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About the Film:  A Midsummer Night's Dream

By  Jessica Elaine Ellison

By the time his film A Midsummer Night’s Dream premiered in 1935, Max Reinhardt was by no means a stranger to Shakespeare. Reinhardt’s landmark film would be his fourteenth production of the classic Shakespeare comedy. A Midsummer Night’s Dream was Reinhardt’s favorite Shakespeare due to its Baroque qualities of lavishness and exuberant detail, as well as the combination of the supernatural and fantastical with the heroic and comical. A prominent Austrian-born actor and director, Reinhardt was largely inspired by the theatrical traditions of Vienna. He was particularly inspired by 18th- and 19th-century Viennese folk theatre, which integrated traditions of Italian opera and Austrian Baroque theatre and was known for its clash of elegance, heroism, musicality, and odd comedic characters. Reinhardt himself notes that “Imperial Vienna was a theatre city unlike any other...it was full of music.”1 These theatrical catalysts would inspire Reinhardt to create art that fought against naturalism and extreme realism, two highly popular theatrical styles that emerged during the late 19th century and which Reinhardt believed had become outdated and dull. He approached the theatrical classics with this concept in mind, wanting to apply more modern and experimental theatrical styles in order to bring new light to old stories. In his own words, he wanted “a theatre that will again bring joy to people.”2

Reinhardt’s first stage production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was in 1905, and it was noted in reviews of the day for merging aspects of different art forms into one unified production. The subsequent productions he directed would culminate in Reinhardt’s 1934 production of the show at the Hollywood Bowl in California. Not only was this Reinhardt’s first Shakespeare production in the United States, but it was also the production that would catch the eye of Warner Brothers Studios and lead to the 1935 film. This campy and over-the-top production would go on to be seen by a total of approximately 15,000 audience

1 Martin Esslin, “Max Reinhardt: ‘High Priest of Theatricality,’” The Drama Review 21, no. 2 (1977): p. 6.
2 Martin Esslin, “Max Reinhardt: ‘High Priest of Theatricality,’” The Drama Review 21, no. 2 (1977): p. 9.

members and run for eight nights, ultimately breaking all box office records in the Hollywood Bowl’s then ten-year history. There are many debates over who actually convinced Warner Bros. to take on the project, but regardless of who claims credit the remarkable Hollywood Bowl production led to a $75,000 contract between Reinhardt and Warner Bros. for the film.

Despite eagerness on the part of both Warner Bros. and Reinhardt, the road to their film was not an easy one. There were many clashes between Reinhardt, who wanted to recreate his Hollywood Bowl production, and the film studio, who had to deal with logistics and personnel. Warner Bros. had suffered from financial struggles throughout the Great Depression, as did many film studios. By their recovery in 1934, the studio was anxious to switch up their repertoire and add something new and exciting that would gross large sums of money. They were typically known for films that appealed to blue-collar, working class people, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream would allow them to expand their audience. The cast and crew for the production were ever-changing. The cast was not finalized until two days prior to rehearsals, and there was a last-minute change of cinematographer. Ernest Haller, the original cinematographer, was fired and replaced by Hal Mohr after Haller’s forest design proved hard to light and would get caught on actors’ costumes. In terms of the cast, Reinhardt kept four actors from his Hollywood Bowl production: Otis Harlan as Robin Starveling, Nini Theilade as one of the forest fairies, Olivia de Havilland as Hermia, and, most notably, Mickey Rooney as Puck. Rooney’s performance of Puck continues to divide audiences, but Reinhardt adored the mischievous, boyish charm that Rooney gave to the character, and this would be the role that would launch Rooney to stardom. Guy Kibbee was initially cast as Nick Bottom but would later be replaced by James Cagney. The character of Bottom had traditionally been portrayed as burly, balding, and older than most other characters. But Warner Bros. believed that the film needed a big headliner, so they pitched Cagney who was one of their star actors. Negotiations went back and forth for nearly a month, but Cagney was officially signed as Bottom just two days before rehearsals started and would reinvent the role, giving the character greater charm and confidence. The character of Oberon was also quite difficult to cast. Reinhardt wanted a big name like Laurence Olivier, but the studio eventually settled on Victor Jory. Although most of the casting choices were effective, one stands out as less so. Critics, audiences, and even the actor Dick Powell himself believed that his casting as Lysander was unsuitable. Powell believed that he was miscast and in over his head, but as a Warner Bros. company actor he had no choice in the matter.

In his attempts to move away from both classical approaches to Shakespeare as well as the more recent naturalistic tradition, Max Reinhardt would go above and beyond to make this film theatrical, musical, and magical, cementing his title as one of the great masters of theatricality. To create his extravagant Shakespearean world, Reinhardt and the production team created a forest that covered two soundstages and had an outdoor extension, slightly larger than a city block. The production utilized 67 tons of trees, 1500 pounds of rubber, 600,000 yards of cellophane, and 650,000 candles. In order to properly light the lavish forest, cinematographer Hal Mohr had to thin out the trees by spraying them with aluminum paint and covering them with cobwebs and small metal bits to reflect light. Mohr also custom-built some of the upholstery used in the production in order to support the lighting requirements for the film.

Despite its innovations in lighting and cinematography, the film is probably best known for its innovations in music and scoring. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is often regarded as one of the first composed films; the rhythm of the music and the dialogue were predetermined together and were thus inextricably linked. During this time, the traditional practice for scoring films was to do so in post-production, melding sound and image together only after all scenes had been shot. But Reinhardt wished for all aspects of the film to be cohesive, so the film’s score was determined during filming so that actors could incorporate the composition into their work. For this daunting task, Reinhardt personally requested Erich Wolfgang Korngold, an Austrian-American composer. Korngold is considered to be a musical prodigy—at the age of eleven he composed the ballet The Snowman, and he composed his world-renowned opera, The Dead City, while still a teenager. For Reinhardt’s film, Korngold adapted the work of the German composer Felix Mendelssohn to create a unique soundscape. Here music serves a narrative function. It does not just exist in the background but actively interacts with the overall plot and structure of the film to help tell the story. During this time period, composers and directors would usually incorporate music into the film in post-production. But Reinhardt and Korngold collaborated for the entirety of the production process, and some actors became frustrated with Korngold’s constant presence on set. Korngold also collaborated with Hal Mohr and the cinematography team to have the music reflect the tone of the set and stay in line with editing; thus, a majority of the camera cuts in the large dance numbers are done in time with Korngold’s music.

The host of spectacular elements present in this production also serve as tools in Reinhardt’s struggle against the prevailing trend of film naturalism. Reinhardt was a pioneer of modernist takes on Shakespeare. At the time, most artists believed that a naturalistic approach to acting and design highlighted the grand style of classic works. Reinhardt, however, was vocal in his belief that naturalistic productions of Shakespeare actually did a disservice to the work by giving it a fixed meaning, one that remained unwavering despite vast cultural changes happening in the early 20th century. His spectacular take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream is not only an affirmation that Reinhardt truly understood theatricality, but it also serves as a testament that one can always bring something new to the classics and that fresh magic can be found in more mature works.