Orson Welles was obsessed with a Shakespearean character, John Falstaff, who appears in several plays: Henry IV, Henry V, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and Richard III. He considered that character “Shakespeare’s greatest creation.” He wanted to play it himself. He couldn’t decide on the location. Until, on a trip to Spain, he discovered that this was the ideal place to set the story, and he set out to film it, in black and white, managing to make one of his great films, which would achieve recognition at many festivals, including Cannes. from 1966.
Shakespeare was one of Orson Welles’ main authors, he believed that the English author had found many of the deep keys to the human condition. In 1937 his Mercury Theater company made the theatrical version of Julius Caesar, but it would be in the cinema where Welles would resort again and again to the bard of Avon. In 1948 he premiered Macbeth, considered the best film adaptation of the work, and in 1951 he undertook the very difficult project of telling the story of the Moor of Venice, but the filming of Othello had to be suspended due to the bankruptcy of the producer, and he was only able to recover in 1992 , thanks to Beatrice, Welles’s daughter.
The title of the film that the director decided to shoot in Spain comes from Enrique IV, where Falstaff states: “We hear the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow”. He was convinced that it was his best film, the one that had completely committed him as a director. He said in an interview, “If I had to enter heaven for only one movie, this is the one I would present.” For his part, The New York Times critic Vincent Canby wrote that Chimes at Midnight “is perhaps the best Shakespeare film ever made, bar none.”
A year before filming, Orson Welles had befriended the Spanish film producer Emiliano Piedra, who had admired him since the premiere of El Ciudadano. He wanted to fulfill his fantasy that Welles would make Treasure Island a movie. Welles accepted on the condition that he commercially produce Chimes at Midnight. Ultimately, that version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel was never filmed, and Piedra agreed, unaware that Welles had no intention of making it. Nearly twenty years later, Orson Welles would play Long John Silver in the 1972 film version of Treasure Island.
Chimes at Midnight’s budget was capped at $800,000. The main locations were Colmenar, Cardona and Ávila. The scene of the Gadshill robbery and all the sequences of the Boar’s Head tavern were filmed at the Casa de Campo in Madrid. In Pedraza some scenes were filmed outdoors, and in Soria it was shot in the snow.
Orson Welles himself oversaw the casting of extras. For some reason, he chose a young boy with pitch-black hair and long sideburns who would remember his participation in that film as one of the great moments of his life: Joan Manuel Serrat. Who would be one of the greatest popular singers of our language looked dazzled at every gesture, every indication, every word of that man whom he would always consider one of the greatest geniuses in the history of cinema. The experience was so stimulating for the then young Serrat, that he would take part in four other films –in most of them as the protagonist–. But his vocation was not on the big screen, but on stage. In his own words: “My greatest success in the cinema was my intervention as an extra during the filming of Chimes at Midnight by Orson Welles. Having been so close to a genius is something that fills me with pride”.
Serrat’s love for the cinema would be reflected in the song The Ghosts of the Roxy, dedicated to a cinema that he frequented as a teenager to watch films full of impossible loves and unbridled and violent passions. Joan Manuel was one of those who cried when they announced the demolition of the cinema. But inside of him that film in which Orson Welles shines in one of the frames with those wise eyes continued to be projected.
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When Joan Manuel Serrat was an extra for Orson Welles – Diario Hoy