Midsummer Night's Dream, A [1999]

From a glittery studio extravaganza to a bare-bones stage adaptation, this box o' Shakespeare groups a quartet of high-profile productions. Judicious extra features and gorgeous prints make this the equivalent of a leather-bound volume in the family library. The earliest offering in the set is MGM's 1935 Romeo and Juliet, a lavish if heavily trimmed treatment of the tragic-romance. Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer are undeniably older than Shakespeare's headstrong youths, but they don't lack fervor; and John Barrymore, while definitely too weathered for Mercutio, works up an antic, sarcastic energy. Director George Cukor does well with the central romantic pulse, and the thing certainly zips right along, while proving the durability of a well-built story. A Midsummer Night's Dream is a moon-dappled folly based on legendary director Max Reinhardt's smash stage production at the Hollywood Bowl. It's dazzling to look at, with sparkles and fairies in every corner of the frame, even if the cast (largely filled with Warner Bros. studio players) finds variable success. Without a doubt, James Cagney and Joe E. Brown make a fine Pyramus and Thisby in the play-within-the-play, but the unstoppable performance is by 14-year-old Mickey Rooney as Puck, whose feral mockery of the other action makes him a little postmodern imp before his time. This is a one-of-a-kind production that's as much a tribute to the high studio era as it is to Shakespeare. Othello (1965) exists as a faithful capture of Laurence Olivier's elaborate stage performance of the Moor of Venice: shot on plain sets and using the stage cast, it barely exists as a movie. Yet one feels gratitude for the preservation of Olivier's volcanic turn, a fascinating example of a performer building a performance not organically but with layer upon layer of effects--blackface make-up, exotic gestures, rumbly voice--until he reaches critical mass. Frank Finlay's Iago (a much more modern and camera-scaled performance), Maggie Smith's Desdemona, and Joyce Redman's Emilia were all nominated for Oscars, as was Olivier. The most recent film in the bunch is Kenneth Branagh's 1996 take on Hamlet, the first film to present Shakespeare's greatest text uncut. The spiffy production is undone slightly by Branagh's tendency to over-direct the big moments, but the setting is marvelous and the cast is a consistent delight. Experienced Shakespearians such as Derek Jacobi and Richard Briers thrive, but so do Julie Christie and Kate Winslet. Even the stunt casting works: Billy Crystal is surprisingly good as the Gravedigger, and Charlton Heston is an inspired choice as the Player King. Among the extra features are a Branagh commentary on Hamlet, a mid-1930s screen test for Olivia de Havilland, and various vintage shorts--including Shake Mr. Shakespeare, a silly musical with the Bard's characters coming to life. --Robert Horton

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