Saturday, July 15, 2006


the disappearance of legacy in
Orson Welles

by Nick Zegarac

“I’ve wasted the greater part of my life looking for money and trying to get money; trying to make my work on this terribly expensive bait box which is a movie. And I’ve spent too much energy on things that have nothing to do with making a movie. It’s about 2% movie making and 98% hustling. It’s no way to spend a life.”
– Orson Welles

Arguably, the career of Orson Welles is best summated as maniacal impetus shattered with willful precision and self-destructiveness. No other aspiring filmmaker arriving at the golden foothills of Hollywood’s paradise circa 1940 was so widely embraced or publicly revered. Celebrated as ‘lightening in a bottle,’ Welles’ meteoric rise to prominence was perhaps doomed to an equally cataclysmic end.At least, such is the discretion of reflections bestowed on Welles’ legacy by film scholars in hindsight.

“The word genius was whispered into my ear, the first thing I ever heard, while I was still mewling in my crib,” Welles would later explain, “So it never occurred to me that I wasn’t until middle age.”

As diverse as Welles talents were (actor, director, producer, star) his was a legacy systematically and deliberately dismantled behind the scenes almost from the moment he crossed that threshold. Within a few short years of his arrival in Hollywood, Welles would be discredited as a fake whose ego was much larger than his talent. To what extent Welles contributed his own downfall remains a topic open for discussion. Although there can be little doubt about his imminent foresight and vision for uniqueness and quality on film, when it came to networking the Hollywood community to his advantage, Welles was perhaps ill prepared to deal with the order of moguls lurking beneath Tinsel Town’s loose superficialities. He was, after all that has been written and said of the man, a person used to getting things done his own way.

He was born to affluence as George Orson Welles in Kenosha, Wisconsin on May 6, 1915. His father Richard Head Welles was a successful inventor; his mother a skilled concert pianist. Groomed as a child protégée on par with the geniuses of Mozart, Einstein and Proust, Welles’ youth became the repository of rumors that quickly filtered into truths within a child’s fertile imagination. However, at the age of nine Orson lost his most ardent admirer when his mother died. For the next few years he became a world traveler – a cook’s tour that ended at the age of 15 when his father died of acute alcoholism.

Becoming the young charge of prominent Chicago physician Dr. Maurice Bernstein in 1931, the rest of Welles’ youth remains something of a sporadic mystery in events. He graduated from The Todd School in Woodstock, Illinois, but little is known about his boyhood friends or burgeoning relationships with young women. His early life of privilege was rumored to include an education on the art of magic from no less an authority than Harry Houdini and an ambitious masterwork that Welles penned on the history of live theater. Yet, formal education seemed to bore him. “They teach anything in universities these days,” Welles reflected, “You can major in mud pies.”

Welles rejected various offers to attend college, choosing instead a trip to Ireland. If his mind was intellectually fastidious, his heart and spirit could not be tamed to any one pursuit. After several failed attempts at carving out an acting career on either the London or New York stage, Welles traveled to Morocco - then Spain where he briefly toyed with aspirations as a bull fighter.

On the recommendation of playwrights Thornton Wilder and Alexander Woollcott, Katherine Cornell's prestigious repertory road company agreed to cast Welles in a minor role for his New York debut as Tybalt in 1934. But Welles’ greatest personal triumph of this early period was his involvement with the Federal Theater Project; a depression era work program that was part of the WPA. Assuming the reigns of an all-black production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth at the Lafayette Theater in Harlem, Welles inadvertently fell under repeated criticism from William Randolph Hearst’s media network for his gauche attempts to impose high brow entertainment on the low brow masses.

“I want to give the audience a hint of a scene,” Welles explained, “Give them too much and they won’t contribute anything themselves. Give them just a suggestion and you get them working with you. That’s what gives the theater meaning: when it becomes a social act.”

Despite open and relentless criticism – and a physical assault on his person one night after rehearsals – Welles’ off Broadway debut of the ‘voodoo’ Macbeth achieved a level of notoriety and critical praise that shocked even his most ardent detractors.

Delving head first into his new found professional success and popularity, Welles was often a tyrannical presence in his pursuit of perfectionism. “I don’t say we all ought to misbehave,” Welles would later recollect, “But we ought to look as though we could.”

His personal life was quite another matter. A fledgling first marriage to Virginia Nicholson was already crumbing. When Welles was not rehearsing a new play or appearing on the radio (as the voice of The Shadow and countless other characters for CBS and NBC), or realizing his first dream; the establishment of his own repertory company ‘The Mercury Players’ (in 1937), the young zeitgeist drank, ate and womanized to excess.

By most accounts Welles was untamed – with a relentless drive and desire to advance his stature, whatever the emotional, physical or psychological costs. However, at the crux of his debaucheries remained a curious anomaly; that despite Welles’ zest for engaging in conflict with whatever force of nature dared get in his way, he always managed to escape the maelstrom unscathed and, in fact, more celebrated than ever.

“Nobody who takes on anything big and tough can afford to be modest.”
Orson Welles

In 1938, the second monumental hiccup in his career catapulted Welles to instant stardom in a town he had yet to set foot inside. Debuting his version of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds – ingeniously disguised as legitimate news on his nightly ‘The Mercury Theatre On The Air’ radio program, Welles managed to cajole, then terrorize his listening audience under the aegis that the fictionalized events being enacted were actually taking place. Despite the incredulous testimony and retraction that Welles was forced to offer to the press in an interview immediately following his broadcast, he had known fifteen minutes into it that his words had generated minor mayhem across the country – and he had relished every minute of that affixed giddy excitement. “Everybody else who tried that was thrown in jail,” Orson later mused, “I got a contract.”

At the age of 25, Welles was offered a contract with unprecedented amenities at RKO Studios, including complete autonomy and free reign to choose any project his heart desired. However, like most deals that seem too good to be true at the start, Welles’ signing with RKO proved to be just that. Dubbed the “would-be genius” by gossip columnist (and Hearst stooge) Louella Parsons, Welles initial proposal for an avant guarde retelling of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (as seen entirely from the protagonist’s point of view) was met with indifference first, then outright rejection from studio heads. Welles next suggested Smiler With A Knife – a British thriller loosely based on Jack the Ripper. Once again, RKO balked at the idea.

Seemingly bored with his stalemate, Welles indulged himself in the superficial pursuits of celebrity. He began courting Hollywood star, Dolores Del Rio during this hiatus. Their romance was short lived. “We’re born alone,” Welles would later reflect, “We live alone. We die alone. Only through our love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we’re not alone.”

Far more lucrative (and ultimately destructive) was Welles association with screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz whom he had met at a party. The burly gambler/drinker complimented Welles’ own penchant for excess. But Mankiewicz’s thorough disgust for Hollywood bureaucracy in general increasingly exacerbated Welles own growing distemper and dissatisfaction with RKO.

Together, Welles and Mankiewicz generated the script that would ultimately become Citizen Kane (1941). Infusing their fiction with a thin veneer of truth derived from the life of William Randolph Hearst, Welles and Mankiewicz concocted a scathing portrait of a man crushed beneath the weight of his own appetites. Ensconced in Xanadu, the film’s fictional version of Hearst’s own pleasure palace San Simeon, Kane is a reclusive destructive and shattered individual – a man so lost in his own state of embittered loneliness that he possesses no sense of reality beyond his own finger tips.

That many of the film’s sequences bore little resemblance to Heart’s actual life circumstances was a moot point. There was enough of Hearst in Kane to infuriate the baron of yellow-journalism to distraction. Mankiewicz’s motives for giving a copy of Kane’s script to actor Charles Lederer, the nephew of Marion Davies, the woman who shared Hearst’s life, remains unclear. There can be little to suggest that he could not have foreseen the impending boycott of the film that was to follow.

Particularly in Mankiewicz’s reconstituted portrait of Davies, Citizen Kane created a heartless and dim-witted flaxen alcoholic as her screen substitute – wholly incendiary and far removed from the real life woman. Mankiewicz even found room in the script to insert a reference to ‘Rosebud;’ the affectionate nickname Hearst is rumored to have labeled Davies’ private parts. In the film, Rosebud is a sleigh glimpsed at the start of the story. It represents the singular object Kane values more than all his worldly riches. The sleigh resurfaces at the end of the film, as auctioneers rummage through Xanadu’s treasures they wantonly toss it into an incinerator – presumably, because it seems to have no monetary value.

RKO green lit Citizen Kane for approximately $687,000 – a grand sum for its time. Together with cinematographer, Gregg Tolland, Welles set about envisioning a most ambitious departure in style and design. Even today, the film’s deep focus cinematography and stark use of lighting, coupled with minimalist sets, evoke a quiet spirit and mood of stark isolation that is unlike anything seen on the screen. Welles ensured complete secrecy by operating on a closed set. But when Louella Parson’s rival gossip queen, Hedda Hopper received the privilege of pre-screening Kane (and declaring it a masterwork) Parson’s demanded like treatment. Her response hardly echoed that of her competitor. Instead, Parson’s frantically wired Hearst that he must stop Kane’s general release at any and all costs.

Hearst’s publishing empire then spanned and dominated circulation across the United States. He had already made the Hollywood moguls cower with the prospect of making or breaking their careers on a whim, using whatever means of intimidation suited him best. A man of finite determination and iron will Hearst’s reputation for getting what he wanted had been well established by the time Parson’s edict became his law against Citizen Kane. Upon rallying the elite in the film industry to his cause, Hearst demanded that RKO destroy every known print of Citizen Kane. MGM’s L.B. Mayer reportedly offered the studio $800,000 for the original camera negative.

Aware of the fervor and gaining momentum in controversy, RKO studio executives held an emergency meeting in New York where Welles vehemently defended his project. Publicly, RKO concurred with Welles and sent the film into general release. Privately, however, the FBI opened a file on Welles’ at the behest of Hearst. His newspapers daily condemned the genius, first as a suspected communist, then as a possible homosexual and sodomite; thoroughly unfounded allegations that nevertheless made RKO wary by association.

Even though Kane was released to acclaim from the New York critics, its circulation was limited thanks to Hearst’s pursuant litany of hollow but threatening legal actions against any theater brave enough to show the film. Nominated for nine Oscars, the film was denied virtually all except one: the win for Best screenplay. The Academy’s snub, coupled with RKO’s negative losses of $150,000 confirmed Citizen Kane as a commercial failure. The studio quietly withdrew it from circulation. It remained buried and forgotten for nearly a decade.

Disheartened by the film’s financial debacle and the way RKO had unceremoniously yanked Kane from circulation without a fight, but still owing the studio another project, Welles' dove headstrong into The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) – a $1 million sordid tale of incestuous familial relations at the turn of the century. An adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, the film was widely perceived as a ‘safe’ follow-up to recoup losses incurred by Kane.

The story concerns a handsome though somewhat unpredictable Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten) who desires marriage to Isabel Amberson (Dolores Costello); a daughter born to affluence who marries stuffy but safe millionaire Wilbur Minafer (Don Dillaway) instead. Their only child, George (Tim Holt), develops into a compulsively obsessive manipulator. Upon Wilbur’s death, the mature and now financially successful, Eugene returns to ask for Isabel’s hand once again. Resenting their burgeoning romance, George and his Aunt Fanny (Agnes Moorehead) thwart the relationship before tragedy befalls the family clan. The novel had been a haunting sprawling saga peppered in private secrets and public debauchery.

However, during postproduction, and at the behest of Nelson Rockefeller, Welles left the United States to begin shooting a documentary for the United States war effort entitled ‘It’s All True’ with the understanding that all editorial decisions regarding The Magnificent Ambersons would be made with his complicity via telegram. Instead, RKO relieved Welles’ staff of the project and promptly installed Robert Wise, who excised over fifty minutes of footage. The final insult was a tack-on upbeat ending – reshot after Welles departure from the project that Welles categorically abhorred and admonished in a litany of memos. The film, incoherent with its re-shot and re-edited continuity was released to the general public without much fanfare. It quietly came and went, failing to recoup its production costs.

As for ‘It’s All True;’ RKO deemed Welles’ rough assembly of silent footage as worthless and scrapped the project. This footage remained undiscovered in their vaults for nearly forty years, mislabeled as ‘stock.’ However, not long before Welles’ death 314 cans of film, virtually all of the surviving footage was rediscovered and released in 1991 under the same title. The footage provides tempting insight into one of many Welles’ butchered masterpieces that might have been.


...the waning years of Orson Welles

by Nick Zegarac

“When you are down and out something always turns up…and it is usually the noses of your friends.”

– Orson Welles

It is said of time, that it heals all wounds - perhaps. Certainly in the case of critical respect over Citizen Kane and, to a lesser extent, The Magnificent Ambersons, time has revised the wealth of subtext infused in both projects and exercised fully by Orson Welles’ creative zeal. But for their time, neither film seemed worthy of his preceding reputation as a genius. With back to back flops to his detriment, RKO – no longer interested in Welles’ services as a film maker - unceremoniously let it be known throughout the industry that they considered their ex ‘boy wonder’ a terrible risk.

The snub might have ended any other career, but not Welles’. Although he did suffer under scrutiny from the studio system as an independent film maker from the tarnishing of his reputation, as an actor, Welles was very much in demand.

20th Century-Fox exploited Welles as the embittered Rochester in their production of Jane Eyre (1942) which Welles also directed, though he received no public credit for his efforts behind the camera. Welles also appeared to reasonably good effect, alongside his Mercury Theater troupe in a thriller he produced, Journey Into Fear (1943). He co-wrote the film with Joseph Cotten. Although Welles would emphatically deny that he co-directed the film, certain sequences bear his ambitious hallmark for expressionism. A modest hit, Welles eventually dismissed Journey Into Fear as merely a passable venture.

If Welles professional career was mired at various levels of mediocrity, his personal life appeared to be on the upswing. He became smitten with resident Columbia Studios love goddess, Rita Hayworth. Admiring her beauty, Welles ambitiously courted Hayworth under the watchful eye of Columbia studio chief, Harry Cohn, who broached the union with minimal trepidation in the hopes that it would fast fizzle. Instead, Welles and Hayworth married on September 7, 1943.

MGM offered Welles an opportunity to direct and costar as the spurious man of mystery in The Stranger(1946), typecasting that would stick with similar parts in Tomorrow Is Forever (1946) and later, Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949). Determined to deliver a commercially viable film on time and under budget, The Stranger proved to be Welles’ only profitable project. Yet, it is an artistically unsatisfying addition to his film cannon and lacks his inimitable savvy for inventive staging, mood and setting.

At this junction in his career, Welles began dividing his time between Hollywood and New York. His latest Broadway venture was an expensively mounted co-production with producer/showman Michael Todd: Around the World in Eighty Days. Unfortunately for the pair, midway through the planning stages, Todd ran out of money. Enter Harry Cohn with an offer to secure Welles services for another thriller along the lines of The Stranger. Welles reportedly gambled with Cohn to secure money needed to complete his venture with Todd. In return, Welles agreed to produce, direct and star in The Lady from Shanghai (1947); a macabre thriller based on the novel ‘If I Die Before I Wake.’ The project began in earnest and mutual respect but quietly degenerated into confusion and debacle behind the scenes.

Rita Hayworth was cast as Elsa Rosalie Bannister against Welles objections. He had conceived the film as a low budget thriller. However, Hayworth’s participation ensured two criteria – first; that the film would have to be mounted on a more ambitious scale, and – second; that the plot would need to conform more steadily to the public’s expectations from a Hayworth Grade-A movie.

On the home front, Hayworth and Welles’ stormy marriage had quietly disintegrated prior to pre-production. Hayworth had hoped that working together would reunite them romantically. To this end, she even allowed Welles to cut and dye her trademark red tresses blonde. When Harry Cohn discovered this alteration he was furious, openly grumbling that “I’ll never do this again. What’s the point of allowing a man to be director, star and producer? I might as well be janitor!”

However, Cohn lavished more concern over the film’s spiraling budget and what he perceived to be Welles over indulgences on insignificant aspect of the production. For example, Welles had originally conceived an elaborate funhouse sequence to round out the film’s climactic confrontation between Elsa and Michael (his character). The sequence incorporated some very bizarre visual elements, including a room entirely constructed from dangling arms and a half decapitated skull with a blonde wig and cigarette vaguely resembling Hayworth’s character. These details were supplied by Welles, who actually devised and painted portions of the funhouse set himself. Cohn thought the added expense extremely wasteful.

Welles’ rough cut on The Lady from Shanghai ran nearly two and a half hours – a last straw in excess that Harry Cohn would simply not tolerate. Relieving Welles of his directorial duties, Cohn had his own editor hack into the film with ruthless indecision, reducing its running time to barely 98 minutes and cropping the aforementioned funhouse sequence to a brief ‘hall of mirrors’ finale. The Lady from Shanghai was released to tepid box office response and ruthless reviews. Yet, the legend and myth surrounding The Lady from Shanghai, that it “cost a fortune, lost a fortune and ended Welles’ career at any of the major studios” is quite false.

In reality, the film cost no more than any other Rita Hayworth film of the period. While it is true that The Lady from Shanghai was not a financial success, in Hollywood the failure did little to curb Welles’ popularity as an actor. He appeared in Othello (1952), staged a low budget version of King Lear (1953) for television, appeared to good effect in the cult classic, Mr. Arkadin (1955) and even found time to host and star in an episode of television’s Ford Star Jubilee. What is undeniable about The Lady from Shanghai is that it proved the final undoing of the Welles/Hayworth union. The couple were divorced on December 1, 1948. The film also marked the second to last time Welles would be allowed to direct, produce and star in a project of his own choice.

“Movie directing is the perfect refuge for the mediocre.” – Orson Welles

That final venture in front of and behind the camera was Touch of Evil (1958) for Universal Studios. Yet again, the plague of mediocrity fell upon him. Despite the fact that some of Hollywood’s most popular talents (Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Akim Tamaroff, Marlene Dietrich and Zsa Zsa Gabor) rallied their considerable talent and time on the project, Welles’ preceding reputation as a tyrannical force of nature eventually forced his dismissal during post production. The film was re-edited according the studio’s likes and unceremoniously dumped on the market to abysmal public response. Welles Hollywood tenure had officially come to an end.

“I hate television. I hate it as much as I hate peanuts. But I can’t stop eating peanuts.”
– Orson Welles

Appearing sporadically on television, most noticeably as a magician in Hollywood's Magic Castle and as a guest on I Love Lucy, Welles became something of a public recluse – his weight the brunt of jokes on The Tonight Show, his connoisseur’s palette exploited for commercial endorsements. “My doctor told me to stop having intimate dinners for four,” Welles regularly mused, “Unless there are three other people.” Throughout the 1950s, Welles made several valiant attempts to launch himself in independently funded projects, including a film adaptation of Don Quixote. But these were either scrapped prior to completion or outwardly rejected by the changing powers in Hollywood.

One of Welles last notable film appearances was as Cardinal Wolsey in Fred Zinnemann’s Oscar winning, A Man for All Seasons (1966) – an all too brief but nevertheless brilliantly realized performance. In 1971 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences bestowed an honorary Oscar on Welles for ‘superlative artistry and versatility in the creation of motion pictures’ – an epitaph bitterly at odds with Welles costarring status in Jim Henson’s The Muppet Movie (1979). Reflecting on his award, Welles admitted, “Now I am an old Christmas tree, the roots of which have died. They just come along and while the little needles fall off, replace them with medallions.”

In his final decade, Welles increasingly appeared as a narrator on television or as the self-deprecating wit of fine wine and any other product that required a Hollywood relic to endorse it. “I have an early call tomorrow,” Welles once told a reporter, “For a commercial. Dog food, I think. No, I do not eat from the can on camera but I celebrate the contents. Yes, I have fallen that low.” Welles was also one of the first Hollywood alumni to be outspoken against the process of colorizing black and white movies. “Keep Ted Turner and his goddamn Crayolas away from my movies!” he said. He died of a heart attack on October 10, 1985 at age 70.

The Time Has Come for Parting

“I passionately hate the idea of being with it. I think an artist has always to be out of step with his time.”
– Orson Welles

Inevitably, the legacy of Orson Welles focuses on Citizen Kane – the film once criticized as too controversial but since praised regularly as the greatest American movie of all time. More recently, The Magnificent Ambersons has risen in critical estimation; and there is much to recommend The Lady from Shanghai as well. Yet, few pause to ponder Welles beyond films or recall that his genius was further reaching than the art of motion pictures.

To be certain, after conquering the venues of live theater and radio, movies represented a logical extension for Welles’ formidable talents in 1940.

“I started at the top,” Welles would later explain, “…and worked my way down.”

Kane is a grand experiment; a film truly ahead of its time. But Welles ultimately became the embodiment of greater triumphs that sadly, did not materialize. In the final analysis, the character of Charles Foster Kane foreshadows the life of Orson Welles more readily and with greater accuracy than it does William Randolph Hearst’s. Kane illustrates, perhaps with divine perversity, how greatness at varying strengths, conviction and blind determination can be so easily dismantled with one fell swoop of mediocrity’s mighty hand.

“A film is never really any good…” Welles once said “…unless the camera is an eye in the head of a poet.”

Orson Welles illustrated that point with at least one definitive classic.

2006 (all rights reserved).

Friday, July 7, 2006


The Early Anatomy
of a Showman

by Nick Zegarac

It has been said of showmen, that they uniformly possess three inherent qualities which make them indelible titans: blind courage coupled with a gambling spirit, especially in the face of certain debacle; tyrannical drive to reinvent and elevate themselves from humble beginnings; and, a crass dispensation for the niceties of everyday life. One might also ascribe an innate sense of smug superiority to this roster. Certainly, these criteria hold true for Michael Todd.

Born Avrom Hirsch Goldbogen in Minneapolis Minnesota on June 22, 1909, Todd had already gambled, made and lost a fortune as the purveyor of bad taste with a series of girlie stage spectacles. Reportedly something of a rough hewn bruiser and ladies man, Todd relied heavily on these myths about his reputation to remake himself larger than life. Ever the adroit promoter, when it was suggested that he may have had something to do with his first wife Bertha Freeman’s mysterious death, Todd willingly played into the obscurity of the allegations, confident that even scandal could only serve to advance his career. If it was timing that ultimately made Mike Todd rich and famous – then timing he most definitely had. For Todd was involved with mistress, actress Joan Blondell at the time Bertha died. He eventually married Blondell on July 5, 1947, barely a year later.

Through sheer will and colossal cheek, Todd transformed his carnival-esque background into that of a boorish Broadway impresario, responsible for launching an expensive but abysmal failure with his stage version of Around the World in 80 Days in 1946. Ironically, this Jules Verne property would become his greatest personal triumph as a film producer a scant ten years later.

Frequently living beyond his means, Todd twice went bankrupt; first as a young man during the Great Depression with a $1 million deficit derived from his construction business, then again at the cusp of the 1950s, when his spiraling debts incurred through gambling and wanton spending threatened to overwhelm him. Yet, two great salvations came Todd’s way at precisely this moment in his precarious perched career; the first was violet-eyed actress and soul mate, Elizabeth Taylor. The other was Todd A-O; the invention that reinvented Michael Todd as Hollywood’s newest zeitgeist.

…of ‘scope’ and quality
20th Century’s Fox wins the race

In 1954, 20th Century-Fox production chief, Darryl F. Zanuck shocked the film industry with the debut of Cinemascope – an anamorphic widescreen filming and projection process, designed to lure back the movie’s dwindling market share from television.

Despite the fact that there was nothing new about Zanuck’s launch (for Henri Chrétien’s process had been around and even tested since the late 1920s and early 30s, and there had even been sporadic attempts to expand the size of theater screens ever since; though none had proven more successful to that point than Cinerama stunning debut in 1952), Mike Todd remained unconvinced of ‘scope’s’ supremacy. However, the rest of Hollywood struggled to catch up. Many moguls merely opted to pay Zanuck and Fox under a rental agreement for the ‘loan out’ of Cinemascope lens and equipment. Todd had very different ideas.

After all, Todd was, among his many ventures, a heavy stockholder and initial investor in Cinerama – the widescreen wonder that had started it all. But with Cinemascope’s unexpected and very sudden burst in popularity Cinerama suffered a proportionate downturn in public interest and lack of studio investment to produce new films in the three camera process.

For Todd, the problem was not simply that he had been outplayed in the forum of popular opinion, though it must have upset his gambler’s lucky streak to be outdone and undone so quickly by a competitor. Despite its ease of operation, especially when compared to Cinerama’s cumbersome three-camera setup, Cinemascope’s promise of widescreen spectacle was less appealing for Todd because it failed to capture the vibrancy in color and sharpness that Cinerama had easily reproduced.

The sharpest portion of a projected Cinemascope image was its middle, with a gradual and rather obvious blurring of the image it advanced to the outer edges of the screen. Fox had been clever to time its shots accordingly so that audiences were rarely given the opportunity to critique these discrepancies in image quality. Hence, while the economy of Cinemascope interested Todd greatly, the overall quality of the image failed to live up to his weighty expectations.

Divesting himself of his Cinerama stock, Todd approached Massachusetts’ American Optical developer and CEO, Brian O’Brien with a $100,000 check to finance a new and improved photographic process Todd himself crudely dubbed as “Cinerama out of one hole.” After considerable debate and gestation, O’Brien and Todd decided that their new venture would incorporate a combination of technical elements that had been around since the late 1920s.

During the depression and war, 65mm film gauge had been considered a wasteful extravagance. But with the newly infused capital of the booming 1950s, 65mm was resurrected from its historical oblivion along with the Mitchell BFC camera that had been in mothballs since 1931. Unlike conventional movie cameras, which photographed action at 24 frames per second (fps), the Mitchell recorded its visual information at 30fps, thus producing a sharper flicker-free image. For Todd the improvement in clarity was a sideline to his centralized fascination for the ninety pound, 12.7mm ‘bug-eye’ lens that virtually captured the same 128 degree vista as three-camera Cinerama.

Heavily influenced by Todd’s lingering aspiration to duplicate the intricate precision of Cinerama’s projection, his newly christened process, Todd A-O (Todd American Optical) featured a deeply curved screen and stereophonic sound system almost identical to Cinerama’s, with specially rectified prints made exclusively for theatres where normally high projection booths would have otherwise resulted in considerable dimensional distortions on the screen.


Mike Todd’s
professional triumphs
and personal tragedies

The greatest initial obstacle that needed to be overcome by Mike Todd was to gain widespread acceptance for Todd A-O from the industry at large. Unlike Darryl F. Zanuck who had launched Cinemascope with the complicity and backing of an entire studio, Todd A-O was a technical process without a product to sell it. Undaunted, Todd approached playwrights Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II with a demonstration reel and the proposition to produce a film version of their first Broadway smash, Oklahoma! Impressed by what they saw, Rogers and Hammerstein willingly invested in the future of their film franchise with Todd and his associates. The venture secured, Todd wasted no time in hedging his bets, photographing Oklahoma! twice: once in Todd A-O and once in the more conventional Cinemascope in order to accommodate as many theatrical venues as possible.

Although the initial and exclusive engagements of Oklahoma! at Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre and New York’s Rivoli were a resounding critical success the majority of theater patrons never saw the film in Todd-AO. Instead, they were shown the CinemaScope version which was visually and cinematically inferior in almost every aspect. Despite its stunningly vibrant image, the Todd A-O version of Oklahoma! was a decidedly tempered visual experience that did not fully exploit all of the involved photographic capabilities that Todd A-O could deliver. Thus, Todd introduced both his process and Oklahoma! with a short subject; The Miracle of Todd A-O that included among other things, breathtaking aerial photography and a roller coaster ride.

To further showcase Todd A-O, the master showman turned his attentions to a subject very close to his own heart: Jules Verne’s 19th century novel, Around The World In 80 Days (1956). Plagued by numerous financial and technical difficulties Todd’s Broadway stab at the property had opened and closed with minimal fanfare and zero profit.

Todd had always envisioned the Verne tale as an all-star spectacle. For the film version, he literally invented the concept of ‘the cameo’ defined by Todd as a brief and subtle bit of business performed excellently by a stellar performer. Determined to make the show as big and brassy as was then possible, Todd set about bribing, entertaining and minimally paying some of the biggest names in Hollywood and abroad to appear in his film adaptation. These included Ronald Colman, Robert Morley, Trevor Howard, Marlene Dietrich, Red Skelton, Frank Sinatra, Noel Coward, Charles Boyer, Caesar Romero, Jose Greco, Cantinflas and, in the starring role as daring and determined Professor/explorer extraordinaire Phileus Fogg, David Niven.

Press promotion of the day, most of it tightly controlled (and perhaps ‘slightly’ exaggerated) by Todd, proclaimed that the film boasted the greatest assemblage of talent and costumes ever brought together for one production. On 140 sets built at six of the major studios, Hollywood’s Western Costume Company reportedly pillaged warehouses in London, Japan, Hong Kong and Spain – as well as their own – to make up the 74,685 modes of apparel for principal cast and extras, of which there were rumored to be more than 68,894 spread across 13 countries. Ninety animal handlers and trainers were responsible for 8,552 animals used throughout various sequences in the film.

To inaugurate the ‘experience’ of it all, Todd enlisted eminent journalist, Edward R. Murrow in a prologue that was as much Hollywood hokum as it was intended to draw comparison between the standard screen format and Todd’s impressively gigantic Todd A-O process. Despite Todd’s claim, and that of the film’s title, most of Around the World in 80 Days was shot in and around Hollywood with a second unit flown to various locations to capture establishing shots later inserted as background.

By the time Around The World in 80 Days began production it was already rumored as one of the most opulent and all-star entertainments ever filmed. However, as had been the case with Oklahoma!, the Todd A-O road show version of Around the World in 80 Days proved to have a limited release and was eventually and mostly screened in 35mm reduction prints by the general public.

However, unlike Oklahoma’s two version set up, Todd's director of photography, Lionel Linden only photographed Around the World in 80 Days once on 65 mm stock, thereafter reprinting the same version to the smaller gauge film for the lesser markets. Linden used two identical Todd-AO cameras and lenses side by side to photograph the various versions of the film; one running at 30fps in 70mm, the other at 24fps on 35mm reduction prints. In rare cases the same camera was used simply by recalibrating its speed, or, maintaining the same speed with a single camera setup. This last remedy was only used for economy’s sake and in scenes where no dialog was involved since the discrepancy between 30 and 24fps would have resulted in a re-syncing nightmare.

Throughout his fledging career as film producer, Todd had remained financially strapped; cutting corners wherever he could while maintaining a significant amount of showman-like integrity for the initial premiere engagement of his films. The curiosity surrounding Michael Todd is that, as an individual, financial success seems to have paled in comparison to his manic and ever-changeable zeal for putting on a good show. Today, Around The World In 80 Days appears as little more than overblown travelogue; a far cry from the near unanimous accolades and Oscar it received as Best Picture in 1956. The discrepancy in its reception – then and now - seems to be predicated on the fact that no one today is likely to have witnessed the film in its 70mm splendor. Minus Todd A-O 30fps razor sharp image and enveloping presentation, the film remains something of an elegant disappointment, just as 35mm reduction prints of How The West Was Won pale to the mammoth three camera projection used during that film’s first Cinerama road show.As press promotion for Around The World In 80 Days mounted, Todd, who had seemingly grown tired of the efforts invested thus far, divested his own interests in Todd-AO. Although he had already secured Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific as the next big project, those details were shortly thereafter inherited by Magna Film Corporation, American Optical and the film’s distribution apparatus, 20th Century Fox. Having abandoned their home grown Cinemascope 55, Fox purchased Todd A-O outright with technical decisions made shortly thereafter that effectively made Todd A-O far more economical. Reduced from 30fps to the more easily adopted and conventional 24 and minus both the ‘bug eye lens’ and curved screen dimensions that had made its projection unique, the newly emasculated version of Todd A-O was merely Cinemascope with a slightly brighter and sharper image.

By 1959, Todd-AO was being replaced with other, and often more superior, 70mm projection systems, most noticeably Panavision, Technirama and M-G-M Camera 65/Ultra Panavision 70. Todd A-O’s company policy had always been that it retained a percentage of any film’s gross that employed its process. Competitive widescreen systems did not enforce such a demand. Hence, in the same year that Porgy and Bess was produced in Todd A-O four additional features that might have employed its camera system opted instead for alternatives: Ben-Hur (Camera 65), The Big Fisherman (Panavision), Solomon and Sheba (Cinemascope), and Sleeping Beauty (Technirama).

The snub would have made little difference to Todd. Commencing on a film adaptation of Don Quixote in 1957 with leftover equipment from Todd A-O that Todd loosely re-christened as the improved “Todd Process” for 35mm road show prints, any future involvement from Hollywood’s most ambiguous showman came to an abrupt end when Todd died tragically in a fiery plane crash on March 22, 1958, a little more than a year after Around The World In 80 Days galvanic premiere.

As an interesting aside, the Todd A-O story does have one final and unique twist. By 1964 single film productions that were shot in Panavision 70, but incoherently and incorrectly billed as Cinerama, were all the rage. Fox had never been directly involved in Cinerama. Although they still controlled interests in Todd A-O, the current version of that system was almost a decade removed and severely distilled from the process it had once been. To reinvigorate their interests, Fox developed a ‘new’ widescreen process: Dimension 150. In actuality all Fox did was to reintroduce Todd A-O and outfit it with a 150 degree lens designed by Dr. Richard Vetter and Carl Williams.

Lack of proper marketing and press promotion resulted in limited appeal for this new/old photographic process. It did not help matters that the first film to be photographed in Dimension 150 was John Huston's wholly unremarkable, The Bible...In the beginning (1966). Like Todd A-O, Dimension 150 required direct projection on a curved screen for optimal performance. This it almost never received. As a result, most theatre attendees who saw The Bible in general release were privy to little more than a 70mm projection print that was slightly warped and looking rather squeezed on a flat screen. After only one more film, Franklin Schaffner's Patton (1970), Dimension 150 – and Todd A-O for that matter, was officially retired as a filmic process.

@2006 (all rights reserved).