- The Washington Times - Friday, September 19, 2003

Two movie versions of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” were added to the inventory of Shakespearean films in recent years, toward the end of the resurgence inspired by Kenneth Branagh’s splendid “Henry V” in 1989. Although not without scattered charms, the latest renderings of Shakespeare’s comedy are unlikely to supplant the cherished, sumptuous 1935 classic made at Warner Bros. by the great theatrical producer-director Max Reinhardt.

If Ken Ludwig’s new comedy, “Shakespeare in Hollywood,” at Arena Stage through Oct. 19, proves a gladdening brainstorm, the reputation of the Warners-Reinhardt film (available in an impeccable home video edition from MGM/UA) may be reconfirmed and enlarged for a new generation of theatergoers and movie buffs.

Max Reinhardt (nee Goldmann) was in his early 60s when the movie was made. He had been an enormously successful and influential man of the theater since the start of the century. Several of the assistants and performers trained by him made a substanial impact on Hollywood in the 1920s and 1930s: Ernst Lubitsch, F.W. Murnau, Paul Leni, William Dieterle (who became the co-director on “Midsummer”), Emil Jannings, Marlene Dietrich, Louise Rainer, Conrad Veidt.

After the advent of the Nazi regime, Reinhardt was forced into exile and relinquished control over the famous theaters he had managed in Berlin and Vienna. However, international tours and guest directing stints were a standard part of the Reinhardt career, so he was dispossessed but not totally immobilized. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was one of his frequently revived productions; Reinhardt had first staged it at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin in 1905. A 1934 revival made an enormous impact on the movie community when presented at the Hollywood Bowl. Hal Wallis, production chief at Warners, was one the bedazzled spectators.

“He had turned the Hollywood Bowl into an enchanted vale,” Wallis recalled, “with illuminated trees, shimmering cobwebs and torchlight processions … a gossamer world untouched by reality. Pure cinema. … I believed it would transfer excitingly to the screen. … I think Jack Warner felt as though a brick had fallen on his head when I announced my intention, but with great foresight he quickly approved the project.”

The enchanted illusions that attracted Wallis were faithfully reproduced in the movie version. Hollywood’s first impressive and accomplished Shakespearean feature, “Midsummer” was the most beguiling fantasy production of the 1930s until “The Wizard of Oz” appeared in 1939.

The visual design of “Midsummer” has influenced the fantasy genre in movies right down to the present. For example, the cantina sequence in “Star Wars” was anticipated by the goblin combo that pops into the fairyland ruled by Victor Jory’s Oberon and Anita Louise’s Titania. The forest settings of “The Lord of the Rings” reflect both the gossamer and sinister atmospheres favored by Reinhardt’s scenic collaborators, notably art director Anton Grot.

Warners was satisfied with “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” as a succes d’estime. According to Hal Wallis, “It didn’t make records at the box office, but it was reasonably successful and earned us unlimited prestige.” Anticipated future collaborations with Reinhardt, who died in Hollywood in 1943, never materialized.

The movie won Academy Awards for cinematography and film editing and probably deserved others for art direction and costuming, which still weren’t Oscar categories in 1935. Supporting performances weren’t recognized by the Oscars until a year later. A year earlier, and statuettes might easily have gone to James Cagney as Nick Bottom the weaver and Joe E. Brown as Francis Flute the bellows mender. They remain a sublime comic match as Pyramus and Thisbe in the play’s concluding playlet.

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was also nominated as best motion picture (and would have made a more deserving winner than “The Mutiny on the Bounty”). Jack Warner was sufficiently riled by the failure of cinematographer Hal Mohr to be nominated during the preliminaries that he engineered a successful write-in campaign, the only one of its kind in Oscar history. The write-in option was eliminated two years later.

Olivia de Havilland makes her film debut as Hermia, playing opposite Dick Powell as the fickle Lysander. Still in her teens when cast, Miss de Havilland had been recommended to the Reinhardt apparatus on the strength of a high school performance as Puck.

Miss de Havilland is one of three rapturously beautiful women in the cast. Anita Louise is such an exquisite camera subject as Titania that she makes it very difficult on all subsequent choices, including Michelle Pfeiffer in the 1999 remake. Nini Theilade, the leading dancer in the fairy corps de ballet, seems to belong to a genuinely imaginary realm. She’s also the centerpiece of the movie’s most ambiguous and erotic interlude, a pas de deux that depicts her submission to a dark emissary of Oberon. They’re destined to vanish into an inky backdrop as Miss Theilade’s graceful arms and hands continue to writhe in some kind of ecstatic recessional.

Mickey Rooney’s Puck used to be a sore point with me. His high-pitched whinnies and cackles are still a little hard on my nerves, but he’s also irresistibly funny in certain moments, particularly when mimicking Dick Powell while playing invisibility tricks on poor Lysander.

The Warners stock company proved equal to the challenge of Shakespearean clowning. Much of the pleasure associated with repeated viewings stems from the thought of Hugh Herbert as a giggly Snout, Frank McHugh as an exasperated Peter Quince, Joe E. Brown as a beaming Flute, and James Cagney as an alternately explosive and reflective Bottom. One envies actors who now have the privilege of impersonating these Warners stalwarts in their once-in-a-lifetime movie encounter with William Shakespeare.

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