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: â€śThe Taming of the Shrewâ€ť starring Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford; â€śAs You Like Itâ€ť starring Laurence Olivier and Elizabeth Bergner; â€śRomeo and Julietâ€ť starring Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer; and, the subject of this play, â€śA Midsummer Nightâ€™s Dreamâ€ť directed by Max Reinhardt.
The film studios in the 1930s recognized quickly that movies based on Shakespeare plays were â€śbox office poison.â€ť 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 â€śprestigiousâ€ť movies to enhance their reputations. Elizabeth Bergner, who starred in â€śAs You Like Itâ€ť was married to Robert Czinner, the director of the film. Irving Thalberg, production chief of MGM put Norma Shearer into â€śRomeo and Julietâ€ť despite her age. And for Fairbanks and Pickford, who were married, â€śThe Taming of the Shrewâ€ť was a family affair as well. (This is the movie that caused great hilarity in its opening minute by announcing that the play was â€śby William Shakespeare with additional dialogue by Sam Taylor.â€ť)
In writing Shakespeare in Hollywood, Iâ€™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, â€śA Midsummer Nightâ€™s Dreamâ€ť 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 â€ś42nd Street.â€ť 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 â€ślove sceneâ€ť in â€śPyramus and Thisbeâ€ť 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 Cagneyâ€™s movie previous to the â€śDreamâ€ť was a Western, â€śThe Frisco Kid.â€ť
To me, one of the most surprising aspects of Shakespeare in the movies is that dozens of silent pictures were made from Shakespeareâ€™s plays before the advent of sound. Obviously, the producers in those days thought that Shakespeareâ€™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 Iâ€™ve ever written. An academic at heart, I loved the research; to me, Hollywood in the 1930s is the beeâ€™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