Sunday, October 31, 2010

75th: "A Midsummer Night's Dream"

Other the years I've been writing for The Film Experience I've realized I'm quite obsessed with chronologies and time. Stars that have been part of our rear view mirror of film history our whole lives were once fresh faces. It's a simple concept but intermittently hard to absorb. I mean, Olivia de Havilland and Mickey Rooney, two of the oldest living film stars, were once newbies! In fact, seventy-five years ago on this very weekend in 1935 the Shakespearean adaptation A Midsummer Night's Dream opened, introducing the world to Olivia, than billed as de Haviland for some reason. She picked up an extra "l" shortly thereafter.

Mickey Rooney playing "Puck" at 14 years of age.

Have any of you seen it? It still looks beautiful in 2010, all black and white and shimmering; the fairy motif helps with the sparkliness.

Rooney, who'd been acting since he was 6, was already famous and his "Andy Hardy" franchise was just around the corner. I know this will read like an exceptionally odd non-sequitor, but if you get a chance to watch this movie soon, I swear that you'll have to wonder whether Leonardo DiCaprio watched this performance directly before playing What's Eating Gilbert Grape? (1993). I'm not saying that Puck is mentally disabled in this picture, only that there's a shocking similarity of early teenage exuberance and tree branch bounciness, paired with uninhibited squealing and odd vocalizations. (It struck me as entirely uncanny, but perhaps it's only that I watched Gilbert Grape just recently.)

When we first spot the lovely Olivia de Havilland as Hermia, she spots her love Lysander (Dick Powell). This is our endearing introduction to her.

Introducing! Olivia de Havilland (and Hermia)

This introduction was doing double duty 75 years ago, since movie audiences had yet to meet the actress herself. She would of course go on to major stardom (The Adventures of Robin Hood, Gone With the Wind), double Oscar wins (To Each Their Own and The Heiress) and an enviable place in the twinkling constellation of Classic Hollywood stars.

One thing that's totally odd about the movie though is the battle between the male romantic leads: Dick Powell as Lysander vs. Ross Alexander as Demetrius. A Midsummer Night's Dream is built to withstand a lot of silliness and comic flexibility,  Powell is doing a weirdly fey/sassy interpretation while Alexander keeps standing with arms akimbo like he's Superman or Gaston. Presented with these options, Hermia responds like Lysander is the barrel-chested dreamboat whilst Demetrius is the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Weirdness.

Take these screenshots for example.

Lysander (left) to Demetrius (right): "Oh no you di't girlfriend!"
Lysander (right) to Demetrius left (after literally tossing his cape up around
himself like a shawl / fur wrap): "Sashay... away. Chanté, you stay!"

But no matter. A Midsummer Night's Dream is hardly the right place to get all heternormative gender reductive and freak out about a lack of "butchness". Never mind!

Though I've gone on record many times as suggesting that filmmakers should give Shakespeare a rest for at least a decade, I was actually happy to see another version back in 1999. Or at least, I was happy in theory before it arrived. At the time I thought that the casting of Rupert Everett and Michelle Pfeiffer as King & Queen of the Faeries was unexpected but inspired.

It's just that the finished film lacked a certain... je ne sais quoi. Maybe it was too safe. I don't remember it well. Perhaps it just didn't find the right balance between naughty impishness and guileless magical innocence. That's hard to pull off, sure, but I had hoped for more.

Have you seen either version? Would you like to see any of today's filmmaker have another go at this magical comedy... and if so who would you cast as Puck, Hermia or Oberon & Titania?


illnaa said...

I recently watched this on TCM (the gift from God) and really liked it - except for Rooney - i never read or saw the play but i could not stand the character Puck or Rooney in it

Anonymous said...

All I remember about the 1999 MND was the from-behind naked shot at the end (well, hello there, Christian Bale...) and Kevin Klein being awesome - in that order. Considering that I love Shakespeare and could watch it all day, that says a lot about the movie. Bleh.

Is it just me or does the new Miss de Havil(l)land look surprisingly like Helena Bonham Carter in that series of shots?


illnaa -- i should watch TCM more because it is a blessing. i am generally not a Rooney fan but i was so weirded out by the DiCaprio Grape thing that it didn't bother me.

Tikabelle -- wow. i guess she does. i think it's the hair the early de Haviland and the early HBC.

about the ass... i don't remember that at all. except the kevin kline ass. but that was the different type of ass. the donkey ass.

Alex said...

Though I never saw the '35, I actually really enjoyed the 1999 version quite a bit, particularly Stanley Tucci (always had a soft spot for Puck). I wasn't paying attention as closely to movies then, but perhaps a lot of the negative vibes around the film come from being compared to the other Shakespeare adaptation of 1999, Julie Taymor's masterful "Titus"?

Sheila Kind said...

Wow, I remember seeing this several times in the distant past and being quite impressed with it. It really is quite beautiful in that way that earlier black and white films can be. And to call it shimmering is quite fitting. As for Rooney, I thoroughly enjoyed his performance, which was quite exuberant and energetic for a 14 year old. Rooney has always been an entertainer first and an actor second. Nothing bad on that. I think this is my favorite performance of his after National Velvet. It's also one of my favorite Hollywood renderings of Shakespeare.

Anonymous said...

I very much love what you're doing here!

Dave in Alamitos Beach said...

I have had the good fortune of seeing this movie on screen in a theater. Not sure how that happened (something at BYU?), but I remember being knocked out by the lighting. Everything looked fantastic.

Correct me if I'm wrong (and someone surely will) but didn't the cinematography for this movie win the first and perhaps only write-in Oscar ever given?

If so, the "wisdom of crowds" got it right.

Sheila Kind said...

Didn't James Cagney have a role in this too? I think he played Bottom, the weaver, who was given a donkey's head. Titania fell in love with him due to a potion.