But Reinhardt gives us a German High Romantic version of AMND, and displays a very different virtue, seldom seen in modern screen transcriptions of older works: a sense of well-conceived and executed style. You may not like his Mendelssohnian fairies, but their integration into the play--by choice of dialog, imaginative staging and costuming, brilliant special effects and incidental music--is consistent. Mendelssohn's music was in fact intended to accompany actual performances many years previously; and the ballet sequences built around it have a way of stopping time even today with their visionary beauty, a matter of movement, staging, lighting (the remarkable Hal Mohr), editing and effects. A book in fact could be written on Reinhardt's multi-level application of thematic materials, which is done in a manner that's far less boring than the way it sounds. This is a brilliant conception of Shakespeare, far from the "let's be different to grab attention" Shakespeare of punk Romeos that have fled across our screens in recent years.
The casting is generally very good. Mickey Rooney, in his first film role, displays all the remarkable energy and focus which were his greatest gifts. (What a shame the film industry kissed him off when he matured into a short, pudgy man, who was just as talented!) No prim, polite observer, his Puck is an elemental force, taking malicious delight in the strongly felt emotions of the humans that have come to the forest. Everything is brilliant, bright mockery: his deliberately garbled imitation of the speech and gestures of Lysander prior to the latter's magical sleep is a good example. This is not a Puck you would want call Robin Goodfellow, not unless you wanted to please him--and you most definitely would want to please him. It is a taut, kaleidoscopically varied performance.
The comic players are also well cast. James Cagney is superb as Bottom, particularly in the monologue that follows waking from what he considers "his dream." Hugh Herbert brings more variation to a giddy giggle, both for accompanying expression and meaning, than any other human being probably ever has. Frank McHugh is a delight as Peter Quince. Only Joe E Brown, as Flute, goes overboard, trying to steal the scene from others during their lines; but he makes up for it with a delightful Thisbe. Arthur Treacher is very much wasted, with nothing to say; and their are indications in the action that more may have been filmed, or at least planned of their material to film. Considerations of length and/or budget probably intervened.
Victor Jory, so well known even today for his villainous roles (especially in Flash Gordon serials), is a superbly dark Oberon: not sinister, but more of a somber Herne the Hunter type, in contrast to Anita Louise, who is all Elven gossamer. Presumably Reinhardt saw them as a balance of light and dark, perhaps with an overlay of contemporary Austrian psychoanalysis: masculine/dark/forceful against feminine/light/receptive. No, I don't buy the silly pop analysis of Men Are From Mars, Women From Venus; but in Reinhardt's AMND, we may be looking at an earlier incarnation of the same values, definitely presented on a more creative level. I don't buy into Reinhardt's portrayal of Oberon's followers as a bunch of anthrompomorphized bats, but I have to admit it works in context. This especially holds true for the ballet sequence where one bat follower symbolically forces a fairy follower of Titania to the ground, overshadows her, then bears her off, horizontal, her hands waving delicately in the air. I suppose we can only be thankful that the Hayes Office wasn't really paying attention to high prestige Art films.
The lovers are not quite as effective. All four are good, with Olivia de Haviland perhaps the best of the lot; but there's little sense of emotional depth in their performances, at least enough to draw forth Puck's disparaging remark about "what fools these mortals be." Some of this, again, may be due to the director's conception. Reinhardt clearly plays them more for laughs, cutting a fair amount of the four-way badinage, and deliberately staging at least one famous piece of it as a four-way, non-stop, unintelligble harrangue, in which opponents trade off to continue arguing. The quartet in Adrian Noble's 1996 AMND is to be preferred, here (though the staging is, IMO, awful).
To round out, I have to return to Reinhardt. He gave many of Hollywood's greatest talents during the 1920s-40s their apprenticeships. The contemporary notices for his productions are unanimous raves for his artistic insight, integrity, intelligence, directorial ability, and brillance of execution. Yet he would be no more than a footnote in some theatrical encyclopedia if it were not for this single film, made after Reinhardt escaped from the Nazis. A modest success in box offices at the time, Hollywood could not countenance the huge expenditure of resources on such a film, and Reinhardt was a respected pariah in the film community until his death in the early 1940s. But AMND lives on, and provides an excellent sense of what all the excitement was about this master visionary of theater...and potentially, cinema.