A Midsummer Night’s Dream
I sometimes wonder whether film reviewers are taken quite seriously enough. Criticism, of course, may not be quite in our line, but the production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream has demonstrated beyond doubt that no one can shake a better tambourine or turn a better table. We are superb mediums, or is it an intuitive sympathy with the poet which enables a Mr. Luscombe Whyte (to be remembered for his appreciation of Sam Goldwyn’s “classic tragedy,” The Dark Angel, and to be distinguished from Mr. Pedro de Cordoba who was a Crusader) to tell us that Shakespeare “had he lived now” would have approved of Herr Reinhardt’s film version of his play? “He had a mind which must have chafed at the limitations of candle-lit, small stages and curtains. He would have conjured up mad woods with twisted trees, peopled with fantasies clothed in visibility.” A pregnant sentence, that, straight from the ouija board.
Unfortunately the mediums differ. Mr. Sidney Carroll tells us with an even greater air of authority that Shakespeare would not have liked the film. It is his obligation, he says, “as a man of English descent on both sides for generations to try to protect our national poet dramatist from either idolatry or desecration.” As I have said, apart from criticism, there is little we film critics cannot do.
Alas! I failed to get in touch with Shakespeare (my English descent is less pure than Mr. Carroll’s), but I feel quite sure that Anne Hathaway, “had she lived now,” would have thought this a very nice film (I am uncertain of the Dark Lady of the Sonnets). She would have liked the chorus of budding Shirley Temples drifting gauzily up the solid Teutonic moonbeams, and I am sure she would have liked the Bear. For Herr Reinhardt is nothing if not literal, and when Helena declares, “No, no, I am as ugly as a bear; For beasts that meet me run away for fear,” we see a big black bear beating a hasty retreat into the black֊ berry bushes. All the same, I enjoyed this film, perhaps because I have little affection for the play, which seems to me to have been written with a grim determination on Shakespeare’s part to earn for once a Universal certificate.
But Herr Reinhardt, lavish and fanciful rather than imaginative, is uncertain of his new medium. Although in his treatment of the Athenian woodland, the silver birches, thick moss, deep mists and pools, there are sequences of great beauty, there are others of almost incredible banality. After an impressive scene when Oberon’s winged slaves herd Titania’s fairies under his black billowing cloak, we watch a last fairy carried off over a slave’s shoulder into the night sky. It is very effective as the slave sinks knee deep into the dark, but when the camera with real Teutonic thoroughness follows his gradual disappearance until only a pair of white hands are left twining in the middle of the Milky Way, the audience showed its good sense by laughing.
Much of the production is poised like this on the edge of absurdity because Herr Reinhardt cannot visualise how his ideas will work out on the screen. We are never allowed to forget the stage producer, a stage producer, though, of unlimited resources with an almost limitless stage. At every passage of dialogue we are back before footlights and the camera is focussed relentlessly on the character who speaks. The freer, more cinematic fairy sequences are set to Mendelssohn’s music, and this is the way Shakespeare’s poetry ought surely to be used if it is not to delay the action. It must be treated as music, not as stage dialogue tied to the image of the speaker like words issuing from the mouth of characters in a cartoon.
The acting is fresh and vivid for the very reason that it lacks what Mr. Carroll calls “proper Shakespearian diction and bearing.” I do not want to be ungrateful, the film is never dull, and the last sequences, when the human characters stream up the stairs to bed, and the fairies flood in and fill the palace in their wake, was a lovely and effective visualisation of “the sweet peace,” “the glimmering light,” “the dead and drowsy fire.”
From The Spectator (London), October 18, 1935, p. 606. By permission of Mr. Graham Greene, Laurence Pollinger Ltd., Martin Seeker & Warburg Ltd., and Simon & Schuster Inc. A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935) was directed by Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle; it starred James Cagney (as Bottom), Joe E. Brown, Hugh Herbert, Dick Powell, Olivia De Havilland, Mickey Rooney, Victor Jory, and Ian Hunter.
I am too much an admirer of Mr. Chaplin to believe that the most important thing about his new film is that for a few minutes we are allowed to hear his agreeable and rather husky voice in a song. The little man has at last definitely entered the contemporary scene; there had always before been a hint of “period” about his courage and misfortunes; he carried about with him more than the mere custard pie of Karno’s day, its manners, its curious clothes, its sense of pathos and its dated poverty. There were occasions, in his encounters with blind flower girls or his adventures in mean streets or in the odd little pitchpine mission halls where he carried round the bag or preached in pantomime on a subject so near to his own experience as the tale of David and Goliath, when he seemed to go back almost as far as Dickens. The change is evident in his choice of heroine: fair and featureless with the smudged effect of an amateur water-colour which has run, they never appeared again in leading parts, for they were quite characterless. But Miss Paulette Goddard, dark, grimy, with her amusing urban and plebeian face, is a promise that the little man will no longer linger at the edge of mawkish situation, the unfair pathos of the blind girl and the orphan child. One feels about her as Hyacinth felt about Millicent in [Henry James’s] The Princess Casamassima: “she laughed with the laugh of the people, and if you hit her hard enough would cry with their tears.” For the first time the little man does not go off alone, flaunting his cane and battered bowler along the endless road out of the screen. He goes in company looking for what may turn up.
What had turned up was first a job in a huge factory twisting screws tighter as little pieces of nameless machinery passed him on a moving belt, under the televised eye of the manager, an eye that followed him even into the lavatory where he snatched an illicit smoke. The experiment of an automatic feeding machine, which will enable a man to be fed while he works, drives him crazy (the running amok of this machine, with its hygienic mouth-wiper, at the moment when it has reached the Indian corn course, is horrifyingly funny; it is the best scene, I think, that Mr. Chaplin has ever invented). When he leaves hospital he is arrested as a communist leader (he has picked up a red street flag which has fallen off a lorry) and released again after foiling a prison hold-up. Unemployment and prison punctuate his life, starvation and lucky breaks, and somewhere in its course he attaches to himself the other piece of human refuse.
The Marxists, I suppose, will claim this as their film, but it is a good deal less and a good deal more than socialist in intention. No real political passion has gone to it: the police batter the little man at one moment and feed him with buns the next: and there is no warm maternal optimism, in the Mitchison manner, about the character of the workers: when the police are brutes, the men are cowards; the little man is always left in the lurch. Nor do we find him wondering “what a socialist man should do,” but dreaming of a steady job and the most bourgeois home. Mr. Chaplin, whatever his political convictions may be, is an artist and not a propagandist. He doesn’t try to explain, but presents with vivid fantasy what seems to him a crazy comic tragic world without a plan, but his sketch of the inhuman factory does not lead us to suppose that his little man would be more at home at Dneiprostroi. He presents, he doesn’t offer, political solutions.
The little man politely giving up his seat to the girl in the crowded Black Maria: the little man when the dinner-bell sounds tenderly sticking a spray of celery into the mouth of the old mechanic whose head has been caught between the cogwheels: the little man littering the path of the pursuing detectives with overturned chairs to save his girl: Mr. Chaplin has, like Conrad, “a few simple ideas”; they could be expressed in much the same phrases: courage, loyalty, labour: against the same nihilistic background of purposeless suffering. “Mistah Kurtz—he dead.”1 These ideas are not enough for a reformer, but they have proved amply sufficient for an artist.
Romeo and Juliet
“Boy Meets Girl, 1436”—so the programme heads the story of Romeo and Juliet, which it tells with some inaccuracy; but this fourth attempt to screen Shakespeare is not as bad as that. Unimaginative, certainly, coarse-grained, a little banal, it is frequently saved—by Shakespeare—from being a bad film. The late Irving Thalberg, the producer, has had a funeral success second only to Rudolph Valentino’s, but there is nothing in this film to show that he was a producer of uncommon talent. He has made a big film, as Hollywood recognises that adjective: all is on the characteristic Metro-Goldwyn scale: a Friar Laurence’s cell with the appearance, as another critic has put it, of a modern luxury flat, with a laboratory of retorts and test-tubes worthy of a Wells superman (no “osier cage” of a few flowers and weeds); a balcony so high that Juliet should really have conversed with Romeo in shouts like a sailor from the crow’s nest sighting land; a spectacular beginning with the Montagues and Capulets parading through pasteboard streets to the same church, rather late, it appears from the vague popish singing off, for Benediction; Verona seen from the air, too palpably a childish model; an audible lark proclaiming in sparrow accents that it is not the nightingale; night skies sparkling with improbable tinsel stars; and lighting so oddly timed that when Juliet remarks that the mask of night is on her face, “else would a maiden blush bepaint my check,” not Verona’s high moon could have lit her more plainly.
But on the credit side are more of Shakespeare’s words than we have grown to expect, a few more indeed than he ever wrote, if little of the subtlety of his dramatic sense which let the storm begin slowly with the muttering of a few servants, rather than with this full-dress riot. The picture has been given a Universal Certificate, and one was pleasantly surprised to find how safely our film censors had slumbered through many a doubtful passage: even “the bawdy hand of the dial” had not disturbed the merry gentlemen’s rest. The nurse’s part has suffered, but more from Miss Edna May Oliver’s clowning than from a censor. This part and Mercutio’s suffer most from overacting. Mr. John Barrymore’s middle-aged Mercutio is haggard with the greasepaint of a thousand Broadway nights. Mr. Basil Rathbone is a fine vicious Tybalt, and Mr. Leslie Howard and Miss Norma Shearer spoke verse as verse should be spoken and were very satisfying in the conventional and romantic and dreamy mode (one still waits to see lovers hot with lust and youth and Verona fevers, as reckless as their duelling families, “like fire and powder which as they kiss consume”).
It is the duels and violence which come off well, Mercutio’s death and Tybalt’s, and, more convincing than on the stage, the final fight with Paris in the tomb, but I am less than ever convinced that there is an aesthetic justification for filming Shakespeare at all. The effect of even the best scenes is to distract, much in the same way as the old Beerbohm Tree productions distracted: we cannot look and listen simultaneously with equal vigilance. But that there may be a social justification I do not dispute: by all means let Shakespeare, even robbed of half his drama and three-quarters of his poetry, be mass-produced. One found oneself surrounded in the theatre by prosperous middle-aged ladies anxiously learning the story in the programme for the first time; urgent whispers came from the knowing ones, as Romeo went down into the Capulet tomb, preparing their timorous companions for an unexpected and unhappy ending. It may very well be a social duty to teach the great middle-class a little about Shakespeare’s plays. But the poetry—shall we ever get the poetry upon the screen except in fits and starts (the small scene between Romeo and the ruined apothecary he bribes to sell him poison was exquisitely played and finely directed), unless we abjure all the liberties the huge sets and the extras condemn us to? Something like Dreyer’s Passion of Jeanne d’Arc, the whitewashed wall and the slow stream of faces, might preserve a little more of the poetry than this commercial splendour.
From The Spectator (London), February 14, 1936, p. 254. By permission of Graham Greene, Laurence Pollinger Ltd., Martin Seeker & Warburg Ltd., and Simon & Schuster Inc.
Modern Times (1936) was directed and produced by Chaplin; it was his second film of the sound period.
From The Spectator (London), October 23, 1936, p. 679. By permission of Graham Greene, Laurence Pollinger Ltd., Martin Seeker & Warburg Ltd., and Simon & Schuster Inc.
Romeo and Juliet (1936) was directed by George Cukor.
1.See Joseph Conrad’s story, “Heart of Darkness.”