2-24-10 Orson Welles and Citizen Bat-Man
Posted by Sean on February 24, 2010
You may have heard that Orson Welles was planning to make a movie based on Batman. Mark Millar broke the story here at Comic Book Resources in 2003 when his friend, movie critic Lionel Hutton, was given “unprecedented access” to Welles’ estate. Hutton discovered that, after completion of 1946’s The Stranger, Welles had begun serious planning on “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.'”
Welles had supposedly gotten as far as drawing production sketches, writing a treatment and draft script and even getting stars to commit to the project: “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.” It blew up because of his ego (surprise surprise). He wanted to be Batman and Bruce Wayne, but “the studio” – which remained unidentified in Millar’s story – wanted Gregory Peck.
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.
Yes, you wonder what could have been if Welles’ had been able to put a veneer of respectability on the comic book genre, which has suffered from low public and self esteem since birth. Sounds almost too good to be true, doesn’t it?
Well, guess what?
Comic Books Resources later revealed here that the whole thing was a hoax perpetrated by Millar, complete with a Batman costume sketch by his friend Bryan Hitch. Welles, the perpetrator of one of the 20th century’s greatest hoaxes, would have been proud.
I know I swallowed it. I mean, I saw the production sketches! Well, a sketch! It had to be true!
However, beyond my gullibility, it did make sense. Welles was a young Turk in those days, a Hollywood outsider who wasn’t tied down to what was “respectable”. The guy was the Shadow, fer cryin’ out loud! As Millar pointed out:
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.
So it was just smoke and mirrors. Still, you have to wonder… what would have an Orson Welles-directed Batman movie been like? Sirrus79 wondered that, too, and decided to stitch together a two-part “extended trailer” of 1947’s smash hit The Bat-Man, with Orson Welles as Bruce Wayne and The Bat-Man, Edward G. Robinson as the Penguin, Marlene Dietrich as Cat-Woman and Mercury Theatre veteran Joseph Cotten as Commissioner Gordon.