With all of the online chatter about the crowdfunding effort to complete The Other Side of the Wind, the last film of auteur Orson Welles, I thought this might be a great time to share this anecdote from legendary cinematographer Jack Cardiff about working with Welles on the 1950 film The Black Rose. For those of you who are unfamiliar, Jack Cardiff (1914 – 2009) was one of the all-time great cameramen, with credits like Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes, The Prince and the Showgirl, and The African Queen, to name just a few of his classic films. Directing credits include the highly regarded Sons and Lovers (1960) and The Liquidator (1965). Interestingly, Cardiff’s career spanned nearly the entire history of cinema: he made his debut as an actor in a silent film called My Son, My Son in 1918 and worked well into his 90s—he was the cinematographer on Rambo: First Blook Part II—quite a run. His completely engaging autobiography, Magic Hour, was published in 1996 by Faber and Faber and is highly recommended, filled with terrific movie stories and self-effacing humor. Here is a particularly fun passage about working with the great Orson Welles and director Henry Hathaway on The Black Rose (1950).
Orson’s role in The Black Rose was not very big, but every time he was in a scene he was magnificent. He didn’t have the Falstaffian girth then, but his height and bearing lent majesty to his role. He had his tricks like all actors have; for instance, throwing away a line of dialogue he didn’t like be reducing the delivery to a hurried — there almost under the breath — nullity. There was a scene played in the Genghis Khan tent with Tyrone Power in which Orson had a very long speech. He told Hathaway he would never remember it all the way through and asked for the scene to be broken up into several cuts. Hathaway didn’t want to do this and as we started shooting, I could sense I was watching a duel. Orson, after some lines of dialogue, would fluff to prove his point and we’d go again. Orson’s ploy was obvious. All he needed to do was to fluff each time. Hathaway knew this and wouldn’t give in. All Hathaway needed to do as a director was to say, after each fluff, “Let’s go again.”
We went on, take after take, with Orson fluffing away. Hathaway was pacing up and down like a lion in a cage. Orson was deadly quiet, his actor’s impermeability hiding the rage within. The unit was tense and silent, hardly daring to breathe. Sweat was running from Orson’s turban over his pursed face, but the make-up man was too scared to run in and dab the sweat away—Orson would probably have bitten his head off.
At take thirty-six the physical part of the duel told. Orson was exhausted and must have felt as helpless as Sisyphus rolling the stone up the hill, knowing it would always roll down again. Orson spoke the lines all the way through without fluffing, surrendering to the power of the director.
A few days later orson left — with the company’s mink coat and a few cans of unexposed negative film which would be useful on Othello.