Max Reinhardt's legendary Hollywood Bowl production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream was transferred to the screen by Warner Bros. in 1935. Like most of Shakespeare's comedies, the story contains several seemingly unrelated plotlines, all tied together by a single unifying event, in this instance the impending wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta. One story thread concerns the mistaken-identity romances of four young Athenians; another involves a group of "rude mechanicals" who plan to stage a production of "Pyramus and Thisbe" in honor of the wedding; and third plot strand is motivated by the mischievous misbehavior of invisible fairies Oberon, Titania, and Puck. While one of the members of Reinhardt's original stage cast, Olivia De Havilland (Hermia) was retained for the film version, the remainder of the roles went to Warners' ever-reliable stock company. Some of the casting is inspired: James Cagney is brilliant as vainglorious amateur thespian Bottom, while Joe E. Brown is ideal as the reluctant female impersonator Flute. As the four lovers, De Havilland and Jean Muir far outshine the smirking and simpering Dick Powell and Ross Alexander. In the dominion of the fairies, Mickey Rooney is a bit too precious as Puck, but Anita Louise is a lovely Titania and Victor Jory a suitably menacing Oberon (his opening line "Ill met by moonlight, proud Titania!" still sends shivers down our spines). Cagney and Brown's fellow "mechanicals" are an odd mixture of the sublime (Frank McHugh) and the just plain silly (Hugh Herbert). While the performances and direction (by Reinhardt and William Dieterle) are uneven, the art direction and special effects (especially the nocturnal dance of the fairies) are breathtakingly beautiful. Mendelssohn's "Midsummer Night's Dream" incidental music is masterfully orchestrated by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, while the cinematography by Hal Mohr earned the first write-in Academy Award in Hollywood history (Mohr had not been nominated due to hostilities arising from a recent industry strike). Considered a brave failure at the time of its first release, on a purely visual level A Midsummer Night's Dream is one of the more satisfying Shakespearean cinemadaptations of Hollywood's golden age.
by Hal Erickson synopsis