Wednesday, July 01, 2020

"A Midsummer Night's Dream" (1935) -- Initial Thoughts

I have come to realize that I actually don't like A Midsummer Night's Dream very much.  The story and characters don't grab me, and I find several characters and much of the story preposterous, even grating.  However!  This filmed version is a fascinating watch, worth it for the special effects and the luminous Olivia de Havilland alone.

Because this is supposed to be High Art, or Important Theatre, or whatever, we have an Overture, and an Intermission.  They used Felix Mendelssohn's Overture and Incidental Music for A Midsummer Night's Dream, but with additional music by Erich Wolfgang Korngold (who wrote such wonderful scores as The Adventures of Robin Hood [1938]).

The opening credits alert us that this is going to be a magical, effects-laden film.  I have no idea how they did this swooshy effect to get the credits to swirl into being.  I tried to capture it with a gif:

It's so cool.  (I'm terrible at making gifs, btw -- I just film a little snippet with my phone and then use it to make the gif.  At least it gives you an idea of what I'm talking about.)

The costumes department must have come to blows over what era this is supposed to take place in, and settled the question by including ALL the eras.  We've got Elizabethan costumes.

We've got Ancient Roman costumes.

We've got medieval peasant costumes.  Oh well.  This is supposed to be a fantasy, so why not mix all the time periods together when it comes to clothes?  Certainly saves a lot of money on making everything match up -- just use whatever the wardrobe department already has and it'll be fine!  Save some money for the special effects!

The plot, in case you aren't aware, is this: Theseus (Ian Hunter) the Duke of Athens and Hippolyta (Verree Teasdale) the Queen of the Amazons are going to get married.  How should they celebrate their nuptials but by watching a play enacted by commoners with zero acting experience or talent?  Totally makes sense, right?

One plot is not enough for Shakespeare right now, so we've also got a young woman named Hermia (Olivia de Havilland) who loves and is beloved by a guy named Lysander (Dick Powell).  That's great, but Hermia's dad wants her to marry this other guy, Demetrius (Ross Alexander).  Hermia doesn't like Demetrius at all, especially because her friend Helena (Jean Muir) loves him.  So Hermia refuses to marry Demetrius, and her dad takes her to see Theseus and Hippolyta about it, to see if he can just have this wretched daughter killed for being so disagreeable.

As it turns out, two plots is not enough for Shakespeare today either, so we've also got King Oberon (Victor Jory) and Queen Titania (Anita Louise) battling each other over this random little kid Titania has adopted, but Oberon wants as his servant.

Now, mix those all together so that the fairies use magic to mess with the humans and each other, and everyone except Theseus and Hippolyta (who wisely remain in Athens and don't go wandering around any enchanted forests) are in for a very bad and confusing few days.  Which somehow is supposed to be funny.

Weirdly enough, Victor Jory makes a really cool King Oberon.  They give him this creepy crown, they superimpose spangly glimmers over all his shots, and he has such an unusual face anyway that it just works.

Anita Louise is a mystifyingly beautiful Queen Titania. She's ethereal without being twee, which is a hard line to walk.  I was surprised by how well I liked her.  Honestly most of my favorite parts of this film involved the fairies.

Oberon has these demonic bat-like fairies that follow him around, which get really creepy.

Titania has gauzy, glittery fairies that accompany her.  Their costumes are juuuuuuust this side of scandalous, but they're very pretty.  Unfortunately, whenever they appear, they tend to dance around for several minutes on end while the whole story stutters to a stop, which I could definitely have done without.  If you're a fan of glittery fairies dancing, though, you'll dig those parts.  These dances sometimes involved more very good special effects:

I mean, this movie is almost a hundred years old, and that's some pretty spectacular stuff even now.  Must've wowed the socks off audiences in its initial run.

Rounding out the fairies, we have Puck (Mickey Rooney).  Puck is always played exactly the same way in every single production of this story I've ever seen (granted, I've only seen 3, two live and this filmed version).  He's mischievous and squeaky and capers a lot and makes weird noises and is generally irksome.  Just once, I'd love to see him played as bored with the whole plot and totally done with Oberon's crap.  A sarcastic, annoyed Puck would be so amazing, I think.  As opposed to the rampant overacting every director seems to expect and encourage.

Speaking of overacting, oh my word.  James Cagney, what were you ON?  He never actually quite chewed on any scenery as Bottom, not even when he had a donkey head, but he might as well have.

I'm also not sure if he was supposed to break the fourth wall here and look directly at us, or if it was kind of accidental, or what, but it cracked me up.

The donkey head thing was another excellent effect, though:

Once Puck gave him that donkey head, I started to really like Bottom.  Cagney toned everything down and was really expressive and pitiable.  Very much liked him from then on.

His utter confusion over Titania falling madly in love with him was quite charming.

Of course, once Oberon gets what he wants, he reverses almost all the love charms.  Titania loves him again.

Lysander and Hermia get to get married after all.

Demetrius I guess gets to stay under a love spell forever so that Helena will be happy, and I don't know why Helena is totally cool with this sort of pretendy love, but I don't actually like either of them anyway, so whatever.

Theseus and Hippolyta have lots of fun laughing at the commonors' play-acting, which we have to sit through, and which I am just never amused by.  But it ends eventually.


Olivia de Havilland was just 19 years old in this film, and she's wonderful to watch.  Sweet, happy, unhappy, confused, angry, fearful -- she gets the best range of emotions to run through of anyone in the film, and she nails all of them.  Which is why I decided to review this for the Olivia de Havilland Blogathon hosted by Charity at The Sacred in the Secular in honor of Ms. de Havilland's 104th birthday today!

Happy birthday, Ms. de Havilland!  It's so wonderful that we still have you with us.

Check out the blogathon for the list of other blog posts in her honor!


  1. This looks pretty, even if the costumes are all over the place!

    Thanks for participating! :)

    1. Charity, it's definitely a feast for the eyes! Ignore the historicity of the costumes and just be there for the glitz.

      You're welcome! So glad you hosted this :-)

  2. Replies
    1. Caftan Woman, wouldn't it be a refreshing change? :-D

  3. This looks bizarre! The only way that I'm familiar with A Midsummer Night's Dream is the 1999 version. I go back and forth on loving it and just feeling "meh" about it (funny enough, that's how I am with all Shakespeare!). But, there are some great parts that I think you might like. I've wanted to see this version for awhile, because of Olivia de Havilland! The special effects on old movies are so fun. This still looks strange, but I think I'm willing to try.

    1. MC, it is very odd. I've not seen the 1999 version, though I might sometime. I did like this one enough to keep it in my collection, as it's very pretty and I suspect my kids will like it when they're a little older.

  4. To be completely frank, Puck drives me UP THE WALL in this but besides that it's, ahem, it feels like literal dream. :)

    I read somewhere that the cast was absolutely melting on the set between all the lights and the weight of their costumes, but besides that I feel like the actors must have had a complete riot with their parts, especially Dick Powell and Ross Alexander! As you mentioned, the energy James Cagney put into his role in here is perfectly out of this world. I'm rather embarrassed to admit it, but my next younger sister and I always nearly die laughing at the final wacky play scene. I think partly it's because we've seen James Cagney have so many miserable endings that it's rather fun to just seeing him being outrageous. :)

    Also, I can never ever get over the special effects! The sparkles always make me feel like I've stepped into a southern field full of fireflies on a summer night, and it's pure happiness. :)

    1. Eowyn, I think that Mickey Rooney is an acquired taste. A taste that I have not fully acquired...

      Oh, I can believe that about the costumes and lighting! Except the fairies, some of them were probably cold. But yes, Dick Powell is clearly having ALL the fun he can, and many others as well.

      The final play is probably the best rendition of that wacky play that I've seen, and if I was in juuuuust the right mood, I would probably find it really silly and funny :-)

      Those effects were spectacular! I kind of wanted to drape myself in tinsel and swoop around for a while after watching, hee.

  5. I’ve seen this version several times and love it with the exception of Puck. Mickeys portrayal makes me want to drown him in the pond where Bottom sees his image. Speaking of Bottom, James Cagney is my favorite actor in the movie-who cares what he was on.
    Of course, as everyone has said in reviews, it’s the scenery that steals the show.

    1. I'm glad I'm not the only non-fan of Puck in this, heh.

      I really like Cagney in many things, and I'm glad he does settle down eventually here :-)


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