I’m no expert on Shakespeare, but I’ve always found his play A Midsummer Night’s Dream to be fun, whimsical and wonderfully weird. This film, directed by Max Reinhardt, is just that and incorporates a ton of simple, elegant early movie magic.
Theseus (Ian Hunter) is about to marry Hypolita, Queen of the Amazons (Verree Teasdale) and all ofAthenswill celebrate. A band of performers are preparing do a play at the ceremony. There is also a love triangle/square going on. Both Lysander (Dick Powell) and Demetrius (Ross Alexander) are in love with Hermia (Olivia de Havilland), but she only loves Lysander, who does not have her father’s approval. Then there is Helena (Jean Muir) who loves Demetrius but isn’t getting any love in return. The four mismatched lovers take a rendezvous in the forest and the band of performers go there to practice. When a fight between Oberon (Victor Jory) and Titania (Anita Louise),the King and Queen of the fairies, breaks out, Oberon enlists the energetic little goblin, Puck (Mickey Rooney) on a few errands. But Puck makes a mistake and starts a bit of mischief, including turning the lead in the performers play, Bottom (James Cagney) into a donkey.
For those unfamiliar with the play, that sounds like a bunch of nonsense. That is a fine assessment for a first timer, but don’t turn that into a negative. The best thing to do with this play, on screen or on stage, is just relax and enjoy it. There are some philosophical and intelligent elements to analyze, but on a first go around it is best just to have fun. That is mostly what the film does.
With the film’s wonderful use of simple visual movie magic, it is easy to have fun and enjoy. Before anything mythical happens, we are shown beautiful, natural shots of this forest. Once the fog sets in, female figures start dancing in it and soon they are swirling up around a tree and into the starry sky. So many shots in this film have a wonderful twinkling element that just shines and sparkles at you. Cagney’s donkey head is more creepy than whimsical, but still quite a feat making the mouth move. Between the beautiful, elaborate costumes and the intelligently constructed set design this has to be the best visual piece of film I have encountered from the 1930’s.
My favorite from this long list of familiar names and odd characters had to be Mickey Rooney’s Puck. He had to have been a late bloomer the way he looks no more than ten at age fourteen in this film, but it works out perfectly for him here. From the moment he just becomes a person from the leaves on the ground, I was intrigued. Then he became this energetic, sometimes bouncy creature full mischief, mimicking and creepy laughs. I loved it.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream may be one of the oddest and most artful films I have seen from the 1930’s. That should be taken as both praise and warning. If you do not care for Shakespeare or artsy-fartsy sparklies, stay away. But for those who do (and oh my goodness, do I do!), this film is awesome. You will enjoy the simple and beautiful movie magic that can only be this wonderful in black and white.
“I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream.”