It’s been wonderful to be back in the blogging world again, and to be a part of the movie blogging community. This past week has seen the “Some Kind of a Man”: Orson Welles Blogathon, and I think it was a great success, with several seasoned bloggers taking on various aspects of Welles’s amazing body of work. This article recaps the highlights of the second half of the week, with excerpts from the blogs in question and links to the full texts, which I highly recommend you read in their entirety.
Aurora really took the theme of the blogathon to heart, examining not Welles’s film work but his pioneering achievements with the Mercury Theatre on radio in the late 1930s–which led directly to his film work. The article showcases the history of the project and also includes embedded audio files of the actual shows.
The Mercury Theatre on the Air is an hour-long anthology series spotlighting classic and contemporary works of literature. Having had extensive experience on radio by the time work began on The Mercury Theatre on the Air, Orson Welles in conjunction with John Houseman, chose dramatic works with the medium of radio in mind. In other words, the group didn’t just perform works the Mercury Players had done on stage. The radio productions were chosen carefully to take full advantage of the medium.
Orson Welles wrote, directed, and performed in the Mercury Theatre radio productions, which included adaptations of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, A Tale of
Two Cities, The Magnificent Ambersons, Heart of Darkness, and other major
novels. John Houseman wrote the early scripts for the series later turning the job over to
Howard Koch. Music for the program was conducted by CBS staff composer/conductor Bernard Herrmann, you may have heard of him, and the sound effects were fantastic. The first production of Mercury Theatre on the Air was Bram Stoker’s Dracula with Welles playing both Count Dracula and Doctor Seward. Here are a few examples of other works tackled by the Mercury Players on radio…
Fresh off the artistic success and publicity afforded by Citizen Kane in 1941, Welles’s next film, The Magnificent Ambersons, was famously mangled by the studio which didn’t like the finished product. Welles brooded on this affront for literally the rest of his life. Rebecca gives us not just a synopsis of the film, but the very interesting story behind it. Here’s a taste:
According to [Robert] Wise, the first three previews of the film were disasters. The audiences laughed in the wrong places and RKO executives decided it was too long. Wise was told to make major snips, because if the film was over ninety minutes, no one would want to see it. When he heard that Wise had been ordered to hack up the movie, Welles frantically sent him some scenes of letter-writing to fill in some of the story blanks, which Wise shot himself.
Welles was cut out of the rest of post-production by default. Wise had also been ordered to shoot a new ending, which was done without Welles’s OK. While it’s not all that different from the old one, the film’s ending is a bit more hopeful, showing two of the characters looking rather chummy in a brother-sister way. There was nothing Welles could do. The man wasn’t even in town for the film’s premiere, as he was still in Brazil.
Welles tried his hand at film noir several times, and many people think Touch of Evil from 1958 is his best effort in the genre. Debbie takes an in-depth look at the film, finding with in it echoes of modern day conflicts at the U.S.-Mexican border as well as examinations of its themes and, of course, its history.
As with most of Welles’ films, Touch of Evil is a treasure trove of remarkable supporting and cameo roles, including Dennis Weaver as a sexually repressed motel manager (whose character and performance are believed to have been inspiration for Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho), Zsa Zsa Gabor as a strip club owner, Mercedes McCambridge as a gang member (who wants to watch the rest of the gang rape Susie Vargas), and Marlene Dietrich as a brothel madam.
Legend has it that Heston, who was being sought for the project and was told Welles was being considered to play the villain, suggested Welles as director. Welles agreed to direct but only take a fee for acting as Quinlan. This would end up being Welles’ final Hollywood film as a director.
Despite dying of a heart attack in 1985, Orson Welles was not quite done laughing at Hollywood. A Herculean effort in the decades after his death resulted in the completion of his unfinished magnum opus, The Other Side of the Wind, which probably qualifies as my favorite Welles film. Here’s an excerpt:
Welles’s later work, and especially The Other Side of the Wind, hits me in a sympathetic place. As with F for Fake, even though it’s not really that successful as a movie, it makes me want to write a book that’s in the same style or resonates in the same spirit. Indeed, in one of my many notebooks where I scribble down ideas, I’ve got some notes on the narrative structure of The Other Side of the Wind, as an exercise to see perhaps what a novel in the same structure might look like–if I can ever figure it out. Thus Welles’s last film joins my probably never-to-be-consummated list of literary ambitions, like writing a “Russian” novel, that sometimes appeal to me in my increasingly rare moments of spare time, when I’m not teaching history online or writing books about climate change. The Other Side of the Wind is a rare film that feels like a very expensive and very unique toy that Orson Welles gave to me, as an adult, not in a mocking or self-important way, but as an honest and kindred spirit, from one creative to another. I of course never knew Orson Welles, as Peter Bogdonavich and Oja Kodar did. But it’s true that films sometimes feel like they “speak” to us, personally and on a knowing level beyond how they engage with general audiences. The Other Side of the Wind speaks to me on that level.
I want to give my deep thanks to everyone who took part in the Orson Welles Blogathon. It was exactly what I’d hoped it would be: an in-depth, insightful analysis by a collective brain of movie bloggers with unique perspectives to offer, far beyond anything I could have done myself. I’ll be hosting another blogathon in the months to come, so stay tuned for that. And now, we say goodbye to Mr. Welles, though his work will live on for as long as movies exist.
Quotes from the blogs are all the intellectual property of their authors (all credited and linked here). The screenshot for “Touch of Evil” is presumably copyright (C) 1958 by Universal Pictures. I believe my inclusion of it here qualifies as fair use. I am not the uploader of any of the YouTube clips embedded here.