Archive for John Houseman

Mondo Kane #8: Xanadu #2

Posted in FILM, Radio with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 16, 2013 by dcairns

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Let’s talk about the script. There’s been an EC Comics horror-retribution thing going on with perception of it. First, we are told, Welles tried to bribe Herman Mankiewicz into giving up credit. Despite H.M. very properly retaining his name on the film, critical discourse tended to favour the genius and ignore the man perceived as a hack, or at best, someone with the status of a Buster Keaton co-director, performing a technical function to support the true creative work,

Then Kael wrote her essay, Raising Kane, and quoted Mankiewicz’s secretary who said Welles didn’t write a word. The idea of shining a light on Toland, Mankiewicz and other collaborators was a perfectly noble one, but this didn’t have to be at Welles’ expense — at any rate, had Kael spoken to Welles, or Welles’ secretary, or even Houseman (a Welles enemy by this time, but one who was always willing to concede Welles’ script role), or studied the various drafts, she could have discovered for herself Welles’ sizable contribution.

Welles, in his later years, would also say that John Houseman also deserved co-writer status.

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Now, things have swung around a bit — Welles is the one people are mostly interested in, and the lingering effect of all this intrigue is the stain on his character concerning his attempt to “rob” Mankiewicz of credit (really an attempt to BUY the credit, but still a bit disreputable). It’s something that rankled — when Welles asked a commercials director to annoy him, so he could have the correct emotion for a scene, the guy teased him about his weight to no effect, but the question “Why did you try to steal Herman J. Mankiewicz’s writing credit?” apparently provoked a colossal strop — he had GONE TOO FAR.

Simon Callow, in The Road to Xanadu, observes that Mankiewicz’s contract explicitly stated that for legal purposes the author of any screenplay would be Mercury Productions, with Mank as a mere employee. I expect that was fairly standard practice, because the industry has never been comfortable granting screenwriters the kind of moral rights artists normally have — if they did, an objection from some ink-stained wretch could hold up the whole titanic machinery of production.

He also observes that Welles was in the midst of a savage game of telegram tennis with a man who wanted to publish the script of the War of the Worlds broadcast, and credit Howard Koch as writer. Koch, in his own memoir, describes the writing process for the radio shows as something like (a) He would work all day and all night to adapt the chosen literary source for that week’s broadcast (b) Houseman would edit (c) an assistant would begin rehearsals (d) Welles would come in, take over, and breathe his magic into it.

But he also admits that Welles would be involved at the start of the process, too — War of the Worlds came with an instruction to dramatize it in the form of news bulletins.

Koch, receiving just seventy-five dollars a week, was happy to cede credit — for the first time in his life, he could call himself a professional writer. Mankiewicz, understandably, at his time in life, preferred a substantial credit to a substantial cheque. But considering his previous working practices, and his reputation, and his own contract which stated he was to write, produce, direct and star in a film for RKO, Welles’ rather shady action becomes at least understandable. Like many directors (John Ford: “A screenplay is dialogue, and I hate dialogue,”) Welles possibly undervalued the work of the screenwriter. Yet those who want to give Mankiewicz all of the credit for KANE have to willfully overlook or trash the other films Welles undoubtedly DID co-write or write entirely.

And check out the credit Welles finally DID give Mank (top).

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And so to another shifty character, Paul Stewart as the shifty butler is introduced via an abrupt dissolve to the big K sign (Herrmann accompanies it with what sounds like an anvil strike) and then an equally quick dissolve to Stewart just as a match light his face and his cigarette. Then we’re plunged into shadow again, as if Stewart was trying to out-silhouette our intrepid boy reporter Mr Thompson.

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These speedy cross-fades have been leading up a real quick mix to the screeching parrot — as if Robert Wise wanted to invent direct cutting twenty years before the nouvelle vague pretended they did, but couldn’t quite bring himself to go there. So what should be a shock cut as jarring as the one to the lighting-bolt-lit Susie Kane poster, is instead a dissolve of just a few frames, with the sudden whiteness of the parakeet, the jolt of its squawk, and the peculiar quirk of superimposition that’s robbed it of an eye, all compensating for the unwanted gentleness which the lack of a hard cut tends to produce. It also helps, in a perverse way, that the parrot appears frames ahead of its background, as if it were teleporting in from Long John Silver’s shoulder.

I guess because a bird’s eye is very dark, effectively black in a monochrome film, it came out transparent while the rest of the parakeet, being white, bleaches out the background. They should have jammed that damn snowglobe into the empty socket.

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The squawker was never scripted, and no record that I know of exists explaining how it came to flutter into the film — seemingly an edit room afterthought like the statue of Thatcher. What it obscure is an atypically planimetric composition with an unconvincing rear-pro beachfront. The weird Xanadu mix of architectural styles is nice here, but I can imagine Welles rejecting the stable, flat, full stop of a shot and grasping around for some way to jazz it up. A shrieking jungle bird fit the bill nicely.

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The following shot, though equally rigid, is a stunner, with the kind of smashing perspective Welles liked. Can a lateral view be vertiginous?

Welles trashes Susie’s room, the only scene obviously filmed with two cameras, to minimize re-takes. It may even have been a one-take wonder, since re-setting and repairing the bedroom would have been quite an operation. John Houseman suggests that Kane’s tantrum was based on Welles’ own furious reaction to Houseman’s dissolution of their partnership, in which case the scene may be part of Houseman’s amorphous but widely-acknowledged contribution to the script (although his script work on the radio shows was more editorial than creative). Welles for his part reported feeling genuine emotion as he smashed up the set, a rare occurrence for him. And yet, the real emotion doesn’t actually photograph, and Kane appears more the lumbering automaton than ever. This works fine, don’t get me wrong — it just may not be what was intended.

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“Rosebud.” Not the snowglobe’s first appearance — it can be seen, prominently positioned, in Susie’s love nest during the Leland flashbacks. So it’s Susie’s trashy taste, but it has an emotional effect on Kane greater than all of his art collection — it reminds him, during this moment of loss, of the original loss, his mother who sent him away to be educated.

Suzie’s ceiling beams have their own menagerie — the The Birds of the Air! The fish of the sea! But no sign of an unconvincing octopus or flamingo-pterodactyl.

Kane pockets the snowglobe, absently, as he wanders off, and presumably installs it by his bedside from now until his death as a constant and painful reminder that he can’t have what he really wants. As he walks past his startled staff, he disappears from frame and is replaced by his own reflection. A walking shadow. And then he’s fragmented into an infinity of reflections, as if lost in a maze of illusions or in the shards of the snowglobe that shatters at the instant of his death.

“Sentimental fellow, aren’t you?”
“Mmm, yes and no.”

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This is the only flashback sequence that opens out into a whole other scene, the dismantling of Xanadu (like a movie set being taken down after the production is over). And that will form the subject of our final installment…

“You can keep on asking questions if you want to.”

Citizen Kane – Screenplay formatted for Kindle
Citizen Kane – Screenplay formatted for Kindle

Mondo Kane #7: El Rancho #2

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 9, 2013 by dcairns

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A clever thing — by introducing Susan Alexander early on, allowing her to dismiss boy reporter Thompson from the royal presence, and then looping back to her an hour later, Welles, Mankiewicz (and the uncredited Houseman) achieve at least two things at once.

(1) The repetition makes us feel like we’re nearing the end, which is a useful clue to plant when dealing with a structure as unconventional as KANE’s. Since film is a time-based medium, and time is the one thing none of us seem to have enough of, it’s useful to let the audience know where they stand. I’m surprised a counter ticking down the seconds remaining hasn’t been inserted in the corner of Hollywood movies, but maybe that’s because you don’t need it — the McKee school of structural conventionality allows a savvy audience to plot their position in a movie’s timeline with unerring accuracy.

(2) The early intro to Susan gives us a warning as to the damage Kane, and time, have inflicted on her. Next seen, she’s the naive girl on the street corner, a far cry from the sozzled night-club entertainer glimpsed at the film’s start. Cotten’s flashback covers a good part of her decline and fall, even though he wasn’t there for most of it — now we’re ready for her to take up her own story, and the movie gains dynamism by plunging directly into something we just saw at the tail-end of the Leland narrative.

In his excellent book The Magic World of Orson Welles, James Naremore points out that the narrators of KANE get progressively more cynical and critical as the film goes on, with Susie as the one who really nails Kane’s character weaknesses, followed only by Paul Stewart who is completely indifferent and contemptuous. In fact, the dynamic is more complicated than that — it’s really complicated. The film wins us over to Kane by presenting him first through the eyes of his greatest enemy. If Thatcher hates him, we feel, he must be pretty OK. A darker side emerges in Bernstein’s affectionate tribute, since Bernstein is not blind to his boss’s faults — he’s just philosophical about them. Leland, the dramatic critic, weighs in very articulately on Kane’s betrayal of “the sacred cause of reform,” but it’s left to Susie to expose Kane as not just a bad friend but a bad man.

Naremore’s very sharp on how the film uses Susie, as Kane described her, as “a cross-section of the American people.” The movie doesn’t show the social damage a figure like Hearst can do, except in metaphoric form through his treatment of the second Mrs Kane.

KANE, Naremore says, is structured around dualities: a man with two wives, two friends, two sleds. And Susan Alexander’s interview brackets the centre of the film, split in two, each sequence opening with the same camera movement, only in this second interview the crane shot up the El Rancho takes place in dawn half-light (it’s EXACTLY the tone of sky you see in the background during the opening shot of TOUCH OF EVIL) and with a melancholy, tender repeating arpeggio from Herrmann replacing the thunder and drunken jazz of the first version (and a smooth dissolve replacing the botched attempt at a seamless passage through the skylight).

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Susie, in mellower mood than last time, conducts us into flashback with wry, rueful amusement and one of those loooong dissolves, and we meet Matiste the music teacher, one broadly comic element of the film which nobody seems to mind. I think he works well because (asides from Fortunio Bonanova’s big-but-credible performance) his comedy is tied in to the film’s most painful scenes, making for the kind of uncomfortable and conflicted response you get with Uncle Joe Grandi in TOUCH OF EVIL. Welles’ tendency to hit more than one tone at almost the same time, and hit them both hard, may be one of the traits that kept him from mainstream Hollywood success and a certain kind of critical acceptance. Here, there’s no question of it not working because you don’t have to find the comedy funny or view Susie’s plight or Kane’s monstrousness with irony, it’s simply an option made available to you.

This sequence folds back time a short distance to overlap with Leland’s narrative, but now presents her career not as the grotesque public spectacle Leland reacted against, but as a personal torment inflicted by Kane — Susie, in present tense, is well aware that Kane only married her as a damage-limitation exercise when news of their affair got out, and Leland has already told us that the whole opera bit was an exercise in Orwellian copy-editing on a massive scale — ‘He was going to remove the quotation marks around “singer.”‘

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But still, with the scary rehearsal light and the pain of that thin, strained voice, and the desolation of that lonely curtain-up shot with Susie centre-frame (the weakest, most exposed part of the screen to occupy), we have a perspiring Bonanova coaching Susie from the prompter’s box and getting some pretty good laughs. Amid Welles the actor, director, musician and magician, we shouldn’t forget Welles the cartoonist. Naremore points out that Susie’s kneeling pose at the climax of Salammbo is echoed in her confrontations with her husband later.

Fiona suggests that the paper sculpture a bored Leland makes from his programme is a continuation of the film’s octopus imagery.

The play of sympathies in the film gets still more complicated when Susie — in her own account — transforms to a shrieking shrew. Hard not to feel sorry for Kane, in a scene where he’s just lost his oldest friend and been told he’s sold out his most sacred principles, and all the while he’s got this blonde harridan yelling in his ear. One fears for his pipe-stem.

Is Kane a little deaf in old age? There are a couple of “Hmm?” moments which might be simply distraction (which certainly plays a part) but might also be signs of hearing loss. Maybe that’s how he’s been able to enjoy his wife’s singing all these years. It must certainly be a blessing to him now. But the film is also good on how one person not quite hearing another can make any argument get worse…

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Dorothy Comingore’s voice gets so shrill she loses whole words — one line literally comes out as “I never wanty tdo inna first place!” Presumably the missing bits are audible to dogs, and possibly to the Kane family parakeet, the Xanadu monkeys, or those damned animated flamingos.

And FLIP — with the line “I don’t propose to have myself made ridiculous,” Kane loses all audience empathy and becomes a very raw embodiment of the human-inhuman, self-centeredness incarnate. The other great line that does this is in the other best movie ever made, also scored by Bernard Herrmann, VERTIGO, when Jimmy Stewart tries to get Kim Novak to change her hair: “It can’t matter to you!”

Insanely beautiful, terrifying end to scene as Kane’s shadow eclipses Susie, with just a star-point of light reflecting in her eye, beaming from the blackness.

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Newspaper montage! But not the usual kind — the blinking bulb and multi-tracked vocals create a threatening effect that’s more abstract than anything we’ve seen or heard since the Xanadu opening, especially when the filament fades with the dying warble of an extinguished kettle.

The suicide attempt — a cry for help, really — and one of the few trick effect deep focus shots where the trick can be spotted, just because there’s a hazy area between the sleeping pill bottle and the distant door, something that no lens could achieve.

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Susie with no makeup on (apart from the sweat beads, probably a mix of water and baby oil), an unusual thing to see in a ’40s film. Kane allows her to quit her stage career, I guess a genuine act of kindness on his part and a unique example of Kane being forced to do something, and doing it. His normal temperament would be to double-down in the face of opposition and drive Susie on to destruction. But she’s made it clear what the result would be, and he prefers to keep his wife and sacrifice the opera, just as he preferred to sacrifice his previous marriage in a vain attempt to keep his political career. He can tell himself it’s on his own terms.

But with Susie’s career removed, all that’s left is the horror of leisure — her jigsaws are a cruel comment on her lack of any cultural aspirations, but obviously also a bleak summary of the emptiness of her coddled existence and a miniature version of hubbie’s insane art collection — endless, pointless, automatic, isolating.

The rest of the movie, more or less, takes place in Xanadu.

Kane’s picnic — the exact counterpart of this is Bannister’s grotesque, overblown picnic in LADY FROM SHANGHAI — “It was no more a picnic than… he was a man.” The Floridian beachfront is a combination of Californian location and matte painting. Then we’re back to the studio (KANE is a 90% studio construction) with rear-projection for the everglades campsite. I think I’ve said everything there is to be said about the pterodactyl-flamingos.

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The fight in the tent. I am rather sure that slap is real. Comingore flinches a second before it happens. Micheal MacLiammoir writes in Put Money in thy Purse, his often-hysterical account of the shooting of Welles’ OTHELLO, that Welles slapped Suzanne Cloutier for real, after telling her he wouldn’t, in order to avoid her flinching before the blow is struck. I tend to disapprove — movies are full of slaps, most of them fake, but perfectly convincing. The suspicion is hard to shake that directors who require real violence to photograph want it for non-photographic reasons.

“I’m not sorry.” And that weird SCREAMING in the background. No explanation give — maybe the pterodactyls are eating the party guests and the “It Can’t Be Lobe” singer? But it captures the psychological mood of the moment alright.

Susie’s room at Xanadu is like a doll’s house. The low ceiling beams, almost brushing Welles’ bald cap, make the girly, petite dimensions as oppressive in their way as the grand hall’s echoing monumentalism. Again Welles slams a door in our face, but this time immediately cuts to inside the room, facing the other way — with a starry cartoon BLAM! effect in the wood paneling behind Kane, visually complimenting the still-echoing sound of the closing door.

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Charlie NEARLY talks Mrs Kane into staying, but his selfishness betrays him, and she knows him too well to let it pass — this break-up is something that’s being done TO him, is happening to HIM alone.

Susie walks out, triumphant, and is still upbeat when we fade back to El Rancho. Our attitude to her may have changed, from pitying her as a washed-up drunk, to respecting her as the character who best understood Charles Foster Kane, and who is happier in her alcoholic near-obscurity than she was during the years of unwanted fame. As Sinatra said, I’m for whatever gets you through the night.

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“Well what do you know — it’s morning already.”

The Magic World of Orson Welles
Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane: A Casebook (Casebooks in Criticism)

Better Wed Than Dead

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on September 7, 2013 by dcairns

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Norman Lloyd, 98, enjoyed perhaps the most successful and certainly the longest Hollywood marriage — 75 years. So when he mentioned at the pre-Telluride Film Festival dinner that he could marry people, we jumped at the chance. We’d been thinking of it anyway, and doing it while in Hollywood seemed a way to keep it simple, oddly enough, purely because very few people we knew would be around. As it turned out, most of the half-dozen people we knew in LA couldn’t make it, so it was just me, Fiona, Norman, and Randall William Cook as combined photographer/witness.

What started as a rather unromantic idea, to sort out our legal status and provide security in encroaching old age, became extremely romantic as one half of a genuine great love story gave us his blessing, after a wondrous tour through his gallery of memorabilia, which took in collaborations with Welles, Hitchcock, Renoir and Chaplin.

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“I knew the Telluride Film Festival could do just about anything, but I never knew they could do this!”

Norman ended the ceremony, which he wrote himself, by saying something along the lines of “I think there’s a bit of mischief in both of you, and I think you’re going to cause a lot of trouble, and I hope you do.”

He also told us a story about his friend John Houseman, which wasn’t part of the actual ceremony but has stuck in my mind.

“He used to visit here and he was a great addict of the morning paper. And he used to sleep in just the top half of a pair of pajamas. When the paper was delivered he would run down the drive to collect it without stopping to dress, and would bend right over to pick it up. Drivers in the street would get a distracting sight. Finally I said, John, if you keep doing this, somebody’s going to mistake you for a tunnel. And you’ll get a Ford up your ass. But nothing could stop him.”

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Norman in Hitchcock’s SABOTEUR.

Other business:

The ’68 Comeback Special continues at Apocalypse Now with THE CASTLE, a Kafka adaptation staring Maximilian Schell.

New limericks on HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN: One, Two, Three, Karloff’s beautiful dream of human-canine brain transplantation may be the best limerick subject ever conceive, but I take leave to doubt whether Charles Wagenheim’s strangulation has ever been celebrated in verse before. All the lims have editorial enhancements by Hilary Barta: this one is pure collaboration.

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