Shakespeare On Screen by Walter Bilderback
Shakespeare’s plays have a long, if not always distinguished, career in the movies. Some of the first silent films used them as their subject. A Midsummer Night’s Dream was among these: before Max Reinhardt made his version for Warner Brothers, it had already been transferred to the silent screen four times in a variety of forms, including a 1909 version that introduced a new character, Penelope, and still “managed to cram just about everything into eight minutes” and a German version with the Expressionist dancer Valeska Gert as Puck which was considered so erotic that children were banned from seeing it. Few of these silent versions have maintained a reputation, however, since they all lack one of the most important elements of Shakespeare’s work – his words.
The advent of sound promised new life for Shakespeare on the silver screen: but, although there have been some superb adaptations to film, Shakespeare’s career in Hollywood has been particularly checkered: the best adaptations have generally come from Britain (particularly Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh), Japan (Akira Kurosawa), or the Soviet Union (Gregori Kozintev). Until the 1990s, the best American attempts were Orson Welles’, made in the 1940s and early 1950s, but these were produced outside the studio system and sometimes (e.g., Macbeth) outside the U.S.
Only one full-length Shakespeare “talkie” had been produced before Max Reinhardt and Warner Brothers tackled A Midsummer Night’s Dream: this was a Taming of the Shrew with Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, remembered best for its title credit announcing “Written by William Shakespeare: with additional dialogue by Sam Taylor.” Reinhardt’s Dream was followed shortly by two more adaptations from other studios. The first was a Romeo and Juliet produced by the legendary Irving Thalberg, and starring his wife, Norma Shearer, a fine actress for her time who strained credulity as a lovestruck teen. The other was an As You Like It with Laurence Olivier: this time, the female lead was the director’s wife, the European actress Elisabeth Bergner. All were flops, and Shakespeare acquired the reputation of being “box office poison.” Hollywood did not return to Shakespeare until Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Julius Caesar in the early 1950s, starring James Mason, John Gielgud, and Marlon Brando. Hollywood did not return to A Midsummer Night’s Dream until the star-studded version in 1999.
Although the Reinhardt-Dieterle Dream flopped on its initial release, its reputation has generally risen over the following decades, ironically for the same reason it was panned initially: the distinctly non-British accent of the actors and the production as a whole. Reinhardt brought a continental attitude to the play which he combined with the all-American energy that was the strength of Warner’s productions, combining the glamour of a Busby Berkeley musical with the conviction that Bottom and Flute could make their home on the Lower East Side. The result is sometimes jarring, often surprisingly effective, and a fascinating early step toward an American style of Shakespearean production.