A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935)

Black & White
Rating: USA: Approved
Length: 133 min – other versions: 117 min (edited version), 142 min (with overture and exit music)
Age: suitable for 3, but for plot comprehension 4 or 5

Scary Factor: Oberon in black and his bat-people minions are a little unnerving, particularly when they seem to be rounding up the beautiful fairies at the end. Other than that there’s nothing violent or threatening. Viewers may wonder about the small orphan boy fought over by Oberon and Titania, but the toddler keeps smiling whether he’s with one or the other and seems to be treated well, so it shouldn’t be an issue. (He weeps only when Titania ignores him during her fascination with Bottom.)

Interests: magic, fairies, Shakespeare, old movies

Next: MOVIE: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999) is more for 12+ crowd (PG-13); BOOKS: traditional fairy tales, Peter Pan, Tales from Shakespeare by Charles & Mary Lamb, Shakespeare’s The Tempest (in a picture book version)

Preparation: picture books or other abridged versions of the Midsummer Night’s Dream story – helpful to know the plot first!

A wonderful introduction to Shakespeare, this play has everything: magic, fairies, a haunted forest, royalty and pomp, spells gone wrong, buffoonish actors, even cross-dressing! And this filmed version from 1935 is positively magical from start to finish. The simple special effects for the fairy folk, and the sparkly look of the fairy scenes are still effective today, and the overall effect is other-worldly and enchanting. It’s no surprise that the film won an Academy Award in 1936 for cinematography. It’s got a stellar cast, including Olivia de Havilland, Dick Powell, James Cagney, and young Mickey Rooney as Puck! (The latter’s overacting is the only weak point in the ensemble.) The music is wonderful too, consisting mainly of the original incidental music written by Felix Mendelssohn-Batholdy, with extra adaptation and some original cues by the marvellous composer Erich Korngold. (Listen for Mendelssohn’s famous Wedding March melody at the end.) This was definitely a prestige picture, produced at great expense in an attempt to give moving pictures a more highbrow reputation. Fortunately it works wonderfully, retaining great humour and charm, and is good family viewing for all ages.

The only stumbling blocks for young viewers would be the long length and the Shakespearian language. As for the first, there is a convenient ‘Intermission’ break at the halfway point, so the film can easily be split into two nights of viewing. The scenes themselves are long, due to a reluctance to edit the original text. It may be a struggle for youngsters with short attention spans to stick with it, but there just may be enough ‘eye candy’ to keep them interested.

(My fairy-loving 4-year-old was fading after an hour, but still insisted on putting on a fancy dress and prancing around like the little fairies – she was utterly entranced with the lengthy fairy-folk segments.)

As for the second obstacle, the language, keep your finger on the pause button. Explanations will be necessary, but they shouldn’t dampen the enjoyment of the film. Another strategy that I found really helpful was to find and read a picture book version of the story first so that they have a basic understanding of what’s going on before you watch the movie. Here are two books I found in our library:

Bevan, Clare; ill. Ross Collins. A Midsummer Night’s Dream (The Shakespeare Collection) New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Coville, Bruce; ill. Dennis Nolan. William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream New York: Dial Books, 1996.

At any rate, here’s the story in a nutshell (!):

Theseus, Duke of Athens, returns victorious from a war with an Amazonian kingdom, and brings back its queen to wed. (A blonde Amazonian. Oh well.) Among his subjects, Lysander and Hermia are in love. Demetrius loves Hermia as well, though Helena is carrying a torch for him. Hermia’s father is adamant that she marry Demetrius, hence difficulties. Meanwhile, in the nearby village a very rustic group of peasants prepares an amateurish play to present to the Duke for his wedding celebration. The night before the Duke’s wedding Lysander and Hermia run away, intending to elope, with Demetrius and Helena in hot pursuit. All four get lost in a wood full of fairies, where the troup of actors are also rehearsing. Among the fairies King Oberon and Queen Titania are quarreling over an orphaned ‘changeling’ child. With the help of a mischievous sprite named Puck, Oberon casts some love spells which go awry. Intending to make Demetrius love Helena, instead Puck causes Lysander to love Helena and forsake Hermia. Next he causes Demetrius to fall for Helena too. Helena is skeptical, believing that they are just mocking her. Helena and Hermia fight, Lysander and Demetrius start to duel in the foggy wood. Also, Puck throws a little magic at an actor named Bottom, giving him a donkey head. Then Queen Titania is made to fall in love with him to embarrass her and amuse Oberon.

All this is rather complicated but there’s more than enough action and hijinks to keep the kids entranced. The wood is simply magical, the lovers and actors are all playing for the humour in the situation, Titania and her entourage are beautiful, and Oberon is regal, if a little mean. The actors are certainly goofy enough, led by a mercurial James Cagney as Bottom, and the extremely bad play they put on at the end should make the kids giggle. (Especially Joe E. Brown in very unconvincing drag.)

One awkward note is the fact that the film presents Oberon as rather sinister, so when Titania rejoins him at the end it seems a little upsetting, like the ‘bad guys’ won. Young viewers might need it explained that the reunion is a reunification of both halves of the fairy kingdom – they are king and queen, of course, and are just arguing.

Trivia (from IMDB.com): The movie was banned in Germany by the Nazi government because the director Max Reinhardt and Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy were Jewish.

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All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.
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