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A Midsummer Night's Dream

(American, 1935, 117 minutes, b&w, 16 mm)
Directed by William Dieterle and Max Reinhardt

James Cagney . . . . . . . . . . Bottom
Joe E. Brown . . . . . . . . . . Flute
Dick Powell . . . . . . . . . . Lysander
Mickey Rooney . . . . . . . . . . Puck
Olivia De Havilland . . . . . . . . . . Hermia

The following film notes were prepared for the New York State Writers Institute by Kevin Jack Hagopian, Senior Lecturer in Media Studies at Pennsylvania State University:

It was to be Warner Brothers’ entry into prestige filmmaking, a bid for the carriage trade by a studio whose trademarks were the staccato burp of the gangster tommy gun and the clatter of the newsman’s city room. But there was no denying the noisy hoi polloi that was Warner Brothers in 1935. What emerged from its sound stages was a Mulligan’s Stew of performance styles that showed off the vitality of American immigrant and ethnic culture at its most exuberant.

Jack Warner’s decision to take a flyer in high art would prove financially disastrous; the film lost heavily at the box office. But that’s not what A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM was all about. The Warner family had fled Krasnashiltz, then in Czarist Russia, in 1883, to escape the murderous anti-Semitism of the Cossack pogroms. Jack and three of his brothers had clawed their way to the top of the fledgling motion picture industry by the late 1920s, and now, Jack was eager to cement his new status as an American aristocrat. Warner had seen Max Reinhardt’s ‘epic theater’ production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Hollywood Bowl, and though he’d understood little of it and enjoyed even less, the appeal of Shakespeare to a boy from a shtetl family was irresistible. The colonnaded Greek-revival house in Beverly Hills, the exclusive private schools for his kids, the polo matches, the charity soirees, even the Ronald Colman mustache—A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM was to be the capstone in a campaign to signal high society that Jack Warner had arrived. This 1.5 million dollar production would seal Jack Warner’s miraculous transformation from the 12th son of a Russian Jewish refugee to English gentility, a make over possible only in Hollywood. Warner determined to make A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM tonier than anything his lot had ever produced.

Fortunately for Warner’s, the roster of A list production talent had recently expanded a hundredfold. Nazism counted among its exiles Max Reinhardt himself, a dramatic impresario of such extraordinary international reputation that even Jack Warner had heard of him. In order to help Reinhardt negotiate the utterly unfamiliar waters of film, Warner’s added William Dieterle as a co-director. Dieterle was a veteran of the German Expressionist cinema of the 1920s, and was already building a strong filmography in America. Erich Wolfgang Korngold, a brilliant modern opera composer from Vienna, was hired to do his very first film score, based on Felix Mendelssohn’s 1843 music for the play. The cast was a mixture of Ellis Island and Castle Garden, for, in collecting his famous stock company, Warner had unconsciously created a brilliant tapestry of American urban types, a miniature of the immigrant and working class culture he was so inescapably a part of. There was Jimmy Cagney as “Bottom,” from Ireland via Manhattan’s tough Yorkville neighborhood, where he grew up speaking fluent Yiddish and playing exquisite drag roles in settlement house revues. There was Joe E. Brown as “Flute,” an already well-cured ham from the vaudeville and burlesque boards, a Midwesterner who’d first seen the country from a circus train and the outfield of a barnstorming semi-pro baseball team. From Brooklyn by way of Hollywood came 15 year-old Mickey Rooney to play “Puck,” a trouper who’d been on stage and screen since the age of 15 months. Dick Powell’s “Lysander” was a boy singer from Mountain View, Arkansas. Victor Jory’s “Oberon” came all the way from Gold Rush-era Dawson City, Alaska, and the strenuous life of a Coast Guardsman and amateur boxer. As “Hermia,” there was even bewildered Olivia DeHavilland, girlish scion of the British merchant gentry, born in Tokyo and brought to California at age three.

No one knew exactly what Jack Warner had in mind with this amalgamation of high art and low comedy, least of all Jack Warner, so, perversely, there was a greater sense of camaraderie than usual; the spacious production schedule, unusual for the economy-minded Warner’s, helped in giving cast and crew time to ponder their places in Jack Warner’s grandiose dream of respectability. Korngold later wrote, “When I came to Hollywood, I knew no more about films and their making than any other mortal who buys his ticket at the box office.” He suspected that, somehow, the music was played and recorded at the same time the actors spoke their lines. Orchestrator Leo Forbstein helped Korngold with the realities of the scoring stage, and Cagney, whose Yorkville Yiddish gave him a leg up on German, helped Korngold with his feral English. Technicians like master editor Ralph Dawson helped Dieterle to outflank Reinhardt. Only Dieterle seemed able to help Reinhardt, who asked the actors for the bloated gestures and booming accents that had worked so well in the Hollywood Bowl. Cagney recalled that the actors often stood around on the sidelines whispering to one another, “Somebody ought to tell him.” The confusion didn't bother Dick Powell, who said he never really understood his lines, anyway.

Reinhardt fell in love with the realist extremes of his medium, and ordered production designer Anton Grot to recreate a forest precisely. Grot followed orders, shaking his head all the time, with the result that the forest set was so densely leafed-out that not enough light could be got into it to shoot. Director of photography Ernest Haller was driven nearly hysterical with Reinhardt’s poor command of the medium, and was fired. The production was closed down, and veteran cinematographer Hal Mohr was brought in to salvage Reinhardt’s mysterious vision for the film. Mohr ordered the shadowed side of Reinhardt’s forest painted in dark oranges and browns, and the side which was to be lighted drenched in thick coats of shiny aluminum paint. He added metallic filters and spangles, giving Shakespeare’s fairies a suitably otherworldly landscape to gambol in. Reinhardt pronounced “Wunderbar!”; that was what he'd wanted all along. Mohr, then siding with management in a union dispute with his fellow craftsmen, was left off the Academy Award nominations for best cinematography. For the first and only time, a write-in vote was organized to win Mohr the Academy Award he richly deserved.

Dieterle would go on to greatness as director of THE LIFE OF EMILE ZOLA and THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME. Korngold became the master of memorable Hollywood main title music. His scores for THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD, THE SEA HAWK, and KING’S ROW left behind his Modernist pretensions for the lush Viennese romanticism that the eminently bourgeois Jack Warner viewed as “real class.” Many of the stars of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM continued on their circuitous routes to success, but they never did figure out exactly what they’d been doing during the ten weeks Jack Warner had tried to turn his lot into the Globe Playhouse. What emerged on film was, like the best of American culture, an effervescent concoction of old worlds and new. Said Joe E. Brown,

“Some of us were certainly not Shakespearean actors. Besides myself from the circus and burlesque, there was Jimmy Cagney from the chorus and Hugh Herbert from burlesque. At the beginning we went into a huddle and decided to follow the classic traditions in which Herbert and I were brought up. I really believe Shakespeare would have liked the way we handled his low comedy and I’m sure the Minsky brothers did. The Bard’s words have been spoken better but never bigger or louder.”

— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University

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