It’s William Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy, which makes it perfect for those moviegoers with attention span deficits; the various cinematic versions include a 1908 effort from J. Stuart Blackston (the earliest known film version—it’s unknown as of this writing if a print exists); Roman Polanski’s 1971 incarnation (produced in the aftermath of his wife Sharon Tate’s murder at the hand of the Manson family); and a feature directed by Justin Kurzel that was released just last year.
But I don’t think it would matter much, because my favorite silver screen treatment of Macbeth is the one from 1948, with our obedient servant Orson Welles in the director’s chair. There are any number of reasons why: I’m a huge Welles fan, and the wunderkind had a special affinity for Shakespeare—he performed in a few of The Immortal Bard’s plays while in prep school, and after making the acquaintance of stage legend Katharine Cornell, he was assigned the part of Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet in a repertory company headed up by Cornell’s husband, Guthrie McClintic. Orson later received much critical acclaim for his Voodoo Macbeth, an all-black version of the play that he staged for the Federal Theatre Project in 1936.
A year later, Welles would produce the audacious Caesar—a version of Julius Caesar in modern dress that was quite anti-fascist in manner and tone; Orson’s good chum Joseph Cotten described it as “so vigorous, so contemporary that it set Broadway on its ear.” Orson would then breathe life into Five Kings (Part One)—a five-hour presentation incorporating parts of Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI, and Richard III—for a 1939 stage production, tackle Othello in 1951 (Welles would later bring the tragic tale of the Moor to the big screen in 1952), and pay tribute to King Lear in 1956. Chimes at Midnight, a production featuring portions of Henry IV, Henry V, Richard III, and The Merry Wives of Windsor trod the stage boards in 1960, and Orson later adapted it in motion picture form in 1965 (a movie some have called his very best).
|Herbert J. Yates|
This is the main reason why I love Orson’s Macbeth so. It was filmed at Republic Pictures. Republic, the MGM of the Poverty Row studios; they had no peer when it came to cranking out serials and B-Westerns, but on the A-picture side Republic was lucky if they put out one or two of those a year…and it was even money that it would be a film featuring the studio’s big draw, John Wayne. Yates’ Republic had gotten a little adventurous before Macbeth; both Jealousy (1945; an experimental noir directed by Gustav Machaty) and Specter of the Rose (1946; written and directed by the legendary Ben Hecht) were lensed at the studio, and the success of Laurence Olivier’s Henry V (1944) persuaded Herbert J. to budget $700,000 for Orson’s film.
(Something, by the way, that has acquired mythic proportions; director Peter Bogdanovich dismissed it all as bovine excrement, firmly stating that Welles paid great attention to economy when filmmaking.) Welles allayed their fears by having a clause inserted into his contract that he would make up the difference should the movie go overbudget. Orson filmed Macbeth in 23 days (with one day for retakes) on the same soundstages that once saw “Gabby” Hayes proclaim “dadgummit” to Roy Rogers; the director was able to cut corners by filming many scenes in long, fluid takes; pre-recording much of the dialogue in advance (the cast ended up doing a lot of lip-synching); and taking advantage of an invite from the Utah Centennial Festival in 1947 to stage six performances of the play at the University of Utah (this gave Welles the rehearsal time he couldn’t afford with Republic’s stringent budget).
|"Bubble, bubble/Toil and trouble..."|
a write-up on a documentary on the legendary B-picture director Edgar G. Ulmer—which features author Gregory W. Mank’s right-on-the-money observation that as a filmmaker, Ulmer “had to take a rat…and make Thanksgiving dinner out of it…” That’s kind of what Welles did here; true, Republic Pictures productions had a bit more professional sheen than, say, something cranked out at Monogram or PRC…but the handcuffs of the tight budget necessitated that Welles do a lot of improvisation. The opening scenes of Macbeth made me smile because Orson relied on the B-movie director’s best friend (fog), and a lot of the staging that he used for his Shakespearean theatrical presentations (risers, staircases and the like) figure into the film as well. Most importantly, he puts great emphasis on the audacious audio techniques that he honed in his earlier radio days.
|Evil never looked so good.|
|Roddy McDowall and John Dierkes|
“Unfortunately, not one critic in any part of the world chose to compliment me on the speed,” lamented Orson Welles about Macbeth at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1953. “They thought it was a scandal that it should only take 23 days. Of course, they were right, but I could not write to every one of them and explain that no one would give me any money for a further day's shooting.” The fact that Welles pulled off this amazing cinematic feat with the movie equivalent of “spit and baling wire” just makes me love Macbeth that much more…and I don’t think my love affair with this Olive Signature Blu-ray will end anytime soon. (Many thanks to Bradley Powell at Olive Films for providing TDOY with the screener—this is unquestionably their finest presentation yet.)
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