Warner Home Video Shakespeare Collection
A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935), Romeo and Juliet (1936), Othello (1965), Hamlet (1996)
A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935 - Warner Bros. - 143 minutes)
Directed By: Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle
Starring: James Cagney, Joe E. Brown, Dick Powell, Jean Muir, Victor Jory, Verree Teasdale, Hugh Herbert, Anita Louise, Frank McHugh, Mickey Rooney, Olivia De Havilland, Ian Hunter, Ross Alexander
"A Midsummer Night's Dream" tells the fanciful tale of events surrounding the wedding of Theseus, Duke of Athens (Hunter) to Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons (Teasdale). A love quadrangle involving Hermia (De Havilland), the two men who love her, Lysander (Powell) and Demetrius (Alexander), and Helena (Muir), who loves Demetrius, gets further complicated when Oberon, King of the Fairies (Jory) directs the capricious fairy Puck (Rooney) to meddle in their affairs. Meanwhile, a group of tradesmen try to pull together an amateur theatrical production of the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbee in hopes of being richly rewarded if their play is performed at the nuptial festivities. Their efforts are not helped by the fact that their best actor, Bottom (Cagney), quite literally makes an ass of himself when he wanders through the line of fire of a lover's quarrel between Oberon and Titania, Queen of the Fairies (Louise).
This film version of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" came about as a result of an elaborate theatrical staging of the play by Austrian theatrical impresario Max Reinhardt at The Hollywood Bowl in 1934. The phenomenal success of that production, for which the famous "clam-shell" was taken down so that the sets seemed to blend into the surrounding Hollywood Hills, led to Jack Warner signing Reinhardt to a contract to produce a film version. Holdovers from the Hollywood Bowl theatrical cast included Olivia De Havilland, and Mickey Rooney. The film would prove to be something of a breakthrough for both performers as De Havilland signed a seven-year contract with Warner Bros., and the teenaged Rooney, previously best known for his series of "Mickey McGuire" two-reelers, received mostly positive notices and would move on to success in feature films at MGM.
Warner Bros. was, at the time, best known for its gangster pictures and Busby Berkeley musicals, so an elaborate Shakespearean adaptation was considered quite a departure from their usual fare. The production process was reportedly a rocky one with the studio insisting that established stars be worked into the cast and Producer Hal Wallis constantly firing off memos with demands that the film be altered to play better in cinemas. When dailies started coming in showing that Reinhardt's elaborately constructed soundstage forest was nearly impossible to light, cinematographer Ernest Haller was replaced by Hal Mohr. The film eventually went over budget by 100% and tied up its soundstage and many of its stars for nearly three months.
The resulting movie is an interesting amalgamation of Shakespeare-meets-German-expressionism "artsy" with good old-fashioned Hollywood "fartsy". Viewers expecting a definitive cinematic representation of Shakespeare's play will be disappointed due to the streamlining/simplification of the text and difficulties experienced by some of the actors with the Shakespearean dialog. Dick Powell, who anticipated being out of his element, was more or less forced by the studio to take the role and comes off sounding more like he is reciting lines from a Dr. Seuss book than performing a character.
What makes the film fascinating to watch is its elaborate production design, innovative cinematography, and mixed media blending of cinema with classical disciplines of theater, ballet, and opera that presaged the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger that would appear over a decade later in films such as "The Red Shoes" and "Tales of Hoffmann". One particularly inspired choice that delighted some audience members, but no doubt set Shakesperean purists' eyes a-rollin' was the casting of popular comedians such as Joe E. Brown, Hugh Herbert, and Frank McHugh along with James Cagney as the hapless tradesman players. While they certainly take more than a few liberties with the text of the original play, they are unquestionably funny.
The film is presented here in a reconstruction of its original two and a half hour road-show presentation inclusive of Mendelssohn Overture and Exit Music. It runs 143 minutes, so if you want the full two and a half hour experience, you will have to pause your DVD for ten minutes at the intermission.
Romeo and Juliet (1936 - MGM - 125 minutes)
Directed By: George Cukor
Starring: Norma Shearer, Leslie Howard, John Barrymore, Edna May Oliver, Basil Rathbone, C. Aubrey Smith, Andy Devine
In Verona, Italy, the feuding between the Montague and Capulet clans results in violence in the streets that is barely contained by an order from the Prince. When the recently heartbroken Romeo (Howard), the son of Lord Montague (Warwick), is convinced by his friend Mercutio (Barrymore) to sneak into a ball given by the Capulets, he is instantly smitten when he first lays eyes on Juliet (Shearer), the daughter of Lord Capulet (Smith). The attraction is mutual, and they begin a clandestine affair complicated by the rivalry between their two clans.
Of the four films included in the Warner Bros. Shakespeare Collection, the 1936 MGM production of "Romeo and Juliet" is the most conventional adaptation. The text of the play has been judiciously edited for time, star-emphasis, and Production Code concerns and some characters have been consolidated. As an example, Andy Devine, who is nominally playing the servant to Juliet's Nurse, is given the lines of various other Capulet characters from the first half of the play as well.
The production has the typically high MGM level of polish, and under the assured direction of George Cukor, all of the actors seem comfortable with the classical drama with the notable exception of Mr. Devine whose nails on a chalkboard voice just does not mesh with the dialog or other performances. The most notable mis-step in the production is the age of the cast. The 43-year-old Howard and the 34-year-old Shearer simply do not look anything like teen lovers, and they are helped only slightly by the removal of most references to their age from the script. Similarly, John Barrymore as Mercutio and Basil Rathbone as Tybalt both seem to approach their scenes with relish, but also seem twenty or more years too old for the parts they are playing.
Norma Shearer was reportedly very keen to play Juliet and urged her husband, Irving Thalberg, to put the film into production. Sadly, it would be the last film made under his producing hand as he would pass away less than two weeks after it was released. Shearer and Rathbone received Academy Award nominations for their performances, but Edna May Oliver as Juliet's Nurse is the real standout in the cast. She nearly steals the picture despite the reduced nature of the part in the film compared to the original play.
Othello (1965 - Warner Bros. - 166 minutes)
Directed By: Stuart Burge
Starring: Laurence Olivier, Frank Finlay, Maggie Smith, Joyce Redman, Derek Jacobi, Anthony Nicholls
In Venice, Italy, Othello (Olivier), a Moorish general who has had much success battling the Turks, marries Desdemona (Smith), the daughter of prominent local citizen, Brabantio (Nicholls). His trusted ensign, Iago (Finlay), secretly plots to undermine Othello due to jealousy over being passed over for promotion in favor of Lieutenant Cassio (Jacobi) and unfounded suspicion that Othello has slept with his wife, Emilia (Redman). Iago's initial efforts involve anonymously proclaiming the secret nuptials to Brabantio in hopes of having Othello censured, but after that proves unsuccessful and they are deployed to Cyprus, Iago begins a campaign of insinuation to both undermine his rival Cassio and to convince Othello that Desdemona has been unfaithful to him.
This 1965 film adaptation of "Othello" is an interesting and mostly successful experiment in the blending of theater and film. It serves as a filmed document of the successful 1964 National Theater production of the play, but is not strictly a filmed stage play. It was shot on sparely constructed film sets that are reminiscent of theatrical backdrops. The Panavision "scope" photography combines carefully chosen compositions, close-ups, and lighting cued to the performances, but employs few other tricks of the film medium such as establishing location shots or flashback montages.
As such, the film lives or dies based on the strength of the cast's performances, and they prove to be uniformly excellent. Olivier performs in full-body "blackface" make up, which I intially found distractingly theatrical, but I got over it before the end of his first scene. He impressively modulates his voice into a booming baritone and still manages to provide a riveting performance. A production of "Othello" is only as good as its Iago, and Frank Finlay rises to the challenge, painting an impressive portrait of the duplicitous manipulator whose jealousy and compulsion drive the plot to its tragic conclusion. A minor criticism related to the production's theatrical origins is that Finlay and Olivier's performances involve broader mannerisms than one normally sees in film acting, particularly in the way that their characters walk. The parts of Desdemona and Cassio can sometimes seem like thankless roles but Maggie Smith and Derek Jacobi make the most of their characters, generating a sympathy that magnifies the impact of their suffering due to Iago's behind the scenes manipulations.
While the film can be criticized for failing to take full advantage of the cinematic medium, judged based on its intent to create not a cinematic adaptation of "Othello" so much as a cinematic adaptation of a particular theatrical staging of it, it is an interesting and largely successful experiment.
Hamlet (1996 - Castle Rock - 242 minutes)
Directed By: Kenneth Branagh
Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Julie Christie, Derek Jacobi, Kate Winslet, Billy Crystal, Jack Lemmon, Gerard Depardieu, Charlton Heston, Rufus Sewell, Robin Williams, Richard Briers, Nicholas Farrell, Michael Maloney, Brian Blessed
Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (Branagh), is understandably gloomy after the death of his father followed all too quickly by the wedding of his Mother, Gertrude (Christie), to his Uncle, Claudius (Jacobi). When the ghost of his late father (Blessed) informs him that he was murdered by Claudius, Hamlet becomes resolved to seek revenge, but his constant self-examination gets in the way and results in many delays while his affected manner leads to speculation by those around him that he has lost his mind.
Having successfully brought red-blooded full-bodied screen adaptations of "Henry V" and "Much Ado About Nothing" to the screen, Kenneth Branagh did the same for Hamlet in 1996. In the same year when Tom Cruise was turning "Mission Impossible" into a big-screen franchise, Branagh somehow managed to achieve his own impossible mission by convincing Castle Rock to allow him to make a four-hour plus full-text adaptation of Shakespeare's tragedy starring himself and shot in 65mm.
At face value, adhering to the full text of a stage play sounds like an inherently un-cinematic idea. For instance, plays frequently require characters to relate events that occur outside of their limited number of location settings via dialog, while a strength of film is the ability to actually show them. Far from presenting a stage play in conveniently recorded 70mm form, Branagh and his collaborators have reconceived "Hamlet" from the ground up in cinematic terms. Flashbacks and montage are used to illustrate narrated, and sometimes newly conceived, events concurrent with relevant dialog. The play has also been re-set in a 19th century Denmark to give it a slightly more modern appearance than the traditional gothic trappings.
While one could argue that previous film adaptations of Hamlet were as good or better than this one, and there are more differing and worthy takes on the title character than there have been actors who have played him over the last half-century, the one advantage Branagh's adaptation has over all previous films is completeness of characterization. Normally, when the play is edited down, the plot is streamlined and the supporting characters have their roles reduced. In the case of Hamlet, the observations on human nature inherent in the cast of characters are as much or more what the play is about as the plot, and Branagh's is the only film adaptation that does not short shrift any of them.
Of course, this only works if the cast is up to the challenge, and in this case, they most certainly are. Perusing the impressive cast list above will provide an indication of the caliber of talent, and even a number of small cameo roles are filled out by leading lights of the stage and screen such as John Gielgud, Judi Dench, John Mills, Richard Attenborough, and Rosemary Harris. At the time of the film's release, critics came down pretty hard on American stars Jack Lemmon, Billy Crystal, and Robin Williams, and while Lemmon does seem somewhat out of place as Marcellus, I actually liked Crystal and Williams in their parts as the sardonic first grave digger and the pompous, pathetically insecure Osric. If one can set aside the baggage of their comic celebrity reputations, they fit into Branagh's amped-up 19th century Denmark nicely.
The black and white 4:3 video presentation of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" has light grain throughout and looks a bit on the soft side. The softness is at least partly due to the way it was photographed with sparkling cobwebs, Vaseline lens smears, and other photographic tricks used to create an appropriately dreamlike atmosphere. Compression artifacts are mild, and edge ringing is not an issue.
The black and white 4:3 video presentation of "Romeo and Juliet" is extremely sharp with excellent contrast, although the film element shows more frequent sporadic speckling than was evident on "…Dream". Compression is very good and edge enhancement is minimal to non-existent.
The 16:9 enhanced 2.35:1 color video presentation of "Othello" is generally excellent, with light natural film grain rendered adequately by the compression and excellent shadow detail that is important for many of the dark lighting set-ups. The element used for transfer appears to be in excellent shape. I noticed only a couple of artifacts: an imperfect edit splice is visible early in the film and a later scene where Othello appears to have a seizure seems to have been shot with some dirt or debris in the film's gate visible near the top of the frame.
The 16:9 enhanced 2.2:1 color video presentation of "Hamlet" is generally outstanding, indicative of being sourced from a high quality large format element. There are a couple of source-related blemishes that appear to be related to the film element, but for the most part it looks very nice. The grain pattern is very fine and only partially resolved at standard definition resolution, but if you notice this fact, you are sitting too close to your screen. Very light edge ringing occasionally intrudes, most noticeable in the first half of the film since the main character is always wearing black, occasionally against snowy backgrounds.
The English Dolby Digital 1.0 audio track for "A Midsummer Night's Dream" has limited dynamic range and frequency response typical of the film's age, with very low-level hiss. Digital noise reduction artifacts will be noticeable to critical listeners. No alternate language dubs are included, and subtitles are presented in English, French, and Portuguese.
The English Dolby Digital 1.0 audio track for "Romeo and Juliet" has slightly improved fidelity vs. "A Midsummer Night's Dream". It also has very low-level hiss and mild noise reduction artifacts noticeable throughout. No alternate language dubs are included, and subtitles are presented in English, French, and Portuguese. Strangely, the extras are subtitled in Portuguese only.
The English Dolby Digital 1.0 audio track for "Othello" is generally very good with clear dialog. The film uses music and sound effects very sparingly, so the track is a fairly straightforward affair. No alternate language dubs are included, and subtitles are presented in English and French.
The English Dolby Digital audio track for "Hamlet" offers excellent fidelity with clarity in all aspects of the mix. LFE and surrounds are used particularly effectively in the scene where Hamlet communicates with his father's ghost. No alternate language dubs are included, and subtitles are presented in English, French, and Spanish.
"A Midsummer Night's Dream" comes with several extras including a full-length audio commentary form film scholar Scott MacQueen. MacQueen has done his homework, and he manages to communicate a lot of useful information about the film's history, frequently reading from studio memos fired off by producers and crew members during the film's production. He occasionally employs accents and funny voices to represent the author of the memo, but this is only mildly distracting and occasionally amusing. Several vintage promotional featurettes are presented in their original black and white and 4:3 aspect ratio: "A Dream Come True" runs seven minutes and 29 seconds and covers the history of the production from the staging of the play at The Hollywood Bowl through the star-studded premiere of the movie. "Warner Bros. Studio Café" runs one minute and 51 seconds and features a scripted exchange between Joe E. Brown and actor Pat O'Brien about the film over a meal. Six "Presenting…" theatrical promos featuring Dick Powell, Ian Hunter, Olivia De Havilland, Frank McHugh, and Anita Louise running seven minutes and 28 seconds if the "play all" option is chosen feature the stars individually standing in front of a theater curtain in formal attire while hyping the film. The vintage theatrical 2-reeler "Shake Mr. Shakespeare" from 1936 lampoons the idea of mixing Hollywood with Shakespeare when a screenwriter, in the wake of the success of "A Midsummer Night's Dream", falls asleep and dreams of several Shakespearean characters conforming to Hollywood conventions inclusive of singing, dancing, and low comedy. It plays like one of the Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies "books come to life" cartoons. My jaw just about hit the floor when Othello mentioned how he could "step and fetch it". Also included is an "Olivia De Havilland Screen Test" in which she plays an overtaxed peasant in a couple of different scenes that run a total of eight minutes and 39 seconds. Finally the theatrical trailer for the wide release of the film (coming to you at popular prices) runs two minutes and eleven seconds.
"Romeo and Juliet" comes with a couple of vintage extras including "Master Will Shakespeare", a ten minute and 31 seconds short directed by Jacques Tourneur providing a history of Shakespeare's life mixing a few documented facts with a big heaping of speculation that eventually sneaks in a plug for MGM's adaptation of "Romeo and Juliet". "Little Cheeser" is a 1936 Technicolor Harman-Ising cartoon in which a young mouse wishes to adapt a tougher persona than "Mama's Little Man" and begins to listen to the "devil inside him" urging him to try smoking, booze, and girlie magazines until his angelic "better self" intervenes. Finally, the film's theatrical trailer, which hilariously claims that "The Sweethearts of Smilin' Through come Smilin' Through Again" (They don't!), and includes specially filmed testaments from Clark Gable and Nelson Eddy about the excellence of the production.
"Othello" contains the sparsest extras on the set, consisting of "Olivier Talks About 'Othello'", a four minute and 51 second color 4:3 aspect ratio featurette in which the star talks about the intentions behind the film adaptation of the National Theater's production of "Othello". The film's theatrical trailer runs four minutes and one second of 16:9 enhanced video and repurposes most of the footage from "Olivier Talks About Othello" cropped for widescreen, edited more tightly, and framed by some 60s-style trailer narration.
"Hamlet" comes with a feature length audio commentary from Branagh and text consultant, Shakespearean scholar, and frequent Branagh-collaborator Dr. Russell Jackson. They converse for the entire four hours with very few gaps, and one gets the sense that they could have done another four hours without repeating themselves. Jackson has a number of subjects he wants to talk about and frequently resists being steered in the discussion by Branagh, sometimes answering questions other than the one asked. Surprisingly given his background, he even resists getting into the topic of what is meant by "complete text" - flying quickly through an explanation of the various "folios" and "quartos" at one point before quickly moving on to the next topic. Branagh's lifelong interest in Shakespeare in general and Hamlet in particular is evident throughout. It's kind of amusing how he seems incapable of quoting a line of Shakespearean dialog without compulsively launching into the subsequent complete stanza. Both men are fast talkers and cram a lot of filmmaking information into their four hour conversation.
The only video extra on Disc One of "Hamlet" is a seven minute and 49 second 16:9 enhanced introduction from Kenneth Branagh. Note to Internet campaigners: you can get your shout-out/kudos fix much quicker here since you have to wait until the credits to get acknowledged in the commentary.
Disc Two includes the 24 minute and 33 second featurette "To Be on Camera: A History with Hamlet" which appears to have been produced around the time of the first video release of "Hamlet". It blends standard on-set electronic-press kit interviews with some interesting background on the production as well as Branagh's lifelong interest in the play. Interview participants are not identified on screen, but they include Billy Crystal, Richard Attenborough, Kate Winslet, Jack Lemmon, John Gielgud, Richard Briers, Derek Jacobi, Kenneth Branagh, Mike Maloney, Robin Williams, Charlton Heston, Julie Christie, Orlando Seale, Rufus Sewell, Nicholas Farrell, and John Mills. Also included is a "Vintage Cannes Promo" running twelve minutes and six seconds presented in 4:3 video letterboxed to 2.35:1 which mixes preview clips of the film along with interview footage of Branagh and promotional narration. Finally, disc two also includes a Shakespeare trailer gallery that includes theatrical trailers for Branagh's 1996 "Hamlet", Franco Zeffirelli's 1990 "Hamlet", Joseph L. Mankiewicz's 1953 "Julius Caesar", Oliver Parker's 1995 "Othello", and the other three films included in the Warner Home Video Shakespeare Collection.
The discs are packaged in standard Amaray cases with cover art derived from original theatrical promotional art and no inserts. "Hamlet" includes a hinged tray allowing it to accommodate two discs. The disc cases are in turn packaged inside a thin cardboard slipcase that reproduces parts of the cover image for all four films with a background graphic reminiscent of a leather-bound book.
Warner Home Video has packaged DVDs of four films together that skin their Shakespearean cat in very different ways, but all have something unique to recommend them. Extras include very informative commentaries on "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "Hamlet" as well as a number of vintage promotional featurettes and a classic cartoon. All are presented with excellent audio and video quality, so do not hesitate to buy if this is your cup of tea.