It’s 1935.Hal Wallis, second in command at Warner Brothers, joins the Hollywood elite at the first night of the acclaimed production of Shakespeare’s  A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM  at the Hollywood Bowl.

The studio of Little Caesar and Busby Berkeley are about to be the first studio to film a Shakespeare play since Fairbanks and Pickford’s Taming Of The Shrew in 1929.


Paulette Goddard,Charlie Chaplin at Hollywood Bowl

Paulette Goddard,Charlie Chaplin at Hollywood Bowl

“Prestige” was the name of the game. If Columbia could bring opera to the screen (Grace Moore in One Night Of Love) and MGM could do Charles Dickens,why couldn’t Warner Brothers spread their wings. Whether anyone gave any thought to audience reaction to Shakespeare’s rhyming couplets or Mendelssohn’s classical music is anyone’s guess.
Still, for insurance, they cast two of their biggest stars, James Cagney and Dick Powell.

The director of the spectacular stage production was German émigré Max Reinhardt who was hired to direct the film. With no film experience and little English,William Dieterle  ( who had worked with Reinhardt in Germany) was assigned to co-direct.

Someone else who had worked with Reinhardt was composer Erich Korngold. Warners,at Reinhardt’s request, contracted Korngold to arrange Felix Mendelssohn’s music score…. and that was the start of a great association between the studio and Korngold – his next assignment was Captain Blood.

Ross Alexander,Jean Muir,Olivia De Havilland,Dick Powell

Ross Alexander,Jean Muir,Olivia De Havilland,Dick Powell

Filmed entirely on huge sound stages,the film’s costs exceeded $1million and it ended up a commercial failure.
To some, it was over produced,over blown and over acted. It was too highbrow for the average filmgoer and too lowbrow for the sophisticates. It ran 132 minutes when first released,with a 10 minute intermission. Truncated to 117 minutes, exhibitors were encouraged to stress the star value,romance and comedy – and forget about the highbrow angle!

Seeing it almost 80 years later, my reaction is to congratulate Warners on a grand gesture which did drip with prestige,but it  was far too long. It is sometimes difficult to understand the dialogue. But there is so much to enjoy as we are taken, in brilliant black and white, (color would have been all wrong for it) to the magical forest which is ruled by Oberon (Victor Jory) and Titania (Anita Louise).


Victor Jory,Anita Louise

Victor Jory,Anita Louise

The plot is basically a comedy of errors,romance and magic. The Duke of Athens,Theseus (Ian Hunter) has conquered the Amazons and taken their queen,Hippolyta (Verree Teasdale) to be his bride. Lysander (Dick Powell) and Demetrius (Ross Alexander) are two of the duke’s soldiers,both in love with Hermia (Olivia de Havilland).While Helena (Jean Muir) pines for Demetrius.

Verree Teasdale, Ian Hunter,Dick Powell,Olivia de Havilland

Verree Teasdale, Ian Hunter,Dick Powell,Olivia de Havilland

The Duke offers a handsome reward to any of his subjects who can provide the best entertainment at his wedding celebration. Quince (Frank McHugh) leads an amateur group of would-be thespians which includes Bottom (James Cagney,) Snout (Hugh Herbert) and Flute (Joe E Brown).

James Cagney,Joe E Brown

James Cagney,Joe E Brown

The lovers and the actimg group end up in the magic forest where Puck (Mickey Rooney) weaves magic and bemoans,”Oh, what fools these mortals be.” Spells are cast and the four young people fall in and out of love.
The entire cast is good. Joe E.Brown steals every scene he is in. Cagney is a delight as the actor who would play every part if he could. Victor Jory,garbed in black, makes his entrance with the famous line, “Ill met by moonlight,proud Titania.”

Dick Powell has another famous line, “Hermia,the course of true love never did run smooth.”
And a great start to a long career for Olivia De Havilland who had played Hermia at the Hollywood Bowl. Poor Mickey Rooney expends a tremendous amount of energy and shines throughout,but badly needed to be told that less is more. (He also had been in the Hollywood Bowl production).

There is so much to admire in the film.It looks fantastic and of course the music is wonderful.

One can imagine MGM’s reaction – if Warners can do Shakespeare, so can we! – but I fear Romeo and Juliet didn’t do any better with audiences.







4 responses »

  1. Hollywood studios, the big ones anyway, needed to keep their more artistic talent happy so every now and then a little gem of culture would be produced. Along with such productions as; King Vidor’s ‘The Wind’ and Von Stronheim’s ‘Greed,’ came ‘The Midsummer’s Night’s Dream.’ Shakespeare was always going to be a hard sell to the mid-west, in fact to almost everybody in America, but the film looks beautiful and the acting is good too. Cagney, and Joe E Brown in particular. Well done Warner Bros, profit isn’t everything.

  2. It’s a while since I saw this, but I do remember that it all looks beautiful and the menials in particular are great, though it’s a pity that donkey’s head hides Cagney’s face so completely. Must agree with you that it’s a bit too long overall and Mickey Rooney’s performance gets rather grating (so does Dick Powell’s to my mind), but a spectacular production nonetheless.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s