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.
“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.
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).
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.
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).
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.