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A Midsummer Night's Dream

A Midsummer Night's Dream(1935)

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teaser A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935)

Warner Brothers took a couple of chances in 1935. Not only did they becomethe first Hollywood studio to film a Shakespeare play since DouglasFairbanks and Mary Pickford had flopped at the box office in 1929 in TheTaming of the Shrew. They also entrusted one of the leading roles toan 18-year-old actress making her screen debut. Yet even at that tenderage, Olivia de Havilland displayed the discipline, determination and sheermagic that would make her one of Warner Brothers' greatest stars. Her solid performance as the romantic lead Hermia makes it all the more surprising that she won her role in the production purely by accident.

German director Max Reinhardt's sumptuous productions of the classics,including A Midsummer Night's Dream, were already legendary when theJewish director fled the Third Reich in 1934 and announced plans to directa stage tour of the play to premiere at the Hollywood Bowl. This was sucha major theatrical event that officials at the Saratoga Grammar school,where de Havilland was completing her education, decided to put on theirown open-air production of the play modeled on Reinhardt's famousproductions. They even invited some of his associates to attend, wherethey became enchanted with de Havilland's performance as Puck. After theshow, she approached them about auditioning for the play, but instead wasinvited to join a group of students allowed to attend rehearsals.Heartbroken, she showed up to learn that the role of Puck had already beenassigned to the young Mickey Rooney. After her continued pleas for anaudition, she was assigned as second understudy to the romantic femalelead, Hermia. She wouldn't get any stage time unless film stars GloriaStuart, who had the role, or her first understudy, Jean Rouveral, couldn'tgo on. She observed Stuart carefully during rehearsals nonetheless, andpracticed the role as though it were her own

Then the impossible happened. A few days before the opening, Rouveral wasassigned a film role and had to drop out, then the same thing happened toStuart. Suddenly de Havilland was going to make her professional stagedebut with the leading role in a Shakespearean play. Reinhardt spent three14-hour days preparing her for the opening and refining her technique.Later she would credit him with teaching her most of what she knew aboutacting. She went on in front of an all-star audience and scored a triumph.In that opening night audience was Warner Brothers head of production HalWallis, who had already signed Reinhardt to direct a film version of theplay. He wired Jack Warner in New York to fly back early to catch herperformance. Warner fussed about going to all that trouble for "a blinddate," but made it by closing night and agreed with Wallis. He had plannedto cast Bette Davis as Hermia, but they were having one of their manyquarrels, so he choose de Havilland for the part instead. She and Rooney werethe only major players held over from the stage production, joining anall-star cast that included James Cagney as the comic Bottom and boy singerDick Powell as de Havilland's love interest.

A Midsummer Night's Dream was far from the smoothest in Warners' history. Because of a prior contract he'd signed with a French film producer, Reinhardtcouldn't even direct the film for the first week of production. Instead aformer student of his -- William Dieterle, who had directed only minorfilms at Warners -- shot the first week from Reinhardt's notes, then stayedon as an assistant to supervise the actual shooting while Reinhardtrehearsed the cast and supervised other elements. Reinhardt's arrival didlittle to settle things; he was used to a theatrical schedule and refused tostart work at 8 a.m. Instead, he rehearsed the actors in the afternoonsand evenings. Dieterle would shoot their scenes the next morning, whileReinhardt slept late. In addition, his vision for the film was so ambitious, it was practicallyunfilmable. He demanded so much foliage on the set that they blocked thelights. As a result, cameraman Hal Mohr replaced Ernest Haller. His firstact was to cut back the foliage and spray the leaves with aluminum paintand metal glitter to pick up more light. The footage was spectacular, butdisasters continued to pile up. A trained bear used throughout the filmdied suddenly. Two of the sets burned down. And, worst of all, halfwaythrough filming Rooney broke his leg while tobogganing on Bear Mountain.He had to finish the film in a full cast disguised by foliage and holes inthe floor. For some scenes, he was pushed around the set on atricycle.

None of this phased de Havilland. Neither did Rooney's practical jokes nor Dick Powell making passes at her. Instead, she learned film acting techniquefrom Dieterle and camera technique from Mohr, who later would comment thatshe asked more insightful questions about his work than any newcomer he'dever photographed. By the end of the production, she already knew theeffect camera angles and lighting would have on how she appeared on screenand had learned to find her light like a seasoned veteran.

A Midsummer Night's Dream opened to mixed reviews and box office,proving too highbrow for the average filmgoer and too lowbrow for thesophisticates. Nonetheless, it won acclaim for its dreamlike scenes anddance numbers choreographed by Bronislava Njinska, sister of the greatdancer Njinsky. De Havilland was consistently singled out by reviewersthen and in more recent years. Rooney, Cagney and the other clowns in thefilm (including Joe E. Brown and Hugh Herbert) received more mixed noticesat the time, though more recent critics have hailed them as the closest in spirit and performance style to Shakespearean actors of the renown playwright's era. Some ofthe other performers -- particularly Powell, who still had traces of hisArkansas accent and sounds as if he doesn't know what the lines mean,because he didn't -- continue to draw mocking pans. Yet the film weavesits spell in spite of them. Mohr and the film's editor took homeOscars® for their impressive work. Moreover, the picture launched anumber of careers, helping to propel Rooney and de Havilland to stardom andbringing Dieterle more prestigious assignments, including the acclaimedbiographical film The Story of Louis Pasteur (1935). It also markedthe start of Erich Wolfgang Korngold's long career at Warner Bros. He hadworked with Reinhardt in Austria and, like him, fled Europe with the riseof Hitler. Reinhardt brought him to Warners to arrange Felix Mendelssohn'sbackground music and add other melodies from the composer's oeuvre to thescore. He would remain to score most of Errol Flynn's swashbucklers, manyof which co-starred de Havilland.

Sadly, A Midsummer Night's Dream would do little for Reinhardt's career. Its box-officefailure spelled the end of his association with Hollywood. He would end upsettling in New York, where he taught and continued to direct, influencinga generation of American stage artists, until his death in 1943.

One interesting note of trivia: The little Changeling Prince is played by Kenneth Anger, who would grow up to be a famous underground film artist (Fireworks, Scorpio Rising, etc.) and author of the once-controversial expose of famous celebrities, Hollywood Babylon.

Producer: Max Reinhardt
Director: Max Reinhardt, William Dieterle
Screenplay: Charles Kenyon, Mary C. McCall, Jr.
Based on a play by William Shakespeare
Cinematography: Hal Mohr
Art Direction: Anton Grot
Music: Leo F. Forbstein, Erich Wolfgang Korngold
Principal Cast: James Cagney (Bottom), Dick Powell (Lysander), Joe E. Brown(Flute), Jean Muir (Helena), Hugh Herbert (Snout), Ian Hunter (Theseus),Frank McHugh (Quince), Victor Jory (Oberon), Olivia de Havilland (Hermia),Ross Alexander (Demetrius), Verree Teasdale (Hippolyta, Queen of theAmazons), Anita Louise (Titania), Mickey Rooney (Puck), Arthur Treacher(Ninny's Tomb), Billy Barty (Mustard Seed), Kenneth Anger (ChangelingPrince), Angelo Rossitto (Gnome).
BW-144m. Closed captioning.

by Frank Miller

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