Friday, November 25, 2016

Adventures in Blu-Ray: Macbeth (1948)

There’s something about “The Scottish Play” that lends itself to first-rate film adaptations.  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.

I’ve seen the Polanski film but I’ve yet to view Kurzel’s movie.  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
Versions of Hamlet and Twelfth Night got the Welles treatment on radio’s The Columbia Workshop while the director’s signature program, The Mercury Theatre on the Air, made time on its schedule for yet another take on Julius Caesar.  There’s no doubt about it: Orson Welles loved his Shakespeare—so much so that it took him three years to fund and film Othello (he was truly an independent producer on this one—he used the money from other acting jobs to finance the stop-and-start production).  In 1948, his stock in the industry was still solid enough that he could convince Republic Studios head Herbert J. Yates to let him tackle a low-budget version of Macbeth.

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.

Republic’s board of directors were understandably a little nervous about Orson’s participation in the Macbeth project, notably because of the director’s reputation for cinematic profligacy.  (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..."
Welles’ Macbeth has been released in any number of home video incarnations but the recent Olive Signature Blu-ray/DVD—which hit stores November 15th—stands head-and-shoulders above all the rest.  It’s a two-disc collection; the first disc contains a new High Def digital transfer of Welles’ 1948 film (with audio commentary by Joseph McBride, author of three books on O.W.), and the second features the 1950 re-release of the movie along with some truly eels shorter from its original 107-minute length) and the burrs were eliminated with re-dubbingeare'e of an invite kes) on tsmashing bonus features.  Not many people saw the 1948 version on its initial release; it was in competition at the Venice Film Festival that year but was overshadowed by the critical enthusiasm for Olivier’s Hamlet.  The audiences that did see Welles’ Macbeth (in a select number of U.S. cities) bitched about the cast’s accents (they fashioned authentic Scottish burrs) and the fact that Orson took a few liberties with Shakespeare’s play (among the modifications were more emphasis on “The Weird Sisters” and the addition of a character in “The Holy Father,” played by future Batman butler Alan Napier).  Macbeth went back into the editing room (it was now two reels shorter from its original 107-minute length) and the burrs were eliminated thanks to re-dubbing.

A while back on the blog, I did 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.
Welles wanted Vivien Leigh to play Lady Macbeth…but he never screwed his courage to the sticking post and asked her, because he thought her husband Larry (Olivier) would disapprove.  Tallulah Bankhead turned him down, and entreaties to old friends like Anne Baxter, Mercedes McCambridge, and Agnes Moorehead (oh, how I would have loved to seen Mercedes or Aggie in this part) didn’t pan out because those actresses had previous commitments.  So, Orson settled for TDOY crush Jeanette Nolan (making her film debut), with whom he had worked on radio’s The March of Time…and I’m going to be as blunt as I can possibly be: Jeanette is positively incredible in the role.  (Anytime someone references Lady Macbeth, Jeanette’s visage is the first image on my retinas.)  Other radio veterans in Macbeth include Edgar Barrier (as Banquo), Peggy Webber (as Lady MacDuff and one of the witches), and my other crush Lurene Tuttle (also one of the sisters, in addition to playing “A Gentlewoman”).

Roddy McDowall and John Dierkes
Dan O’Herlihy made his American feature film debut as MacDuff, with Roddy McDowall as Malcolm and Orson chums like Erskine Sanford (King Duncan), William Alland, and Gus Schilling rounding out the cast.  (Gus Schilling doing Shakespeare.  The mind boggles.)  Familiar TV face Keene Curtis (from Cheers) made his film debut in this movie, and you’ll also spot John Dierkes, Morgan Farley, and Welles’ daughter Christopher in her only film appearance as the child of MacDuff.  The striking photography comes courtesy of John L. Russell, who later was nominated for an Oscar for his cinematography on Psycho. Among the extras on the Olive Signature release: a fascinating accounting from Robert Gitt (from the UCLA Film & Television Archive) on the restoration of Macbeth; much reminiscing from Peter Bogdanovich on his friendship with Welles (his anecdotes on Orson’s The Trial made me laugh out loud); and an excerpt from We Work Again, a 1937 WPA short showing Welles working with the cast of Voodoo Macbeth.

“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.)
m for his Voodoo Macbeth (1936) Housemen) for the Federal aim for his Voodoo Macbeth (1936), an all-black version of the play t


Burlivespipe said...

Well now, we find ourselves in complete agreement - minus the small element that I have yet to get my grubby hands on Olive's terrific offering yet; they shall compensate you for thy fountain of wisdom ... (That's me making like Shakespeare)... I've always loved Welles' McBeth, his flourish for casting the terrific along with the bizarre (as you mentioned - Schilling?) as well as his passion for the author and as well his embracing the position of auteur. The dank, cheap clapboard setting, fog enshrined but brimming with luscious imagery and secrets, and always Welles, gnawing at his part with principled pangs. I was never a Shakespeare follower - my introduction was from the well-hewed Harold Hecuba school - but there is a simple lyricism to this version that seemed missing from the blunt and awkwardly violent Polanski tragedy. Thanks for prompting me to buy another DVD!

b piper said...

One of the advantages of being an old movie fan (and low budget film maker) is that, as you point out, the obstacles that need to be overcome in a film like this only make you admire the craftsmen more. I've been on a bit of a PRC binge lately, watched DEAD MEN WALK again the other night, and where the average viewer would be groaning "How cheesy!" I kept thinking "This is better than it has any right to be for a six day shoot with no money!"

Caftan Woman said...

My personal favourite as well, and not simply because of the presence of Jeanette Nolan. It is the whole sense I get of everyone working together in a totally supportive creative environment to bring the story to the screen. It feels whole and complete and, if not perfect, sharing the journey with their audience.