The cast is wonderful, and a real mixed bag. Olivia de Havilland in her first film role, plays Hermia with lovely confidence, masterfully, perhaps because she came to this film straight from her stage appearance as Hermia at the Hollywood Bowl. Victor Jory imposingly glowers as Oberon, King of the Fairies, 14-year-old Mickey Rooney is good as Puck, the mischievous fairy. With all the enthusiasm of that precocious child actor, he appears almost crazed at times, taking wild pleasure as he scoffs, “What fools these mortals be!” and handles the Shakespearean dialogue better than your average 14-year old. His voice seems to be changing.
Joe E. Brown is hysterical as Flute, the Bellows-Maker, a rubber-faced peasant who plays the female Thisby in the play-within-a-play that the local town tradesmen are putting on in competition for the Duke. Frank McHugh heads the erstwhile amateur thespians as Quince the Joiner. Most truly outstanding of all, is James Cagney as Bottom the Weaver, who plays the part the best I’ve ever seen anyone play it. Cagney clearly relishes this role, throws his whole being into it, without an ounce of inhibition. His clipped and precise diction is remarkably well suited to Shakespeare. Bottom, the typical community theatre ham, wants to play all the roles, and his enthusiasm has to be restrained. His scenes romancing Thisby played by Joe E. Brown, dressed in a long wig and truly sad breast prosthetics, are very, very funny. Their bumbling Romeo and Juliet style demise at the end of their play for the Duke is utterly ridiculous. Mr. Cagney also gets to sing for us a bit when he is changed into an ass by a magical spell.
The special effects on this film are simple and somewhat crude, but perhaps all the more theatrical because they are simple. The actors, Cagney especially, all seem to look natural in their Shakespearean dress. Only Dick Powell, who plays Lysander, in love with Hermia, seems too modern, with his wise guy mannerisms. He appears like a fellow wandering around lost from 42nd Street.
The production gives us a glistening forest, dewy cobwebs, actors as fairies flying on wires, and a bit of fog like a werewolf movie. There are a few outdoor shots of forest deer, but most of the film is shot on a rather claustrophobic set of gnarled trees and mossy glens. Rooney makes his entrance climbing right up out of the ground through a clump of leaves, screeching as if in a horror movie. The film is magical, like the Felix Mendelssohn score, like the spidery fairies, like a dream.