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Monday, August 29, 2016

Welles Conjures Up A Starring Lead

That Old Black Magic (1949) Comes Back

Shot For Spectacle, Sold For Spooky
Wildly lavish for an Edward Small production, this was made off frozen receipts of Small backlog distributed in Italy since cessation of the war. The producer had floated the project for years, seeking location where it could be done economically, before providence smiled and gave him castles to play against. Small got keys to Italy kingdom thanks to government co-op, no doors closed to arriving cast/crew, especially as tech positions would be 100% filled by natives. Black Magic was among first major pics Euro-shot by Yank talent now that the continent was calmed (and a first shot in Italy, said publicity, since the silent Ben-Hur). It was also rare starring chance for Orson Welles, lately crossing Atlantic bridge he burned, a proud exile from studio interests blind to his much-heralded genius. Black Magic would be but second occasion when Welles was top-billed in a film he didn't direct (first being Jane Eyre), though rankling was director's meg withheld, especially where that status was accorded Gregory Ratoff, Orson's idea of a hack, if not outright clown ("What a set!," cried Ratoff when he first saw vista of Rome from his hotel suite). Such made for hard times and set-siege by Welles, who'd junk dialogue as written and devise his own, then direct after sending Ratoff home for "naps." Result doesn't announce itself any more than prior or later occasions when OW was said to take over, but maybe he'd have served himself better with greater focus on performing that he was hired for.

His fee for Black Magic was $100K, at best part-payment of IRS debt back home, another reason Welles stayed offshore. He'd play Cagliostro, master hypnotist and sleight-of-hander not unlike how OW presented himself to troops and in war-relief Follow The Boys. Cagliostro was supposed to be magician and sinister besides, the part announced for Boris Karloff when he rode high at Universal years before. More than a shade of John Barrymore as Svengali also informed the role. Welles gets the flamboyance, but not the danger. An early mind-control stunt finds him more distracted by a turkey leg than un-easing us, first of many instances where OW would play down to material he thought unworthy. Black Magic could have been a crowning project if only they'd let Welles direct. As it is, he looks trim, probably a best ever on screen, and costumes flatter him. This might have been entree to romantic leads back home, but word of misbehavior rode too on winds, not only from here but location of a pair for Fox where Welles supported Tyrone Power. Top-of-billing would be an occasion not repeated, but for occasions Orson framed the venture himself (upcoming Othello, Mr. Arkadin). Directing Ratoff turned out to be something of a Stroheim in terms of over-length: his initial cut of Black Magic ran to unsustainable 168 minutes, from which an hour was ultimately cut.

Ed Small knew he'd have to go wide open on exploitation, Welles and lead lady Nancy Guild not of adequate marquee strength to launch the show star-wise. 8/17/49 saw Black Magic bow "in a flock of keys," said Variety. The producer spent $60,000 on advertising and "pulled out the stops on every trick --- no matter how corny --- in the field man's manual" (Small's pressbook is overpowering for size and girth). Outstanding among stunts was dispatch of four hypnotists to work "mesmo" magic on newspaper men in "seven or eight" picked cities. Two gags at least got front-page space: a news scribe and smoker inspired to quit the longtime habit by one of the roving Svengalis, plus another "causing a gal to walk out in the sun in a fur coat (during a heat wave) with her teeth chattering from cold." A stunt in the film had Welles burying his wife alive, so of course hucksters on Black Magic's behalf did the same. Many situations peddled the film for outright horror, UA-supplied ads pointed in that direction. Black Magic stumped toes in the end, however: $669K in domestic rentals. White magic wand was recent-waved by TCM with HD broadcast, back-from-dead occasion for Black Magic to entertain nicely now that we can see and hear splendor. Keep eyes open for this one to show up again.


Blogger James Abbott said...

So happy to see something on Black Magic – it is one of my favorite films, and something of an unrecognized classic, I think.

While not a swashbuckler per se, it somehow taps into the emotional tenor of Dumas’ work better than more ambitious productions. With its mesmerism, midnight gravesite visits, court intrigue … it somehow gets at the very heart of Romanticism. (I’ve written about it here, if you are interested:

Odd that more modest costume pictures sometimes catch the tone better than more elaborate, bigger-budgeted films. Son of Monte Cristo and Whale’s Man in the Iron Mask have moments bordering on profundity, a quality missing from, say, MGM’s Three Musketeers.

Welles, in particular, is in fine form here. I didn’t see the Barrymore vibe until you mentioned it, but of course I do now that you have. (Welles admired JB immoderately, and thought he was the finest Hamlet he had ever seen.)

I have no idea why this film isn’t better known, but I love every minute of it. Sorry I missed it on TCM -- I have a very poor DVD for which I paid through the nose years ago, simply to have it.

12:55 PM  
Blogger stinky fitzwizzle said...

Panther Women of the world Unite? How many are there??

My heart sank when I saw Ratoff had directed. I made it through about 20 minutes of the TCM showing. Guess I should give it another try.

3:16 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Craig Reardon looks back on "Black Magic" (Part One):

Hi John,

And I guess you know what THAT'S from! So pleased to see you doing one of your typically thorough overlooks of "Black Magic", one of my favorites; or shall we say, one of my "guilty pleasures", the get-out-of-jail term for movie fans. I'm aware that Welles conveniently dissed this one late in life, claiming to have wanted to do the story of Cagliostro himself, but fate intervening and handing him this highly compromised opportunity only. I won't say, "Boo-hoo!", just because I wanted a lot more than I got, too, as a makeup artist in my own salad days. (A good sword 'n' sorcery item, anything in that genre, for instance---but, nope; or, even a run-of-the-mill werewolf picture! Nope.) Not only I in my own calico career, but certainly Welles, with the permanent cachet of having directed at least one of the greatest movies ever made (you-know-what), do not come off well bitching about the things we were NOT able to do...however tempting. Of course we can infer what he meant, but the colossal irony, which you touch upon, is that ALL of his Shakespearean adaptations followed a production template very much like "Black Magic", and may even have taken their inspiration from it, as far as 'how to get it done' on small change. Most of "Black Magic" is tedious and stagy, without question, but within that term 'stagy' (or, should I say 'stagey'?) is encapsulated the element of theatricality that also makes a lot of it so much fun. The opening, with Barry Kroeger eating up the set as Dumas pere (to a relatively restrained Raymond Burr as Dumas fils) is a kind of hors de ouevre for the Welles variety to follow shortly. And, heck, the movie starts OUT with a terrific image, with a kind of keyhole matte that creates a triangle in a field of black as 'Cagliostro' (whether Welles, or probably a stand-in for him) descends an endless stairway while Paul Sawtelle's score (likely a community effort, as many of his; as Bernard Herrmann said contemptuously of 'ghost writing' in Hollywood, in music at least: "It's the great unsung profession!") drones out a marvelously creepy theme augmented by the increasingly de rigueur Theremin.

5:02 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Part Two from Craig Reardon:

This is a hell of an effective theme, even if beaten half to death throughout the film, especially when Welles/Cagliostro is skewered atop the domed roof of some grand Italian pile at the end, and gasps out "Lorenza!!", the name of the woman he's idealized and loved "but could not possess!", and of course plunges to his doom. All that stuff's great, especially if you're a pre-teen, as I was when I first saw it on TV. Funny how often this set of circumstances seems to determine what movies we are faithful to in our affection even when relative maturity and no more rose colored glasses (more effective than 3-D glasses in transforming dogs into lions!) should have dictated otherwise.

As for the proposed Universal Karloff version, isn't the story that they converted it, in effect, into "The Mummy"? I'd say nothing was lost and a lot gained in that particular transition!

5:06 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Part Three from Craig Reardon:

I saw "Black Magic" screened at a marvelous and inclusive festival of films on Welles at the Los Angeles Museum of Art in their movie-purposed Bing Theater in the mid-to-later '80s, while still curated by the late, terrific (I'll give "great" a rest) Ron Haver. He frequently extended invitations into the L.A. community to people who'd had ANYTHING to do with movies, and Nancy Guild evidently responded to one for this screening---or, perhaps had come on her own steam and Haver found out, for he introduced her from the the stage before the screening. She was a lot heftier, and accompanied by her adult daughter, but received a very nice ovation, and good for her. She's excellent in the movie, and succeeds where many another would have failed in convincing me at least that although visually identical (as she should be, she's the same actress in both roles!--and, this 'uncanny resemblance' is key to the plot), 'they' are actually two distinctly-different people. In fact, I've wondered at times if it's really her own voice in both parts, as these two are quite different; but, I think it's at least possible it IS her own voice, and that it's the manner in which she used it, playing the virtuous girl (Lorenza) vs. the evil Marie Antoinette (oh, brother....what a plot, eh? But, Dumas MIGHT have written it, for all I know!)

The scene in which Cagliostro is set up to be humiliated at the court of the king of France and instead turns the tables on the process, using his prowess as a 'Mesmer-izer' (named after Franz Anton Mesmer, beautifully played in the movie by one Charles Goldner, who can match Welles mad stare for stare!) to reduce the assumed 'cripple' he's just cured with Christlike pretense, who's then mocked him by a dainty dance, into a paralyzed, crawling wretch again, via mind control. It's a great piece of melodrama and Welles was usually better at melodrama, and I think preferred it, than what we normally consider drama, something with some limits and a sense of naturalism. I don't mind the fact that Welles spent his life wire walking between melodrama and nice, respectable drama. On many occasions he proved he could be perfectly effective playing a scene naturalistically...but so could a lot of other fine actors. There were very few, ever, who could pull out all the stops in such a great organ of a voice and truly mesmerize all of us with something much bigger and more thrilling and just plain fun than that. It's no wonder that Welles was pals with John Barrymore. They both seemed to have a grand, private concept of life shared by few others, whatever their misdemeanors.

Thanks for this look at "Black Magic"! In its own limited ways, it still is black magic. There's a very good-looking DVD of it still available online, I believe; but with luck perhaps one of the several companies specializing in finding and reissuing oddball and legitimate classics on Blu-ray will seize upon the HD transfer of "Black Magic" you have seen streaming.


5:07 PM  
Blogger rnigma said...

An issue of the Superman comic featured Welles in what was basically the "boy who cried wolf" story (Orson gets kidnapped by Martians who plan to invade Earth), and "Black Magic" is plugged throughout.

11:23 PM  

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