A Midsummer Night’s Dream of 1909

Note: This is the fifty-second in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my second favorite 1909 film, A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, directed by Charles Kent and J. Stuart Blackton.

A ten minute silent film adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream probably isn’t the most ideal form of the comic play by William Shakespeare. In fact, it may be among the least ideal within the reasonable realms of popular media. Nevertheless, Charles Kent and J. Stuart Blackton’s 1909 film of the same name is able to leave a favorable impression of my favorite Shakespeare play, even within its limited scope. Perhaps its greatest significance, however, lies in how it is a prime example of how film was still restrained as a new decade was approaching, to its detriment. Movies needed to outgrow a reel or two, and the stage talent and prestige adaptations starting to flood the market only made that necessity more clear.

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM was a Vitagraph production. Vitagraph was one of the biggest American studios leading up to the feature film revolution in the mid-1910s, and they made a name for themselves with more serious, dramatic films…such as adaptations of Shakespeare. Blackton, an animation pioneer who was now in his full-fledged dramatic direction career, was a senior Vitagraph producer and director. Kent, on the other hand, was new to the film industry…at age 57. He was a British-born American, and had acted on stage for over 30 years until he made his film acting debut in Vitagraph’s MACBETH (1908), directed by Blackton. Kent quickly transitioned into directing, with A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM being among his first efforts, and it’s likely his stage experience afforded him the promotion. Still, he directed films only over the course of the next few years, and from 1913 until his death at age 70 in 1923, Kent solely acted.

But as a fresh-faced 57-year-old in 1909, Kent helped create a Shakespeare adaptation that was as faithful as it could be. The film’s intertitles actually do a fairly good job explaining the story, but of course, a lot of the nuance and nature of the character’s relationships are lost in translation. And therefore, a lot of the delightful humor and, obviously, the play’s dense wordplay. Still, Kent and Blackton attempt to impart this humor physically. And generally, it’s staged pretty well.

The broad dramatic despair and loving gestures of the four lovers are typical early silent melodrama fare, but the sprightly mischief of Puck, Titania, and Penelope (more on that in a second) is amusing and carries the spirit of the script. The actor who plays Nick Bottom, William V. Ranous, is one of the standout members of the cast, if not only because his movement is incredibly funny when placed inside a bizarre donkey head. There was certainly intentional humor built around Puck’s transformation of Bottom into an ass-headed man, but the way Ranous navigates with the rather unwieldy headwear belies something a little less than mastery of his own movement.

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM is essentially a faithful, albeit abridged, adaptation, but it gender bends a couple of key characters in interesting ways. Puck, for example, is played by a young girl, perhaps in the tradition of Peter Pan, a young, impish male character often played by young women. That tradition was newly minted in 1909, as Peter Pan was staged for the first time 1904, but the change obviously doesn’t change the context of the character, who is likely still meant to be male. One of the most visually intriguing moments in the film is tied to Puck, as well, as he takes off into the air (lifted by wires) and flies over a rotating cylinder representing the world. It’s a great synthesis of “in the moment” effects, in the case of holding the actress aloft with wires, and film/camera tricks, as double exposure superimposes her over the construction of the world.

However, the film’s replacement of Oberon, king of the fairies, with Penelope is even more interesting. Oberon is nowhere to be found in the film, and in his place, Penelope argues with Titania, and she’s the one who sends Puck to do her mischief. There’s never an allusion to some kind of homosexual relationship (perhaps the idea is just a typical reductive one from the era, that women pettily argue with each other often), but that’s how it appears, especially considering the relationship between Oberon and Titania, a sexually charged husband-and-wife dynamic. It’s an interesting twist on the otherwise rote treatment of the story.

One of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM’s other lasting important facets is its abundance of stage talent. Even beyond Kent, the film’s cast is made up of fairly recognizable stage names for the era, including Maurice Costello, his daughters Dolores (who would marry John Barrymore) and Helene in cameo fairy roles, and Rose Tapley. Tapley is often cited as one of the first recognizable leading ladies in film at a time when movie stars did not exist, per se, due to there being, uh, no accreditation. Florence Turner, the “Vitagraph Girl,” also stars as Titania. She was never really identified by name, as her epithet suggests, but the identifier was used due to her increasing popularity.

Film studios wanted their cake and to eat it too, by capitalizing on the popularity of performers within their stables, but without using names and potentially opening up competition with other studios or the much more respected stage producers. All of the actors in A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM took a chance on film, and for a few of them, it payed off; they made a mark in a fledgling, fantastic medium. That impact wouldn’t have been assured, or even possible, if they had stayed on the stage. As it is, I can experience the admittedly out-of-touch acting of the cast 108 years later, and that’s no small thing.

To a larger point, A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM’s shortcomings are perhaps more significant than the things it does well. The work of the most celebrated dramatist of all time had to be truncated to ten minutes, and without sound (that limitation would take a little longer to work out). But with feature films already existing out in the world, the idea of devoting more rolls of film and moving past the nickelodeon era of film distribution in America was approaching. Vitagraph would end up being a stubborn holdout when it came to features, but in 1909, it wasn’t yet facing that pressure. Its prestigious adaptations still led to that school of thought, however, as some enterprising new talent were wondering how they could tell truly epic stories on film. Once again, Vitagraph wanted its cake and to eat it too. Its success and messaging implied there was something “more” to Vitagraph films, which were telling elevated stories like Shakespeare’s, but as features grew technologically, culturally, and financially feasible in the mid-1910s, it wanted to argue that shorts were more efficient economic products and better experiences for the “masses,” with their shortened attention spans.

Full film

Ultimately, of course, history tells us Vitagraph was outdated only a decade and a half or so since the birth of the commercial film industry. It would go on to make features and survive longer than the other early American studios, but it helped contribute to its own death with its output in the late 19-aughts. It did in fact elevate the concept of what film could take on, which would end up biting itself in the butt when it was realized film could take on more with more time. Vitagraph also helped define what would become the classical silent Hollywood style of filmmaking, even at a time when the film industry was based on the east coast. Ultimately, A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM is an impressive adaptation that contributed to that evolution, even though it was so clearly a product of 1909 technological and industry limitations. It carried a sense of fantasy and comedy that are at the core of Shakespeare’s original tale, and that made it a success.

Make sure to catch up on and keep up with all of my essays on my favorite films here.

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Tristan Ettleman

Tristan Ettleman

I write about movies, music, video games, and more.

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