Archive for Orson Welles

The chances of anything coming from MGM are a million to one, he says

Posted in Fashion, FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics, Radio with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 28, 2017 by dcairns


HULLABALOO (1940) is an odd thing. To be clear, we were only watching it for Virginia O’Brien’s debut.

Here’s the story with Virginia: when she first sang on stage she got stage fright, but carried on singing. The audience was comvulsed in hysterics at the sight of this frozen rigid, erect young girl with her eyes wide in panic, belting out her song like a song-belting machine. She liked the laughter, and incorporated the big eyes and stiff stance into her act.

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(In DUBARRY WAS A LADY, Red Skelton asks “Are you sure?” and Gene Kelly says “As sure as she’s alive!” and Red retorts “Aw, you’ll have to give me better proof than THAT!” and all the while Ginny is standing right there, and walks off mechanically as if she hasn’t registered any of it.)

But the plot in this one, though thin and constantly supplanted by random novelty acts, is interesting — it’s MGM’s response to Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast. Here, a radio novice performs a play about invaders from Jupiter and panics America. This film followed pretty swiftly on the heels of the real incident, and came out a year before the first product of the Hollywood contract Welles won with his little stunt.

How does MGM re-imagine, or de-imagine the story? Well, the whole thing must be an innocent misunderstanding. The radio performer is a talented but innocent, lovable fellow who certainly didn’t mean to start a rumpus, and certainly wasn’t attempting to prove anything. He should be played by someone cuddly, muddleheaded and appealing. Someone like… Frank Morgan!

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Interesting to see Frank Morgan co-starring here with Dan Dailey before THE MORTAL STORM and with Billie Burke after THE WIZARD OF OZ. And Morgan is pretty enjoyable  doing his schtick. It’s just pretty weird to think this was somebody’s idea of Orson Welles.

One conceit of the plot is that F.M. radio relies on F.M. being a man of a thousand voices, which the actor wasn’t. So they dub him a lot whenever he does his impressions, except occasionally — he seems to be doing Charles Boyer without the aid of a man hidden behind a curtain (EVERY film we see lately seems to have a Charles Boyer impression, and we haven’t even been looking at Pepe le Pew cartoons… YET). Since all the celebrities — Gable, Lamar, Rooney — are from the MGM stable, I assumed they were providing their own vocals, but NO — impersonators, apart from an audio clip from BOOM TOWN that allows Morgan to lip-sync to Gable, Colbert and Tracy in a clip from BOOM TOWN, thus forcing the paying audience of HULLABALOO to sit through an ad for another MGM release.

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Mad genius costume designer Dolly Tree outfits Ann Morriss as Dan Dailey’s castrating fiancee with a set of scissors hanging from her throat.

You can tell it’s an MGM film also because the comedy punches down — we’re meant to laugh at a carny who has to give away all his prizes, and a love-starved widow, and a butler who doesn’t get paid, etc. Tenor Charles Holland gets to sing two songs, but the first is Carry Me Back to Ole Virginny, because he’s black, and the second, though it’s Vesti La Giubba from I Pagliacci, he has to sing dressed as a bellhop, in case we forgot he’s black.

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Some kind of a puppet

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , on December 3, 2016 by dcairns

life backwards from David Cairns on Vimeo.

I’ve been looking for this sketch since forever. Easily, for me, the most memorable thing the satirical puppet show Spitting Image ever did.

The modus operandi of the show was snark, but this posthumous piece on Orson Welles can be processed in other ways. At the time, I remember finding it not so much funny as thought-provoking.

The year was 1986. Welles died in October the previous year. It was kind of odd for a topical show to pick up on something not really in the news. “Don’t you think right after his death -?” as a guy named Thompson once attempted to ask. This little scene riffs on some of the commonplace bits of snark about Welles — “from CITIZEN KANE to sherry commercials” but offers a different spin.

American satires of Welles come with a not-so-hidden subtext: he started big and ended small. He made the greatest film ever, and look what happened to him. Beware, all of you, of artistic ambition. Hubris! No good can come of it. Very reassuring to those with regular work making run-of-the-mill multiplex fodder.

The authors of this piece are still prone to underrating later Welles achievements, as far as we can tell in its rather incomplete summary of his career. But by flipping Welles’ biography around, this little spoof raises two points ~

  1. Does it matter what order Welles made things in? The fact is, he made CITIZEN KANE. A career with that in it is a triumphant career. Nothing that comes after it can invalidate it, any more than anything before it could invalidate it.
  2. What does it matter what you say about people?

Strangeways

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 25, 2016 by dcairns

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Finally reading The Smiler with the Knife, written by Nicholas Blake (who was really the poet Cecil Day-Lewis, father of Daniel) in 1939, immediately optioned by RKO and briefly developed by Orson Welles as his Hollywood debut, after THE HEART OF DARKNESS fell through and before CITIZEN KANE came through. It’s an item in Welles bios that always intrigued me.

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Years ago I read Blake’s The Beast Must Die, which has no relation to the Amicus werewolf whodunnit (spoiler: the werewolf dunnit), but which was decently filmed by Chabrol as QUE LA BETE MEURE in 1969, and as LA BESTIA DEBE MORIR in 1952 by my man Roman Vinoly Barreto. The best bit of the book is a lengthy confession written by a man plotting the murder of the motorist who drunkenly killed his child. Then Blake’s posh private eye, Nigel Strangeways comes along and solves it, and the story devolves into a conventional country house kind of thriller, sitting uncomfortably with the raw emotion of the killer POV sequence. Chabrol certainly noticed that, and excised Strangeways from his movie altogether. I haven’t been able to see the Barreto, but he may have done the same, or maybe he just changed the names. Has Nigel Strangeways ever made it to the screen?

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Poor Nigel is largely absent from The Smiler with the Knife too, with his wife Georgia, intrepid explorer, taking centre stage, going underground to unmask a fascist plot to take over Britain — the aristocratic leader of the secret society falls in love with her and she has to betray and outwit him. Events rapidly overtook the novel with the outbreak of war, but Welles planned to relocate the story to America, with the villain a Howard Hughes type. Ironic, since Hughes would end up owning RKO.

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Welles also included, according to Joseph McBride’s Whatever Happened to Orson Welles?, a Hearst-like newspaper baron called W.N. Howells — now, presumably Welles had in mind for himself the big bad guy role, whose character has quite a bit in common with his eventual role in THE STRANGER (secret fascist hiding in plain view, in love with a woman who does not share his sinister sympathies), but “W.N. Howells” sounds so much like a misheard “Orson Welles” that it’s hard to believe he wasn’t already sizing up the part for himself.

Blake/Day-Lewis makes his main villain a romantic millionaire figure, toying humorously with the affections of countless women but falling dangerously in love with Georgia. He also ends up blinded in a fire she starts, anticipating Welles role as Rochester in JANE AYRE EYRE. His styling as an “attractive brute” type may have been a stretch for Orson, but no doubt appealed, and one aspect of his description, his “oddly lumbering, bear-like gait,” fits Welles, no twinkletoes, to a tee.

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Nobody seems to have produced a really detailed synopsis of Welles’ adaptation, and it’s not published or available to read online, but I recall (correctly, I hope) that Welles wanted Lucille Ball for the lead. This would have changed Georgia’s character considerably, and a good thing too — Blake/Day-Lewis has to work hard to even begin to make plausible her role as an undercover agent when she’s well-known as the daughter-in-law of a Scotland Yard commissioner whose job is to expose the conspirators. I imagine Welles making her much more of a regular working girl, perhaps anticipating her role in the delightful 1947 thriller LURED (Douglas Sirk), in which she plays a taxi dancer going undercover to snare a serial killer.

The latter part of the book is a very Hitchcockian chase thriller, in the 39 STEPS mode. Welles had some kind of inherent antipathy to Hitchcock, co-existing with an attraction to often similar material (but what attracted him about it was obviously quite different). It would have been fascinating to see what he’d make of this.

Oh well, we’ll just have to make do with CITIZEN KANE.