Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.
Strap in, because this one is going to hurt a little. I consider myself a fan of Shakespeare in the sense that I’ve read all of his plays and a good chunk (possibly all) of his poetry. Hell, I majored in English, so appreciating the man’s work is sort of a requirement. That said, it figures that I would be interested in the 1935 version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a play I had to read for multiple classes. This is an interesting production for a couple of reasons. It’s Shakespeare, which means that it’s going to be a prestige production in 1935. It’s also going to feature a lot of key players from the era, the sort of actors not typically associated with the Bard, which makes it doubly interesting.
Unfortunately, it’s really hard to watch. It’s easy to think that Shakespeare wouldn’t be any more or less difficult than any other type of stage work, but half an hour of this production will demonstrate the folly of that position. None of these actors are trained in this sort of work, and that is rapidly evident, especially when the fact that a large percentage of the people on screen were often involved in light comedy and musicals. Sure, A Midsummer Night’s Dream isn’t one of Shakespeare’s most serious works, but that doesn’t change the fact that people who aren’t really trained to do the work are going to be obviously untrained to do the work on camera.
The story is an interweaving of romances. Hermia (Olivia de Havilland) is in love with Lysander (Dick Powell), who loves her in return. Sadly for the couple, Hermia’s father (Grant Mitchell) wants his daughter to marry Demetrius (Ross Alexander), who is also in love with her. Demetrius is pursued by Helena (Jean Muir). Unwilling to marry the man her father has chosen, Hermia faces the choice of either life in a nunnery or death, but King Theseus (Ian Hunter) defers her choice for the next day. The couples, for whatever reason, wander off into the woods.
Meanwhile, there is trouble in the fairy realm. Queen Titania (Anita Louise) has recently charmed a young boy. Her husband, King Oberon (Victor Jory), wants the boy to act as his knight, but Titania won’t give him up. Wanting revenge for this affront, Oberon tells his servant Puck (a 15-year-old Mickey Rooney) to find a flower that will cause Titania to fall in love with the first thing she sees when she wakes up. Oberon also sees Helena pining for Demetrius and tells Puck to the same potion on his eyes to make Helena happy. Puck, because the instructions weren’t clear, instead infects Lysander, who instantly falls in love with Helena when he wakes up, but of course she loves Demetrius.
While all of this is going on, a group of locals from the town are preparing a play to celebrate the impending marriage of Theseus to Hippolyta (Verree Teasdale). They also wander into the forest, where Puck decides to put the head of a donkey on one of the players, Bottom the Weaver (James Cagney), then arranges for the donkey-headed man to be the first thing Titania sees when she wakes up. This is all the first half of the film. The second half is all about putting the various lovers with their correct partners and getting Titania unbewitched and Bottom back to normal. The film closes with the play by the inept craftsmen for the pleasure of the king and his court.
The most noticeable feature of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is that everyone involved is keenly aware that he or she is involved in a production of Shakespeare. What this means is that pretty much everyone involved has decided that this means he or she needs to ACT in every moment. While there are plenty of guilty parties, three jump out in particular. First is Dick Powell who was a fine actor in musical comedies but doesn’t belong here at all. Second, sad to say, is Cagney. I like Cagney, and since he’s playing a purely comic character, it’s perhaps a bit more forgivable, but he plays Bottom as if he’s still in The Public Enemy. Third, and most annoying, is Mickey Rooney. Rooney adopted an insane giggle for Puck that he can’t resist using at every opportunity. Watch this and it won’t be five minutes before you wish to reach through the screen and pummel the little shit.
I can’t fault the production for a second, though. It’s glittery and dreamy in a lot of the right ways. Sure, there are places where it simply takes too long to get to where it’s going, and a lot of the singing is unnecessary and much of the dancing is “cute” in the sense that it’s not very good. But Oberon’s costume in particular would make any sequin-obsessed figure skater proud. It’s difficult to complain about the overall value of what’s shown on the screen.
That, and there are some moments that work really well. Cagney, guilty of stuffing a tough guy persona into a comic role, shines (along with Joe E. Brown) at the end in the rendition of Pyramus and Thisbe, which is actually pretty funny. The donkey head he wears through much of the middle of the film is a pretty good effect for 1935 as well. It has its moments.
But those moments aren’t nearly enough. This drags on forever, so that by the time we’re ready to see Pyramus and Thisbe—the best moment in the entire production—we’ve long been ready for the film to already be over. Putting non-Shakespearean actors into Shakespeare can work. Branagh demonstrated this with Hamlet, putting people like Billy Crystal, Jack Lemmon, and Robin Williams into effective roles. The difference is that Branagh did this in small roles where these actors could be effective without dominating the production. That hasn’t been done here, and it shows.
Why to watch A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Pyramus and Thisbe is fun.
Why not to watch: The annoyance levels are stratospheric.