Friday, November 18, 2011

Othello (1952)

Orson Welles began to create a film-adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Othello in 1949. At that point in history, it was still common-place for white actors to “black up” (as they say) to play characters of African origin. Even Anthony Hopkins played the role in blackface for a BBC adaptation as late as 1981. By the late 1940s Welles was already in financial straits, the sheen of his 1941 Citizen Kane glory having been dulled by poor business decisions, unappreciated directorial efforts, and a sizeable amount of bad luck.

For three years, on and off, i.e. when he had cash saved up from acting in other people’s films, Welles would schlep his cast and crew to exotic locations like Morocco, Venice or Rome to pick up a few more shots. It has been speculated that, as he pieced together the film, in textual order, from the late 40s through the early 50s, race-sensitivity must have influenced him as through the film to Moor of Venice’s his complexion goes from shiny chocolate to dusky cocoa.

The film was released in 1952 and received the highest award at the Cannes Film Festival, the Grand Prix du Festival International du Film (now called the Palme d’Or.) In America, however, it did not impress. It wasn’t even release in the US until 1955, at which time the New York Times opined, "There are flashes of brilliant suggestion in this tumbled, slurred and helter-skelter film. But they add up to nothing substantial; just a little Shakespeare and a lot of Welles."

When the old Heights Porn Art Theatre at Coventry and Euclid Heights Blvd. re-opened to much-fanfare as the Centrum in 1993, the single-screen theater had been divided into three, and each screen was given a name; the Columbi and the Roxanne (after local radio pioneer Chris Columbi and Plain Dealer film critic Roxanne T. Mueller) and the smallest screen, the Kane (yes, after Citizen Kane) which they said at the time was featured a screen that was best for black-and-white films. It was in this house that I saw the 1992 re-release of Welles’ Othello.

Though traveling to these locations was expensive, crumbling ruins of castles and ramparts made for cheap, exciting locations, and a great deal of it uses natural light (the sun is free.) The murder of Roderigo was improvised to take place in a "Turkish bath" because the costumes had been lost. They all wore towels. Orson Welles was a GENIUS.

The New York Times

No comments:

Post a Comment