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Friday, September 06, 2013

Reborn In The USA


Part Three and Conclusion of Mr. Arkadin

There were champions for Welles among the trade, most devoted of these being Herman G. Weinberg, whose Variety column always had favorable ink to spread where the embattled auteur was concerned. Weinberg kept up mention of Mr. Arkadin/Confidential Report where others had forgotten. He'd been among the very few in America, after all, who'd had an opportunity to see the film, Weinberg's access thanks to his being on the TOA selection committee in 1956. As of 1/6/60, he'd lament that "no distributor could be found to take it," and quoted a letter from Welles: What really pleased me was not so much that you liked Mr. Arkadin, but that you liked it for what I take to be the right reasons. This, of course, is the ultimate complement. Imagine how Weinberg swelled up when he read that. He would, in fact, reprise the Welles letter in a 1/9/63 column. Orson certainly knew how to flatter favored acolytes like Weinberg, who could perform a real and ongoing service by boosting him in wide-read industry columns.

The famine seemed to lift in January 1960 when M. and A. Alexander Productions announced purchase of US and Canada "theatrical distribution rights" to Mr. Arkadin (as reported in Variety), Confidential Report apparently having been dropped as the film's title. M. and A. Alexander was a prolific packager of movies for television, their efforts focused on post-48 product most desired by broadcasters. Firm president Arthur Alexander put it succinct for Broadcasting magazine: When stations can offer big names ... they can be assured of top ratings and ready interest on the part of sponsors. The Alexanders had just put a "VIP" package together for fall 1960 including Pandora and The Flying Dutchman, The Warriors, Seven Angry Men, and 32 others that had played theatres since 1950. Within two years, they would have 300 feature films and 100 cartoons in circulation to local channels, a group to include Mr. Arkadin. There's no indication, however, that M. and A. Alexander distributed Mr. Arkadin to theatres prior to a deal made with Manhattan's New Yorker Theatre to open the film on 10/11/62.

The 1958 lawsuit was meanwhile back to bite Welles, newly filed allegations bringing it to The New York Times' attention. A 9/29/61 report cited allegations that OW's "repeated drunkenness" had disrupted filming of Mr. Arkadin. Loyal champion Herman Weinberg posted sarcastic reply in his 1/10/62 Variety column, quoting Lincoln's stance toward complaints over Ulysses Grant imbibing: Find out the brand he drinks, and see that all my generals are well supplied with it. Against this continuing drama, drums began beating for US bow of Mr. Arkadin at the "unconventional" New Yorker Theatre, one among Gotham sites that celebrated classic fare. Daniel Talbot's venue had opened 3/17/1960, seating 900, policy geared toward oldies and foreign. After two years' modest success at this, Talbot announced a series of special engagements of films by major directors that have been ignored by American distributors, the first of these to be Mr. Arkadin.

The New York Times took interest and published an interview with Talbot on 9/12/62, a few weeks ahead of his Arkadin booking. Litigation had been cause for delay of the Welles film, said the New Yorker's manager, who promised technique ... reminiscent of Citizen Kane, as well as moral meaning (that) is ambiguous and fascinating. This was pitching high to the art crowd as well as those who liked Orson's American pics, these ladled heavy on Gotham TV in addition to sure-seaters around town. Helpful too was OW himself declaring Arkadin to be his "most ambitious" pic since CK. Variety's New York Sound Track column would follow Talbot's progress and pass along good news: Orson Welles' Mr. Arkadin reportedly cracked the first-week b.o. record at the uptown New Yorker, said the trade on 10/24/62, It stays, of course.

Reviews were mixed, none of which mattered to patronage. This was fresh Welles and they were determined to see it. The Times' Eugene Archer called Mr. Arkadin "in turn, baffling, exciting, infuriating, original, and obscure." Variety came to a more commercial point: "One for the cine-addicts," and a decided mixed bag otherwise. What made Variety's face red was declaration that they had "unaccountably carried no review of the pic originally," when in fact they had, as pointed out by a letter to editors published 10/17/62 that alerted Variety to the fact of the paper having covered Mr. Arkadin for the Cannes Film Festival in 1956. More embarrassing was the same scribe pointing out that Mr. Arkadin had played US television prior to Dan Talbot's engagement (a Miami run, plus others). "It may be of small matter, but New Yorkers needn't think they see them all first," said the obviously better-informed reader. Variety would headline the letter In Re Those Phoney 'American Premieres,' and print a mea culpa column in the same issue.

Dan Talbot spoke frankly for a 4/17/63 Variety interview summing up the New Yorker's experience handling so-called "lost" and unreleased pix. Mr. Arkadin was the only one of the lot to show a profit, he said, and there was brief consideration toward distributing the Welles feature beyond NYC environs, until Talbot got a gander at an entirely new world of problems which he'd have to face as a distrib, and he dropped the whole thing. Talbot estimated the cost of launching a "virgin" title at the New Yorker at between $6,000 and $8,000 for advertising/publicity, plus other expense borne by the theatre. This can be costly for what remains, essentially, a nabe house which does not stand to recoup its expenditure from any future profits of the pic, should it subsequently get a conventional US release. Variety had passed along rumor in its Mr. Arkadin review that Astor Productions had an option to nationwide-release the film, that company already vested in Orson Welles' latest, The Trial. Later coverage, however, would reveal Astor's filing under Chapter Eleven for bankruptcy protection, which put paid to wider circulation of Mr. Arkadin.

The few bookings that followed the New Yorker's came and went hurriedly. The city's Little Carnegie (520 seats) played Mr. Arkadin for a week in late October '62 on strength of press coverage and Talbot's success. That run, said Variety, "landed (an) okay $5,000," while Chicago's Carnegie (495 seats) took $2,900 for a seven day's stand in December. As context to this, the Carnegie's art house rival, the "Cinema" (500 seats), had a combo of classics Mata Hari and Red Dust during the same week and got $2,600. Mr. Arkadin became tougher to see after this. An 11/15/85 engagement saw it doubled with The Third Man at Manhattan's new artie, the Thalia Soho, for a $5 admission, but schedulers for a 5/86 Welles retrospective at the Regency, "the most complete" since Welles' death in October of the previous year, drew blanks when they tried booking Mr. Arkadin, along with Othello, The Trial, and F For Fake. "I wish we had them, but they were tied up in his estate, or there were rights problems," said Regency manager Frank Rowley: "I had only a short time in which to assemble this series, which I wanted to present even sooner --- and I just couldn't wait around any longer." The foregoing are but academic issues now, what with Mr. Arkadin available in a DVD box which contains multiple versions of the film and extras galore. More than one reviewer has ranked Criterion's among all-time best retrievals and presentation of a vintage title.

3 Comments:

Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Funny how those inveterate B-picture producers of the 1940s -- the Alexander brothers, the King brothers, Pine and Thomas comes to mind -- wound up dabbling in major-league product in the 1950s. The Alexanders had an especially humble background, being unit producers for PRC during its less prosperous days.
I have to hand it to Max and Arthur for going where the money was: syndicated television. Never thought I'd see their names linked with Orson Welles!

3:04 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I find it interesting that only your lead advertisement in the last entry of this three-part series bothers to credit Robert Arden in the cast, even though his character enjoys the most screen time! Any thoughts on why that would be? Is it simply because he was unknown to European audiences (and American audiences, too, I imagineā€¦ I'm not familiar with him outside of Mr. Arkadan)?

Best wishes, Mark

3:28 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer reflects on radio, Orson Welles, and "Mr. Arkadin":


Years ago, when old WCAU in Philadephia was tolling the time until it changed call letters to WPHT and its format to talk, it had a potpourrie of programming, including rebroadcasts of old radio shows. I didn't mind at all, as I got to listen to "The Six Shooter," with James Stewart, Frank Lovejoy in "Night Beat," Alan Ladd in "Box 13," and William Conrad as Matt Dillon in "Gunsmoke." To my mind, the golden age of radio was not in the thirties or forties, but in the fifties, when radio was up against television. What did the man say? "You fight hardest for the lost causes."

WCAU also broadcast some episodes of "The Third Man." It was really a good show, with good scripts, aural effects and music, and of course, the inemitable Orson Welles as Harry Lime. Now, since the Harry Lime character dies at the end of the movie, these episodes all concern his adventures leading up to that time. He's witty and charming, as you might expect, a hustler and a conniver often up against it, but on the whole, not a bad sort. Just a little misunderstood. I really can't believe that he was involved in selling adulterated penecillin. Probably it was just another of those confrontations between east and west, as the Cold War got chillier, with poor Harry caught in the middle.

I often go out of my way to see films that are odd and obscure, but strangely enough, I don't think I've ever seen "Mr. Arkadin" in any of its various incarnations. Probably it's just as well. Those stills of Welles in a bad beard and yet another nose carry too much of the aroma of borscht and boiled cabbage for me.

Daniel

4:38 PM  

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