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Thursday, March 03, 2011

Orson and Rita Do The Lady From Shanghai --- Part One

Citizen Kane was the only film Orson Welles made in Hollywood that didn't get hacked up by others. That's a sad record best not grieved over. Let's instead take pleasure in what's left. Consider The Lady From Shanghai. I did recently ... three times. Netflix streamed it in HD, so resistance was futile. This one's a crazy house fershure, too much so for Rita Hayworth's following in 1948. Her audience wasn't Orson's. I don't wonder at Columbia being fit to be tied. Here was what they regarded a mess that had to be made coherent. Rita's fans weren't for experimentation. Welles said he wanted The Lady From Shanghai "to be satirical," but selling noir murderess Hayworth in those terms? --- impossible. I've read OW did the shoot sans sleep, a not unaccustomed way for him, but worse here to point of near-collapse. What is percentage of geniuses who are also over-programmed? There was press hoopla over Rita's hair being cut for the pic, and Harry Cohn apoplectic upon finding out. But wait --- he didn't know in advance of a well-publicized trim and dye job witnessed by a roomful of photogs and "directed' by chief barber Welles?

Everything Rita Hayworth did just after Gilda got noticed, lots more so than a Welles better known as husband and object of male envy for said status. He got the Shanghai job because she'd be in it. The story came out of Orson's grab bag, via B director William Castle who sort of got euchred out of fuller participation he'd hoped for, not unlike Kirk Douglas putting shaft to Barry Sullivan in The Bad and The Beautiful (did producer of that 1952 show John Houseman recall Bill's treatment and suggest the storyline to pinprick now estranged Welles?). Castle got an associate producer credit on Shanghai and played go-fer on location, secure, I suppose, in knowledge that without his discovery of the source novel, there'd be no Lady From Shanghai. Several Welles books claim Columbia assigned a $2.3 million budget for LFS. I think that's high, especially when same accounts cite the writer-director having gone over-budget past two million. So did he or not? John Kobal said the figure was $1.25, one I'm more inclined to accept, and yes, Welles did evidently go way past that.

There were locations, exotic ones at a time when studios did less along such lines. Acapulco was a port of filming call, San Francisco's Chinatown another ... LFS was all over maps, this working to good of visual variety and easing onus off cracked storyline further jumbled by Columbia cutters. There were weeks aboard Errol Flynn's rented (at $1,500 a day!) yacht. Here was not one of Orson's better ideas, as Errol proved a real-life Captain Blood adding another studio to his poach-list for overhead-busting Zaca repairs, renamed Circe for Lady's voyage. Welles worked customary magic with sound for LFS, only to see it recorded over by Columbia tin-ears. This may be the worst hit Lady took. A song any of us might compose in a bath tub was spotted throughout and against his wishes. Please Don't Kiss Me aspired to Hit Parade status, and I did find Les Brown and Margaret Whiting covering it at the time, though Billboard made no mention of the tune climbing charts. It's being there was a must for Rita-opportunity to sing as she had (or was dubbed) in Gilda. Getting a saleable "theme" off movie tracks was tactic increasingly set in stone by 1948.

Busy sound and grotesque characters were endemic to OW projects. Sometimes it could get exhausting. Bizarre, of course, is what we like and anything but what convention-bound Hollywood needed then. Orson's wilder-than-wild set-pieces are what's sustained The Lady From Shanghai past noirs less adventurous and certainly all of what else Rita Hayworth did. She later claimed knowing all along it would be a classic. Shanghai's easier to repeat-watch because it's only 86 minutes long. I can't believe a showman like Welles expected any company, let alone Harry Cohn's Columbia, to release 155 minutes said to have been turned in. Even big a fan as me would have a rough time with that much Lady From Shanghai, even as I regret so much lost footage (none appear to survive). Lady is one you can take for a lark Welles intended, being pure fun minus nasty overlay that distances me more from Touch Of Evil. And was it his own kooky idea to cast Orson as Irish-brouged leading romantic man? He'd crash diet getting in shape for that. Were there also free-for-all lessons from Republic stunt artists? --- because serial sock-fests are very much what Lady From Shanghai fighting evokes, that being very much a good thing for ones of us eager to see OW (and his double) bust up furniture.


Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

"Lina Romay, The Wiere Bros., and Warner reissues chasing it off"? This I gotta see!

12:19 PM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

This is BIZARRE.

The local theatre managers in my county must have been on the "outs" with the Charlotte, N.C., Columbia branch manager as the ONLY booking of the Shanghai lady was November 14 - 15, 1948 at the ROCKWELL Theatre. That other movie lady at the time, the one in ermine, was everywhere, but Rita and company...nope.

And there were eight theatres in the county at the time.

1:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is no doubt that Welles was brilliant and a great film maker.
How wonderful it would have been to see all of his films as he envisioned them.
However, in reality the number of studios who had to take control of his films from him would cause anyone to wonder if he just wasn't capable of sticking to a budget and perhaps wasn't able to deliver a film on time. And a film that would fit into a marketable show time.
Making a film isn't just art, it is a business.

3:25 PM  
Anonymous Jon said...

Anonymous, there is truth in what you say about Mr. Welles. In 1956 Desi Arnaz arranged for Welles to film a pilot for a TV anthology series. Same deal as ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS in that Welles would host every week and direct a handful of shows every season. Arnaz even settled Welles' problems with the IRS for him so that he could get back into the country to DO the series. Welles directed a pilot film for this series, and the only two requirements Arnaz made was that he had to stick to his budget and he had to stick to his production schedule. Welles proceeded to ignore both. He made a film that impressed everyone who saw it, but Arnaz couldn't sell it to any of the networks when they discovered Welles had gone over his budget and over his shooting schedule. I'll agree that Welles was a brilliant filmmaker, but I don't buy the argument that's forever being made that poor Orson was a perpetual victim of Hollywood. "Poor Orson" was his own worst enemy. (Incidentally, this anthology series was the reason Welles turned up on I LOVE LUCY. Since Desilu had him there, anyway. . . .)

6:37 PM  
Blogger keinosuke said...

Science Fiction writer Charles Beaumont called writing for the movies climbing a mountain of shit to smell a rose.

The complaint about going over budget applies to every great film maker who came along going right back to Griffith.

I had no idea, until I read it on this site, how long Von Stroheim's original cut of FOOLISH WIVES was.

I don't expect to silence the mites who harp about going over budget as a bad thing.

The studio system (and television) thrives on mediocre work because that is dependable. It will get done on time and on budget.

I remember reading how interminably long BARRY LYNDON, HEAVEN'S GATE, PASSAGE TO INDIA, ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA and many others were.

When I saw them they seemed to fly by in seconds.

I understand Griffith's original cut of INTOLERANCE was at least seven hours.

It is the artists not the business people who move the medium forward both artistically and as a business.

BIOGRAPH, remember, wanted to keep movies ten minutes long.

6:53 AM  
Anonymous Malcolm Blackmoor said...

In deference to you John I've just returned to this film after leaving it some weeks ago, having decided that the purchase had been a mistake. Now after seeing the first 12 minutes again I have the same major alienation through boredom problem and it's because of the sound. I'm interested to know more of what you refer to as changing the director's intentions as I know that OW was very keen on controlled re-recording of dialogue. And that's my problem as I find it flat, monotonic and lacking atmosphere. The performances are all sitting in a studio offhand and nothing like the way they would be on location. But even post-sync it didn't need to be flat. It's a mystery which makes the film deeply unattractive to me but I'll persevere over the weekend and try to find redeeeming features.

11:15 AM  
Anonymous Steven Smith said...


Great post.

Re. the soundtrack - when I interviewed associate producer Richard Wilson for my Herrmann biography, he remembered Orson's frustration that Columbia wouldn't spring for Benny; instead, they got Heinz Roemheld, who did exactly what Orson didn't want.

3:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Re: Castle discovering the source novel. I always thought that there was something fishy about Welles' story of just happening to see a wardrobe lady's copy during "Around the World in 80 Days".

4:02 PM  
Anonymous Kevin K. said...

I'll go out on a limb and say that "Lady from Shanghai" is about the only case of post-sync sound I've ever enjoyed in a feature. To me, it adds to the slightly-nightmarish feeling of the whole thing, particularly Everett Sloane and the bizarre Glenn Anders. I think Welles himself is the weak link; his accent isn't for a moment convincing (to me at least), although as an writer and director he's his usual brilliant self. I've watched it twice in the last few months and emjoyed immensely both times.

By the way, is it true that, in addition to Joseph Cotten, Errol Flynn can be seen somewhere?

4:24 PM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

Keinosuke: count me among those "mites." If I hire a contractor to remodel my kitchen and we agree on $20,000 to do the job, I don't expect him to come to me halfway through, with my kitchen an unusable mess, and say it's going to take another fifty grand to finish up. Calling the contractor an "artist" doesn't change anything.

Biograph lost out in the long run because they couldn't see that more people would pay more money to see longer movies. So the artists guessed right on that one, but it wasn't inevitable. Audiences might have stayed away saying, "I don't have time for this;" then movies might have ended up a rich man's parlor amusement, a more expensive version of stereopticon slides or the spinet in the drawing room.

And I agree with Jon. Orson Welles was a titanic talent, not once in a lifetime but once in history, as unique in his way as Joan of Arc (meaning no other comparison). But he was his own worst enemy. First he took on the most powerful media baron the world had ever seen, openly slandered the woman he was living with (plus the salacious snigger of "Rosebud," the full meaning of which didn't surface for decades -- but Hearst got it). Then for his second picture he handed RKO a three-hour road show they couldn't possibly sell now that they were banned from advertising in Hearst's publications. Personally, I've always thought the real victim of the Citizen Kane Wars was George Schaefer: when things got hot he stood by Orson, then when they really got hot Orson went gallivanting off to Brazil and left George to get the axe. And when it was over, Schaefer didn't spend twenty years boo-hooing to talk show hosts about how he'd been treated.

4:54 PM  
Anonymous Mike said...

It may be true that artists, not business people, are the ones who move movies ahead artistically, but artists who are smart can't just ignore the business side of things without running the risk of becoming unemployed artists.

5:36 PM  
Anonymous Malcolm Blackmoor said...

Jon I'm very sorry to have spelled your name wrong. I've not had time to continue with the DVD but have read a fascinating memo from OW on IMDB which addresses many of the sound weaknesses - but not the flat delivery of dialogue. This is a direction issue which is unrelated to interference.

In my experience many actors, in a peacful sound studio, will post sync dreadfully dull unless directed otherwise.

7:35 PM  
Anonymous mido505 said...

The idea that Welles was his own worst enemy is certainly a debatable one, and the idea that he was his own worst enemy as far as budgets were concerned is demonstrably false. Welles had just come off THE STRANGER, which he directed purely to show that he could be a good studio boy; it came in on time and on budget and the producers still cut the hell out of it. After LFS, Welles shot a low budget MACBETH for Republic, and the studio wrecked that one because they objected to its quality of "strangeness", a common occurance with Welles. TOUCH OF EVIL came in on time and slightly over budget, normal for Hollywood; Universal execs barred Welles from the cutting room because they hated his editing choices. In several interviews, the star of that show, Chuck Heston, a mainstream Hollywood guy if there ever was one, explicitly rejected the myth that Welles was profligate. Welles's one weakness, according to Heston, was that he so despised the studio suits that he would fly into an insulting rage at the slightest provocation, leaving him no key office support for the battles to come. There were no more George Schaefers.

Great directors routinely go over; it's a myth that every studio employee behaved like William Beaudine. Moreover, it's a myth that studios actually object to going over budget and schedule. $400,000 of LFS's overages were incurred after Harry Cohn ordered reshoots, and even then, his famous cry "I'll give $10,000 to anyone who can tell me what the hell this film is about" came in response to his own re-edit, not Welles's cut. Jesus, how much money did Thalberg and Selznick add to budgets with their endless fiddling? The key question is, will the studios recoup their final investment? If they do (DeMille, William Wyler), all is forgiven. If they don't, forget about it.

Welles was not too expensive, or too difficult, for Hollywood. He was too dark, strange, and pessimistic, and this is reflected in films that alienated audiences in a country that reveres Superman and Andy Hardy. This is not to slag Americans as trite or superficial; on the contrary, America's strength is that it is essentially an optimistic nation, unlike much of Europe, where Welles was embraced. Welles was an alien without portfolio in his country of origin, and could not produce a popular hit for the money men. So they painted him as a lunatic and ran him out of town.

9:53 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

My apologies to mido505...

For a moment, I thought you were writing about Jerry Lewis.

Excellent comment, by the way.

10:58 AM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

"Hear, hear!" to Mike Cline; that's a first-rate comment from Mido505. In fact, I think Mido bolsters the point: I suggest that to fly into an insulting rage at the slightest provocation at the guys with the money and the key to the editing room is, by definition, to be your own worst enemy. (There were no more George Schaefers because everybody saw what happened to the first one.) And maybe to be "too dark, strange, and pessimistic" is, in point of fact, to be too expensive and difficult.

2:58 AM  
Anonymous mido505 said...

Thank you, gentlemen, for your kind comments. Welles's life has been encrusted in so much myth, much of it self-generated, that he has become, paradoxically, one of the most written about, and least understood, artists of the 20th century. But there is a simple reason for this. Somebody close to Welles, I can't remember who, once said that, despite his reputation for making things up, you'd often find with Welles that the elaborate fabulous story that he just told you turned out to be true, but when he told you something simple, like he had just eaten a tuna fish sandwich for lunch, that that would be the lie. The problem with Welles biography, up until fairly recently, is that biographers have focused on the elaborate narrative of Welle's life in order to get at the "truth" of the man, when in fact the "truth" is more likely to be found at lunch, boring as that may be. Here at Greenbriar, John does more good work actually looking at how TOUCH OF EVIL was distributed than David Thomson, in his awful Welles biography, ever could.

Orson Welles did not abandon George Schaefer and AMBERSONS to go "gallivanting" off to Brazil to make IT'S ALL TRUE. He went at the request of Nelson Rockefeller, Co-ordinator of InterAmerican Affairs for the Roosevelt administration, major shareholder of RKO, and the man who brought George Schaefer to RKO. The move was part of Roosevelt's Good Neighbor policy, meant to keep the big states south of the border neutral during the war. In short, important stuff. There was no script or budget for IAT, and the government indemnified RKO for up to $300,000 in losses. Welles had to leave when he did because Carnival could not be postponed for him. Welles was promised that editor Robert Wise and a print of the film would follow him to Brazil; he got the print but no Wise. Welles, who was used to juggling several project, successfully, at once, was left to edit by phone and by cable.

Back home, Schaefer was in trouble. An admirable man in many ways, Schaefer was not a particularly good head of production. He had some hits but more losses, and made bad deals with outside producers that cost RKO money. Floyd Odlum, another major shareholder, had taken control of the company, and was eager to push out Rockefeller and his people, who included Schaefer. Odlum installed his own man, Charles Koerner, who was ready for war. Guess who was the chief victim?

Out of 125 comment cards from the infamous "disastrous" Pomona preview, 53 were positive and some of those were raves. A second preview, at a more sympathetic venue in Pasadena, where the preview cut was 22 minutes longer than that shown at Pomona, 67 out of 85 cards were positive. Some disaster! But the negative cards gave Koerner the ammo he needed; Schaefer, fearful for his job, lost his nerve and failed to defend the picture, leaving it to Bob Wise and the studio janitor to give us the ghost of AMBERSONS we have today.

10:20 AM  
Blogger david simmons said...

Joseph Cotten sighting: about the 37:30 mark, a "peasant" slightly bows and lifts his hat to Rita as she runs by.

12:50 PM  

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