With the dawn of the Code Era, Warner Brothers, reputed to be the darkest, grittiest studio, wanted to turn over a new leaf. To prove that they could make highbrow entertainment, not just gangster films and tawdry musicals, they presented an epic film full of special effects, classical music, and Shakespeare. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is complete with an overture, an intermission, and exit music, is unlike any other early film I’ve seen. The inclusion of an overture and intermission is something one rarely sees before the 1960s, and the fanciful imagery seems like something out of an animated Disney film. However, neither in later films nor in animation will you find a film quite like this one. Now, the lights dim, the theater hushes, and the screen sparkles to life! Prepare thyself for a wondrous journey, for ere comes A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
This film tells William Shakespeare’s famous tale of four mortals, Hermia, Helena, Lysander, and Demetrius, who, wandering into the woods one summer night, have their love-lives thrown into turmoil by the meddling spirits of the forest. This film features a thoroughly star-studded cast, which includes James Cagney, Dick Powell, Olivia de Havilland, Anita Louise, Ian Hunter, Grant Mitchell, Joe E. Brown, Frank McHugh, Ross Alexander, Jean Muir, Victor Jory, and Mickey Rooney. It was quite impressive how the writers managed to stay very close to the original Shakespeare text while still remaining Code-compliant. However, while most of the actors managed to sound quite natural saying the dialogue, there was something rather comical about thoroughly American actors James Cagney and Dick Powell dramatically speaking Shakespeare’s dramatic monologues and soliloquys. However, I considered all the acting to be quite good, in spite of a few actors seeming a bit miscast.
I was particularly impressed by the wild and exuberant performance of fourteen-year-old Mickey Rooney as Puck, also known as Robin Goodfellow, King Oberon’s mischievous fairy servant. The sound of his wild, mischievous laughter was still echoing in my head long after the film ended. There was a slightly hysterical manner to his performance, but this very thing made it seem perfectly natural for him to speak the poetic dialogue. At times I could hardly understand his flowery speeches, but he made them sound engaging, nonetheless. It is interesting to note that Mickey Rooney broke his leg during the filming of this movie, although not on the set, and had to be doubled by George Breakston in many action sequences. Much of the time, he had to be filmed cruising along on a bicycle behind the bushes so that the cast on his leg wouldn’t be visible. His final epilogue at the end of the film was shot in close-up to hide the cast, as well. When he turned up to the set with a cast on, Jack Warner was reportedly so angry that he threatened to kill him and then break his other leg! However, despite this, his performance was definitely the most memorable, and my personal favorite.
James Cagney also gave a very memorable and engaging performance as Bottom, the slightly insane weaver-turned-actor who wants to play every part. There are few things as amusing to watch as James Cagney playing an actor. He always has a very charismatic personality on the screen, and, when he is playing an actor, he becomes larger than life. At the end, when he and his fellow workmen finally put on the pathetic play they’ve been rehearsing, he is perfectly outrageous. The other times I have seen him playing a thesbian, his characters at least showed some talent for acting. Bottom, however, should stick to being a weaver and stay off of the stage. It was a welcome surprise to hear James Cagney sing multiple times, since he rarely sings very much, even in his few musicals. However, I missed seeing his face for much of the film, once Puck turned him into a donkey.
Olivia de Havilland also gave an excellent performance as beautiful Hermia. Although this was released after Olivia de Havilland’s next two films, Alibi Ike and The Irish in Us, it was her film debut. She played Hermia in the Hollywood Bowl stage production of the play and was granted the role in the film because of this. She was the only actor to transfer from the stage production to the film. Her beautiful, youthful appearance suits the character very well, and she renders Shakespeare’s dialogue very well with her soft, refined voice. When Puck’s well-intentioned matchmaking goes awry, causing both of Hermia’s suitors to fall in love with her friend, Helena, she and Helena get into a dreadful fight. Helena continually insults Hermia’s size, calling her “little” and “short.” Hermia is enraged by this and threatens to scratch out Helena’s eyes, calling her a “painted maypole.” When Helena’s two suitors assure Helena that they will not let Hermia harm her, Helen responds with the famous line, “Oh, when she’s angry, she is keen and shrewd! She was a vixen when she went to school. And, though she be but little, she is fierce.” I had heard this last line multiple times, of course, but it wasn’t until I saw this film that I knew from what Shakespeare work it came. The other memorable line from this scene was when Lysander said to Hermia, “Get you gone, you dwarf! You minimus! You bead! – You acorn!” Overall, Oliva de Havilland’s performance was excellent, and I was very glad to see her character get the happy ending she deserved.
The special effects in this film were positively dazzling. For anyone who thinks that there weren’t special effects blockbusters before Star Wars, I would certainly direct them toward this film. As midnight approaches in the woods, the camera showed multiple shots of various wildlife, the night sky, and the forest floor. It was a bit spooky when two translucent arms began to rise out of the ground, until the rest of the spirit came into sight and I saw that it was little Mickey Rooney wearing horns and hairy, goat-like legs. Then, more transparent fairies rose out of the ground and began dancing up a circular ramp of light around a large tree. More and more appeared, dancing down from the sky on moonbeams and flying. Many times the fairies would go from tripping lithely over the leafy ground to flying through the air on invisible strings. Only once, when Puck was perched atop a bush, speaking to Oberon, did I spot a string suspending him. Other than that, the flying effects were all executed flawlessly. When the fairies were dancing up the ramp of light, they used double exposure not only to make them transparent, but also to make them appear small. Most of the time, when the fairies were shown, a sparkly filter was put over the lens to add to the magical atmosphere, and the trees of the forest were spray-painted orange to make them give off an eerie glow. One of the most impressive special effects was shown when Oberon ordered Puck to create a fog in the forest to keep Lysander and Demetrius from dueling. Puck obeyed, and he was shown seemingly blowing thick fog out of his mouth. I was quite astounded by this effect, and I have failed to think of how they managed to achieve it.
Oberon’s male attendants, so as not to seem too dainty, wore large bat wings instead of fairy wings, and I was very impressed by their design. When the fairies went back from whence they came as dawn approached, one fairy and one of Oberon’s attendants were left at the end, dancing a pas de deux. As they faded away into the sky, the last thing seen was her hands gently fluttering like butterfly wings. This effect was very impressive, and, as a ballerina, I greatly appreciated the dancing. The choreography was done by Bronislava Nijinska, who was the sister of the famous danseur Vaslav Nijinsky. Interestingly, this fairy had long, gauzy wings which were attached to her hand by a loop over her middle finger; however, they detached the wings for the last shot, since she was lying backwards over her partner’s shoulder, and they would have covered her face and distracted from her port-de-bras.
In general, I found this film quite entertaining, even if much of that entertainment was caused by the sheer hilarity of some of the actors’ slightly ludicrous performances. One of the funniest scenes was when the four mortals got into a terrible argument over their confused love affairs. They all talked at once, causing such absolute chaos that it seemed impossible for it to have been scripted. Unlike the other Shakespearean dialogue, this conversation was loud and unrefined, and for at least fifteen seconds, it was impossible to understand a word anyone was saying. Later, after Puck has finally set the mortals right as they slept, they awaken, thinking the night’s events were all a dream. As they rejoice at all being friends again, they begin laughing hysterically. This prompted me to remark that all the actors in the film must have gone to the Warner Brothers School for Crazy Laughing (which is, of course, a subsidiary of the Warner Brothers School for Coughing, a talent possessed by multiple actors from this studio). None, however, could rival Jams Cagney in either of these fields, for he graduated from both schools at the head of his class. Another very amusing scene occurred when the four mortals, weary from the terrible confusion caused by the fairies, laid down to sleep one by one. Puck followed along with each one, perfectly mimicking his every move and word. I found this scene utterly charming and funny, as I did all the other scenes where Puck followed and mimicked the foolish mortals.
Overall, I thought this was a very good film, and I enjoyed it. If you are an avid fan of Shakespeare, you will certainly enjoy it, for it really captured the essence of his writing and stayed very close to the source material. If you don’t know much of Shakespeare’s writing but have no real objection to it, you will doubtless find it entertaining, as I did. However, if you do not care for Shakespeare, I would not recommend it, because you probably won’t find a more Shakespearean Code film than this one. My personal favorite line was in the last scene, when Theseus said to all who had attended the royal wedding, “The iron tongue of midnight hath told twelve: Lovers, to bed; ‘tis almost fairy time. I fear we shall out-sleep the coming morn, As much as we this night have over watch’d.” This is certainly the most eloquent way I’ve ever heard to say we’re going to sleep in tomorrow because we stayed up too late! Now, to end this article, here is Puck’s final epilogue: “If we shadows have offended, Think but this, and all is mended – That you have but slumbered here While these visions did appear. And this weak and idle theme, No more yielding but a dream, Gentles, do not reprehend. If you pardon, we will mend. Else the Puck a liar call. So good night unto you all. Give me your hands if we be friends, And Robin shall restore amends.”
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