Thursday, August 22, 2013

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Warner Bros., 1935)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Warner Bros.’ 1935 filmization of Shakespeare’s play, which was co-directed by Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle and based on a very famous stage production Reinhardt had directed in Germany in the 1920’s before the Nazis took over and forced him to flee the country. Reinhardt, working at the Deutsches Theatre in Berlin and the Theatre in der Josefstadt in Vienna, staged A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a legendary Berlin production in the mid-1920’s that used a large stage, elaborate special effects and the incidental music Felix Mendelssohn had composed a century earlier. The Berlin production used a German translation of the play by August W. Schlegel (in German literary history Schlegel’s translations of Shakespeare are considered masterpieces in their own right and are still often the versions used when Shakespeare is staged in German-speaking countries), but apparently Reinhardt took the production to the U.S. as early as 1927 and staged it in Shakespeare’s original English. Reinhardt settled in the U.S. in 1935 (though he traveled back to Austria and continued to work there until the Nazi Anschluss in 1938) and started staging his massive productions in the L.A. area — including The Eternal Road, a collaboration with fellow anti-Nazi refugee Kurt Weill that was performed in the Hollywood Bowl (the only place in town that had a stage big enough for it), got bad reviews denouncing it as an overblown spectacle and has also suffered from Weill’s spectacularly wrong call that the Jews had survived pogroms before and they’d be able to survive the Nazi oppression as well. (Still, some of The Eternal Road was finally recorded by the Naxos label a few years ago and it turned out to be a fascinating, if often pretentious, musico-dramatic piece about the history of anti-Semitic oppression.) Warner Bros. signed Reinhardt, who’d made a couple of poorly received silent films in Germany in the early “teens,” to reproduce his famous A Midsummer Night’s Dream production on film, and offered him the pick of their contract cast list — though Reinhardt had to fight Jack Warner to get to cast James Cagney as Bottom (Warner wanted him to use Guy Kibbee, probably thinking of all the money he was losing by having Cagney cavort on Reinhardt’s and art director Anton Grot’s massive fairyland sets instead of having him crank out a few cheap, quick and lucrative crime dramas) and Bette Davis got aced out of the female lead, Hermia, by her good friend Olivia de Havilland (whose last name was spelled with only one “l” in the credits).

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of Shakespeare’s most charming plays but also one of his least well structured; the three interlocking plots — the battle of Athenian prince Theseus (Ian Hunter, a British actor who delivers the Shakespearean dialogue idiomatically enough but seems so hammy he practically glues himself to the lens) to get the bride he’s forced to marry him, Amazonian queen Hippolyta (the Athenians have just defeated the Amazons in battle and she’s his prize for the victory), to love him; the interlocking romantic intrigues of Lysander (Dick Powell, pushing his naturally high voice even higher than usual and responding to the challenge of acting Shakespeare by speaking as if he sucked on helium before each take), Hermia (Olivia de Havilland), Demetrius (real-life Bisexual Ross Alexander, who looks so queeny in this one you wonder why he and Powell don’t pair up and leave the women alone) and Helena (Jean Muir); and the intrigue among the fairies and also the proletarian players who are anxious to win the lifetime pension offered to anyone who performs a show at Theseus’ and Hippolyta’s wedding — don’t really reflect each other that well and often get in each other’s way. A Midsummer Night’s Dream was part of Jack Warner’s campaign to get the rest of Hollywood to accept Warner Bros. as a full-fledged major studio, the equal of MGM and Paramount, instead of just that nice little company in Burbank that made gangster movies and musicals. First, in 1934, he’d green-lighted Madame DuBarry, William Dieterle’s remake of an Ernst Lubitsch German silent about French King Louis XV’s famous consort, which flopped at the box office largely because it got caught in the crossfire over the Legion of Decency and its successful campaign to end the relative sexual freedom of American films during the so-called “pre-Code” era — though it turned out to be a marvelous film, vividly acted by Dolores Del Rio as DuBarry and stylishly directed by Dieterle. Then in 1935 Warner green-lighted A Midsummer Night’s Dream and ended up with a visually stunning tour de force, an overwhelming movie in both the good and not-so-good senses of the term, which flopped at the box office but fulfilled its purpose in giving the studio prestige. The next year Warners grabbed two of the biggest story properties around, Hervey Allen’s novel Anthony Adverse and Marc Connelly’s play The Green Pastures, filmed them and ended up with two blockbuster hits.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (the movie) is an astonishing spectacle, variably acted — of all the cast members only Olivia de Havilland is comfortable enough with the Shakespearean language not only to speak it effectively but use it to convey emotion. James Cagney as Bottom and Mickey Rooney as Puck (who according to the American Film Institute Catalog broke his leg shortly before filming and had to act much of his part riding around on a tricycle to get around the big sets as fast as Reinhardt wanted him to) largely use Shakespeare as an excuse to overact — though both of them have surprisingly strong moments, Cagney when he loses his donkey’s head (an immobile mask, though his man-to-donkey and donkey-to-man transformations are accomplished through double exposures, much the way Lon Chaney, Jr. changed into the Wolf-Man) and realizes he’s once again a normal human; and Rooney when he delivers the play’s epilogue. Where the film scores is in the incredible visual atmosphere, especially in the fairyland woods; the special effects — people magically appearing and disappearing, flying through the woods, and transforming — are state-of-the-art for 1935 and still enormously impressive; and, oddly for a Shakespeare movie, the strongest moments are when the characters are not talking, but moving with dancers’ grace (Reinhardt actually did cast dancers in most of the non-speaking roles) through the big forest sets to the themes from Mendelssohn’s score as arranged by Erich Wolfgang Korngold (in his first job in films). A Midsummer Night’s Dream was nominated for three Academy Awards — Best Picture, Best Assistant Director (Sherry Shounds) and Best Editing (Ralph Dawson) — and won two: Dawson for editing and Hal Mohr for cinematography. This was the last of two years in the mid-1930’s in which the Academy allowed write-in votes; Mohr — who had replaced Ernest Haller early in the production, told Reinhardt that the big forest set was unfilmable as it stood, and had some of the artificial trees taken out and metal reflectors put in throughout the set, which gave the film the remarkable sparkledust effect that’s one of the biggest things anyone remembers about it — had, depending on which account you read, either tried to settle a cinematographers’ strike or scabbed on it. As a result, his fellow cinematographers didn’t like him and denied him the nomination he richly deserved — but the Academy voters responded and gave him the award on a write-in, whereupon the Academy eliminated the write-in option and thereby made Mohr the only write-in Oscar winner in history.

The atmospherics are a good deal more compelling than the plot(s), in which the fairies — led by King Oberon (Victor Jory, oddly made up with a crown with a lot of branches sticking out above it) and Queen Titania (Anita Louise), who are feuding — try to use love spells to get the recalcitrant humans properly paired off, and of course screw it up: their spells make Lysander (briefly) abandon Hermia (whom he’s been forbidden to marry by her father Egeus, played by Grant Mitchell) for Helena, while Demetrius, who’s the man Egeus has chosen to be his daughter’s husband, also falls for Helena (who’s had an unrequited crush on him from the start), and also make Queen Titania fall for the donkey-headed Bottom — when the two men in her life confront each other I joked, “Oh, great. She gets to choose between a donkey and a tree.” The scenes with the proletarians — Bottom the weaver, Quince the carpenter (Frank McHugh), Snug the joiner (Dewey Robinson), Flute the bellows-mender (Joe E. Brown), Snout the tinker (a marvelous Hugh Herbert, who for once makes his “woo-woo” act work in context), and Starveling the tailor (Otis Harlan) — are the closest this film comes to true Warner Bros. territory, and as they enact the “tragical comedy” of Pyramus and Thisbe (which comes off as a Shakespearean self-parody of Romeo and Juliet!) seeing James Cagney cruising Joe E. Brown in drag is great fun and an interesting premonition of Brown’s later marriage proposal to Jack Lemmon at the end of Some Like It Hot. I’m not sure what to make of A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a totality; some of it is marvelous, some of it maddening, and I suspect Reinhardt’s three-ring circus production style is responsible for that. Other directors who’ve tackled A Midsummer Night’s Dream have tried to smooth out the discontinuities in Shakespeare’s script; Reinhardt seems to have reveled in them, delighting in the crashing gear-shifts in tone and clearly more interested in the fairy scenes, where he could be abstract and throw the entire armamentarium of available special effects in the mix, than in the relatively staid and dull romantic intrigues at the Athenian court.

It’s not the sort of film you want to see every day, and one can readily understand why it was a money-loser in 1935, yet it’s also audaciously imaginative in its use of sets, costumes, movement and music; Charles argued that Mendelssohn seems to have pioneered some of the techniques later associated with Wagner, though I suspect Erich Wolfgang Korngold made Mendelssohn’s music sound more “Wagnerian” than it did originally, picking the most famous parts of Mendelssohn’s score (the Overture, Scherzo, Nocturne, choral finale and the big wedding march) and chopping the themes up to serve as Leitmotifs. (Still, Wagner was clearly influenced both by Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer, even though they were the two Jewish composers he singled out for abuse in his infamous essay “Judaism in Music.”) It’s also not clear whether Leo F. Forbstein, credited as usual in Warners’ films of the time as “musical director,” or Korngold himself conducted — though my money is on Korngold as conductor; the music is not only superbly adapted but richly shaped and phrased in a way I can’t believe a journeyman conductor like Forbstein could have accomplished. The following year MGM filmed Romeo and Juliet (a far better constructed play) in a more straightforward adaptation that holds up as a better movie but isn’t anywhere nearly as creative (and Herbert Stothart’s adaptation of Tchaikovsky for the score is hardly in the same league as Korngold’s adaptation of Mendelssohn here!). Incidentally the opening credits for A Midsummer Night’s Dream not only indicate the prestige nature of the project (instead of just saying “Warner Bros. Pictures present” they say “Warner Bros. Pictures have the honor to present”) but co-credit the direction to Reinhardt and fellow German expat (“ex-patriot,” he’s called in the American Film Institute Catalog, in one of their wilder typos) William Dieterle, and I had assumed that Jack Warner had given Reinhardt a co-director who was more experienced both with English and with movies — but according to the AFI Catalog, Dieterle filled in for a week or so when a French producer obtained an injunction against Reinhardt forbidding him to work for anyone else, and Warner put Dieterle on the project so shooting could continue until Reinhardt won his freedom from his French contract in court.