Revisiting Reinhardt’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream”

MND poster

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM / Ian Hunter (Theseus); Verree Teasdale (Hippolyta); Hobart Cavanaugh (Philostrate); Dick Powell (Lysander); Ross Alexander (Demetrius); Olivia de Havilland (Hermia); Jean Muir (Helena); Grant Mitchell (Egeus); Frank McHugh (Quince); Dewey Robinson (Snug); James Cagney (Bottom); Joe E. Brown (Flute); Hugh Herbert (Snout); Otis Harlan (Starveling); Victor Jory (Oberon); Anita Louise (Titania); Mickey Rooney (Puck); Billy Barty (Mustard Seed); Nini Theilade (prima ballerina); Ben Bone (Set designer); Bronislava Nijinska (Choreographer); Erich Korngold (Music director); Max Reinhardt, William Dieterle (Directors) / Warner Entertainment DVD or Blu-Ray

Both in 1935 and today, Max Reinhardt’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream has received mixed reviews—many of them bad. Top on the critics’ hit list were singing pretty boy Dick Powell as Lysander and 14-year-old Mickey Rooney as Puck, although 16-year-old Olivia de Havilland in this, her first movie, also came under criticism. The serious theater critics—the Shakespearians—complained that Warner Brothers didn’t take the movie seriously enough to cast real trained actors in the roles, while the “lowbrow” critics thought it too long, too wordy and pretentious.

The movie didn’t do well at the box office at all. Several theaters in Warner’s network canceled the film even before it played because they believed no one would come to see such an “artsy” movie, even with James Cagney and Joe E. Brown, the most popular film comedian of that time, in leading roles.

Watching it again today, we can see these faults as well, but we have to realize that all of the cast members were Reinhardt’s personal choices, and he personally worked with them on both their delivery of lines and physical gestures (through co-director William Dieterle, since Reinhardt spoke no English at the time). So why did he do it?

The answer is that he wanted it to be a comedy that people would enjoy and laugh at as they did in Shakespeare’s own time. And let’s face it, if you just view the movie as is and take everything at face value, it is very funny. The presence of such obviously trained actors as Ian Hunter, Hobart Cavanaugh and Victor Jory shows that Reinhardt fully understood what he was doing. If you read the play, it’s obvious that Puck, or “Robin Goodfellow,” is a hyperactive, over-zealous pain in the butt, which is exactly how Rooney played the character. More importantly, the acting style of the cast reflects contemporary stage and vaudeville styles of the time.

And Shakespeare himself clearly did not have “trained Shakespearean actors” for his own productions. As much as we can glean from old records, the actors of his time could scarcely be called “trained” at all. Most of them were comics who played in traveling farces for the populace. It was probably much harder for him to find serious actors who could do justice to his dramatic roles than comedians who could play in his farces.

Reinhardt must also have viewed Lysander as a bit of a “twit,” as the British say, because Dick Powell, after two days’ shooting, realized he was all wrong for the role and begged to be replaced. Reinhardt would have none of it. He wanted to contrast the more reserved Demetrius (Ross Alexander) with the shallow fool who Hermia had fallen in love with. One scene in the film tells you everything you need to know about Reinhardt’s approach. In the forest, when Lysander has been enchanted with a magic flower to fall in love with Helena, all four Athenians start talking and arguing at the same time. The lines are lost—you can’t really make out a word—but the effect is hysterically funny. Although some of the female dancers, as a corps, aren’t in synch during their group scenes (particularly the running-up-the-clouds sequence), most of Bronislava Nijinska’s choreography works pretty well…but she clearly wasn’t as great as her brother.

The movie’s style, ironically, has never been criticized except for those who wished it had been filmed in color. There are several publicity photos in color (see below) to give an idea of how the film might have looked that way. The special effects, such as fairies emerging from a bed of fog to run up a string of clouds into the sky, or the nocturne scene in which Oberon spreads his cape to create a fantastic effect across the entire screen while ballerina Nini Theilade does some magnificent dancing, are still effective to this day. And for classical buffs, a bit of trivia: the horn player in the Nocturne is Alfred Brain, the brother of Aubrey Brain and uncle to Dennis Brain. Although he was normally contracted by M-G-M to play film music, Reinhardt insisted on using the full Los Angeles Philharmonic in the picture, thus Alf got to play the nocturne.

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midsummer-night-s-dream-cagneyIf you can accept some of the eccentricities of Reinhardt’s direction of his characters, the movie still holds up very well today. I personally find it much funnier (especially the play-within-the-play of the laborers doing the old Ovid tragedy Pyramus and Thisbe as a real botch job) than the later Hollywood remake, and the film moves at an excellent pace. The DVD uses the fully restored version of the film, with an “Overture” and “Epilogue” in which music plays as patrons entered and left the theater as well as fully restored scenes that weren’t shown on television until the late 1990s on TBS. Also included as extra features on the DVD release are introductions to the film by key members of the cast, a “studio cafeteria” scene with Joe E. Brown, the original trailer for the film, a Vitaphone short showing Reinhardt on the set and Erich Korngold at the piano arranging the music, and an absolutely awful 1934 short titled Shake It, Mr. Shakespeare in which actors, singers and dancers attempt to bring the Bard up-to-date by doing shimmys and eccentric dances and singing swing tunes. All in all, an interesting film that was indeed ground-breaking in its day.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter or Facebook @Artmusiclounge

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