Friday, 22 April 2016

James Cagney in Shakespeare : Midsummer Night's Dream Hollywood

James Cagney in Shakespeare? And Mickey Rooney, Olivia de Havilland and Dick Powell too, in  A Midsummer Night's Dream, the movie (1935). Shakespeare's text was cut and adapted. Mendelssohn's music revised by Erich Korngold, and extra dance sequences added, by Nijinsky's sister Bronislava.  Huge money was thrown behind the production, and all the state of the art technical resources Warner Brothers could muster.  This  was Midsummer Night's Dream as Hollywood musical extravaganza. It's compelling and repelling at the same time. Shakespeare kitsch, but kitsch on such a grand, audacious scale that you have to keep watching.  What a pity this was made in black and white and not in gaudy Technicolor !

On the other hand the special effects are so clearly "home made" that their very crudity is part of the charm.   Surfaces are splashed all over with reflecting fragments which sparkle "fairy dust". everywhere to distract the eye. The cameras lenses are heavily greased to soften focus  and many close-ups are lit from behind to soften detail.  This magic forest was clearly made in the studio workshops. The fairies are chorus girls, heavier on the hoof than ballerinas might be. But in its own gauche way this movie captures some of the wide-eyed naivety which Shakespeare found in the rude mechanicals. No one seriously believes the Wall is a Wall!

Once someone told me that he couldn't watch Shakespeare unless the costumes were "authentic" . Shakespeare and his audience would have thought he was a fool. They walked around in costumes as part of their normal lives. When they went to the theatre, they used their minds and imaginations.  The spartan simplicity of theatre practice in Shakespeare's own time is more "authentic" than glammed-up excess. In the past, audiences were accustomed to conceptual thinking, because they studied the classics and had an idea of Greek drama. They also went to church and understood the role of symbolism. Audiences now expect the literalism of TV costume drama. More than ever, we need Shakespeare's Midsummers Night's Dream to remind us of the interplay between art and reality, between outward appearances and inner meaning. Which is why it's worth watching the Hollywood Midsummers Night's Dream.  Bottom and his friends are workmen who don't know much about art, but they're funny because they improvise. Warner Brothers set out to make a 1930's extravaganza that would cost money, make money and establish their high-art credentials.  So this movie achieves Shakespeare's aims, despite itself.

So back to the actors. Victor Jory's Batman cape acts a more convincing Oberon than he does and Anita Louise is more tat than Tatiana, and her singing cuts like a rusty razor blade. Shakespeare's poetry gets so mangled that you're glad the text gets cut to breaks where armies of extras run in long lines, pretending to be fairies. Hordes of kids and dwarves (that Hollywood speciality).  Dick Powell was a matinee idol, and Olivia de Havilland box office hot, so the directors (Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle) make more of Lysander and Hermia than they might have otherwise. Mickey Rooney was 15 when he played Puck, so something of his child star impishness enlivens his acting.  When he stumbles on words, and over-exaggerates, he creates a suitably Puckish waywardness. James Cagney, though, is a wonderfully earthy Bottom. The other actors ham their way through the poetry and make it sound arch. Cagney's delivery feels like Bottom's natural growl. Bottom as con man and gangster who fools the toffs - yes, indeed! And gets fooled himself in the process. Did he realize how well he played this part?

As for the music, the sound quality on the recording is so bad that it kills a lot. Since I like Korngold,  I like the blend of corn and gold in this soundtrack, with its twittering decorations  and glamorous flourishes.  Korngold writes authentic Hollywood, and very much created the style, even before he left Vienna.  He was interested in movies even before sound.  I need a fix of echt Mendelssohn to clear my ears after watching this movie, but a fix of sugar is a guilty treat.  Below, the trailer, which  says loads about the philosophy behind this film. It is embarrassingly close to the values of present-day opera audiences.

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