· 13 September 2017 ·
[Recalling Max Reinhardt’s 1935 film of MND]
I thought the Florentine Renaissance was a rabbit hole from whose bourn no traveller returned, until I fell into a pile of Hollywood 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.
There’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 and even Wikipedia. Max Reinhardt had just 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 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 as drama, but it’s the one I’m most sentimental about. Lizzy adored every minute, 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 to all. Uncle Rob left in the middle of Act III to go strangle some puppies.
Despite some of the 1935 film’s cast being in over their heads (Dick Powell was clueless and he knew it), most of them did well. Many were Warner’s contract players, which explains tough-guy James Cagney as Bottom. Neither Cagney nor Powell had done any Shakespeare before, nor would they again; a blessing in Powell’s case, but Cagney seemed to enjoy the challenge and it’s an interesting outlier in his career. Ex-vaudevillian Joe E Brown was new to Shakespeare also, but he charmed as clownish Flute. Olivia de Havilland as 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, his voice cracking with every howl. Rooney’s Puck is a feral animal, out of control, off his meds. To this day I’m not sure if I like it, but it makes an impression.
Here’s the trailer.
Hollywood hyperbole at its finest.
This promotional featurette, A Dream Comes True, has more to say about the film, but please be warned, 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. The Warner executives spent one! and a half! million! dollars! during the Depression! to make a fantastical, extravagant 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 movie as a Shakespeare movie, in case they frightened off the audience.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream was nominated by the Academy (AMPAS)* for 1935’s Outstanding Production, the precursor to the Best Picture award. The winner was Mutiny on the Bounty; MND won Oscars for film editing and cinematography. Nevertheless, the Shakespeare movie was a failure 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.
One of these days I’ll drink too much Rhenish and type about FOS. Fear o’ ’Speare. The Fearosphere. It will not be poetic.
* I haven’t ignored BAFTA. They didn’t start giving out awards until 1949.
This production is by no means a flawless rendering. I’m hardly an objective critic, but there’s more crooning than necessary, and far 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 wounded by considerable cutting, to gain more time for Terpsichore, I suppose. But 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.
The DVD plays for 143 minutes, including ten minutes 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. Joe E Brown in costumed drag, and a bit with a dog. Snug the lion (the joiner) didn’t have much of a part to start with, and Reinhardt cut most of it, but I hope you haven’t seen the last of him. My head has plans, at least.
** You know, Pyramus and Thisbe, the tragic tale of star-crossed lovers (sound familiar?) from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, my favourite book of racy Latin poetry that my puritanical Uncle Arthur was supposedly translating into English while we were both living at Cecil House in the mid ’60s. 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.
From now on when you hear this song at a wedding, you will daydream about me and the play on dreams that I wrote for my daughter.
Tell the people you sit with at the reception.
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
- · also available as a PDF