It has been a while since I watched some Orson Welles.
And hey, the voices are in sync, so we’re off to an unusually good start.
“Give me the spare men and spare me the great ones.”
While King Gielgud is off ruling the country, his son Prince Hal fucks around, drinking and robbing and having fun with his low-life friends including Falstaff, an overweight self-obsessed clown played by Welles. Falstaff was apparently a running secondary character in three overlong Shakespeare plays, here stitched together to make him the main player, the royalty drama becoming the background story. A good Welles movie, with fun editing, grotesque close-ups and nice compositions.
I’m not too good with the timelines of English kings, but this is the early 1400’s, Henry IV (Gielgud) having recently killed Richard II. Of course the true heir Mortimer has been locked up somewhere else, as is always the case (at least in Shakespeare), and his friends plot the current king’s overthrow. Hal returns to his dad the king and joins in a victorious fight against the Mortimerists (not their real name), personally killing their leader, which cowardly braggart Falstaff attempts to take credit for.
Falstaff thinks this is all in fun, that his group will be friends forever, and when Henry dies and Hal becomes King Henry V, Falstaff is overjoyed, thinking he’ll become rich beyond belief, but instead is banished from the court by the newly serious Hal, returning home to die (offscreen) of grief. I was amazed that Welles wouldn’t give himself a big, talky death scene, but I suppose he wasn’t adding new dialogue to the Shakespeare.
Ebert says the battle scene is “edited quickly, to give a sense of confusion and violence — providing an ironic backdrop for the frightened Falstaff himself, running from tree to tree to hide from the combatants” in the comically large and round armor Welles has made for himself. Being a Shakespeare drama about kings and thieves, there’s not much screen time for women, but Margaret Rutherford (Blithe Spirit) runs the pub/inn and Jeanne Moreau (just after Diary of a Chambermaid) plays a friend/prostitute. This played at Cannes alongside Dr. Zhivago, The Nun, The Round-Up and Seconds.
W. Johnson in Film Quarterly:
The vastness of the film’s spaces serve to deepen the sense of nostalgia. The tavern, for example, is enlarged beyond probability in much the same way that a childhood haunt is enlarged in one’s memory: this is how Falstaff, the perpetual child, would remember it. Similarly, the wide horizons of the film’s outdoor scenes (actually shot in Spain) evoke the spacious, innocent Olde Englande that Falstaff imagined he lived in. Naturalistic settings would have called attention to the costumes, the archaic language, the theatrical structure of the scenes, everything except what’s really important – the characters and their changing world. Welles’s exaggerations give the film its human perspective.
As portrayed by Shakespeare, Falstaff is not only lazy, gluttonous, cowardly, lecherous, dishonest and the rest but also a great innocent. He is devoid of malice or calculation; no matter what is done to him, he remains open and trusting. He lives in a dream world where there are no politicians or policemen or pedagogues; and when Hal destroys that world by rejecting him, he does not adjust to reality but dies.
The Fountain of Youth (1958)
Welles himself calls it “a wacky little romance” in his intro, which seems both accurate and too humble. It’s a jokey little story with a predictable twist ending, but the way its told and shown is thrilling.
Glamorous actress Joi Lansing marries scientist Dan Tobin “the gland man,” but leaves him for tennis champ Rick Jason. The gland man has his revenge, claims to have discovered a 200-year youth serum, gives them a single dose and lets them fight over it.
Orson interrupts the action and talks over it, blocking the picture with his body and voicing the characters himself. Instead of editing he’ll use sudden lighting changes. It’s all a charming trick.
Rosenbaum calls it the only completed film besides Citizen Kane “over which Welles had final and complete artistic control” which “even begin to qualify as Hollywood products,” as opposed to his independent works.
Since so little has been said about this cool little movie, I’m going to overquote from an article in his book on Welles:
In The Fountain of Youth, Welles’s first television pilot – an adaptation of John Collier’s short story Youth From Vienna that begins as an essay on the subject of narcissism – the dialectic is given a new pattern. For once, the narrating Welles persona is intermittently visible as well as audible; he begins the show, in effect, as a slide show lecturer, and reappears periodically to remind us of his privileged position. … By speaking for the characters as well as about them – literally lip-synching Joi Lansing, Dan Tobin, and Rick Jason, his three stars, at certain junctures to mock their roles as puppets – his moral fallibility (that is to say, his narcissism) becomes identified with theirs, and the implicit nastiness of Welles’s amused, glacial detachment consciously boomerangs.
Too Much Johnson (1938)
JR: “The only copy of the film was lost in a fire .. in August 1970.”
Apparently not! I watched Scott Simmon’s new 34-minute edit. Three sections, to be screened between acts at a Mercury Theater play. Mostly they are goofy chase scenes. In the first (and longest), mustache villain Edgar Barrier (Journey Into Fear, Macbeth) chases Joseph Cotten (The Third Man / Ambersons / Kane star) across city rooftops over a girl. In the second, they board a ship bound for Cuba, continuing the chase, and in the third they’re both chased around the island by Howard Smith. It probably would’ve worked better in context.
It feels to me as if Welles and the Mercury theater were working toward some reenactment of a history of American film up to that point: Silent film comedy interspersed with 1930s screwball stage dialogue. In any case, the revised play, in its tightest last revision, has a spirit far from the Gillette original — with rapid-fire exchanges in place of relatively longer speeches.