MACBETH (1948/1950 Republic)-Olive Films Blu Ray release date November 15,2016- $39.95
Runtime: 107 (1948), 85 (1950) minutes B&W. First screening Venice Film Festival September 3,1948. USA release October 1,1948. December 27,1950 (re-edited version release NYC).
Orson Welles’ Shakespearean films were labors of love that were often created against time constraints, budget problems, and often, negative press and indifference audience responses. They were often forgotten, or, at best, footnotes when people referenced his other studio masterpieces.
(art by J.S. Rossbach )
After his passing in 1985, his lesser known films began to get rediscovered and restored. His daughter Beatrice helped restore and release his troubled production, OTHELLO (November 29,1951, United Artists). Critics now hailed his brilliant choices (often necessity bringing his creativity to the fore) and how his chiaroscuro lighting and quick editing was a precursor to the directorial styles of creators like Ridley Scott.
His live televersion of KING LEAR (Omnibus/CBS, October 18,1953), starring Welles and directed by Andrew McCullough is a wonder (watch as he drags Cordelia (Natasha Parry) in by her hair during ‘Howl! Howl! Howl!”) and we are lucky that Sony has released it on DVD in 2010.
Earlier this year, Criterion released his CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT (aka FALSTAFF, December 22,1965) and people once again were in awe of how he used his 1939 play FIVE KINGS, a combination of HENRY VI Pt 1 & Pt 2 and HENRY V, and within the film, with its spectacular battle scenes, he drew out the intimacy of the lives of the characters.
Now OLIVE FILMS have released his MACBETH, making all his completed cinematic works of Shakespeare available. * To be exact, they have released BOTH versions of this bold telling of the macabre tale on two Blu Ray discs. Two versions?
When first released, critics and audiences had difficulty with the actors speaking with Scottish burrs in the speech, and so, the film, under Welles’ supervision was re dubbed into what would be considered standard speech, an opening monologue by Welles added and the film shortened from 107 minutes to 89 .
Welles had a long-time love of the works of The Bard. At age 19, he worked on several performing editions of Shakespeare. He leaps to national fame with his WPA Federal Theatre production of what became known as “Voodoo” Macbeth (premiered April 13,1936, Lafayette Theatre, Harlem, NYC)
(the only known footage of this production is an extra on one of the discs).
Welles tried interesting producers for a long time in putting Shakespeare on screen, but during the first decade of the sound era, the few adaptations were prestigious but not money makers so producers were hesitant.
Finally, Lawrence Olivier released HENRY V (Two Cities/Eagle Lion, November 1944) and the film was both a marvelous war rally cry for the beleaguered Allies of WWII, but also a profitable film.
Welles, however, had gone from Wunderkind to pariah. His RKO directorial projects had almost bankrupted that studio. Welles own self-created radio shows ended in 1946 due to his liberal political commentary (he was an ardent F.D.R. supporter) such as his comments on the racial bias attack of returning U.S. Soldier Isaac Woodward (attacked and blinded hours after his honorable release from service). He was still popular as an actor and worked for all the major studios, but he longed for total control of his projects again.
He got a chance with THE STRANGER (International Pictures/RKO May 25,1946) a thriller he starred in and directed. He proved he could make a film under budget and make a great profit.
However, his musical adaptation of AROUND THE WORLD for Broadway (Adelphi Theatre, NYC May 31,1946) had Welles take over producing as well as creating/directing forcing Welles had to borrow money from Columbia Studios exec Harry Cohen to get it on. Sadly, it flopped after only 75 performances,though it did lead to Welles having to make THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI (Columbia, December 24,1947 in France).
Olivier meanwhile prepared and shot his brilliant adaptation of HAMLET (Two Cities/Rank/Universal, May 4,1948) and it again won critical acclaim as well as box office. Word of this production must have spurred Welles on, and he went to various studios to try and interest them in bankrolling a new American produced Shakespeare movie.
All balked, except Herbert J Yates of Republic Pictures. Republic was best known for grinding out their now classic serials like THE CRIMSON GHOST (Republic, October 26,1946) as well as westerns and second features. Yates was a crude near caricature of a cigar chomping business man who got into producing when several indie filmmakers stiffed his film laboratories. He wanted films done cheap and profitable. Every once and a while, though, he took a chance and made a movie to try and get himself some respect from the industry.
In 1948 Yates agreed to bankroll Welles production of Macbeth if the director could keep the budget under a certain amount, and complete it within three weeks. To keep the film within budget, Welles pre-recorded all the dialogue (with one exception) so that he might avoid the use of microphones, and free up the fluidity of his camerawork. Costumes were rented from Western Costumes (except for the two leads), and were a source of criticism by many.
Welles did not try to avoid artifice and indeed the production at times resembles a filmed stage play. He also made some big cuts and changes (the Porter’s “Knock Knock” sequence was cut to nothing due to censorship, a character of a priest was added, lines were altered and some placed in different scenes and said by other characters) but nothing to the detriment of the story. As always, he respected the actors, and his long takes not only helped characterization but also kept his film within the allotted shooting schedule.
The film had the misfortune to be shown at the Venice Film Festival in 1948 and was compared negatively against Olivier’s HAMLET. This is a shame as when watched back to back they share many similarities (striking black and white cinematography, very theatrical look and mood, and indeed, when Welles edited MACBETH, he added an opening narration that harkens to the one Olivier opened his movie with).
(even the two film posters echoed each other)
Yates praised Welles for making such a quality film on time and within budget, and again when it was reviewed negatively and received so so box office, Welles reedited the film, and had the cast redub their dialogue. The new version was better received (or in its shorten state, easier to show more often and thus potentially sell more tickets) and eventually made a small profit. At least Welles could control this re-edit, unlike other films which had been taken out of his control.
OLIVE FILMS release of both versions will let you decide which version that you prefer.
The image and sound quality of each is superb, and comes from the best elements available with new High Definition digital restoration. The superb cinematography by John L. Russell (later to work on Hitchcock’s PSYCHO(Paramount,1960) really shines in this transfer. The blacks are rich and dark, with the fog and various gray scales allowing characters to drift in and out as if in some nightmare.
Stately Xanadu from CITIZEN KANE in Scotland?
The sound is clear, and Jacques Ibert’s score captures the discordant and uneasy feel that Welles brings to the production (Ibert was mostly a composer of French orchestrations, though he did score a few French movies as well as the Circus Ballet for Gene Kelly’s INVITATION TO THE DANCE (MGM, May 22,1956).
On disc one, there is an informative running commentary by Welles biographer (three books ORSON WELLES (Martin Secker & Warburg Ltd, April 24, 1972), ORSON WELLES ACTOR & DIRECTOR (Harvest/HBJ Books, 1977) and WHATEVER HAPPENED TO ORSON WELLES (University Press of Kentucky, 2006) Joseph McBride.
Disc Two has an abundance of extras.
Besides the already mentioned clip from VOODOO MACBETH (itself a clip from WE WORK AGAIN (Federal Work Agency ,1937), a short documentary on the WPA and its efforts to find work for African-Americans during the Great Depression, we have
FREE REPUBLIC-continuing the story of Herbert J Yates that was touched upon in OLIVE FILMS release of THE QUIET MAN(Republic,1952).THE QUIET MAN review can be read at https://scarletthefilmmagazine.wordpress.com/2016/10/25/the-quiet-man-olive-films-signature-blu-ray/ . This time, they concentrate on the making of the Welles’ film as well as the final years of the studio. Once again, Marc Wanamaker (EARLY POVERTY ROW STUDIOS (Arcadia Publishing,2014) is our guide.
The set from his 1936 Voodoo Macbeth resembles this production design sketch for the 1948 film .
THAT WAS ORSON WELLES -a new interview with director and film historian Peter Bogdanovich (TARGETS, Paramount, August 15,1968) was also a friend of the late director, and his insights are, as always, delightful.
RESTORING MACBETH with Robert Gitt (former Preservation Officer, UCLA Film & TV Archive) talks about how all prints and negatives from Republic were donated in the 1970s. Gitt found a protection positive of the film that was only the edited version, but some nitrate positives he found clued him in that the original version had survived. Gitt tracked down a nitrate complete version overseas in Europe and from that we have the prints preserved and available to us. Having worked in a film storage lab, I know how easily films decay and can get lost, so we are lucky to have the film in existence thanks to Gitt’s perseverance.
WELLES & SHAKESPEARE -an interview with Professor Michael Anderegg (Cinematic Shakespeare, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, November 2003) discusses the near lifelong obsession of Welles with the works of the Bard.
ADAPTING SHAKESPEARE ON FILM -two contemporary directors discuss how the works of Shakespeare influenced their careers and adaptations. Both admit a love from an early age for the works, though oddly director Billy Morrissette, director of SCOTLAND, PA (Sundance ,2001), a modern adaptation of MACBETH, admits to originally hating that play! Director Carlo Carlei directed a beautiful looking if controversial adaptation of ROMEO & JULIET(Relativity,2013) which took major liberties with the Immortal prose. Both speak of their adaptations and why they made some of their choices.
ORSON WELLES’S MACBETHS – a nine-page critical study of the two versions by film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum. Rosenbaum’s essay is also enclosed as a small well illustrated booklet stored within the Blu Ray case.
The outer cover is reversible, featuring a beautiful shot of both Welles and his Lady Macbeth (Jeanette Nolan, in her film debut).
This is a must have highly recommended release for fans of Welles, classic cinema and Shakespeare. Kudos once again to OLIVE FILMS in another outstanding release from their Signature Collection.
If you would like to know more about Orson Welles, go to
-Kevin G Shinnick
*-His MERCHANT OF VENICE, a short, was finished but footage was lost shortly after its completion in 1969. A restoration of sorts was released in 2015 at Venice Int. Film Festival. Here is a clip, which also has actor Charles Gray (THE DEVIL RIDES OUT, Hammer/Fox, July 20,1968, U.K.) as Antonio: https://youtu.be/x6xBumLVBLY).