Every Sunday, Film School Rejects presents a film that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it.
This week, Old Ass Movies presents the story of James Cagney turning into a donkey, a jealous king who wants to steal an Indian child, an amateur acting troupe trying to present the story of a wall, and a group of young lovers who need a little help from the woodland narcotics to realize their undying emotions for each other.
Plus, as a bonus, little Mickey Rooney cackles like a drunken hyena to no one in particular.
It’s Shakespeare, so you know it’s smart.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935)
Directed by: William Dieterle and Max Reinhardt
Starring: Dick Powell, Ross Alexander, Olivia de Haviland, Jean Muir, Anita Louise, Mickey Rooney and James Cagney
If there’s one piece of classic literature that you’re forced to read during high school, it’s Romeo and Juliet. If the school district has the funds for enough comprehension questions, they’ll make you read A Midsummer Night’s Dream too. If they don’t have the funds, the theater department will put on a minimalist version of it in the cafetorium.
It should come as no surprise that one of William Shakespeare’s most famous works has seen the screen several times, but the brilliance of the 1935 version is that the actors involved had never done Shakespeare before. They were novices when it came to a rigid, structured style of diction that takes a fair amount of skill to pull off.
The results are mixed.
However, even the sillier components of the film (most notably Dick Powell) don’t do much to detract from an otherwise wondrous movie that’s bolstered by its humor and fantastical special effects.
The first key, though, is the acting. Dick Powell plays Lysander (who is in love with Hermia (which makes sense, because she’s played by Olivia de Haviland)). Lysander is one of a foursome that will become lovingly and sexually confused over the course of a night in the woods outside Athens (which happens to dress in faux-English courtly vestments). Fortunately, even though the rest of the acting troupe is making an attempt to give Shakespeare his due weight and timbre, Dick Powell is absolutely not having any of it. He rolls his way through the dialog more like a nerdy character from a John Hughes film, fifty years too soon.
It’s not an indictment of his skill; he just fared far better in musicals like 42nd Street and the Gold Diggers series than in a Shakespearean adaptation where he was playing a nobleman.
His foil, Ross Alexander, does a far better job as the stately young figure ready to marry, but even he is a bit too dry for the wistful feel of the rest of the film. Oddly enough, the male leads are not at all the focus here – which may be one of the only times that’s ever happened in movie history.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is James Cagney, who is clearly not attempting to do the Shakespearean thing, but ends up being all the more likable because of it. He’s bombastic and ridiculous as the tailor named Bottom who is going to take a chance on play acting and also going to turn into a donkey by the end. Olivia de Haviland (in her third film appearance) is completely lovable and ready to scrap as the beautiful Hermia. Jean Muir plays her part as Helena a bit on the whiny side, but she’s ultimately endearing as well.
Add a dash of teenage Mickey Rooney doing his best crack-addicted Woody the Woodpecker impression, and the seduction is complete.
Speaking of seduction, which is the thrusting force of the play with its clever double entendres and heavy purple flower use, the film is a true eye-opener when it comes to our foolish belief in the dominance of today’s modern special effects.
Can computers make a more realistic looking unicorn? Perhaps, but the special photographic effects for this movie are stunning, and they display a key to suspending disbelief: it’s impossible to tell how they were done.
From an early scene of hundreds of fairies dance-running around and up a tree until floating into the open air of the moonlit midnight, to the King and Queen of fairies consistently flying in and out of scenes, there is some clear wire work (that’s flawless), but there are also some effects that astound. They’re magic tricks that still hold up to this day.
The story itself follows the text closely, but it’s still as absurd as old Bill Shakespeare intended. Four lovers get drugged in the forest by an imp named Puck (the aforementioned Mickey Rooney channeling Woody the Woodpecker), a local tailor has is head transformed into an ass’s, and the Queen of fairies falls in love with the donkey-headed dumb ass.
Of course, all of this is put in motion by the King of fairies, who (of course) wants to steal a little Indian child from the Queen.
That’s it. That’s the catalyst for everything. A grown man wearing a pointy crown and sparkling everywhere he rides wants to take a kidnapped child from his wife.
Fortunately, there are enough drugs lying around in the forest to make that happen.
This film version is a triumph of gorgeous imagery, elaborate dance formations, and acting from (most of) its stars. The stand out is clearly Cagney who had already taken starring roles for both tough gangster flicks and Busby Berkeley musicals alike. Strangely enough, at fifteen years old, Mickey Rooney had had more film experience than almost all of his co-stars. He’d starred in over 60 short films as (guess what) a precocious kid (named Mickey), but he’d also appeared in 26 feature films before A Midsummer Night’s Dream hit theaters. That’s more than Ross Alexander would make in his entire career.
As such, this film still stands as a piece of buried cinematic history that’s now available to the masses. It’s a kind of time capsule featuring stars that would go on to make huge careers that displays early talent and the kind of spectacle that still gets audiences excited about going out to the theater. It’s appropriate, then, that the dvd you can most likely find floating around out there also features the Prologue and Exit Music which played in theaters as people entered to find their seats and left to get Mickey Rooney‘s high-pitched squeal out of their minds.
It’s a trip back to high school English Lit class, but it’s the fun kind. The kind with scantily clad nymphs running around in the woods and a third act that hinges mostly on James Cagney falling down a lot.
Your teacher would be so proud.
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