Happy Birthday, H.G. Wells!


Today is the 156th anniversary of the birth of British author H.G. Wells!

It’s a bit of a tradition around these parts to celebrate H.G. Wells’s birthday with the help of another Welles, in this case Orson.  Here is the infamous 1938 radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds.  This is the program that became famous for terrorizing America.  Of course, there’s always been some suggestions that the reports of panic were a bit exaggerated.  That’s always possible.  Orson Welles was, at heart, a showman and he knew how to tell and embellish a story.  That said, it is also known for fact that enough people took the show seriously that the panic made the front page of the New York Times.

The first half of the show is an early example of what would become known as the found footage genre.  It was the first mockumentary!  The second half features Welles narrating the events after the invasion.  During the second half, the news program angle is dropped and it becomes a traditional radio broadcast.  One would hope that even panicked listeners would have taken the hint but who knows?  They may have been too busy loading up their shotguns and heading outside to search for Martians to have been paying attention at that point.

Enjoy!

Lisa Marie Reviews A Cannes Festival Winner: Othello (dir by Orson Welles)


With the Cannes film festival underway in France, I’ve decided to spend the next few days watching and reviewing some of the films that previously won the Festival’s top prize.  In 1952, what would eventually become the Palme d’Or was known as Grand Prix du Festival International du Film and it was actually awarded to two separate films.  One of those films was Renato Castellani’s Two Cents Worth of Hope.  The other was Orson Welles’s adaptation of Othello.

Oh, Othello.  Where to begin, with this well-made Shakespearean adaptation that, by today’s standards, many would consider to be problematic?

Othello is one of Welles’s most important films, not just because of its quality but also because it was one of the first films of his European exile.  It was also the first Welles’s production to last for over a year.  In this case, it took three years to finish filming Othello.  As Welles himself often pointed out, one of the film’s key sequences began in Morocco but ended in Rome.  Working with a low budget, Welles would take roles just to have enough money to shoot another few feet of film.  (Reportedly, his salary for The Third Man went right into Othello.)  Pieces of scenes would be filmed years apart, often with the actors speaking to the camera as opposed to another performer.  Actors regularly became unavailable and were replaced.  And yet somehow, Welles managed to edit all of the seemingly random bits and pieces into a coherent and frequently powerful film.  Over the years, the chaotic production of Othello would become the norm for Welles and he would become as known for the films he was forced to abandon as he was for the films that he had made.  But, in 1952, Welles’s perseverance and his determination to bring his vision to the screen were still appreciated and the Cannes jury, headed by author Maurice Genevoix, saw fit to honor his achievement.

At the same time, this is also the film in which the white Orson Welles played the Moor of Venice.  Of course, in 1951, it was still pretty much a tradition that every Shakespearean would eventually play Othello and that he would wear dark make-up while doing so.  Welles opts for a light bronzer, one that makes him appear to have a deep tan.  While it’s undeniably jarring to see Orson Welles playing a North African, it’s still not quite as jarring as seeing what Laurence Olivier did in his Oscar-nominated version of the play.

Laurence Olivier’s Othello

Orson Welles’s Othello

I have to admit that I held off on seeing this film precisely because I didn’t want to watch a film featuring Orson Welles, a director who I greatly admire, in blackface.  Many people are probably never going to see this film for precisely that reason and that’s certainly understandable.  In the end, it’s a decision that everyone will have to make for themselves.  That said, having watched the film, I can now say that Orson Welles gives one of his best performances as Othello, playing him as a brilliant warrior who knows that, because of his background, he will never be fully accepted by the people of Venice.  They’ll expect him to fight their battles for him but, when he marries the white Desdemona (Suzanne Cloutier), he is still expected to prove that he’s not some sort of savage.  In fact, the only thing that prevents him from being brought up on charges is that Venice needs him to fight in another battle.  Being a permanent outsider leaves Othello open to the manipulations of the evil Iago (Michael Mac Liammor), who pretends to be a friend but who instead views everyone around him with contempt and jealousy.  Welles captures Othello’s anger but also his emotional vulnerability.  As a permanent outsider, Othello is so used to being betrayed that it doesn’t take much from Iago to push him over the edge.

Welles directs the film like a film noir, filling the screen with menacing shadows and framing the film’s tragic finale like a horror film.  He makes the film’s low-budget works to its advantage.  As opposed to the grandeur that one normally associates with Shakespeare, there’s a seediness to the locations in Welles’s version of Othello.  As Othello’s jealousy and paranoia grows, Venice itself appears to become more cluttered and cramped.  It’s as if the viewer is seeing the location through Othello’s eyes, a once imposing city that, with each little secret or lie, edges closer to death.  As both a director and an adapter of Shakespeare’s original text, Welles tells the entire story of Othello in less than 90 minutes, a pace that reflects Othello’s quick decent into irrational paranoia.

Admittedly, it’s not a perfect film.  Mac Liammor was reportedly the best Irish stage actor of his time but his inexperience with film acting is obvious and it makes him a less than ideal Iago.  Traditionally, Othello is usually dominated by whichever actor plays the role of Iago, as it’s Iago who pushes the story forward and narrates the action.  However, Welles removes the moments when Iago narrates and speaks to the audience.  Welles gives us an Othello that is clearly about the title character and this production is less interested in the reasons behind Iago’s betrayal than in what happens to Othello as a result.  (Othello becomes yet another Welles film that is ultimately about the importance of friendship and loyalty.)  Not surprisingly, with the film firmly centered on Welles’s performance, the rest of the cast struggles to make as strong of an impression.  Only Suzanne Cloutier, cast as Desdemona, manages to give a performance that escapes from Welles’s shadow.

At Cannes, Othello defeated, among others, An American In Paris, Detective Story, Umberto D., and Viva Zapata.  As often happened with Welles’s later films, it didn’t get much of an initial release in America but it has since been rediscovered by film connoisseurs.  Needless to say, the Criterion release is the one to check out.

4 Shots From 4 Films: Special Orson Welles Edition


4 Or More Shots From 4 Or More Films is just what it says it is, 4 shots from 4 of our favorite films. As opposed to the reviews and recaps that we usually post, 4 Shots From 4 Films lets the visuals do the talking!

Today we celebrate what would have been the 106th birthday of the great Orson Welles!  It’s time for….

4 Shots from 4 Orson Welles Films

Citizen Kane (1941, dir by Orson Welles, DP: Gregg Toland)

Touch of Evil (1958, dir by Orson Welles, DP: Russell Metty)

F For Fake (1974, dir by Orson Welles, DP: Gary Graver)

The Other Side of the Wind (2018, dir by Orson Welles, DP: Gary Graver)

A Blast From The Past: The Mercury Theatre Presents Heart of Darkness


Before he revolutionized cinema, Orson Welles revolutionized both theater and radio. As the host and mastermind behind the Mercury Theatre On The Air, Welles was heard on a weekly basis as the show broadcast adaptations of literary classics into American homes. In 1938, both Welles and Mercury Theatre On The Air achieved a certain immortality with their broadcast of War of the Worlds. What is often forgotten is that, one week after terrifying America, the Mercury Theatre presented an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, one which featured Welles in the role of Kurtz and his future Citizen Kane co-star, Ray Collins, as Marlow.

This broadcast was significant in that, when Welles first went to Hollywood, it was with an eye towards turning Heart of Darkness into a film. Welles planned to shoot the film strictly from the point-of-view of Marlow, with the camera serving as Marlow’s eyes. Welles not only planned to play Kurtz in the film but he also intended to provide the voice of Marlow. Unfortunately, the film was never made. With the outbreak of war in Europe, it was felt that the audience most likely to embrace Welles’s experiment would no longer be going to the movies. Welles would instead make his cinematic debut with Citizen Kane, a film that fully embodies Welles’s artistic vision regardless of what Mank tried to sell everyone last year. As for Heart of Darkness, it would later be adapted for television, appearing in greatly altered form as an episode of Playhouse 90 in 1958. Boris Karloff played Kurtz and Roddy McDowall played Marlow and someone decided that it would be a good idea to add a subplot in which Kurtz is revealed to by Marlow’s long lost father. There would be many attempts to turn Conrad’s novella into a feature film but it was not until 1979, with Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, that Conrad’s story would appear on the big screen, albeit in massively altered form. Nicolas Roeg would later direct his own version of Heart of Darkness, one that featured Tim Roth as Marlow and John Malkovich as Kurtz. (I haven’t seen it but that just sounds like perfect casting.)

Today, in honor of the 106th anniversary of the birth of Orson Welles, here is the Mercury Theatre On The Air’s production of Heart of Darkness. This broadcast also features an adaptation of the play, Life With Father. The casts are as follows:

Heart of Darkness: Orson Welles (Author, Ernest Kurtz), Ray Collins (Marlow), Alfred Shirley (Accountant), George Coulouris (Assistant Manager), Edgar Barrier (Second Manager), William Alland (Agent), Virginia Welles (Kurtz’s Intended Bride), Frank Readick (Tchiatosov)

(For those keeping track, Welles, Collins, Coulouris, and Alland would all have key roles in Citizen Kane. Alland played the reporter who is assigned to discover the meaning of Rosebud. Ray Collins played Boss Jim Gettys, the political boss who prevents Kane from being elected governor. Coulouris played Kane’s guardian, Walter Parkes Thatcher. And Welles, of course, was Charles Foster Kane, American. )

Life With Father: Orson Welles (Father), Mildred Natwick (Mother), Mary Wickes (Employment Office Manager), Alice Frost (Margaret), Arthur Anderson (young Clarence Day).

This program was originally aired on November 6th, 1938. Welles was 22 years old at the time of this broadcast. So, sit back and enjoy Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre.

4 Shots From 4 Films: Special Orson Welles Edition


4 (or more) Shots From 4 (or more) Films is just what it says it is, 4 (or more) shots from 4 (or more) of our favorite films. As opposed to the reviews and recaps that we usually post, 4 (or more) Shots From 4 (or more) Films lets the visuals do the talking.

As I mentioned previously, the great Orson Welles was born 106 years ago today. And that means that it’s time for….

4 Shots From 4 Orson Welles Films

Citizen Kane (1941, dir by Orson Welles, DP: Gregg Toland)
The Stranger (1946, dir by Orson Welles, DP: Russell Metty)
Touch of Evil (1958, dir by Orson Welles, DP: Russell Metty)
The Trial (1962, dir by Orson Welles, DP: Edmond Richard)

Scenes That I Love: Falstaff at Price Hal’s Coronation from Chimes At Midnight


The great Orson Welles was born 106 years ago today, in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Orson Welles was one of the greatest directors of all time, a showman and an artist who changed the way that people watched and thought about films. He was the visionary who helped to usher in the era of modern filmmaking and who proved that movies could be art and Hollywood never forgave him for it. Merely seven years after the release of Citizen Kane, Orson Welles found himself as such a pariah in the American film industry that he relocated to Europe. There, he made some of his best films though few of them would be fully appreciated when first released.

(Indeed, there still seems to be the strange need among some to try to diminish Orson Welles’s talents and achievements. Just last year, Mank tried to deny him the credit that he most certainly deserved for Citizen Kane. Interestingly enough, David Fincher claimed that his father’s original script portrayed Welles even more negatively than Welles came across in the finished film. One has to wonder about the motives of anyone who would slander Orson Welles while deifying Upton Sinclair.)

1965’s Chimes At Midnight is one of Welles’s best. Filmed in Spain, Chimes at Midnight is combination of five of Shakespeare’s plays, primarily Henry IV, Part 1 and Henry IV, Part 2, but also Richard II, Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Windsor. Welles cast himself in the role of Falstaff, enjoying life while educating the young Prince Hal in the ways of the world. When Prince Hal becomes Henry V, Falstaff attends his coronation, just to be rejected. The new king has new place in his court for someone like Falstaff. Was Prince Hal perhaps a stand-in for the many filmmakers who claimed to have been inspired by Welles’s work but who still refused to help Welles when he later came to them for help? Perhaps.

In the scene below, Falstaff is rejected by the new king. It’s a heart-breaking moment and one that features some of Welles’s best work as both an actor and a director.

Cleaning Out The DVR: The V.I.P.s (dir by Anthony Asquith)


The 1963 film, The V.I.P.s, is about a group of very important people who have all shown at Heathrow Airport at the same time, all in an effort to get the Hell out of England.  They’ve all got their own individual reasons for wanting to leave the country but the important thing is that they all want to leave.  Unfortunately, a fog has rolled onto the runway and the plane can’t take off.  Because this film was made in 1963, all the passengers are allowed to leave the plane and wait, overnight, in a hotel.

Among the Very Important People:

Flamboyant film producer Max Buda (Orson Welles, playing a version of himself) needs to leave London before he receives a gigantic tax bill.  Accompanying him is his latest discovery, Gloria Gritti (Elsa Martinelli).  Max is the type who does things like barging into the plane’s cockpit and demanding to know why the pilots aren’t willing to risk crashing the plane.  That may sound self-centered on Max’s part but Welles is such a charmer that you forgive him.  Add to that, he’s trying to avoid paying taxes and that’s something that I can definitely get behind.

The Duchess of Brighton (Margaret Rutherford) is an eccentric but impoverished noblewoman who is going to lose her home if she doesn’t fly to Florida and take on a somewhat demeaning job.  The Duchess is the type who struggles to find room in the overhead compartment for her ludicrous oversized hatbox.  She’s never really been out in the real world before.  Margaret Rutherford won an Oscar for her performance, which is occasionally amusing but never particularly subtle.  (Have you seen Airport?  Rutherford has the Helen Hayes role, basically.)

Lee Mangrum (Rod Taylor) is a businessman who is on the verge of losing his business.  Miss Mead (Maggie Smith) is his secretary.  Miss Mead is secretly in love with Lee, who somehow hasn’t noticed.  We’re supposed to sympathize with Lee but he’s so incredibly clueless that it’s hard not to feel that Miss Mead could do better.

Finally, we have Frances Andros (Elizabeth Taylor).  Frances is one of the most popular film stars in the world.  She’s married to Paul Andros (Richard Burton), who is very wealthy and who, like most Burton characters, is also very moody.  Frances has decided to leave Paul and go to America with her lover, Marc Champselle (Louis Jourdan).  However, the fog gives Paul a chance to come to the airport and try to talk Frances out of leaving him.

Make no mistake about it, Liz Taylor and Burton are the main attraction here.  Welles, Rod Taylor, Rutherford, and Smith all get plenty of scenes but it’s obvious that the people behind The V.I.P.s understood that most of the audience would be there to watch Liz and Burton acting opposite each other.  This was, I think, the first film that they made together after falling in love on the set of Cleopatra.  Due to Cleopatra’s legendarily difficult production, it was released around the same time as The V.I.P.s, despite going into production years before the latter film.  Audiences could go watch Liz and Dick fall in love in Cleopatra and then head over to a different theater and watch the two of them fight in The V.I.Ps.  Elizabeth Taylor may be playing Frances Andros and Richard Burton may be playing Paul Andros but they really might as well be playing themselves.

The V.I.P.s is a big and glossy film, the type of movie that the Hollywood studios used to make as their way of saying, “See!  You won’t get this on TV!”  It’s frequently silly but it’s also undeniably watchable.  While Burton and Taylor’s later films tended to feature the two of them at their worst, they’re both actually really good in The V.I.P.s and the scenes where they argue have an emotional heft to them that, with the exception of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woof?, wasn’t found in their other films.  For once, you watch the film and you really do hope that Liz and Dick will work things out and stay together.  The V.I.P.s may be dated (just try to chase someone through an airport or get off a delayed flight now) but it’s still entertaining.

The Films of 2020: Mank (dir by David Fincher)


As I watched David Fincher’s latest film, Mank, my main feeling was one of wanting to like the film more than I actually did.

I mean, really, the film sounds like it was specifically made to appeal to me.  It’s a film about the Golden Age of Hollywood, which is an era that has always fascinated me as both a film lover and history nerd.  Even more specifically, it’s a film about the writing of Citizen Kane, which is one of my favorite movies.  (On one of our first dates, Jeff and I snuck into a showing of Citizen Kane at the Magnolia.  The crime was fun and finally getting to see the movie on the big screen was even better.)  It’s a film that features a host of historical figures, everyone from Louis B. Mayer to Irving Thalberg to Orson Welles to William Randolph Hearst to Marion Davies to the title character himself, the self-destructive screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz.

Those historical figures are played by a truly impressive collection of actors, almost all of whom give memorable performances.  Gary Oldman plays Mankiewicz, lurching about Hollywood in a drunken haze and calling out the system while, somewhat hypocritically, also attempting to profit from it.  Charles Dance is compellingly arrogant as William Randolph Hearst.  Tom Burke captures Orson Welles’s trademark voice and charisma, making an impression despite having surprisingly little screen time.  Ferdinand Kingsley plays Irving Thalberg and steals nearly every scene in which he appears.  Arliss Howard is a marvel as the manipulate Mayer while Amanda Seyfried gives the best performance of her career so far as Marion Davies.  The film portrays Davies as being intelligent, witty, and perhaps the only truly honest person in Hollywood.  If it can be argued that Citizen Kane robbed Davies of her dignity, it can also be argued that Mank makes a sincere attempt to give it back to her.  With the exception of a distracting cameo from Bill Nye (yes, the science guy), Mank is perfectly cast.

And yet, despite all of that, the film never really engaged me on either an emotional or an intellectual level.  The black-and-white cinematography is gorgeous but the film plods from one incident to another, skipping back and forth in time and trying to convince us that Herman J. Mankiewicz was a more fascinating figure than he comes across as being.  For the most part, Mankiewicz comes across as being a bit of a bore and the film makes the classic mistake of assuming that we’ll naturally like him just because he’s the main character.  Gary Oldman is as charismatic as ever but the film doesn’t give him much of character to play.  Mankiewicz stumbles from scene to scene, searching for a drink and always complaining about one thing or another.  A little bit of Herman J. Mankiewicz goes a long way and, once it becomes apparent that he’s going to spend the entire film perpetually annoyed, Mankiewicz becomes a rather uninteresting character.  Long before this film even reached the halfway mark, I was on the side of everyone who wanted Mankiewicz to stop talking and just finish writing the damn script.

If you’re one of the ten or so people who is still outraged over the failure of Upton Sinclair’s 1934 gubernatorial campaign, you’ll probably enjoy this film.  For those of you haven’t read Greg Mitchell’s The Campaign of the Century: Upton Sinclair’s Race for Governor of California and the Birth of Media Politics, Upton Sinclair was a writer and longtime socialist activist who won the 1934 Democratic nomination to run for governor of California.  Despite garnering a lot of national attention with his End Poverty In California (EPIC) platform, Sincliar was overwhelmingly defeated by Republican Frank Merriam.  Mank argues that Sinclair’s defeat was largely due to dirty tricks and negative campaigning, most of it masterminded by Mayer and Hearst.  Mankiewicz is a Sinclair supporter who is angered by the underhanded efforts of Mayer and Hearst.  The script for Citizen Kane is, at least partially, Mankiewicz’s revenge on Hearst and Mayer for working against Sinclair and it’s something that Mankiewicz feels so strongly about that he’s willing to demand that Orson Welles give him credit for his work on the screenplay.  It’s a legitimate theory, but the film’s exploration of it feels rather shallow and intellectually lazy.  Just as it did with the character of Mankiewicz, the film makes the mistake of assuming the audiences will automatically find the candidacy of Upton Sinclair to be as inspiring as the film does.  The film continually insists that we should care but, when it finally has a chance to show us why Upton Sinclair’s campaign was important, all it can provide is Bill Nye The Science Guy, standing on a platform and complaining about religious hypocrisy.  It’s the cinematic equivalent of a casual acquaintance demanding to know why his twitter feed didn’t convince you to vote for Bernie Sanders.

From a historical point of view, the film does itself no favors by creating a fictional friend of Mankiewicz’s, one who is so consumed with guilt over his part in defeating Upton Sinclair that he ends up committing suicide.  It feels rather cheap and predictable, an easy way to give Mankiewicz some sort of motivation beyond being infatuated with Marion Davies.  Historically, the truth of the matter is that Frank Merriam turned to the left as soon as he was elected and Upton Sinclair went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for writing a series of now-unreadable books about an international do-gooder named Lanny Budd.  Meanwhile, director Felix E. Feist (who was responsible for shooting many of the anti-Sinclair newsreels that MGM released into cinemas) went on to have a very long career and never indicated that he felt any guilty for playing a part in Sinclair’s defeat.

Like many of David Fincher’s film, Mank works best as an exercise in style.  The black-and-white cinematography is to die for.  Some of the shots — especially early in the film — are breathtaking.  Mankiewicz may spend the majority of the film railing against the excesses of Hollywood but, visually, Fincher can’t get enough of them.  Indeed, much as with The Social Network, Fincher seems to be spend the majority of the film at odds with the the film’s overwritten and rather pompous script.  (Of course, Mank was written by Fincher’s late father while The Social Network was written by Aaron Sorkin.  While there’s a lot to criticize about Jack Fincher’s script, one can still be thankful that he wrote the script instead of Sorkin.  One can only imagine how Marion Davies would have been portrayed if Aaron Sorkin had been involved.)  Mank is narratively deficient but visually stunning.  The film’s script rather snarkily dismisses Orson Welles as being a mere “showman” but, as film, Mank proves that sometimes a showman is exactly what’s needed.

From 1938: Orson Welles and The Mercury Theater Present Dracula!


Did you know that in 1938, the same year that they horrified America with their production of The War Of The Worlds, Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater did a radio version of Dracula?

Check out this amazing cast list:

Orson Welles – Dracula/Dr. Arthur Seward
George Coulouris- Jonathan Harker
Ray Collins – Russian Captain
Karl Swenson – The Mate
Elizabeth Fuller – Lucy Westenra
Martin Gabel – Professor Van Helsing
Agnes Moorehead – Mina Harker

Coulouris, Collins, and Moorehead would, of course, all go one to appear with Orson Welles in Citizen Kane.

And now, we are proud to present, for your listening pleasure …. DRACULA!

Get Into the Halloween Mood With Orson Welles and The Mercury Theater!


Still need some help getting into the holiday spirit?

Here to help are Orson Welles, the Mercury Theater, and the broadcast the panicked America back in 1938!

It’s …. The War of the Worlds!