A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1935
Director: Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle
Notable Cast: James Cagney, Mickey Rooney
Max Reinhardt’s production for Warner Bros. was the first screen adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, and it was based on Reinhardt’s earlier stage production at the legendary Hollywood Bowl. Although the film did not succeed at the box office, contemporary film critics largely praised the film for its lavish production value. In particular, critics singled out the cinematography, the dance sequences, and the use of music that Felix Mendelssohn originally wrote to accompany a stage production of the play. Although critics celebrated James Cagney’s performance as Bottom, they had less favorable things to say about Mickey Rooney and Dick Powell, who played Puck and Lysander, respectively. Film critic Richard Watts, Jr. made an especially strong complaint against Powell, “whose performance is not much short of fatal.” The film remains respected among today’s critics, who continue to praise Reinhardt’s vision and respectful treatment of Shakespeare’s original text.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1999
Director: Michael Hoffman
Notable Cast: Kevin Kline, Rupert Everett, Michelle Pfeiffer, Stanley Tucci, Calista Flockhart, Christian Bale
Michael Hoffman’s popular film adaptation features an all-star ensemble cast and shifts the setting from ancient Athens to nineteenth-century Tuscany. Despite the change in setting, Hoffman’s adaptation remains faithful to the language and spirit of Shakespeare’s play, making few cuts to the text and retaining the original ordering of scenes. Filmed on location in Italy, this production looks gorgeous. But though critics have largely enjoyed the film’s visual pleasures, they have been divided on whether the film succeeds as a whole. The main point of dispute concerns the uneven performances. Most critics agree that Kevin Kline, Rupert Everett, Michelle Pfeiffer, and a few others delivered inspired performances. But critics seem divided on the appeal of Calista Flockhart, who, to quote New York Times critic Janet Maslin, played Helena “as a hand-waving, eye-rolling ditz.” Maslin also laments the performance of Christian Bale, who “is once again given the cheesecake treatment and little occasion to rise above it.” Despite the problems with individual performances, however, the film maintains a mostly positive reputation.