Friday, May 6, 2011

Orson Welles: Happy Birthday and Career Retrospective

George Orson Welles was my all time favorite film director, actor, magician, celebrity spokesman, and guest on the panel of the Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts. He was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin in 1915, before going on to fame and fortune (of sorts) in the world of theater, radio, film, TV, and the written word. He passed away in 1985, but had he survived until today, he'd be turning 96.

His career started strong when he took Broadway by storm as 21 year old directing avaunt guard  productions of Macbeth starring an almost all African American cast (in 1936!) and Julius Caesar with the story transposed to Fascist Italy. Perhaps his most famous theatrical production (that he never actually got to stage) was The Cradle Will Rock, which was shut down by the federal government due to cut backs in the Works Projects that supporting arts and theater. After their normal theater was locked up and most of the actors and musicians refused to perform at a different, non union-supported venue, the leads spontaneously performed the performance from the audience. After that, he became world famous with his now legendary radio production of The War of the World's, that either intentionally or accidentally mislead much of the country into thinking an actual alien invasion had taken place in New Jersey. He then became the voice of The Shadow ("Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men...?"), until Hollywood came calling and he made the most highly regarded film in American history.

After that, things went down hill and he struggled along for much of his life, scrapping together the finances to budget his various film projects, mostly taking acting performances in films that ranged from the fantastic to the forgettable. For a while he became more popular for his appearances in the commercials for Paul Masson Wine than he had for any of his movies, where he spoke the immortal catchphrase, "we will serve no wine before its time."

In honor of the man's work and birthday, I'm going to be boring everybody with a retrospective of the man's career. This career is actually worth talking about, however, since even his failures are incredibly interesting. I'm going to mostly limit myself to the films he worked on as a director, but I'll mention some other appearances or productions that are most notable:

Citizen Kane (1941)
At the age of 26, Hollywood offered the now famous star of radio and theater an unprecedented contract to make any film he wanted, with total control over the cast and final edit. The end result was the best film of his entire career, and regarded by many people (myself included) as the best film of all time. The fact that he was a genius with a background in theater and radio created an amalgam of what he knew from those kinds of productions, to what he experimented with in film, creating an amazing, exciting, innovative film that was unlike anything that had been made before, and still remains fresh and copied to this day.

Welles decided to tell a fictionalized retelling of the life of newspaper pioneer William Randolph Hearst, which in the end turned out to be a wonderful thing for the world of film but a very destructive mistake for Welles himself. Hearst was still alive at the time and severely lacking in a sense of humor (either at the pointed portrayal of himself as a man who lost his soul as he became mad with power and wealth, or at the rather unfair and mean portrayal of his wife Marion Davies as a non-talent shrew) and used his considerable power and funds to have the film destroyed and the career of Welles blacklisted. Hearst managed to do irreparable harm to Orson Welles, turning him into something of a pariah in Hollywood after this point, which may have been partly his own fault since he decided to make such a high profile attack of the equally high profile (and eminently more powerful) Hearst. After this, most Hollywood studios figured that working with Welles was more trouble than it was worth.

The film itself is brilliant, however, and its legacy remains unscathed by all the controversy. In fact, over the years all that controversy probably only helped to raise its fame and notoriety, although by this point Hearst has been mostly forgotten, but Citizen Kane remains at the top of most best of all time lists. Welles was nominated for the Oscars for Best Actor and Best Director, and won for Best Original Screenplay, along with his co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz, the only Oscar of his career, until he was given an honorary life achievement award from the Academy in 1971. Anyway, if you haven't seen this film yet, go rent it, since it's still awesome and ridiculously entertaining.

The Magnificent Ambersons (1941)
This is my personal favorite of Welles's films. Based on the wonderful novel by Booth Tarkington, Ambersons tells the story of a wealthy midwestern family that changes and falls apart as the American landscape evolves after the turn of the century. That doesn't sound very exciting, does it? It's actually very funny, very moving, and incredibly beautiful. The cast is superb, containing wonderful performances by the always charming Joseph Cotton (who also starred in Kane) and the always gorgeous Anne Baxter, in one of her first film roles. I think if I could name my biggest crush of all time, it would be Anne Baxter from The Magnificent Ambersons. Just watch this movie and try to tell me she wasn't the most wonderful and adorable thing you've ever seen.

Welles only appears as the narrator, but his sure hand and visual style behind the camera are on display throughout. Even though the studio famously reshot and reedited much of the film, it still looks and feels like a Welles film, and it's still brilliant.

Journey Into Fear (1943)
I mention this film only because it was the third and final film in Welles's initial three picture deal with RKO Studios. Welles only starred and produced this film, a spy thriller based on the novel by Eric Ambler, with directing credited to Norman Foster. It's ok. It's worth watching for the performances by Welles and Joe Cotton, but it doesn't stand up with most of the other films in the career or either performer.

Jane Eyre (1943)
I absolutely hate the story of Jane Eyre and find every character to be either morally reprehensible or just annoying and sad, but this is a beautiful production with some of the best black and white photography you'll ever seen. Welles only acts as Rochester, but he's fabulous, and so is Joan Fontaine in the title role. This was notable for being the first real work Welles did as an actor for hire in another producer's film.

The Stranger (1946)
Welles took over the role of director again, and made one of his more boring films. By "boring" I mean to say that it's a good if typical mid 40s noir thriller. It tells the story of a former Nazi war criminal (played by Welles, delightfully willing to appear as the villain as often as he does as the hero), and the inspector on his trail (played by Edward G. Robinson). It's a good looking, well made film with fun performances by the two leads, but it's not one I've rewatched too many times. It's just ok, but it may have been Welles's first real hit at the box office.

The Lady From Shanghai (1947)
Now here's a movie! Welles is back as the writer-director-star of this amazing noir thriller about a love-struck Irish sailor (Welles in one of his most fun and charismatic performances) duped into hiring on as a ship hand by a wealthy couple, all of whom have their own nefarious reasons for wanting him around. Welles is a lot of fun to watch with his Irish brogue, the direction is amazing (especially the famous show-stopping finale in the hall of mirrors), and the rest of the cast is awesome, featuring a deliciously evil turn by Everett Sloane and the reunion of Welles and his then ex-wife Rita Hayworth. They were one of the original Hollywood Celebrity couples, that I think historians should refer to as "Haywelles"or "Orsita," so having them together on screen was a big draw for contemporary audiences. Most people were confused by the weird story and dark atmosphere, but it's very tame by today's standards, but still a lot of fun. This is one of his best.

Macbeth (1948)
Welles first became famous for his interpretations of the works of Shakespeare, where he took those stories and transposed them against different cultures and time periods, so it's interesting to note that (almost) all of his Shakespearean films are pretty much straight adaptations of the plays. They're very, very good adaptations, but it's still a bit sad that we never got a film version of his notorious "Voodoo Macbeth" or some other experimental take on the Bard's work. This time around Welles acted and directed himself as Macbeth, in a stripped down, low budget film that looks and feels like a stage play, albeit with a lot of fog to hide the cheap sets. This is a very good production and the cast plays it with Scottish accents instead of English ones (which nobody else ever does, for whatever reason), so it feels very authentic and moody. Check it out if you are a fan of the play.

The Third Man (1949)
After Citizen Kane, this was probably the best film in which Orson Welles was involved. He only appeared as an actor, and even then he only appears onscreen for maybe ten or fifteen minutes. He steals the movie from star Joesph Cotton, however, in the famous Cuckoo scene that he supposedly wrote himself:

Othello (1952)
Another great Shakespeare adaptation, in which Welles appears in black face as the title character. This is a lovely film, with Welles's signature moody look of shadows and silhouettes throughout. I put this on my list of favorite Shakespeare films. This is one of the films that Welles took years to film because he kept running out of money, so he had to suspend production while he took some action jobs to make the finances to resume filming. That's not exactly the most glorious way to make a film, considering how he was one of the greatest directors in the history of the industry.

Mr Arkadin (1955)
Oh man this movie is weird. I've read the novel (written by Welles himself, or at least his name was on the cover), and seen about three different versions of the film, and I still have no idea what it's about or what Welles was hoping to say or accomplish. It's fascinating, however, and worth checking out if only if you are a supreme of Orson Welles. It's lovely to look out (provided you are watching a print of the film that doesn't look like crap) and Welles's performance as the titular character is delightfully weird and over the top. This is just a weird movie, man.

Moby Dick (1956)
Welles makes an appearance as Father Mapple in the John Huston directed version of Melville's novel. This is a good film and Welles was perfectly cast in the small but pivotal role.

Touch of Evil (1958)
Welles finally directs another masterpiece, this time he returns to the noir genre and writes and directs one of the best thrillers of all time. Charlton Heston stars as a Mexican police officer in a small border town full of corruption, graft, and crime. You can tell Heston is Mexican because his skin is slightly tan and because he keeps pointing out that he's Mexican. He's still great though, and so is Welles playing another villain, the corrupt police captain Hank Quinlan. It's been a long, hard time since Citizen Kane, so Welles was well on his way to obesity by this point, but the fake nose and makeup he wore made him look even more disgusting. He's just awesome. Akim Tamiroff, Joe Cotton, Janet Leigh, Dennis Weaver, and Marlene Dietrich also appear.

The opening shot, which is done in one long, unbroken take, is rightly one of the most famous shots in movie history, but it isn't the only long take nor the only remarkable scene in this film. This is just a thrilling, inventive, entertaining movie that stands as one of Welle's best, and perhaps his last real masterpiece. This is also notable for me as the only Orson Welles directed film that I saw in the theater, after it was restored and re-released sometime in the late 90s.

Compulsion (1959)
This is a great film based on the Leopold/Loeb trial. It is directed by Richard Fleischer and stars a young Dean Stockwell as one of the murderers and Welles as a defense attorney based on Clarence Darrow. This is a brilliant film that's worth watching for the great story, the wonderful performances of the actors, and for the big speech Welles delivers at the end against the death penalty, which I've embedded below:

The Trial (1962)
Orson Welles was a perfect fit to adapt Kafka, and this film is every bit as bizarre, enigmatic, and strange as you'd expect. This was another one of those films that would've been a lot better (or even watchable) had Welles been working with an actual budget. As it stands, this is an interesting film that's worth checking out if you're a fan, but there's little here that will win over anybody else.

This isn't one of my favorites, but Antony Perkins is very good in the lead role. Welles also appears, looking even fatter than he did in Touch of Evil.

Chimes at Midnight (1965)
I've actually never seen this film, a loose adaptation of of some of Shakespeare's films centered around the character of Falstaff. I've heard many great things about it, but I've never managed to find a copy of it. I haven't tried lately, so I suppose I'll renew my search and then get back to you...

Anybody who's seen it care to comment?

The Immortal Story (1968)
Another Welles film that I haven't seen, and for all intents and purposes it doesn't even exist. It was made for TV, which is all I know about it. Anybody seen it?

The Deep (Sometime in the 1970's... maybe)
Here's an interesting one, even though it was never actually completed or released officially. This was based on the novel Dead Calm, which was later made starring Nicole Kidman, Sam Neil, and Billy Zane. Welles tried to film this in the 70s as a straight Hollywood thriller to show that he was still able to make commercially viable films, but he ran out of money and his star died midway through shooting, so the entire project was scrapped. Sad.

F For Fake (1973 or 1974)
This is a brilliant documentary directed and starring Orson Welles about forgery and con men. It centers around the real life art forgery Elmyr de Hory, and his biographer Clifford Irving, who was also a famous forger himself for his biography of Howard Hughes that turned out to be a Hoax. This is a complicated, labyrinthine description of a complicated, labyrinthine film, but one that is wonderfully entertaining. As a documentary, it probably falls flat because it doesn't really say much or have any real point to make, but it's worth watching because Welles is a wonderful director and such a joy to watch and hear as the presenter and narrator. He has by now mostly embraced his full on obesity, but he's still cool and handsome.

And don't feel too sorry for him, because that gorgeous Italian woman who keeps popping up in the movie was his longtime girlfriend Oja Kodar.

The Transformers: The Movie (1986)
And then Orson Welles did the voice of Unicron in the Transformers movie. About his role in this film, Welles said, "I play a big toy who attacks a bunch of smaller toys," and that's about all there is to say about that, not just about his voice work in this movie, but about the entire man's career in general.


Justin Garrett Blum said...

Now you should review every movie in which Orson Welles is a character, played by another actor. I can think of three.

Donald said...

Yeah, ok. I like that.

Judah said...

Awesome post. I uploaded a copy of Chimes of Midnight in case you still hadn't come across one. It's one of my favorites. I also recommend Filming Othello -- his last (TV) movie, basically him talking about the movie... Also very interesting, and available for free on the Internet Archive.