By Anthony Stoeckert
Fans of Orson Welles don’t just like his movies, they also admire the length he took to get those movies made.
The legendary Mr. Welles was a sensation in theater and radio at a young age, and came to Hollywood in 1939. He made Citizen Kane (released in 1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons for RKO, then spent 30 years struggling to make the movies he wanted to, along with the rare Hollywood studio picture.
He sought financing wherever he could get it and shot movies as the money came in. For his 1952 adaptation of Othello, he’d stop filming for months at a time, and filmed a scene in a Turkish bath because the costumes for the scene had been impounded.
One of Mr. Welles’ most creative — and creatively financed — films is Chimes at Midnight. Released in 1965, the movie tells the story of Shakespeare’s character Falstaff, via a blending of several plays, mainly the two Henry VI plays, along with some Henry V, Richard II and The Merry Wives of Windsor. The film, hailed by modern critics as a masterpiece, has never received a proper DVD release in the U.S., is rarely shown on television, and has been largely absent from theaters for decades.
That’s changing with a new print from the art house distributor Janus Films. The restored print made its debut in New York City in January, and is coming to the Princeton Garden Theatre for screenings scheduled for April 21 and May 2.
The film tells the story of the less-than-honorable knight Falstaff (played by Mr. Welles), starting with his friendship with Prince Hal (Keith Baxter), as the duo spend their time drinking and carousing, much to the chagrin of Hal’s father, King Henry IV (John Gielgud). It follows Hal’s rise through the Battle of Shrewsbury, his coronation, and his ensuing rejection of Falstaff.
According to Mike Kimison, assistant programmer at the Garden, Mr. Welles had long been fascinated with Falstaff, first telling his story in a 1939 play, Five Kings. That play’s failure was a factor in Mr. Welles heading to Hollywood. He produced the play again in 1960, then got to work on a film version.
Getting his Falstaff story onto screens was a long process.
”Orson Welles is kind of notorious for scrounging money wherever he could find it, to put together these films,” Mr. Kamison says. “This one, in particular, had a tumultuous fundraising experience, where he was pulling money from Swiss producers, Spanish producers, he even lied about which film he was Making… He told this Spanish producer that he was making ‘Treasure Island’ simultaneously, and that he was going to be cast as Long John Silver.”
Mr. Welles even filmed a scene for Treasure Island, adjusting the set of Chimes of Midnight so that it could stand in for the a scene from Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic tale of pirates, in order to have some footage to show the producer.
All of that makes for a great story, but it also made Chimes at Midnight virtually unavailable for decades because of ownership issues. Mr. Welles’ daughter, Beatrice (who as a child played a page boy in Chimes) finally managed to team up wit Janus on a restoration.
Chimes at Midnight wasn’t a success on its initial release. Although some critics admired it, it was panned in The New York Times and Time magazine, and had a limited release. Over the years, it’s come to be regarded as a masterpiece and received a rave in The New Yorker prior to the New York premiere of the new print.
It’s also widely considered one of the best film adaptations of Shakespeare. Mr. Kamison notes that even though Mr. Welles played around with Shakespeare to the point that there are conversations among characters with dialogue from two different plays, Shakespeare scholars are generally admirers of Chimes at Midnight.
”It’s for Shakespeare fans as well as Orson Welles fans,” Mr. Kamison says. “Orson Welles is Falstaff, he is that character, he kind of embodies it, because Falstaff is witty and larger than life, obviously. He also has money troubles and likes a jolly good time. He’s a fun-loving character. It’s the role Orson Welles was destined to play, which explains why he was working on it for 30 years before it became a movie.”
He adds that Mr. Welles plays Falstaff as a tragic character when he is usually played as comic.
”You can tell (Welles is) obsessed with that moment when Prince Hal becomes Henry V, ascends the throne and rejects Falstaff,” Mr. Kamison says. “That’s sort of the crux of the film ‘Chimes at Midnight.’ Orson Welles was a strong proponent of that scene as one of the greatest moments in the history of literature. That’s sort of what is being dramatized on screen in ‘Chimes at Midnight.’ If he had to chop up some of Shakespeare’s dialogue to tell the story as he envisioned it should play out, that’s what he did. For Orson Welles enthusiasts, this is the movie to see.”
The film is part of the Garden’s Shakespeare 400 celebration, which has showcased programming related to the Bard, commemorating the 400th anniversary of his death. The festival has featured films and screenings of stage performances with the goal of showing the versatility within Shakespeare adaptations. Past screenings have included Laurence Olivier’s Henry V, the World War II-set Richard III with Ian McKellen. Still to come are Kiss Me Kate, the Cole Porter musical inspired by The Taming of the Shrew (to be shown May 4); Ran, Akira Kurosawa’s take on King Lear; and Forbidden Planet, the sci-fi classic based on The Tempest.
”It’s showing the large scope of what Shakespeare looks like when translated to film, or just the impact of his influence,” Mr. Kamison says.
And of course there’s Chimes at Midnight. The availability of the new print was perfect timing for the Shakespeare programming. The Garden has two screenings planned and Mr. Kamison says more could be added if there is demand.
”We’ve been really excited to show this film,” he says. “We wanted to add a second screening and we had to check our schedule to see what would fit. We want as many people to see this restoration as possible. Because it is really an achievement.”
Chimes at Midnight will be shown at the Princeton Garden Theatre, 160 Nassau St., Princeton, April 21 and May 2, 7:30 p.m. Tickets cost $11, $9 seniors (62 and older), $8 students; princetongardentheatre.org; 609-279-1999.
By Anthony Stoeckert