31. Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935)
Last summer I reviewed Michael Hoffman’s 1999 adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream while promising that someday I would review the 1935 film of the same play by Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle.
Despite not being allowed by my physician to booze my way through films such as this one, I watched this one sober, dear readers, just for you.
Mickey Rooney plays Puck, whom he has mercilessly interpreted as a series of squealing ululations that snuff out the possibility of joy existing in this world. For fans of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, you’ll surely remember him as the racist caricature of Mr. Yunioshi.
Making matters worse, James Cagney was cast as Bottom.
The problem with Cagney is that he did not act well as a poor actor, but went the more pure route of simply being a poor actor. I know that he was not generally a poor actor, and I have admired him in some performances, such as late in his career in the film of Ragtime, but his Bottom was truly bottomless in its lack of charm. Kevin Kline made no such mistakes in 1999.
When the donkey’s head is worn, however, he becomes less of a jackass. His performance modulates. There is a tender vulnerability to his performance that is strong, and carries over just enough to make the last act some fun to watch.
The best actor in this version is Joe E. Brown as Flute (the rude mechanical who will play Thisbe in the play-within-a-play). Fans of Some Like it Hot may remember him as Jack Lemmon’s love interest. Brown is a comedic genius, but it is worth mentioning that if the actor playing Flute is by far contributing your strongest performance, then your cast is not well selected, you fucking twit.
This film is the vulgarity of Hollywood doing Shakespeare, and is like some curse following Al Pacino around in 1996.
However, if I were to say that this MSND is charmless, I would be exaggerating. The backstory of this production is that it is an outgrowth of a stage version Max Reinhardt produced for the German stage before he emigrated out of Germany during the rise of the Nazis. Mendelssohn’s music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, lovingly performed by master musicians, and the balletic choreography, and diaphanous special effects in black and white, are mesmeric, teetering between touching sublimity and darling camp.
And then Mickey Rooney chortles and caterwauls and makes such a noise that you pray for death to all mankind, out of pity.
All is not mended, but this film is better than its
two one-and-a-half extraordinary flaws.
John King (Episode, well, all of them) holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA from New York University. He has reviewed performances for Shakespeare Bulletin.