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.

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