The 1935 Warner Brothers A Midsummernight’s Dream (AMSD) directed by Max Reinhardt, is one of my favourite films. This week I will once again get the pleasure of including it in my film music course.
If wishes were horses beggars would ride. Ambition is another kind of wish, particularly when encapsulated in PR. AMSD never seems to live up to the hype of the eight minute promotional film short (see immediately below: click on it to see it on youtube), because its chief ambition was not about box office success but prestige for Warner Brothers, who believed they had an image problem as purveyors of gangster pictures.
Talk about a strange and eclectic mix. Reinhardt aims high, with his powerfully symbolic style, including two long and contrasting set-pieces. Each one features long extended musical passages from Felix Mendelssohn’s incidental music for the play, arranged by Erich Wolfgang Korngold (his first Hollywood film job), choreographed by Nijinska. Where the first is sweetness & light centring on Titania, the second, much darker, centres on Oberon.
But just when you thought you were seeing high art, there are casting choices so blatantly commercial as to mock the artistic pretentions of the project. Joe E Brown never seems very Shakespearean, nor does Dick Powell.
Yet knowing about this conflict between Reinhardt’s lofty goals and a conservative industry, one can’t help but be exhilarated when it works. For example, James Cagney & Mickey Rooney manage to transcend their famous personas, each bringing something extraordinary to the film. Victor Jory, whom you may remember for his skulking carpet-bagger villainy in Gone With the Wind stands tall as Oberon for Reinhardt, a dark contrast to Anita Louise’s sweet Titania.
I’ve read several analyses that find strengths and weaknesses in the film, but am especially fascinated by the historical subtexts. AMSD would not be seen in Germany until long after the war, because the Nazis banned it. Was that due to the Jewish content (Mendelssohn, Reinhardt and Korngold oh my… )? Or maybe it’s the subtle allusions to the Nazis right in the film (they can’t have liked that).
In that second set-piece, notice the following iconography:
- the spectre-like figures in black enter to music sounding more like Wagner than Mendelssohn (in the first half minute of the video)
- Oberon stands before a crowd resembling the Nuremburg rally captured in Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, filmed over a year earlier. (at :55- 1:20 and again around 1:50 of the video)
- The black figures force everyone else (fairies and elves) into a mass migration resembling refugees fleeing an invasion. (at 0:30 – 0:50 of the video) While this last image is perhaps premature given that the Nazis’ handiwork largely lay in the future, yet at the very least the image is prescient, given that both composer Korngold & director Reinhardt would have to flee the Nazis.
Of course the allusions are very subtle.
Miraculously, three of the key figures from this 1935 feature are still alive as of September 2011 :
- Mickey Rooney (born 1920) who played Puck
- Olivia Dehavilland (born 1916) who played Hermia
- Nini Theilade (born 1915) the lead dancer in the two set pieces.
While the film is something of a cul-de-sac, the first and only film by Reinhardt, it’s a great pleasure for me to look at the film, so full of contradictions. I don’t know that it can be thought of as influential, but it’s still a personal favourite and an interesting site for study.