Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935)

Much of the film uses stylish matte paintings like this one.
Max Reinhardt's lavish production has so much to recommend it that it seems almost inevitable that the end result be something less than the sum of its parts. Far, far less, as it turns out. Unfortunately, even the film's inspired music and design choices can't quite save it from its own wordiness. The quagmires of verbal sludge come with the territory--the halls of IMDB are filled with poorly directed Shakespeare adaptations in which Hollywood's finest can't quite get their tongues around the dialogue. The poetry may be the best in the world, but a naturalistic portrayal of language so intrinsically unnatural is an understandably tall order. I'm assuming it also helps if the director--unlike European theater titan Max Reinhardt--actually speaks English. James Cagney later reported cast members standing around off set whispering to each other, "Somebody ought to tell him." Well, they didn't. In spite of its strong production values and star-studded cast, a couple of poor casting choices and unimpressive dialogue direction throughout weighs down an otherwise excellent film.

Highest marks certainly go to the film's artistic team. Reinhardt's ethereal vision was brought to life by art director Anton Grot (whose work in Doctor X first made me stop and take note) and cinematographer Hal Mohr (who won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography for this film as a write-in). A wide array of devices are used to create the striking visual effects that separate the reality of the forest from the magical world of fairies that is superimposed on top of it. In this case that's a literal truth--simple double exposure tricks allow the fairies to flit through the air and in the trees, and pop in and out of sight. The film uses a soft focus throughout, and combines this with an array of unusual filters to make the fairy world sparkle and shimmer.

These two dancers deliver the finest performances in the film.
Erich Wolfgang Kornhold adapted Mendelssohn's incidental music for the film's score, which adds even more to the film's class and integrity. Many of the wordier passages are sung instead of spoken, as indeed they probably were when the play was first staged. Fortunately, many of the cast members--particularly Dick Powell and James Cagney--are talented singers, so the musical adaptation of the dialogue works well. Even more impressive are the expressionistic ballet sequences that accompany the score. The depiction of the fairies' exit from the forest, in which the dancer's waving hands become the flapping wings of the fairies fluttering away into darkness, is easily my favorite moment in the film.

This was the film debut of Olivia de Havilland.
If Reinhardt is credited with only one contribution to Hollywood filmmaking, surely it must be his discovery of eighteen-year-old Olivia de Havilland in her college production of Midsummer. He snatched her up for his extravagant stage production of the play at the Hollywood  Bowl in 1934, which was the basis for this film version a year later. She is fresh and young and lovely, and her breezy portrayal of Hermia is enough to make you forget that it is actually Helena that is usually considered the plum role. Another inspired casting choice is James Cagney as Bottom the Weaver. Cagney was never in a Shakespeare play before or since, but his commanding screen presence and comedic timing are flawless. Comedian Joe E. Brown, then at the peak of his rather extraordinary popularity, gives a stellar performance opposite Cagney as Flute, the Bellows-Mender.

James Cagney and Joe E. Brown make an unlikely yet highly entertaining couple.

Other performances in the film are much less impressive. For instance, I know for a fact that Dick Powell can actually act, and does not look like a Conrad Veidt-inspired Botox victim. If Dream were all I had to go on, however, that would probably be the extent of my estimation of him. He said himself he felt he was miscast as Lysander, and went through filming feeling a little lost, and so he wears the same goofy grin from start to finish. The only saving grace of his performance is that he almost never appears without Olivia de Havilland opposite him, so there's never much reason to actually look at him on screen.

Alas, Dick Powell is not the worst casting choice in the film. I never thought I would say this, but I find myself wishing that George Lucas could oversee this movie's next DVD release. Surely it would occur to him, as it did me, that the only logical approach would be to edit out the lead performer and replace him with a CGI creation. Anything ILM could come up with would have to be better than fourteen-year-old Mickey Rooney as Puck. He shrieks and cackles his way through his lines without ever delivering a single line that is not actually painful to hear. As if that weren't enough, he fills all his remaining screen time with utterly unnecessary howling, hooting, and laughter. I'm sure it was meant to be "impish," but it comes across only as "obnoxious." I've never understood Rooney's popularity and have more than once wanted to find a way to remove him from some of his films (Girl Crazy, Breakfast at Tiffany's), but this is probably the worst.

Unfortunately, Dream demands a strong ensemble cast, and a few good performances won't outweigh the remaining mediocrity, even aside from the train wrecks of Powell and Rooney. The remaining cast all look well enough for the parts, but deliver their lines with ludicrously exaggerated intonations that mask any real emotion and leave the speakers looking only ridiculous. Even de Havilland is sometimes guilty of this, although she proves elsewhere in the film that she does possess the subtlety necessary to do the thing properly. This is not your standard Shakespearean bombast. Rather than emphasizing the elegance in the words at the expense of their sense, everyone in Dream favors emotion, and the words are often lost in inappropriate squeals and laughter.

Artistically, the film is stunning, and the use of ballet sequences and composite images makes it daring and innovative as well. Unfortunately, the lackluster performances by most of the cast on top of Mickey Rooney's incessant cackling makes it all but unwatchable in spite of its beauties.

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