Archive for the 'Directors: Welles' Category
Nearly a hundred years ago George Orson Welles was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The story goes that when the UW—Madison asked him to come get an honorary degree long afterward, he refused. The reason? He claimed he was conceived in Rio de Janeiro, so he considered himself Brazilian.
About ninety years ago, little Orson went to Indianola summer camp outside Madison. (A memoir of his stay, criticizing Welles’ more lurid version, is here.) He attended fourth grade in Madison 1925-1926. At that time he was studied as a child prodigy by psychologist Dr. F. G. Mueller. A story about the little rascal, who was already staging plays, appeared in a local paper. Then he transferred to the Todd School for Boys in Woodstock, Illinois.
Madison has done pretty neatly by him. Our Wisconsin State Historical Society collections include some Wellesiana: production material on Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, and unmade projects, along with a rich trove from Agnes Moorehead, who taught school in Soldiers Grove and got a Masters at our university. For decades, Welles’ films were staples of our bustling campus film-society scene, and out of that emerged Wisconsin-born Joseph McBride. Joe produced a fine critical monograph on Welles in 1972 and has been writing about him ever since. Another supremo Wellesian, James Naremore, did his doctorate here. Douglas Gomery, one of our Film Studies alumni, wrote a foundational study of Welles’ relation to the studio system, and Michael Wilmington, who collaborated with Joe on a book on John Ford, has also written eloquently on Welles over the years.
So I had good luck coming here in 1973. As a teenager getting interested in film, I focused most avidly on Welles. I watched Kane and Ambersons on late-night TV, and as a good omen, there was a 16mm screening of Kane during my first week as a college freshman. With pals I traveled to New York to see the newly released Chimes at Midnight (twice) and wrote a review for our student newspaper. A few years after that Film Comment published my first serious piece of film criticism, an essay on Kane. That movie has been a leitmotif of my life—a centerpiece of our textbook Film Art since its publication in 1979, important in The Classical Hollywood Cinema, and still stubbornly facing me down in my current struggles with 1940s Hollywood narrative.
So it’s in the nature of things that our Cinematheque is honoring Welles in a year-long retrospective that started in January. And it’s even niftier that our current Wisconsin Film Festival has included three items celebrating this prodigious and prodigal Cheesehead.
Never too much johnson
I like quick cutting very much. I didn’t do much of it at the start. But the more I work, the more I like it.
Welles shot film material to fill in exposition for the three acts of a stage production he was mounting in 1938. Too Much Johnson was a revival of a turn-of-the-century farce, and how the smart-alecky boys must have snickered at the title. The film remained uncompleted and was never shown with the play (which failed out of town). Welles edited the first part of the footage to some extent, but what remains of the rest are rushes. The footage was discovered in Pordenone, Italy in 2008 and has recently become available for screenings. You can watch it on Fandor, though we discovered that it plays best on the big screen with an audience and live music. For us, piano accompaniment was supplied by the versatile David Drazin.
Movies have long been mixed with live performance. Early films were inserted between vaudeville acts. In Japan, films enhanced and extended the action of plays. Eisenstein famously insinuated comic footage into his 1923 Moscow production of The Wise Man, and the idea caught on in Europe as well. By 1938, the New York stage had its own tradition of mixed-media, notably in the “Living Newspapers” sponsored by the Works Progress Administration. Welles had played in another politically pointed production, Sidney Kingsley’s Ten Million Ghosts (1936), which incorporated both slides and film.
The Too Much Johnson footage is a tribute to silent movies, or at least silent movies as a young theatre director in 1938 thought of them. At that time, many intellectuals admired slapstick comedy; serious silent drama was largely considered old-fashioned and “theatrical.” Movie aficianados also appreciated the silent avant-garde, especially Clair’s Entr’acte (1924), which enjoyed a place in the crystallizing Museum of Modern Art canon. Entr’acte, another movie inserted in bits during a stage show (Rélâche), was itself a reworking of American chase-and-stunt extravaganzas. I think the Too Much Johnson material bears traces of both Hollywood and Paris, especially with certain cuts that are even bolder than what we’d find in Sennett or Lloyd.
Welles scrambles several trends of silent cinema. To evoke the period of Gillette’s 1894 play, an early scene suggests filmed theatre before 1908 or so, but Welles immediately interrupts it with very brief, looming close-ups.
Elsewhere, Welles provides a flurry of Soviet-style axial cuts when the couple are interrupted in bed.
These “concertina” cuts, along with the mismatches of a twisting Joseph Cotten, create a jumpy effect reminiscent of Kuleshov’s By the Law (1925) and other films. (Though I doubt that Welles had seen that.)
There’s also a lot of Soviet-style Eccentrism in the opening footage, with Cotten scrambling over buildings and through a market in the Harold Lloyd manner. At both a pastiche and a potpourri, Too Much Johnson stands as something more than a curiosity. It’s a sketchbook, a finger-exercise in silent cinema technique, and a testament to buoyant youth from a twenty-three-year-old. It’s also evidently the first of Welles’ many unfinished films.
Chuck Workman’s Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles has the good sense not to get in the way of Welles’ overwhelming presence. The documentary smoothly incorporates many interview clips with Himself and collaborators, kin, and admirers. There are also some splendid family photographs. The structure is chronological, and clips from the film are surrounded by contextualizing commentary from Welles and others. There’s a wonderful moment when Workman illustrates, with production photos, the dead silence following the Martians’ attack in Welles radio drama. The documentary even manages to throw doubt on Welles’ reminiscences by juxtaposing contradictory interview statements. I have a hunch that Jim Naremore, who was the major consultant on the project, encouraged this sort of historical frankness. Every Welles researcher knows that against his selective memory and penchant for fabulism, the documents must be checked.
Among the familiar but always compelling landmarks, Norman Lloyd makes a comment that set me thinking. “He brought, in one word, theatricality.” Welles was a sponge, blending many of the innovations in staging and conception that streamed into America from overseas, but I think he was particularly marked by what was then called “theatrical theatre.”
The Europeans, notably Piscator, and the Russians, notably Meyerhold, had embraced frank artifice. They challenged all forms of realism, from the bland ignore-the-fourth-wall parlors of the well-made play, to the Naturalist notion that the play was a “slice of life” and that you could hang bleeding cuts of meat in your stage-set butcher shop. They also challenged the atmospheric Symbolism of Appia and others. Instead, theatrical theatre offered a stripped-down presentation that broke with the proscenium and hurled itself at the audience. The stage space was no longer a room or imaginary world cut off from the audience; it was of a piece with the auditorium. Performances were no longer representational, but “presentational,” in the manner of jugglers, acrobats, or…magicians.
For Americans, the idea of Theatrical Theatre was crystallized in Mordecai Gorelik’s book New Theatres for Old (1940). Gorelik traced the trend from Toller’s Masse Mensch (1921) directly to Welles’ 1937 “no-scenery” production of Julius Caesar. Other productions of that season, including The Cradle Will Rock (Welles and Houseman, using a bare stage perforce) and Our Town, with its scripted catcalls from the audience, were turning the blank stage into a space continuous the auditorium—not an imaginary locale but an area for acting and interacting.
Gorelik quotes Gordon Craig: “Do not forget that there is such a thing as noble artificiality.” Not a bad summation of Welles’ productions, including the Harlem Macbeth (above) and the War of the Worlds broadcast, as well as the films. Theatrical theatre is confrontational, sometimes angrily and sometimes, as in Welles’ penchant for reviving vaudeville, good-naturedly. Even Gorelik couldn’t go along with Mercury’s 1937 Faustus, which he deprecated as a “sleight-of-hand performance.” But I think it’s plausible to take Welles as in the tradition Lloyd alludes to. Expecting realism blocks some people from appreciating the brazen stylization, the pranksterish poke in the eye we get from many of the movies.
Hearts of age
Over the last thirty years or so, I remembered Chimes at Midnight as a more cohesive movie than the admirably choppy Othello. Seeing Chimes again yesterday, I realized that they were mates. There was the same ransom-note assemblage of scenes, the abrupt cutaways covering changes in character position, the use of long shots showing characters not speaking the lines we hear them say. You hear a line and may find that nobody has opened his mouth. An empty tavern becomes suddenly full after we’ve hung around one area of it. The great battle scene starts out making sense spatially but then dissolves into chaos, as men grind and hammer one another, and the dust at their feet turns to bloody mud.
So what? One of the lessons Welles seems to have learned from Eisenstein is that continuity is overrated. Almost every shot-change forces you to readjust your attention, and a cut is less a link than a jolt. André Bazin was right to praise Welles’ long takes, but the Wonder Boy of the 1940s also loved disjunctive cuts, apparently from Too Much Johnson onward. Not all the harsh editing in The Lady from Shanghai and Macbeth can be attributed to studio interference. By the time we get to Othello, the same paste-up aesthetic governs almost every scene, with sound sometimes covering the gap and sometimes accentuating it.
Welles told Peter Bogdanovich that only the Greeks and the French classicists wrote true tragedies. Tragedy ought to be austere and pure, he seems to have thought. Shakespeare, he insisted, gives us high-level blood-and-thunder melodrama. So his Shakespeare films are rough and tumble, full of violent, strident effects, from the brimstone paganism of Macbeth to Othello’s Turkish-bath assassination. Here, it’s Falstaff and his followers providing earthy comedy, with Prince Hal enjoying the riotous living and the escalating slanging matches, where punning insults are swapped between gulps of sack. The glowing Boar’s Head versus the spare, chilly palace; fiery Fat Jack versus severe, monastic Henry IV; romps in the forest versus carnage on the battlefield—these are the options facing the young prince. Playing, as we now say, the long game, he warns Falstaff twice that when he assumes power, the old rogue will be cast off. When the new king follows his father’s advice “to busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels” (sound familiar?), you have to wonder if an occasional robbery of pious pilgrims is worse than Henry V’s cynical venture into patriotic gore: “No King of England if not King of France!” Falstaff, cold as any stone, is hauled off to his grave. Melodrama, again, and none the worse for it.
Thanks to Jared Case of George Eastman House who brought Too Much Johnson to us and provided lively commentary. Eastman House is the archive that restored the film, and is the site of The Nitrate Picture Show starting 30 April. (See you there?) Thanks as well to Jim Healy, Ben Reiser, and Mike King of our festival for many varieties of help. They do a swell job.
Frank Brady interviewed Welles extensively about the Too Much Johnson project, and the informative results are in Brady’s Citizen Welles: A Biography of Orson Welles, 145-151.
The Wisconsin Film Festival runs until 16 April, and there are many high points yet to come—not least, a 35mm screening of Where the Sidewalk Ends (15 April), which Kristin and I must miss (snif). The Cinematheque series continues this summer with a focus on Welles the actor, and in the fall with several rarities.
Douglas Gomery’s trailblazing article, arguing that Welles was a prototype of the Hollywood independent, is “Orson Welles and the Hollywood Industry,” Persistence of Vision 7 (1989), 39-43. On Too Much Johnson, see Joe McBride’s in-depth piece at Bright Lights. There are too many excellent books on Welles to itemize here, but at the very least your shelf needs Peter Bogdanovich and Jonathan Rosenbaum’s This Is Orson Welles, Jim Naremore’s Magic World of Orson Welles, Joe McBride’s What Ever Happened to Orson Welles?, Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Discovering Orson Welles, and Simon Callow’s luxuriant two-volume biography. The most complete account of Welles’ stay in Madison that I know is in Peter Noble’s The Fabulous Orson Welles, pp. 26-33. The article about the Boy Wonder, age ten, appeared in The Capital Times (19 February 1926). Welles talks about Shakespearean plays as melodrama in the third audiocassette accompanying This Is Orson Welles, at 52:02.
Our analysis of Citizen Kane occupies chapters 3 and 8 of Film Art, and chapter 27 of The Classical Hollywood Cinema. There are many references to Kane and Ambersons on this site; check the Welles category. My 1967 review of Chimes at Midnight is here, on p. 9. It’s all too obviously the work of a twenty-year-old, and it demonstrates how it’s not really that hard to write a passable movie review. But at least it’s enthusiastic about the right things.
P. S. 13 April 2015: Joe McBride writes:
And Madison Mafia made man Pat McGilligan’s upcoming biog Young Orson: The Years of Luck and Genius on the Path to Citizen Kane will have many illuminating things to say about OW’s Madison days, as well as correcting other myths.
Thanks to Joe and best wishes to Pat, whose book will appear in August. For background on the Madison Movie Mafia, go here.
P.P.S. 13 April 2015: Manfred Polak advises me that the copy of Too Much Johnson that I linked is blocked for some regions of the world. It’s available for all on National Film Preservation Foundation pages. The complete 66-min. work print we saw in Madison is here and can be downloaded here. There’s also a 34-min. edited version, downloadable here.
Thanks very much to Manfred!
Bingo! Crowdsourcing pays off. Alert blogger Ivan Paio found the original poster that’s tucked into the Magnificent Ambersons frame! It confirms that Welles used not a film poster but one advertising a stage show…that could have played the Bijou in 1912.
DB here, again and still:
Still, until somebody comes along with a better account, I’m ready to believe that we’ve found the film.
That’s me, just two days ago. I suggested that the mystery poster tucked into the corner of one shot in The Magnificent Ambersons is the Pathé release of 1912, The Cow-Boy Girls. Readers with long memories and no life of their own will recall that this question has bugged me since my earlier post in May. Last week my colleague Eric Hoyt suggested what the title might be, and some rummaging in various sources, particularly the invaluable Lantern database, seemed to confirm it.
To recap: Here are two blow-ups from a 35mm print, showing the two angles from which Welles’ camera captures the poster. The text is clearer in the half-size one, but the more distant one yields a fuller view. The poster seems to depict a man thrashing an American Indian, with a young woman, arm outstretched, in the rear. Note also the shield-like triangular shape underneath the title on the first image.
Last night came word from two more vigilant correspondents, each with new evidence–again, unearthed by the light of Lantern.
My first correspondent was Luke McKernan, early film specialist and master builder of the vastly informative website The Bioscope. Luke has stopped posting there, but he continues to write keenly on cinema at lukemckernan.com. His message to me runs as follows:
I have struggled and struggled with this one til I’m at the point of worrying about my eyesight. I don’t think it can be The Cowboy Girls, but searching for the keyword Cowgirl might be productive. I found this in the Lantern site, searching for ‘cowgirl’ and 1912:
It’s not the right film, but the still is quite close to that in the Ambersons poster, which at least gives encouragement.
The entry Luke refers to is this one, from The Moving Picture News of 1912.
The picture shows the situation we find in the Ambersons poster. But as Luke says, our poster’s title clearly is not Staking the Claim. More research, as we academics say, is needed.
Just a few hours later came this from another colleague here at Madison, Ph.D. candidate Eric Dienstfrey.
Reading your post on Ambersons now, I remember coming across the title The Cow-Boy Girl while researching stage musicals that were contemporary to Gottschalk’s The Tik-Tok Man From Oz and The Patchwork Girl of Oz. You are absolutely correct, the poster does say “The Cow-Boy Girl” but it was for a theatrical musical, not a film… at least I don’t think so. (But many films were probably called Cowboy Girl too.) I’ve attached two different posters from the musical that I found online. The triangle shield is not the Pathé rooster after all!
I hope you find this interesting/useful… or better yet, I hope this brings you a little closure.
I had mentioned on Saturday that there was a stage show called The Cow-Boy Girl, and I wondered whether the poster was promoting not a film but the theatre piece. In the end, I went with a film title. But Eric D’s visual evidence of the title font and the triangular motif (not a shield but a swag curtain, I think) strongly suggests that we’re dealing with a play. It would be characteristic of a theatre in 1912 to include vaudeville, stage shows, and other live entertainment alongside movies.
The Cow Boy Girl (no hyphen), a thirty-minute playlet including songs, was reviewed, unfavorably, by Variety (29 October 1910). The review doesn’t mention a scene like that depicted on the poster.
Other sources lists touring shows of The Cow-Boy Girl (with and without hyphen) from 1910 onward, so it might well have been playing the Bijou in the Ambersons’ town in 1912. Actually, Eric D. has found that it did play another Bijou. The Billboard of 18 February 1911 lists the following:
How can you argue with something that played the home of thrillers?
Are we there yet? Until we find a copy of the poster itself, I’m inclined to think so. But as Luke’s discovery indicates, we’re dealing with a period in which imagery, titles, and situations were copied and circulated in great profusion. In 1912 plenty of cowgirls and cowboys and cowboy girls and cow-boy girls were swarming over American entertainment. More or less like superheroes today.
No research project is finished, only abandoned. Thanks to the Fussbudget Team for playing!
Some readers may recall my post on The Magnificent Ambersons back in May. I argued that Welles built a sense of the irretrievable past into many aspects of the film’s narration. He used the voice-over commentary to evoke times gone by, but also ellipsis, offscreen action, constant recitation of memories, and other strategies. In addition, there were moments of cinephile nostalgia, including the iris shot at the end of the snow scene and the concluding credits of the actors slowly turning to face the audience, as in the manner of films of the 1910s.
Then there were the movie posters. George and Lucy are walking through the town. He’s about to leave for Europe, and she feigns a polite lack of concern. They pass the Bijou movie house, which flaunts several posters. I managed to identify all but one, the one tucked in the lower right of the frame above. I just couldn’t properly read the title, even on a good 35mm print.
Blown up from 35, the clearest view we get of it looks like this.
I thought it might be The Coin-Box Girl, but no such film title existed. Some readers– Jacopo Pes, Ivo Blom, and Paolo Cherchi Usai (thanks to all)–proposed some possibilities. Alas, none of their suggestions seemed to fit. Even running through the Library of Congress copyright listings for films didn’t yield a plausible candidate.
Over a lunch with colleague Eric Hoyt last week (Eric is one of the geniuses behind Lantern), we talked about this. Eric had access to a bigger list of titles than that of the LoC, and he suggested that the first words might be cow-boy. Checking his list, we find that there was indeed a May 1912 Pathé release called The Cowboy Girls. It’s also listed in Lauritzen and Lundquist’s American Film-Index 1908-1915 under that name. It might well have been postered as The Cow-Boy Girls. (We now assume that the squiggly line after “Cow” is a hyphen. It might be just a really curly w.) An April 1913 ad from the Carbondale Daily Free Press lists a film called The Cow Boy Girls, so if it’s the same movie, there was some freedom of punctuation around it.
I left the second ad underneath so you can appreciate having electricity.
It would be very nice to check a poster of the film, but I haven’t found one. Here, though, is a synopsis from Moving Picture World of 1912. (Again, thanks to Lantern.)
This doesn’t quite match the image on the poster, which shows a man apparently about to strike a Native American kneeling before him. But in the background, more visible in the half-framed poster, there seems to be a young woman coming out of a cabin protesting, and perhaps brandishing a pistol. (Open Carry applies here.)
There are other anomalies. If this is indeed The Cowboy Girls from Pathé, does the triangular shield logo in the northwest corner boast a rooster? Some Pathé titles did, as for this 1908 French release (one of the most important films ever made). On the four shields, the rooster (also to be seen as decor in Pathé interiors) is joined by the eternal symbol of the theatre, the comic and tragic masks.
And if The Cowboy Girls is a Pathé title, did the Carbondale ad list it as “Essany” (Essanay) by mistake? Or is that a different cowgirls movie? It may be relevant that there was a vaudeville play called The Cow Boy Girl, which was touring at the same period. Filmmakers may have tried to cash in on that. Or maybe the Ambersons Bijou was presenting that stage show rather than a film?
Still, until somebody comes along with a better account, I’m ready to believe that we’ve found the film. The clincher for me is the Cowboy Girls’ date: 1912. Except for the fake lobby card promoting a nonexistent Jack Holt movie, all the discernible film posters in the Ambersons scene are from 1912 releases.
This obsessive synchronization is surely the work of a film nerd, either Welles or a staff member. Geek calls out to geek, from 1912 to 1942 to 2014. See? I’m not the only fussbudget here.
The Magnificent Ambersons (1942).