I recently saw two films from the 1930s, one of which I had wanted to see for a long time and the other of which I had never heard of until recently.
The one I’d wanted to see for a long time was the famous 1935 Midsummer Night’s Dream directed by Max Reinhardt (or Professor Max Reinhardt, as the accompanying period newsreels ostentatiously refer to him), with the assistance of William Dieterle, and based on Reinhardt’s Hollywood Bowl production. That must have been a wild evening; wild enough, at least, to convince Warner Bros. to film it. The DVD extras included several contemporaneous shorts about the production which tread the usual line between a slightly abashed self-consciousness from the American movie stars that they're tackling the mighty Shakespeare (but gosh, that Bill Shakespeare sure wrote some swell comedy parts that still bring down the house!) and a certain smirky feeling that, after all, it is the American movie stars that the public really wants, no matter what the highbrows think. There’s a weird and amusing musical short film in the extras called Shake Mr Shakespeare in which various Shakespearean characters step out of the books and into Hollywood, where Romeo and Juliet break up over who gets star billing, and they take turns singing pop numbers about what they’d be like in Hollywood (including a really unfortunate but I have to say, "transgressively" hilarious, moment in which Othello gets some Al Jolson-type treatment).
But it’s not as if they left a whole lot of Shakespeare on screen anyway – the characters kept starting speeches and then we'd be on to something else when I thought they were just beginning. Hippolyta (Verree Teasdale) in particular suffers from this treatment; her character arc turns into a close-up grimace at the beginning and a close-up smile at the end and not much in between. Like his future wife, Theseus (Ian Hunter) is also a bit part here, and both speak what lines they have with an old-fashioned stage manner that is both charming and slightly comical to us.
Any possible dirty jokes are removed with American (or is it German?) efficiency and thoroughness, so that during the interlude of Pyramus and Thisbe the lovers kiss “the wall” and not “the wall’s hole.” The interlude falls a bit flat; it would have been more entertaining and in keeping with the play if they had parodied earlier movie styles (Pyramus as Valentino or Thisbe as Theda Bara, maybe), the way Britten parodied the recently revived bel canto operas in his setting of the play. People (including, apparently, Professor Reinhardt) sometimes think the interlude is just crude knockabout, but like all parodies it actually requires a subtle and sophisticated knowledge of artistic conventions and cliches, and just how much is too much.
The Hollywood stars – the ones whose names you’d still recognize, mostly – are fine; meaning their more natural screen style is closer to our current style. Olivia de Havilland as Hermia, in one of her first film roles, is already an astonishingly ripe beauty, and she works well with the slightly fey musical comedy buoyancy of her Lysander, Dick Powell. Jimmy Cagney is fine as Bottom, but honestly I’ve always found the character over-rated and sort of annoying. And speaking of annoying, Mickey Rooney is Puck.
Well – annoying isn’t quite the right word. He’s very effective at what he’s supposed to be doing, which is to be a screechy, uncanny, troublesome sprite. He has little horns, and is probably more naked than you really want Mickey Rooney to be (someone on Netflix worried that all that childish nudity among the fairies would lead to this movie being banned, which is a good example of decent impulses tipping over into insane prurience and depravity). There are interestingly dark undertones to the fairy world, though they don’t go as far as the S/M scenes I’ve witnessed in some more modern stage productions. Oberon and his followers are batlike, distinguishing them from Titania’s gauzier crew. There is an actual little Indian prince, beturbaned and jeweled, for Oberon to take from his queen for whatever purpose, and he gets a surprising amount of screen time, but since Titania loses her speech about his mother, a votaress of her order in the spiced Indian air, most of his emotional impact is gone.
He sure does look fancy in his little ornate jacket, though. The movie’s main strength is its visuals. It’s rare for me to wish a black and white movie were in color, but it’s too bad this one was made before color films became the norm. Theseus’s court inhabits elegant sets and travels in fantastically ornate chariots; all sorts of camera tricks in the woods create a haunting effect, beautiful and slightly creepy in the way of German romanticism.
Mendelssohn’s incidental music is used, as arranged by Erich Wolfgang Korngold (and the dances are by Bronislava Nijinska – clearly, care was taken). Korngold shows up briefly in one of the features, playing piano and marking his score, which is the sort of archival footage I love, though it would have been even better if they had actually allowed him to speak, possibly about the music, and maybe not spent quite so much time with Joe E. Brown talking about Bill Shakespeare’s comedy bits. They hired fancy, but they knew fancy doesn’t bring in the fans, at least in the short term.
I was reminded of the 1936 As You Like It, which also features music extensively, so extensively that they had to make room for it by removing all the jokes. The original score is by William Walton, so you can decide if it was worth the exchange; I was happy to hear it (after all, I've heard all the jokes in As You Like It). And once again anything resembling a dirty joke is gone, with the exception of one I suspect they just didn’t get (Touchstone’s “He that sweetest rose will find / must find Love’s prick and Rosalind”). This is most likely the closest I will ever come to a production in which Touchstone actually wears motley and a fool’s cap and carries a bauble. If you like contemplating relics of vanished theatrical eras, this has its appeal, kind of like seeing the Marx Brothers in the film version of their stage hit The Cocoanuts (yes, they spell it that way) or Laurence Olivier in his film Oedipus Rex (with those very theatrical rolled r’s and the oh-so-daring-for-midcentury use of masks – African-style masks).
Speaking of Olivier, he is Orlando, making this the first of his Shakespeare films, though he didn’t direct it. May I just say that I’ve never really gotten the Olivier thing? I suspect you had to see him on stage, or see him before you had heard over and over that he was The Greatest Actor in the World. His Rosalind is Elisabeth Bergner, constantly smiling and with a slight but noticeable (and not unappealing) accent. Her one-note portrayal wears out long before the role does. If you ever wondered what it would be like if Bjork played Rosalind, here’s a chance to see something close.
(I've also seen Branagh’s As You Like It, which is oddly set in Japan – not among the Japanese, which would be fine, but among an English colony in late nineteenth century Japan, one that has adopted all of the more elegantly photogenic customs of the country. But how can Rosalind and her father be exiled from their homeland and find new life in the forest when they’re already far from home? None of them belong there, so how can any of them possibly be the rightful ruler? And this isn’t some ironic take on colonization, an interpretation the play doesn’t support anyway. It's just a weird, though undoubtedly decorative, misfire. I don’t understand why Branagh does stuff like this – like filming every last word of Hamlet, even the little jokes about theatrical fads of the day, because he’s being authentic and faithful to the play, and then setting the whole thing in the nineteenth century, which is completely out of the blue. Maybe he just likes the uniforms.)
The other film was one I’d never heard of until Criterion released it several weeks ago: Leo McCarey’s 1937 Make Way for Tomorrow (though it could just as easily have carried the title of his other film that year: The Awful Truth). I hate to say I can’t believe I’d never heard of this movie, because that implies that if it’s any good, I would of course have heard of it, but . . . I can’t believe I’d never heard of this movie! It has an irony, emotional honesty, and sadness you seldom get in American movies. My curiosity was piqued when I read it influenced Ozu’s Tokyo Story, which is one of my favorite movies. The stories are similar: elderly parents are unable to carry on in their old home, and their unenthusiastic children, who have moved on in life, try to deal with the situation.
The movie opens on the parents’ snug, picture-perfect little Connecticut cottage, which has just been repossessed by the bank. The father (Victor Moore), an accountant, has been sick and unemployed for several years, though he and his wife (Beulah Bondi) feel (with varying degrees of conviction and self-delusion) that he’s bound to get a job soon, despite his age and the economic devastation of the Great Depression. They’ve worked all their lives, but have perhaps been improvident, or unfortunate, or unable to put aside anything substantial while raising their five children (it’s pointed out in one of the extra features that this was before such controversial measures as Social Security or unemployment insurance were passed by the Roosevelt administration, providing at least a fragile safety net for Americans, which the Republican party and their stooges have spent my entire adult life trying to destroy).
Four of the children arrive at the cottage (the fifth is a daughter who lives across the country in California) to be told the parents are now homeless. One thing I love about this movie is how much is suggested and left for our interpretation: one of the sons, who comes in singing “Mother” (“M is for the many . . . .”) immediately gets drinks for everyone, and makes funny but pointed jibes about the other siblings. It’s never suggested that he should take the parents in; clearly something about his situation (alcoholism? short-term jobs and poverty?) renders him marginal enough so that no one even bothers to suggest it.
The parents must go to different homes. The father goes with one reluctant daughter, and the mother goes to live in New York City with the oldest son, his wife, and their daughter, who’s in her late teens/early twenties. The son is employed, but his wife has to help make ends meet by teaching bridge, which the mother persists in thinking of as “playing” bridge. One thing that makes these scenes so wonderful is the way your sympathies shift among all the parties; in particular there’s a bridge lesson during which a creaking rocking chair sums up all the difficulties of the situation, and there's a phone call from Mother to Father (sick in his sour daughter’s stingy household) that is beautifully shot: first we see her filling the screen, with the bridge students behind her; she’s talking too loudly on the phone, as older people did, and the students, all middle-aged, well-off men and women in evening clothes, are initially disturbed by the noise, until (as the camera shifts so that we see them in the foreground, and her back to them and us) silent sympathy with the old woman’s forced separation from her husband brings a short-lived air of tender sadness and sympathy to the room. But then the film moves on, and there’s also comedy in the old people’s somewhat heedless inability to adapt to their new worlds.
The last part of the film is the final day the two old people spend together, before the sick father goes to the warmer weather of his daughter's home in California. She only has room for one more, so the mother is going to the old people’s home that had earlier horrified her. As in Murnau’s Sunrise, the city becomes sort of a fairyland for a couple in love, only this time the couple is old, and about to part for what they know is the last time. They go to the hotel where they spent their honeymoon, decades earlier, and the manager hears that they honeymooned there and treats them to dinner. Then they get a final dance (with the bandleader changing the tune so it's something they can dance to) before rushing to the train station (skipping the planned final dinner with their children) where they will say their final goodbye. It's one of the movie's ironies that the big city here has the same function as the forest of Arden, or the Athenian wood: it's the place where the wanderers are freed and find their truest life. Only here, it's not a place of darkness. In all honesty, I felt this part of the movie went on a little too long, partly because it was difficult for me to believe in such an unbroken day of kindness given to the obscure and poor, and partly because its sweet quality of a dream fulfilled means there’s less of the ambiguity, and the Chaplinesque fluidity between comedy and pathos, that is so impressive in the earlier scenes.
Though there are some moments that bring you back to their situation: as they pass a haberdashery with a “Man Wanted” sign in the window, the father goes inside, pretending he needs something; he comes out a moment later, empty-handed, and though it’s not spelled out he clearly went in, ever hopeful, to ask about another job he’s too old and sick to get. After seeing in the earlier scenes how difficult the old people could be, it’s slightly disappointing that they’re smoothed out a bit in these later scenes, but maybe that’s the point: we’re seeing them in the later sequence not as their children would see them, but as strangers would, and it can be so much easier to be kind to passing strangers. Criterion refers to this film as "among American cinema's purest tearjearkers" but I strongly disagree. Yes, it's a tearjerker story, but the way it's told has too much comedy and irony undercutting the purity of the tearjerking. If it's all about getting cheap tears, they would have made it a simpler story, and this isn’t really a story about good people and bad people (though it does wish we were all better people).