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Welles Conjures Up A Starring Lead

That Old Black Magic (1949) Comes Back

Shot For Spectacle, Sold For Spooky
Wildly lavish for an Edward Small production, this was made off frozen receipts of Small backlog distributed in Italysince cessation of the war. The producer had floated the project for years, seeking location where it could be done economically, before providence smiled and gave him castles to play against. Small got keys to Italy kingdom thanks to government co-op, no doors closed to arriving cast/crew, especially as tech positions would be 100% filled by natives. Black Magic was among first major pics Euro-shot by Yank talent now that the continent was calmed (and a first shot in Italy, said publicity, since the silent Ben-Hur). It was also rare starring chance for Orson Welles, lately crossing Atlantic bridge he burned, a proud exile from studio interests blind to his much-heralded genius. Black Magic would be but second Occasion when Welles was top-billed in a film he didn't direct (first being Jane Eyre), though rankling was director's meg withheld, especially where that status was accorded Gregory Ratoff, Orson's idea ofa hack, if not outright clown ("What a set!," cried Ratoff when he first saw vista of Rome from his hotel suite). Such made for hard times and set-siege by Welles, who'd junk dialogue as written and devise his own, then direct after sending Ratoff home for "naps." Result doesn't announce itself any more than prior or later occasions when OW was said to take over, but maybe he'd have served himself better with greater focus on performing that he was hired for.

His fee for Black Magic was $100K, at best part-payment of IRS debt back home, another reason Welles stayed offshore. He'd play Cagliostro, master hypnotist and sleight-of-hander not unlike how OW presented himself to troops and in war-relief Follow The Boys. Cagliostro was supposed to be magician and sinister besides, the part announced for Boris Karloff when he rode high at Universal years before. More than a shade of John Barrymore as Svengali also informed the role. Welles gets the flamboyance, but not the danger. An early mind-control stunt finds him more distracted by a turkey leg than un-easing us, first of many instances where OW would play down to material he thought unworthy. Black Magic could have been a crowning project if only they'd let Welles direct. As it is, he looks trim, probably a best ever on screen, and costumes flatter him. This might have been entree to romantic leads back home, but word of misbehavior rode too on winds, not only from here but location of a pair for Fox where Welles supported Tyrone Power. Top-of-billing would be an occasion not repeated, but for occasions Orson framed the venture himself (upcoming Othello, Mr. Arkadin). Directing Ratoff turned out to be something of a Stroheim in terms of over-length: his initial cut of Black Magic ran to unsustainable 168 minutes, from which an hour was ultimately cut.

Ed Small knew he'd have to go wide open on exploitation, Welles and lead lady Nancy Guild not of adequate marquee strength to launch the show star-wise. 8/17/49 saw Black Magic bow "in a flock of keys," said Variety. The producer spent $60,000 on advertising and "pulled out the stops on every trick --- no matter how corny --- in the field man's manual" (Small's pressbook is overpowering for size and girth). Outstanding among stunts was dispatch of four hypnotists to work "mesmo" magic on newspaper men in "seven or eight" picked cities. Two gags at least got front-page space: a news scribe and smoker inspired to quit the longtime habit by one of the roving Svengalis, plus another "causing a gal to walk out in the sun in a fur coat (during a heat wave) with her teeth chattering from cold." A stunt in the film had Welles burying his wife alive, so of course hucksters on Black Magic's behalf did the same. Many situations peddled the film for outright horror, UA-supplied ads pointed in that direction. Black Magic stumped toes in the end, however: $669K in domestic rentals. White magic wand was recent-waved by TCM with HD broadcast, back-from-dead occasion for Black Magic to entertain nicely now that we can see and hear splendor. Keep eyes open for this one to show up again.

This post first appeared on Greenbriar Picture Shows, please read the originial post: here

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Welles Conjures Up A Starring Lead


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