BOOTLEG FILES: DON QUIXOTE: THE CINEMA SCENE

BOOTLEG FILES 255 “Don Quixote: The Cinema Scene” (1958-lensed sequence from 0rson Welles’ unfinished film of the Cervantes classic).

LAST SEEN: Available for viewing on YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Kept off the market due to legal disputes.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not likely.

For many years, I read about Orson Welles’ unfinished film version of “Don Quixote,” which was shot between 1955 and 1969 but never completed. Seven years ago, I was able to see the feature “Don Quixote de Orson Welles,” created by Jess Franco, that attempted to finish what Welles left undone. This endeavor stitched together as much extant footage as was available, which was no mean feat as Welles never wrote a screenplay for the film. The vast majority of critics loathed the Franco effort (I was among the exceptions), claiming that it bore little resemblance to what Welles intended.

The problem, of course, was that no one really knew what Welles intended – including Welles, who never wrote a finite screenplay and who improvised much of the film. However, there was one aspect of the Welles concept that was missing from the Franco work, and that was the original framing device for “Don Quixote.” Welles planned to introduce his story by playing himself opposite child actress Patty McCormack, who was supposed to portray a young American tourist in Spain that never heard of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Welles would try to explain the Cervantes tale to her, but to her amazement she would find herself encountering Don Quixote and Sancho Panza in the flesh. For the remainder of the film, the Cervantes characters would exist in the modern world.

The sequence where McCormack’s character comes in contact with Don Quixote and Sancho Panza was absent from “Don Quixote de Orson Welles.” Ownership of the footage has been disputed for some time, and due to legal problems it was blocked from being included in Franco’s work. But bootleg copies of the six minute scene are now online, and most people can finally see this long-lost slice of Wellesian whimsy.

The scene opens with Sancho Panza (played by Akim Tamiroff) abruptly appearing in a cinema. A film is being shown, but Sancho is looking for his squire, Don Quixote. As Sancho bumbles through the aisles, he is forced by the cinema audience to sit. He finds himself in an empty seat besides young McCormack, and then he spies Don Quixote (played by Spanish actor Francisco Reiguera) across the aisle from them. Don Quixote is staring up in shock at the images on the screen.

For her part, McCormack attempts to calm the visibly nervous Sancho by offering him a lollipop (he doesn’t know what it is and requires instructions on enjoying it) and by having him watch the action on the big screen. But that is all in vain when Don Quixote becomes visibly incensed with what he is watching. The film is a knights in armor epic and Don Quixote believes he is watching a real battle. He charges up to the screen and begins waiving his sword at its images. The cinema goes into an uproar, with some people cheering and other rushing out in panic. Sancho and McCormack look on helplessly, not knowing how to react, while Don Quixote takes his sword and begins to split the screen into ribbons.

Watching this sequence is fairly strange on several levels. For starters, Welles shot “Don Quixote” without sound – he intended to add voices and sound effects later, but here he failed to do so. As a result, this scene plays like a silent movie. Without the soundtrack, the sense of frenzy and chaos created by this odd behavior cannot be properly measured.

Second, Welles shot much of “Don Quixote” in 16mm. I am guessing (from the footage I’ve seen) that this is a 16mm offering – it lacks the polish of 35mm cinematography from 50 years ago. It actually comes across as being among the director’s worst-looking work.

Third, it is never clear how either Don Quixote or Sancho Panza gained admission to the cinema. Since they were anachronistically propelled into modern times, they obviously could not gain entrance into a venue where admission is charged – where would they get the money? (Okay, that is a bit much – but, still, it makes no sense.)

To be frank, the scene looks fairly silly and shoddy. The pantomime with the three actors is exaggerated and Don Quixote’s destruction of the screen is badly staged. But as with many long-unseen films, this scene may have gained an inflated reputation for being out of sight for so long. But that should be no surprise. Even many critics who despised Franco’s “Don Quixote de Orson Welles” acknowledge the extant footage is not exactly a sterling example of Welles’ output.

Welles shot this scene in 1958, after being removed from the editing of his Universal-International feature “Touch of Evil.” Shooting took place in Mexico City, where Welles cast Reguiera, who was active in the Mexican film industry at the time. Tamiroff had already appeared in two of Welles’ directing efforts, “Mr. Arkadin” and “Touch of Evil,” while McCormack’s stardom as the star of the stage and film versions of “The Bad Seed’ was still strong enough to warrant her participation.

As soon as Welles began to shoot “Don Quixote,” he ran out of money. Production halted and would not resume until the early 1960s, when Welles shifted the production to Spain. By this time, however, McCormack was growing up and she no longer looked like the juvenile of the cinema sequence. Welles was forced to reconfigure “Don Quixote” and her character was written out of the new version of the film.

The cinema scene, as with the rest of the “Don Quixote” footage, was scattered about Europe and North America. The Franco film of “Don Quixote de Orson Welles’ was able to track down most of the footage, but the search for this scene wound up with Italian film editor Mauro Bonanni, who was an assistant director on the original project. Bonanni refused to include the footage in the Franco project, which sparked a legal dispute with Oja Kodar, Welles’ long-time companion, over who owned the footage (she provided Franco with the footage in her possession and later claimed that Welles willed all of his unfinished film work to her custody, making Bonnani’s ownership illegal).

While Bonanni did not wish to be part of “Don Quixote de Orson Welles,” he also didn’t want to keep the footage hidden from view. He enabled it to be seen on RAI, the Italian television network. However, it didn’t show up in American until Chicago Access Network TV showed in it October 2007 as part of an interview with film critic and Welles biographer Jonathan Rosenbaum. That was not widely seen when it was broadcast in Chicago, but it found wider audiences when it turned up on YouTube. As with many film clips on YouTube, it appears no one bothered to clear copyright concerns before posting it online.

I cannot say that I am satisfied to have finally seen this footage, and I have no clue whether Welles ever intended to use it had he completed “Don Quixote.” Nonetheless, it is an interesting curio that helps fill a small void in the canon of a great talent.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free shits and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!




Posted on October 17, 2008 in Bootleg Files, Features by
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