Foreword to Shakespeare in Hollywood by Ken Ludwig
In the 1930s, the talkies discovered Shakespeare in a big way. Four significant movies based on Shakespeare plays were made within a span of four years: “The Taming of the Shrew” starring Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford; “As You Like It” starring Laurence Olivier and Elizabeth Bergner; “Romeo and Juliet” starring Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer; and, the subject of this play, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” directed by Max Reinhardt.
The film studios in the 1930s recognized quickly that movies based on Shakespeare plays were “box office poison.” However, in doing research for this play, it soon became clear to me that the Shakespeare films of that time were often made because the mistresses or wives of the studio heads wanted to be in such “prestigious” movies to enhance their reputations. Elizabeth Bergner, who starred in “As You Like It” was married to Robert Czinner, the director of the film. Irving Thalberg, production chief of MGM put Norma Shearer into “Romeo and Juliet” despite her age. And for Fairbanks and Pickford, who were married, “The Taming of the Shrew” was a family affair as well. (This is the movie that caused great hilarity in its opening minute by announcing that the play was “by William Shakespeare with additional dialogue by Sam Taylor.”)
In writing Shakespeare in Hollywood, I’ve tried to stick to the historical record as much as possible. Thus, Max Reinhardt, the most famous stage director of his generation, did come to Hollywood from Austria as a refugee from the Nazis, and he directed his first (and only) motion picture, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” for Warner Brothers Pictures in 1934. Jack Warner did have three brothers, Harry, Albert and Sam, who ran the studio with him. Their father did start out as a shoemaker. And Louella Parsons, the most famous gossip columnist of her day, was born Louella Oettinger in Dixon, Illinois.
Dick Powell, who played Lysander in the movie, was indeed a heartthrob of the 1930s, and he starred in a string of successful musicals, including “42nd Street.” James Cagney, the biggest star of the movie, did play Bottom, though he was best known at the time for gangster pictures. The emerging child star, Mickey Rooney, ultimately played Puck in the movie; however, his filming was indeed delayed by the accident he had while skiing with his mother. Also, as Olivia mentions in the course of the play, for the 250 years prior to 1900, Puck was often played by a woman.
The terms of the Production Code that Hays outlines in the play are virtually verbatim from the actual Production Code that caused untold misery for every studio in Hollywood. Moreover, the objections that Hays raises in the play are the ones that the Hays Office actually raised at the time of filming. (Jack Warner himself wanted Reinhardt to cut the “love scene” in “Pyramus and Thisbe” because both characters were played by men and he was afraid that the Hays Office was going to object.) The biggest objection of the Hays Office was to the black fairy overcoming the white fairy towards the end of the movie. Reinhardt said that he created the black fairy to represent the evils of Nazism. Ultimately, this and the other objections were withdrawn. No one knows exactly why.
It is also true that Joe E. Brown, who played Flute, had just finished filming the third of three baseball movies based on the short stories of Ring Lardner. Jimmy Cagney’s movie previous to the “Dream” was a Western, “The Frisco Kid.”
To me, one of the most surprising aspects of Shakespeare in the movies is that dozens of silent pictures were made from Shakespeare’s plays before the advent of sound. Obviously, the producers in those days thought that Shakespeare’s stories alone were strong enough to carry the films. Many of these silent movies can be seen on a DVD entitled Silent Shakespeare, released by Milestone Film & Video (2000).
I wrote Shakespeare in Hollywood on commission from The Royal Shakespeare Company in England, and I may have enjoyed writing this play more than any other I’ve ever written. An academic at heart, I loved the research; to me, Hollywood in the 1930s is the bee’s knees; and as a Shakespeare addict to end all addicts, I loved living for a few months with Oberon and Puck. So my thanks to Simon Reade, Literary Manager of the RSC (now Artistic Director of the Bristol Old Vic), whose faith in the play has been unwavering, and to Adrian Noble, Artistic Director at the RSC at the time of the commission. Equal thanks to Molly Smith and Arena Stage for mounting the premiere and helping me select such a clever director, Kyle Donnelly, and such an inspired cast.
March 29, 2005