Keith Baxter on CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT
Wellesnet correspondent Leslie Weisman attended the screening of Chimes at Midnight at the AFI Wednesday night, which featured star Keith Baxter in attendance. Baxter spoke at length after the film about his experiences with Welles and on the film. Despite the occasional factual error on Mr Baxter's part, this is a warmly remembered series of reminiscences.
on Welles and CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT
AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, Silver Spring, Maryland
Wednesday, 7 March 2007
Keith Baxter came onstage after the screening. ďWerenít we young!Ē he said softly. Baxter was asked what the differences between the stage and film productions of Chimes were. ďWell, four years,Ē he began:
It was very moving watching that tonight, because I hadnít seen it on the big screen for about... I should think, about 30 years. I was very conscious of the end, the farewell, that when we were playing it ó I mean film is a very curious medium; you know what youíre doing in the theatre, but the camera picks up things that youíre not even aware that you are doing. I had been very out of work, as all young actors are, on the stage [returning to the time of Three Kings] and you know you have a dream, when youíre a young kid, of wanting to be an actor; and then the dream is very elusive.
And then itís wonderful when somebody makes you believe that they think you have a real talent. And that of course was Welles, who I went for an open audition. And I was washing dishes, and I thought, well, Iíll get the part of a soldier, or something ó on the stage. I really wanted the part of Poins, I thought I might get that. But I did a speech, and Welles said: ďWill you play Prince Hal?Ē And that was amazing. And it altered my life forever; forever. Because although the play didnít work, when I went for auditions after that, just the fact that Iíd played Prince Hal meant that work came to me. Indeed, my first trip to America came because I came to play the king in ďA Man for All SeasonsĒ on Broadway and I got that job directly because they said, ďWell, heís the boy [that] played Prince Hal.Ē
In the original play... we were meant to do two plays, we were meant to do Twelfth Night, as well as Chimes at Midnight. And it didnít work. And Orson was very unhappy. But he said on the last night, on the boat coming back to England from Ireland, he said, ďIt hasnít worked as a play, but it will work as a film. And one day Iíll make the film, and Iíll never make it without you.Ē And people say those things in the theatre; they rarely actually follow through. And a lot of people wanted to play Prince Hal ó Anthony Perkins especially ó and it was four years later that I got the telegram from Orson saying: ďDarling Keith. Got the money. Letís make our film.Ē And he said there probably wonít be sixpence in it for anybody.
But he got the money by ó people thought he was duplicitous; he wasnít at all. But he was living in exile in Spain by this time because the IRS were going to sue him for vast sums of money which he didnít have. So he got the money to make Chimes at Midnight the film by telling the Spanish producers that actually he was going to make Treasure Island. And Sir John [Gielgud] never knew that he was actually contracted to play Squire Livesey as well as King Henry IV. And... they actually shot the embarkation of the Good Ship Hispaniola in Alicante. And thatís the only footage there is of the film of Treasure Island.
And Orson designed all the costumes. And that incredible talent... he designed. And that was going to serve also as the Admiral Benbow Inn for Treasure Island. And they didnít have enough money, and he was delighted, so it was shot in black and white. And he always preferred black and white. His theory was that color diminished an actorís performance by fifty percent. And I think heís right, because the film looks like a series of wonderful engravings. And we shot in real locations, too; that wonderful house in the Basque ó we were filming in Spain ó where he hears the news that the old king is dead, heís sitting in the chair... incredible ceiling, and the beams. And the thing thatís so wonderful about it ó well, everythingís wonderful about it, really, but ó the battle scene, which has gone into everybodyís lexicon of how to make a battle scene ó Kenneth Branagh pinched an awful lot from it. And if you regard that, it seems so violent and so difficult ó you never see any cruelty, you never see any blood, and I was sitting watching just now and thinking what Mel Gibson would have done. [laughter] And yet it is terribly, terribly violent.
And he shot ó the money ran out, about two thirds of the way through, and the film closed down. And I went to ó he wouldnít let me go home to England, because he thought I wouldnít come back again [laughs]. But of course I would, because I hadnít shot the coronation speech. So he packed me off, I could go to Tangier, and I went to Tangier, and it was February; and I sat around in a very cheap hotel, fought bedbugs and smoked some curious cigarettes ó I had to go to American Express every day, to see if there was a telegram. Suddenly there was: ďGot the money. Come back to Madrid,Ē and we went back and shot the coronation. But he shot it ó the terrible tragedy about the film is that itís in litigation. They revived, or restored, his film of Othello, and they would very much like to do the same with this; because you must be aware, every now and then the sound slips.
And I donít know how much youíre all aware, but every time in any film, if thereís a scene out of doors, even today, itís dubbed. It has to be post-synched, because of the ambient noise of a wind, or maybe a car going, or whatever. So everything has to be dubbed in a sound studio. Or if thereís a great party ó everybody in the background, they may be manic or whatever, but theyíre all miming talking, so that you can actually hear the dialogue of James Bond... or whatever. And then thatís dubbed. And the actual sound is added on. And every line in the film is post-synched, is dubbed, every single line. Of course you had a guide track, but the castle, the kingís castle ó was in a ruined castle ó in Cardona, which was near Barcelona ó and it was freezing. Thatís why itís so wonderful, sometimes when weíre speaking, you can see the breath. And Orson said to me, ďNo wonder the prince wanted to go and sit by a nice warm fire. Who would want to stay in this terrible place?Ē And we all had little hand heaters. And he had a gramophone. And he made us all laugh between takes, and there was a gramophone, with ó not vinyl, but [?] discs. And there was always laughter.
And Iíve forgotten a lot of it, but the scene where heís helping the king into the throne to die, and Orson said ĎI want to take a very, very high shotí ó and itís a brief shot, but itís from on high ó John and I were just crying with laughter, we were just stepping on each otherís cloaks ó but we were miles, miles away from the camera ó but we had to dub every single line. So I dubbed in Madrid, in three different studios in Madrid, all my scenes with John. With Jeanne Moreau, who played Doll Tearsheet, I went to Paris and we dubbed in Paris; Sir John was already on Broadway, in a play of Edward Albeeís called ďTiny AliceĒ ó and he dubbed all his lines in a New York studio. And then we did some in England.
So the quality of sound has been more and more impaired. And itís a terrible thing because everybody regards this film as a masterpiece, and many feel it is Wellesís masterpiece; I think certainly itís the best Shakespeare on screen, because itís so moving. But some years ago, when they restored Othello, the sound of Othello, everybody would like Orsonís daughter ó who actually plays the little boy, thatís Orsonís daughter Beatrice, who was seven at the time; sheís now forty-seven ó and Emiliano Piedra, who is the Spanish producer; I did three more films with him ó he was a young, sort of cowboy, heíd gone around the Spanish villages with big film in cylinders on the back of a motorbike, and would set up a little camera in the back of it... in a little Spanish village at the end of the civil war, and theyíd all sit in their little chairs on the front porches, and then heíd have to take them somewhere else, sometimes he got the reels in the wrong order, but they never knew.
And this was his first film. He stuck by the film. And he ran out of money, and I remember one day, I wasnít paid. And to my shame, I went to Orson and complained... which was stupid. And Orson said, I canít tell you what to do. So Emiliano Piedra came over with an interpreter, and he said, ďSeŮor Baxter, no tienes money...Ē and he was pulling out his pockets to show he had no money; and he gave me a huge check ó it was huge, actually [extended his arms to about 2 feet by 3 feet] and he said it couldnít be cashed until the following October. It was cashed eventually. But his daughter ó Emiliano Piedra is dead ó his daughter, and Orsonís daughter Beatrice, would like to restore the film ó I mean the soundtrack. And it would be quite simple to do. Thereís also Harry Saltzman, who put up the finishing money, and his widow would be perfectly happy to have it done. Nobodyís going to make a kingís ransom out of it. But it would be wonderful to have the film, and very simply it could be done.
But for the last 20 years of his life ó and I never met her ó he had a mistress, a Croatian mistress; sheís still alive... Oja Kadar [Kodar]. I knew Orsonís family very well ó Beatrice, and Paola, his wife ó for really eight years, I suppose. Longer. I only saw Orson once after the film finished. He wrote to me when I was playing Hamlet, and he sent me a telegram when I was playing Macbeth ó but I only saw him once, in Los Angeles, when I was on a visit and he was eating at a restaurant called ďMa MaisonĒ ó and I knew that he ate there, so I went and I thought, oboy... And he was actually coming down the steps... and he was... enormous, I mean enormous; he had to be supported on either side, to get into a taxi. And I thought, I wonít... I wonít speak to him.
And then about a year later I was doing a play, and we were opening it in Birmingham, Michigan, and I was in the television studios doing a blurb about the play. And somebody came around and said, ďIs there any more on the Welles story?Ē And I looked up ó it was the day after Yul Brynner died ó and I looked up, and I said, ďWhatís the wells story?Ē and I thought maybe itís oil wells or something ó and it came up [that] Orson Welles had died. And we didnít talk about my play... we talked about Orson. And exactly a year later, his wife, Paola... she died in a car crash, in California. And I was in Australia when that came through on the news... And it was... [visibly moved]
Well, I loved him very much; I loved him because he altered my life. He was the most wonderful fun to be with. And when you look at the film, I see that. And I see how much he loved me. And I remember writing to the great English novelist, E.M. Forster ó Iíd done a play of E.M. Forsterís ó and he used to write wonderful letters; and I wrote him saying, ďIím having terrible trouble. I adore John Gielgud and I adore Orson, and Iím having a problem.Ē And he said, ďWell, thatís Prince Halís problem, isnít it? He loves both father figures.Ē Because Orson always said, itís a triangle, a love triangle. A boy deciding which father he loves, and two fathers who are apart over him, for affection. And I see it now, and thatís what I mean about the camera catches things that youíre really not quite sure that youíre playing. But it seems to me quite obvious watching the film, this tremendous bond and affection between Welles and myself. And by the time we got to the coronation, the renunciation ó I mean Iíd shot the walk through the church, Iíd shot six months earlier, in that old castle; and then we shot a bit of me on horseback, against the walls of Ńvila, which is about two hours from Madrid. And... then I finally got to shoot the coronation speech, six months after the film. And it was my last day of shooting, in a small church, near Madrid. I know of course they all ó and thatís the magic of film, and he was a magician ó it all seems as though itís part of the same sequence.
And then we came to shoot that... Very often if youíre in a film, particularly if youíre a director like Orson, if youíre not on camera, you donít bother to get made up, because he was shooting on me, and then he would get made up... But for this, he played it as though we were in the theatre... I mean he set up the camera, and then he went away while they lit it. And he came back in his costume. And he knelt below the camera, for my eyeline. And we did the speech ó we did it twice, I think... and then we did the reverses. And I find it... well I do find it terribly moving. Because I find the subtext. We were both aware, and I was certainly aware, that it was the end of an adventure which had started with the audition... five years earlier in London, before weíd done it on the stage... and this incredible affection, and the look on his face, when I have rejected him, and itís an astonishing look: in one sense itís terrible pain, and in another sense, itís saying: ďThatís my boy; heís come into his destiny.Ē I find it very moving. And after we shot that, he was as I said on the run from the IRS, and we left... he was staying in the apartment of a great bullfighter, Antonio OrdoŮez, whoíd been Hemingwayís idol. And we sat in this weird room, with gold-plated hooves... a portrait of OrdoŮez in his suit-of-lights costume; and we... said good-bye to each other.
It was wonderful to see the film; I havenít seen it on a big screen. And Iím really sorry that that Croatian woman blocks the opportunity of restoring the sound... you know itís hardly ever shown up ó I get still about fifty letters a year from people who want to know about Welles or want to know about this film ó how hard it is to find it, how can they buy it, where can they get it ó and it should be, it should be available for people to buy. [applause]
There are many similarities [between the character of Falstaff and Welles]. Welles was living... well, he was not quite br... but he was always on the run from the IRS, and there was one evening when the film was closed down ó in a way he was quite pleased that the film was closed down. That meant when he started again, he could start with a much smaller unit. I mean, there are wonderful pieces ó when Sir John knocks the crown off, and there is a shot of somebody picking it up, the hand ó thatís my hand, in Wellesís kitchen, that theyíd laid down some flagstones. Wherever you donít see Margaret Rutherfordís ó Mistress Quickleyís ó where you donít see her face, it was the first assistant, a man, in her costume. Walter Chiari, who plays Justice Silence, had gone back to Italy. When we shot the scene , theyíre walking through the snow, and saddling the horse ó thatís me, in Walter Chiariís costume.
It was full of... I mean he was such a magician. When Sir John died, and then he had to go to New York to rehearse the play, and they needed a shot when I say, ďThe king is dead,Ē you can see, if you knew ó if you could run that scene ó thatís not Sir John sitting in the throne. Thatís a double. And itís amazing, because if you know that, you can see quite clearly itís not Sir John. In the battle scene, thereís one moment where he needed to go back and put an insert around the scene where Sir John looks at me and I refuse to say, ďNo, I killed Hotspur,Ē they did an insert. Norman Rodway, who played Hotspur, had been back in England, heíd been playing in something at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre... two of the other actors werenít there, Sir John isnít there ó the only person there is me. So in the tracking shot, you never realize that all the others are... But itís because he had no money. So he was always ducking and diving. And of course he recognized that in [the character of] Falstaff. He recognized that totally.
People said Wellesís films never made money. It was heartbreaking. And the American Film Academy, whatever it itís called [American Film Institute ó in whose Eastern branch, by chance, he was sitting at that moment] wanted to do a great evening for Orson Welles. And I was asked ó they were going to fly me over first class, put me up at the Beverly Wilshire ó and I couldnít go, which I wouldíve loved to have done. And it was a great affair: Frank Sinatra was there and Charlton Heston introduced him... and then Welles came on. By this time heíd done a deal with the IRS. And he firmly thought that people would want him to work.
Thatís the last major show that he completed, in 1965 ó and he died in 1984 . So for twenty years ó I mean he made a film called F for Fake, but thatís the last... they wouldnít give him any money. And thatís because they said his films didnít make money. And itís true they didnít make the kind of money that Lawrence of Arabia made. But at the same time they were giving money to Heavenís Gate, which ruined United Artists. Because their theory in Hollywood was, ďYeah, but if those films make it big, thereís a huge revenue coming in. What revenue is there in an Orson Welles film about Shakespeare?Ē He couldnít get any money, and he died alone, in this house in Benedict Canyon... and his mistress wasnít there. So... he died alone, in a bathtub... quite alone. It was a terrible, terrible sadness, so yes ó the death of Falstaff is sad, and yes ó his life was very much... he was the life force, he was wonderful to be with.
I mean, we were filming one scene which isnít in the film, with Margaret Rutherford and Welles, they were out of doors in this park in Madrid, and it was bitterly cold... and we all had to be there; I mean you would suddenly break off one scene, because you would see that the weather was... and that one scene, that scene by the lake with Poins and I, with big grey velvet frock on, and the costumes were always there. And he took time off because the wonderful light on the lake... it was a horribly ugly lake, but it was early mist in November, and it looked so ó so he stopped what he was doing, and we went and shot that scene, me and Poins Then he went back, and Margaret Rutherford was sitting under a hawthorne, with a rug around her, and Orson had some coffee, with Fundador brandy. And he said, ďGo ask Dame Margaret if sheíd like a cup of coffee.Ē
So I went across and said to Dame Margaret: ďOrson said heíd like to know if youíd like some coffeeĒ ó her chins were shaking, and she said, ďOh yes, I would.Ē ďHeís worried, are you feeling cold?Ē She was a very fey woman, Margaret, but not affected. ďHeís worried about you.í ďOh no, Iím not cold,Ē she said. ďWorking with him is like walking where thereís always sunshine.Ē I mean, people adored him. They would do anything for him. Filming in Spain, the opening, the king scenes, we used to get there about 8:00 in the morning. There were no lavatories, which was always a bit embarrassing, and people... you had to go find a bush or something. And Sir John kept forgetting to take off his crown, and youíd see it [above the bush]Ē (laughter). Then he came back and would say, ďI saw four nuns squatting back thereĒ (more laughter).
ďAnd then we would break for lunch, and there was a great big table, and wonderful red wine. Wonderful meals, and a lot of wonderful talk ó Welles and John would talk about the theatre, early theatre ó and it was 1965, and the old wounds of the Spanish civil war were still tender. Fernando Rey, who was a wonderful actor, plays Worcester ó and who was wonderful, of course, in The French Connection ó Fernando Reyís father had been a Republican. But two of the others had been Falangists; so they never spoke. I mean that enmity... I mean, they were perfectly polite to each other, but there was a lot of that, which we didnít realize.
ďAnd we would have these wonderful lunches. And then Orson, the table would be cleared, he would lie down on the table and go to sleep. And we would do the crossword, or whatever, or sit around... And Orson would stop snoring [snort!], and then heíd wake up, and weíd go back to work! And we might work till one oíclock in the morning. And the actor who played Lord Westmoreland, Andrew Faulds, was a great believer in Equity. And when he arrived, he started by saying, ĎWell, this is ridiculous. These arenít Equity hours. We should all be home.í And then he saw what was happening. And he also ó the film had to shut down ó he also didnít do his scene. And he said to me, ĎTell Orson Iíll come back; I donít even have to be paid.í So you were seduced, by Falstaff ó which is an answer to your question ó yes of course, there was a tremendous amount of similarity between the two.Ē
The interview concluded with an anecdote about Cleopatra.