"A Midsummer Night's Dream" (1935), SD-DVD. A Warner release from 2007.
This is a fine example of a fun movie which has NOT been released on Blu-ray, and likely never will be! It is for discs like THIS that you want to make sure your Home Theater setup handles SD Video playback well.
Audio on this one is Dolby Digital (DD) 1.0 (Mono) 48kHz.
Puck or Robin Goodfellow, a Fairy (Micky Rooney, age 14): "Lord, what FOOLS these mortals be!" *high-pitched, annoying laugh*
By 1934, Jack Warner was badly in need of some class.
Oh, his distinctly blue-collar studio was cranking out detective films and other such low-brow stuff, but what he REALLY needed was a Prestige project which would show Warner Bros. could hold its head up with the big boys!
Then, into that cultural desert which was Los Angeles in the 1930s, descended German stage Director Max Reinhardt -- recognized worldwide as an established force in legitimate theater. He had come to Los Angeles to stage one of his famous, open air productions of William Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream", at the Hollywood Bowl -- performed with incidental music composed by Felix Mendelssohn in the 1800s. LA had never seen ANYTHING like it. It was a smash hit!
And in the audience was Jack Warner, who had an epiphany. His studio, Warner Bros., would produce the first ever sound film of a Shakespeare play. He would make "A Midsummer Night's Dream", and do it up right! He would have Max Reinhardt Direct! He would have music by Mendelssohn! He would pack the screen with Warner stars! It would be Shakespeare as Shakespeare HIMSELF would have done it -- if he'd had a Hollywood studio to play with, and a taste for glitz!
What followed is the stuff of Hollywood legend -- one which should probably bear the title, "The Comedy of Errors"!
To get the full story here you absolutely HAVE TO listen to the highly informative and utterly hilarious Commentary track on this disc. I'm not kidding. If you get this disc, you really MUST set aside the time to listen to the Commentary track. It is the inside story of a production so out of control it ended up exceeding its budget by 100%. The historian reads the increasingly frantic memos from the studio execs as reel after reel of unusable film show up for screenings. He also reads excerpts from the actors' writings, describing their reactions to a shoot where the Director spoke no English and had no concept of how modern sound films were made (Reinhardt's only prior filmmaking experience was with silent films before 1920). It is side-splittingly funny!
EXAMPLE: Reinhardt, himself, had cast a young Mickey Rooney (then age 13) to play Puck in the Hollywood Bowl production. Puck is a fairy spirit whose penchant for practical jokes, combined with certain misunderstandings, drives much of the action. And Rooney's performance was considered one of the high points of the Bowl production. So Reinhardt insisted Warner sign Rooney to play Puck in the film.
Now, to get a feel for the problem here, you need to know that in the 1930s, studios would typically assign only ONE of their Stars to any given film -- films which were churned out at such a rapid rate that any given Star might be cast in quite a few films each year! The logic being, you could make WAY more money with many films, having one Star each, than with one film featuring multiple Stars. But Jack Warner's plan for THIS film was to turn that on its head by assigning ALL his Stars to it. And of course, while they were tied up making THIS film, they could not each be making OTHER films!
It was a heck of a gamble! But such was Warner's ambition to make this an indisputable, Prestige production.
So Warner took the young Rooney aside and explained to him the utter seriousness and intricacy of the filmmaking business. He wanted the kid to understand that he must do nothing which might jeopardize the shooting schedule. For example, he had Rooney swear he would play no baseball or football, or ride bicycles to insure he stayed in good shape for the shoot.
Rooney agreed, and promptly went off to the mountains to toboggan. Where he broke his leg!
On hearing this a distraught Jack Warner is reported to have made the following compassionate and solicitous remarks: "I'LL KILL HIM! I'LL KILL HIM! I'LL KILL HIM AND THEN I'LL BREAK HIS OTHER LEG!!"
(Due to this, Rooney's understudy from the Bowl production also had to be hired -- for any shots where Puck's legs had to show. For example in one scene Puck is rocking on a tree branch, swinging his legs and laughing at the mortals below. The legs were George Breakston's laid out flat. The upper body was Rooney straddling Breakston's waist! For other shots Rooney was trundled around on a dolly behind the fake vegetation.)
EXAMPLE: Reinhardt went WAY overboard trying to incorporate "movie magic" into the film -- stuff he could never do in a live stage production. So for example, in an enormous sound stage he had an entire, fake forest constructed -- plaster of paris trees with huge amounts of real leaves trucked in and attached. His trees would be massive; the vegetation dense. But he had them built right up to the ceiling so there was no place to hang the lights! Then he had principal characters hooded and shot from a distance; and the key character of Oberon, King of the Fairies, made up in black makeup.
The original cinematographer, Ernest Haller, tried his best, but it was hopeless. Reel after reel came back from the lab -- all BLACK. Nothing could be discerned. Warner fired Haller and replaced him with cinematographer Hal Mohr. Without asking Reinhardt, Mohr had about half the vegetation cut away. Then he had the trees spray painted -- aluminum on the sides that were supposed to be lit and orange on the dark sides to enhance contrast on the black & white film. This let him light the forest from the SIDES. Mohr was not recognized by the Academy come Oscar time, but a grassroots, write-in campaign staged by folks in the know who understood he had salvaged the film (and quite possibly the Studio!) from the brink of disaster, meant that Hal Mohr won the Best Cinematography Oscar ANYWAY!
The Academy was so thrilled with this example of knowledgeable industry professionals stepping up to recognize true, unsung talent, that it promptly banned write-in voting for all subsequent Oscars!
Warner would have his stars of course. To play Bottom, the Weaver, Warner cast James Cagney. Bottom is supposed to be a dumpy, middle-edged lump, which makes it all the more comical when the Queen of the Fairies is magicked into falling in love with him. Cagney in the 30s was energetic, trim and dynamic -- the opposite of a "lump". Nevertheless Cagney found his way into the role. Bottom, he said, was a true ham. He wanted to play all the roles in the "play within a play" which is key to the narrative. And, as Cagney said, "I can DO 'ham'!" His performance is the best in the film.
Song crooner Dick Powell, Ian Hunter, and comedian Joe E. Brown were also brought in -- with Powell kicking and screaming because he KNEW Shakespeare was not for him. Olivia de Havilland was also signed to reprise her role from the Bowl production (her first film).
The result was an all-Hollywood take on big-budget Shakespeare. It's not ALL that bad -- it was even nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, but lost out to "Mutiny on the Bounty" -- and it certainly gave Warner the bragging rights he was looking for. Within a couple years, ALL the Studios wanted to film Shakespeare. But Warner got there first -- even if he didn't make any money doing it.
Indeed, by 1936, the Hollywood-style take on Shakespeare was such a "thing" that a musical parody was made, called "Shake, Mr. Shakespeare", making fun of it. E.g., Romeo: I am Romeo! My love is undying! / Juliet (on balcony): But this is Hollywood! *drops a flowerpot on him, killing him*. Want more? How 'bout a dancing Hamlet, jazzing it up at Yorick's grave in front of a line of dancing chorus boys, also dressed as Hamlet. This short is included on the SD-DVD as an Extra. Unfortunately the audio for this is really bad. But if you can ignore that, it certainly has its moments!
The other Extras are various promotional pieces made for the original theatrical release. Among these are segments where an individual cast member would come out and exhort the audience to go see this new film. These ads were spliced onto the front of other movies. The film was originally released for Road Show screenings with tickets at the colossal price of $2.20. After the Road Shows the film was trimmed to shorter length (allowing more screenings per day) and sent out to the sticks. One of the included trailers talks about the film now being available at your local theater, "At Popular Prices!"
All in all, it's an above average collection of Extras for an SD-DVD, but as I said the real gem of this disc is the film historian's Commentary track.
As for the feature itself, it is presented in the original, Road Show version, including Overture, Intermission, and Exit Music -- a level of completeness which wasn't available, even in revival screenings, once the original Road Shows ended.
Picture Quality is pretty good for SD-DVD, particularly considering the difficulties of the shoot. Gray scale is a bit limited in range, but consistent, and with no serious signs of age-related damage. The Audio Quality is not so good. It's not nearly as bad as in that parody Extra I mentioned above, but you'll hear some clipping at higher volumes, some age damage, and some problems with mic placement for the actors in all that fake foliage. NOTE: Subtitles are available to help make sure you can follow Shakespeare's lines in the mouths of these profoundly NON-Shakespearian actors.
The film is CERTAINLY worth a look for its historical importance and oddball charm, but as I've said several times, the REAL reason to get this disc is to listen to its amazing Commentary track.