The lunatic, the lover, and the poet
Are of imagination all compact.
–Theseus (V.i.7-8)

Summer is icumen in the Northern Hemisphere and a certain midsommar horror will see release soon, and so we’re going to review Shakespeare’s popular play of fantasy. So many film adaptations exist that we might make this an annual tradition. For now, we’ll start with the two most star-studded cinematic interpretations, Warner Brothers’ 1935 adaptation with luminaries like James Cagney, Mickey Rooney, and Olivia de Havilland, and the 1999 version starring Kevin Kline, Michelle Pfeiffer, Calista Flockhart, and Christian Bale, among others.

Greek mythology, faeries, magic, lovers young and old, and a well-meaning troupe of dubious actors await you.

Title: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935)

Cast and Crew

Directed by William Dieterle and Max Reinhardt
Screenplay by Charles Kenyon and Mary C. McCall Jr. from the play by William Shakespeare

James Cagney as Bottom – the Weaver
Victor Jory as Oberon – King of the Fairies
Anita Louise as Titania – Queen of the Fairies
Mickey Rooney as Puck or Robin Goodfellow
Ian Hunter as Theseus
Verree Teasdale as Hippolyta
Dick Powell as Lysander
Ross Alexander as Demetrius
Olivia de Havilland as Hermia
Jean Muir as Helena
Frank McHugh as Quince — the Carpenter
Dewey Robinson as Snug — the Joiner
Joe E. Brown as Flute — the Bellows-Mender
Hugh Herbert as Snout — the Tinker
Otis Harlan as Starveling — the Tailor
Arthur Treacher as Epilogue
Hobart Cavanaugh as Philostrate
Grant Mitchell as Egeus
Nini Theilade as Titania’s attendant
Katherine Frey as Pease-Blossom
Helen Westcott as Cobweb
Fred Sale as Moth
Billy Barty as Mustard-Seed
Carol Ellis as Titania’s singing voice
Sheila Brown as Changeling child

Kenneth Anger claims to have played the child, but no evidence supports his assertion. This fact will surprise no one familiar with Anger. The credits identify child-actress Sheila Brown in the role.

Premise:

The Duke of Athens prepares to marry the Queen of the Amazons, young lovers flee into the forest to escape a legal restriction, and the King and Queen of the Faeries quarrel over a changeling. The king enlists the assistance of the trickster, Puck. Meanwhile, several tradesmen rehearse a play to be performed at he Duke’s wedding, and hope not to make asses of themselves.

High Points:

The forest scenes combines real nature footage with impressive, stylized studio effects that seem charming and magical even as the film approaches its centenary. I’m pretty certain the effects and design people had watched Witchcraft Through the Ages, and they gleefully give us something akin to Shakespeare’s Pagan faerie-folk, instead of Victorian children’s-book illustrations.

Low Points:

Andy Rooney began acting at age six and, while he had not yet achieved star status at this point, he was starting what would prove a long and successful career. I’m surprised that his shrill, shrieking performance in this film didn’t cut it short immediately, though surely a lion’s share of the blame must lie with the director who instructed or permitted Rooney to act like a hyperactive child on someone else’s meds.

The Scores:

Originality: 2/6 The play has been performed for centuries, but it had seen few film adaptations at this point. I know of two silent versions, from 1909 and 1910.

Effects: 5/6

Acting: 4/6 The acting varies quite a bit. Cagney and de Havilland are fine, though I understand why the former never returned to Shakespeare.

Production: 6/6 Apart from the excellent visuals, the film includes the music written for the play by Felix Mendelssohn, and dances choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska.

Story: 6/6

Emotional Response: 5/6

Overall: 4/6

In total, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935) receives 32/42

Title: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999)

Cast and Crew

Director: Michael Hoffman
Screenplay by Michael Hoffman from the play by William Shakespeare

Kevin Kline as Nick Bottom – the Weaver
Michelle Pfeiffer as Titania – Queen of the Faeries
Rupert Everett as Oberon – King of the Faeries
Stanley Tucci as Puck or Robin Goodfellow
David Strathairn as Theseus
Sophie Marceau as Hippolyta
Calista Flockhart as Helena
Anna Friel as Hermia
Christian Bale as Demetrius
Dominic West as Lysander
Roger Rees as Peter Quince – The Carpenter
Gregory Jbara as Snug– The Joiner
Sam Rockwell as Francis Flute—The Bellows-Maker
Bill Irwin as Tom Snout – The Tinker
Max Wright as Starveling – The Tailor
John Sessions as Philostrate
Bernard Hill as Egeus
Annalisa Cordone as Cobweb
Paola Pessot as Mustardseed
Solena Nocentini as Moth
Flaminia Fegarotti as Peaseblossom
Valerio Isidori as Master Antonio
Heather Parisi as Bottom’s Wife
Chomoke Bhuiyan as Changeling child

Premise:

The Duke of Athens prepares to marry Hippolyta, young lovers flee into the forest to escape a legal restriction, and the King and Queen of the Faeries quarrel over a changeling. The king enlists the assistance of the trickster, Puck. Meanwhile, several tradesmen rehearse a play to be performed at he Duke’s wedding, and hope not to make asses of themselves.

This version places the action in fictional Monte Athena, Tuscany in the late nineteenth century.

High Points:

it shall be called Bottom’s Dream,
because it hath no bottom (IV.ii.225-226)

They gave the role of Bottom to Kevin Kline, an accomplished actor and comedian playing a hammy, self-important ass-head, and Kline knows exactly what to do. This version belongs to Kevin Kline’s Bottom, who dominates every scene in which he appears– just as the character imagines he should.

(Sam Rockwell upstages him once, in another fine moment).

Low Points:

The play gets the comedy right. It struggles with the play’s magical elements, and the young mortal lovers require greater chemistry for those moments where they’re not being fools.

In all fairness, that’s their default setting in this play.

The Scores:

Originality: 1/6 You cannot do much original at this point with this play, though Hoffman changes the setting and adds bicycles and mud-wrestling.

Effects: 5/6 One myth regarding the faerie folk holds that God, after casting out the rebel angels, stretched out a hand and stopped some who felt repentant from reaching Hell. They fell only as far as earth, and became faeries and suchlike.

The make-up and effects used in this production certainly bring this myth to mind. Oberon, Titania, Puck, and the others fall somewhere between angel and demon, and a little closer to devilish.

Acting: 5/6 The quality of performances vary, but most are fine. I’ve mentioned Kline’s Bottom, but Stanley Tucci scores as Puck, and Calista Flockhart has some good comedic moments.

Production: 6/6 We hear Mendelssohn again, and pieces from Italian opera.

Story: 6/6 It certainly has stood the test of time, and the lovers’ shenanigans, for all the comical hyperbole, should resonate.

Emotional Response: 5/6

Overall: 5/6 Shakespeare had no problem combining characters from Greek mythology, faeries from local lore, and rather Renaissance-seeming tradesmen into one crazy dream of a play. Complaining about the change of setting seems pointless. This production manages the high poetry and low comedy effectively, if not perfectly. If I had to show a movie of this play to someone who had never seen it, I would select this one.

It gets the funny parts right, and the play is a comedy.

In total, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999) receives 33/42