Why Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight took 50 years to get to the Tivoli

For actor, writer and director Orson Welles, whose reputation today rests comfortably on Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil, his lost project Chimes at Midnight was not merely a movie. It was a lifelong obsession.

Welles’ clever recombination of Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part I and Part II, Henry V and The Merry Wives of Windsor — a thrilling restoration of which opens Friday at Tivoli Cinemas (read our interview with star Keith Baxter here) — focuses on the conflict between Henry IV (Sir John Gielgud) and Sir John Falstaff (Welles) as each works to influence the future King of England, Prince Hal (Baxter).

In 1930, Welles’ senior project at the now-defunct Todd School, in Woodstock, Illinois, consisted of a presentation he directed called Winter of Our Discontent, involving all of Shakespeare’s War of the Roses-related plays, including Richard II and Richard III. Welles played the latter in the nearly three-hour production. He was 15.

In late 1939, Welles adapted and directed a massive, multi-play Shakespeare production called Five Kings, playing Falstaff with the help of padding and old-age makeup. Burgess Meredith, who later won an Oscar for his role in Rocky, played Hal. A rotating stage that was intended to allow fast scenery changes consistently malfunctioned, and the content of the presentation changed as Welles frantically revised the long show. His backers bailed on him after the play received mixed reviews in Boston and Philadelphia.

Throughout his life, Welles would return to playing the hard-drinking, mischievous Falstaff. Welles biographer Patrick McGilligan has compared Welles’ fixation on the character to Ahab’s quest for Moby-Dick. “What is difficult about Falstaff, I believe, is that he is the greatest conception of a good man, the most completely good man in all drama,” Welles told the Spanish magazine Griffith 50 years ago.

In 1960, Welles tried his luck with a similar comprehensive production in Belfast, this time called Chimes at Midnight. It ran for five performances. Soon, though, he found his ideal Prince Hal: Keith Baxter. The two collaborated on the film in 1964 and 1965, a production plagued by financial difficulties and Welles’ gallbladder infection.

After the film debuted at the Cannes Film Festival, in 1966, Bosley Crowther of The New York Times lambasted it, which led the film’s distributor, Peppercorn Wormser, to give the film only a paltry release.

But audiences who did see Chimes knew they’d witnessed something remarkable. In an e-mail to The Pitch, Welles biographer and collaborator Joseph McBride (What Ever Happened to Orson Welles) recalls a Chicago screening during the movie’s original run: “The audience was a mixture of intellectuals from the University of Chicago and winos from the neighborhood. They all enjoyed it. The winos got all of Falstaff’s jokes and clearly identified with him as the patron saint of all bums. So Peppercorn lost an opportunity go wider with the film.”

And so the movie vanished, disappearing so thoroughly that even Welles’ peers were unaware of it.

McBride says that, when he met his subject in 1970, “Welles said he had recently received a telegram from Charlton Heston [who had starred with Welles in Touch of Evil]. Heston was planning to make a film of Shakespare’s plays about Prince Hal and Falstaff. Falstaff, declared Heston, was the part he had always wanted to see Welles play. Would Welles be interested in starring in the movie with him? With a rueful smile, Welles showed how astonished he was that Heston didn’t even know Chimes at Midnight existed. I could see that Welles wanted to burst out laughing at the absurdity of the situation, but the laughter died in his throat.”

For decades afterward, a dispute over who actually held the rights for Chimes at Midnight kept the film from receiving a proper release. McBride explains, “The families [of Spanish producers Emiliano Piedra and Àngel Escalano] were feuding over the rights for years. [James Bond producer] Harry Saltzman, who died in 1994, also had distribution rights for most of the world. I saw a recent documentary on the Spanish restoration that said Saltzman’s rights had expired in 1989.”

In a podcast of a Q&A with the audience at the Film Forum in New York, Beatrice Welles Smith, the director’s daughter, who played Falstaff’s page in the film, recalled unsuccessfully trying to obtain a legitimate release for the film. “We desperately tried to convince the widow and then the daughter of Emilano Piedra to do what we had done with Othello,” she said. “They just wouldn’t budge, and what they wouldn’t do was put a stop to the bootlegs. Most people won’t investing a movie that is being shown all over the world In a lot of different ways.”

Last year was the 100th anniversary of Welles’ birth, and the legal wrangling has now been resolved enough that Janus Films has finally released a version with an intelligible soundtrack. The Criterion Collection is scheduled to release a Blu-ray of the film in the fall.

Like Touch of Evil and Othello, Chimes at Midnight is now recognized as a landmark. Its rating on Rotten Tomatoes is 97, and excitement has built around the touring restoration. Only Crowther’s original pan haunts the internet.

McBride says, “The current enthusiasm and strong box office for Chimes is a sign that I and the winos were correct. I had never thought I’d hear Chimes described as a ‘blockbuster,’ to quote Bruce Goldstein of Film Forum, where it had to be held over again this month.”

Yet finally, Chimes is poised to be just that, at least among movie fans too long denied its pleasures. To quote Falstaff: “And here I stand: Judge, my masters.”