More on the magnificent new book, ORSON WELLES AT WORK
The question is not whether we are to support art, but rather whether we are to bear it, bear the existence of the artist. It is not we who have the right to demand something from the artists; the right to demand is entirely on their side.
–Dr. Werner Schmalenbach
Sequence of stills highlighting the diverse cast of THE TRIAL
From ORSON WELLES AT WORK
Dr. Schmalenbach is a noted art historian who wrote books on Kurt Schwitters and Amedeo Modigliani, so I’m sure he would agree that filmmaking is among the most commercial of artistic mediums. Certainly studio heads like Harry Cohn (Columbia), Edward Muhl (Universal) and Charles Koerner (RKO) didn’t fund an artistic director like Orson Welles because they wanted him to create a work of art, but rather to make a movie that would hopefully turn a profit for the studio. Of course, if the film happened to be considered artistic by critics and also made a slight profit, that would usually be enough to keep the director working. Ah... but therein lies the rub, for all of Orson Welles movies (except The Stranger) never turned a profit on their initial release. So depending on your point of view, Welles was either unwilling to compromise his artistic vision enough to make a picture that would appeal to the great masses, or, in the words of that “noted Welles biographer,” David Thompson, “Welles fed on failure, like a Shakespearean actor thriving on tragedy!”
Now, with those two very divergent views in mind, it’s my pleasure to report that Jean-Pierre Berthomé and François Thomas have delivered a wonderfully even-handed treatment of the great director. It focuses solely on Orson Welles at Work. Of course, the title of their new book is also the key to their approach. Unlike many past books on Welles, their volume contains little speculative writing on what went either right or wrong in Welles career. That has already been done to death in several other Welles biographies, chiefly those written by authors who got their facts confused or did little original research. In fact, those books about Welles might easily be titled Orson Welles at Play. And to be fair, Welles unofficial motto could easily have been, “Work hard, play hard.” But in the life of an artist, whether you are Pablo Picasso or Orson Welles, what really matters is the final piece of art. So while it may be fun to read about the many tabloid escapades Welles may (or may not) have participated in during his sojourns across four continents, I’m happy to say that Prof. Thomas and Prof. Berthomé sidestep those sometimes dubious reports and focus solely on the process of artistic creation. As the noted art collector and actor Vincent Price (who worked with Welles), told me once: “I really find the revelation of people’s personal life, unless it has to do with their art, to be boring. Like Shelly’s Winter’s autobiography. For that you just get a large bed!”
So in place of all that "boring" personal information on Welles, the authors have gone for the meat of Welles career, done some meticulous research, and go through all of Welles films in vivid detail. The result is an extremely readable and very interesting “making of” story about each and every one of Welles movies, including the major unfinished projects, such as Don Quixote and The Deep.
They start with Welles initial conception, how the script was fashioned, and then detail not only how the film was shot, but exactly where it was shot, which I especially enjoyed, since I love visiting famous movie locations that still exist. They also note how the shoot was changed by either circumstances, such as lack of money, or by various studio constraints. They then follow through with a cogent and complete analysis of Welles post-production procedures, including his choice of composer and how Welles worked on scoring the picture. Naturally, they also discuss how Welles worked on the all-important final editing of each film and whether or not he was able to finish it to his own satisfaction. Finally, they detail the various alternate versions of the film that were eventually released in Europe and America. Since most of Welles films, including those he had final cut on, exist in two or more versions, I found this to be an especially useful aspect of the book. For instance, for the first time in any Welles book I’ve come across, we find the time-line for the various changes Welles made in Othello, from the first provisional dubbed version that was shown in Italy, in November, 1951, to the inferior print that was shown at Cannes in May, 1952, (which still won the Grand Prix), to the changes Welles decided to make for the American version, that wasn't distributed by United Artists until 1955.
Given that no two Welles pictures ever seemed to be made in the same way, likewise, every chapter in the book has it’s own flavor and interest, in that Welles encountered a very unique set of circumstances when he came to make each picture.
So whether you are a Welles neophyte, or a Welles scholar, this book will be a joy to read. Obviously, for films like Citizen Kane, which have already been dissected extensively, there may be less new information to digest, but even here you will probably find some surprising new tidbits of information.
All this, of course, only considers the text of the book. As I’ve reported below, the stills and visual images alone are well worth the price of admission!
Finally, a brief word on the co-authors. They are both long time, dedicated Welles scholars, who have published many articles in the French film magazine Positif. When I was in Paris a few years ago I managed to find several back issues of Positif that contained some of their earlier articles on Welles. Among them was the special Orson Welles issue #449 (July, 1998) which contained among other gems, Jean-Pierre Berthomé’s interview with the French producer of The Other Side of the Wind, Dominique Antoine (which Jeff Wilson translated for Wellesnet a few years ago), and Berthomé's piece on The Labyrinths of Othello, Legends and Reality. François Thomas contributed articles to the same issue on The Welles Signature and the Concept of Author, as well as a piece on The Immortal Story: Charms of Love and the Crickets. In Positif #332 (October, 1988) Thomas contributed a 17-page dossier on Welles career on the radio, including a long interview with Paul Stewart, while Berthomé wrote about the restoration of It’s All True for Positif #396. I mention these things, (to paraphrase Orson Welles), so you will appreciate how well our two authors are equipped for their discussion. And their discussion continues below, with the Afterword to their book, which explains the approach they took towards writing it, in some detail:
THE BASIS FOR AN INVESTIGATION
By Jean-Pierre Berthomé and François Thomas
Orson Welles at Work offers a step-by-step examination of the filmmaker's creative methods and takes into account his own responsibilities, those of his collaborators and those of his production companies. By this means we hope to achieve a more balanced and detailed perception of the mysteries of creation and, ultimately, a fresh understanding of the films themselves. The first chapter deals closely with the principles Welles established when working for stage and radio during the 19303. The greater part of the book retraces the making of the films and television programs, including Journey into Fear, for which Norman Foster received sole credit as director although Welles's grip as producer was decisive. We also examine the very first unrealized Hollywood project, Heart of Darkness – which is crucial to an understanding of the young Welles's desire for total control – and consider the films he was unable to complete, for these also reveal a great deal about his methods. As we proceed, we hope to show to what extent his aesthetic choices were influenced by the conditions under which he was obliged to work and by the human and technical resources at his disposal. Five chapters take a broader look at the major stages of his career and his relations with various production companies.
We have drawn upon four main types of source, all of which have been subjected to rigorous cross-checking. First, we are indebted to all those who have endeavored to re-create the production history of the works and place them in a broader perspective. Frank Brady, Simon Callow, Robert L. Carringer, Juan Cobos, Bill Krohn, Joseph McBride, Esteve Riambau, Jonathan Rosenbaum and Bret Wood constitute a Wellesian international that also benefits from the participation of German and Italian friends. Our thanks also to Catherine Benamou, who was preparing her monumental work on It's All True, and to James Naremore, whose Magic World of Orson Welles provided a comprehensive insight into Welles's oeuvre.
Besides Welles's own writings and interviews, we also consulted any published material that contained accounts by the actors and technicians who worked with him. These have been carefully sifted in an attempt to separate myth from reality: some sources are unquestionably accurate, while others are vague or contradictory. A large number of contemporary newspaper articles helped to establish the chronological highlights.
We met many of Welles's collaborators, some of whom have since died. We are deeply grateful to all of them for their generosity, and for the passion with which they shed light on many of the more obscure aspects of Welles's career.
Finally, we studied the production documents. For the European period, we were able to turn to private collections. In the United States, university and institutional libraries are eager to house the archives of major studios and individuals alike. The Mercury Theatre archives, a particularly rich seam for Welles scholars, are housed in the Lilly Library at the University of Indiana. The collection, amassed by Richard Wilson between 1937 and 1949, contains 20,000 documents ranging from 200-page screenplays to two-line telegrams, and includes material on stage and radio as well as on the films.
The bulk of the documents we consulted consisted of written sources: screenplays, shooting scripts, shooting schedules, breakdowns, budgetary material, financial reports, production reports, letters, etc. Visual documents included preparatory sketches and storyboards for the earliest films. We also examined photographs taken during filming, particularly for the Hollywood productions. Even the smallest companies such as Columbia (The Lady from Shanghai) and Republic (Macbeth) had hundreds of photographs taken on the set.
All these documents had to be interpreted. When attempting to reconstruct the chronology of the filming of The Magnificent Ambersons and detect which cameraman filmed which shots, we had to study and interpret the shooting script, alongside daily production reports, requests to exceed deadlines, photographs that revealed the presence of technicians, personal accounts, the work of our predecessors and, of course, the film itself, as shooting and editing conditions can also be deduced from what appears on the screen.
This is one of the lessons we learned during the course of our investigation: the more dislocated Welles's films were – in terms of the places in which they were shot and then edited – the more secrets they will reveal to the naked eye – in terms of the thousand-and-one tricks that the gifted improviser or conjurer has at his disposal. The tricks were not always apparent on a first viewing but would emerge as we returned to the task; they suggested variations in methods that then had to be confirmed by other means. After watching a film ten or even twenty times and discovering so many different facets, one can only marvel at Welles creative power, a power that flourished in security and more often in adversity.