Wednesday, July 02, 2008

For Further Study, #2

It is my genuine, firm belief that if all you ever do to expose yourself to culture is that culture approved of by Disney, then your world view will be far narrower than any shared by any of the artists who created the Disney product we all know and love. Disney isn't high culture, but it isn't low culture either (something I've been trying to establish here for some time now) and as such I genuinely hope to point the receptive spectator in the direction of related but challenging, exciting art which will significantly broaden the richness of the experience Disney offers. I'll be exploring books, media, music, or whatever it is that doesn't directly relate to Disney but is useful/essential to understanding Disney product.


Hollywood was a strange place. In 1935, in the middle of the Depression, Warner Brothers Pictures was best known for outrageous musicals like Wonder Bar and Dames, James Cagney extravaganzas like (the still breakneck) Lady Killer and Picture Snatcher, and what were then congenially called "shooting gallery dramas" like the superb Public Enemy or, less glamorously, Bullets or Ballots. This was 1935, years before superb dramas like The Maltese Falcon, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Casablanca, Dark Victory or The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. To Warners' credit: Dick Powell, James Cagney, Joe E. Brown, Busby Berkley, Paul Muni, Edward G. Robinson, Micheal Curtiz, and a surprisingly intact economy through six years of the depression by cutting salaries viciously, paring costs to the bone, and producing fast, furious mass entertainment with as much sex and scandal as could be ferried past the film censors. And in 1935, this film machine was turned loose on - William Shakespeare?

Although there is literally no 21st century fair comparison, this would be akin to Burger King suddenly adding Escargo, a Waldorf-Astoria salad and the Del Monico steak to it's menu. Warner Brothers was pure working class entertainment, fast, cheap, and rude. A snappy 69 minute Warner epic in the height of the form shows your grandparents had more going on than anyone ever expected; the best Berkley musical number has more sex and psychedelia in it than any "liberated" modern picture ever could. And here, this studio, was going to film the famous Max Reinhardt production of A Midsummer Night's Dream - all singing, all dancing, all couplet reading.

The resultant picture is one of Hollywood's wackiest mixes of success and failure. Especially compared to the breakneck pace of the typical Warner product of 1935, Midsummer Night's Dream is a long, slow slog which is mired in self-importance - 150 minutes versus a more typical Warner 60, nearly a double feature by itself! Throughout the piece ballets of some description arrive to appear to be somebody's idea of High Art. Elsewhere, Dick Powell and Ross Hunter seem to be totally lost in the Bard's couplets while Olivia de Havilland perpetually looks confused.

Yet it has it's wonderful things too: Cagney and Joe E. Brown and the rest of the clowns perfectly interpret the humor of Shakespeare's working-class dolts who try to stage their own tragedy. Joe E. Brown, who famously voiced the closing line of Billy Wilder's drag comedy Some Like It Hot spends much of the final leg of the film in drag himself, rending snappy and hilarious American-style one liners from Shakespeare's gentle puns through pure force of personality. Cagney's Bottom the Weaver is unstoppable, except through the awkward mule's head he wears for a portion of the film, and Mickey Rooney as Puck is perfect. Rooney, in particular, may grate against modern sensibilities, but his Puck is an unhinged little devil with a cackling, annoying laugh and far too much energy, but Rooney, Cagney and Brown deliver Shakespeare to us rather than asking us to go to him as many other actors in the film do. Sometimes interpreting the Bard and making him relevant for modern audiences, especially in the case of his gentle comedies, requires less the gentle touch and more the sledgehammer. Warner's A Midsummer Night's Dream is the most gloriously alive Shakespeare film until Orson Welles unleashed his furious version of Othello.

And, of course, the beauty of the film. Directed by William Dieterle, with special effects by Byron Haskin and Germanic sets by Anton Grot,the film looks and feels unlike anything Hollywood has ever achieved, creating an atmosphere more convincing and less austere, but related to, the thick forests of something like Lang's Die Nibelungen. And when the forest nymphs cavort across a starry moonlit sky to the strains of Mendelssohn, conducted by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, the effect is poetry, not product.

Which brings me around to why we're talking about this accidentally great film on a Disney blog: this film is absolutely the source for Fantasia. The haunting imagery achieved by Warner - as the nymphs rise out of the mist or the retreat of the moth-fairy, carried by a bat creature into a starfield, as her arms flutter and sway in a spotlight and finally vanish - is a crazy mashup of high and low art which was essentially repeated in Fantasia, especially notably in its' "Dance of the Hours". Furthermore, this film is what British director Micheal Powell would later call a "composed film" - referring to the minute orchestration of image and music that he would perfect in his 1949 continuation of the Fantasia aesthetic, The Tales of Hoffman from Offenbach's opera. So there can be seen a line that runs through the 1935 Midsummer Night's Dream, the 1941 Fantasia and the 1949 Tales of Hoffman as a sort of "unofficial triptych".

And of course let us not overlook the financial trick achieved in Midsummer and repeated with Fantasia: hijack a cultural institution (Reinhardt and Mendelssohn by Warner, Leopold Stokowski by Disney) to validate your culturally ambitious high-art-to-the-masses project. Both films required their creators to eat their shirt in the small towns but validated the makers' intentions. The difference is that in 1935 Warner still had Captain Blood, G-Men, Gold Diggers of 1935 and Black Fury to please the "Hix in the Stix". And in 1936 they would still have The Petrified Forest, The Singing Kid and 50 other pictures. In 1940, Disney had the esoteric Pinocchio to fall back on and the company was nearly sunk.

I'll let these three films' relationship to one another speak best in pictures. Please click to best appreciate.

Pixies in Pastorale: Midsummer Night's / Fantasia / Hoffmann

Oberon, Chernabog and Dr. Miracle: devils in the works

Fantasia / Tales of Hoffmann

Climax of Tales of Hoffmann / Salvador Dali art for Selznick International's "Spellbound" (1945)


And here's the list so far:

A Midsummer Night's Dream, Warner Brothers Pictures 1935, Dir: William Dieterle
The Tales of Hoffman, London Pictures 1949, Dir: Michael Powell
Last Time: Tiki Modern, by Sven Kirsten, 2007 - Taschen