Friday, May 6, 2011

A 1935 Midsummer Night’s Hollywood Dream

In 1943 the famous German director Max Reinhardt received an invitation from the California Festival Association to direct A Midsummer Night’s Dream in three different venues. He responded enthusiastically to the possibilities of these “California Dreams” suggesting they would advertise the California landscape and perhaps lead to the creation of a cultural festival like Salzburg’s—Reinhardt had been instrumental in the founding of that festival.

One of the locations was the Hollywood Bowl and the production there was on a vast scale. The orchestra shell was removed and a stage 250 feet wide and 100 feet deep was created. An artificial hill sloped down to a playing area planted with bushes, fully grown trees, and a pond. A suspension bridge ran 350 feet down to the stage from an adjacent hill down which court processions (with hundreds of extras) entered by torchlight. The Mendelssohn score was played by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, hidden behind the playing area. Four thousand arc lights were used—fireflies were simulated by thirty thousand electric lights strung throughout the stage area. The actors’ voices were amplified to reach the audience of twelve thousand.

Reinhardt’s initial casting ideas were more evocative of his iconic view of Hollywood star mythology than of the practicalities of the studio system, but what a wild production it would have been—John Barrymore as Oberon, Greta Garbo as Tytania, Fred Astaire as Puck, Charlie Chaplin as Bottom, Clark Gable and Myrna Loy as Demetrius and Helena, Gary Cooper and Joan Crawford as Lysander and Hermia, and W.C. Fields as Flute.

In the end, even without this lineup, it was a huge success and Warner Brothers quickly signed Reinhardt to direct a film version of Midsummer – with William Dieterle as a co –director as Reinhardt spoke only a few words of English. Dieterle went on to direct many movies including The Hunchback of Notre Dame before he ran into blacklist problems. Only Mickey Rooney and Olivia de Havilland of the original cast were taken over into the film version – but another intriguing set of actors was hired – many performing Shakespeare for the first (and last) times in their  careers.
The trailer for the film perhaps suggest the both the ambitious pride and uneasiness of Warner Brothers in making Shakespeare and “high culture” into a viable popular product…

A 1936 promo for the film presents a glimpse of behind-the-scenes preparations and a fascinating picture of a Hollywood  red carpet event more the 75 years ago… not so very different in many respects from today’s…
One of the film’s most controversial performances in that of the 14-year old Mickey Rooney as Puck … Completely original, manic, brilliant… or sufferable?  An almost Satanic Oberon is played by Victor Jory (perhaps most memorable as the villainous plantation overseer in Gone With The Wind)

Mickey Rooney grew up to be Andy Hardy and Judy Garland’s partner in numerous “let’s put on a show” movies as well as appearing in a wide range of roles in  a mighty number of movies and TV shows over 80 years.

The movie’s other famous performance is James Cagney as Bottom.

Cagney was already known as tough guy but he was as versatile an actor as Bottom pretends to be. A great song and dance man  and superbly psychotic criminal. Like Mickey Rooney he acted a huge range of parts over a span from 1930 to 1985.
The Flute in the scene is Joe E. Brown… forever known for the last line of Some Like it Hot (among many other charming portrayals)

Olivia de Havilland
Olivia de Havilland’s film debut was Midsummer playing opposite Dick Powell but she of course went on to have a long and distinguished career… but there is always Melanie.

Dick Powell was widely regarded as being hopelessly miscast as Lysander…but he is more fondly remembered for his musical roles.

The choreography was by Bronislava Nijinska—Vaslav Nijinsky’s sister and a fine dancer and great choreographer with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.
If we look at a sequence from Nijinska’s 1923 masterpiece LES NOCES we can see some of the same movement she devised for the fairies.

The last scene from the movie shows the extravagant baroque opulence of the film which is  often sharply contrasted with darker elements.

1935 was a cruel year…Europe was in a growing crisis with the  brutal rise of fascism and America was suffering in the depths. of the Depression Reinhardt, Dieterle and Korngold were eventually  forced to flee Europe and seek a new life  in America. The movie was banned in Germany (as was all of Mendelssohn’s music) and four years later World War II broke out. The film is a fascinating combination of  opalescent beauty and a sinister, dark magic….of fantasy, madness, of  ravishing light and violent darkness. Check out the whole film on an excellent Criterion edition with some interesting extras.

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