Orson Welles doth foully slaughter Shakespeare in a dialect version of his “Tragedy of Macbeth” — or so sayeth LIFE magazine
Looking back at the trouble Orson Welles had in gaining commercial success for nearly all of his films, I was struck by how just one key review, preview, or threat from a powerful mogul (such as W. R. Hearst), could effectively destroy the commercial chances of a Welles movie.
We know that on Citizen Kane, it was the efforts of the Hearst empire that single-handedly wrecked Citizen Kane's box-office potential. With The Magnificent Ambersons, it was supposedly the "disastrous" preview in Pomona --- except there were actually a good portion of audience members who felt the film was quite brilliant. For Chimes at Midnight, it was the single pan the movie got in The New York Times. And with Macbeth, it was this article that appeared in Life Magazine, the same week the film opened in Boston and a few other American cites.
What's rather unfortunate about this, is that the Life article was the voice of just a single person, and as we know today, their judgment about the Scots accents was wildly off-base. But at the time, the article caused great concerns, although ironically, not so much within the ranks of the Republic executives, as with Welles's own friend and producing partner, Charles K. Feldman.
This is all brought out in the memos Richard Wilson was continually writing to Welles. Wilson specifically notes that Feldman had "memorized" the Life article in these excerpts from a letter he wrote on May 7, 1949:
To: ORSON WELLES
From: RICHARD WILSON
I have had the considerable disillusionment of hearing Charlie (Feldman) request some of the god-damnedest things it's possible to imagine. I've had the odd experience of being supported by (Republic pictures Chairman, Robert) Newman against the suggestions of your good friend and partner, Mr. Feldman.
...To give you a better picture of Charlie, he had so many of his friends talk to him about Macbeth that he now doesn't know what to think. He has memorized the Life article and cannot help but quote it to make a point. In other words, he's now beginning to believe the Life article.
...his suggestions are directly opposed to (the) pitch in your letter that the cure is not to file down the roughness. His sensitivity to costumes, sound, witches, voice etc. are all of a kind: intended to soften and make smooth the production.
...(Herbert J. Yates) has also, I feel, a sincere feeling of loyalty to you and the project which has now become precarious. He's a bit wistful about "the greatest gangster the world has ever known" type of approach (to market the film) ...and the exploitation boys were frustrated by not having got an endorsement. ...they can't get anyone to come out for it.
Orson Welles doth foully slaughter Shakespeare in a dialect version of his "Tragedy of Macbeth"
LIFE magazine - October 11, 1948
The scene opposite (view HERE) is not, as you might think, taken from a musical-comedy skit laid in an alcoholics' ward. It is Orson Welles's movie version of Act III, Scene I of Shakespeare's Macbeth. It shows Macbeth, criminally crowned king of Scotland, plotting with two hired murderers the assassination of his faithful friend Banquo.
Faces and costumes like these, striking as they are, are not the most unusual feature of this production. Mr. Welles has had the idea that 11th Century Scotsmen appearing in a 17th Century play should express themselves in the accents of Sir Harry Lauder on the vaudeville stage of the 20th. Thus we have the witches promising to meet again "when the hoorrly-boorrly's done" and Lady Macbeth swooping down an endless stone staircase shrieking, “Oot, damn'd spot, oot, I say."
People who are familiar with the original play may have some difficulty in placing the individual lines. Scenes have been ruthlessly juggled, characters interchange their lines freely, a brand-new character named A Holy Father has been added to the cast. To add excitement to Shakespeare's text, Lady Macbeth is made to jump off a cliff instead of dying inside the castle. The movie ends with a line from Act I: "Peace, the charm's wound up!" which means, despite what Mr. Welles may think, not "over and done with" but ''ready to work."
Such rearrangements and mutilations are not much more than what Sir Laurence Olivier did in his great production of Hamlet (LIFE, March 15), and they are much less than what Shakespeare did to the old chronicle of bloody dynastic feuding from which he got his story. The difference is that Olivier slashed the play to make a consistent and harmonious movie, just as Shakespeare shuffled the scenes of history to make a tragedy of human ambition and crime and retribution. Welles, on the other hand, has gone back to the senseless violence of all the generations of hams who have hacked and gesticulated their way through Macbeth for out-of-town audiences. It is such a jumble of gallopings and sweaty close-ups and fog and bubbling cauldrons that the spectator can only stagger from the theater howling with Macduff, "Confusion now hath made his masterpiece."
Welles (who a few sad years ago was the Boy Wonder of Hollywood) made Macbeth in 21 days on the Republic lot. Two westerns were in production at the same time on neighboring sets and may have influenced his style. He brought the finished product to the Venice film festival in August but withdrew it when he heard that the first prize was likely to go to Hamlet, a film he considers far inferior to his. He showed it to the Italian film critics and they all panned it. An English critic suggested it might be all right with English subtitles. Welles, however, says, "For the first time in my life I got what I aimed for." And the film has been extravagantly praised by international Gossip Columnist Elsa Maxwell.