1/20/15

The First Midsummer Night's Dream Movie: "So Awake When I Am Gone / For I Must Now to . . . Penelope?"

In 1909 the Vitagraph Company shot the first Midsummer Night's Dream movie in the wilds of Brooklyn, using a forest and the architecture at a waterworks and park entrance (Halio 85). The actor Charles Kent may have directed the film alone or with Vitagraph's cofounder, J. Stuart Blackton. Like many of Blackton's films, the Vitagraph Midsummer is filled with stop-action effects, but Kent, who didn't use ordinarily use these effects, may have adopted them to make the film's fairy scenes more magical.

The movie opens with a long title describing what will be pantomimed in the first scene. We then see a kneeling Hermia plead with Theseus that she be allowed to marry Lysander. When Theseus responds by pointing at Hermia's very hairy father and sweeping his hand between her and Lysander, Hermia rushes to her beloved, followed by her father's marriage choice, Demetrius. Lysander holds Demetrius back and points at Helena, signifying, "Demetrius, I'll avouch it to his head, / Made love to Nedar's daughter, Helena" (1.1.106-107). Theseus confirms Lysander's accusation, waving his scepter between Demetrius and Helena, indicating, "I must confess that I have heard so much / And with Demetrius thought to have spoke thereof" (111-12). Everyone leaves except Lysander and Hermia, who plot their escape from Athens then walk out of the frame, followed by Demetrius, who is followed Helena.

Lysander pushes Demetrius away from
Helena as Theseus, Hippolyta, and Egeus look on.

This rendering skips Hermia and Lysander's revelation of their plan to Helena and Helena's soliloquy but otherwise provides the scene's essential plot points. The same is true of the second scene, which is described in a title as "The tradesmen of the town rehearse a play."
Unlike the first scene's pantomime, a number of details in this one—Bottom acting a tyrant's part, Flute gesturing that he's got a beard coming—wouldn't be understood by anyone unfamiliar with Midsummer.

Bottom: "I could play Ercles rarely,
or a part to tear a cat in."

Presumably such moviegoers wouldn't have noticed anything unusual in the next title, which is startling for those who know the play: "Titania, queen of the fairies quarrels with Penelope" (2:45). Throughout the film, a female fairy named Penelope replaces Oberon, turning Midsummer's strange story of a husband humiliating his wife into a sorority prank gone wrong. Like Oberon, Penelope quarrels with Titania over a changeling boy and charms her to fall in love with first creature she sees when she wakes up. Unlike Oberon, when Penelope learns that Puck has made Titania fall in love with an ass-headed yokel (7:36), her reaction isn't "This falls out better than I could devise" (3.2.35) but This has gone too far! A title tells us, "Penelope discovers the mischief that has been done" (9:12), and we watch her disenchant Titania and walk off with her arm around her friend's shoulder (9:22).
Penelope learns that
Titania dotes on an ass-headed fool.

We can only speculate as to why the director (or directors) changed the story. Perhaps he (or they) wanted to make it more family-friendly than the original husband-and-wife quarrel. The director(s) main intent with the fairies' story seems to be entertaining the audience with what were then surprising cinematic effects.

The most complex of these is Puck's retrieval of the love-in-idleness flower. In the play, after being ordered to get the flower, Puck tells Oberon, "I'll put a girdle round about the earth" (2.1.175-76), and while he's gone we watch Oberon watch the sad wrangling of Helena and Demetrius. In the film, after Penelope pantomimes what she wants, Puck backs up, takes a running start, and flies up out of the frame. We follow him, instead of staying with Penelope, and watch him in a double-exposure scene soaring over a rolling earth-painted drum (3:21). Puck gathers the flower and returns over the drum to Penelope. His girdling of the earth is a century-old example of Shakespeare's imagination inspiring cinematic invention.
Puck puts a girdle round about the earth.    

Unfortunately we don't have the complete film. What we have ends before the Pyramus and Thisbe performance, but it's well worth eleven minutes of your time. I suggest watching with the sound off since, as is often true of these silent-film rereleases, the music doesn't match the images very well.

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