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Robert Prosky and Everett Quinton in
Shakespeare in Hollywood, Arena Stage;
PC: Scott Suchman


Quotes about the making of the film version of A Midsummer Nights Dream by Walter Bilderback

Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle’s 1935 film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was the subject of intense and sometimes unconventional prerelease publicity. Newspaper blurbs generated by Warner Brothers’ publicity department touted the special effects: Puck would really fly like Peter Pan, and his magic would be convincing; special rubber masks worn by the fairies would give them a strikingly eerie appearance; the forest world would bedazzle with something called a “silvery moon-path,” which turned out to be sequin-studded netting; and nearly one thousand costume designs would be pored over to unearth fittingly opulent apparel for this special masquerade.

Along with the magic came a requirement… that the cast for this Dream include no professional Shakespearean actors. (Only Ian Hunter, who plays Theseus, could be said to possess the voice and manner of a stage actor.) Studio contract players would make up the cast, fashioning a production that would bear Warner Brothers’ stamp of approval. Reinhardt not only agreed to this condition, he heartily endorsed it, believing that the medium called for its own actors and conventions.

The presence of Powell and Cagney, in particular, guaranteed the attendance of a certain kind of audience, a ready-made group of crooner and hoofer fans caught up in the mystique of big production numbers. Both Powell and Cagney were assigned roles that allowed them to exploit the movie types for which they were well known. As Lysander, Powell has several opportunities to deliver his lines with syrupy-voiced affect; many of his scenes with the other lovers are staged as if the four were engaged in a choreographed song-and-dance routine.

- All from Shakespeare in Hollywood, Wilson

Director Max Reinhardt’s deep interest in Midsummer Night’s Dream began with a 1905 production at Berlin’s Neues Theatre, and continued at places like Salzburg, Oxford, and finally in 1934 at the Hollywood Bowl. The Warner Brothers poured $1 ½ million into the production, orchestrating myriad details and filming on a huge sound stage of over 38,000 square feet. Erich Wolfgang Korngold arranged the musical setting based on Mendelssohn’s music, and Max Reinhardt ordered a special machine called an “Akron Spider” to manufacture sufficient cobwebs for the set; the donkey’s head for Bottom’s scene with Titania was constructed at considerable trouble and expense; central casting called on all available dwarfs in Los Angeles county to fill up the gnomes in the elfin orchestra.

- From A History of Shakespeare on Screen, Rothwell

On the occasion of the premiere, Reinhardt made statements embracing the new medium. Never one for small projects, he called for “a synthesis of theatre and film in order ultimately to create a gesamtkunstwerk for the masses.” But the masses did not respond to his film; it was not commercially successful. Although it won some critical praise, there were predictable detractors. For the British film critic Sydney Carroll, Shakespeare did not belong on film, any more than American actors belonged in the church of Shakespeare. He patronizingly compared Rooney to Tom Sawyer, Cagney to an American gangster, Titania’s train to Ziegfeld’s Follies girls, and the lovers to college coeds. As a result of the film’s lack of commercial success, together with the fact that its cost of $1.5 million was double the budget, Reinhardt was not contracted for further films.

- From Our Moonlight Revels, Williams

There is little quarrel among contemporary film and Shakespeare enthusiasts that the Dieterle-Reinhardt Dream has aged remarkably well. … Part of its current charm contributed considerably to its initial failure. My students, rather than finding Dick Powell, Olivia de Haviland, Mickey Rooney, Jimmy Cagney, Victor Jory, and Anita Louise disastrously out of place in Shakespeare’s dream, delight in the eclectic mixture of famous faces and acting styles familiar to them from their early years of watching late-show movies on television.
- From Shakespeare Observed, Crawl

The first production on stage or screen to give anything near full weight to the play’s darker elements.
- From Shakespeare on Film, Jorgen

Produced as a conscious exercise in prestige building, not necessarily with any cynical motives but rather as an attempt to consolidate Warner’s reputation as a socially responsible company with both the public and the Hays Office.
- Shakespeare, Cinema, and Society, Collick

Blends a variety of preexisting genres, including the elaborate musical a la Busby Berkeley and the proletarian comedy/drama, and tries to appeal to all audiences. For the core Warner Brothers audience, the presence of Dick Powell, James Cagney, and Joe E. Brown promised comic energy and light entertainment. At the same time, the name Max Reinhardt, the famous German producer-director, signaled European “Art” and theatrical spectacle of a particular kind. Throwing dancer Nini Theilade and choreographer Bronislava Nijinska into the mix further invited the “arty,” high-brow set, while the antics of Mickey Rooney’s Puck and the flying fairies might be expected to appeal to children.
- Cinematic Shakespeare, Anderegg

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