During this cold winter and still-struggling economy, I recommend a trip down the silvery moonpath into the fairy-filled forest of Max Reinhardt’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Encyclopedia of Stage Plays into Film describes the 1935 adaptation of Shakespeare’s comedy as “an escapist Depression fantasy.” The same encyclopedia also says its “spectacle of enchantment seems artificial and contrived in retrospect.” I say that’s one of the reasons it is so magical.
In this day of computer-generated imagery, it is a joy to see the clever tricks of old Hollywood (e.g., superimposition, hidden-wire flight, rubber masks, etc.). I was stunned to see how well done was the onscreen transformation of Bottom’s head into that of an ass. The ass-head mask even has lips that move. And as for the set, an enormous forest complete with rivulets was built on a studio sound stage. Wow.
As the impish Puck, teenage Mickey Rooney’s hooting laugh is maniacal (and perhaps a bit overused). Joe E. Brown is ridiculous as Flute the actor who in the play-within-the-play plays the female Thisbe. In her film debut, Olivia de Havilland is adorable as Hermia. Anita Louise is an ethereal and tender Titania when she falls in love with equine-headed Bottom, played by James Cagney. I could go on and on because the cast has almost everyone from the Warner Bros. studio roster.
With a big budget and the ambition of directors Reinhardt and William Dieterle, it’s astounding to see what could be done seventy-five years ago in the still relatively young medium of the talkie movies.
P.S. I must mention that Felix Mendelssohn’s famous incidental music for the play was adapted by the great composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold (who I have written about here). In one of the DVD’s special features, you can see him playing the piano.