Lady of Shanghai (1948)
Starring Orson Welles, Rita Hayworth, Everett Sloane, Glenn Anders
Directed by Orson Welles
Screenplay by Orson Welles based on a Sherwood King novel, “If I Die Before I Wake.”
Orson Welles had trouble getting along with Hollywood studios from the beginning of his career. Lady of Shanghai (1948), was no different.
Studio head Harry Cohn was so obsessed with Rita Hayworth he had her wiretapped. When the studio gave Welles Hayworth to develop “Lady of Shanghai” around, they evidently wanted something like “Gilda.” Welles did not give them a “Gilda.”
Hayworth was famous for her long red hair. The first thing Welles did was to get her hair cut short and dye it blond. This set him up in opposition Harry Cohn from the very beginning.
But, Welles had been guaranteed artistic license on this film. Cohn said afterward he would never again allow anybody to be actor, director and writer in one film because he couldn’t then fire them. He must have wanted to fire Welles many times during this production.
Welles had been married to Hayworth, but they were estranged at the time of the making of “Lady of Shanghai.” Hayworth nevertheless agreed to be in the film. Some thought Welles’ interpretation of her character in the film was a devastating portrayal of Hayworth herself. Some found it uncomfortably personal and vicious. Cohn thought the film would ruin her career and shelved it for a year.
Cohn instructed Welles to insert “glamour” shots of Hayworth. And because of the success of Hayworth singing in Gilda, he made Welles insert a sequence in which Hayworth sings “Please don’t Kiss Me.”
And Hayworth’s treatment wasn’t the only thing studio bosses objected to. When the first version of the completed film was shown to bosses, Cohn is said to have stood up and offered anyone in the room $1,000 to explain the plot to him. TCM film noir commentator, Eddie Muller, called “Lady from Shanghai” a “train wreck.”
Welles wasn’t much more liked by his actors than he was by studio bosses. Everett Sloan who puts in a wonderful performance as the sleazy and creepy husband had to go so far as refusing to wear the braces Welles had constructed for his character. Sloan complained that the braces were extremely painful. In the film, he uses two canes and a riveting walk.
Similarly, Glenn Anders found Welles to be difficult. He said that Welles bullied him relentlessly. Welles maintained, of course, that this treatment just pushed Anders to give a more nervous and edgy performance. Whether Anders or Welles is responsible, Anders is impossible to take your eyes off in the film. He appears and appears again like a bad dream.
Like he did with many of his films, Welles had walked off the post-production process before it was completed. As with “The Magnificent Ambersons” the ending was substantially changed by the studio. Welles had been so involved in the famous final sequence where Hayworth and her husband kill each other in a shootout in a house of mirrors, he helped construct and paint the set. But in his final version, this scene lasted 10 minutes. The studio cut it down to 4.
I have always wondered why I didn’t particularly like “Lady from Shanghai.” It was interesting to read that others didn’t like it either. But, this “train wreck” has some stunning scenes (like the fun house scenes at the end) and is worth another view.
Oh, just a note, the dog seen with Hayworth on the yacht belonged to Errol Flynn. Welles rented Flynn’s yacht for the film and Flynn stipulated in the contract that the yacht couldn’t be used unless he was present. When Flynn went off on a toot, filming had to shut down until they found him.