6 May 2015

The picture is almost impossible to understand

Today would have been the 100th birthday of director/actor/writer/producer Orson Welles. Although I am not a Welles' fan, there is no denying that he was a unique filmmaker. Difficult to work with and considered an 'enfant terrible' in Hollywood, Welles changed cinema with his revolutionary camera, sound and storytelling techniques. His "Citizen Kane" (1941) is still considered one of the best films ever made and also subsequent films like "The Magnificent Ambersons" "(1942) and "Touch of Evil" (1958) are generally regarded as masterpieces. 

In 1947, Welles fled Hollywood and moved to Italy where two years later he would start filming "Othello", an adaptation of Shakespeare's tragedy. It would prove to be a difficult project. Although shooting began in 1949, the film would not be released until three years later. The bankrupcy of the film's original Italian investor forced Welles to use his own money, taking on acting jobs (like "The Third Man" (1949)) to raise cash and thus pausing production for long periods of time. But eventually, "Othello"  was released in Europe in 1952 to much acclaim, even winning the prestigious Palm d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. 

Releasing the film in the US, however, was a different matter. Welles couldn't find a distributor, and then when it was finally released through United Artists in 1955 the film was hardly a success (even though the European version had been changed to suit the American market --changes which included the addition of a narration by Welles). Today, there is more appreciation for "Othello", especially after a 'restored' version of the American cut was released in 1992.

The letter for this post is somewhat lengthy but quite fascinating. It was written by Twentieth Century-Fox executive Darryl F. Zanuck to Orson Welles in October 1952. With the successful release of "Othello" in Europe in May 1952, Welles was now seeking an American studio to release his film and had possibly approached Zanuck for that purpose. But Zanuck felt "Othello" was not yet ready for the American market, giving Welles some harsh criticism as well as recommendations on how to improve his film (as mentioned above, United Artists would release it in 1955). Apart from Zanuck's letter, also shown is a telegram from Welles giving his reaction to Zanuck's suggestions.


October 13, 1952

Dear Orson:

Yesterday I saw OTHELLO. First I am going to tell you the good things about it and then I am going to tell you the things I think are completely wrong.

The photography is absolutely superb.

The locations and settings are fabulous.

Your individual performance is brilliant.

With the exception of the scenes in which you personally appear and a few other "intimate scenes" the picture is almost impossible to understand. Frankly most of the time they could have been speaking Roumanian and it would have been just as clear. It is more than a case of poor dubbing or poor rerecording--it is literally impossible to even comprehend what most of the performers are trying to say.

Desdemona is second-rate, but at least you can understand her. What I cannot comprehend is why it is impossible to understand some of the other actors like Bob Cootes.

Here you have a pictorial masterpiece, but without printed titles or narration it hasn't got a chance in the United States, in my opinion---even in the art houses.

Nothing grieves me more than to give you the above opinion, which is shared by Al Lichtman and others in our releasing organization. I hope we are wrong one hundred percent, but I had two of your biggest "fans" with me, namely Virginia and Susan, when I screened it, and after the first ten minutes they too were "lost" in the bedlam of dialogue.

You know that I have great affection for you and I have great respect and admiration for your talent and ability. For the United States you can save this picture only if you will pursue a drastic course. The course is as follows.

Take all of the dialogue out of the entire picture with the exception of the intimate, personal and dramatic passages --and tell the story with narration. Hold down all of the other dialogue to a minimum so that the narration drowns it out and then only let the "live action and dialogue" come to the surface in the really dramatic scenes.

I would not change the pictorial flow or content of the film except that I would shorten it by eliminating entirely all of the extraneous or inaudible dialogue scenes concerning other than the two or three principal actors. I would treat it exactly as if the picture had been produced in a foreign language.

I would start out under the opening scenes by explaining the basic story of OTHELLO. I would start with the date, the period and the historical situation.

Darryl F. Zanuck
Your version goes on the assumption that the public is intimately familiar with the story of OTHELLO. This is not so. You must explain the story to them and the background of the basic situation. You have one of the greatest musical scores I have ever heard in any picture and thus with music and narration you can tell your story and let it come "alive" only when the key scenes are on. The critics will laud you for this technique, but what is more important the public will then have a chance to understand and appreciate the story.

Right now the story in the present version is incomprehensible. To enjoy something an audience must understand what the hell it is all about. You could write the narration for this picture in one week. It would be a new and revolutionary technique --and in my sincere opinion it is the only conceivable chance you have of running up an American gross.

In narration you could tell about the War --the hatred for the Moor-- the background and historical basis of the conflict.

After all when you release it in Europe you are doing the same thing when you use printed titles to accomplish the same purpose. 

I want to see you come out a winner in this and I imagine the American market is important to you. I think you should carefully weigh the possibilities of this suggestion. When I last read OTHELLO it was in high school. I remembered only a few high lights and the basic idea. Thus when I saw the picture I found myself not only straining to understand what the hell was being said but I was also trying to remember the play and put it together in my mind with what was transpiring on the screen.

The above is savage criticism but if you follow this recommendation the final result may very well be far from hopeless. You must not give up on it now. You have spent too much and gone too far, and you must go still further. There are many wonderful things in the picture and your last scene is magnificent, but with fifty or sixty per cent of the inaudible babble eliminated and replaced with narration and your wonderful music, this definitely has a chance.

Best always,

(signed 'Daryl')

Mr. Orson Welles
c/o J. Dyball
Albergo Internationals
Rome, Italy




Images Zanuck's letter and Welles' telegram courtesy of Heritage Auctions

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