Thursday, May 16, 2013

Director Spotlight #14.1: Orson Welles Radio and Theatre

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the great cinematic magician Orson Welles.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Orson Welles remains one of Hollywood’s greatest directors, as well as one of its great “what-ifs”. What if more of Welles’ films had been successes? What if more of his films had been fully realized? What if he had been given final cut more often? As it is, the world must be satisfied with only 13 completed films, some of which are difficult to find, many of which have been truncated. And yet, it doesn’t matter. With Welles, we were given one of cinema’s greatest showmen, as well as one of its most important innovators and storytellers. If Welles has come too close to being a patron saint of directors, it isn’t without reason. Most of the greatest filmmakers of every generation since has taken a page from the man- Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Paul Thomas Anderson, you name it. More than just about any director before or since, Welles has taught directors just how camera placement and editing could affect the viewer.

But before he conquered the big screen, Orson Welles was a talented ambitious wunderkind who conquered the stage. Born to a concert pianist mother and encouraged by a number of foster fathers, Welles displayed an early talent as an actor, and as a teenager staged a number of acclaimed student productions of Shakespeare shows at the Todd School for Boys. He then went on to star in a number of successful plays, from a production of Jew Suss in Ireland to playing Tybalt and Mercutio in various productions of Romeo and Juliet. He also began experimenting with writing and directing. Two notable projects: The Hearts of Age (Grade: 65/B), an early surrealist short film that, while narratively weak, showed his skill playing tricks on the audience (example: Welles, in heavy make-up as Death, walking down the stairs, only to appear at the top of the stairs again, over and over); and Marching Song, an unproduced play about revolutionary abolitionist John Brown that used interviews from people who knew him as a way to gain insight into an aspect of his character (sound familiar?).

Welles came to the attention of John Houseman, a producer who would be Welles’ main collaboration partner throughout most of the 1930s. Houseman would produce Welles’ direction of a production of Macbeth, often referred to as Voodoo Macbeth, which reset the action of Shakespeare’s play from Scotland to Haiti, using voodoo witch doctors for the witch sisters and an all black cast from the Federal Theatre Project’s Negro Project in Harlem. The play was a huge success, and it showed Welles’ willingness to experiment and push boundaries. Only a few minutes of the play can still be viewed, as bits were captured for a newsreel, but even those parts of this vivid show are enough to show the truth- this kid, then only 21, has got something.

Welles would go on to direct a number of other acclaimed shows, from the successful farce Horse Eats Hat (his first collaboration with Joseph Cotten) to Cradle Will Rock, a left-wing musical that, when it was shut down for political reasons, Welles restaged in a smaller theatre with a piano rather than an orchestra, and with the cast members singing from the audience.

Welles greatest triumph on the stage, however, was Caesar, a pared-down production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar that was the first production by the Welles-Houseman run Mercury Theatre. The production was set in a modern day country made up to evoke fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, with Caesar as a dictator brought down by the flawed but thoughtful Brutus (played by Welles) and the people led to brutality by the autocratic Marc Antony. One scene, the murder of the innocent poet Cinna, was staged with such expressionistic flair that the show was stopped by ten minutes of applause. Caesar shows one of the first signs of Welles’ genius not only technically, but showcased Welles’ primary thematic interests- corruption, innocent men implicated in terrible crimes (Cinna), the downfall of powerful men (Caesar, Brutus), and the clash between morality and megalomania. Richard Linklater would later dramatize the production in Me and Orson Welles. The film is unfortunately centered on a dull audience surrogate (badly played by Zac Efron), but it is worth seeing for Christian McKay’s performance as Welles and for Linklater’s recreation of Welles’ vision of Caesar.

At the same time that Welles became the theatre’s hottest director, radio started to court him. He became known across the country as the original voice of superhero The Shadow and directed a seven-part radio adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. The latter show (Grade: B) is not one of Welles finest achievements on the radio, as the later episodes feel somewhat bloated and stuffed with comic overload, and the finale is largely a rehash of past episodes, but Welles and his company create a terrific sense of place, and Welles sonorous, velvety voice makes for a perfect Jean Valjean.

Welles’s early success in theatre and radio garnered him so much acclaim that CBS Radio soon invited him to broadcast a weekly series, The Mercury Theatre on the Air (which can be listened to here and here). Welles was given unprecedented creative control as the director and primary writer (alongside Houseman), and was allowed to bring the entire Mercury Theatre troupe, including Cotten, George Couloris, Ray Collins, Agnes Moorehead, and a number of other future Citizen Kane actors. One of the great achievements of old-time radio, it showed how Welles could master storytelling in yet another medium while giving hints at his future successes in film. 18 of the 22 produced episodes still survive, with only one truly weak episode (Sherlock Holmes, C+, which suffers from Welles’ strangely sleepy Holmes).

The very first episode of the show, a production of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (A), already establishes Welles’ gifts as a storyteller. There’s a wonderfully old fashioned and silly feeling to some of the musical cues (it practically goes DUN DUN DUN as Coulouris’ Harker claims to be a prisoner), and Welles’ booming voice makes for a particularly sinister and menacing Dracula. Better than almost any film version of Stoker’s novel, Welles captures the fever dream intensity of the story, particularly during the terrifying sea voyage of Dracula and Harker’s sense of isolation in the castle. The female actors (Agnes Moorehead as Mina Harker and Elizabeth Fuller as Lucy Westenra) perfectly sell the sexual terror and hypnotism of their situation. It’s easy to see how kids listening in might have been frightened at the time, and it’s even better when Welles ends the broadcast with a  wonderful tongue-in-cheek play on the audience’s nerves: “What’s that over there?” (sound effect) “Nothing. Nothing at all. But always remember…there are wolves, there are vampires, such things do exist…”

Many of the episodes saw Welles working well with great literary classics, pared down to an hour but striking and vital. His Treasure Island (B+) is notable for a delightfully hammy Welles performance as Long John Silver, while his A Tale of Two Cities (A-) shows a young director with an increased skill at pacing and a skill for using sound to tell a story (the beheading at the end is particularly strong). Welles even gets a chance to reimagine his production of Caesar (A) for the radio, and while it no doubt can’t compare to the stage version, there’s still a wonderful vitality and immediacy to the production that no doubt comes from Welles’ worries over the rise of fascism in Europe.

Welles even gets a chance to experiment with shorter stories in some episodes, his production of Heart of Darkness (A) capturing the existential dread of Joseph Conrad’s novella, and an adaptation of Carl Ewald’s short story “My Little Boy” (A) standing as Welles’ first great stories of corrupted youth. The Mercury Theatre on Air is particularly strong when dealing with adventure stories, such as Edward Ellsberg’s paranoid survival thriller Hell on Ice (A-) and Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo (A), which features perhaps Welles’ best standalone radio performance as the furious, anguished Edmond Dantes.

But Welles’ best known and greatest achievement in the world of radio is undoubtedly his production of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (A), no doubt the most famous radio show of all time. By this point, Welles’ production is legendary. Staged as a news report, apparently enough people found Welles’ tale of invaders from Mars so realistic and so frightening that it caused many to believe it was real. The extent of the panic was likely exaggerated, but it doesn’t change the effectiveness of the show.

The show begins by establishing a terrific sense of normality in the newscast- a report of the weather, some music, and a very matter of fact report of some strange activity on Mars. Welles, as astronomer Pierson, assures listeners that there’s nothing to be afraid of, but Welles’ use of a ticking clock in the background establishes a mood of dread that only amplifies as a reporter on the scene of a meteorite landing in New Jersey listens into some strange sounds coming from the crash site. There’s a gradual building of tension as Welles cuts back and forth between the mundane dance music (conducted by Bernard Herrmann) and a slow march towards terror before the Martians emerge from the site and kill everyone in sight, including the reporter mid-sentence. Welles’ gifts as a showman are at their peak here as he showcases a gradual breakdown of communication as the radio broadcasters are killed and we’re left to the sound of a HAM radio operator pleading for a connection- “Is there anyone on the air?”

The final third shows Welles’ Professor Pierson hiding away, isolated from the rest of the world, theorizing with a militia member about the end of the world. By this point, Welles has told a tale of large scale destruction (a real fear in the 1930s, given the existence of fascist dictatorships and the Soviet Union) and the breakdown of society with incredible flair. He’s managed to find the perfect balance of giving the audience enough information to paint a perfect picture while withholding enough information to keep them on the edge of their seats. There’s even a puckish display of wit as a radio announcer claims that they’re keeping up with updates because “radio has responsibility to serve the public”, which is awfully funny considering how much Welles had to know the broadcast would frighten the audience. His forced mea culpa the day afterward might have been necessary for PR reasons, but it’s still a towering artistic achievement. Is it any wonder that Hollywood snapped him up the next year?
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