Ceiling Hero

CITIZEN KANE images via Checking on My Sausages.

In between saying inspiring things like, “Remake ORDINARY PEOPLE. Do it in your apartment. Play all the roles. Make it in a day,” my host in NYC, the esteemed Comrade K, projection into our sphere of a numinous, n-dimensional shepherd-warrior from a land before history, got me started on the following set of thoughts by an offhand remark, which went something like, “People were amazed by the ceilings in CITIZEN KANE. Nobody had ever seen a ceiling before. People couldn’t look up before Orson Welles showed them how.”

He’s right! Welles made the breakthrough by practicing a unique form of yogic meditation taught him by Rudy Vallee. This resulted in the opening of Welles’s “third eye,” which coincided with him lying on his back, causing him to discover the ceiling of his living room. It has been argued that people intuitively knew of the existence of ceilings before this, since logically every floor must have an underside. Some feminist writers have suggested that the ceiling’s true discoverer was a woman, arguing that the prevalence of the missionary position in pre-war life made such an awareness inescapable for the fair sex. But this strikes me as akin to arguing that people “had dreams” before Freud taught them how in his hit book, Close Your Eyes and Move Them Rapidly About.

Some point to the glass ceiling shot in Hitchcock’s THE LODGER as a pre-Wellesian ceiling, but in fact this is nothing more than a glass floor, above which Hitchcock suspended his camera while two burly stagehands held Ivor Novello upside down so he could place his feet on the translucent surface and mimic the actions of a right-side-up walker.  So in fact the shot actually depicts a floor, with Novello on the other side of it. Incidentally, Novello enjoyed the experience so much that he spent a month traveling this way, and had it specified in future contracts that all his films must include upside down walks. Novello later composed “Rose of England” in an entirely inverted position, complete with upside-down grand piano strapped to the backs of a half-dozen burros.

In explaining his concept to art director Van Nest Polglase, Welles was faced with the difficulty of introducing the concept of the ceiling to a man who, like everyone else in 1940s America, had never seen one. Resistant to yogic disciplines, Polglase finally had to be shoved onto his back and held down by Joseph Cotten, while Welles peeled back the eminent designer’s eyelids and forced him to look. Concerted to the cause, “Poley” later became a great proselytizer for the ceiling, even having a house constructed in Beverly Hills composed entirely of ceilings, top, bottom and sides, inside and out. The famous Polglase House was later purchased by James Mason, who had a notorious phobia of doors*. Living in a home whose rooms could be accessed only by skylights appealed greatly to the Huddersfield-born actor.

In addition to the heavily corniced plaster ceilings displayed in KANE, there were several “trick ceilings” — canvas ceilings through which sound could be recorded, and matte painting ceilings to fill in the top portions of large sets, where a real ceiling would be too costly or frightening. Welles also used his mastery of sleigh-of-hand to suggest ceilings that weren’t actually there, enlisting the audience’s imagination by saying things like “Look at that amazing CEILING!” while subtly pointing upwards, or hanging photographs and etchings of great ceilings from history around the walls of a ceiling-less set. In the New York Inquirer set, Welles experimented with rear projection, stretching a screen across the top of the set walls and projecting outtakes from SON OF KONG onto it, but test audiences found the stop motion pterodactyls distracting, and the notion was abandoned.

When KANE was released, the impact was extraordinary. Columbia boss Harry Cohn immediately called in architects to build a ceiling for his office, which until that point had opened on to the room above, forcing the accounts department to rappel from the ceiling to reach their work stations. Suddenly, it became possible to build structures higher than a couple of storeys, and miracle “skyscrapers” mushroomed up in America’s great cities. (Tall buildings seen in pre-1941 movies were always fantastical special effects.)

While Hollywood legend has it that Welles’s film was a flop, it has been suggested that audiences, alerted to these mysterious planes above their heads, became distracted from the cinema screen and spent the movie’s running time staring upwards past the projector beam. Not for the first time, Welles had been too innovative for his own good.

*In civilian life, Mason was only able to enter a room by the window, or while strapped to a hospital gurney, or sometimes both. Ironically, in the movies, he could “act” walking through a door with ease and even suavity, even picking up awards for his smooth entrances. Whereas Pat Boone, Mason’s co-star in JOURNEY TO THE CENTRE OF THE EARTH, could enter a room in a graceful, natural manner, but invariably either stumbled, fainted, or soiled himself when called upon to do so for the films.

12 Responses to “Ceiling Hero”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by dcairns, Bags. Bags said: RT @dcairns: In which Orson Welles invents the ceiling: https://dcairns.wordpress.com/2010/07/23/ceiling-hero/ […]

  2. David Boxwell Says:

    Alas, the notorious US DVD rendition of CK ruthlessly exposes the obvious canvas construction (and even tape sticking the sheets of canvas together).

  3. The apartment set of Godard’s A Woman is a Woman is an exact duplication of a real apartment Godard wanted to use but couldn’t becuase the tenant didn’t want to move. Everything was done to standard reproductive specification, but Godard noticed something wrong. When Anna Karina got into bed with Jean-Claude Brialy she looked “uncomfortable.” He thought about it for a bit and realized what was wrong: “Anna has never gone to bed in a room without a ceiling.” And so a ceiling was placed onto the set making it a real room in every way.

  4. I suspect the UK Kane DVD is from the same master. Joseph Cotten is clearly visible in the screening room.

    I’m waiting for a version where the falling snow crossfades into the page from Thatcher’s diary just as it does in a 35mm projection: smoothly and beautifully, not imperceptibly, followed by a sudden jolt.

    I wonder if JLG followed Renoir’s advice and left a door open on the set?

  5. Alan Ladd is also visible in the screening room.

    I suspect that scene was shot early on in the production. As you may know Welles began shooting what he said were “tests” in preparation for the final “green light” on starting the films. Consequently the film was well underway before the press got wind of it.

  6. Yes, the projection room was shot early on in a real RKO p.r. I think Joseph Cotten’s interview was also done in the week of supposed tests. Cotten nearly quit in frustration because the makeup kept cracking whenever he raised his eyebrows. So Welles got him the nifty cap he wears!

  7. Christopher Says:

    What about the Ceilings of the south seas?..I’m almost certain there are ceilings highliting those twirly ceiling fans in silents such as Sadie Thompson and Road to Mandalay..ceiliiings..nothing more than ceiliniiigs..

  8. The fact is, ceilings were pretty common — really, Kane’s distinction is the use of low angles as a mannerism rather than for any particular consistent dramatic effect.

  9. Fritz Lang invented the ceiling, just like everything else.

  10. He had to leave his collection of ceilings behind in Germany when he fled Hitler. He had whole rooms full of ceilings.

  11. C. Jerry: “Fritz Lang invented the ceiling, just like everything else.”


    Funny that it took so long for these guys to figure out ceilings when Feuillade was dicking about on roofs for so long.

  12. And yet, to this day, nobody has shot an ice ballet using the underside of the ice.

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