVD release of any kind, but you might have some luck finding episodes online. If you are someone who remembers this show, this may be the only way for you to be able to become acquainted once again with Galidor aside from the LEGO toys, though I would suggest weighing whether you want to play this game or not if you haven’t played it already. If you are a newcomer to Galidor, I would still consider weighing your options, but in either case the game is worth trying at least once to form your own opinion. If you own the Kek Powerizer from the toy line and you can get the interactivity to kick in, this game is perfect for getting more mileage out of it. For what it’s worth, I’m still glad I got to play the game, since it may be the only chance I get to reconnect with Galidor for a long while without having to dig out the toys.

Stubs - The Whole Town's Talking (1935)

The Whole Town’s Talking (1935) Starring: Edward G. Robinson, Jean Arthur, Arthur Hohl, James Donlan Directed by John Ford. Produced by Lester Cowan. Screenplay by Jo Swerling and Robert Riskin. Based on the story "Jail Breaker" by W. R. Burnett in Collier's (Jul--Aug 1932). Run Time: 93 minutes. U.S.  Black and White. Comedy, Gangster

Two people that you don’t really think would have worked together in Hollywood are John Ford and Edward G. Robinson. Ford is forever connected to the Western genre of films and Robinson is typecast as a gangster and a contract player at Warner Bros. So when I learned the two worked together on a comedy and at Columbia Pictures, a certain amount of interest was raised.

Ford may be best known for his many Westerns, including such classics as Stagecoach (1939), The Searchers (1956) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), but he also directed The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and How Green Was My Valley (1941).

Robinson would make more comedies, most notably A Slight Case of Murder (1938), which is one of the reasons this film caught my attention in the first place. Robinson, despite being type-cast as a gangster, was a very versatile actor.

Arthur Ferguson Jones (Edward G. Robinson) is late for work for the first time in eight years. He’d bought a new alarm clock, but when it says its 7:30, it’s really past 9. While Jones is late for work we learn that he has ambitions to be a writer and has a bird and a cat for pets. Jones’ day job is working as a clerk (I’ve read several synopsis that say he works at as an advertising clerk, but what he actually does isn’t made very clear.) The owner of the company, J.G. Carpenter (Paul Harvey), wants floor manager Seaver (Etienne Girardot) to make an example of the first person who is late for work, not imagining it would be Jones, whom he also instructed Seaver to give a raise.

Seaver is put in an odd situation, but is rescued when someone comes in even later. Wilhemina "Bill" Clark (Jean Arthur) doesn’t get to work until 9:30. Clark is the object of Jones's unspoken love; he has a photograph of hers, which we learn he stole, up in his apartment as inspiration for his writings. Clark puts her feet up and reads the paper and recognizes the resemblance between a picture of escaped convict "Killer" Manion and Jones, which she points out to a co-worker and soon it is all over the floor.

Wilhemina "Bill" Clark (Jean Arthur) is the object of  Arthur
Ferguson Jones' (Edward G. Robinson) affections.

While Jones lunches at a restaurant, the obsequious Hoyt (Donald Meeks) also notices the similarity and calls the police, hoping to collect the $25,000 reward for his capture. Jones and Clark are taken into custody. Everyone at the police headquarters is convinced they’ve captured Manion. Even Carpenter, who is called down to identify Jones, is convinced he’s Manion. It takes Seaver, who works directly with Jones to establish his identity. Forensics also discovers that his fingerprints are not the same as Manion's. To protect him from another mistaken arrest, District Attorney Spencer (Arthur Byron) gives Jones a special passport to show wary policemen he is not who they think he looks like.

Hoyt (Donald Meeks) thinks he recognizes Manion and calls the police.

Back at the office, "J.G." encourages Jones, an aspiring writer, to sign a deal with newspaperman Healy (Wallace Ford) to author a special serial on his own appraisal of Manion, based on him looking like the gangster. The three men get drunk together, and when Jones returns to the office he kisses the thrilled Clark and tells Seaver Carpenter has authorized putting her back on the payroll.

Jones gets drunk with his boss, J.G. Carpenter (Paul Harvey), and a newspaperman named Healy (Wallace Ford).

But Jones’ buzz gets killed when he gets back to his apartment and finds Manion waiting for him. Manion demands the use of the passport at night to protect him during his criminal activities. Although for the first time in Jones' life everyone is deferential toward him, and Clark affectionately asserts control over his career, Jones lives in perpetual fear of Manion, who has moved in with him.

When Jones finds Manion (Edward G. Robinson) waiting for him in his apartment.

The publicity-seeking criminal demands that Jones's newspaper series be turned into his reminiscences, which raises the suspicion of authorities when Jones writes details about Manion’s escape that were not public knowledge.

When Healy brings Jones’ first paycheck to the office, Jones is not there, but Clark offers to take it to him. But she doesn’t recognize Manion and kisses him. When she sees his gun in its holster she beats a hasty retreat, but Manion has a couple of his boys follow her. When she hurries to the nearest pay phone to call the authorities, they intercept her and take her hostage.

Trying to protect Jones, the district attorney orders him placed under protective custody in prison. Accompanied by a couple of hapless police officers, Detective Sergeant Boyle (Arthur Hohl) and Detective Sergeant Howe (James Donlan), Jones goes back to his apartment, but Manion is still there and takes Jones's place and the two police don’t realize it. Manion goes to the prison to kill fellow gangster, "Slugs" Martin (Ed Brophy), who had turned stool pigeon on him to authorities.

Jones is recalled to the city, but not before Manion has a chance to kill Martin. Seaver, who had come to visit who he thought was Jones and bring him work to complete, catches a ride with Manion back to the train station, but Manion takes control of the car and kidnaps Seaver. The disappearances of Seaver and Clark tip off authorities to the true state of affairs.

Manion decides to take advantage of his mild-mannered doppelgänger and, ultimately, leave Jones "holding the bag" for Manion's crimes. He kidnaps Wilhelmina, Jones' visiting aunt, and a few others, and takes them back to his hideout. He instructs Jones to make a large deposit for Manion's mother's benefit at the First National Bank and then tips the police that Manion will attempt to rob the bank, so police are waiting for him. Jones forgets to bring the check and unwittingly leads the police back to Manion's hideout.

Upon his arrival, Jones is mistaken for Manion by the waiting henchmen and quickly figures out he’s meant to be the fall guy. Manion returns unexpectedly and Jones orders the men to shoot him. The police arrive in time to capture the rest of the gang when they try to make a run for it. Even though Hoyt arrives on scene to inquire about the reward, Jones is given the credit and the money. With his pets and, more importantly, with Wilhelmina, Jones takes off for his long-desired cruise to Shanghai.

At the end, Jones and Wilhelmina take off for this long-desired cruise to Shanghai.

While the film has a happy ending, I’m not really sure I would consider it a comedy. There are too many murders and not enough laughs to qualify for me. Much of the humor is supposed to come from the mistaken identity of mild-mannered Jones for cutthroat criminal Manion. Robinson is more than capable of playing both, but the humor wears thin. Jokes get set up, like Jones leaving his bathtub overflowing when he rushes off to work on his only day late, but there are no consequences. When he returns home, there are no ill effects.

The film, however, was apparently so popular at the time of its release that it made Jean Arthur a star at the age of 35. Her Clark is a fast-talking street-wise girl with a heart of gold, a character type she would be called upon to play for the rest of her career.

The Whole Town's Talking made Jean Arthur a star in Hollywood.

The film brought Arthur to the attention of Frank Capra, one of Columbia’s better directors. He would work with Arthur in such films as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936); You Can’t Take It With You (1938); and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). In these films, she played roles very similar in type to Clark.

The spirit of Capra is all around The Whole Town’s Talking, in addition to Arthur, the script was co-written by Robert Riskin, who penned American Madness (1932); It Happened One Night (1934); Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936); Lost Horizon (1937); You Can’t Take It With You; Meet John Doe (1941); and Pocketful of Miracles (1961) all films directed by Capra. The Whole Town’s Talking, though, lacks Capra’s humorous and poignant touches.

I’m not sure what exactly went wrong, but The Whole Town’s Talking didn’t click with me. I’m pretty much a fan of everyone involved in the production from director, John Ford, to the stars Robinson and Arthur, to the screenwriter, Riskin, to even the supporting cast members like Donald Meeks. But somehow the parts don’t add up to a greater whole.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Stubs – The 39 Steps (1935)

The 39 Steps (1935) Starring: Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll, Lucie Mannheim, Godfrey Tearle. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay by Charles Bennett, Ian Hay. Based on The Thirty-Nine Steps a novel by John Buchan. Produced by Michael Balcon. Run Time: 86 minutes, Black and White. U.K. Spy, Thriller, Drama

I always enjoy learning something new about a favorite filmmaker. While I have enjoyed many of Alfred Hitchcock films, I have by no means seen them all. So I’m always delighted when I have the opportunity to watch one of his films that I have not already seen. Such is the case with The 39 Steps, Hitchcock’s 1935 British film about murder and counter-espionage.

Gaumont-British Picture Corporation was once the British arm of the French film company Gaumont. Founded in 1885, Gaumont was and still is the oldest continuously operating film company in the world. Its British division became an independent company in 1922, when Isidore Ostrer acquired control of the firm. The production company was always eager to make movies that would appeal to audiences outside the UK, and especially in the United States. To that end, they made The 39 Steps with Alfred Hitchcock directing.

The production was budgeted at £60,000, which was £20,000 more than Hitchcock’s last film, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) (not to be confused with his own remake in 1956 starring James Stewart and Doris Day. “Que Sera Sera”.) The larger budget went to actors’ salaries, chief amongst them Robert Donat, who had already been in a movie that did well in the United States, The Count of Monte Cristo (1934).

The film is supposedly quite different than the novel it is based on, also called The Thirty-Nine Steps, by John Buchan. Hitchcock’s film introduces characters and scenes absent in the novel. But as always, the movie is responsible for telling a compelling story and if it has to divert from the source material to do that, then so be it. A film must be judged on its own story-telling and not in how well it follows the novel or the play on which it is based. If it can do the former while also doing the latter, than all the better, but following the original text at the sake of failing as a movie is no good.

The 39 Steps opens with a London music hall theatre. In the audience is Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) a Canadian on vacation. While he is watching the exploits of Mr. Memory (Wylie Watson), who memorizes 50 new facts a day and can answer most questions by using his superlative powers of recall, police arrive at the theatre. A fight breaks out and shots are fired, which disperses the crowd. Hannay finds himself holding onto a frightened Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim), who asks if she can return with him to his apartment. Hannay agrees and takes her back to the flat he’s renting.

Mr. Memory (Wylie Watson) has a superlative power of recall.

She tells him she’s an actress, but not the way he’s thinking. When the phone rings she asks him not to answer it. At that point, she confesses to him that she’s a spy being chased by two men who are out to kill her. Hannay doesn’t believe her until he looks out the window and sees two men casing the street. She tells Hannay that she’s uncovered a plot to steal vital British military secrets, masterminded by a man who is missing the top joint of his pinkie. She tells Hannay that her next stop is Scotland so she can spoil the plan. She also mentions, but doesn’t elaborate on, The 39 Steps. She tells him that she might tell him in the morning and he gives up his bed for her.

Annabella (Lucie Manheim) wakes up Hannay (Robert Donat).

However, in the morning, Hannay is awakened by Annabella, who warns him to escape while he can. She then falls over on top of Hannay dead with a knife stuck in her back and a map of Scotland in her grip with a town, Alt-Na-Shellach, circled on it. The phone rings again and Hannay sees the two men using a phone booth down on the street. In flashback, wherein a disembodied head of Annabella’s repeats her warnings while Hannay watches the men and hears the phone, he realizes he’s in danger.

In Annabella's hand, Hannay finds a map of Scotland with the town of Alt-Na-Shellach circled on it.

In order to escape, Hannay talks a milkman into letting him wear his coat and hat, telling the milkman that he is having an affair with a married woman and that the two men out front are her brother and husband. The milkman is then only too pleased to help.

Hannay talks the milkman into letting him borrow his uniform so he can make his escape.

Hannay manages to board a train for Scotland just before the nationwide manhunt for Smith’s murderer begins. Her body is found by the char woman (Peggy Simpson) at the beginning of her work day and in one of the more famous shots from an early Hitchcock film, when the maid turns to scream at her discovery, we hear the train whistle instead.

Char woman (Peggy Simpson) screams when she finds Annabella's body.

When the train stops to board more passengers, one of the men in Hannay’s compartment buys a newspaper to check on a sports score. But Hannay sees a story, with a photograph linking him to the murder. The police board the train and start to search. Hannay tries to hide and enters the compartment of Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) and, in a desperate attempt to avoid detection, starts to kiss her. However, while the police initially pass them by, they do come back. In the meantime, Hannay has confessed to Pamela that he’s on the run for murder. When the police return, Pamela tells them everything she knows and they move to arrest him. However, he eludes capture.

Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) tells the police everything she knows about Hannay.

The detectives succeed in stopping the train on the Forth Bridge, but Hannay manages to disembark the train. He hides until the train starts up again, it is apparently against regulations to stop a train on a bridge. He continues to make his way to Alt-Na-Shellach.

He finds refuge for a night with a poor tenant farmer (John Laurie) and his much younger wife (Peggy Ashcroft). The farmer thinks there is something going on between his boarder and his wife, which he feels is confirmed when he finds the two of them conspiring in the morning. But she is only trying to help him escape, having figured out his story and hearing the approaching of a police car.

Hannay finds refuge with a poor tenant farmer (John Laurie).

Even though Hannay pays the farmer £5 to stall the police, the wife is certain that he will turn Hannay in. As a way to disguise him, the wife gives Hannay her husband’s darker overcoat to wear, while she lets him out the backdoor of their house.

The farmer's wife (Peggy Ashcroft) helps Hannay escape the police by giving him her husband's overcoat to wear.

Hannay continues to Alt-Na-Shellach and, thinking the only new resident in town must have been Annabelle’s contact, he goes to his manor. Even with the police in hot pursuit, the respectable Professor Jordan (Godfrey Tearle) takes him and sends away the authorities. Professor Jordan offers a sympathetic ear and seems eager to hear what he has to say. Hannay doesn’t have much to tell, except he repeats Annabelle’s warning to avoid a man missing part of his pinkie finger. Jordan reveals that he is the man she warned him about.

Hannay continues on to Alt-Na-Shellach on foot.

But rather than kill Hannay or turn him into the authorities, Jordan offers him a pistol to allow him to take suicide as his way out. When Hannay refuses to do so, Jordan shoots him and Hannay collapses to the floor. He is left for dead, except the bullet got stopped by the farmer’s hymnbook, which is still in the overcoat Hannay’s wearing.

Professor Jordan (Godfrey Tearle) gets ready to shoot Hannay.

Hannay escapes from Jordan’s manor and goes to the local sheriff. Hannay appears to have found a friendly ear, as Sheriff Watson (Frank Cellier) seems to take it all in. But he’s just been biding time until the local police can arrive to arrest him. They get only get one handcuff on Hannay before he bolts out through the front window and escapes into the street, hiding in a parade, before ducking into a town hall. There he is mistaken for an introductory speaker. Up to the challenge, Hannay makes a rousing impromptu speech, all without knowing a thing about the candidate he’s introducing, even his name.

On the lam from the police, Hannay is called upon to introduce a candidate he doesn't know.

As he is speaking, he recognizes Pamela, who reciprocates and turns him into whom she thinks is a policeman. But when they take Hannay away, they take Pamela along, telling her they’ll need her to identify him. Their story keeps changing, when they pass the local police station. They tell Pamela that they have to take Hannay to a police station 40 miles away and become annoyed when she realizes they are going in the wrong direction.

Pamela recognizes Hannay and turns him in again to the police.

When they pass over a bridge, the car is stopped by a flock of sheep blocking the road. When the agents of the conspiracy get out to clear the road, they handcuff Pamela to Hannay as a human anchor. Hannay uses the distraction to escape, taking the reluctant and unwilling Pamela with him. He convinces her that if he’s as dangerous as she thinks he is, she had better cooperate with him.

They make their way across the countryside and, pretending to be newlyweds with car trouble, they get the last room at the inn. Hannay convinces the inn keeper’s wife that they are a runaway couple and asks for her help in keeping their secret. Thinking they’re very much in love, she agrees.

Pamela is about to make her escape, when she notices the two fake policeman at the bar in the inn.

While Hannay sleeps, Pamela manages to slip out of her handcuff and is about to make her escape when she sees the two fake policemen questioning the inn keeper. She also overhears them on the telephone. Their conversation includes references to having had to take her with them, and that whoever is in charge is fleeing the country. He’ll stop on his way out at the London Palladium to pick up the information. Basically, what she overhears confirms everything Hannay has been asserting. She returns to the room and sleeps on the sofa. Meanwhile, the inn keeper’s wife prevents her husband from telling the fake policemen about the couple, using the illegal after hour’s sale of a drink as a reason to hustle the two men out.

The innkeeper's wife hustles the fake policeman out of the bar.

The next morning, Pamela tells Hannay what she heard. He is mad that she gave the men such a head start and they follow them to London. Pamela has already called Scotland Yard in London and by the time she arrives in London, they have already investigated but have found no secret documents have been reported missing. But while they don’t believe her, they do follow her, thinking she’ll lead them to Hannay.

Scotland Yard has already investigated Pamela's claims and think they're without merit.

Unknowingly, Pamela leads them to the London Palladium where she sees Hannay sitting in the audience. Hannay has spotted Jordan sitting in one of the balcony seats. When Mr. Memory takes the stage, Hannay recognizes his theme music—an annoyingly catchy tune he has been whistling for days without remembering its origin. And seeing Jordan’s interest in Mr. Memory, Hannay manages to put two and two together. There are no documents missing, since Mr. Memory can memorize them. As the police move to take Hannay into custody, he shouts out the question, "What are the 39 Steps?" Mr. Memory compulsively begins to answer, "The 39 Steps is an organisation of spies, collecting information on behalf of the foreign office of ..." At that point, Jordan shoots him. He tries to flee, but is forced to leap down onto the stage where he is quickly apprehended by a swarm of police.

Jordan shoots Mr. Memory in an effort to keep him from revealing the 39 Steps.

Backstage, the dying Mr. Memory refuses help, but when Hannay asks, he gladly recites the information stored in his brain—a design for a silent aircraft engine. Hannay is cleared and he and Pamela hold hands without having to be handcuffed.

The dying Mr. Memory recites the 39 Steps stored in his brain. They turn out to be a design for a silent aircraft engine.

As previously mentioned, the movie is not a strict adaptation of the book it is based on. The characters introduced are the two female leads, Annabelle Smith and Pamela, neither of which are in the book. Also in the novel, the 39 steps is not an organization, but is rather a location, physical steps. One device the movie uses, the map, actually fills in a plot hole in the novel, in which Hannay just happens to walk into the one house where the spy ringleader lives.

But there are still some plot holes in the film. The most notable is how Annabelle gets stabbed in Hannay’s room while Hannay, sleeping nearby, is spared. Now I know if they had killed him, then there would be no story, but it still doesn’t make sense they would kill Annabelle, but not Hannay when they were in the same apartment at the same time.

Also, Hannay, after being shot by Jordan is left for dead, even though there is no blood. While the lack of blood may have helped the film get past the British censors, it is a little unrealistic to think a cold-blooded killer wouldn’t have expected blood after shooting someone at such close range.

Those concerns aside, the film is really very interesting and the story is well told. I’m a bit of an Anglophile, so I find the scenes of the music hall and town hall meetings very interesting, even though I’m sure so much of British life has changed since the mid-1930s.

The film is also an early example of a themes Hitchcock comes back to many times throughout his long career. First is the innocent man, wrongly accused of a crime, usually involving murder, having to go on the run to prove his innocence. The first example is The Lodger (aka The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog)(1927), but the director returned to it again and again in such films as Saboteur (1942) and North by Northwest (1959).

The 39 Steps also features one of the prototypical cool, glib and intelligent blondes that would be a hallmark of future Hitchcock stars like Grace Kelly, Eva Saint Marie and Janet Leigh to name a few. I am of course not the first “critic” to note this. Per Roger Ebert, Carroll exemplified Hitchcock’s preferred heroine:

The female characters in his films reflected the same qualities over and over again: They were blonde. They were icy and remote. They were imprisoned in costumes that subtly combined fashion with fetishism. They mesmerized the men, who often had physical or psychological handicaps. Sooner or later, every Hitchcock woman was humiliated.”

Halfway through the film, it appears that Hannay, our main character, is shot and killed while the story is still unfolding. Hitchcock would return again to this in Psycho, when Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) is killed, after embezzling money, at the Bates Motel. But instead of the story going off on a tangent, the way Psycho spun on that event, The 39 Steps just picks itself up and continues.

Another theme that is introduced here, but also appears later in Saboteur, is the idea that the well-respected are not above reproach. The same way that Charles Tobin and Mrs. Henrietta Sutton in Saboteur are urban, rich and respected members of their communities and initially above suspicion, so is Professor Jordan in The 39 Steps. One of the reasons that the sheriff doesn’t believe Hannay is that the Professor is one of his best friends.

I was not a fan of Robert Donat going in, but I really came away with a lot of respect for him. Sometimes, an actor needs a role that gives you a way in to watching them. This may have been that role for me with Donat. Ill health apparently kept Donat from making too many movies. He is perhaps best remembered as Mr. Chips in Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939) the role for which he won the Academy Award for Best Actor over Clark Gable in a little film called Gone With the Wind.

While her role in The 39 Steps might have been a defining one for Madeleine Carroll, she would move to Hollywood a few years after the movie, one of the first British actresses to be offered a major contract with a major studio. Her lucrative contract with Paramount Pictures would, for a time, make her the highest paid actress in the world. But before she left England, she would reteam with Hitchcock in Secret Agent (1936), which was originally supposed to reteam her with Donat, but instead she co-starred with John Gielgud, Peter Lorre and American actor Robert Young.

Peggy Ashcroft, who had a small but pivotal role as the farmer’s wife, was appearing in just her second film, but would have a long career on radio, television (appearing in a 30-minute excerpt of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night on the BBC TV service back in 1937) and film. She would go be nominated for the British Academy Awards, the BAFTA’s for Best Supporting Actress in four films, The Nun’s Story (1959), Three Into Two Won’t Go (1969), Madame Sousatzka (1988) and for A Passage to India (1984), the latter for which she actually won. She would also win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Mrs. Moore in that film.

The 39 Steps, like many of Hitchcock’s pre-Hollywood British films, are no less well-crafted than his perhaps better known Hollywood films. Many of the elements that we came to expect from the famed-director were already present in these works. I look forward to seeing more of the films from this period in the director’s career.

I would definitely recommend The 39 Steps to anyone who loves Hitchcock and to anyone that loves a good movie.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Fantastic Four (2015) - Fantastic Bore

Fantastic Four (2015) Starring: Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan, Kate Mara, Jamie Bell, Toby Kebbell, Reg E. Cathey, Tim Blake Nelson. Directed by: Josh Trank. Screenplay by: Jeremy Slater, Simon Kinberg, Josh Trank. Based on Fantastic Four comic book by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Produced by Simon Kinberg, Matthew Vaughn, Hutch Parker, Robert Kulzar, Gregory Goodman. Run Time: 100 minutes. U.S. Fantasy, Science Fiction.

The summer of sequels and reboots continues with Fantastic Four, a reboot of Fantastic Four (2005), which, while a commercial success, was still considered a critical disappointment when it was first released. The consensus on Rotten Tomatoes is that the original film is "Marred by goofy attempts at wit, subpar acting, and bland storytelling, Fantastic Four is a mediocre attempt to bring Marvel's oldest hero team to the big screen." The films initial financial success could be due in part to the fact that superhero films were still in their infancy. The MCU would not kick into gear until 2008, so it was easy to stand out when there wasn’t a glut of product and audiences were obviously hungry for these types of movies.

Things didn’t seem like they could get worse, but that film’s sequel Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007) would only be considered a bigger disappointment with it’s over the top product placement and even lamer story. It says something when a franchise has to be rebooted within eight years, but it really says something that this reboot makes 2005’s and 2007’s disappointments look better by comparison.

The opening weekend of the reboot was so disappointing, that a planned-for sequel was cancelled, as home studio, 20th Century Fox, talked financial write down in the wake of its $26.2 million opening; the original opened at more than twice that amount, $56,061,504, and last I looked ticket prices had only gone up in the meantime. So bad were the reviews and the word of mouth that I felt compelled to see what all the noise was about. Having now seen it in a theater, I can say that the new Fantastic Four is not the worst film I’ve ever seen, but it actually made me long for the original film, something a reboot shouldn’t make you do.

The Fantastic Four are made up of Reed Richards/Mr. Fantastic, Johnny Storm/Human Torch, Susan Storm/Invisible Woman and Ben Grimm/Thing and no doubt grew out of the space race the U.S. and then U.S.S.R. were engaged in at the beginning of the 1960’s. The comic was first published in November 1961 and the ill effects of cosmic rays, which is what transformed the four into heroes, reflected the real concern of the unknowns of space travel, an era which was already underway with the launch of Sputnik, Cosmonauts and Mercury Astronauts. The original film updated the premise, but still retained the idea of the dangers of space.

Fantastic Four has now been reborn as a politically correct, scientifically challenged mess of a story. There is enough mumbo jumbo science to fill a library. A good science fiction film should lay down a plausible, if not realistic, basis from which to operate; I’m afraid this one doesn’t even really try. Nothing is really ever explained as to what really caused their transformation, only some strange gloppy energy that looks more like nuclear waste than anything else.

Even the politics don’t seem right and I’m as skeptical as the next when it comes to the workings of our Federal government. Forget Victor von Doom as the villain, the government is in the form of Dr. Harvey Allen (Tim Blake Nelson), a significant character that is drawn as sketchy as any I’ve seen in recent memory. His role shifts from venture capitalist to government stooge seamlessly, with his real purpose only to be the foil of all that is supposed to be good. (Now there’s a job description.) He easily corrupts Thing into a war machine, but the others prove harder and all are disposable after they’ve filled out his evil score card.

In an attempt to be politically correct, the movie offers up a Black Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan), but keeps his sister, Susan Storm (Kate Mara), White. Instead of blood siblings, the movie gets around it with a few throwaway lines about her being adopted. Nothing against the actors, but I am not a big fan of changing characters to be politically correct. (Make new superheroes rather than altering existing ones.) But why stop there? Why not make Susan Black as well? Were the producers hedging their PC bet? It comes off as a really stupid idea that is not even carried out as fully as it should have been.

And I know they like to skew films to attract younger audiences, but I think these characters are too young. We get the impression, based on the timeline the film sets down, that Reed (Miles Teller) is like a freshman in college. In the original, I felt like these were people who had lives and their transformation would not only affect them, but others as well. Here, I get the feeling that this is more a redirection of their career paths, if they even had one. Ben (Jamie Bell) is sort of a tag along that gets transformed into Thing because he answered his cell in the middle of the night. And he seems to be the one who most easily accepts the transformation, even though he has no pants or genitalia as a result.

The biggest problem though with the film is its timing. Way too much time is spent before we get to the action. Watching people build something does not make for great entertainment and the generic montage of the crew getting to be friends while they work is as old as Methuselah. If you find yourself looking at your watch, you are not alone. The film doesn’t really get going until the last third and by then it’s too late.

The true comic book villain, Doom, is one of those so formidable that he seems unstoppable, which is always a mistake. We see Victor easily dispense with the petty humans, like Dr. Allen, but he doesn’t use the same tried and true method on the Fantastic Four, which makes no sense. It is a shame that the film dispenses with what had been a recurring villain in the comics so early in the “franchise”. It makes you wonder what they would have done in the sequel.

And the Fantastic Four, which are not named until the very end, seem to be going into industry rather than superhero work, demanding and getting from the government a top secret facility that they can use for their own purposes. To paraphrase Susan’s demand, whatever they develop belongs to them. What do superheroes make anyway? I know Iron Man is an industrialist before he’s transformed, but then he handed over the day-to-day running of the business to someone else.

What could the film’s producers have imagined for a sequel, more building? We don’t want to overlook the exciting blueprint sequence or the thrilling RFP process. And were they going to bring back the Silver Surfer, which was a mistake the first time around? Thankfully we’ll never have to find out.

While I can’t recommend the original Fantastic Four or its sequel, I would say the new one was better avoided all together.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Stubs – A Midsummer Night’s Dream

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935) Starring: James Cagney, Joe E. Brown, Dick Powell, Jean Muir, Victor Jory, Verree Teasdale, Hugh Herbert, Anita Louise, Frank McHugh. Directed by Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle. Screenplay by Charles Kenyon, Mary C. McCall, Jr. Based on the play A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare (London, ca. 1595, published 1600). Producers: Jack L. Warner, Hal B. Wallis (both credited as Executive Producer) and Henry Blanke.  Run Time: 132 minutes. U.S. Black and White. Fantasy, Comedy

Everything about Max Reinhardt’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935) screams “A” picture. An attempt to make a film version from his September 1934 staging at the Hollywood Bowl, the film would have to go over the top to match the spectacular Reinhardt had mounted. So big was this particular production that the iconic shell of the Bowl was removed and replaced by a forest planted in tons of dirt hauled in exclusively for the event. For the final act, Reinhardt worked out a torch parade from the top of the Hollywood Hills to the bottom, despite the fire hazard it presented. Even back then, Southern California suffered from droughts and tinder dry vegetation.

While the name Max Reinhardt might not have the same resonance that it did back in 1935, his name appears above the title, he was considered a major stage director. To quote his biographer, J.L. Styan’s book Max Reinhardt, “Max Reinhardt arrived on the scene at the moment when the modern theatre was exploding with ideas and anxious to try new forms and styles of performance of every kind. …following Wagner, Reinhardt saw that the theatre could be the common ground for all the arts.”

A Midsummer Night’s Dream was already a touchstone of sorts for Reinhardt. His Midsummer Night’s Dream of 1905 was the production that made him a star, and it remained his favorite play, one he would direct 29 productions of prior to the film. He would direct one more stage version in Hollywood in 1939.

According to Styan, Reinhardt wanted the following actors for the Hollywood Bowl performance: Charlie Chaplin (Bottom), Greta Garbo (Titania), Clark Gable (Demetrius), Gary Cooper (Lysander), John Barrymore (Oberon), W.C. Fields (Thisbe), Wallace Beery (Lion), Walter Huston (Theseus), Joan Crawford (Hermia), Myrna Loy (Helena), and Fred Astaire (Puck). Talk about dream casting, He would have to settle, as it were with a cast that included John Lodge, William Farnum, Sterling Holloway, Olivia de Havilland, and Mickey Rooney. Katherine Dunham and Butterfly McQueen were included in corps of dancers. Gloria Stuart was originally supposed to play Hermia, but when she had to drop out due to illness, her understudy de Havilland took her place in the cast. It would turn out to be de Havilland’s big break.

For the music, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, a young Austrian composer who would go on to win Academy Awards for his scores for Anthony Adverse (1936) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), oversaw the musical aspects of the extravaganza.

After his Hollywood Bowl production Warner Brothers approached Reinhardt about making it into a film. Even though Reinhardt had previously directed four films in Germany: Sumurûn (1910), Das Mirakel (1912), Die Insel der Seligen (1913) and A Venetian Night (1914), he had never made a sound film. When Warner Bros. realized how little Reinhardt understood about the film medium in general and working within the studio system; Warner Brothers in particular, they brought in William Dieterle to assist him. I’ve read that Dieterle was brought in because Reinhardt didn’t speak English, but that makes no sense, since he loved the English-language play to begin with.

A Midsummer’s Night Dream was written by William Shakespeare and performed as part of the wedding in 1596 of Elizabeth Carey to Thomas, son of Lord Berkeley at the Blackfriars house of the bride’s father, Sir George Carey. Elizabeth Carey was the granddaughter of Henry, Lord Hunsdon, Lord Chamberlain to Queen Elizabeth. Lord Hunsdon was the patron of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Shakespeare’s acting company.

Felix Mendelssohn, considered by many to be the greatest child prodigy since Mozart, wrote his Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1826 at the age of 17. In 1843, he would return to the play and write incidental music, creating an eleven movement score that could be interpolated into theatrical presentations of the play. The incidental music also contains the Wedding March, which was popularized when Victoria, Queen Victoria’s daughter, chose the piece for her marriage to Prince Frederick William of Prussia in 1858.

While not the first film production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a silent 11 minute version was made in 1909 by Vitagraph, this was Hollywood's first foray into Shakespeare since Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford's Taming of the Shrew (1929). From the Hollywood Bowl cast only Rooney (Puck) and de Havilland (Hermia) remained in the film.

Before production got underway on December 19, 1934, 15 year-old Mickey Rooney broke his leg while skiing. Rooney, who was on loan from MGM, had to be wheeled around on a tricycle behind the scenery. He was also doubled where possible by George Breakston, another child actor. Warner was so furious with Rooney that, according to the actor’s memoirs, threatened to kill him and then break his other leg.

There was also some debate over casting. Naturally, Warner Bros. wanted to use actors they already had under contract and to have more of a say in who played what roles. These included the pivotal roles of Bottom and Hermia. While Reinhardt wanted James Cagney for the role of Bottom, Warner Bros. apparently originally wanted him to use Guy Kibbee. And Bette Davis was also considered for the role of Hermia before de Havilland was finally selected.

William Dieterle may have been brought in to guide Reinhardt through the filmmaking process, but he did have to take over the directing chores for a week in December when a restraining order was issued which barred Reinhardt from participating in any directing activities. The motion was filed by a French theatrical firm, Habel, which charged that they had prior rights to Reinhardt’s services. The restraining order was lifted about a week later when Superior Court Judge Emmet Wilson found in favor of Reinhardt.

Reinhardt designed the forest where much of the film takes place, but the original cinematographer, Ernest Haller, could not properly light the set. Haller was replaced by Hal Mohr. Mohr thinned the trees slightly, sprayed them with aluminum paint and covered them with cobwebs and tiny metal particles to reflect the light.  Nothing shot by Ernest Haller made it into the final film.

To choreograph the ballet scenes with the Fairies, Reinhardt brought in Bronislava Nijinska. Nijinska, who was a world famous ballet dancer and choreographer, is also the sister of Vaslav Nijinsky, considered by many to be the greatest male dancer of the early 20th century. Supposedly noted Hollywood choreographers Busby Berkeley and Bobby Connolly visited the set to watch Nijinska at work, but were so disruptive they had to be barred from the set.

And once again to handle the music, Korngold was brought back by director Reinhardt in the same role he'd had in the Hollywood Bowl production. While both agreed to use Mendelssohn’s original incidental music, given the film's run time it became obvious the composition would be too short. Instead of just repeating several musical cues to fit the film's final length, Korngold adapted the incidental music and parts of some other Mendelssohn compositions (Songs Without Words, The Italian Symphony and The Scotch Symphony), re-orchestrated them for a larger orchestra and choir (most notably heard in his Wedding March version at the end) and composed some short musical bridges by himself. In the end, Korngold created a complete symphonic score for the movie based on Mendelssohn's music, but he chose to give full musical credit to Mendelssohn.

To accentuate the "A" Picture event status, A Midsummer Night's Dream starts with an Overture.

The film opens with the Overture written by Mendelssohn, the same way other big films do. This device raises them above the mere cinematic experience and propels them toward theatre, which is very fitting in this case. Like King Kong before it, having an Overture helps to make seeing the film feel more like an event, rather than just a night at the flicks.

The screenplay pretty much follows Shakespeare’s play. Theseus, the Duke of Athens (Ian Hunter), is preparing to marry Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons (Verree Teasdale), whose heart he’d won through war. He finds that his court is full of romantic intrigue. Lysander (Dick Powell) and Hermia (Olivia de Havilland) are in love, but Hermia's father, Egeus (Grant Mitchell), pleads with the duke to force her to marry Demetrius (Ross Alexander), who also loves her and whose marriage Egeus has arranged.

Ian Hunter plays Theseus, The Duke of Athens.

When Theseus agrees that Hermia must obey her father's wishes or live the rest of her life unwed, she runs away with Lysander to the nearby woods. Outside of Athens and Theseus’ laws, the couple would be free to marry. But they are pursued by Demetrius, who is followed by Helena (Jean Muir), who suffers from unrequited love for him.

Demetrius (Ross Alexander) pursues Lysander (Dick Powell) and Hermia (Olivia de Havilland) (far right), into the woods. Helena (Jean Muir),who is love with Demetrius follows after him. 

Once in the woods, the lovers enter another court. Oberon, king of the fairies (Victor Jory), is jealous of his beautiful queen Titania's (Anita Louise) affections for a small changeling boy (Sheila Brown) stolen from an Indian king and enlists the devilish fairy, Puck (Mickey Rooney), to steal the boy from Titania, giving him a magic love potion, which Puck uses not only on Titania, but on the mortal lovers as well. The love potion causes both Lysander and Demetrius to fall in love with Helena, who now spurns them both, thinking they are having fun at her expense.

Meanwhile, a group of amateur actors, collectively referred to as the Mechanicals, are preparing to perform the play, Pyramus and Thisbe, as part of the court’s wedding celebration. Led by Quince (Frank McHugh), they enter the forest to practice their parts. Quince, the carpenter, will direct and read the play’s prologue; Snug, the joiner (Dewey Robinson), will play a lion; Bottom, the weaver, (James Cagney) will play Pyramus; Flute, the bellows-mender (Joe E. Brown), will play Thisbe; Snout, the tinker (Hugh Herbert), will play the wall and Starveling, the tailor Otis Harlan), will portray moonshine.

Two of the Mechanicals: Quince (Frank McHugh), the carpenter, helps direct Pyramus and Thisbe, the play in which Bottom (James Cagney), the weaver, plays Pyramus.

During the rehearsal, the mischievous Puck turns Bottom, the egotistical leading man, into an ass, and Titania, under Puck's spell, falls in love with the actor. Oberon successfully kidnaps the changeling boy, but pitying Titania, reverses the love spell.

Puck turns Bottom into an ass and makes Titania (Anita Louise) fall in with him.

By dawn, Puck restores Lysander and Hermia to their original affections, leaving Demetrius in love with Helena. Bottom regains his manhood and all the mortals return to Athens for Theseus' wedding. On his wedding day, Theseus overrules himself and gives his blessing to Hermia and Lysander.

Following the wedding, the Mechanicals entertain the court with their comic love story, Shakespeare’s own spoof of his play Romeo and Juliet. As the newlyweds and other lovers slip out before the epilogue, Puck and the fairies fly into the empty palace to bless the house and its occupants with good fortune. Puck closes the play:

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber'd here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream …

Bottom is the sort of role that allows Cagney to chew the scenery a little bit for comedic purposes. While he would never do Shakespeare again, he shines amongst the cast in this movie, even though he spends a good portion of it with a donkey’s mask over his head. Likewise, Brown does well with his smaller than his smile role of Flute. While I’m sure we’re only seeing a small part of what Brown was capable of doing, he does show his comedic timing and makes the most out of his time on screen. Both Cagney and Brown were called out by critics for their performances. Others weren’t so lucky.

I’ve read that Dick Powell in particular was miscast as Lysander; even he felt that way. The films I’ve seen with Powell from this point in his career, all seem to be pretty much the same. While he doesn’t sing, he’s not too far off from being the old juvenile he plays in 42nd Street (1933), in both substance and appearance. I’m not sure who Warner Bros. would have cast in his stead, but while he’s not bad, he doesn’t really shine the way Cagney and Brown do.

Comedian Joe E. Brown plays Thisby to Cagney's Pyramus.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream would be the first film Olivia de Havilland would make, but the third film released. (So new was she to film her stage name was misspelled on screen as de Haviland.) Under contract with Warner Bros., she had appeared in Alibi Ike (1935) with Joe E. Brown as the lead and The Irish in Us (1935) with Cagney as the headliner. Before she was cast in the film version, de Havilland had wanted to be an English teacher and had plans to entire college. Reinhardt, who offered her the role of Hermia in the film, persuaded her to change her mind. As Hermia, she is mostly called upon to do more than just look pretty and she does quite well in her debut role. Her career, though, was somewhat in question until she was paired with a then unknown Errol Flynn in Captain Blood (1935).

I want to like Mickey Rooney, after all he is a multi-talented performer. However, he can sometimes be a force to be reckoned with. I hate to say it, but I found the 15 year-old Rooney as Puck to be annoying at times. I was pleased to find my sentiments echoed in a contemporary review in Variety: “And Mickey Rooney, as Puck, is so intent on being cute that he becomes almost annoying.” His performance could have been toned down a bit. Perhaps it was more appropriate for live theater and doesn’t translate as well to film.

Mickey Rooney was 15, but already a hardened professional, when he played Puck.

The rest of the cast is also good, but there are almost too many to name. Stand outs include Victor Jory as Oberon, Anita Louise as Titania, Jean Muir as Helena and Hugh Herbert as Snout/the wall.

Sometimes the story is a bit hard to follow. Familiarity with the play would definitely have helped; I’ve seen it a couple of times, but not for several years. And at two hours, the movie does at times feel long. But one of the reasons to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream isn’t strictly to see a Shakespeare play on film, but to see the way the scenery and costumes were interpreted. (The costumes for the Athens portion of the film seem to keep in line with the Elizabethan-era mismatch they had been on stage when the play was presented on stage at the Globe. The dress and the place don’t seem to match; it’s more like the play is set in the London of Shakespeare’s time rather than Athens.)

The film excels with the fantasy elements and the forest, where most of the film and play take place, is presented as supernatural. Here the imaginations of the director, art director (Anton Grot), set director (Ben Bone), costume designers (Max Rée and Milo Anderson) and special effects photographers (Fred Jackman, Byron Haskins and H.F. Koenekamp) must have run as wild as the magical night in the film.

Special effects make the forest seem like a magical place.

While watching I was reminded of the Wizard of Oz (1939) and wonder if that later film didn’t borrow heavily from this one. The fairies fly like Oz’s monkeys; the forest is populated with an assortment of fairies, some of which would have been right at home in Munchkin land (several of the fairies, like the munchkins were played by midgets, including Billy Barty who plays one named Mustard Seed); and an evil presence presides over the forest, King Oberon.

Despite its production values, the film was not a hit with critics (mixed reviews) or at the box-office. Budgeted at just under a million dollars, the film only took in about $1.2 million at the box office. Part of this had to do with cancellations. At the time, cinemas would enter into a contract to show a film, but had the right to pull out within a specified period of time. Cancellations usually ran at between 20 and 50 for a film. A Midsummer Night’s Dream established a new record with 2,971 cancellations. Booking agents had apparently failed to correctly identify the film to theater owners.

Overseas, the film ran into other issues. Germany, which was at the time ruled by Nazis, "unofficially notified" Warner Bros. that the picture would be banned as Reinhardt and Mendelssohn, both Jewish, were considered undesirables. 

The film did receive attention at the Academy Awards, nominated for Best Picture (losing to Mutiny on the Bounty) and Best Assistant Director, Sherry Shourds (losing to Clem Beauchamp and Paul Wing for The Lives of a Bengal Lancer); and winning for Best Cinematography (Hal Mohr) and Best Film Editing (Ralph Dawson). While Mohr was not one of the original nominees for Cinematography, he won write-in votes. The next year, the Academy would no longer accept write-ins.

While I won’t predict if it would have won, I think A Midsummer Night’s Dream would have been nominated for the following awards if they were given at the time of the film’s release: Best Art Direction – Set Decoration (given since 1947), Best Costume Design (given since 1948) and Best Makeup and Hairstyling (given out since 1981).

One of the costumes designed for this movie. Here is Titania's outfit designed by Max Ree.

I will admit that while watching this version there were moments when I got lost in the verse the dialogue is written in, but understanding word for word is not essential to enjoying the play or the movie. It doesn’t help that the visuals are so involving that sometimes you might find yourself watching but not listening. A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935) is a treat for both the eyes and the ears and should not be missed.