The Critical 'I'

Read. React. Repeat.

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Who knew there was so much mutual admiration between Orson Welles and The Batman? Fresh off my "Citizen Wayne" post, I find out about Orson Welles' 1946 attempt at making a first-ever feature-length superhero movie, featuring The Batman!
He began meetings with National Comics (who would later become DC) as early as 1944 to discuss the Batman project, but his work didn't begin in earnest until completion of "The Stranger" in 1946 and Welles immediately threw himself headlong into the project. Gathering many of his old friends and colleagues together from "Citizen Kane," he proposed "a cinematic experience, a kaleidoscope of heroism and nightmares and imagery seen nowhere save the subconscious of Goya or even Hawksmoor himself." Welles planned Batman to be 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."...

[A] thirty-six page treatment for a movie that opens with the deaths of Thomas and Mary Wayne (why it's Mary I've no idea) and ends with Batman unmasked and fighting for his life against The Joker, The Riddler, Two-Face and Catwoman in a prison they've assumed control of.
What, another superhero movie unmasking?? Maybe Welles' conception here is what gave everyone else this loathsome idea.

Still, pretty ambitious stuff. Try picturing this classic cast, all of whom confirmed their participation:

- George Raft as Two-Face (after Humphrey Bogart declined)

- James Cagney as The Riddler

- Basil Rathbone as The Joker

- Marlene Dietrich as Catwoman

The casting of Bruce Wayne/Batman proved to be the deal-breaker. The studio wanted sure-shot leading man Gregory Peck; Welles saw himself playing the Caped Crusader, and was so miffed at the suggestion that he step aside (and possibly take the role of The Joker instead) that he ditched the project altogether.

What did the world miss out on? A whole lot, thinks Mark Millar:
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.
I question just how much people were undecided about the superhero genre in the mid-'40s. Their presentation in comics pretty much cemented them in everyone's minds as kids' stuff--that, and the fantastical notion of costumed do-gooders. I'd like to think that an early graduation to a more "mature" medium like cinema would have altered this, but I'm skeptical. (Plus, even by the '40s, movies weren't completely embraced as a higher-art medium, like the novel or the play; many film critics still referred to their review material as "photo-plays" during this era.) If anything, the chances are a lot better that Welles would have tanked his career had he made this movie, despite the star power.

Still, it's nice to dream. When I was younger, I imagined that the definitive Batman movie would be in black-and-white, and maybe silent. This Wellesian proposal might have come close.