Catherine Benamou brings Orson Welles’ “Macbeth” memos to light in Michigan Quarterly Review
Laurence Goldstein, the editor of The Michigan Quarterly Review, just also happens to be a great admirer of Orson Welles work, and he has certainly done a great service to Welles scholarship by inviting Catherine Benamou to put together a substantial collection of letters by Orson Welles about the editing and sound work that was required for Macbeth.
The memos are all part of the special collection library of Orson Welles material that Ms. Benamou curates at the University of Michigan. But this 55-page dossier is merely the tip of the iceberg in the special Welles collections, so I strongly recommend everyone supporting the MQR by buying a copy of this terrific issue! Obviously, if this first installment sells well, it will only help ensure that more, and possibly ever larger selections of Welles material will be published in future issues, perhaps even on a yearly basis.
To order a copy for only $7.00 visit The MQR website.
Now, to make a few observations about the letters themselves:
What I found especially fascinating is how brilliantly Welles is able to make his points. Like his long 58-page memo to Universal about Touch of Evil he cogently backs up his requests with clear and precise reasons. This is all the more remarkable since in two of the memos presented, Welles has clearly had a total change of mind and essentially contradicts himself.
In a letter dated March 6, 1949, Welles writes to the executive producer of Macbeth, Charles K. Feldman, (and supposedly a good friend of Welles), that he doesn't wants to re-dub the entire picture to take out all the heavy Scots burrs spoken by the actors, but suggests instead of doing it only for lines and words that are the most difficult to understand. Otherwise, he feels, all the long work that was spent in pre-recording the dialogue tracks in the first place will have been wasted. In making this argument Welles goes into great detail, even to the point of explaining why films dubbed in foreign languages don't work as well. He also offers a strong explanation of why it would be impossible for him to return to Hollywood (Welles was busy rehearsing his actors before the start of filming on Othello, which was about to go before the cameras in June, 1949.)
In a second memo to the top executives of Republic Pictures, written about four months later, while Welles was in London during one of many breaks in the filming of Othello, he has completely altered his opinion. This was brought about after he actually heard the mixture of lines that had been re-dubbed in Hollywood without the Scots burr, alongside the lines that retained it. Welles writes: "Obviously, if the Scots burr was to be taken out, every single evidence of it should go!"
What is amazing about this reversal of opinion is Welles has simply realized that he was wrong. Mixing the two accents just wouldn't work. Yet in his first memo he makes the case so clearly and so convincingly, it no doubt led Feldman and the Republic executives to attempt to try what Welles had suggested and mix the two accents together. However, once he saw the unsatisfactory results, Welles changed his mind and accepted the fact that he'd have to let go of all the hard work he did in creating the Scots burr in the first place. So now, he had to insist that the actors re-dub their entire roles. This is the kind of incident that, taken out of context may make Welles appear to be capricious, but clearly he was attempting to do what was best for the film. Otherwise, the performances would have seemed totally schizophrenic.
Ironically, watching the film today, the whole hysteria over the Scots accents seems a bit mysterious. Most viewers who have either the old VHS tape of the movie, or a foreign DVD of the 107-minute long version of the film find the Scots accents perfectly understandable. It appears in 1948, though, a few bad notices were enough to drive Republic executives into panic mode, resulting in a delayed release of almost three years, which in the end, made very little difference in terms of the final box-office results.
It is also rather amazing to note that Welles never seemed to actually lose control over all the changes that were being made, even though they were done mostly by letter and cable from Europe. This is clear in an earlier memo, from about June, 1948 (long before their was any worry about the Scots burr), where Welles addresses four or five different ways he wanted Richard Wilson to edit the final scene of the movie, starting from the pullback on the matte painting of Macbeth's castle, to a dissolve of the witches, followed by a dissolve to clouds and then "The End" title and the Republic Eagle logo.
Here Welles is concerned with several issues, including the correct beat for the witches final line, "Peace... the charms wound up," and how the music is to come up at the end of the witches final line.
This memo is very instructive in explaining why Welles took so long in the editing. He was willing to try many different ways of putting even the simplest scene together, and was not content until he got it exactly right. Even then, he might later change his mind and want to revise it. This is clear when Welles tells Wilson there is yet another alternative ending that he thinks is important: "I think we should try the fadeout without the witches closing line.
Watch Macbeth online HERE