A Late Summer Afternoon’s Daydream

Banner - MND lobby card - Midsummer Night's Dream 1935

13 September 2017
· Recalling Max Reinhardt’s 1935 film of MND ·

I thought the Florentine Renaissance was the ultimate rabbit hole from whose bourne no traveller returned, until I fell into a pile of Hollywood movie-fan magazines from the 1930s.

I was lost within the November 1935 issue of Silver Screen, already three degrees of distraction away from what I was hunting, when I bumped into this. Distracted yet again, I stopped to do some recollecting. In 1935 this film was a big deal.

Silver Screen Nov 1935 MND display image - Midsummer Night's Dream 1935There’s no point in my typing a rehash of well-known facts. There are good things to read at Wonders in the Dark and Shakespeareances and Turner Classic Movies. Max Reinhardt staged the play live at the Hollywood Bowl, where Jack Warner saw it and decided to bring it to the screen. Click on those links (after you’re done here, please) for looks into the film’s history.

Due to the conventional authorial misattribution, none of the above articles mentions the fact that I wrote this play (from earlier drafts) for my daughter Elizabeth, when she married Will Stanley in early 1595. You can see a chronicler’s report of the wedding in a post I wrote last March. To speak truth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream isn’t one of my favourite works in terms of comedy or drama, but it’s the one I’m the most sentimental about. Lizzy adored every minute of it, which was entirely the point. Grandfather Burghley had a convenient ague and spent the whole performance blowing his nose loudly into his sleeve, broadcasting his opinion of theatre while trying to distract the actors. Uncle Rob left in the middle of Act III to go strangle some puppies.

Most of the film’s actors were Warner’s contract players, which explains tough-guy James Cagney as Bottom. Neither Cagney nor Dick Powell (Lysander) had done any Shakespeare before, nor would they again. This was a blessing for the clueless Powell, but it’s an interesting outlier in Cagney’s career, if you don’t mind the chewed scenery. Ex-vaudevillian Joe E Brown was new to Shakespeare also, but he charms as clownish Flute. Olivia de Havilland (Hermia) was one of only two leads from Reinhardt’s stage production to reprise their roles for the film. The other was fourteen-year-old Mickey Rooney, voice cracking with every howl. His Puck is a wild creature, out of control, off his meds. I can’t say that I like it, but it makes an impression.

Here’s the trailer.

Hollywood hyperbole at its finest.

This promotional short, A Dream Comes True, has more to say about the film. Please be advised that it contains a word that will (or should) make you cringe. Not one of my words. You’ll know it when you hear it.

Speaking of my words, did you notice that there wasn’t one line from the play in either the trailer or the promo? The trailer was all music, the promo was all backstage glimpses and gosh look at the glamorous movie stars at the swanky premiere. Warner executives spent one! and a half! million! dollars! during the Depression!! to make a spectacular Shakespeare picture. Not since the advent of sound had a play of mine been produced on this scale. But when the film was in the can, these same executives were afraid to sell their Shakespeare picture as a Shakespeare picture, in case they frightened off the audience.

Facepalm column statue

A Midsummer Night’s Dream was nominated by the Academy (AMPAS)* for 1935’s Outstanding Production, the precursor to the Best Picture award. Mutiny on the Bounty won that Oscar; MND won for film editing and cinematography. It failed at the box office, so perhaps Warner’s worry was justified. Or perhaps second-guessing their own project became a self-fulfilling prophecy due to their lack of spine and resolve.

* BAFTA didn’t start giving out awards until 1949.

This production is not a flawless rendering. I’m hardly an objective critic, but there’s more crooning than necessary, and too much of Nijinska’s fluttering gossamer fairy ballet. Neither adds anything of significance beyond the latter’s special effects, while increasing the length of an already long film. The poetry of my text has been harmed by considerable cutting, to gain more time for Terpsichore. Reinhardt had all that wonderful Mendelssohn and Erich Wolfgang Korngold as his orchestrator, so it’s not difficult to see how the music cast its spell over the director.

MND lobby card - Midsummer Night's Dream 1935

The play runs for 143 minutes, including ten of overture and exit music. All the crooning and fluttering is included. For the general release at the end of 1935, after the selected-cities run described in the Silver Screen advert, the film was trimmed from 132 minutes to 117. I haven’t seen that cut, it may be an improvement.

Watching the film again, it looks in some ways like the harbinger of The Wizard of Oz. Imagine if it had been made a few years later, in colour. Even in black-and-white it’s nearly hallucinatory. The special effects dazzled (hence the Oscars), and there’s a cantina-esque band in the woods when Bottom calls for the tongs and the bones that if George Lucas wasn’t influenced by, I’ll eat my ugly French hat.

The mechanicals’ Pyramus and Thisbe** still shines. Might be the high point of the film, at its end. Joe E Brown in drag, and a bit with a dog.

** You know, Pyramus and Thisbe, the tragic tale of star-crossed lovers from Book Four of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, my favourite Latin book of stories. That Pyramus and Thisbe.

Re the Mendelssohn: you will recognise the Wedding March when it plays in the film, or in the trailer above, or by clicking the play button below. It’s not ‘Here Comes the Bride’, which is the Wedding Chorus from Lohengrin by Richard Wagner of all people – but the other popular wedding tune, typically played as the recessional after the hitching is done.

Wedding March, A Midsummer Night’s Dream
by Felix Mendelssohn, 1843

Mendelssohn wrote most of the music used in this film, including the Wedding March, for a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream given at the Prussian royal court in 1843. The march became a popular choice for private weddings after Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter had it played in her 1858 marriage to Prussia’s Crown Prince Frederick.

Now, whenever you hear this song played at a wedding, you can daydream about me and the play on dreams that I wrote for my daughter.

Additional Reading and Resources:

  • • Silver Screen magazine, November 1935 [archive.org]
  • · A Midsummer Night’s Dream advert, archive pg 19 (issue pg 11)
  • · from bound Volume 6 with issues from November 1935 to March 1936
  • · don’t plan on doing anything else for the day if you open this file
  • • Erich Wolfgang Korngold – The Maestro of Hollywood [korngold-society.org]
  • · “An examination of Korngold’s first film assignment A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM and how he subsequently transformed motion picture scoring into an art form.”
  • · by Brendan G Carroll, 2007