The Great Olivia Re-Watch: A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935)

 
The photo above shows Olivia de Havilland and Dick Powell in A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935).

Olivia de Havilland was one of old Hollywood's legendary stars. The actor, who passed away at age 104 on July 26, leaves behind a legacy of 49 films and several TV appearances that include eight wonderful films with Errol Flynn and Oscar winners like Gone With the Wind (1939) and The Heiress (1949). For the next several months, we'll take a journey through Olivia's filmography. Today, we start with her first movie, Warner Bros. all-star Shakespeare adaptation, A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935).

A Midsummer Night's Dream has three intertwining stories that revolve around the marriage of Duke Theseus of Athens (Ian Hunter) to Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons (Verree Teasdale). The first story concerns the beautiful Athenian Hermia (de Havilland) whose father has ordered her to marry Demetrius (Ross Alexander), although she is in love with Lysander (Dick Powell). The second story involves a group of working class Athenians who are putting on a play to celebrate the nuptials. These stories intertwine when all of the mortals enter a forest that is the domain of fairies.

Austrian theater director/producer Max Reinhardt's lavish production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Hollywood Bowl was one of the cultural triumphs of the 1930s. Jack Warner was so bowled over by the experience that the usually penny-pinching studio chief decided to film an elaborate version of the play that would include a roster of Warner's brightest stars and a couple of new faces. One of the new faces was 18-year-old de Havilland, who had played Hermia at the Hollywood Bowl and on a subsequent national tour (the only other Hollywood Bowl cast member to appear in the film is Mickey Rooney as Puck). 

In fact, Ms. de Havilland's arrival at Warner's was a remarkable twist of fate for the young woman who was born Olivia Mary de Havilland on July 1, 1916, in Tokyo, to a British attorney and his wife. In 1919, Olivia, her mother, and her younger sister, Joan (who would have her own legendary career as Joan Fontaine) moved to California because of Joan's poor health. The family eventually settled in Saratoga where Olivia was a popular student with exceptional grades and a passion for acting. The young woman earned a scholarship to study teaching at Mills College in Oakland, Calif., but a friend who was connected with the Hollywood Bowl's production offered Olivia a role as an understudy to Gloria Stuart, who was set to play Hermia (in later years, Ms. de Havilland liked to joke that the scholarship was still waiting for her).

James Cagney and Anita Louise on the set of A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935)

At the last minute, Ms. Stuart left the production, and, in the manner of many a show-biz tale, Olivia blossomed on stage. After the national tour, she signed a five-year contract with Warners and went to work on the film adaptation of the Reinhardt production.

A Midsummer Night's Dream is one of the more remarkable and unusual films of the 1930s, not only because it's a fairly faithful adaptation, but because it's such a departure from Warner's typical fare of gangster movies, ripped-from-the-headlines dramas, and Busby Berkeley musicals. In her first screen role, Olivia doesn't yet possess the nuance and subtle technique that would make her such a powerful screen actor, but she looks lovely (Olivia was always at her most beautiful in period costume) and she handles the verse quite well. We give it three ⭐⭐⭐out of five stars

Here's some more thoughts about A Midsummer Night's Dream:

The cinematography: Hal Mohr's dazzling black-and-white photography won a deserved best cinematography Academy Award. Mohr is still the only person to win an Oscar as a write-in candidate.

The music: Composer Felix Mendelssohn's beautiful music for the play is heard throughout the film. Listen for the  famous Wedding March at the beginning of the film.

The performances: Despite the cast's relative unfamiliarity with The Bard, there are several good performances, most notably James Cagney as the buffoonish Bottom and Victor Jory's imposingly dark portrayal of fairy king Oberon.

Rooney as Puck: Fourteen-year-old Rooney gives a performance of manic intensity as the impish Puck. While it's not everyone's cup of tea (I'll admit there are moments during the film when I want to yell, "Shut it, Rooney"), his performance fits the character and he gets the play's best line in "what fools these mortals be"  (true in 1935; still accurate in 2020).

A Midsummer Night's Dream is airing at 6 am ET Oct. 11, 2020, on TCM. Also on DVD and video on demand.


Next time, we'll take on the baseball comedy Alibi Ike (1935).





Comments

  1. During the first intermission at a Stratford Festival production of A Midsummer Night's Dream my husband commented, "That Shakespeare. He's a regular Neil Simon." Truly, the heights of both his comedies and dramas are astounding. A Midsummer Night's Dream tickles my funny bone and this movie from Warner Brothers is delightful. The impression made by young Olivia De Havilland is strong and I don't think it is purely because we know what she will become; it is her own outstanding personality.

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    1. I've always wanted to go to the Stratford festival. I was excited to see they have plays you can watch at home this year. I'll have to try one or two.

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