In retrospect, it is generally conceded by the critics that one of the artistic ironies about William Shakespeare’s immortal works is that, although they translate – almost effortlessly – into captivating and escapist live theater, on film they often degenerate into stagy and plotting yawns that belie their greatness for posterity in the movies. Max Reinhardt’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935) is just one of these latter unfortunates; a frightfully pretentious (in both talent and temperament) adaptation of the bard’s merrily chuckle to young love.
Indeed, in planning their production, Warner Brothers spared little expense on arguably Shakespeare’s most ethereal grand dream – investing heavily in the fantasy genre which, regrettably, they knew little about. Warner Studios then, were the purveyors of ‘ripped from the headlines’ gangster/crime and detective stories. With varying degrees of success, and immediately following the production code’s sanitization of these aforementioned genres, the studio tried various experiments in an effort to change the public’s image of their filmic product. The Busby Berkeley musicals were just one example. Reinhardt’s adaptation of Shakespeare was another.
But on this occasion, the studio’s assemblage of talent seems to have been blunted by too many grand ideas thrown haphazardly into one mesmerizing blend of super kitsch; interesting perhaps as a series of vignettes, yet entirely void of that vapory excitement so essential in keeping the entire enterprise cohesive and lighter than air.
The plot is renown, and shall be dealt with herein only in brief. Theseus, the Duke of Athens (Ian Hunter) is to marry the Queen of the Amazons, Hyppolyta (Verra Teasdale). At once, the lowly Demetrius (Ross Alexander) is engaged to the flighty Hermia (Olivia DeHavilland) who, in turn, shares none of his affections, but in fact, is heart struck with the fairly foppish, Lysander (Dick Powell). In the meantime, Helena (Jean Muir) is smitten with Demetrius.
Enter the rather confrontational puppet masters of the piece, Oberon – King of the Fairies (Victor Jory) and Titania (Anita Louise), his queen. Oberon and Titania are split over the rearing of a child currently in Titania’s care. But before the two can straighten out their own marital discourse, they are thrown into an examination of the folly of these aforementioned couples – who have stolen into the night to be together and are now trapped in that forested domain.
The last bit of structural plotting involves mischief maker, Puck (Mickey Rooney), a devilish prankster who delights in sabotaging the course of true love to suit his own ticklish fancy. Exploiting the rather hapless weaver, Bottom (James Cagney) and his own misguided opinions on love and romance, Puck transforms man into ass – literally - and thereafter sets about concocting a jealous love triangle with the potion-drugged Titania. Naturally, Oberon will stand for none of it.
The chief problem with this adaptation of the play is that there seems to be zero sparkle to any of the aforementioned couplings. As an audience we question, for example, Hermia’s clutching devotion to the Lysander – primarily because Dick Powell in tights (whose lack of artistic understanding for the role – he plays with the verve of a chorus boy in one of Berkeley’s many extravaganzas) is about as appealing as coming home to find one’s mother drunk and passed out on the floor.
Mickey Rooney delivers us a Puck as though he were a ravenous doomsayer ramped up on a sugar fix, rather than the happily oblivious punster. Victor Jory’s Oberon is stoic and commanding, but minus an element of remote understanding that would have convince us of Titania’s overriding and bubbly joy and affection for him.
Cagney’s Bottom is perhaps the best realized of the star turns. He is, in fact, top billed in the credits. Yet, even now, decades removed from his ingrained on screen image as a cutthroat villain in practically all of the studio’s ‘murder’s row’ and prison movies of the 30s and 40s – he remains something of an arrogant misfire, valiantly going through the motions with all the commitment of a consummate professional – but minus the suspended believability to be entirely embraced and admired as a performance unto itself.
In the end, despite its costly budget and elaborate staging and costumes, A Midsummer Night’s Dream plays more like a leaden nightmare – tired, worn and more of a junk sale of top notch personalities utterly wasted.
There’s nothing wasted in Warner Home Video’s beautifully restored B&W image on this DVD. The gray scale exhibits and perfectly captures all of the tenderly smooth gauze and fluid lighting effects with a rare sparkle and clarity that has never before been made available on home video in any format. Fine details are readily seen in close ups, though medium and long shots do continue to slightly blur.
This, I suspect, is in keeping with the aforementioned effects photography. Occasionally, age related artifacts are present and obvious, but nothing that will distract. Digital artifacts are well concealed with no edge enhancement or pixelization. The audio is Mono, but well represented and balanced. Extras include a thorough commentary from Scott McQueen, Olivia DeHavilland’s screen test, a vintage featurette, short subjects and trailer.
It’s hard not to recommend this transfer, even if the film itself continues to hold up primarily as an interesting financial flop or mixed artistic failure.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)