Andrew Sarris vs. The New York Times: a defense of Orson Welles’s FALSTAFF
Back in March of 1967, when Falstaff was first released in New York, it was a time of great social upheaval in America. Protests against the war in Viet Nam were about to reach critical mass. LSD made the cover of Life Magazine. Hippies and flower children were preparing for the "Summer of Love" in San Francisco. The new freedom of the screen was just around the corner. So seeing Jack Falstaff as a "swinger," as Welles so aptly called him on the Dean Martin TV show in 1968 was quite correct.
Unfortunately, the staid old reviewer from The New York Times, Mr. Bosley Crowther was so out of touch with the films of the era, he would shortly find himself out of a job!
Presumably, articles like this one by Andrew Sarris, defending Falstaff against Mr. Crowther's bad critical judgment, had considerable influence in getting Crowther fired from The Times in 1968. Of course, what speaks volumes, is that today, I doubt if many film-goers under the age of 40 even know who Bosley Crowther was. Andrew Sarris, on the other hand is still around and writing reviews for The New York Observer!
Below is Andrew Sarris' Village Voice article defending Welles's film, Falstaff, followed by Bosley Crowther's original review of the film in The New York Times.
Orson Welles's FALSTAFF: Humpty-Dumpty from Wisconsin
By Andrew Sarris -- The Village Voice, March, 30, 1967
Orson Welles's Falstaff deserves the support of every serious moviegoer. Bosley Crowther has panned the film in no uncertain terms, but Mr. Crowther panned Citizen Kane in its time. I don't wish to single out Mr. Crowther as a critic, only as an awesome power on the New York film scene. He is certainly not alone in panning Falstaff. Happily Falstaff has found powerful defenders in Joseph Morgenstern of Newsweek, Judith Crist of the World-Journal Tribune, and Archer Winsten of the N.Y. Post. Even so, Mr. Crowther is entitled to his opinion, and he is scarcely the least enlightened of American film critics. Henry Hart of Films in Review has earned that dubious distinction with ease. The problem with Crowther is power. Not only can he still make or break most "art" films in New York; he can dictate to distributors what films they may or may not import. Lately he has been credited even with determining what will or will not be produced.
In a letter to the Times the producer of Dutchman whined that Crowther had seemed to encourage the project at a pre-production dinner. The producer in question is not the first person in the industry to learn that Crowther cannot be had for a free meal, I’ll say that much for Bos. He is not corruptible in the vulgar way most of his detractors suspect. He is affable, urbane, polite, genial, and easy to misunderstand in personal relationships. The industry is full of glad-handers and promoters who claim to have Crowther's ear but who only get the back of his hand when the early editions of The Times hit the stands. This kind of unpredictability is all to Crowther's credit. United Artists planned a Bond-like promotion of Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars and the sequels largely because Crowther seemed to have been impressed by the Italian western cycle on his European jaunt for The Times last year. When it turned out there was too much pasta in them thar oats, Crowther backtracked and UA had to dump the project.
Power must always be fought, however, because power itself tends to corrupt. The moviegoer should think for himself to the point that he would find it unthinkable to miss a Welles or Chaplin work simply because a critic, any critic, said it was not worth seeing. What I object to in Crowther's review of Falstaff is the implication that he is going to punish the distributors for bringing Falstaff to America against his express wishes announced in a dispatch from Cannes last year. We in America can thank Mr. Crowther for having waited almost a year to see Falstaff. The distributors even changed the film's title from Chimes at Midnight to Falstaff in a naive attempt to confuse the readers of The Times. The distributors should have known better. While I was reading Crowther's review of Falstaff, I suddenly understood what the real issue had become. The cyclical pattern of regular reviewers made more sense than even Truffaut had realized when he discovered it many years ago. The reason a Crowther will pan a Welles or Chaplin, the reason a Crist will complain about "cultists," the reason the daily reviewers loathe the New York Film Festival, is simply power.
Crowther and Crist and all the critics combined cannot keep a so-called "cultist" from seeing Falstaff or A Countess from Hong Kong. Consciously or unconsciously, the power-oriented critic tries to keep these cults under control by giving every director a certain quota of pans so that he doesn't get too uppity. With Welles or Chaplin there are additional incentives. The critic can call them old-fashioned and dated and used up, as if critics stayed young forever and only directors became senile. I would expect old critics, particularly, to understand what Falstaff and A Countess from Hong Kong are all about. But no, the older the critic, the more up to date he must pretend to be, even though anything genuinely modern from Citizen Kane to Masculine Feminine has always filled him with revulsion. The great sin of Welles and Chaplin is their failure to abandon their own personal visions of the world to current fashions. Welles is still Humpty-Dumpty from Wisconsin, and all the king's lenses and all the king's screens can't put Humpty together again. Citizen Kane was made by an old man of twenty-five. Welles seems to have been rehearsing for Falstaff and Lear all his life. Welles the actor now sounds like a muffled echo of everything he once wanted to be. Welles the mountainous man is a monument to compulsive self-destructiveness. The important thing is that Welles feels Falstaff from the inside out, and that he is enough of an artist to look at himself with ironic detachment. He is enough of an intellectual to give Shakespeare a distinctive shape and size. The production is Gothic and pastoral at the same time, towers above and mud below. Prince Hal, the Shakespearean hero who most resembles Dick Nixon, resembles in Keith Baxter's interpretation Welles himself. Welles, like Hal, is cursed with the ability of seeing even the present as some future past. For Hal, Falstaff is life as it endures. Hal's real father, John Gielgud's death's-head Henry IV, is life as preparation for death. Welles's Falstaff dramatizes the conflict of two fathers, or two aspects of fatherhood. Falstaff is gross, warm, animal affection, but also genuine love. Henry is pride and authority. Falstaffs world is horizontal, Henry's vertical. The final renunciation scene is thus inevitably shaped by the geometry of the setting.
Welles displays here a sensibility from the thirties and forties when choices, however anguished, still seemed morally meaningful. Despite his ironic humor, Welles is not in tune with current mannerisms of cruelty and absurdity. His Falstaff is graced with dramatic grandeur of an intelligent sobriety we have almost forgotten in our search for new sensations. Welles's battle scenes are especially noteworthy for not blinking at the brutal spectacle of war, and yet not winking at the audience for its satiric indulgence. Consequently the spectacle of the fat knight in glorious retreat becomes a beautiful piece of mise-en-scene.
Screen: Orson Welles is Falstaff in Uneven Film: Cannes Movie Arrives at Little Carnegie
By Bosley Crowther, The New York Times - March 20, 1967
Nothing has happened to Orson Welles’s “Chimes at Midnight” since I saw it last spring at the Cannes Film Festival to cause me to alter my opinion of it.
Although they have changed the title to “Falstaff” (which some people called it at Cannes) and are said to have tried to do something to make the dialogue track less fuzzy and incomprehensible than it was, it is still a confusing patchwork of scenes and characters mainly, from Shakespeare’s “Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2,” designed to give major exposure to Jack Falstaff, performed by Mr. Welles. And it is still every bit as difficult as I found it then to comprehend what several of the actors are saying, especially Mr. Welles.
This difficulty of understanding Mr. Welles’s basso profundo speech, which he seems to direct toward his innards instead of out through his lips, makes it all the more difficult to catch the drift of this great, bearded, untidy man who waddles and cocks his hairy eyebrows and generally bluffs his way through the film.
Is this Falstaff a truly jovial person? Does he have a genuine wit and a tavern-companion’s grand affection for the fun-loving scapegoat, Prince Hal? Has he, deep down, a spirit of rebellion against stuffy authority? Or is he merely what he looks like—a dissolute bumbling, street-corner Santa Claus?
Evidently Mr. Welles’s reading of Falstaff ranges between a farcical concept of him and a mawkish, sentimental attitude. He makes the old pot-bellied rascal an armor-plated buffoon in the midst of a wild and brutal Battle of Shrewsbury, in which Prince Hal slays the brave Henry (Hotspur) Percy (for which Falstaff claims credit, of course).
He makes him a sort of Jackie Gleason getting off one of his homilies when he gives the great apostrophe to Honor, much of which I simply couldn’t understand. And he chokes up like a soap-opera grandma when he is suddenly banished by the new Henry V, giving out with the cruel “I-know-thee-not-old-man” speech. Mr. Welles runs the gamut, as they say.
But his is still an inarticulate Falstaff. It is a big, squashy, tatterdemalion show, and it has no business intruding so brashly in the serious Shakespearean affairs of the Lancasters, the Percies and the Mortimers, which Mr. Welles does get to from time to time in this freely selected composite of scenes from Shakespeare, as it were.
When he does — when he breaks away from Falstaff and his puffy-faced lowlife friends such as Margaret Rutherford as Hostess Quickly, Michael Aldridge as Pistol, Jeanne Moreau as Doll Tearsheet and several others who are stuffed costumes more than characters — he gets to some rather solemn snatches of Shakespearean speeches and scenes.
John Gielgud gives out with several as the conscience-burdened Henry IV, and Keith Baxter does more than nicely with the chameleon moods and speeches of Prince Hal. While his character is more that of a cut-up — a juvenile scamp — in the early scenes with Old Jack, he makes an impressive princeling in his later confrontations with his old man. Norman Rodway’s Henry Percy is also impressively strong — that is, the few times we see him. And Alan Webb’s Justice Shallow is a cute old crock.
The picture, a Spanish-Swiss production, was shot in Spain, so the scenery, especially that around the walled city of Avila, has a noticeable Spanish tone. Mr. Welles’s black-and-white cameras are very busy most of the time, rushing around and sweeping in for mammoth close-ups. This accentuates the patchwork effect.
Mr. Welles had always wanted to play Falstaff. Now he’s had his chance. Those who are interested may see him at the Little Carnegie.