First reading of The Magnificent Ambersons by Orson Welles: A Reconstruction for the Stage
on Saturday (nice full title, huh? well, I'm trying to be accurate). Went very well. As always, not all good actors are great readers, so it goes, and some actors just got
the parts out of the gate, while some will need some more directorial attention before the characters are there. I played the full Herrmann score behind the appropriate scenes, and it sounded lovely.
We talked a bit after the reading about what was done to Welles' original 131-minute cut (which we'd basically just read the transcript of) to turn it into the 88-minute release version - I think the cast was a bit horrified to hear the details, including how it went from being planned as RKO's big 1942 Easter release, premiering in Radio City Music Hall, to winding up instead snuck-out on a double bill in June, 1942 with Mexican Spitfire Sees a Ghost (and an email this morning from actor Bill Weeden, who's playing Major Amberson, informs me that Ambersons was the bottom half of the double-bill, supporting the Lupe Velez vehicle!).
I was then asked by cast members about when was I going to stage the restored director's cut version of Mexican Spitfire Sees a Ghost? Now I want to get my hands on a copy of that film so I can use excerpts from it for either our pre-or postshow ("We hope you enjoyed The Magnificent Ambersons, please remain seated for our main feature, Mexican Spitfire Sees a Ghost, starring Lupe Velez!"). Unfortunately, the Mexican Spitfire series remains woefully unreleased on home video, though Mr. Weeden notes all the films were shown on TCM but a few weeks ago, so maybe they'll show up again - if anyone sees them coming, let me know . . .
Berit and I saw Notes from Underground at The Brick on Saturday night (it was great) and hung out for some time afterwards. We were getting ready to go when a brief question from Moira Stone's mother, Myrna, on what my next project was wound up starting me off on probably something like a 45-minute lecture on Welles, as I can be wont to do (I hope I didn't bore her too much, but she seemed interested and kept asking the questions that kept me going).
Hm. Every now and then it strikes me, with a strange mix of pride, embarrassment, and seething anger, that I know and can expound upon a ridiculous number of useless things accurately and fully. I'm fairly sure that if it was suddenly demanded of me, I could probably deliver a three-hour lecture on the life and work of Orson Welles off the top of my head, with great accuracy, attention to detail, and a fine number of interesting anecdotes and facts, including a few that only I seem to know or have figured out.
(Okay, for example? There's a brief shot of a fake octopus in the newsreel at the start of Citizen Kane. This is THE SAME fake octopus that Ed Wood used, badly, in his film Bride of the Monster. It also showed up in the John Wayne film Wake of the Red Witch, and I've read separately about the Kane/Red Witch and Bride/Red Witch connections, but nobody else seems to have caught the Ed Wood/Orson Welles link here otherwise. Or, probably, cares about it.)
I know enough about Welles (and other film/music subjects, but Welles is a good example) that I can't now read much on the subject without getting irritated that I know more than the writer does. I tried to listen to both the Roger Ebert and Peter Bogdanovich commentaries on the Citizen Kane DVD when it came out, but had to shut both off after 10-15 minutes when I got fed up with the factual inaccuracies both of them were spitting out -- Ebert in particular lost a lost of respect from me when he points to Joseph Cotten in the group of people in the screening room near the beginning and says "There's Alan Ladd as a bit player in one of his first films" (!!!). It's JOE COTTEN, for crissakes! The more interesting story is how this scene was the first filmed scene for Kane (in an actual RKO screening room; wonder if it still exists on the Paramount lot?), done as a supposed "test" before actual filming was to begin (at Gregg Toland's suggestion), and that's why you have actors in there from Welles' Mercury Players who also play other characters in the the film (besides Cotten, you can see Erskine Sanford in there, and supposedly writer Herman J. Mankewicz is in the group, too).
(Alan Ladd is the reporter with the pipe talking to Thompson at the end in Xanadu -- another fun fact: the reporter interviewing Kane in the first dialogue scene in the film - in the newsreel - is cinematographer Gregg Toland himself, which makes for a nice in-joke as Welles, onscreen as elderly Kane, keeps talking down to his offscreen mentor as "young fella")
Somehow it seems like I should be able to make a living from knowing all this crap. When I know more about Citizen Kane than Roger Ebert and Peter Freakin Bogdanovich?
Well, in any case, it's useful as long as it feeds my own work in some way, which it does.
So anyway, going through Wellesmania as I work on Ambersons has led to a couple of YouTube finds which I share below the cut here.
First is his 90-minute documentary Filming Othello. Well, not exactly a documentary . . . as Welles put it:
With F For Fake, I thought I had discovered a new kind of movie, and it was the kind of movie I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing. The failure of F For Fake, in America and also in England, was one of the big shocks of my life. I really thought I was onto something. As a form, [F For Fake] is a personal essay film, as opposed to a documentary. It's quite different -- it's not a documentary at all.
This film, Welles' last completed one, was created for German television as a companion to a showing of his film of Othello. I first (and last, until right now) saw it at the original Film Forum down on Watts Street in February of 1987 (somewhere there's an embarrassing cassette tape recorded by friend and roommate Sean Rockoff of me coming home from the screening and raving about the film to him, getting drunker and drunker on a bottle of peppermint schnapps as I do so - hey, I was 18, man!). I've been talking up this film to people for years, and have been extremely frustrated that since that screening it seems to have vanished from all outlets of distribution.
Well, now it's up at YouTube, in 10 pieces (which I've stitched together here in a playlist for you). If you have 90 minutes free, and the inclination to sit at a computer and watch an essay-film by Orson Welles, knock yourself out. There's more info about it HERE in the Films section of the Wellesnet site (which seems to be impossible to access from the front page, for some reason).
If you don't want to spend that much time, I've also put together the three pieces of Welles' 1958 half-hour television film The Fountain of Youth. Not his best work, but rare and interesting - I nice slice of his Mr. Arkadin-period editorial style.
And finally, for those of you who haven't seen it . . . a piece of the embarrassing side of Mr. Welles: The famous (and sad) rushes of the Paul Masson wine commercial where it appears Orson has been enjoying the product a little too much prior to filming. Oh my.
( Filming Othello / The Fountain of Youth / AH, the French! )
Well now I'm having a mad posh to see Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show again, which pays homage to Ambersons quite a bit at times -- Bogdanovich says he prefers that film (and Touch of Evil) to Kane, so it's no surprise that he grabs a lot from it for his film of a similar mood -- the entrance to the Christmas dance is an amazing replica of Eugene and Lucy's entrance to the ball in Ambersons, and the ending of Last Picture Show even takes an idea from the original, cut ending to the Welles film, playing a period comedy record underneath a quiet, sad scene of two people sitting near each other, unable to discuss their true feelings.
(Welles' personal contribution to the Bogdanovich film was, after PB had told him the plot of the film, remarking, "You're going to shoot it in black-and-white, of course?" Thanks, Orson.)
Amazing that I don't own a copy. I wonder how cheap I can find it for on Amazon? $11.50 including shipping? That's mine!
Oh, that reminds me . . . I never posted the answers for the films in my quote quiz that weren't correctly guessed. Here they are:
2. The Age of Innocence by Martin Scorsese
3. Bad Timing by Nicolas Roeg
6. Duck Amuck by Chuck Jones
9. How I Won the War by Richard Lester
12. Contempt by Jean-Luc Godard
14. THX-1138 by George Lucas and Walter Murch
9 out of 15 guessed correctly. Not bad, folks.