The Independent (USA)

Movies in the Mountains [Online]: presents ‘Chimes at Midnight’

- By Frank Cullen

An old and boastful knave, Falstaff spends most of his time drinking at the Boar's Head Inn with petty criminals. His protégé, in a life ill-spent, is the youthful, wayward Prince Hal, bent on a carefree life until it is time for him to assume the crown to rule the British kingdom.

Orson Welles (1915–1985), compiled scenes from Shakespear­e’s Henriad, Merry Wives of Windsor and Richard II,

wrote the connective dialogue, then directed it and played Falstaff. In retrospect, he considered Chimes at Midnight

(1965), his best film performanc­e.

Chimes was further blessed with a cast that includes Keith Baxter as Prince Hal; John Gielgud as his father, King Henry IV; and Falstaff’s boon companions: Jeanne Moreau (as Doll Tearsheet, a prostitute), Alan Webb (as Justice Shallow) and Margaret Rutherford (Mistress Quickly, the hostess of the inn and tavern). Ralph Richardson voices the narration.

There are two central stories: That of obese Falstaff, a braggart no longer is useful to king or country and committed only to himself. Falstaff lives by his wits on stolen or borrowed money.

Hal’s father, old King Henry IV (Gielgud). is ill and beset by claimants to a throne: the family of King Richard II whom Henry has had killed. He worries that Hal will not become a strong enough monarch to defend throne and crown.

Almost as interestin­g as Welles’ great film itself were his behind the scenes machinatio­ns to raise the money to film Chimes at Midnight and cajole some famous actors into his cast. The most eminent Shakespear­ian actor of the 20th Century, John Gielgud, because of other stage and film commitment­s, was available only 10 days in Spain to film his scenes, most of which were in filmed what passed as a castle that was so cold that Gielgud had to fight off the chill—in one scene viewers can spot his warm breath caught in the frigid air. Jeanne Moreau had only a week to spare for filming, and Ms Rutherford had to be back in England within a few weeks.

In addition to the co-starring role of Prince Hal, Keith Baxter, the 26-year-old had to chauffeur both Welles and Gielgud while in Spain, where most of the scenes were filmed. Both men treated young Mr Baxter as a confidant. Gielgud told Baxter the he was sure that Welles thought him “an old ham,” and Welles confided to Baxter that he was certain that Gielgud thought him an “old fraud.”

At the time he was filming in Spain, Welles accepted an offer to direct and star as Long John Silver in Robert Louis Stephenson’s Treasure Island for a Spanish movie producer. Welles’ deceptions included having the Spanish producer pay for the elaborate Boar’s Head Inn set and other line items that ostensibly were for Treasure Island, but which Welles used for Chimes.

Orson Welles would play Long John Silver in Treasure Island, but seven years later and for a different film company. While Welles never forsook the voluptuary life, he did admit, “I’ve spent too much energy on things that have nothing to do with a movie. It’s about 2% moviemakin­g and 98% hustling, It’s no way to spend a life. On a different occasion he remarked, “I never like to see my movies because I like to remember them as being so much better than they really were.”

As one who has watched Chimes at Midnight several times, it is my favorite Shakespear­e on film, and has never grown stale for me.

Watch Chimes at Midnight free at:

Frank Cullen is a playwright, coauthor of seven published show-business novels (The Porridge Sisters Adventures), and Vaudeville, Old & New: An Encycloped­ia of Variety Performers in America, and as producer of film fests at Guild Cinema on Nob Hill, and the East Mountain Library.

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