THE ROOTS OF HEAVEN

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It’s been said that the deal is the true art form in Hollywood, and there are indeed some films in which the deal defines the work, is the central meaning of the work.  There were many such films in the 50s and 60s, when the studios were in decline and big international productions were cobbled together by clever producers marshaling elements from disparate sources.

The Roots Of Heaven, from 1958, strikes me a such a film.  It’s a movie based on a prestigious novel by Romain Gary, directed by Hollywood legend John Huston, and featuring several marquee-name actors like Erroll Flynn and Orson Welles.  These elements are the film’s principal raison d’etre — you don’t get a sense that any other vision or passion fueled the project.

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The “elements” deliver, for the most part.  The story is interesting, there are a few wondrous cinematic passages engineered by Huston, Flynn and Welles have their delicious moments.  But the film has no core, no defining energy.  What you find yourself thinking about as the film dawdles along is Daryl Zanuck’s calculation — “If I throw all these attractions into the pot, the stew will be irresistible!”  But there’s more to a stew than its ingredients — there needs to be a chef involved who knows how to cook, how to make a savory meal of the thing.

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Sometimes just leaving out the salt, or putting in too much salt, is enough to wreck the dish.  Zanuck’s major miscalculation was casting his girlfriend of the time, Juliette Gréco, in the female lead.  She just didn’t have the star power to head a cast like this.  Casting Trevor Howard in the male lead opposite her wasn’t entirely Zanuck’s fault — William Holden dropped out of the role before shooting started and Zanuck had to take what he could get in order to keep the production together.  Howard is a fine actor but again didn’t have the star power to carry a picture like this.

In any case, Zanuck’s recipe was good enough to attract financing — even if it wasn’t good enough to make for a memorable repast.  The film is fascinating and enjoyable enough, which perhaps goes to show that the deal can sometimes be a form of entertainment as well as art.

SHORT TAKE: RKO 281

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This HBO dramatization of the making of Citizen Kane and the controversy it caused is shockingly bad.  It plays fast and loose with the actual historical facts for no reason that I can discern since the actual facts are way more interesting than the ones they made up.

James Cromwell gives a pretty good impersonation of William Randolph Hearst but the rest of the cast is uniformly lame, though I’m not sure how much the actors can be blamed given the synthetic dialogue they’re saddled with.

Not worth a look even if the subject interests you.

MACBETH (1948)

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Orson Welles’s adaptation of the Scottish play is a fascinating film, not one of his greatest but full of magic.  It’s a magic, however, that comes and goes.  It was shot in 23 days on a shoestring budget, and it shows.  The sets look cheesy — many of them were left over from Westerns made at the studio — as do the many process shots.  There are obvious lapses in continuity between shots, and lines have been looped in for actors who are obviously not speaking those particular words.  Focus is not always precise, and there are a number of optical zooms to create shots that Welles wanted but didn’t have in the can.

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The magic comes from Welles’s performance — a corking rendition of the doomed Scot, very theatrical but inventive and well considered.  There’s even more magic in Jeanette Nolan’s Lady Macbeth.  She was a radio actress who’d never worked before on stage or screen, but she’s brilliant here.  She conveys a furious sexuality and an erotic rage that chill the blood.

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Many of the shots, and the choreography of camera and performers within them, display Welles’s bravura style, and many of the images are boldly and beautifully lit.  There are a couple of long scenes involving complex movement by the actors that play out in single shots — something Welles loved to do when he had the time and resources for it.

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The film is really quite impressive considering the time and budget he did have for it.  Welles hoped it would encourage Hollywood to take chances on similarly adventuresome projects that could be made cheaply, but it didn’t help that the film was a critical and commercial flop on its initial release, with many people complaining that the thick Scottish burrs Welles had the cast use made the dialogue incomprehensible.

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Republic later re-released the film in a shortened version with the dialogue re-dubbed without the accents, and made its money back, but the film’s reputation never fully recovered.  In fact, it’s a more than respectable work, with many fine things it.  Welles’s original version is now available in a decent Blu-ray edition from Olive Films — well worth a look.

A SAFE PLACE

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Tuesday Weld, Orson Welles, Jack Nicholson — you’d think it would be impossible to make a lame film with a cast like that but in A Safe Place Henry Jaglom makes it look easy.

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The film is relentlessly ugly to look at.  Jaglom says he’s not much interested in the visual aspect of filmmaking — he leaves all that to his cinematographer.  The film is punctuated with aimless zooms and the continuity is fractured — stylistic quirks that may have been intended to make the film seem au courant in 1971 but just feel silly today.

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The fractured continuity annoyed critics when the film was released — they called it incoherent, but in fact it’s all too coherent, parading trite psychological insights that the quirky style can’t disguise.  It’s basically a portrait of a vexing but mentally unstable woman, played by Weld, and consists of a mixture of her dreams, memories and actual experiences.

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Weld and Welles and Nicholson are luminous film presences and brilliant actors — it’s a joy to watch them work, even with shoddy material like this.  You have to give Jaglom credit for creating the occasion for this work, even if he’s using it to shore up a half-baked vision.

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Weld is the real revelation here — an actor rarely used well by Hollywood but undeniably great.  She’s just riveting in this film and more than holds her own with Welles and Nicholson, which is saying a lot.  Sadly, those three actors inhabit a different artistic universe than Jaglom’s.

THE WAR OF THE WORLDS: ESSAY BY NORA ROSSI



“Something’s wriggling out of the shadow . . .  It’s as large as a bear and glistens like wet leather.  But that face, it . . . it’s indescribable . . .  The eyes are black and gleam like a serpent.  The mouth is V-shaped with saliva dripping from its rimless lips that seem to quiver and pulsate . . .”  It’s a war of the worlds!  It was 1938, a Sunday, on the eve of Halloween just as the sun made its way below the horizon, and the moon began to warily take its place.  Little did the people of the seemingly secure Grover’s Mill know that this could very well be the last night sky they would ever see.  The last sky the entire planet might see . . .  Millions of Americans sat glued to their radios as a familiar evening broadcast of dance music was suddenly interrupted by an urgent new bulletin.  Invaders from Mars were attacking!  This spine-chilling broadcast bent believers to its will in such a way that it is still considered the single most important event in radio history today.

The “War of the Worlds” radio-play was the brainchild of Orson Welles, a talented, 23-year-old actor, producer, and theater director.  In order to fill empty air space, CBS offered Welles and his dramatic group, the Mercury Players, a program every Sunday night called Mercury Theater on the Air.  The program was broadcast out of New York City, and included dramatic adaptations of plays and books. On the night in question, Orson Welles was presenting an adaptation of the famous book The War of the Worlds by H. G. Welles (written 1898). Orson, his partner John Houseman, the writer Howard Koch, and the small cast of Mercury Players, decided to present the War of the Worlds as if it were the actual event happening in real time. The audience was lulled by the “soothing” sounds of the dance band music, when suddenly one of the actors in a carefully planned interruption pretended to be an actual CBS network announcer with frightening breaking news, from New Jersey.  America was under attack from Martians in giant war machines. For the next hour, the story escalated, with more detailed information as the event unfolded.  According to the “newsmen,” cities were being destroyed, state militias were demolished, dark, poisonous alien gas was purposefully unleashed across the country, citizens were getting eaten by the invaders, and others were being crushed by huge, metal Martian machines.  Clearly the end of the world was at hand. The precision, detail, and very powerful acting made the broadcast realistic, and created doubt even in the minds of people who thought they could just shrug it off as “nonsense.”

It is estimated that there were about nine million Americans across the country listening to the broadcast that night.  Many were entertained and amused.  Many did not know what to think or how to react. There’s no way to know how many people were actually frightened.  But we do know that about 1,750,000 people were scared enough to take some action. (Bogdanovich, Welles, 346)  Despite the fact that there were multiple reminders that it was just a fictional presentation, imaginations ran wild.

Panic was rampant.  Emergency switchboards were on overload.  People blocked off their doors and hid in their attics and basements.  Shops closed, theaters closed, churches were filled, guns were cocked, and people were screaming in the streets, “The world is ending! The world is ending!”  Many fled.  Others organized small, armed resistances.  Some people thought bigger.  Governor Earle of Pennsylvania volunteered his state’s militia to help New Jersey fend off the Martians.  A group of twenty families ran out of their apartment building with wet towels on their faces to “repel Martian rays.”  Hospitals were flooded with offers from nurses and doctors to help out with all the “war casualties.”  A modern day Paul Revere, blowing a loud horn and screaming warnings of the Martian invaders, motored through the streets of Baltimore. One man “bound for open country” had driven away for about ten miles, until he realized that his poor dog was still tied up in his backyard, so he sped all the way back to rescue him, “risking” his life against the aliens.  It was recorded that one man almost drank a bottle of poison, telling his wife, “I’d rather die this way than that!”  (Although were no actual deaths or suicides on record.)  Rhode Island’s electric company was prompted into considering turning off all the lights in the entire city “to make it a less visible target.” (Oxford, 184 and 185)

Why did so many people believe that the broadcast was real?  One of the reasons was the artistry of the broadcast itself.  Orson cleverly planned every detail. He used real names of actual places and simulated both the “live” band music and the “broadcasters” with perfect skill. He knew what competing radio shows were on that night and when people would be likely to switch over to CBS.  The actors did a superb job, including imitating the voice of President Roosevelt.  Orson also knew how to build the intensity of the story for maximum dramatic effect.  Another reason that the broadcast was so believable was that many listeners came in part way during the story and did not hear any of the four announcements reminding people that it was just a radio-play.  Even more people heard about the alien invasion second-hand.  Rumors spread like wild fire.  Rumors and wild imaginations led to many false, eyewitness reports.  Panic caused people to see and hear things that were not actually occurring, which only increased the panic in a vicious cycle.  For example, one man in Grover’s Mill shot up a deathly, alien war machine with his shot gun, only to discover later that is was just his neighbor’s rather humdrum water tower.  Some New Yorkers believed they heard Martian flying machines, or weapons firing, or saw the city on fire.  Another man flipped his car over twice as he drove 80 miles an hour trying to escape Martian death rays. (Oxford, 184, 185)  False eyewitness reports were widespread and fed the story even more convincingly than the broadcast itself.  Another contributing factor was the newness of radio. In 1938, people were naïve about joke broadcasts.  These were days before, Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Updates,” or Monty Python’s Flying Circus, or Steve Colbert. If the news (especially CBS) said something was true, people tended to believe it.

It’s one thing to try to understand why people believed it, but it’s another thing entirely to try to comprehend why people were so afraid.  To grasp this, it is necessary to look at the historical context of the event.  The stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed it had a profound emotional and psychological effect on the American people. (Rosenburg, 1)  Their sense of security in their society had been badly shaken.  In 1938, most Americans were still struggling to get back on their feet.  Optimism for the future was at all time low.  Equally important were the events unfolding in Europe and Asia.  Spain was in the middle of a civil war between socialists, fascists, and royalists.  Japan began a series of invasions into China, killing thousands of innocent people. (Miller, 1and 2)  Hitler was on the rise, making inflammatory speeches and building up a massive military.  His attacks on Jews were escalating.  In 1938, he invaded and took over Austria, and began his invasion of Czechoslovakia. (World History, 1938-1939, 3)  Many Americans watched newsreels or listened to radio broadcast of Hitler’s speeches.  In response, America was building up its army and its navy.  Many Americans began to think that we would be drawn into another World War, so soon after the first one. This created an atmosphere of tension, and underlying fear. (Rosenburg, 1, 2)  In fact, when Orson’s broadcast reported that “shells were falling” towards Earth, many believed that it was the beginning of Hitler’s assault of America. (Lovgen, 1)  Houseman himself recognized later the importance of the historical context, when he said, “Only after the fact, did we perceive how ready and resonant the world was for the tale.” (Oxford 189)

Newspapers saw themselves as the voice of calm reason in troubled times.  This made them particularly hostile about the broadcast.  As it turns out, many of the newspaper reports were inaccurate and exaggerated.  Newspapers reported suicides, heart attacks, and widespread destruction of property, and held the Mercury Theater responsible.  Some accused the newspapers of being spiteful and jealous because newspapers had been losing more and more popularity and advertising money to radios.  Newspapers used Orson’s broadcast as a way of pointing out the dangers of impulsive broadcasts.  As a form of mass media, radios were capable of trickery and deception.

Before the “War of the Worlds” broadcast had even ended, cops were already storming CBS Studios.  Fortunately, they didn’t know who to arrest — or even what the crime was — but they were ready.  By the next morning, the stories were all over the newspapers.  When people learned that it had all been a hoax, most responded with good humor.  Many did not.  The mayor of Flint, Michigan threatened to personally find Orson Welles and punch him in the nose.  Some legislators, led by Iowa’s Senator Herring, called for new laws to prevent anything like this from happening again.  The federal communications commission, the government agency which supervised radio, called Orson Welles a “terrorist” and tried unsuccessfully to decide on a new balance between censorship and free speech.  Many denied ever having been duped in the first place. The newspaper, however, kept their pressure on Orson Welles, and soon he was facing $12 million in lawsuits (Bogdanovich, Welles, 19).  In time, people came to the conclusion that the broadcast technically wasn’t even a legal offense, so the lawsuits were dropped.

Instead of punishment, the Mercury Theater’s popularity shot up.  Campbell’s Soup became their first sponsor.  And as for Welles, he instantly became an international celebrity.  Throughout the start of the innumerable interviews Welles faced, he claimed over and over that all along that he and his crew had “no idea” that people would take the broadcast so seriously.

Hollywood offered him contracts and he went on to direct major motion pictures, including Citizen Kane, and The Magnificent Ambersons.  In later years, Welles revealed that he did, in fact, know exactly the response his “War of the Worlds” broadcast would create, just not quite the magnitude (Bogdanovich, Welles, 18).  He admitted that he apparently had said to Mercury Theater players, “Let’s do something impossible, make them believe it, then show them it’s only radio.” (Taylor, 38)

In 1938, it was easy for Americans to see how Hitler manipulated the media to create
fear, panic, and blinding hatred.  But no one believed that it would ever happen here.  Orson Welles showed the country how susceptible we all are to the powers of the media.  It has been over seventy years since the “War of the Worlds” broadcast, but the issues it raised are just as relevant today.  With the birth of television and Internet, news can spread quicker than ever before.  Not all the news that gets spread is accurate, of course, but it can still influence the way people think and how they act.  Networks, broadcasters, and websites need to be thoughtful and responsible.  Different networks are run by different political sides, which makes their credibility suspect.  (For example: Fox News VS. MSNBC)  Therefore, it is crucial that every individual be smart about how he or she interprets, believes, and handles mass media “news.”  As Orson Welles decorously described, “War of the Worlds’” was, “The Mercury Theater’s own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying ‘boo!’”  We must always to remember to look for the sheet.

Bibliography

Edward, Oxford. “Night of the Martians.” American Experiences: Reading in American History. Volume 2. New York: Pearson Education Inc., 2005. 179-190. Print.

Gale. “Welles Broadcasts the War of the Worlds, October 30, 1938.” DISCovering World History. Online Detroit, 2003. Web. 22 Jan. 2011.
<http://find.galegroup.com>.

Lovgen, Stephan. “”War of the Worlds”: Behind the 1938 Radio Show Panic.” National Geographic. N.p., 17 June 2005. Web. 24 Jan. 2011. <http://new.nationalgeographic.com>.

Miller, David. “World History Timelines, 1938.” Din-Timelines.com. N.p., 2002. Web. 24 Jan. 2011. <http://dintimelines.com/1938_timeline.shtml >.

Rosenburg, Jennifer. “”The Great Depression.” About.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Jan. 2011. <http://history1900s.about.com>.

Taylor, John. Orson Welles. Boston: Little, Brown And Company, 1986. Print.

Welles, Orson., Peter Bogdonavich., and Rosenbaum, Ed. This Is Orson Welles. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1992. Print.

“World History, 1938-1939.” MultiEducator, Inc., 2000. Web. 20 Jan. 2011.
<http://www.historycentral.com>.

ORSON WELLES ON THE AIR: THE PICKWICK PAPERS

Gather the household around, dim the lights, click here — then sit back and enjoy the radio theater of Orson Welles.

This week — “The Pickwick Papers” . . .

This adaptation of the Dickens classic concluded the first season of Welles's Mercury Theater On the Air.  Welles's radio show had initially been offered by CBS as a “sustaining program”, that is, without sponsorship, as a prestige project for the network and its affiliates, but Welles's sensational “War Of the Worlds” broadcast, on 30 October 1938, gained the show national notoriety and a sponsor — Campbell's Soup.  In its second season, the show was renamed The Campbell Playhouse.

It was, under both names, one of the greatest achievements of the radio medium.


This show will only be on the site for a short while so download it if you can't listen to it right away, and if you've enjoyed these shows from the first season, check out the rest of Welles's remarkable work for radio, easily available today on the Internet.



[You can get more information on Welles's radio work and listen to or
download many of his broadcasts for free here — The Mercury Theater On the Air.  Many more broadcasts
can be downloaded for free at The Internet Archive
If you get hooked, you can buy a remarkable collection of almost all of
Welles' radio work, as both actor and director, in MP3 format on 7 CDs
at OTRCat — which also offers the discs separately.]

OFFSCREEN



André Bazin (above) wrote some of the most penetrating analyses of how screen images work, but, as I’ve suggested before, he had a blind spot in his obsession with a movie’s connection to visual fact, its function in providing “evidence”.  He was saying something important about the psychological effect of the camera’s intimate relationship to physical reality, but his theories can’t explain why the imaginary spaces created in animation, for example, can have the same emotional and psychological power, the same cinematic power, as spaces recorded photographically.



This blind spot also led Bazin to draw a misleading contrast between stage space and screen space.  With stage space, he argued, we’re always half aware of the backstage machinery that creates theatrical illusion, while a screen image gives the illusion that it’s only a window onto a wider, complete world.

This is not always true, even — perhaps especially — in the work of one of Bazin’s heroes, Orson Welles.  I recently ran across a passage from the critic Chris Fujiwara which sums the issue up nicely:

In radio, all space is “off” and is evoked by sound, which alone has
materiality. From his experience in radio, Welles sometimes brings to
film a purely vocal offscreen space, as in the scene of the dying Major
Amberson contemplating something that “must be in the sun.” But
offscreen space as conjured by the looks and movements of characters to
impose an imaginary spatial coherence – this is something Welles has
little interest in. He prefers to leave offscreen space unfilled, to
reorganize the world with each cut, or to deny the offscreen by
enfolding all space, all revelation within a single shot. Welles’s
cinema is a forgetting of offscreen space, a denial of its potency.


This strikes me as quite true.  The amazing long take in The Magnificent Ambersons of George eating strawberry shortcake in the kitchen as he talks to Fanny and then to Uncle Jack behind him in a deep onscreen space, seems to me to represent a precise and wholly self-contained theatrical environment.  Even though the shot records a convincingly “real” place, I still feel that Uncle Jack enters the scene in the far background from “the wings”.

Welles has thoroughly theatricalized that space — we have no appreciable sense at all of a wider, complete world beyond it.

[The Fujiwara quote comes from a special issue of La Furia Umana, an online cinema magazine, devoted to Welles — which I found via Wellesnet.  The issue contains articles on Welles in English and in other languages.]

PENDENNIS

Arthur Pendennis was the protagonist of William Makepeace Thackeray's novel The History Of Pendennis, which appeared in serial parts between 1848 and 1850.  Arthur was a young man of privilege spoiled by an adoring mother who had to learn to make his way in the wider world.  Booth Tarkington gave his name to the Ambersons's carriage horse in his novel The Magnificent Ambersons, and the horse is both shown and mentioned several times in Orson Welles's film of the novel.

Thackeray's Pendennis is obviously related, in terms of character, to Tarkington's George Amberson Minafer, and the horse who bears his name is closely associated with George in several scenes from the novel and the film.  Pendennis is pulling the sleigh carrying George and Lucy Morgan when they pass her father's automobile, stranded on the snowy lane.  “Get a horse!” George shouts just before taking a corner too fast and overturning the sleigh — at which point Pendennis runs off home by himself.

George has already been associated in the film, as a child and young man, with reckless buggy driving, and will become increasingly associated with scorn for the automobile.  The world of the horse and buggy is the world that coddled him and that he doesn't want to end.  He and Pendennis will both be made obsolete by the world the automobile is ushering in.

Pendennis is also featured in the most beautiful shot in Welles's film of The Magnificent Ambersons, one of the most beautiful in the history of movies — the long tracking shot pacing the buggy down the main street of town while its passengers George and Lucy discuss their future, a scene taken from the book.  In both book and film the conversation is one Lucy doesn't want to have, because she can't see a happy outcome to it, and she urges Pendennis to move faster to cut the talk short . . . but Pendennis obeys only George.

Welles moves his camera at Pendennis's speed, for a very long time, drawing us deeper and deeper into the space of the image — into George's world . . . a world that we, like Lucy, already know is doomed.  It's often said that George in Welles's film is too unsympathetic, but the buggy ride that he and Pendennis take Lucy and us on is magical . . . a visceral evocation of a slower and more gracious time.  It's the one scene in the film that I find myself wanting to return to again and again — its beauty is inexhaustible.  While you're on that ride it's impossible not to see things from George's point of view, Pendennis's point of view, to grieve over what's about to be lost, and perhaps even to agree with George that “the automobile had no business to be invented”.

By the same token, when Lucy says, “Get up, Pendennis!” she's talking to George, begging him to get with it, to move with the times — but a horse and buggy, like George, can only move so fast.

[The image at the head of this post is not from The Magnificent Ambersons, but it might well have been — a measure of how effectively the film evoked the world at the turn of the last century.]

A CURRIER & IVES PRINT FOR TODAY

The temperatures are inching up into the 90s out here in the Mojave Desert, a harbinger of the furnace-like heat that's on its way . . . making it a good time to pause and contemplate a Currier & Ives winter scene.

Orson Welles was clearly trying to evoke Victorian prints like this in the sleigh-versus-automobile episode in The Magnificent Ambersons.  He may even have had this particular print in mind, with its rider tumbling from the overturned sleigh and the snowy road winding off into the distance under the bare tree branches.