A Midsummer Night’s Dream

by John Holbo on February 10, 2011

Another film post: in teaching ‘philo and film’, I’m focusing mostly on sf, but branching into speculation in a more metaphysical sense, and spectacle in a more purely visual sense. One slightly oddball pick I’ve made is the Reinhardt/Dieterle A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935) [amazon].

It was released on DVD for the first time last year and I really cannot recommend it highly enough for sheer entertainment value, and several other values as well. It’s not exactly a forgotten film, but this late arrival on the DVD scene is a symptom of some slippage between the cracks. Yet it’s got a great, big name cast. James Cagney as Bottom, the Weaver:

Joe E. Brown as Flute, who will obviously make a lovely Thisby:

A young Mickey Rooney does an astonishing turn as Puck.

It was Olivia de Havilland’s first film. She’s Hermia. The irritating Dick Powell is irritating, but then … he’s playing Lysander. But what’s really stunning are the fairies.

Titania (Anita Louise):

And Oberon (Victor Jory):

You get some Arthur Rackham-looking gnomes or whatever they are:

There are some truly lovely ballet sequences, courtesy of Nini Theilade, who was choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska. You can see a video here.

I wouldn’t usually indulge in so many screencaps, but the film is just astonishingly lovely, from beginning to end.

And the play-within-a-play is pretty funny:

It’s more elegant than The Wizard of Oz. I don’t know another ‘fantasy’ film that does better until – I dunno, David Bowie in Labyrinth, maybe. Jory as Oberon is more successfully Tim Burton-y than anything Tim Burton has done to date.

The film is a musical achievement as well. Korngold’s Mendelsohn arrangements took action-soundtrack synchrony to a new level. Still, the film has a spotty critical reputation. Lots of critics in 1935 hated the likes of Cagney and Powell in these roles, and the film’s reputation has never really recovered, but I think it holds up. I think the decades of distance help us recognize some solid performances – at least by Cagney. (Powell is just annoying.) The Shakespeare gets seriously slashed, with the fairy/mechanicals material heavily played up. But I don’t personally object to making a 2-hour Midsummer, in which quite a bit of screen time is given over to dance and pure spectacle. It seems to me that regarding the fairy/mechanicals story – Bottom’s Dream – as the play’s authentic core, with the mismatched noble lovers almost incidental, is interpretively reasonable. Max Reinhardt was well-hated by some for his extravagant productions. (I remember reading some quip by Karl Kraus, complaining that Reinhardt’s sets were alive, and his actors were all made of plywood.) Well, I think it’s great. And Belle loves it, too.

Two thumbs up.

UPDATE: Hmmm, looks like the DVD was actually released in 2007. Not last year. Well, fine.



Frank 02.10.11 at 10:58 am

I love this film – first saw it in the early 60s one Saturday morning before I went to my piano lesson, which meant I missed most of it. Finally caught it again quite recently on the teev. Glad to know it’s available on DVD.

It looks and sounds gorgeous.


Jeffrey Kramer 02.10.11 at 12:14 pm

I’m pretty sure I saw this when I was thirteen or so on WOR-TV New York (channel 9), which had a 90-minute slot for movies and had obviously brought Procrustes back in order to fit all movies in that bed, with room to spare for commercials. They once fit Singing in the Rain into the slot by the clever expedient of taking out all the singing and dancing.


MR Bill 02.10.11 at 1:23 pm

A great Hollywood Shakespeare, for all that that (good and bad) implies..
Dick Powell as a slighty slimy Demetrius, |Victor Jory(in that fantastic thorny headdress..) as Oberon. Mickey Rooney is truly a strange Puck, and Cagney an effective comic actor.
And it’s got Eric Korngold’s gloss on Mendelsshon’s score(s).


Louis Proyect 02.10.11 at 2:20 pm


Dave 02.10.11 at 3:48 pm

It seems to me that regarding the fairy/mechanicals story – Bottom’s Dream – as the play’s authentic core, with the mismatched noble lovers almost incidental, is interpretively reasonable.

[shoots self]


Ringleader 02.10.11 at 3:50 pm

Gore Vidal wrote about the film in “Screening History” and spoke about it here –



Keith 02.10.11 at 5:20 pm

Some of those stills of the fairies remind me of Guy Madden’s Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary. Which is a suitably Madden-esque version of the Dracula ballet. One of the more beautiful and genuinely haunting versions of Dracula I’ve ever seen.


John Holbo 02.10.11 at 10:37 pm

Suicide is not a valid hermeneutico-dramaturgical argument form, Dave. You’ll have to do less badly than that.


John Holbo 02.10.11 at 10:46 pm

Thanks for the Gore Vidal link, Ringleader.


nigel holmes 02.11.11 at 7:01 am

There’s a play within a play within a play rehearsal scene in “A Matter of Life and Death” (1946), where the English vicar is coaching some American servicemen who are playing Bottom and Weaver and co in an amateur production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. The vicar tells one of them, who bears a slight resemblance to Cagney, “Not like a gangster”. I’m not sure if the two are playing the same role, though.


John Holbo 02.11.11 at 8:28 am

“The vicar tells one of them, who bears a slight resemblance to Cagney, “Not like a gangster”. I’m not sure if the two are playing the same role, though.”

Yes! This is discussed in the commentary track on the DVD. The commentary is provided by Scott MacQueen (don’t really know much about him.) He talks about how much the English critics hated this production, and Cagney above all. (Why they didn’t hate Dick Powell more I can’t imagine.) And it got to the point where Cagney was satirized as being the pinnacle of bad Shakespearean acting.

And it’s all entirely unjust, as far as I can see. The idea that Cagney played Bottom ‘like a gangster’ is just base calumny. But it is sort of understandable all the same. If someone cast – oh, Adam Sandler as Bottom. Well, he might do a pretty good job. But I just couldn’t get past all of my associations, maybe.

Evidently Cagney got quite defensive about it.


Cool Bev 02.11.11 at 4:21 pm

Kage Baker wrote a short Company novel about the theatrical presentation called “Rude Mechanicals”. Seems that this movie started life as a play performed in the Hollywood Bowl. It’s very funny, and somebody obviously had some fun with the research.


John Holbo 02.12.11 at 1:22 am

Thanks, Cool Bev, I’ll have to check that one out. Yes, the film did start life as a Hollywood Bowl production, but it wasn’t really ‘the same’, apparently. Totally different cast and production crew and probably the Bowl production was full-length, not cut by a third. The imdb page says De Havilland was in the Bowl production, as Hermia, but, according to the DVD commentary track, she was not the first pick for Hermia. She got the part last minute when the first pick backed out. The main thing about the Bowl production was that it made money hand-over-fist, and also toured around making money hand-over-fist. So Reinhardt was the man with the golden touch and was given whatever he wanted for the film. Which didn’t actually make back it’s huge budget, although it did pretty well, as films went.

Fun facts: Reinhardt wondered why he couldn’t get Chaplin. (Didn’t understand the studio system.) And W.C. Fields was almost cast as Bottom. That would have changed things.


mregan 02.12.11 at 2:51 am

I’ve done the show several times, including Bottom, and always keep Cagney’s performance in mind whenever I do Shakespeare. Actors do what actors do and a script is a script. Make it make sense in its context, believe what you’re doing and chance the consequences. Critics? “They come in the front door.” If a Shakespearean clown can’t chew a bit of scenery, then God help us all.


Arun 02.12.11 at 11:39 pm

Tidbit: Kenneth Anger, the avant-garde filmmaker and author of the infamous “Hollywood Babylon” appears in this film, a child actor. There’s a picture of him in the book, in a sparkly turban on the set. And the film is sort of what inspired him to write about the sort of mythical paganism of Old Hollywood. I’d love to see the film, thanks for the recommendation.


Randy Paul 02.14.11 at 2:45 am

In the commentary on the DVD by Scott McQueen, he claims that Anger’s claim is incorrect.

As for Mickey Rooney, I thought he was the worst thing about the film.

I would love to see a nitrate print of that film. A friend of mine saw it and thought it was the most beautiful b&w film he’d ever seen.

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