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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Didja Know: Part II

Everett Sloane, Joe Cotten, and Orson Welles cook up a plot in Citizen Kane.
Didja notice Orson's fake schoz? He wore them often, because he thought his
own nose was too small and demure.

Chapter Two of Random Factoids: enjoy!

The Real Rosebud

The great mystery of Orson Welles's Citizen Kane was the elusive "Rosebud." After all the ensuing drama, the character recollections, and the unwrapping of a complicated past, the last word of Charles Foster Kane is revealed as the name of his boyhood sled (left). When the bulk of Kane is whittled down, the audience is left to see that this small seed from a lost childhood is responsible for the maladjusted growth of the mammoth CFK. However, behind the scenes, there too was much controversy surrounding Rosebud. For years-- as the plot of the film was based at least in template on the life of William Randolph Hearst-- it has been gossiped that "Rosebud" was actually the nickname that Hearst prescribed to his mistress Marion Davies's nether regions. While this could quite possibly have been a fortunate (or rather unfortunate) coincidence, the truth is much simpler. Citizen Kane was the brainchild of Welles brought to life by the writing talents of friend Herman Mankiewicz. As such, pieces from both of these men's private lives found their way into the film, such as Orson naming one of the characters "Bernstein" after his mother's lover, Dr. Maurice Bernstein. The true Rosebud was similarly contrived: Orson received a sled from his beloved Todd School upon his graduation, marking the true end of his childhood-- not that he ever indulged in its innocence or naivete-- and Mank', as Orson called him, had a bicycle when he was a boy that he named... "Rosebud." By uniting these two youthful memories, one of cinema's most referenced plot devices was born. If Ms. Davies too shared the moniker, which cannot be confirmed or denied, it was thus by complete happenstance.

Obie, Camera, Action!

Every great actress knows that  the real man to make friends with on the set is the cinematographer. Carole Lombard and Marlene Dietrich were both staunch students when it came to lighting and angles, and they always knew how to hit their mark to look their best. Merle Oberon would too get a little education in this arena. She, like Lombard, was in a near fatal car crash in 1937, which left her face scarred. After painful surgery and recuperation, she returned to the screen, but covering up the new blemishes on her face was a daunting task. Luckily, while filming the 1944 remake of The Lodger, (right) she fell in with cinematographer Lucien Ballard. Ballard worked diligently to create a camera light which, when placed directly beside the camera, shined light directly onto her face and eliminated the appearance of her scars. Appropriately, he named his invention after her: The Obie. In gratitude, Oberon promptly married Ballard and enjoyed a fruitful career. (Coincidentally her first husband was Alexander Korda, the ambitious English producer who tried and failed to make many projects with Star of the Month Orson Welles over the years, including War and Peace).

Great Faces, Greater Minds

On the subject of inventions... It comes as no surprise that many screen performers are multi-talented. Especially in the early days, one had to be particularly well-rounded to make it, so that he or she could be thrown into any role-- drama, musical, or comedy-- and come out swinging... or singing. However, we also have a crew of film stars that should be acknowledged not just for their physical gifts but for their mental proclivities. It turns out that some stars aren't only lookers, they're thinkers, innovators, and even... inventors??? Did you know that: the first film star, Florence Lawrence, invented an early form of the automobile turn signal? It was comprised of two arms, which, when signalled, would drop to indicate which way the driver was turning. She sadly did not obtain a patent and thus missed out on the cash reward of such a novel idea. Zeppo Marx too was a very interesting man. Always tinkering with gadgets, the ex-actor/sometimes agent became an engineer. He started the Marman Products Company, Inc. in 1941 and helped the war effort by producing clamping devices and straps. He also developed the first heart-rate pulse monitor! Perhaps the most shocking-- to those who don't think that beauty and brains can come in the same package-- Hedy Lamarr (left), who had been previously married to an arms merchant, used what she had gleaned from him to make an invention of her own. She created a "frequency hopping" device to be used with WWII torpedoes in order to avoid signal "jamming" by the enemy. Sadly, although she did obtain a patent, the US Military never put her invention to work. Still, she must have been proud to do her part.

Don't Let the Heels Fool Ya'

Ann Miller was one tough cookie in her youth. In addition to her great dancing talent, she too possessed a fierce determination. This created quite the ambitious young lady, and her great work ethic would serve her well in the industry. It definitely helped her grab gigs opposite both Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. In 1937, Ann was already chomping at the bit to get to work, and when she had the opportunity to work opposite Ginger Rogers in the film Stage Door she was willing to do whatever it took to do so... Including lie. Only 14-years-old, Ann fudged four extra years and made herself eighteen! Whether or not the big-wigs believed her is unknown, but then they were probably too distracted by her lengthy stems to notice any discrepancies. Thus, the lanky youngster got her way and was cast as "Annie." She proved her mettle again when she was given the chance to dance opposite Fred Astaire. She was ecstatic about working on the project Easter Parade with him, and was devastated when she suffered a severe back injury-- aka her husband at the time pushed her down the stairs. (Real gentleman, that one). This should have taken her out of the running, but Ann wasn't about to give up the chance to waltz with her hero (see right). So, she worked overtime to get in shape and had the doctors strap up her back for the dancing sequences. The process hurt like hell and often left her in tears, but when the camera is on you never see it. What a pro.

Call of the Wild

Sound engineers rarely get their due. Ever since the talkies came screaming in with their sounds, squeaks, and squeals, a whole new arm of the filmmaking body had to be born to carry the weight. It's not always as easy as "Roll sound, record dialogue." Creating the proper atmosphere within a film requires a mind sophisticated or creative enough to combine a variety of noises into an underlying track. It's like writing a often barely audible symphony. Some of this sonic tinkering is more obvious, such as in explosions, sirens, gun shots... or jungle howls??? Believe it or not, coming up with the now iconic yowl of Johnny Weismuller's Tarzan for 1932's Tarzan the Ape Man was no easy feat. Audience imagination previously had to interpret his animalistic battle cry for the 1918 silent film version, but the addition of the mic made things more complicated. The point was to make his cry distinctive without making it laughable; make it palatable to the ears without making it either too passive or too threatening. There have been many theories over the years as to how the mammalian screech was made, including combining Weismuller's voice with the growl of a dog, a soprano trill, a violin, and a hyena. But the simplest version may perhaps be the most true: Johnny screamed, Douglas Shearer recorded his voice, the yell was enhanced, and then played backward. So, when you hear Tarzan howling for his Jane (with Maureen O'Sullivan left), he's actually screaming in reverse! Who knew Tarzan was fluent in palindrome?

(Another interesting note on this infamous yell was Johnny Weismuller's ability to use it as a "get out of jail free" card. He claimed that during the time Castro was preparing to take over Cuba in 1959, he was traveling with friends through Havana on his way to a celebrity golf tournament. His car was ambushed by rebel soldiers, and the only way he could prove that he was neither Cuban nor a threat was to tell them he was an American movie star. To prove it, he let out his Tarzan howl. They recognized it and gave him safe passage).

Thursday, August 18, 2011


Rita Hayworth helps her boyfriend-- and future husband-- Orson Welles
with one of his Magic Shows.

One of many descriptive words applied to Orson Welles is "magician." As he played the role of a sort of intellectual trickster figure in Hollywood, creating hypnotic illusions and entrancing audiences, the title seems to fit. However, Orson had a fascination for magic that was literal as well as figurative. Captivating a live audience, keeping them enthralled, and shocking them to resulting ecstatic applause was a way of marrying both the ambitious man and his idealistic and playful youth. It was one of few ways that the overgrown boy allowed himself to indulge in his more childish nature, so often hidden. This is because the curiosity he held for the art started in his boyhood, and was one of few things that he and his father shared-- that and alcohol. Richard Welles enjoyed a good magic show, and while his son perfected his own tricks, he decided to give him a special treat: he took him to see the great Harry Houdini! When going back stage, Orson was probably as close as he would ever be to starstruck. Of course, his already scintillating ambition won the day, and he performed a handkerchief trick for Houdini, who watched appreciatively. Afterward, Harry praised the young chap but told him to keep practising and practising until the gag was perfect, even if it took a thousand times. Orson did. When he returned at a later date to show Houdini his improvement, he was surprised to see another magician teaching the master a new trick. This disappointed the peeping boy, who realised that maybe Houdini was, after all, just a man applying a craft like everyone else and not as Godlike as he had assumed. While this crushed Orson's little, innocent heart, it also taught him a great lesson-- never let them see what's up your sleeve; maintaining the illusion is the real power. This tactic was heartily applied. Later, Orson prepared a very elaborate magic show, which he performed for the servicemen during WWII. He used his current girlfriend, Rita Hayworth, as his assistant during the show, through the length of which he made several costume changes. After Columbia Pictures'  Harry Cohn objected to Rita's involvement in the show, much to her chagrin, she had to bow out, and Marlene Dietrich stepped in on her behalf. (Previously, Orson had also done a performance where he sawed ex-girlfriend Dolores Del Rio in half).


Marlene fills in for Rita Hayworth as Orson's assistant. Marlene was also
an avid wartime entertainer and was always happy to do her part.

When Lon Chaney was a young theatrical performer trying to eek out a living in vaudeville (left circa 1905), he traveled around a great deal. As was typical in those days, actors would join up with a troupe only to find themselves abandoned in a strange city when the financing went kaput and left them penniless. Dusting yourself off and starting over became second nature to him early on, and for an ambitious youth with unquenchable passion and itchy feet, the trials were worth it. At the very least, he got to travel around the country-- sometimes on trains that were moving so slowly that one could hop off and take a brief stroll before hopping back aboard. He too got to meet some interesting and talented people. In 1910, he and his first wife, Frances "Cleva" Creighton were living in Los Angeles, and Lon got a gig working with the Ferris Hartman Company at the Grand Opera House on Main Street. He was in gifted company, including a chubby young singer and comedian with light feet and a kind heart. Then, people called him Roscoe Arbuckle, but later he would be known as "Fatty." Lon also rubbed shoulders with Robert Z. Leonard, who would later become a film director and re-team with Lon in Hollywood for Danger-- Go Slow. Most importantly, Lon met the woman who would become his second wife, Hazel Hastings, though at the time, the married man took little notice of her. She and the other chorus girls helped out in babysitting his young son: Creighton Chaney, later known as Lon Chaney, Jr. Cleva had little time, since she was performing herself as a singer and equally was descending into alcoholism. Hazel would recall Lon's early ambitions toward comedy and his natural penchant for making people laugh, as well as his talents as a song and dance man. However, his later career in Hollywood would become the exact opposite. Odd how time (and a damaging divorce) can change things...

Former vaudeville star Fatty Arbuckle teams up as a movie star 
with Charlie Chaplin in The Rounders.

Greenwich Village in the the roaring twenties was the place to be. A spiritually and intellectually liberated city, it became a quite the den for artists, youth, creativity, and expression in the 1920s... with a little debauchery, of course. One thing that made it so enticing was its openness to sexuality, and it was one of few places where homosexual couples could walk around openly and without fear of persecution. It was here that future film star William Haines (right) would find himself at home and also meet two lifelong friends: Mitchell Foster and Larry Sullivan. At the time, the couple did much to polish Billy into a more stylish and cultured young man. Later, after Billy made it big, they would help him in his antique business and interior design company as well. While enjoying the nightlife, including seeing female impersonator Jean Malin at Paul and Joe's or Charles Spangles put on his "Josephine and Joseph" routine, Bill would make some other acquaintances. All types of artists migrated to the bustling Village, and it was here that he would meet comedians George Burns and Jack Benny for the first time, both of whom he would call friends for the remainder of his life. He too would meet a young painter, Jack Kelly, who would later become the famous designer Orry Kelly, and a young vaudevillian, Archibald Leach, who would later become Cary Grant. It is also believed that it was here in the village that Billy first met director George Cukor. George was already working in showbiz-- as a doorman at the Criterion Theater. They too would re-team in Hollywood, where Billy would help George inch his way into cinema and too decorate his lush pleasure palace. 


Archie Leach aka Cary Grant. The young cockney is already looking
polished here, but he had a way to go before he reached "suave."

Groucho Marx had a great love for the ladies (left with his favorite mark, Margaret Dumont). An intelligent man, he enjoyed the company of equally interesting and funny women, whom he admired. He would remark in later life that he always made the grievous mistake of marrying for beauty over intelligence. At least in his friendships, he was rich in sharp and sassy female companionship. One such gem he enjoyed was Gracie Allen. Their attraction was never physical, but Groucho respected the "Irish tap dancer" and her great humor. One night, he and his gal pal were dining in Schenectady when he spotted another friend across the room. With that, George Burns came over and said "Hello," and Groucho introduced him to Gracie. Groucho would later say that, then and there, George fell in love. George had seen Gracie before, of course, for in the small entertainment world everyone gets to know each other professionally if not personally, but the two had never officially met. Groucho took pride in the fact that it was he who finally brought the two together. Maybe they would have met without him, maybe not, but certainly Groucho held the debt over George's head for the rest of his life. For his part, George was eternally grateful. He would later say that the real talent in the George and Gracie act was all in the latter part. He was nothing without her. Together, they were comic dynamite.


The recipe for a successful marriage: love and laughter-
George Burns and Gracie Allen. Take note, Groucho.

Howard Hughes (right) had many relationships with and engagements to beautiful starlets over the years. An awkwardly handsome and eccentric man, he was as alluring as he was confusing. But then, maybe it was all the dough... He once gave the same sapphire ring he had given to Ginger Rogers to Ava Gardner after an exasperated Ginge' gave him the heave-ho. He too was deeply involved with Kathryn GraysonKatharine Hepburn, etc etc etc. As always, the great innovator saw potential in many things- cinema, air travel, and women. He too saw a goldmine in Norma Jeane Baker, though whether this was of the purely professional or sexual nature we'll never know, (though based on his track record it is easy to guess). While Howard was recuperating from his infamous Beverly Hills plane crash, he saw a picture of Norma Jeane in a bathing suit on the cover of Laff Magazine (below, summer of 1946). Apparently, the picture helped his recovery. He sent his associates on a manhunt to find out who she was and put her under contract at his studio. Her agent at the time, Bunny Ainsworth, caught word of his interest and used the information to advantage-- not to forge a love connection but to help Norma's career. Bunny planted a story with Hedda Hopper that Howard was seeking Norma out and used this as leverage to score her a contract with 20th-Century Fox. "Howard Hughes wants her, so you'd better act fast!" The ploy worked. Soon enough, the beautiful girl was making the screen test that gave cinematographer Leon Shamroy the chills-- both in excitement and in a fearful premonition. Thanks to Howard, Darryl F. Zanuck scooped the ingenue up and put her on her way to becoming Marilyn Monroe.

Marilyn Monroe was still going by her married name, Norma Jean Dougherty
when she did this shoot. It, and her hair color, would soon change.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

MENTAL MONTAGE: "Wait... Was that who I think it was?"

Hitchcock makes one of his famous cameos alongside a 
befuddled Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief.

It has been said that there are two types of movie stars: the film actor and the film personality. It could be argued which category is more vital to cinema. The "actor" star is more commonly commended for his performance skills, but monetarily speaking the "personality" star is the one drawing in the big bucks. This is not to say that the latter persona lacks talent, but he essentially-- at least according to public perception-- plays himself in every role rather than becoming various characters. Cary Grant was a personality star, so were Gable and Harlow. Marlon Brando was a film actor whose adamant refusal to become a personality star made him one anyway (at least in the tabloids). The pure film actor is more difficult to label. Lon Chaney, who notoriously underwent great metamorphoses from role to role, could be added to this category, but his publicly contrived persona as the "man of mystery" too made him famous. Modern actors are easier to peg: Daniel Day Lewis, Anthony Hopkins, and Meryl Streep-- though famous-- are more easily labeled as actors and not personalities. And what of our monthly star, Orson Welles? If ever there were a personality, this guy was it. He played incredibly varied roles over his career, but through it all, he remained Orson. His presence always dominated a film more than his actual performance. One never forgets while enraptured by Charles Foster Kane's personal disintegration that he or she is watching Orson Welles.

I bring this up to illustrate the impact of the Hollywood Cameo Role, which only truly works with a personality star. Over the years, celebrities in small cameo roles have become a linchpin in American cinema, particularly in comedies. Why? The mere presence of a well known face produces all sorts of mental and emotional connotations to viewers. A brief cameo moment on film makes things more exciting; it is a private joke between the filmmaker and the audience-- and between the star and his or her fans. Actor stars can still make a non-starring appearance in a motion picture to effect, but normally this only works when the more decorated thespian appears as one of his or her more famous characters. The aforementioned Mr. Hopkins, for example, would typically make less of an impression on fans than would his Hannibal Lecter. On the other hand, Clint Eastwood-- everyone's favorite squinting bad ass-- could deliver a line as Clint Eastwood and the audience would eat it up. The appearance of George Clooney or Ricky Gervais would equally be more effective than an appearance by Frances McDormand or Joseph Gordon Levitt. The use of star power is profound, and the use of it in a cameo role is always entertaining, simply because there is no agenda or product to sell. Whether meant to add an extra laugh or lend extra weight to a scene, a short cameo can go a long way.

Charlie Chaplin tries to collect autographs from William Haines 
and Marion Davies in Show People.

One of the earliest examples of this phenomenon that I have witnessed occurred in the silent comedy Show People, starring Marion Davies and William Haines. The very nature of the plot opened up a myriad of possibilities to use Tinsel Town to its best effect. Marion's character, Peggy Pepper, is an aspiring actress who finds herself working in Hollywood alongside the biggest stars of the day. MGM, thus, took viewers behind the scenes, making a movie about making movies. A great cameo moment occurs at a banquet when a table of stars are shown eating together: Douglas Fairbanks, John Gilbert, Renee Adoree, William S. Hart, etc. While audiences got to see these faces all the time on the silver screen, seeing them out of character and as themselves-- before the days of tabloid TV and instant internet access-- was a thrilling moment. It brought them a little closer to their idols. An even funnier moment occurs when Charlie Chaplin makes an appearance, only to go unrecognized by Marion. He asks for her autograph for his "collection," and she stands in annoyance while William Haines stands agog at the Hollywood giant before him. Charlie leaves Marion behind, who faints in Billy's arms upon her final realization. In effect, while Charlie greets these two fellow actors, he has said hello to his fans as well.

Speaking of silent films... The aforementioned situations were all very comical, but sometimes the use of different actors is applied for a more serious effect. Gloria Swanson's role in Sunset Boulevard was by no means a cameo, but the casting was a strategic move by Billy Wilder, for Gloria's natural embodiment of all the grandeur and history of old, silent Hollywood conveyed more than mere acting could. Her performance as the aging, faded movie queen thus elevated the film to another level, bringing the audience in on a continued discussion, whereas a random actress, capable as she may have been, would have had to invent all of the things that Gloria innately was. Wilder used this same casting tactic when he pulled in some other big names into cameo roles. As Norma Desmond's butler, ex-husband, and former director, he cast Erich von Stroheim (left with Gloria and Bill Holden) which perfectly indicated the continuing theme "Oh, how the mighty have fallen." Gossip columnist (and former actress) Hedda Hopper too makes an appearance as Norma makes her infamous final cascade down the staircase, amidst much camera-flashing, lending further gravity and realism to the event.

As Gloria's group of comrades playing bridge, aka the "waxworks," Wilder cast former actress Anna Q. Nilsson, silent, stone-faced comedian Buster Keaton, and the original Jesus Christ himself, H.B. Warner. (Initially, Gloria had asked William Haines to be part of this group as well, but he declined). The appearance of these individuals, especially in such a simple, dark, and strangely macabre scene, added to the pity and discomfort of film fans, who recognized the sharp contrast of the former Gods once sitting high on their Hollywood thrones and now sitting glumly around a table playing cards. To add more gravity to the game, the ever stoic and silent Keaton mutters only one word: "Pass," just as time had passed him over. Finally, Cecil B. DeMille's cameo as Norma's favorite, former director (right) too added an extra layer to their scene together, for educated audiences knew that Gloria and Cecil had worked together; that he had once called her his "little fella" and had made her a star. His empathy for her is thus more easily felt, but the audience too recognizes that the career the duo had together has long since passed, and Norma's continued delusion makes this encounter incredibly painful to watch. Cecil took these scenes very seriously, even rewriting some of his own dialogue to get it right. Wilder was so excited to have him working on the project that he completely deferred to him in the scene and let the old director take control. It was a gamble that worked brilliantly.

Most often, celebrity cameos aren't this in depth and exist purely as quick bits of humor that wink at the audience. Thus, the line between fact and fiction is gamely overstepped. Here are a few such moments worth mentioning:

One wonders what it was about The Muppet Movie that appealed to Orson Welles, but then one wonders about a great many things that went on in that Boy Wonder's head. Whatever the attraction, be it financial or comical, Orson did make a brief appearance in the film as top dog mogul Lew Lord (left). While at first, this may make one shudder at the fall of such a great idol, we too have to remember how big the Muppets were, and in addition, how many other big names made appearances in their films, from Steve Martin to Bob Hope. So, Orson wasn't really sullying his reputation by taking the project on; he was hopping on the gravy train! His bombastic, domineering personality was put to good use as the threatening producer Lord, who has Kermit shaking in his webbed feet. As an imaginative, overgrown child at heart, one can only imagine that Orson enjoyed himself.

Marlene Dietrich also added a little flavor to Paris When It Sizzles. As William Holden's character struggles to invent his latest screenplay plot, which Audrey Hepburn painstakingly tries to transcribe, he comes up with many failed vinettes. One of his imagined scenes begins with a fancy, ever-changing car pulling up to a curb. The door opens, two perfect legs emerge, and it is quickly revealed that they are attached to the glamorous Ms. Dietrich. End scene. Many women could have been used for this brief moment, but since Marlene was known to have the best pair of gams in Hollywood (see right), her casting gave it a little extra "oomph." In addition, using a big name like herself also indicated Holden's character's intention to write a big star vehicle. The film includes several other cameos, including a couple by Tony Curtis, and is, like Show People and Sunset Boulevard, a great look at Hollywood behind the scenes. Interestingly, as in Sunset, Bill is again playing a screenwriter! Clearly the cameo ploy works best in movie-themed movies!

The friendship of British thespians Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton is legendary. Two handsome men, both vastly talented, physically dissimilar, but equally caddish, they appeared in Becket together in 1964 to great acclaim (left). It appears that they remained pals when they separated and took on other various projects, for they were quickly reunited-- albeit briefly--  in What's New, Pussycat? a year later. Woody Allen's wild and outlandish script needed little help in the laugh department, but, somehow or other, another guffaw was concocted. During a scene in a bar, Peter is wandering around when he bumps into an old pal-- Burton. If you aren't paying attention, you can miss the moment completely due to the haze of smoke and the dark lighting, but the duo greet each other and quickly part, at which point Peter shouts out, "Say 'hello' to what's her name!" He is indicating, of course, Elizabeth Taylor, Dick's wife, which in essence makes it a double cameo.

In It's a Great Feeling, Doris Day's character, a waitress, goes through the gamut while Jack Carson and Dennis Morgan try to make her a star (all three right). In the end, she leaves it all behind to become a wife. The duo track her down to her wedding, where they watch the procession. Smirking and snarling through a window at how their prodigy has betrayed them, they volley back and forth about the mistake she's making, and how she'll regret being tied to some old "cornball." Then, her groom is revealed: Errol Flynn-- lecher, ladies' man, and Lothario. Errol was brought in tactically to indicate to the audience that Doris was in good hands-- at least sexually speaking. Clearly, her character is not going to be living a boring life. All this is communicated simply by showing the audience Errol's handsome face and crooked smile, which carries a plethora of connotations. (Gary Cooper also has a cameo doing his token "yup" routine).

Another type of cameo that the audience sometimes doesn't even pick up on is that of a celebrity's child in a minor role. Orson, who always had a distant and complicated relationship with his children, was at least proud enough of a Papa to cast his eldest daughter, Christopher, in his 1948 adaptation of MacBeth as Macduff's child. Liza Minnelli made her film debut in the final scene of In the Good Old Summertime opposite her mother, Judy Garland, and Van Johnson (left). And Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward cast their own daughter, Nell Potts, in a brief role in Rachel, Rachel as the heroine in her youth. The physical resemblance between mother and daughter probably made that decision a no-brainer. Cecil DeMille too cast his daughter Cecilia from time to time in various film roles when he needed to throw a kid into the mix. She appeared in both The Squaw Man and The Virginian, among others.

The King of Cameos is, of course, Alfred Hitchcock, who probably needs no mention here. Fans started to look forward to Hitch's blink-and-you'll-miss-them appearances in his films, which added a fun puzzle on top of a puzzle to his mysterious capers. It began in The Lodger-- when he is seen in the crowd, with his back to the camera as an editor, and allegedly also as a corpse-- and continued through all of his following films. Some were more obvious than others, such as the scene in To Catch a Thief when Cary Grant looks beside him on the bus and sees his director sitting stoicly. The moment is meant to be recognized, for rather than just passing it over, Cary takes an obvious look then does one of his classic bemused expressions. He, Hitch, and the audience therefore have a good "ha ha" before returning to the business at hand. Hitch had to get more creative sometimes, including the curious way he had to integrate himself into Lifeboat. Clearly, this was going to be no easy task. It would completely take his audience out of the moment if he were to randomly float by in the middle of the ocean, so instead, he placed himself in the weight-loss newspaper ad William Bendix is reading (right). He more accurately appears twice: in the before and after pictures. This provided a double laugh since Hitch was always struggling with his weight in real life. Hitch had no qualms about advertising himself, even emblazoning his name on his inter-titles in his early silents, and rumor has it that his penmanship found its way into many of his films as well. These moments became ways for Hitch to ingratiate himself to his audiences, who became just as familiar with his face as those of his stars-- no easy feat for a behind-the-scenes filmmaker.

The list of these quirky little moments could go on ad nauseum, but I will let it rest here... for now! The most fascinating thing about Hollywood, beyond the film-making of course, is the star-making. The concept of, evolution of, and implementation of celebrity into our culture, in the end, says much more about the viewers than it does the players. Those we choose to latch onto, the perceptions we place upon them, and the roles we give them in our own minds, lock them steadfastly into an identity that very often is not their own nor of their own creation. However, there are some that did contribute wholeheartedly to their screen selves, purposely encouraging their false image's mutation into societal fact. Orson Welles and Marlene Dietrich, for example, both adhered to their own mythology. It is these larger than life personae that make cameo moments that much sweeter. To see a big star, acknowledging and playing with his or her own largess, poking fun at and equally embracing the facade of this stardom, is a way of agreeing to continue to disagree with the audience: "Yes, this is all a ruse, but we both enjoy it, so let's keep playing." After all, it's all in fun. Game on!

Monday, August 1, 2011


Orson Welles, exhibiting his widely remarked upon "Oriental quality,"
 amidst objects also indicating the beauty and beast of his nature.

Orson Welles. The Boy Wonder, the Great White Hope, the Wunderkind, the Enfant Terrible, the Quadruple Threat, the etc. etc. etc. A man of multiple ambitions and perpetual, frantic, mental motion requires more than one name to account for his being. Interestingly, each moniker too infers a sort of size and magnitude. In time, his physical self would come to mirror the enormity of his intellectual capacity. History would indicate that Orson Welles was larger-than-life, a belief that he too supported by elaborating on his own mythology. You never knew where fiction ended and truth began. However, with Orson, despite the personal BS-ing, despite the flagrant disregard for societal or artistic standards, despite an almost indefatigable urge to disturb, the purpose was always about truth: uncovering truth, discovering truth, interpreting the truth, or even reforming it. But can anyone get to the truth of Orson? Doubtful. However, by dissecting his work, we can more fully come to respect him if not completely to comprehend.

Audiences waiting to get into Orson's voodoo "Macbeth," which included an all black cast. 
Orson's love of Shakespeare and dedication to reinterpreting the master was equal 
with that of contemporary Laurence Olivier. His dedication to politics and black
 rights too was a constant in his life.

Perhaps the fact most key to understanding Orson's nature is his parentage. In effect, he was forced to pay for the flagrant sins of the father and the supposed divinity of the mother. This duality, the good and evil angels whispering in his ears, continuously pulled him apart, putting him in constant turmoil with himself. His mother was the artiste, the musician, and the ambition propelling him toward success, and his father was the seductive, debaucherous, temptation pulling him to ruin. In either case, the result was excess. There was no half-way with Orson, no dabbling, no "perhaps;" there was only full throttle, full-speed-ahead, caution be damned! From an early age, after his mother's death, Orson devoted himself to becoming the brilliant youth she had always taught him to be, indeed told him he was. In fact, his mother's lover-- and in effect, his "step-father"-- Dr. Maurice Bernstein, was perhaps more fascinated with the boy than the woman. Orson would pick up quite a few father figures in his life, all of them compelled to both foster the young man's unique intelligence and artistic penchants and perhaps vicariously live through them. Orson's power and passion for life was seductive and was perhaps more interesting to men because it was always more cerebral than emotional-- though his intoxicating presence certainly affected many women in a more sexual nature. Orson's mother taught him to approach life through his head not his heart, and this effect can be seen in all of his work- cool, calculated, intriguing, but without sentiment. After his father too passed away-- a man from whom he had grown increasingly detached over the years-- Orson carried a heavy cross of guilt, and in turn began mimicking the alcoholic's self-destructive habits. Booze, women, amphetamines, food... excess. Always excess. The stress of living up to his mother's standards and the need to defy them by embracing his father's weaknesses created quite the contradictory individual-- at once intimidating, at once compelling, and always questionable.

During one of his popular "Mercury on the Air" broadcasts.

From his birth to the culmination of Citizen Kane, the story of Orson Welles's life looks like an impossibly perfect existence. Everything he touched turned to gold. In everything he tried, he excelled. Even his imperfections were exhultory, because they were devastating, different, and provocative. This was no ordinary boy. Quoting Shakespeare like he knew what he was talking about while still a tot, becoming the writer, director, and star of school productions at his beloved Todd School in his adolescent and teenage years, and making a smashing debut at Dublin's Gate Theater in "Hamlet" at the age of sixteen (playing Claudius and The Ghost, both decades older than himself), the fascinating youth's vigor was hypnotizing. Every patch of earth he tread upon, he altered. Via the Federal Theater Project and later the Mercury Theater Group in NY, he became the toast of the industry when he produced, wrote, directed, and sometimes starred in shocking vehicles such as "Macbeth," which he brazenly set in Haiti with an all black cast. Shakespeare was a constant fascination for Welles, and he would create several stunning interpretations of his classics over the years on stage and in film. His voice-- that superb, resounding, booming voice-- possessed a natural command, which was needed in such daunting roles and large scale productions. This voice too would lead him to radio, where he infected two-dimensional stories with a vivid and even violent life on the airwaves. Running back and forth from the stage to the recording studio, he would eventually write, direct, and perform in adaptations of Mutiny on the Bounty, Rebecca, Dracula, and most importantly The War of the Worlds, which memorably started a bit of a furor (which despite rumor was completely unintentional at the time). In doing so, he elevated the possibilities of entertainment. It was not just his performance, nor the performances of some of his favorite Mercury players (Agnes Moorehead, Joseph Cotten, or George Coulouris), but the creativity with which he delivered his interpretations that was so interesting. Imaginitive, bold, and inventive, he gave incredible detail to the sound of his broadcasts, even performing in the men's lavatory if he had to to create the illusion of a sewer. It was these qualities that made him a star before he had reached the age of 22, and these same qualities would bring Hollywood calling.

In Citizen Kane-- his masterwork and what some argue 
is the greatest film ever made.

Citizen Kane remains a hot topic of debate among cinephiles. It is genius, or it is absurd. It is the greatest film ever made or the most overrated. As always with Orson-- controversy. Some found fault in the film's coldness, the lack of feeling, the objectivity. Others see this as exactly the point, and they extol its artistic achievements and technological  innovations, which in effect changed filmmaking forever. The use of light, sound, camera angles, and the photography that Orson and Gregg Toland developed together kicked Hollywood in the pants and slapped America in the face. Some weren't ready for it, but ready or not, there Orson was. At the least, Citizen Kane was exciting! Not just because of the uproar it caused in the press, due to the too-close-to-home resemblance of the main character to newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, but because it indicated a new generation of filmmaking-- art imitating life and twisting it instead of glorifying it. Change, Growth, Possibility: these words were at the very core of Orson's agenda. The likeminded Charlie Chaplin was a fan of the film. Louella Parsons, Hearst's right-hand-gossip columnist, obviously was not. Today, the vote is still split. It was argued that, afterward, Orson's chances for true success were destroyed by Hearst and the latter's battle to demolish not only the film but Orson himself, (which is ironic since the film actually indicated more about Orson Welles than it did Hearst or his lover Marion Davies). But, Orson had his own help in dissolving his heretofore stellar career. There were bright moments ahead, but for the unstoppable boy who grew up too fast, Citizen Kane became the burdensome triumph he could neither duplicate nor live up to.

Filming in Brazil for the unfinished It's All True.

But oh, did he try. After Kane, Orson-- forever putting too much on his plate-- started filming three vehicles at once. The Magnificent Ambersons, Journey into Fear, and the government induced documentary promoting the "Good Neighbor Policy," It's All True. He filmed Ambersons and Journey simultaneously, jumping from one set to the next without changing wardrobe, then left them unfinished and in the hands of the studio-- RKO-- while he went off to Brazil to maintain the Panamerican goodwill initiative between the North and South Americas, only to be swept up in the majesty of the "Carnival" of Rio, the samba, and the saga of the local people. Editing the first 2 films long distance, he basically offered input that was overturned, and both Journey and Ambersons suffered while he nonchalantly remained abroad, dedicated to the task at hand. For this, he too was partly at fault for the massacred remains of both pictures. Draining the studio dry financially-- for Orson only cared about the art not the cost-- RKO finally released sub-par versions of the films that Orson had originally intended and then pulled the plug completely on It's All True, which remains unfinished to this day. The hunt for the original cut of Ambersons makes it one of the most sought after films of all time, though there is beauty in the final cut left behind. Journey into Fear, with its climactic rain-soaked ending, and the remaining footage of It's All True also bear the unmistakable Welles mystique.

The Lady from Shanghai-- in which Orson challenged Hollywood both
by tampering with cinematic style and the perfected image of his 
movie star wife, Rita Hayworth.

In the end, it seems that Orson became overwhelmed by his own ambitions. He held such noble aspirations, but he was never able to carry things off as flawlessly as he had in his younger days. The pressure of staying on top only succeeded in knocking him off his pedestal. But he still had bright moments to come. Between his political stints-- using radio to defend the blinded, African-American war veteran Isaac Woodard, to support FDR for re-election, or to defend himself from assertions that he was a communist-- he revisited the theater, sometimes to exultant effects-- 1947's primeval reinterpretation of "Macbeth" or the racially controversial "Native Son"-- and had moments of cinematic brilliance as well. The nightmarish quality he produced in The Stranger, urging America to wake up, recognize and remember always the attrocities of WWII, the twisted and "somnambulistic" artistic achievements of The Lady from Shanghai with that incredible, indescribable final showdown in the funhouse, or the technical wizadry showcased in the four minute tracking shot of Touch of Evil-- as spellbinding as anything ol' Hitch could produce-- show that the genius was still there. His performance in The Third Man would too maintain his reputation, if only for his contribution of that cuckoo clock monologue. What is most often concurred about Welles's work is his perfect use of sound, which is unprecedented. But more telling perhaps is the visual composition. All of his films work, even when played silently, is hypnotic. Masterpieces to the eyes, one can be riveted, moved, and mesmerized even while not completely understanding what he or she is looking at. What these intercut images relay to each individual are perhaps not always effective, but they are affecting. That was Orson's purpose. He cared little what everyone thought; he cared greatly that people were thinking.

Orson's performance as Harry Lime is what some believe to be his best. 
The seductive, mysterious, and immoral character could only have
 been made charming by a man as equally complex.

Orson's embrace of concept, of taking an idea and bending it (and perhaps breaking it) to his own unique will is what has made his work stand the test of time and continue to engage both fans and enemies. As he aged, despite different triumphs, in Chimes at Midnight for example, Orson's achievements became lost under the immensity of his polemic reputation. He became somewhat of the butt of the joke. The man who had once been the toast of the town, married to Rita Hayworth, and with all the future in the palm of his hand, was now an overweight has-been producing a slew of theatrical flops and doing vocal work on the cartoon "Transformers." To Orson's credit, he never apologized for his girth, but rather used it to full effect in his later films. Perhaps this too was indicative of his shame, a living portrait of the disgusting wreck he had become. He thus apologized and refused to apologize at once. Orson's success, however, lay not in his perfections but in his imperfections; in his daring ability to say what others wouldn't, do what others wouldn't, and try what others wouldn't dare. The result was not always popular, but it was always bold. In his case, the means justified the (at times indiscernible) ends. His eccentric, flawed, and confused body of work thus remains one of the most remarkable to ever come out of Hollywood, simply because it is the product of pure originality.

With Peter Bogdanovich and unknown. Peter was a huge fan and did several
interviews with his mentor.

Martin Scorcese said that Orson Welles was the filmmaker who influenced a whole new generation of directors to want to make movies. Orson wasn't about offering answers, he was about asking questions. He did not want to luxuriate in ignorant bliss, he wanted to instigate intellectual warfare. He took a medium based upon pretty images and fairy tales and helped to turn them into something darker and more nightmarish and equally showed that such exploration was not a crime. While he himself may be held prisoner by his own caricatured self-- mocked even in his lifetime-- his disruption of the Hollywood agenda could possibly be the best thing that ever happened to the imaginative but often uninspired town. He is best compared to his most perfect role and his most highly acclaimed performance: Harry Lime in Carol Reed's masterpiece The Third Man. Not appearing until nearly an hour into the movie, Orson exists still as a dominant presence. The audience waits, growing increasingly anxious for his appearance, and when he finally reveals himself from out of the shadows, his insolent smirk alone produces an indescribable rush worth waiting for. Suddenly, things are more interesting, more provocative, more dangerous. You can't explain why, but Orson always seems to bring "something" to the table. He had more than his finger on the pulse of American life; he was a jolt of adrenaline in its arm. If you compare films made prior to Citizen Kane to those made after Citizen Kane, you will soon be forced to agree that we are all still his junkies.