It’s not too much of a secret that Shakespeare and I have never really seen eye-to-eye. Of all the Shakespeare adaptations I’ve seen in film, and the actual plays I’ve read and studied in school, and even the stage productions I’ve seen, there’s been only a small handful that I can say I was genuinely impressed with or entertained by, instead of merely confuddled trying to understand and make sense of it. This is largely personal, in that I know I’m in the minority in my continued dissatisfaction with Shakespeare’s work, but for me, it takes something truly transcendent to make me really enjoy Shakespeare. One of the few times I can say I really, truly enjoyed a Shakespeare production was a stage show of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which I went to along with some of my English class in I believe 8th grade; it was much more modern than I was expecting from a Shakespeare, and it was probably the hardest I’ve ever laughed at one of the man’s plays. This film, the 1935 adaptation of that play, wasn’t nearly the raucous comedy I was expecting, but it had a quiet magic about it all the same, which will absolutely please any real fans of the Bard.
The plot concerns two groups, one of people and the other of spirits of the forest, known in the film as fairies. The first group centers around young maiden Hermia, who has the affections of two young men, Lysander and Demetrius. Hermia returns Lysander’s affections, but her father favors Demetrius (who has the affections of another lady, Helena, though Demetrius disdains her), so she and Lysander hatch a plan to elope through the forest away from the law of the land to be together. The second group consists of Oberon and Titania, king and queen of the fairies of the forest, who are currently having a spat with each other, and thus Oberon calls upon his mischievous ward Puck (played with a nearly endless stream of manic energy by a young Mickey Rooney) to find a magic flower, the dewdrops of which when squeezed over a sleeping being’s eyes will cause them to fall in love with the first living creature they see when they wake, planning to play a prank on Titania by making her fall in love with a wild creature. The two groups coincide in the forest, when Oberon has Puck also lay the magic dewdrops on Demetrius’ eyes to make him fall in love with Helena and thus resolve the love quadrangle of the young ones, but Puck mistakes Lysander for Demetrius, causing Lysander to fall for Helena instead. Shenanigans are thus abound throughout the forest, as Oberon and Puck try to remedy their mistake with the humans, while Titania ends up falling in love with a man whom Puck has exchanged heads with a donkey. So, aside from the admittedly rather convoluted plot, what is there to watch this one for? Well, not being too much of a Shakespeare kinda guy, I can’t say for certain, except for two aspects. The first is the cinematography, which was absolutely magical in the best of ways; indeed, cinematographer Hal Mohr managed to win the Academy Award despite not even being on the official ballot, in the only write-in winner in Oscar history. This film was also the first time during my Best Picture odyssey I can recall being particularly impressed with a film’s score; maybe it was the overture and exit music which, while adding to the running time, made me appreciate the music more than I might’ve otherwise, but I thought the score was especially phenomenal, though mention should be made that it wasn’t originally written for the film, but for a stage production of the play by German composer Felix Mendelssohn, which I think largely explains why it was so memorable.
I’ve spoken a lot about how this film, being a Shakespeare production, isn’t really my kind of thing, so how do I go about assessing the film’s merits despite my clearly not being a part of this film’s intended audience? I’m not entirely certain, but I can do the best I can with this: if you’re a Shakespeare fan, this will likely have many aspects that will make this a memorable watch, from James Cagney and Olivia de Havilland to the divine cinematography to the classical (and still enjoyable) score. I’m not altogether positive that this will be a particularly outstanding viewing, however, mostly because the film follows the play by rote instead of making more of it, like the stage production that I saw in middle school did. Still, I was hesitant to start this one due to the slightly extended running time, and I got through it well enough (though I gained a new appreciation for those who detest Mickey Rooney, as he was exceedingly overacting every second of this one), so that should be enough of a win for me.
Arbitrary Rating: 7/10