This production isn't the first work of William Shakespeare to make it to the big screen. But this 1935 adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream is a nexus point for film and theatre.
It is based off famed German stage director Max Reinhardt’s production at the Hollywood Bowl performed the year earlier (and Reinhardt has also directed the play on Broadway in 1927). He was one of the premier Austrian directors of German-language theatre in the early 20th century. While Reinhardt had directed some silent films in the 1910s, Reinhardt largely rehearsed the actors for the movie version and German director William Dieterle was brought in to direct the filmic side of the movie. Dieterle made connections with Hollywood films in 1930, but prior to that he had an impressive career directing German silent films. The fantastic techniques used to depict the balletic fairies looks like it belongs more in the silent film era than the sound, and yet it’s one of the most visually striking elements of the film.
The film and stage production before it utilize the 19th century scores that Felix Mendelssohn had composed for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Mendelssohn’s wedding march is still one of the most recognizable pieces of wedding music in the western world. The film version had these classical scores re-orchestrated by Austrian composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Korngold would continue to compose Hollywood scores – including one particularly near and dear to me, the Oscar-winning score from 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood.
This was very much billed as a prestigious production with a lengthy overture of Mendelssohn’s score and a title card that reads “Warner Brothers have the honor to present A Max Reinhardt Production: A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” (Although the overture and exit music only played in the higher-priced “road show” screenings.) There was no mistaking that this production was meant to have a touch of class – a far cry from the lower-budget gangster pictures or the Busby Berkey musicals that Warner Brothers was then famous for. The large cast of Athenian onlookers signing in praise of their duke in the initial scene are an early indicator of the film’s budget – closer to the Berkeley than gangster tradition.
That scene might have been musical, but it also contained a bit of film language that was pure silent film. Among the singers were the four Athenian lovers – Lysander, Hermia, Demetrius and Helena. They gazed longingly or angrily glared at each other, during the song, setting up the conflict better than dialogue ever could. Quince also is visibly frustrated with his group of mechanicals – stumbling through this opening song, as they’d stumble through the lamentable comedy of Pyramus and Thisbe later in the movie.
The scenes were cut and rearranged, and while Shakespeare’s dialogue is still there – it was often given slightly modern tweaks. (Such as replacing “thou” with “you” on occasion.)
The cast of this production was largely made-up of Warner Brothers contract players with mixed results. Dick Powell and Ross Alexander were woefully miscast as Lysander and Demetrius. They were as hapless with Shakespearean dialogue as the rude mechanicals are with Athenian tragedy. When Peter Quince's wannabe acting troupe outperforms the young lovers -- you know there's a problem.
The lords and fairies fare a bit better. Ian Hunter (who would go on to play King Richard in 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood) was an adequate Theseus. Victor Jory, not apparently a contract player, did make an impressive Oberon and Anita Louise also did well as Titania.
Frank McHugh's Peter Quince and Joe E. Brown's Flute the Bellows-Mender are far more entertaining as part of the amateur dramatic society formed by the Athenian workers.
Two of the most impressive cast members inspired what would become the 1938 film The Adventures of Robin Hood, even though only one of them would star in that film.
The impetus to consider adapting Robin Hood to the screen again came from James Cagney’s performance as Bottom. Cagney’s screen presence – particularly the charm seen in later roles such as George M. Cohan in 1942’s Yankee Doodle Dandy is much on display. Ultimately, Cagney didn’t play Robin Hood – although his replacement Errol Flynn went on to become a screen classic.
Cagney embodied the 20th century -- and yet he could slip into the Shakespearean scenario in a way that so many of his co-stars could now. He handles the comedy and pathos with equal skill. Cagney's ability to be utterly modern (well, modern for that time) and also fit into the fairy tale surroundings would make him an appealing Robin Hood.
This version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream does feature the big-screen debut of 1938’s Maid Marian – Olivia de Havilland as Hermia. De Havilland’s expressiveness in her love for Lysander, her confusion and then anger over the shenanigans of the play is a highlight of the film. Her expressive eyes would have served her well in silent film, but it also points toward her stellar career to follow.
Originally, she was scheduled to be the second-understudy for Hermia in Reinhardt's 1934 Hollywood Bowl production. When the original Hermia and first understudy quit the stage production, de Havilland stepped up and impressed everyone.
She was one of two actors who transferred from the stage version.
The other actor to make the transfer from the 1934 stage version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to the 1935 film version is Mickey Rooney in the role of Puck aka Robin Goodfellow. Rooney had been a child actor since the 1920s, and he would have a long career after this production, ranging from the 16 films based around his Andy Hardy character (1937-1946) to the role of Gus in the 21st century Night at the Museum films.
The 1935 A Midsummer Night’s Dream falls relatively early in Rooney’s celebrated career – the actor had turned only 15 a few months before the film’s release. Rooney always looked younger than his years, and the Puck of this film seems even younger than the teenaged Rooney. This Puck is not only a child, he’s a wild child – an enfant sauvage. Puck is shirtless, with matted, unruly hair. Sticking out from his hair are two small horns. He is a cross between the Greek god Pan and one of Peter Pan’s lost boys.
When William Shakespeare’s Puck describes his shapeshifting trickery to a fairy, he talks about beguiling a fat and bean-fed horse by “Neighing in likeness of a filly foal.” Reinhardt and Rooney seized upon this line for their Puck. Rooney’s frequent laugh includes the neighing or braying of an animal, either the filly foal of the text or perhaps a donkey. This Puck is animalistic.
Shakespeare’s text also calls upon Puck to mislead the four Athenian lovers by imitating them. The film expands on this by having Puck constantly mockingly repeating phrases from other characters. He’s a demented child amusing himself.
Rooney’s wild and untamed Puck stands in contrast to the restrained, turban-wearing Indian changeling who is the cause of Oberon and Titania’s dissention. The fully clothed changeling represents Apollonian civilization compared to the Dionysian Puck.
However, there was one thing that constrained this wild Puck – Rooney had broken his leg tobogganing. Filming continued by hiding Rooney's leg behind foliage, wheeling him around on tricycles and having body doubles perform some of the dancing.
The 1935 version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is far from perfect. There are Hollywood actors more lost in the Shakespearean text than any traveler ever misled by Robin Goodfellow. A lof of Shakespeare’s text is cut or transformed. And yet, some performances – Rooney’s Puck among them – are striking. The balletic fairy sequences also hark back to magic found In cinema’s very beginnings.