ORSON WELLES AND THE BAT-MAN
The superhero is sixty-four years old this year, but it's only now (and maybe not even now) that he's attaining some kind of mainstream respectability. Crime, horror, romance and even science-fiction have touched The Academy's hearts over the years and been lauded as adult or sophisticated in a way that we'll probably never achieve and the reasons for this are twofold. The first is that superheroes look silly in a way that even cowboys don't. I love them and always will, but Joe Public can't suppress a smirk when he sees Ben Affleck dressed as the banned fifth member of the Village People. We might as well face it. The other reason is that the type of writers and directors generally attached to superhero material over the years hasn't exactly been of the "Apocalypse Now" variety. Of course, that's changed recently with the likes of Bryan Singer, Ang Lee, David Goyer and Christopher Nolan slipping into their comfortable men's tights, but for the first fifty years or so we really just had journeymen at best at the helm of these projects with nothing better than the occasional blip in an otherwise stagnant line-up.
|Production design of Batman done for Orson Welles' never realized Batman feature. Click to enlarge.|
However, things could have been very different if circumstances had been a little more in our favour shortly after the war. The embryonic superhero concept wasn't even ten years old when perhaps the most illustrious director of his day, Orson Welles, seriously considered doing a Batman picture and even got as far as production designs, an early draft of a script and some casting photographs featuring various friends and colleagues in prototypes of what would eventually become the finished costumes. A pal of mine called Lionel Hutton, both a movie critic and respected film historian, was given unprecedented access to the Welles estate as research for his upcoming biography (out next Easter) and came across these startling facts in a huge pile of clippings and notes other people hadn't even bothered to report. This all stems back to the complete irrelevance of comics in even the popular arts and the complete disdain for the subject matter mentioned earlier. The fact that Orson Welles was contemplating a Batman picture in 1946 is both glorious and fascinating to people like me, but embarrassing and crass to the Welles aficionados.
It's no secret that Orson Welles had a love of the pulps, having voiced "The Shadow" on radio and conceiving the illustrious "War Of The Worlds" scam, but what's lesser known is his love of comic-books right up to his death in 1985. What's especially startling is that his appreciation for the medium was no real secret and he even wrote an article for The Village Voice in 1973 raving about the Denny O'Neil/ Neal Adams "Green Lantern/Green Arrow" book (The Real Counter-Culture Lives Here) and even attending, with no real fanfare, one of the earliest New York comic conventions organised by Phil Seuling. It's perhaps no accident that his snobbish acolytes have overlooked these facts, but Hutton's vast tome explores this aspect of his character in great detail and I was lucky enough to have been given a draft to preview for this column he happens to enjoy. Welles' diaries are dotted with occasional references to books he was reading at the time and his particular excitement at the late sixties and early seventies work of the new wave of comic-book writers and artists who brought a certain amount of respectability to this medium he had so much affection for. However, the red meat of the book is the details of his proposed Batman picture and the eight months of his life he wasted in pre-production after the success of "Jane Eyre" and "The Stranger."
He began meetings with National Comics (who would later become DC) as early as 1944 to discuss the Batman project, but his work didn't begin in earnest until completion of "The Stranger" in 1946 and Welles immediately threw himself headlong into the project. Gathering many of his old friends and colleagues together from "Citizen Kane," he proposed "a cinematic experience, a kaleidoscope of heroism and nightmares and imagery seen nowhere save the subconscious of Goya or even Hawksmoor himself." Welles planned Batman to be an adult psycho-drama, but combined with what he described as the "heart-racing excitement of the Saturday morning serials, given a respectable twist and a whole new style of kinetic direction unlike anything ever attempted in American cinema." Many of the production sketches he commissioned from Greg Tolland are in the notes and it sends a shiver down your spine when you see them. Unfortunately, I don't have permission to use the most elaborate ones here, but they'll be available in the book with his thirty-six page treatment for a movie that opens with the deaths of Thomas and Mary Wayne (why it's Mary I've no idea) and ends with Batman unmasked and fighting for his life against The Joker, The Riddler, Two-Face and Catwoman in a prison they've assumed control of.
The real treat for me was the casting notes and confirmation letters from the actors themselves such as George Raft signing up for Two-Face (after Bogart turned it down), James Cagney as The Riddler, Basil Rathbone as The Joker and Welles' former lover Marlene Dietrich as a very exotic Catwoman with the same salubrious past Miller gave the character forty years later in "Batman: Year One." Robin was completely absent from the picture, but the casting of Batman himself was the main reason the picture stalled and was consigned to the history books. Welles wanted to cast himself in the roles of both Batman and Bruce Wayne, but the studio wanted to go with a more traditional leading man like Gregory Peck. Peck agreed and was reportedly even shot in a makeshift costume for the part during a break between filming "The Yearling" and the classic "Duel in the Sun." Welles, however, was incensed at the decision. Despite being friends with Peck, he felt that this casting would completely compromise his vision and was especially angry at the studio's suggestion that he should replace Rathbone as The Joker if he really a part in the picture. The talks ended abruptly, Welles pulled out pf the whole deal and threw himself completely into "The Lady From Shanghai" and the "MacBeth" cinematic feature he had also been preparing for some time.
The tragedy for movie buffs is that, like Welles' proposed adaptation of Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," the world wouldn't get to see a Batman feature until the campy 1966 movie with Adam West. The tragedy for comic-book aficionados is that our big shot at respectability, when the genre was so young that people hadn't made up their minds about us yet, was blown because of an argument over something as small and petty as casting. The movie could have been a disaster, it's impossible to say, but the production notes, the treatment and the first draft I've been reading over the last couple of weeks makes me think this could have redefined cinema. This could have been his masterpiece and, who knows, might have launched the superhero renaissance we're undergoing at the moment with quality cast and directors two or three generations earlier. John Ford following up "The Bat-Man" with a "Captain America" movie? Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn as Clark Kent and Lois Lane? In some weird, parallel reality these things are DVDs collecting dust on our video-shelves and Clint Eastwood is wishing some studio would give his funny, old "Unforgiven" cowboy flick half a chance at the next pitch meeting.
THE COLUMN will return in a few weeks time