+ Recommended – NR, Comedy, Drama
For a film that was released in 1935, the Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream holds-up extremely well. Their approach to the classic Shakespeare text veers away from past adaptations and dips, unexpectedly, into a new angle of storytelling.
Hal Mohr’s cinematography focuses on the use of chiaroscuro, blending a mixture of darkness and light into the production, perhaps more-so than other adaptations in the past. When the film transitions from it’s reality into the fairy world, the transition feels smooth and unequivocally fantastical. The lens from which the audience views the fairy world is detailed with glimmering specs, scattering across the screen. This occurs even when the tone is gloomy, a contrast that is oddly satisfying.
It’s unsettling, almost, to see these initial fairies rise from the ground in a hauntingly, choreographed way. Of course, that quickly fades out into an exuberant musical number. The simple, yet eloquent, white clothing the female fairies wear provides a sense of warmth and acceptance. And the musical numbers reoccur to remind us that this realm is not a known reality and help to transition the viewers from scene-to-scene.
In blatant contrast, the male fairies dress in dark clothing and present themselves eerily, as to cause concern and assert dominance over the females; a plot point that’s heavily explored in Shakespeare’s original play. However, the on-screen adaptation provides audiences with the context and visual representation to properly disperse that way of thinking into their minds. For the first time, in any production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream up until this version, the realization of the play’s dreary tone shifts to the forefront in the representation of “the darkness” and “the light” in the fairy realm, thus balancing the play’s comedy with its tragic elements.
As far as setting, the forest summons a feeling of entrapment for both the audience and characters. The camera work rests heavily on close-ups, with a limited number of wide shots. From this, it’s clear that the story of the fairies and lovers is meant to feel slightly claustrophobic and when transitioning out of the forest, a sense of relief comes creeping-in.
At the heart, though, this play and subsequent production remain a great comedy. The quarrel of the lovers and the play within provide a meta-ness that help capture the overall message of the piece. Puck (Mickey Rooney) was cast very young, and so when the character accidentally makes mistakes, it’s understandable as he is a child. The constant conflict between Lysander (Dick Powell) and Demetrius (Ross Alexander) explore the control males had over females but also provides great comedic elements; the latter is mostly prevalent due to their being casted as teenagers. The youthfulness of the story, at least in this adaptation, helps to bury some of those themes of tragedy; most likely due to the casting.
James Cagney (Bottom) did an exceptional job breaking the tension between scenes and providing the audience with a worthy character arch. The focus of the entire work rests on Bottom’s journey; and because he has felt what it is to be an ass, he can recognize that not everything is about him. In one pivotal scene, he learns the importance of listening rather than talking; a characteristic one must learn for a successful marriage.