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Shakespeare Tragedies
Remind Me

Macbeth (1948)

In the late 1940s, eager to produce a film of Macbeth and having alienated the executives of RKO, where he made Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), and Columbia, where he directed The Lady from Shanghai (1947), Orson Welles turned to an unlikely studio to produce his version of the Shakespearean tragedy: Republic Pictures, best known for B-Westerns starring the likes of Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, with occasional ventures into slightly more prestigious films headlining John Wayne. "And although there was abundant laughter in Hollywood at the very idea of Orson's having wound up at a plebian studio like Republic," wrote Welles biographer Barbara Leaming, "Orson thought it ideal for his experiment."

Welles, weaned on radio and expressionistic stage productions, liked to work quickly and cheaply and, indeed, often seemed at his best when forced to make much of little. In preparation for his film of Macbeth (1948), he had rehearsed the actors in a stage production that ran for four days in May 1947 at the University Theater in Salt Lake City. He had cast himself as Macbeth, of course, and had settled for Jeanette Nolan, a radio actress and longtime associate, as Lady Macbeth after such actresses as Tallulah Bankhead, Agnes Moorehead, Geraldine Fitzgerald and Mercedes McCambridge proved unavailable. Welles had originally wanted Vivien Leigh as a "seductive" Lady Macbeth, but her husband, Laurence Olivier -- who had helped popularize Shakespeare on the screen with his 1944 Henry V -- would not hear of it.

In spinning Shakespeare's tragic tale of the rise and fall of the ambitious 12th-century Scottish warrior, Welles used his own adaptation, first developed for his successful 1936 stage production of a "voodoo" Macbeth with an all-black cast. He had the film actors record the entire script before shooting began, so that during filming they lip-synched in the style of a movie musical. Some speeches were delivered as soliloquies in voice-over without the actors' mouths moving. The sets, also inspired by Welles' 1936 production, were impressionistic suggestions constructed of cardboard and papier-mâché to represent a castle that had been carved out of a huge rock. Cinematographer John L. Russell (later to shoot Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, 1960) photographed the film in moody yet luminous black and white, leading Welles historian David Thomson to comment that "No film since Kane had had so profoundly organized or expressive a photographic style."

Republic studio head Herbert R. Yates called Welles "an inspiration" when he finished shooting Macbeth in 23 days at a cost that was well under the film's budgeted $884,000. The executive was convinced that his talented filmmaker had created "the greatest individual job of acting, directing, adapting and producing that to my knowledge Hollywood has ever known."

Yates began to have second thoughts, however, when editing on Macbeth dragged on, with Welles interrupting post-production work for travel to Europe and preliminary work on future projects. When Macbeth was at last completed and previewed in Denver, Salt Lake City and San Francisco, the critics savaged it, claiming that the actors' use of heavy Scottish accents, dictated by Welles, rendered the dialogue incomprehensible to American ears. Nolan's highly stylized rendition of Lady Macbeth also drew much criticism, and some were offended that Welles would dare to rewrite Shakespeare.

Republic recalled all the prints and put associate producer Richard Wilson in charge of re-dubbing 65 percent of the dialogue. Twenty-one minutes of footage were cut, leaving the film with a running length of only 86 minutes. These cuts, along with the original recordings, were restored by UCLA archivists in 1980. Eight minutes of musical overture and three-plus minutes of exit music by the film's composer, Jacques Ibert, also were restored.

The Welles Macbeth had to wait for its restoration to be appreciated as a unique cinematic treasure. As Thomson and others have pointed out, the heightened blend of images and sound combines the qualities of theater, film and radio; and the performances, led by Welles' own, are striking and original. The film stands as an important link between the Hollywood phase of Welles' career and his later, more independent European work.

Producers: Orson Welles, Richard Wilson (Associate Producer), Charles K. Feldman (Executive Producer, uncredited)
Director: Orson Welles
Screenplay: Orson Welles (uncredited) from play by William Shakespeare
Cinematography: John L. Russell
Film Editing: Louis Lindsay
Original Music: Jaques Ibert
Art Direction: Fred Ritter
Costumes: Adele Palmer, Fred Ritter (uncredited), Orson Welles (uncredited)
Cast: Orson Welles (Macbeth), Jeanette Nolan (Lady Macbeth), Dan O'Herlihy (Macduff), Roddy McDowall (Malcolm), Edgar Barrier (Banquo), Alan Napier (A Holy Father), Erskine Sanford (Duncan), John Dierkes (Ross), Keene Curtis (Lennox), Peggy Webber (Lady Macduff), Christopher Welles (Macduff Child). BW-107m. Letterboxed.

by Roger Fristoe



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