The oft-filmed tale of Athens, drug-toting fairies, forbidden love and dudes with donkey heads. The rub? This was made in 1909, when short films ruled the market. The entire production is ten minutes long. That’s right. Ten. Well, you can’t accuse it of being long-winded. Plus, there are some future stars in the cast.
You give us ten minutes, we give you Shakespeare.
When people talk about seismic shifts in the world of motion pictures, the conversion to sound is usually what comes to mind. What a lot of people may not realize, though, is that the movies had already undergone another revolution, one that is hardly remembered. I am referring to the transition from short films to features.
The so-called nickelodeon era encompasses a time when movies were enjoying mainstream popularity as entertainment in their own right, as opposed to being used as filler or novelty during live performances. A typical night at the movies from approximately 1905 to 1914 consisted of a selection of ten to twenty-minute movies.
Short movies were cheap and could be produced quickly. The risk was low. However, film-makers and audiences began to clamor for feature-length entertainment. The tide really started to turn in 1912-1913 and features were common in 1914. By 1915, features were the norm for dramas and the nickelodeon era was over.
Looking back at these short films is intriguing. Their short length meant that the movies were created for impact. The relative lack of closeups meant that performers tended to have strong features and the ability to project their emotions broadly.
The shift from cheap one and two-reelers to expensive features (combined with the disruption of foreign markets during the First World War and some unfavorable court rulings regarding patents) was more than many of the pioneering studios could handle. Many of the pre-feature production companies that would either be sold, absorbed, put out of business or otherwise cease production by the end of the 1910s. Edison, Thanhouser, Biograph, Essanay… Vitagraph lasted longer but it also fell in 1925.
In 1909, though, Vitagraph was one of the most important motion picture studios and it boasted some big names on its roster. Like the other movie studios, Vitagraph was heavily influences by the stage, then seen as the more prestigious venue for actors. In fact, Vitagraph specialized in tasteful productions based on famous plays, novels and historical events.
And so, with the background in place, we understand a little about the movie world that brought about A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It is, to my knowledge, one of the very earliest film versions of the play.
The story, for those of you who fell asleep in English class, concerns Hermia (Rose Tapley). She loves Lysander, played by Maurice Costello, one of the earliest matinee idols and future father-in-law of John Barrymore. (To put things in modern perspective, he is Drew Barrymore’s great-grandfather.) All would be well but Hermia’s father wants her to marry Demetrius (Walter Ackerman). The lovers flee into the woods, followed by Demetrius, who is followed by Helena (Julia Swayne Gordon, you may recognize her from Scaramouche).
Meanwhile, the fairy folk have been having a bit of a tiff and it is here that the film makes a major change from its source material. In the original play, the king and queen of the fairies are at odds. In the film, Titania quarrels with her friend, Penelope. (Neither actress is credited.) It is Penelope who has the impish Puck (Gladys Hulette of Tol’able David fame) gather up the enchanted herb that will make people fall in love with the first person they see upon waking.
I am not sure why this change was made. Perhaps due to concerns about censorship? (A husband setting his wife up for adultery might have been seen as too warm in some markets.) Perhaps they just wanted an excuse to feature more women in diaphanous gowns. Oh well.
Whatever the reasons, the stage is set and the comedy begins. In spite of the extremely wordy title cards, I think it is likely that anyone unfamiliar with the original play will be quite confused by this version. Everything moves very quickly and even though the film tries to explain the plot, it is still pretty tangled.
(In contrast, when D.W. Griffith made The Taming of the Shrew in 1908, he solved the plot issue by stripping out everything but the comedic bits and ended up with a merry bit of slapstick. It was surprisingly effective.)
That’s not to say that the film is a loss. Far from it. Gladys Hulette (only thirteen at the time) is charming as the wild and mischievous Puck. She graduated into leading lady parts in the features, though most of her solo work is missing and presumed lost.
Maurice Costello does well as Lysander but he is (as are the other members of this love triangle—er, square) stymied by having to share so many scenes with other actors. The lack of closeups makes it very difficult for anyone to stand out in a group.
Film buffs will also want to be on the lookout for Costello’s daughters, Helene and Dolores (who would marry John Barrymore) in small roles as fairies.
I am not a huge Shakespeare buff. I look at his plays, think “that’s nice” and then go about my day. However, I have to admit a soft spot for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. My older brother’s fifth grade class put on a production of it. He played Bottom. Titania was played by the resident Mean Girl of the class. My understanding is that it was not a pleasant experience for either one of them. However, I thought the whole thing was splendid (I was seven) and enjoyed it enormously.
While this film is hardly faithful to its source, it does have a pleasant charm and lovely outdoor photography. The acting ranges from good to excellent and there are enough familiar faces to hold interest. And, let’s face it, it’s only ten minutes long. Check it out. What have you got to lose?
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★
Where can I see it?
A Midsummer Night’s Dream was released on DVD by Milestone on its Silent Shakespeare disc.