Monday, November 4, 2013

A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935) Film Review

I started out doing a three-and-a-half-year Shakespeare study, reading the complete works and watching as many film adaptations as I could get my hands on. Well, after completing that, I'm still acquiring more Shakespeare DVDs. And so this study continues. From now on, I think I'll post each film review as a separate blog entry, rather than putting them together by play. So here is a review of the 1935 version of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

- A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935) with James Cagney, Dick Powell, Mickey Rooney, Victor Jory, Olivia de Havilland, Jean Muir, Ross Alexander; directed by Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle. This black and white film version certainly captures a lot of the magic of the play, but suffers from some strange cuts. The acting is uneven, with the film’s best performance turned in by Olivia de Havilland as Hermia. The film begins with an overture, and then a written proclamation that Theseus will wed Hippolyta.

Act I

At a procession welcoming Theseus home, Hippolyta is definitely not happy about her impending wedding. The first line is Theseus’: “Hippolyta, I woo’d thee with my sword.” There is a song, which introduces many of the characters, including the four lovers, who glance at one another. Egeus sees his daughter move to Lysander, and is clearly displeased. After the song, Theseus goes back to “Go, Philostrate/Stir up the Athenian youth to merriments.” Egeus then grabs Demetrius, and takes him to Lysander and says, “Stand forth, Lysander. With cunning did you steal my daughter’s heart.” (But he does not say this to Theseus, who is no longer present.) Helena watches this, sad.

Then the film moves briefly to Scene ii, with Quince saying, “Here is the scroll.” The scene is cut after he says, “his wedding-day at night.” The film then returns to Theseus and Hippolyta, and Theseus speaks the first lines of the play: “Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour/Draws on apace.” And Egeus comes in with Hermia, Lysander and Demetrius, and we get the bulk of that scene. Hermia runs off behind a column, and then Lysander catches up with her to deliver the famous line, “The course of true love never did run smooth.” Then we go back to Scene ii, with Quince naming the play. James Cagney is wonderfully eager as Bottom. The line “That would hang us, every mother’s son” is cut.

Act II

Act II begins with several shots of the forest and its wildlife. Puck wakes from beneath a pile of leaves. Then from beneath the fog several figures emerge – the fairies – and dance. The Fairy sings her lines to Puck. We actually see the Indian boy when Puck mentions him (and he plays a significant role in this adaptation, though of course without any lines). There are many fairies in Titania’s retinue. Titania holds the changeling boy in her scene with Oberon. After Puck leaves to find the flower, we go to Scene ii when Lysander and Hermia enter. Lysander sings some of his lines to Hermia. Then we go back to Scene I, with Demetrius and Helena, beginning with Demetrius’ line, “You told me they were stol’n into this wood.” (Note: the film “updates” the language often, as in that line – instead of “Thou told’st me,” Demetrius says “You told me.”) He says, “like wood within this wood” instead of “and wood within this wood.” Then it goes to his first lines, when he says, “I love you not, therefore pursue me not.” (Again, “you” instead of “thee.”) Oberon, invisible to them, is positioned so in frame he is between them. After Oberon’s lines, we go to Act III Scene i.


Act III begins with the Mechanicals walking through the woods. They have a donkey pulling a cart of their things. And when Bottom talks of having a prologue written, the donkey puts his head right next to him, right as he says, “I, Pyramus, am not Pyramus.” A very nice touch. The part about the lion is cut, and they go straight to the bit about a man portraying Wall.

We then go back to Act II Scene I, when Puck returns to Oberon. Then on to Act II Scene ii, with Titania and the boy, and the fairies’ song. Oddly, Oberon’s last line to Titania – “Wake when some vile thing is near” – is cut. How can you even consider cutting that line? The film then goes to Puck’s song, then back to Hermia and Lysander looking for a place to sleep. Puck then enters and puts the flower on Lysander’s eyelids.

Then, oddly, it cuts to Act III Scene ii, when Puck tells Oberon that he’s done that deed. But of course that’s supposed to come after he tells Oberon that Titania is in love with an ass. A strange re-ordering of the scenes, especially as the Titania stuff is much more important to Oberon than is the matter of the mortals. And then Puck points to Lysander, who is still asleep, as is Hermia. So when Oberon berates him for his mistake, it doesn’t make sense, as nothing has yet come of it. Oberon could easily fix this situation before they wake. However, he doesn’t.

Then we go back to Act II Scene ii, with Helena startled by a bear. Her first line is about the beasts running away (thus skipping the line about her being as ugly as a bear). She then finds Lysander. Puck is there when Hermia wakes, and makes fun of her. We then see the lovers chasing each other, and Puck says, to himself, “Lord what fools these mortals be” (a line from Act III Scene ii, spoken to Oberon).

Then we go to the beginning of Act III, with the Mechanicals arriving at their spot in the woods. (There is a bit too much screeching laughter from Puck – in this scene, and throughout the film. It gets very annoying. Also annoying is the constant laughter from Snout the Tinker.) We actually see Bottom’s transformation. He gets a full ass head, which looks great. And we see Puck tormenting the Mechanicals.

While Bottom sings his song, Puck throws something at him. It hits him in the head, and when Bottom goes to rub his head, he feels the big ears, so he’s aware of the transformation, which is all wrong. He looks at his reflection in the water. He cries, then, oddly, continues his song, so that Titania can wake and fall in love with him. When she says she loves him, the little boy comes up to her, but she pushes him away, more interested in Bottom. But Bottom’s lines are much less funny, as he knows of his transformation. Oberon and Puck watch, thus eliminating the need for Puck to tell Oberon of what has happened. There is a sort of wedding procession for Titania and Bottom. The little boy, ignored, cries. And, left alone, he is easily snatched up by Oberon.
There is then an intermission, after which we go to Act III Scene ii, with Demetrius telling Hermia he is not guilty of Lysander’s blood. Demetrius and Lysander say “Helena” together when they both woo her. Their similarities and their interchangeability are stressed well in this scene. Hermia is the best actor in this film, and is wonderful in the scene with all four lovers. Hermia’s great line, “I am amaz’d, and know not what to say,” is cut. The fog that Puck creates to confuse Demetrius and Lysander comes straight from his mouth, which is cool. The shot of Puck mimicking Lysander is really funny, one of Mickey Rooney’s best moments, though it goes on a bit long. Puck then rides on the train of Helena’s dress to slow her down and tire her, which is cool.

Act IV

Act IV begins with Titania’s line, “What, wilt though hear some music, my sweet love?” Then it goes back to the beginning of the scene, with the fairies scratching Bottom’s head. The “tender ass” line isn’t funny because he’s well aware of his transformation. Bottom sings, “Good hay, sweet hay, has no fellow” (yes, “has” instead of “hath”). Titania sings some of her lines to Bottom, with Bottom falling asleep and saying “hee haw” in his sleep. There is a long and beautiful sequence of the fairies leaving as day approaches. Titania is funny when she says, “Methought I was enamoured of an ass,” pausing slightly before “of an ass.” There is a silent moment between Oberon and Titania where he seems to indicate that he was behind her love for the ass, and she realizes it, then turns from him. It’s a really nice moment. Bottom wakes right after Puck’s line, “When thou wak’st, with thine own fool’s eyes peep.” Bottom looks in the water at his reflection again.

The four lovers wake without Thesuas and Egeus being there. But it turns out the lovers are just at the edge of the forest, and when they emerge, Egeus sees them, and takes them to Theseus, who right away overrules him without any word from any of the lovers – which is ridiculous.

In Scene ii, when Bottom says that he was wonders to tell, the donkey (which earlier pulled the cart) makes a noise, and that is what causes Bottom to stop and say, “Not a word of me.” Most of his speech after that is cut.

Act V

The wedding celebration is elaborate. And we see the Mechanicals enter. But then the first line of the scene is Demetrius’ line from Act IV Scene i: “These things seem small and undistinguishable.” Then we go to Hippolyta’s opening line from Act V. When Theseus asks about the entertainment, Philostrate first hands him the wrong scroll, the one about the Mechanicals’ play. So the information on all the other possible entertainments is cut.

Most of the prologue to the Interlude is cut. Wall has to be prompted several times. Thisby says, “I kiss the wall, not your lips at all” instead of “I kiss the wall’s hole.” Hippolyta’s line “This is the silliest stuff that ever I heard” is cut, but Theseus’ response is left in. But then their next lines are cut, including “If we imagine no worse of them than they of themselves…” Then it goes to the Moon, skipping the lion’s introduction. Pyramus says “Now die, die, die, die, die” very quickly, not drawing it out at all. There is a joke about Thisby not being able to find a sword with which to kill herself. Thisby says “Adieu, adieu, adieu” quickly. And then Hippolyta has her line about it being “the silliest stuff.” Everyone in the court sneaks off while the Mechanicals are quickly preparing for their dance. So when they come out, their audience is gone.

The fairies enter, but Puck’s first speech is cut, and so Oberon speaks first. Titania sings her lines. Then we go to Theseus’ last lines before going to Puck’s closing speech.

Time: 143 minutes.

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