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Flashback: on 1935’s A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream

So pleased that I finally got to see this, and from what I can surmise in its complete original form—including entrance and exit music as was done during the heyday of the gigantic, luxury movie palaces. In my roughly 10-year stretch as an actor, I did manage to land a part in a professional production of this play when I was just 19 years old in 1985. I was raw, and I wasn’t Shakespeare-trained, so I was relegated to the role of one of Oberon’s faerie henchman. There were no spoken lines, and only Titania’s fairies had actual names in the text, so our director monikered us in the program with tags such as “Earth” and “Storm”. I was “Fire”, which I thought was pretty cool, and I glowered threateningly during the forest scenes in my tights and deep purple cape. It was a lot of fun, even though I spent most of the dozen or so performance run backstage. But I learned that play inside and out. I knew every part verbatim before all was said and done. And I even caught myself mumbling some of it while watching the classic 1935 film in this January of 2014. It’s a great memory, and it turned me into a bit of a Shakespeare fiend for the next 15 years or so. However, I’m far from an expert, and I’ll always consider myself “still learning”.

A young Mickey Rooney plays Puck in this all-star production, and he was just barely a teenager at the time. Some may find his characterization annoying, but I felt he was pretty solid amongst a cast that, for the most part, had no Shakespeare experience at all. Genius performers James Cagney and Joe E. Brown play Bottom, the Weaver and Flute, the Bellows-mender, respectively—and their scenes together during the “play within the play” are the highlight of this film(as it is in any production I’ve ever seen). The mismatched quartet of young lovers are highlighted by a beautiful and film-debuting Olivia de Havilland(still with us as of this writing, as she approaches her 98th birthday!)as Hermia, and she’s charming and energetic throughout. A 10-year old Billy Barty, later one of our most prolific “dwarf” actors, makes an appearance as Mustard-Seed the fairy. And the stunning Anita Louise embodies the Fairy Queen, Titania.

Sure, it’s a little clunky after all these years, and it’s obvious when certain actors’ lack of classical training trips them up. For flying sequences, on what was then a gargantuan soundstage forest set, you occasionally glimpse the wires that lifted the performers through the air. But you know what? A lot of those primitive effects are damn impressive, and a shot of fairies circling around a tree and into the “heavens” is particularly astonishing. The Mendelssohn music is iconic, and the direction of Max Reinhardt(with assistance from William Dieterle)is occasionally particularly inspired. The black-and-white photography is sometimes stunning and the images are often beautiful(Hal Mohr’s cinematography won an Oscar). In summary, watching it wasn’t as much of a blast as doing it, but I enjoyed the film a great deal. Seeing a sterling production of this on stage is preferable, but this motion picture is still a nice alternative.     Grade:  B+


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