A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935)
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Warner Brothers took a couple of chances in 1935. Not only did they become the first Hollywood studio to film a Shakespeare play since Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford had flopped at the box office in 1929 in The Taming of the Shrew. They also entrusted one of the leading roles to an 18-year-old actress making her screen debut. Yet even at that tender age, Olivia de Havilland displayed the discipline, determination and sheer magic 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 the Jewish director fled the Third Reich in 1934 and announced plans to direct a stage tour of the play to premiere at the Hollywood Bowl. This was such a major theatrical event that officials at the Saratoga Grammar school, where de Havilland was completing her education, decided to put on their own open-air production of the play modeled on Reinhardt's famous productions. They even invited some of his associates to attend, where they became enchanted with de Havilland's performance as Puck. After the show, she approached them about auditioning for the play, but instead was invited to join a group of students allowed to attend rehearsals. Heartbroken, she showed up to learn that the role of Puck had already been assigned to the young Mickey Rooney. After her continued pleas for an audition, she was assigned as second understudy to the romantic female lead, Hermia. She wouldn't get any stage time unless film stars Gloria Stuart, who had the role, or her first understudy, Jean Rouveral, couldn't go on. She observed Stuart carefully during rehearsals nonetheless, and practiced the role as though it were her own
Then the impossible happened. A few days before the opening, Rouveral was assigned a film role and had to drop out, then the same thing happened to Stuart. Suddenly de Havilland was going to make her professional stage debut with the leading role in a Shakespearean play. Reinhardt spent three 14-hour days preparing her for the opening and refining her technique. Later she would credit him with teaching her most of what she knew about acting. 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 Hal Wallis, who had already signed Reinhardt to direct a film version of the play. He wired Jack Warner in New York to fly back early to catch her performance. Warner fussed about going to all that trouble for "a blind date," but made it by closing night and agreed with Wallis. He had planned to cast Bette Davis as Hermia, but they were having one of their many quarrels, so he choose de Havilland for the part instead. She and Rooney were the only major players held over from the stage production, joining an all-star cast that included James Cagney as the comic Bottom and boy singer Dick 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, Reinhardt couldn't even direct the film for the first week of production. Instead a former student of his -- William Dieterle, who had directed only minor films at Warners -- shot the first week from Reinhardt's notes, then stayed on as an assistant to supervise the actual shooting while Reinhardt rehearsed the cast and supervised other elements. Reinhardt's arrival did little to settle things; he was used to a theatrical schedule and refused to start work at 8 a.m. Instead, he rehearsed the actors in the afternoons and evenings. Dieterle would shoot their scenes the next morning, while Reinhardt slept late. In addition, his vision for the film was so ambitious, it was practically unfilmable. He demanded so much foliage on the set that they blocked the lights. As a result, cameraman Hal Mohr replaced Ernest Haller. His first act was to cut back the foliage and spray the leaves with aluminum paint and metal glitter to pick up more light. The footage was spectacular, but disasters continued to pile up. A trained bear used throughout the film died suddenly. Two of the sets burned down. And, worst of all, halfway through 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 in the floor. For some scenes, he was pushed around the set on a tricycle.
None of this phased de Havilland. Neither did Rooney's practical jokes nor Dick Powell making passes at her. Instead, she learned film acting technique from Dieterle and camera technique from Mohr, who later would comment that she asked more insightful questions about his work than any newcomer he'd ever photographed. By the end of the production, she already knew the effect camera angles and lighting would have on how she appeared on screen and 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 the sophisticates. Nonetheless, it won acclaim for its dreamlike scenes and dance numbers choreographed by Bronislava Njinska, sister of the great dancer Njinsky. De Havilland was consistently singled out by reviewers then and in more recent years. Rooney, Cagney and the other clowns in the film (including Joe E. Brown and Hugh Herbert) received more mixed notices at 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 of the other performers -- particularly Powell, who still had traces of his Arkansas 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 weaves its spell in spite of them. Mohr and the film's editor took home Oscars® for their impressive work. Moreover, the picture launched a number of careers, helping to propel Rooney and de Havilland to stardom and bringing Dieterle more prestigious assignments, including the acclaimed biographical film The Story of Louis Pasteur (1935). It also marked the start of Erich Wolfgang Korngold's long career at Warner Bros. He had worked with Reinhardt in Austria and, like him, fled Europe with the rise of Hitler. Reinhardt brought him to Warners to arrange Felix Mendelssohn's background music and add other melodies from the composer's oeuvre to the score. He would remain to score most of Errol Flynn's swashbucklers, many of which co-starred de Havilland.
Sadly, A Midsummer Night's Dream would do little for Reinhardt's career. Its box-office failure spelled the end of his association with Hollywood. He would end up settling in New York, where he taught and continued to direct, influencing a 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 the Amazons), Anita Louise (Titania), Mickey Rooney (Puck), Arthur Treacher (Ninny's Tomb), Billy Barty (Mustard Seed), Kenneth Anger (Changeling Prince), Angelo Rossitto (Gnome).
BW-144m. Closed captioning.
by Frank Miller