Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935, Max Reinhardt, William Dieterle)

****
USA



Absolutely the final word in Depression era studio excess kitsch: Ancient Greece, as rendered through the merry pranksterism of medieval mythology and Elizabethan backstage shenanigans, is further rendered through a Warner Bros. prestige department intent on out-prestiging the competition with a set that is a mash up of every 'Europe'-set Astaire-Rogers frivolity and Fritz Lang's take on Die Nibelungen. Then you have pint-sized Mickey Rooney - palpably high on something an overworked child actor should never be prescribed - as Puck, and a prima ballerina in a representation of dawn descending upon an enchanted forest, and what looks like a chandelier strewn through every frame. The entire film is heavy-duty 'magical' and all in all: Hypnotic.

In a cast of predictably overripe rascals and over-enunciators, a few manage to muster up some real fire: a radiant Olivia De Havilland in her screen debut, and an unhinged James Cagney at the head of a slew of character comics as the amateur troupe of 'mechanicals' (among whom you'll recognise Joe E. Brown, Jack Lemmon's future suitor, already gaying it up in an early role).

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Hands Across the Table (Mitchell Leisen, 1935)

***½
USA




With characteristic pluck Carole Lombard takes on a role that Ginger Rogers would annex for the remainder of the decade: the hardboiled working gal looking to seduce a bankroll only to fall in love against her better judgment. Ralph Bellamy (of course!) is the better judgment and Fred MacMurray, working overtime to pass for quirky and accidentally dashing, is true love. It's second-tier screwball and awkwardly paced, but where future king of women's weepies Mitchell Leisen struggles to deliver on spark, he compensates with a tender, melancholy Depression-era edge. Reportedly he had Ernst Lubitsch mentor him on this one.

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