Friday June 18, 2021
Movie Review: A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935)
I’d always assumed James Cagney wanted to be in the 1935 Warner Bros. production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” as a chance to to do something different than the usual gangster, grifter, or hot-shot pilot roles he played. But according to biographer John McCabe, and Cagney’s own memoir (as told to McCabe), he had no real desire to play Shakespeare. “It was not, he said, his cup of tea,” McCabe wrote.
So then I wondered if Warners cast him as Bottom, the fool who becomes a literal ass, as punishment for forever fighting them over pay. You act like a stubborn mule, we’ll cast you as a stubborn mule. Nope again. Jack Warner wasn’t really involved in the casting, while Hal Wallis wanted character actor Guy Kibbee for the part.
So how did it happen?
Max Reinhardt. He directed a lavish version of the play on Broadway, took it on the road, and when Wallis saw it at the Hollywood Bowl he was inspired enough to suggest making it a film. (He was also inspired enough to put the girl playing Hermia under contract: Olivia de Havilland. One out of two ain’t bad.) And it was Reinhardt who insisted on casting Cagney. “Few artists have ever had his intensity, his dramatic drive,” he said. “Every movement of his body, and his incredible hands, contribute to the story he is trying to tell.”
Shame it didn’t work out—for either of them.
Reinhardt was primarily a stage director. His film work was minimal and dated: just three short photoplays in Germany in the early days of the silents. From Cagney’s memoir:
Because Reinhardt was essentially a spectacle director … he remained largely on the sideline while Bill Dieterle directed. Reinhardt, so used to broad stage gestures, made some of the actors do things that were, I thought, ridiculous for the screen. We used to stand back, watching him, and say, “Somebody ought to tell him.”
I'm curious if Reinhardt directed Cagney in this manner because he brings way too much energy to the role. He’s breathless from the beginning and it gets worse. And when he imitates the storm? Talk about broad stage gestures. Somebody ought to have told him.
Bottom’s personality here, the braggart, isn’t that different from some of Cagney’s successful roles— “Blonde Crazy” and “Devil Dogs in the Air” to name two—so it's a little odd that it doesn’t work. The theater troupe Bottom is part of, which is led by Peter Quince (Frank McHugh), is set to perform “The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe” during wedding-day celebrations for Duke Theseus and Queen Hippolyta, but they’re all hopeless. That’s the gag. Bottom is the big fish in the little pond, and he gets cast as one of the leads, Pyramus, but he wants to play him as tyrant rather than lover. Then he wants to play the other lead, too. Then he wants the lion’s part. When Quince tries to placate him by saying he’d be too fierce a lion, he suggests a dovelike lion.
It’s tiresome. When is Cagney ever tiresome? Here. I guess it’s partly the broad gestures and breathlessness, but it feels like there’s something else. The glint in his eye is missing. He’s stupefied and selfish rather than joyous and looking for an angle.
You know the overall story. Different groups converge in the woods on a summer night, where they’re toyed with by spirits and faeries:
- Hermia and Lysander (de Havilland and Dick Powell) are leaving to get married against her father's wishes
- They are pursued by Demetrius (Ross Alexander), who loves Hermia, and Helena (Jean Muir), who loves Demetrius
- Bottom’s theater troupe meets to practice the play
(The theater kids never interact with the young lovers, do they? Just with the faeries. Maybe that’s another problem: Quince’s troupe is not relevant to the main storyline.)
Meanwhile, the king of the faeries, Oberon (Victor Jory), is angry with his queen, Titania (Anita Louise, quite lovely), who has become enamored of an Indian changeling, and he wants to punish her for it. So he instructs his magic sprite, Puck (Mickey Rooney), to rub a love-in-idleness flower on her eyelids when she’s asleep, so that when she wakes she’ll fall in love with the first thing she sees. (He’s hoping for an animal.) Oberon then hears Demetrius lambasting Helena, and he instructs Puck to do the same to such a cruel man. It’s this latter order that creates chaos: Puck thinks Lysander is Demetrius and causes Lysander to fall madly in love with Helena. A correction with Demetrius means both men are now pursuing Helena rather than Hermia, and Helena thinks they’re making fun of her, while Hermia accuses Helena of stealing her man. Arguments, fights, ensue.
On his own, Puck transforms Bottom’s head into that of an ass, causing the rest of the troupe to flee in terror. Initially unaware of the change, Bottom sits waiting for them to return. He sings to himself, which awakens Titania, dabbed with the magical flower, and she falls for him.
For all the Shakespearean misunderstandings, most everything happens the way Oberon wants: He gets the Indian changeling, gets Titania back, and orders Puck to fix everything else. Puck does. Kinda. Yes, Bottom is restored, as is Lysander, but Demetrius remains in love with Helena. I guess we assume that’s for the good—it allows all four young people to be happy—but it doesn’t say much for his free will. Imagine if the spell was removed when Demetrius was 60. Poor guy.
Afterwards, there's the wedding celebration, at which the Quince troupe performs lamentably to the condescending amusement of the royals and rich folks.
More cynical than Gore Vidal
A few things work. The flying of the faeries is pretty amazing, and makes me wonder what might’ve happened if a major studio had attempted a superhero film in, say, the 1940s. (Superheroes not having been invented at this time.) Most of the Warners players aren’t bad, given their non-Shakespearean backgrounds, while Joe E. Brown is hilarious as Flute, one of Quince’s troupe. We even get a mid-’30s Warners vibe at times. Early on, for example, Demetrius finks on our couple to Hermia’s father (Grant Mitchell), who drags her away, leaving Demetrius and Lysander staring at each other. Lysander, with the upper hand, then does a kind of insouciant tie-loosening gesture and leaves singing to himself.
Mickey Rooney, who also played Puck on the stage, got some of the best notices, but it’s another performance that feels too broad, too loud. Even so, it had quite the effect on Gore Vidal, age 10, who was mesmerized by Rooney and sought out the play and the author. Because of this film, he claims to have read all of Shakespeare by the time he was 16. “Yes, Cymbeline, too,” he writes in Screening History, before adding, “I’m sure my response was not unique.” It’s one of those rare moments when I feel more cynical than Vidal.
Warners’ gamble didn’t do great box office but it was nominated for four Academy Awards, including best picture, and won two: cinematography for Hal Mohr (the only write-in nominee to win) and editing for Ralph Dawson. Trivia question: Name the four Cagney movies nominated best picture. This one, of course, but the other three?
Interesting the fates for these stars. Both Cagney and de Havilland broke free of oppressive Warner Bros. contracts (Cagney in '36, de Havilland in '44), helping upend the studio system. Dick Powell, singing sensation of the '30s, became a hard-boiled detective in the '40s. The rest of the lovers quadrangle were less lucky. Alexander, who played Demetrius, was a closeted homosexual who killed himself in 1937, age 29, while Jean Muir was named (along with Cagney and Bogart) by John L. Leech as a communist before the Dies Committee in 1940. She was cleared, left Hollywood in the '40s, but was named again in the 1950s and lost her livelihood in radio and TV. Her last screen credit is “Naked City” in 1962. She died in 1996.
As to the best picture trivia? Yes to “Yankee Doodle Dandy.“ No to any of the gangster flicks: “Angels with Dirty Faces,” “The Public Enemy,” ”The Roaring Twenties“ and “White Heat.” Nor to ”Love Me or Leave Me," which garnered Cagney his final Oscar nod. But yes to another movie from that year: “Mister Roberts.” I'll tell you the final one, because unless you know it you won't guess it: “Here Comes the Navy” from 1934. None won.
Bottom and Titania, both punished.