How Orson Welles praise of William Castle’s WHEN STRANGERS MARRY led to THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI
In Orson Welles January 25th Almanac column he heaps praise on William Castle's Monogram quickie, When Strangers Marry. So before posting that column, here is William Castle's own entertaining version of how those glowing comments from Welles led to their collaboration on The Lady From Shanghai at Columbia Pictures, as taken from Castle's autobiography, Step Right Up! I'm Gonna Scare the Pants Off America.
Of course, Castle's version of the story is completely at odds with the famous canard Welles liked to tell about finding a paperback copy of If I Die Before I Wake outside the theatre in Boston where he was about to open in Around The World. Welles supposedly called Harry Cohn in Hollywood and asked him to buy the book and said he'd direct it, and in the meanwhile Cohn was to send him an advance payment so he could get the costumes he needed to put on his stage show. As Castle relates it and the record confirms, Castle had already found and optioned If I Die Before I Wake for Columbia. Strangely enough, later on Castle's early option on another book, led to his best-known horror movie, Rosemary's Baby.
WILLIAM CASTLE: At the opening of When Strangers Marry, the picture I had done for the King brothers, the Brooklyn Strand Theatre was packed, and the New York reviews were fabulous. The critics had done a 360-degree angle, each one personally singling me out, and praising my direction.
Orson Welles had a column in the New York Graphic (sic), called "Orson Welles' Almanac," in which he wrote:
Plant things that grow above the ground today, and go immediately to the Strand Theatre in Brooklyn and see a "B" minus picture called When Strangers Marry. It's A plus entertainment but because it's a quickie without any names on it, When Strangers Marry hasn't had much of a play. Making allowances for its bargain-price budget, I think you'll agree with me that it's one of the most gripping and effective pictures of the year. It isn't as slick as Double Indemnity or as glossy as Laura, but it's better acted and better directed by William Castle than either.
The low-budget B picture in the 1940s, before the advent of television, was a training ground for talented young directors who were forced to use their imagination in lieu of money. Many famous producers and directors graduated from this school (Robert Wise, Charles Vidor, Mark Robson, Val Lewton). Now I felt my schooling was over and I was ready to graduate into bigger and more expensive motion pictures.
I called Welles at his office in Hollywood. Immediately his booming voice came on the line. I wondered if he remembered me. We hadn't spoken in six years, since the fateful day in his office when I had gotten the Stony Creek Theatre. But the warmth of his greeting closed the gap.
"Congratulations. By the way, did you read James Agee's review on When Strangers Marry in Time magazine?" There was a pause as I heard him puff on his perennial cigar. "Let's do a picture together, Bill. You direct and I'll produce—or I'll direct and you produce."
I caught my breath and quietly said, "I'd love to, Orson."
I told him I was still under contract to Columbia, but Welles assured me he could handle Harry Cohn and told me he would send along some books and scripts that he thought would make great movies. If I had anything, I was to send it to him.
I bought a Time magazine, and read the review by James Agee (the dean of critics):
I want to add to Orson Welles and Manny Farber my own respect for the Monogram melodrama, When Strangers Marry. I have seldom for years now seen one hour so energetically and sensibly used in a film. Bits of it indeed gave me a heart lifted sense of delight in real performance and ambition which I have rarely known in any film context since my own mind and that of moving-picture making were sufficiently young. Thanks to that I can no longer feel by any means so hopeless as I have lately that it is possible to make pictures in Hollywood that are worth making. When I think even no further than William Castle who made this and of the Val Lewton contingent, I know there are enough people out there of real ability to turn the whole place upside-down.
On a pink cloud at Welles's offer, I now decided to turn Hollywood upside-down. The harsh ring of the telephone jarred me back into reality. The operator announced that Harry Cohn was on the line.
"When the hell are you coming back to the studio, Castle?" the voice barked over three thousand miles. "You're going to direct another Whistler in three weeks."
Mutiny on the Zaca
The girl was beautiful, married to a cripple who was a famous criminal lawyer. She plans his murder. Choosing a sailor as her lover, she manipulates him into the act of murder. If I Die Before I Wake had the potential of a great motion picture—shocking, provocative, filled with suspense. Although I knew I would have to make it on a low budget, it was a challenge that I felt sure would finally propel me into more expensive A pictures.
I had written a ten-page treatment (a short screen version) of If I Die Before I Wake but when I called Harry Cohn's office I found out he was on holiday and wouldn't return for several weeks. Impatient and wanting to put a screenwriter to work immediately, I made an appointment with the story editor at Columbia.
At my insistence, he read the treatment immediately. I was stunned by his reaction. He rejected the material and informed me that Harry Cohn would hate it.
"Why?" I asked.
"The leading lady is a murderess. Mr. Cohn likes his heroines good, sweet, and pure."
"Bullshit!" I yelled and, grabbing my treatment, stalked out of the office and slammed the door.
My contract with Columbia was exclusive, and any material I owned was their property. The story editor had officially turned it down, and Harry Cohn was out of town.
Frustrated and angry, I impulsively sent the book and my treatment to Orson Welles, informing him that if he was serious about working with me, I'd like him to consider If I Die Before I Wake. A month later, he wrote:
About If I Should Die—I love it. It occurs to me that maybe by saying I had ideas for it, you'd think my ideas are creative. Nothing of the sort. What I'm thinking of is a practical use Mercury could find for the property. I have been searching for an idea for a film, but none presented itself until If I Should Die and I could play the lead and Rita Hayworth could play the girl. I won't present it to anybody without your O.K. The script should be written immediately. Can you start working on it nights?
Give Rita a big hug and kiss and say it's from somebody who loves her very much. The same guy is crazy about you and you won't ever get away from him.
(Rita Hayworth was the reigning superstar at the time, and Orson married her some months later.)
I was preparing another low-budget epic, The Crime Doctor's Warning, starring Warner Baxter, when Bill Graf, Harry Cohn's new executive secretary, called and said that Mr. Cohn wanted to see me immediately.
In an unusually expansive mood, Cohn announced he was taking me off The Crime Doctor's Warning. He told his secretary to hold all calls and, all charm and smiles, called me by my first name. I started to worry.
Cohn crossed the room and sat down beside me. "I just made a deal with Orson Welles to do a picture for us at Columbia. That boy's a genius." He handed me a treatment and asked me to read it immediately.
Glancing at the cover, I read, If I Die Before I Wake.
"You know, Bill," Cohn continued, "It takes a genius like Orson Welles to find material like this. The dame being a murderess is a brilliant and original idea."
Shocked, I sat frozen while Cohn informed me that he had given Orson the choice of anybody in Hollywood to be his associate producer and he had picked me. Furious, I reached Orson in New York. He excitedly told me how he had sold If I Die Before I Wake to Harry Cohn for $150,000. It was a package deal—Orson would produce, direct, write and co-star. I had paid $200. and Columbia had turned it down.
"We'll be working together, Bill. Isn't that what we planned? Get to New York as quickly as possible so we can begin preparations."
Trying to rationalize that working with Orson in any capacity would be a great learning experience, I tried to push aside my disappointment in not being able to direct. Orson had said that Cohn agreed to let Rita Hayworth play the girl and that If I Die was to be one of the big pictures of the year. If I had directed, it would have been an inexpensive $70,000-budget Whistler. After a sleepless night, I decided to see what would become of If I Die Before I Wake in the talented hands of Orson Welles, the boy genius.
It was only the first of many sleepless nights. Orson, an insomniac, refused to believe that anyone required sleep and picked the wee hours of the morning to call with any new idea he had at the moment.
"This is Orson," his voice would boom. "I hope I didn't wake you."
"No, Orson." I yawned. "I'm always up at four A.M."
"You're leaving for Mexico," he said. "Acapulco, at noon today." I was now wide awake. He continued, "I want the Zaca."
"What's a zaca?" I asked.
"Not a ... the Zaca," he replied, "Errol Flynn's yacht. I want you to make a deal with him."
"Yes, Orson, but how do I find the Zaca and Errol Flynn?"
"That's your worry."