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A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935)


J.A.A. Purves
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(A&F links on The Best Shakespeare on Film, Chimes at Midnight (1965), Hamlet (1990), Othello (1995), Twelfth Night (1996), Titus (1999), The Merchant of Venice (2004), As You Like It (2006), The Tempest (2010), Coriolanus (2011), The Hollow Crown: Richard II, Henry IV, Parts 1 & 2, Henry V (2012), Much Ado About Nothing (2012), Cymbeline (2014), Macbeth (2014).)

 

I fear I might be alone here, but I struggle to imagine any list of "Divine Comedies" that leaves out every film version (let alone the best film version) of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

 

G.K. Chesterton wrote:

 

"On the Alleged Pessimism of Shakespeare", Daily News, April 29, 1905:

Shakespeare ... had an atmosphere of spirit - an atmosphere not confined to him but common in some degree to the whole of the England before the Puritans.  And about this atmosphere or spirit there is one particular thing to be remarked.  It can be remarked best by simply reading such a play as A Midsummer Night's Dream.  The quality I mean may be called the comic supernatural.  The greater part of that world, like the more thinking part of our modern world, believed in a general way in the existence of things deeper and higher than man himself, in energies beyond his energy, in destinies beyond his ken.  In short, they believed in gods, in devils; and they also believed in fairies.  We have mysticism in the modern world but all our mysticism is sad mysticism; at the best it is serious mysticism; it is never a farcical mysticism ... We never think of any energies in the universe being actually merrier than we; though it comes quite easy to us to think of energies which are grimmer ... [bold added]

 

"A Midsummer Night's Dream", Good Words, Sept/Oct, 1904:

... The sentiment of such a play, so far as it can be summed up at all, can be summed up in one sentence.  It is the mysticism of happiness.  That is to say, it is the conception that as man lives upon a borderland he may find himself in the spiritual or supernatural atmosphere, not only through being profoundly sad or meditative, but by being extravagantly happy.  The soul might be rapt out of the body in an agony of sorrow, or a trance of ecstasy; but it might also be rapt out of the body in a paroxysm of laughter.  Sorrow we know can go beyond itself; so, according to Shakespeare, can pleasure go beyond itself and become something dangerous and unknown.  And the reason that the logical and destructive modern school ... does not grasp this purely exuberant nature of the comedies is simply that their logical and destructive attitude has rendered impossible the very experience of this preternatural exuberance ...

 

It doesn't seem as if many here have seen it, but you can watch the whole thing here on YouTube:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P39Fh8JwqPw

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I strongly agree that Shakespeare's play deserves to be on any Divine Comedies list, and probably in the top three, but I have one major reservation about this film adaptation, and hopefully you guys can persuade me otherwise.  I feel that Dick Powell (Lysander) and Ross Alexander (Demetrius) butcher their lines and cannot handle Shakespeare's language at all.  Cagney, Brown, and Rooney are great, and the rest of the cast is fine, but I cringed every time Powell and Alexander spoke, especially Powell.  Some of Lysander's lines were even re-written for Hermia, and I remember hearing that Powell tried to get out of his contract because he realized how lousy a job he was doing.

 

Those of you who love the film: any thoughts?  Am I being too critical of Powell and Alexander?  Is there some way that their performances work that I missed?

"Anyway, in general I love tragic artists, especially classical ones."

"Even the forms for expressing truth can be multiform, and this is indeed necessary for the transmission of the Gospel in its timeless meaning."

- Pope Francis, August 2013 interview with Antonio Spadaro

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I feel that Dick Powell (Lysander) and Ross Alexander (Demetrius) butcher their lines and cannot handle Shakespeare's language at all.  Cagney, Brown, and Rooney are great, and the rest of the cast is fine, but I cringed every time Powell and Alexander spoke, especially Powell.  Some of Lysander's lines were even re-written for Hermia, and I remember hearing that Powell tried to get out of his contract because he realized how lousy a job he was doing.

 

Those of you who love the film: any thoughts?  Am I being too critical of Powell and Alexander?  Is there some way that their performances work that I missed?

Lysander and Demetrius could absolutely have been better cast. (I would have preferred Robert Young, Leslie Howard or Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) At the same time, honestly, they could have been worst cast. (Imagine Gary Cooper, Cary Grant or Spencer Tracy trying to pull if off. All three are better actors, but I can't imagine them doing much better). Powell in particular does not seem comfortable with his lines. However, they are such silly characters that it doesn't wreck the film. You may not see Batman and Detective McNulty sillier than in their version in 1999. The film, as a whole is so joyful and vigorous, that Powell and Alexander both make up for it a little by pure energy and exuberance. I think it's evident that they, along with de Havilland and Muir, are clearly enjoying themselves.
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