Arts Listings

Working With Welles on ‘Macbeth’

By Ken Bullock, Special to The Planet
Friday March 21, 2008

"What Orson always said about his career,” Richard Connema reminisced about working on Macbeth with Orson Welles at Republic Studios in 1946, “was that when he came out with Citizen Kane, he was a big shot and everybody gave him Christmas presents. During the making of The Magnificent Ambersons, they still gave him presents. But the next year, after he got back from Brazil and with all the problems with the release of Ambersons, nobody gave him presents.” 

Connema, a lively reviewer for the national website Talkin’ Broadway and a member of the Bay Area Theater Critics Circle, is a familiar face at local opening nights (he covers over 200 shows annually). He started as “camera assistant,” as he carefully spelled it out (“or chief flunky”) at Republic, after World War II. “John Russell was chief photographer. Nobody was called cinematographer in those days. And during the halcyon days of Hollywood, nobody got credit either. Nowadays, you sit for 10 minutes after a film is over, and they list whoever drove the honeybucket wagon.” 

He detailed his advent in the Dream Factory. An Air Force cameraman in the Philippines, a service buddy who had worked for Republic before getting drafted, had made a pact with Connema to get him a studio job after discharge at Travis Air Force Base. But first he decided to go back home, to see family in Dayton, Ohio.  

“Of course, it was deadly dull,” he said. “I was thinking, ‘What am I doing here?’ when I got a telegram from my friend in Hollywood. It was just like in the movies. I was even waiting for the chorus girls when I got off the train with the suitcase in my hand. I guess I should’ve burst out with ‘Hooray for Hollywood!’” 

Connema started out as an apprentice, first on a Roy Rogers Western, “making sure the horses were moving, not shitting in front of the camera.”  

When he heard Welles would be directing Macbeth, he begged his friend to get him on the 23-day shoot.  

“When I was introduced to Orson, he gave me a weak handshake,” recalled Connema. “You know, like ‘Who are you?’ His ego was bouncing around the studio. I immediately told him I thought Citizen Kane was probably the best movie ever made—not to butter him up; I felt that way. Immediately, we became friends. Not buddy-buddy, but we did have lunch together a few times during production, and that’s what we mostly talked about, Citizen Kane.” 

Connema also heard Orson’s woes over the stringent budget Republic gave him, and the cutting that studio head Herbert Yates later demanded. 

“Orson desperately wanted to do Macbeth, but no one would touch it,” he said. “None of the studios wanted anything to do with Shakespeare, who they thought wouldn’t be box office in America. But Herbert Yates wanted to make Republic a first-rate studio and thought Orson’s name would help.” 

Connema continued: “It was really from Poverty Row. [Yates] tried art films, like Specter of the Rose, that went over like a lead balloon. He did make The Quiet Man in ’52. And The Red Pony. But they only lasted a few years trying to get into the majors, then went belly up, with Yates throwing money into films and nothing coming from it. With films like Wake of the Red Witch, they at least knew what the hell they were doing. That, and 55-minute musicals were the breadwinners, the B pictures that would go to Ohio, Illinois, down south...they’d eat it up there. Five lots, and only hillbillies on them, mountain views, god only knows what. And Republic relied on United Artists for distribution; Yates was irritated because they didn’t even use Republic’s eagle on them. Later, Jack Webb took over, and they shot Dragnet there. Now it’s used for sound.” 

The low production values in the film pushed Welles.  

“He had his fingers into everything, the costume design with Fred Ritter, he and Dan O’Herlihy doing the sets,” Connema said. “We all got into that, doing it as a lark. And the Republic people just didn’t know what to do. Thank god we had a western outfit when it came for the army in the Birnam Wood battle scene. They saved going into the extras pool and paying everyone $25, $30 a day by stopping a Roy Rogers film and sending me to the Western slots to go over to a bunch of cowboys in chaps, throw Scottish outfits that were more like sacks over their heads and give each a pike. ‘Cowboys for Scottish raiders?’ Orson said, and didn’t even have them muttering in Scottish as he had intended. They told me not to keep the guys very long—they had to get back to work with Roy Rogers—so those rags went right over the chaps. And they sent me running around looking for trees for Birnam Wood. On another lot I found sagebrush! They spray-painted it or something and had every cowboy handle a branch and walk towards the camera.” 

Seeing the papier-maché sets and hearing the pre-recorded Scottish voices coming over a speaker “for a lip-sync” made it “funny to be on the set. It looked like a high school play. We used to break up. Paper crowns on the heads. Orson using those shadowy, oblique camera angles of his, no full shots so you couldn’t see the phoniness of it.”  

Connema recalled a lunch with Welles and leading lady Jeanette Nolan, “a good actress, but not a good Lady Macbeth. Orson’s first choice was Vivien Leigh, but Laurence Olivier said, ‘No way you’re going to work with Orson Welles!’ [Nolan] joined us at the table, bitching about her outfit, asking why she had to climb the stairs, mouthing her lines—at the same time stumbling—and can’t we get more light in here? And I’d just listen, wet behind the ears, wondering if this is what every movie would be like.” 

The studio didn’t release Macbeth immediately. It would be the last Hollywood directorial credit for Welles for a decade, until Touch of Evil, his last studio film.  

“They had him cut out quite a lot,” Connema said. “At the first preview, Yates had a fit and walked out. He wouldn’t release it. Orson said he’d buy it, but didn’t have the $700,000. Yates made him take out the Scottish accents, and had a hard time getting actors to remouth it. Finally Orson didn’t want to either, and they had to tempt him to come back—with 50 grand. There’s a lot of narration where scenes are cut out. It only played the big cities, and the critics jumped all over it.” 

Connema later saw Welles’ stage production of Around the World in 80 Days, and spoke with Welles another time.  

“I remember him calling Republic a shit house, how he would’ve made a masterpiece if he’d been given a budget,” he said. “And I remember, too, during production, Roddy McDowell, who played Malcolm, had his camera with him, but no way, Orson told him not to bring it on set. He didn’t want photos of him directing in those cheap outfits to show up in one of Roddy’s gallery shows.”