This essay discusses Orson Welles' The Lady From Shanghai and was written by UW Alum and former Cinematheque staff member Evan Davis. The Lady from Shanghai screens in a new Sony Pictures 4K restoration in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, on Saturday, February 14 at 7 p.m.
By Evan Davis
Did Orson Welles belong in Hollywood? He was certainly a figure of great national renown, and if someone so popular in America was going to make movies, Hollywood was going to be the place. And yet time and again, he seems like such an outlier, an exception to prove the rule. His 1939 contract for RKO that gave him full creative control was unprecedented at the time. Not even major directors like John Ford, Howard Hawks, Ernst Lubitsch, or Frank Capra had similar deals at their studios--at least, not at first. Furthermore, his working methods ran counter to what major studios were accustomed. He loved to revise and reshape. He once famously said that he could never watch his own work, because he'd want to bust open the projection booth and start re-cutting the film. As influenced by his experiences in the theater and radio, Welles loved process over product.
It is perhaps no accident that of the five movies Welles made in Hollywood in the 1940s, none were for the four major studios (MGM, Paramount, Warner, Fox). They never would have been able to forgo their standardized production methods for his way of working--and he would have never been able to shackle himself to the confines of major studio production. What he could offer the minor studios, however, was prestige.
Citizen Kane made quite a splash in the run-up to its release, and while it was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, it was seen as an anomaly in the Hollywood landscape, and lost money. The Magnificent Ambersons met a similar fate, in addition to being bowlderized by RKO. Which brings us to his relationship with Columbia Pictures and the making of The Lady from Shanghai.
They may be owned by Sony these days, but Columbia wasn't always a powerhouse in the Hollywood landscape. President and head of production Harry Cohn had lost Frank Capra to Warner Brothers in 1940, and was without any director of equal notoriety. Not that Columbia could have afforded it; their budget structure wouldn't allow for the number of big-budget films made by the likes of Paramount and MGM, nor could it attract that kind of talent. (Columbia didn't even make a film in color until 1943, years after the other studios had done it.) Cohn could see the profits and prestige that big films could bring a studio, and he wanted back in the game.
Welles also wanted to revive his career. He was looking to get back into directing and needed money to fund his traveling production of Around the World in 80 Days in the spring of 1946. When he approached Columbia with an offer to write, produce, direct and star in a feature with his estranged wife (and Columbia's newest superstar, Rita Hayworth), Cohn envisioned a "Class AA" picture that would garner his studio some of the plaudits it had missed since Capra's departure. Both Welles and Cohn needed each other, but their needs would soon sharply diverge.
It didn't work out the way anyone had planned. When one studies the production files housed at the Lilly Library at Indiana University in Bloomington, one gets the sense that Columbia simply wasn't equipped to handle a production of The Lady from Shanghai's scope. Welles wanted a small, gritty picture shot entirely in New York City, but if Hayworth was to be involved, Cohn demanded exotic locations and lush romance. Cohn insisted on Welles changing the script to include sequences in Acapulco and San Francisco; Welles acquiesced. When Cohn demanded a sequence involving a love song and more close-ups of Hayworth, Welles acquiesced. In fact, Welles grudgingly bent to every demand Cohn made. Long tracking shots were broken up by inserts; voiceover was added to make the plot somewhat comprehensible after Cohn and editor Viola Lawrence cut the film down to 86 minutes. But all these changes slowed things down and ramped up the budget. Welles viewed the added shooting time and expense to be unnecessary, especially since he felt that his original design would be more efficient; Cohn wanted the film to appeal to stylistic norms. When all was said and done, Columbia had budgeted the film for an adjusted-for-inflation $18 million. The production went 33 days over schedule and cost an extra $5 million (adjusted for inflation).
So what film are we left with? The Lady from Shanghai is a Frankenstein's monster of a picture. Every word and image is Welles's, even though he didn't want to make many of them. There is a large swath of footage cut without Welles's consent, making much of its narrative incomprehensible. the score, sound effects, and dubbing process are not Welles's. Location footage to process shots, direct sound to dubbed lines--they oscillate from shot to shot. It's a positive mess. That said, every image is sumptuous, every line bitterly caustic and darkly funny. It is a film of competing stylistic norms and production practices all fused into a gloriously surreal melange. (Maybe my favorite of these touches is Hayworth's character, Elsa, speaking perfect Cantonese in San Francisco's Chinatown.)
Welles would knock off an adaptation of Macbeth for Poverty Row outfit Republic Pictures in only 21 days in the summer of 1947--well under budget--and would then decamp for Europe, not to return to a Hollywood director's chair for 10 years. His experiment with being an independent inside the Hollywood machine was effectively over.