A Midsummer Night’s Dream. 1935. USA. Directed by Max Reinhardt, William Dieterle. Screenplay by Charles Kenyon, Mary C. McCall Jr., based on the play by William Shakespeare. With James Cagney, Dick Powell, Olivia de Havilland. 35mm. 133 min.
James Cagney maintained a unique position within Lincoln Kirstein’s personal pantheon of Hollywood stars. After Kirstein published his matinee-idol exegesis “James Cagney and the American Hero” in Hound & Horn, the two struck up an acquaintance that lasted half a century. “I idolized Cagney,” he would reflect later in life, “and studied his films assiduously as they appeared, seeing each one half a dozen times—from Public Enemy, Smart Money, Blonde Crazy, The Crowd Roars, and Here Comes the Navy to Max Reinhardt’s beautiful A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which he starred as a marvelously inventive Warwickshire Bottom.” Reinhardt’s take on Shakespeare’s comedy of disoriented affections is a dreamy, opulent affair, a costume picture that’s strangely out of time and literally coruscating (DP Hal Mohr had the shrubbery glazed with aluminum paint and metallic glitter). Cagney’s turn as a ridiculously bad actor who’s transformed into a donkey is indeed a highlight, proving him a performer, as Kirstein noted, of considerable versatility despite his reputation for tough-guy roles.