Sunday, March 9, 2008

Shakespeare in heat

TCM is airing a night of movies based on the tragedies of William Shakespeare on March 10. I'd like to point out one a classic movie based on one of Shakespeare's comedies instead: Warner Bros.' 1935 version of A Midsummer Night's Dream. The play is a bit of a slog by modern standards due to the language and the complexity of the relationships amongst the various characters, but the richness of the Bard's work, combined with the assets of the studio system, make this one of the more interesting (in a good sense) Shakespeare adaptations out there.

Two pairs of lovers (Ian Hunter and Verree Teasdale as Theseus and Hippolyta; and Olivia de Haviland and Ross Alexander as Hermia and Demetrius) are betrothed to be married, and spend the night in the forest of Arden on their way to Theseus and Hippolyta's wedding.

Into all this walks a troupe of actors led by Nick Bottom, played by James Cagney in a very atypical role for him; and the mischievous spirit Puck, played by a fourteen-year-old Mickey Rooney in the one time MGM lent him out to another studio. When they saw what a good job Rooney did as Puck, the MGM brass decided to keep him for themselves. Puck decides to create mayhem for all involved by casting various spells that will make the characters fall in and out of love with all the wrong people, instead of with their respective betrothed; this includes Warners' musical stalwart Dick Powell, who is miscast here but tries gamely. The highlight of all this mayhem is that Bottom is given the head of a horse, a feat Cagney pulls off surprisingly well, considering he was used to playing gangster roles. Rooney is also wonderful; even if you don't normally like his antics, they're exactly what the role of Puck calls for, and Rooney's normal obnoxiousness is used to great effect. He, after Cagney, is the highlight of the movie, and that's saying something considering Olivia de Havilland and a slew of great character actors appear

Eventually, we get to the wedding, and this is where the studio system half of the fun begins. Amongst Nick Bottom's troupe, who are there to perform at the royal wedding, are several character actors we wouldn't normally think of as being Shakespearean actors: Frank McHugh and Joe E. Brown, who gets to perform one skit in drag. Despite not being Shakespearean actors, these character actors do a remarkable job, probably because what they're doing isn't all that Shakespearean, but instead relatively light comedy. Joe E. Brown's antics and facial expressions work particularly well here. Veteran 1930s character acter Grant Mitchell plays Hermia's father, while Victor Jory plays Oberon, the king of the fairies; watch also for veteran British butler Arthur Treacher in a bit part as well.

In addition to the interesting cast, there's lush cinematograpy made to look like an actual dream sequence that's as beautiful as anything made in the 1930s, and rivalling the work of Gregg Toland in the 1940s.

A Midsummer Night's Dream was the first movie Olivia de Havilland made. (However, it was not the first one released; that would be Alibi Ike, starring the aforementioned Joe E. Brown.) It is available on DVD as well.

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