My theory, Part 1: Welles = Universal Horror

wellesrichardiiiIt was at Norman Lloyd’s house that we saw this Al Hirschfeld cartoon, published in the New York Herald Tribune in 1938, predicting the roles to be taken on the New York stage by the leading players that fall.

Norman is top left — Hirschfeld always drew him this way, though Fiona thought it a dubious likeness.

Orson Welles is dead centre, as Richard III with flat-topped head and lank black wig. In the end he never played the role, something he blames John Houseman for, I believe, in My Lunches with Orson.

But the image suggests to me Boris Karloff, and ties in with my theory that Welles was influenced, probably in childhood, by the Universal school of horror.

Was Karloff’s monster a good model for Richard III? Possibly not — the personalities are quite different. But Welles’ putative performance as the disfigured, limping king might easily have been influenced by the monster, who had so recently returned to the screen in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. And there is at least one image in existence of a teenage Welles playing Richard on stage at the Todd School with a big, built-up head like the one in Hirschfeld’s cartoon.

Then there’s the Mercury Theater radio production of Dracula, which owes nothing much to the Universal movie but certainly displays a keen interest in, and aptitude for, gothic horror.

CITIZEN KANE’s opening has much of the feel of a ’30s horror film — Xanadu is not only dark, looking, shadowy and surrounded by desolation, it is a painting, like Castle Dracula. If few were convinced by Pauline Kael’s suggestion that Welles’ old-age make-up bore the influence of Peter Lorre’s Gogol from MAD LOVE, we can at least agree that part of the movie’s style is at times somewhat Gothic — and this fed into the 1943 JANE EYRE, which Welles influenced greatly (though he disparages the production in My Dinners with Orson.


And Welles’ MACBETH would be the clincher — I’m certain Welles said something, somewhere, about BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN being a visual influence on his papier-mache and dry-ice Scotland, “a violent charcoal sketch of a great play.” Whale occupies exalted ground, since Welles has comparatively few cinematic antecedents — he borrows liberally from Eisenstein in his first two Shakespeare films, and the smooth matching of his theatrical sensibility with Gregg Toland’s cinematic one obviously helped form him as a filmmaker, but apart from that, Whale is just about the only source you can point to. (He learned basic film grammar from running STAGECOACH, and maybe there’s some stylistic influence — but nothing that couldn’t be explained easier by Toland’s help and Welles’ pre-existing fondness for chiaroscuro.)


Part two of my theory tomorrow, and starting soon — a major Shadowplay series on CITIZEN KANE. What else is there to say about that film? Maybe nothing, but I will say it with different punctuation.

9 Responses to “My theory, Part 1: Welles = Universal Horror”

  1. Oh there’s plenty to say about Kane — beginning with the fact that its last surviving player, Louise Curry Just passed away at 100 Here’s Louise intoning her deathless line:

  2. Personally, I’ve always felt that the most important part of Kane was the end credits.

    But more about that tomorrow.

  3. There was an exhibit of Hirchfeld caricatures recently at the Society of Illustrators here in NYC. It was frankly awe inspiring. While his stuff prints very well, the originals are just gorgeous.

  4. I can imagine. His line is so liquid.

  5. I wish we had asked NL about Hirschfeld’s reference for that drawing, as the play never opened. Was it the artist’s invention, based upon something Welles said? Arguably Hirschfeld was as fine a caricaturist as ever lived, but seems to me Welles eluded him, more often than not (though there two later-life Welles drawings where are just fine). Or, maybe Al just saw him as an insecure, chinless toad and drew him that way…

  6. The Hirschfeld Welles is a pretty good match for the Welles in the Warner Bros screen test…

    RIP Louise Curry — I was just admiring her little perf…

  7. Maybe. Seems that Al re-cycled that same Welles profile into the early ’50’s, without really
    ‘catching’ Welles (at least, not as well as he caught 95% of his subjects). And that screen-test! seeing his Oscar Jaffee makes me regret Warners weren’t casting Caligula at that time…

  8. He found his own Oscar Jaffee in Elmyr

  9. A juvie Welles Caligula would be to-die-for! He would give Emlyn Williams a run for his money.

    Still don’t really see Hirschfeld’s Norman Lloyd likeness as being all that evocative of the great man — but he was certainly consistent in how he drew NL.

    But THIS is GREAT:

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