In the Wings

Backstage glimpses with Boston Lyric Opera

A 1935 Midsummer Night’s Hollywood Dream

May 6, 2011 2:42:00 PM
By BLO Staff

In 1943 the famous German
director Max Reinhardt received an invitation from the California Festival
Association to direct A Midsummer Night’s Dream in three different venues. He responded enthusiastically to the
possibilities of these “California Dreams” suggesting they would advertise the
California landscape and perhaps lead to the creation of a cultural festival
like Salzburg’s—Reinhardt had been instrumental in the founding of that

One of the locations was
the Hollywood Bowl and the production there was on a vast scale. The orchestra
shell was removed and a stage 250 feet wide and 100 feet deep was created. An
artificial hill sloped down to a playing area planted with bushes, fully grown
trees, and a pond. A suspension bridge ran 350 feet down to the stage from an
adjacent hill down which court processions (with hundreds of extras) entered by
torchlight. The Mendelssohn score was played by the Los Angeles Philharmonic,
hidden behind the playing area. Four thousand arc lights were used—fireflies
were simulated by thirty thousand electric lights strung throughout the stage
area. The actors’ voices were amplified to reach the audience of twelve
Reinhardt’s initial casting
ideas were more evocative of his iconic view of Hollywood star mythology than
of the practicalities of the studio system, but what a wild production it would
have been—John Barrymore as Oberon, Greta Garbo as Tytania, Fred Astaire as Puck,
Charlie Chaplin as Bottom, Clark Gable and Myrna Loy as Demetrius and Helena,
Gary Cooper and Joan Crawford as Lysander and Hermia, and W.C. Fields as Flute.

In the end, even without this lineup, it was a huge success and Warner Brothers
quickly signed Reinhardt to direct a film version of Midsummer – with William Dieterle as a co –director as Reinhardt spoke
only a few words of English. Dieterle went on to direct many movies including The Hunchback of Notre Dame before he
ran into blacklist problems. Only Mickey Rooney and Olivia de Havilland of the original
cast were taken over into the film version – but another intriguing set of
actors was hired – many performing Shakespeare for the first (and last) times
in their  careers.

The trailer for the film perhaps
suggest the both the ambitious pride and uneasiness of Warner Brothers in
making Shakespeare and “high culture” into a viable popular product…
A 1936 promo for the film
presents a glimpse of behind-the-scenes preparations and a fascinating picture
of a Hollywood 
red carpet event more the 75 years ago… not so very different in many
respects from today’s…
One of the film’s most
controversial performances in that of the 14-year old Mickey Rooney as Puck … Completely original, manic, brilliant… or sufferable?  An almost Satanic Oberon is played by Victor Jory (perhaps most memorable as the villainous plantation overseer in Gone With The Wind)
Mickey Rooney grew up to
be Andy Hardy and Judy Garland’s partner in numerous “let’s put on a show” movies
as well as appearing in a wide range of roles in  a mighty number of movies and TV shows over 80 years.
The movie’s other famous
performance is James Cagney as Bottom.
Cagney was already known
as tough guy but he was as
versatile an actor as Bottom pretends to be. A great song and dance man  and superbly psychotic criminal.
Like Mickey Rooney he acted a huge range of parts over a span from 1930 to 1985.
The Flute in the scene is
Joe E. Brown… forever known for the last line of Some Like it Hot (among many other charming portrayals)
Olivia de Havilland
Olivia de Havilland’s film
debut was Midsummer playing opposite
Dick Powell but she of course went on
to have a long and distinguished career… but there is always Melanie.
Dick Powell was widely regarded
as being hopelessly miscast as Lysander…but he is more fondly remembered for
his musical roles.
The choreography was by
Bronislava Nijinska—Vaslav Nijinsky’s sister and a fine dancer and great
choreographer with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.
If we look at a sequence
from Nijinska’s 1923 masterpiece LES NOCES we can see some of the same movement
she devised for the fairies.
The last scene from the
movie shows the extravagant baroque opulence of the film which is  often sharply contrasted with darker elements.

1935 was a cruel year…Europe was in a growing
crisis with the  brutal rise of fascism and
was suffering in the depths. of the Depression Reinhardt, Dieterle and Korngold
were eventually  forced to flee Europe
and seek a new life  in America. The
movie was banned in Germany
(as was all of Mendelssohn’s music) and four years later World War II broke
out. The film is a fascinating combination of  opalescent beauty and a sinister, dark magic….of
fantasy, madness, of  ravishing light and
violent darkness. Check out the whole film on an excellent Criterion edition
with some interesting extras.

Topics: A Midsummer Night's Dream, John Conklin

Boston Opera Calendar

Subscribe to Email Updates


Posts by Date

see all