Note: The following review of Max Reinhardt’s 1935 film version of Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ is part of The Movie Projector’s ‘James Cagney blogothon’ hosted by R.D. Finch.
by Sam Juliano
The advent of the shimmering 1935 Hollywood interpretation of Shakespeare’s ethereal A Midsummer Night’s Dream was appropriately enough the result of public adoration of the stage work that ultimately inspired it. Back in the days of the pre-code cinema, theater director Max Reinhardt was known for his flamboyant and controversial stage incarnations of the Bard, and his production of Midsummer was a huge hit in Vienna. Attending one of the stagings, coincidentally enough, was Warner Brothers film mogul Jack Warner, who was executive in charge of overseeing what films the studio would be producing. While at the time crime dramas and backstage musicals were the rage, Warner wasn’t oblivious to the Oscar bait films that could bring added prestige, what with the slew of successful literary adaptations crafted at M-G-M. Two such works in fact debuted in the same year as Midsummer, and both ere based on Dickens’ novels: A Tale of Two Cities and David Copperfield. While Reinhardt had long scoffed at the possibilities of cinema approaching the “superior” form of live theater, he quickly reversed himself after Warner offered him a sweet deal and the complete access to the studio’s advanced technical capabilities; that for example would enable characters to dissolve into this air. Sold into expanding the possibilities of the stage Reinhardt drastically reversed himself, stating with unbridled enthusiasm: “The motion picture is the most wonderful medium for the presentation of drama and spectacle the world has ever known. The screen has leaped further ahead in the last few years than the stage has evolved in centuries.”
After he signed on Reinhardt to his chagrin was told by Warner that New York stage players would not be considered for casting; rather, the studio stock company was asked to try their hands at Shakespeare. Demetrious was played by Dick Powell, Hermia by Olivia de Havilland, Puck by Mickey Rooney, Flute by Joe E. Brown, and Oberon by Victor Jory. By then the absolute king of the lot, James Cagney was basically allowed to pick any role; he chose Bottom, sensing that the ultimate challenge for a great actor is to play a bad one. (Accounts from the period are contradictory with some contending that Cagney really hankered for the role, while others make claim that he preferred any role to Bottom.) Warner hoped that the big name marquee would attract a public that was unpredictable when it came to the Bard on the big screen. As Reinhardt worked to create and acting style able to bridge the gap between ultramodern performances and stylized poetic dialogue, Jack Warner apparently decided that the stage veteran -who had never before directed a motion picture- needed some help, so he assigned studio stalwart William Dieterle, who Reinhardt knew from Germany, having assigned him his first role as an actor. Dieterle’s own experience enabled him to assume responsibility for the technical elements, leaving the then sixty-two year old Reinhardt to focus on issues of image and interpretation. Reinhardt’s extravagance knew no limits as he upped an already excessive one million dollar budget another half million by utilizing the largest soundstage in movie history to that point, ordering nearly a hundred truckloads of trees and shrubs, and bringing to bear an intense lighting system and a massive supply of luminous paint. Ravens, owls and turtle doves were added to complete the textural density of an alternative universe. The studio’s celebrated maestro, Erich Wolfgang Korngold wrote a score that included Felix Mendelssohn’s famed music, which was inspired by the play. Extending the parameters even further, a Bronislawa Nijinska ballet was inserted.
When the initial public reaction was middling, Warner ordered the film cut by thirty minutes, with the ballet sequences getting most of the trimming. One major critic praised the “breathtaking set designs and cinematography” but took issue with the “monotonous howlings” of ten-year old Rooney and the “over energetic jabberings” of Cagney. The Times of London declared: “The most lamentable mistake in the cast was the Bottom of James Cagney. He seemed to me to misconceive the character, and only became tolerable in the scene where he discovers the ass’s head on his shoulders.” Cagney’s response was along the lines of “The only thing I was going by is that Bottom was the greatest ham that Shakespeare had ever written. He wanted to play all the parts. The keynote was that the son-of-a-bitch was a ham. I don’t know what the hell they wanted.” Reinhardt always defended Cagney’s characterization, stating “The part of Bottom has always been played by a stout, middle-aged man. Why? James Cagney’s type is perfect, and his performance is endlessly delightful.” Warner, ever cognizant of the production code application shortly before Midsummer completed, was anxious enough about the comical kissing between Cagney and Brown’s cross-dressing companion in the play within a play to suggest adding a wife for Bottom, defusing any possible confusion about the character’s sexual identity. One critic insightfully opined that Cagney’s Bottom blended “innocent weaver, Chicago Hood and Ugly Duckling.” Reinhardt remained constant in opposition insisting that Shakespeare’s text remain intact, at least that part of it he himself didn’t truncate. Warner relented, but conceded this was his riskiest project.
In any event Reinhardt’s visually resplendent film imitates the remarkable amalgamation of of disparate elements present within the play. The shimmering production numbers choreographed by the aforementioned Bronislava Nijinska and Nina Theilade bear more than a striking resemblance to the Busby Berkeley creations for the Warner musicals of the early 30’s. The design of the forest blends Arthur Rackham’s illustrations for the play with Teutonic, Grimm’s fairy-tale fantasy. Indeed the pervading German Expressionism was a way for some of the film’s American artists to give the picture a profound visual element that might obsfuscate the long held theory that only English actors could play Shakespeare. The number of visual metaphors employed in this most intricate of the Bard’s creations were in the service of the alternating and concurrent themes of madness, the moon, enchantment, metamorphosis, imagination, love, death and dreams. Like real dreams A Midsummer Night’s Dream is both mysterious and lucid, lyrical and grotesque, liberating and frightening, benevolent and vindictive. Reinhardt’s and Dieterle’s magical forest with white balletic fairies racing through the trees and up moonbeams to the delicate strains of Mendelssohn’s music, carries on the spectacular stage tradition. The animals and a unicorn inhabit a world of intensely back-lit ferns and rushes, lush grass and pools, flowers and massive oaks. The film is one of carefully choreographed movement, where the swirl of Tirania’s fairies around a tree matches the swirl of Puck as he spirals upward on a branch to fetch the “love-in-idleness,” where the flow of Titania’s white veil is echoed in the billowing black cape of Oberon. The lines and shapes of the film are fluid in the way music is negotiated, with crescendos, cadenzas and largo passages, creating an orchestra for the eyes and ears.
Reinhardt and Dieterle’s film is remarkably interpretive, and it combines the qualities of the idyllic with the darker side that considering it’s source is largely inevitable, but marked by a profundity that would be discernibly absent if all the activities and underlying mood were upbeat. Shakespeare’s play might have it’s fill of innocent playfulness, genial humor and fantasy, but one would be hard-pressed to deny there are erotic undercurrents and a generous helping of grotesqueness in these proceedings. Hence one could make a compelling case that there is a Macbeth-like quality in the work and in this 1935 film, with pangs of murderous hatred, envy, the threat of rape and sexual humiliation. This journey through heaven and hell passes through a limbo where both gentle birds and gruesome beasts co-exist. Much of the energy of the film is generated by this clash between Reinhardt’s and Dieterle’s style, the former a kind of ornate escapist fantasy, the latter a vision of darkness. Against the sticky sentimentality of the little Indian boy lost and abandoned and the “true love” between Hermia and Lysander are set the troll who spits water in the boy’s face and Puck who gleefully terrorizes all the mortals in the forest and mocks their sufferings. While riding on weeping Helena’s skirts, he wipes his nose on them. Against angelic Titania gathering flowers, singing, weeping with the moon for “some enforced chastity,” is set fierce, jealous Oberon with his black stallion, and virile, bat-winged train. Against Bottom’s idyllic reign as King of Fairies is set his terror when Puck makes him aware of his transformation. Even Titania’s embracing an ass is both hilarious and grotesque. Only Olivia de Havilland’s Hermia reveals the underpinnings of sensuality. There is nothing especially erotic about the lovers, Oberon, Bottom or Titania. The dance to Mendelssohn’s “Nocturne” however, yields a distinct strain of eroticism.
The film’s most scathing critics have dismissed this early version of the beloved play as a film with little or no regard for Shakespearean poetry, with only actor Ian Hunter (as Theseus) who has “the slightest idea of proper Shakespearean diction and bearing.” While purists will rally around that position, there still can be no questioning that the work is a bold effort to interpret and translate Shakespeare in cinematic terms, and as such it’s certainly the liveliest Bard transcription until Olivier’s Henry V in 1944. Despite the phantasmagoric excesses, the directors and cinematographer Hal Mohr skillfully wed the traditional view of the play as idyllic fantasy with the darker elements that elevate the themes that have challenged critics since the play was written over 400 years ago.