A Midsummer Night’s Dream – the 1935 extravaganza!

Welcome to my penultimate review for Once Upon a Time IX, the internet-wide celebratory blogathon of Fairytale, Folklore, Fantasy and Mythological fiction. Alongside the four books I’ve read – Six-Gun Snow White, Scale Bright, The Owl Service and The Wake, just one step remains for me to complete the “3rd Quest” – I must watch one of the many incarnations of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

…the only question is, which one should it be?

Oh yes… that one! It’s the season’s treat!! At popular prices!!!

However, since the entire English speaking world must know the story of this one, and for a little bit of end-of-term fun, I think I’m going to “review” Cagney’s Frolic in the form of a viewing log – so, here’s what I thought, as I thought it:

The Movie

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

with James Cagney, et al

00:00 = Hits play, runtime appears. “Two hours and twenty-three minutes“? I have a feeling I’ve made a terrible mistake…

00:08 = I’m sat here, facing an illustrated starlit sky with a crescent/full moon risen behind the claw-fingered silhouettes of wintery trees. The orchestra swells, and… “Overture”?

06:28 = Overture ends. This is a lesson in how to pad out a DVD…

06:30 = It’s back. Same skyline, same tunes, except now the title credits are (attractively, I’ll admit) washing on and off the screen before them. By the time the actual play starts there’s only going to be twenty minutes of screen time remaining…

08:38 = Titles end. I’d recognised about four names (and five faces) from the fifteen stars appearing in the trailer, but now I at least know which characters these giant unknowns are playing. The theatre-style character descriptions (eg: “Oberon, King of the Fairies”) is actually a helpful reminder of what I’ve got in store.

08:40 = “Proclamation”. That’s right, after nearly ten minutes of musical foreplay, this film starts with… forcing the semi-literate audience of 1935 (and the impatient one of 2015) to read a yard of parchment stuck to a wall. S-l-o-w-l-y.

09:33 = Film begins. Trumpets! And some guy (the one about to marry Hippo-leeta, I think) seems to be reciting that damned proclamation again. She’s not looking totally thrilled either. Everyone is dressed for the occasion: girls in togas, guys in shiny crested helmets, breastplates and miniskirts. If this was a modern, viral wedding video, they’d all suddenly swank down the isle in a surprisingly well-rehearsed dance routine. In 5, 4, 3

10:30 = So, these Greeks, they’re all singing hymns. “Jesus be blessed“? Was that a Greek sentiment? I forget.

12:30 = So, these Greeks, they’re all singing hymns… in a showdown, throw-down, church choir version of a rap battle. Huh.

13:30 = The word “pomp” is getting a run-out today.

14:12 = “You have her father’s love, Demitrius, let me have Hermia’s. You marry him!” Zing! Ooooh, but the Get it? I’m calling you ‘gay’ mocking pout that follows suggests Lysander might be only twelve years old. Judging by his vocal pitch, his balls may not yet be where Hermia’s descendants might need them…

14:35 = Someone best described as “Lady Friend-Zone” is off to one side, weeping into her hanky, and I’ve no idea who she is or which of the charming three guys she wants: jail-bait Lysander, gimme-the-girl Demitrius (him, probably), or Hermia’s dad, who’ll marry his daughter to death before anyone but Dimmy gets her.

14:41 = Enter the Seven Dwarves. They’re cackling about something.

15:40 = So, I know that this is Hippo-leeta and the Proclamation Dude again, but we now appear to be in a pre-marriage scene between Henry VIII and Maleficent. That can’t end well.

17:00 = Actually, everyone is dressed in the style of the 1500s all of a sudden. Historically, this film is proving a little flexible.

18:12 = Now, that was the campiest chase-the-girl skip I’ve ever seen. Talk about sending mixed signals. Lysander could be angling for Demitrius before this thing is out. And when I say “out”, I mean–

19:50 = Ah, the seven dwarves are the Troupe of Players! Oh, and it’s Jimmy Cagney! Oh, and it’s the guy who settled for Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot!

24:26 = I have to admit, now Cagney and the Some Like It Hot Guy (misspelled as Sligh from now on) have shown up, it’s actually getting pretty good. Shakespeare knows how to please me and the proles: give us some broad comedy, that’s what we want!

25:30 = Civilisation is behind us, now we’re in Nature – I think the fairies are on their way…

26:34 = …heeeeeere’s Mickey! That’s right, it’s Puck, played by Little Mickey Rourke, in his pre-craggy days as Hollywood’s go-to squeaky cheeky trickster.

26:53 = Pit-pony unicorn.

27:40 = Ghostly special effects. That overture is back again, now with an ahhh-ing choir, but this is pretty nice-looking, as a procession of misty figures swirl through the forest and up into the night sky.

29:08 = In fact, my sources tell me that’s Mickey Rooney as Puck. So easy to confuse the two. Whichever it is, Rooney/Rourke is playing this like the scenery is made of gingerbread.

31:12 = Some pretty good wire fu sequences here, with ballerina fairies launching themselves across lakes and streams. Aw, a little one got left behind…

31:25 = Look, it’s Hoggle from Labyrinth! And The Hoggle Orchestra! And in neither case am I talking about the pictures above!

33:42 = Titania is in such soft focus it looks like someone spat on the lens.

34:58 = “Oh no, here comes Oberon!” snarls Rooney through a throat full of whisky and chalk-on-a-blackboard, and the cast of a thousand ballerinas scream and run for it. Based on their reaction, I’m actually imagining actual Mickey Rourke to stride on now as a horned, goat-legged cock monster, grizzled and glistening with his own juices as he readies himself to impregnate everything in his path. Probably starting with Rooney.

35:08 = So, not that. This Oberon guy looks like a horse in fancy dress. Maleficent fancy dress. A Maleficent Horse speaking though baby-talk pouty lips. Aren’tcho a big boy? Yesh you are, yesh you are…

36:55 = Puck is now reeling and screaming exactly as if all my Rourke-on-Rooney fantasies were coming true.

37:55 = The wire work took a fairly gigantic (sadly not literal) nose dive just now, as the Puck-Rooney scoots around the air in a circle while (sadly, literal) riding a tree limb. And I think that’s the end of an act.

So, what was the most visually dynamic ten minutes of the film ends on a bit of a bum note. However, while the romantic storyline proved itself a hammy dud, the comedy players segment was actually hammy fun and the fairies had real style. Two out of three ain’t bad!

38:40 = So, still in the forest and here comes Hermia with Lysander the Terrible, who engage in the 30s hug equivalent of a neon-coloured 80s sex-scene. Impassioned fingers clutch at velour shoulder pads. Singing follows.

39:50 = Not much singing, actually. One verse, hardly worth it. Then we cut to Detritus and Lady Friend-Zone, who (after he finishes talking about the other chick) replies to his departing back through a complex system of hitching sobs (I’m not kidding). No-one has said her name as yet and she hasn’t had a line, I don’t know who she is and no-one else seems to care.

40:26 = Detritus and LFZ are now deep in a “quit stalking me” argument, conducted on either side of Oberon, who they seem to think is a tree. Except his horsey face is right there, surrounded by sparkles. It’s like he’s a secretive butler, looking out through the eyes of an ancestral painting on the wall of some stately home while the young lord tells a deflowered scullery maid she’s not marrying into the inheritance…

41:05 = Detritus just emitted a zombie roar (justified). LFZ still wants him, even after (or, perhaps, because of) his threats to “do her mischief in the woods”. Oberon’s expression says Girls today, eh as loud as a bell.

41:39 = Hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s off to— I swear, that last thing I imagined would be that Cagney would be the best thing in this, but he is. “Sligh” is a close second, playing it minimal and letting his fascinating tortoise-face do all the work.

43:10 = I want to cut Mickey Rooney’s throat. But only after I squat on his chest like a– well, like Mickey Rooney as Puck, pluck out his fucking tongue and dangle it before his horrified eyes.

45:18 = So… there’s something a little off about how intently Titania kisses the little Indian princeling she and Oberon are squabbling over. Weird, yes, but it does make me very glad that she’s got him rather than him… More 30s-musical dog whistle singing. All draped in cobwebs.

48:42 = Dick Powell as Lysander is just shockingly bad. And “Hermia” knows it, when she tells him to take a step back you can tell Olivia deHavilland is saying it too… Powell looks exactly like Gary Oldman at times. Just goes to show, looks don’t make the actor.

51:00 = Scratch the comment at 43:10. Cutting Rooney’s throat would be too good for him.

52:02 = Huh. Okay, one good Puck delivery. And by good, I mean “not provoking of murder or suicide”.

52:16 = …apparently, Mickey Rooney has laid the love juice on Dick Powell. One for the tabloids there.

53:22 = LFZ (not to my knowledge a member of the Wu Tang Clan) stumbles across Lysander, who is showing his ass to the world with surprising willingness for a Hollywood celeb. Any minute now he’ll wake up and–with Rooney’s juice in his eyes–fall in love.

53:47 = Ah, she’s called “Helena”. But she’s still Lady F-Z, only now by choice and in the other direction.

55:22 = Hermia just had a fairly devastating sleep-gasm. She’ll wake “well rested”.

56:56 = So, we now have a bedroom farce taking place, where — instead of running in and out of different doorways across a corridor — Hermia runs through the forest shouting “Lysander”, Ditritus chases her about twenty feet back, Lady F-Z chases him, and Lysander chases her, each of the last three calling out the name of the one in front but none of them hearing, apparently. If Hermia trips, this play is going to end in a hurry. With a hate orgy.

57:30 – 1:05:00 = The Players are back, and Cagney and Sligh remain good, silly fun. The rest of the troupe are fine too, but Rooney is the kiss of death to even the good stuff in this bastard play. He’s sofuckingannoying.

1:06:22 = Cagney discovering he’s been literally made an ass of is actually a great little scene, played for a touch of quaking horror in the moment of self-discovery, tearful despair in those that follow.

1:07:49 = Titania looks the elfin part, her entire outfit could be an extension of her feathery blonde tresses, but she delivers her lines like they’re arriving in three-word chunks through an earpiece. Still, love can leave us speechless…

1:10:44 = Mustardseed! Head-spinning break-dancing fairy Mustardseed! He’s got two giant afros, and one of them is his loin cloth! Who says there’s no diversity in Hollywood? This guy must have been furious not to land the role of Puck, he’s only had three words and he’s kicked Rooney’s ass with all of them.

1:12:16 = You know what they say about theatre, right? I have to wonder what Cagney’s poor character had to endure to find himself named “Bottom” by the rest of his peers… wince.

1:16:22 = Well, nuptials between Titania and Bottom are done, and just as I was thinking to myself “Is it a step-up that Titania is taking a half-donkey to bed instead of a little boy?” my earlier fears came true, as said little boy was swept up by that chuckling child predator Oberon, in whose opinion things could not have gone better…

1:16:27 = …and just at that very moment, a ten minute Intermission was announced.

And, in fact, I think that’s going to be a one thousand, four hundred and fifty minute interval. I don’t know about you but I need a break! Back tomorrow…


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