Over hill, over dale, through brush, through briar, over park, over pale, through flood, through fire, Judge Christopher Kulik wanders everywhere, swifter than the moon's sphere.
Tough guy James Cagney makes an ass out of himself, a mischievous Mickey Rooney makes fools out of mortals, and an underage Olivia de Havilland yearns to be alone with her lover in the forest. It took three centuries in the making! An immortal classic becomes a triumph of the ages! Warner Bros. welcomes you to The Dream!
I'm probably one of the few who have been waiting for the 1935 version of A Midsummer Night's Dream to come out on DVD. My father was an English teacher for 20 years, and I still remember him vividly showing this film to his students, and thus I got hooked into it, even though I couldn't understand all of Shakespeare's dialogue. All those memories came flooding back to me as I watched it again with Warner's glorious restoration of Max Reinhardt's A Midsummer Night's Dream. I guess the question is not to be or not to be, but to buy or not to buy…does The Dream really stand up after over 70 years? We shall see if everything's alright, for I am that merry reviewer of the night.
Facts of the Case
Theseus be blessed! The Duke of Athens has just returned from defeating the Amazonian Army, and now he plans to marry Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, with a huge festival full of entertainment and leisure. One of the highlights of the celebration will be a play called "Pyramus and Thisbe" enacted entirely by a ragtag group of Athenian craftsman. There is the overly ambitious Bottom (James Cagney, One, Two, Three), who is playing the lead, a romantic lover who sacrifices himself for woman he loves, played by a man, the sunflower-seed eating Joe E. Brown (Some Like It Hot). (Any high-school graduate should know that men always played the female roles in Shakespeare's time…but then again, nobody's perfect.)
There is real romantic trouble in the palace though, as two knights are in love with the same woman, the lovely Hermia (Olivia de Havilland, Gone With The Wind). She is truly in love with Lysander (Dick Powell, Gold Diggers of 1933), but her father only approves of his daughter marrying Demetrius (Ross Alexander, Captain Blood). Thus, Helena (Jean Muir, Stars Over Broadway) who is helplessly in love with Demetrius, is left out in the cold, but decides to pursue Demetrius into the forest that night to convince him to be with her. However, Demetrius is only going into the wood to stop the eloped union between Lysander and Hermia, and make the latter love him.
All four of these lovers are unaware that the woods will have a ceremony of their own involving two sets of fairies. Oberon, King of Shadows (Victor Jory, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer), is married to Titania (Anita Louise, The Story of Louis Pasteur), Queen of Fairies, who has just returned from India with a young boy prince in tow. Oberon wants to transform the boy into a knight (read: henchman), but Titania won't hear of it, and flies off into the moonlight to find solace with the boy elsewhere. As revenge, Oberon calls upon his faithful servant/jester Puck (Mickey Rooney, Night at the Museum) to bring him a flower with a special "love juice" that will make anyone wake up and fall in love with the first soul they see.
In the meantime, Puck is also ordered to put some of the juice on Demetrius' eyes so that when he wakes that he will be in love with Helena, however Puck mistakes him for Lysander (hey, they are both wearing Athenian garments!), which causes more chaos and confusion between the lovers. The "Pyramus and Thisbe" craftsman show up to rehearse their play in the wood, and it gives Puck the opportunity to do his other task: transform the weaver Bottom into a jackass, so that when Titania awakes, she falls in love with him! Can order be restored before daylight so that Theseus and Hippolyta's marriage will go smoothly?
The Evidence Speaking as someone who has just received his B.A. in English, I sympathize with most that studying Shakespeare can indeed be both a blessing and an ordeal. In high school, we had to do Romeo & Juliet, Macbeth, and eventually the Bard's masterpiece, Hamlet. There is no doubt that Shakespeare was talented at his craft, but even a high-school audience in the 21st century has trouble understanding the language and themes that Shakespeare employs into all of his work. Make no mistake about it, however: Shakespeare has been performed, translated, and adapted into films more than any other author. Considering the fact that he has been gone for nearly 500 years, that is quite an amazing feat, but even we must realize that Shakespeare borrowed from previous works as inspiration for his plays. (Then there are those who believe he may have ripped off the playwright Christopher Marlowe, though I won't comment on that long-running debate.)
While I don't think that Warner Bros.' ambitious 1935 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream is the best adaptation of Shakespeare out there, I do think it is the best adaptation of that particular play. The cast includes some big names of the time, many of whom had never done Shakespeare before, yet the majority of them manage to pull it off with ease and professionalism. Credit must be given to European stage director Max Reinhardt, who had already directed the play twelve times before moving to America to escape Nazi Germany and do an expansive production of it as "Shakespeare under the Stars" at the Hollywood Bowl in 1934. Among those that were in attendance was Jack L. Warner, who was convinced by his assistant Hal B. Wallis that it should be made into a film. Warner had his doubts, however, considering the fact the last attempt at Shakespeare on film was 1929's The Taming of the Shrew, which was a laughable disaster on many levels.
Max Reinhardt had only done a handful of films in his native Austria, but was willing to do the project, and was given William Dieterle as his co-director. Since Dieterle was a both protégé and follower of Reinhardt's genius, the collaboration paid off—though Dieterle was vital in directing the cast members because Reinhardt could not speak English. "Professor Reinhardt," as the studio bosses liked to call him, gave the crew a laundry list of inconceivable demands: 67 tons of trees, 1,500 lbs of rubber, 600,000 yards of cellophane, and 650,000 candles of light (each 10,000 watts), etc. All of these ingredients were sprinkled onto a soundstage to create a forest wonderland of moonbeams and dew drops, with Hal Mohr's exquisite cinematography capturing a perfect balance of moonlight and shadow, engulfed in radiant flickers of twinkling lights. Mohr certainly deserved the Academy Award for his work here, and he is the only one to win without a nomination; an extensive write-in campaign secured him the award.
To score The Dream, Reinhardt brought over a composer who would soon become one of the most famous in the industry: Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who is best known for his riveting scores in such Errol Flynn pictures as The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Sea Hawk. Most of Korngold's score is actually compositions by 19th-century German composer Felix Mendelssohn, who had written the String Octet in E Flat Major and Overture for A Midsummer Night's Dream at only 17 years old (it has been hailed as "the greatest piece of music written by a teenager"). Mendelssohn's famous "Wedding March" is also employed in an appropriately spoofy way for the wedding between Bottom the Ass and Titania the Fairy. Fans will also want to take note that the DVD includes the Overture and Exit music, which had only been seen before on the Turner Classics prints, though not on the previous VHS editions.
I would hardly call the cast of A Midsummer Night's Dream to die for, though it remains impressive, with the unlikely casting of James Cagney being especially noteworthy. Cagney rose to fame in many gangster pictures of the 1930s, so this was a change-of-pace for an actor if there ever was one. Whether he is miscast or not is up to you, but you cannot deny that Cagney has a boundless energy in the role of Bottom, which he deemed as the "greatest ham" that Shakespeare ever wrote. Historian Scott MacQueen also mentions on his audio commentary that W.C. Fields was strongly considered for the role before it went to Cagney, though he was busy working on David Copperfield at the time. Indeed, Fields may have seemed ideal, though Cagney is more than adequate with his buffoonish nature and jolly demeanor.
Victor Jory gives one of the strongest performances as the intimidating Oberon, especially when you consider that he had never—along with Cagney—done the Bard before. When Puck gives him the flower with the love juice, Jory speaks the most famous lines from the play (a monologue concluding Act II, Scene I), and delivers them brilliantly, a careful combination of subtlety and power. Jory's onscreen mate Titania is played by angelic 20-year-old Anita Louise and, while she exudes exuberance, she is easily outshone by another female cast member who was making her big-screen debut.
While attending Mills College in Oakland, California, Reinhardt spotted 17-year-old Olivia de Havilland playing Puck in a stage version of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Soon enough, the director requested for her to appear in his Hollywood Bowl production of the play, though not as Puck, a role which was given to 13-year-old Mickey Rooney. Instead, Reinhardt cast de Havilland as Hermia, and later asked her to be in the film version, which would turn out to be her screen debut (not counting bit parts for two films that would be released prior to A Midsummer Night's Dream). In essence, you could say it was because of Reinhardt that de Havilland would become of the most respected film actresses of all time, and her experience with The Dream enabled her to enter Hollywood circles at such a young age. Regardless, it is a magnificent debut, combining feminine sweetness, innocence, and rage.
Among the supporting cast, we have the always delightful, rubber-faced Joe E. Brown in the role of Flute, the Bellows Mender who doesn't like the idea of playing a woman because he is "growing a beard." Jean Muir is fine as Helena, even if she demanded for her own interpretation and ignored Reinhardt's direction—something the actress later regretted in real life. Ian Hunter and Verree Teasdale also manage to contribute much as Theseus and Hippolyta, respectively, even though Shakespeare gives them precious little dialogue, since much of the action takes place in the fairy-dominated woods. Finally, as for Dick Powell and Ross Alexander as the male lovers, while either of them failed to make a great impression, they still give their best shots at tackling the Bard. Powell, for one, always agreed with critics that he was horribly miscast, though I don't think he was as bad as he condemned himself to be.
Despite all that talent, there is one cast member that, I think at least, steals the entire show and walks off with a huge smile, and that would be Mickey Rooney as Puck, a.k.a. Robin Goodfellow. One critic at the time mentioned that he was nothing more than a "junior Tarzan," and even Leonard Maltin in his film guide says the Rooney "gets to be a bit too much," though I must strongly disagree. Complain all you want about his shrieking laugh, but I find his mischievous mocking of mortals and his motions of memorable mayhem both exhaustingly funny and exceedingly delightful. There is one brief shot of him during the Wedding March sequence in which we just see him pick up a weird plastic bubble for no rhyme or reason and just play it with a face of irreverent glee…oh, yes, he is the perfect Puck inside and out. What's even more amazing about Rooney's performance is that he did the entire shoot with a broken leg, which was kept under wraps through the use of a double.
Reinhardt's film was hardly the very first cinematic adaptation of Shakespeare, though it was the first one to be nominated for Best Picture. While it lost to MGM's Mutiny on the Bounty, it did win Oscars for Mohr and Ralph Dawson's editing. The second award is eyebrow-raising, considering the fact that the complete, 143-minute road-show version that premiered in 1935 had remained unavailable and unseen for decades afterward. Warner Bros. had cut the film, removing and shifting numerous scenes, making the final running time 117 minutes, which was the running time when the film debuted in VHS (the version that I saw growing up). However, the Roadshow version—minus the overture and exit music, clocking in at 132 minutes—finally made it on video in the 1990s. On this brand-new DVD, Warner finally gives us the complete 143-minute version, with the only added contribution being the 10-minute Intermission card, which had not been seen since 1935. Considering the fact that this is not a "special edition," Warner has graced us with a healthy dose of special features which are satisfying, if not earth-shattering.
First up is an audio commentary by film historian Scott MacQueen, who provides plenty of detail and facts about the film, with everything from quoting studio messages to Reinhardt's goal to be as faithful to the play as possible. MacQueen's delivery is excellent, and he provides more information than all the other bonus features put together, even if he does go silent from time to time. Next up is a screen test with Olivia de Havilland, though it wasn't made for The Dream but rather for was to be Reinhardt's next film for the studio, Danton (interestingly, he never made another film). The actress had personally sent to the Academy the print, which holds up surprisingly well, and it is, if anything, historically fascinating.
The vintage featurette "A Dream Come True" is a disappointingly short, but otherwise interesting, compilation of footage from both the premiere and behind-the scenes. Presenting… is really just six segments with cast members introducing the film to a theatre audience and, from what I could notice, the last one with Jean Muir (complete with a spotlight) was done at another location than the others. The Warner Bros. Studio Café "teaser trailer" has Joe E. Brown eating and talking about working with Reinhardt with another person in the studio café. There is a musical short called "Shake Mr. Shakespeare," which has nothing to do with the film, but it does include Mendelssohn's music (though rather poorly). It features a screenwriter who falls asleep in front of a bunch of Shakespeare plays, leading to some of the Bard's characters coming to life and singing—odd, but painless. Finally, we have an original theatrical trailer, which boasts that the "whole world hailed this screen masterpiece…and paid $2.20 to see it!" Like I said, the extras are more than satisfactory, though what would have really made this DVD go above and beyond would be an audio commentary by the two surviving cast members: Mickey Rooney and Olivia de Havilland (wishful thinking, I know).
There are two audio options available: Dolby Digital 1.0 or 2.0 Mono, which both sound great. Those who have difficulty registering the Shakespeare dialogue can always turn on the English subtitles; there are also subtitles available in French and Portuguese.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Now, I must come to the one fault that lies within Warner's DVD of A Midsummer Night's Dream, and that would be the restoration. While the film looks and sounds wonderful overall considering its age, there were isolated moments—usually involving the special photographic effects—where the film suffers a bit. Two moments that were really problematic: the scene where the fairies first appear from the nightly mist, and also the shot of Rooney breaking a tree branch and flying off the ground. Both contain numerous scratches and debris that I'm sure could have been cleaned up, though it might have been because that some of the source material was beyond repair.
On the back of the DVD, it says "sparkingly restored from original film elements," and for the most part I could see that. If anything, it's surely light years better than the VHS copies that I slogged through when I was young. However, with Warner Bros. being the leaders of film restoration, many of its other titles from the 1930s vault having seen better treatments on DVD, I could sense that less than a 100 percent effort was put into this disc. Maybe it's just me; besides, these are only minor complaints for such a wondrous production.
Another thing I must address is the ongoing discussion between film critics and historians if this adaptation is more Hollywood than Shakespeare. After watching the film again after so many years, a definite theatrical feel has been preserved, particularly when you mention the climactic ballet sequence staged by Bronislova Nijinska and Nini Thielade, in which Oberon's batmen and Titania's fairies join together at the end of the night. In addition, some of the dialogue is delivered in a melody-like fashion, and the forest is so well-detailed that you wouldn't think it was a soundstage. Alas, as McQueen states on his documentary, "One Hollywood producer had more power than two German directors" and that is certainly true here, as the inclusion of water sprites, gnome orchestras, and A-list movie stars is difficult not to notice. Don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining, as it was inevitable that studio executives would make their own changes (read: final editing) just to ensure there was a profit, because it still happens today. It makes me wonder what Reinhardt's Hollywood Bowl and other stage versions were really like, though; for modern audiences, this is the closest that we could hope for.
Despite the small imperfections in the restoration, I think the 1935 version of A Midsummer Night's Dream remains a unique cinematic experience, if not a genuine classic. Those who want to brush up on the play before watching the film are free to do so, though I think it remains a superb adaptation, even better than the more well-known 1999 version with Kevin Kline and Michelle Pfeiffer.
While the court found the print very good but not spectacular, Warner is acquitted, while Reinhardt and his fickle, frolicking cast are free to go. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Audio Commentary by Film Historian Scott MacQueen
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