BOOTLEG FILES 222: “The Hearts of Age” (1934 short starring and co-directed by a 19-year-old Orson Welles).
LAST SEEN: Available for viewing on numerous web sites.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: Included in several public domain collections of early avant-garde movies.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: The film never had a copyright.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not on its own, but it is guaranteed to turn up in future anthologies thanks to its orphaned film status.
Question: What is the name of the first film directed by Orson Welles? If you said “Citizen Kane,” you were wrong. Seven years before Welles pointed his RKO cameras at a ceiling, he dabbled in a 16mm bit of tomfoolery called “The Hearts of Age.”
In 1934, Orson Welles was a 19-year-old eager to make a name for himself in the performing arts. During that year’s summer, he returned to his alma mater, the Todd School in Woodstock, Illinois, to organize and produce a summer drama festival. Welles had an ambitious notion of staging three plays, including “Hamlet.” A former classmate, William Vance, also returned to Woodstock to star in all three of the plays.
Whereas Welles had a focus on the theater, Vance was interested in films. In 1932, he created a 10-minute 16mm version of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Eager to make another film, he recruited Welles to create a short film in the style of European avant-garde films. Welles agreed and brought along his girlfriend Virginia Nicholson (she later became his first wife).
The resulting film was called “The Hearts of Age.” The title is never explained in the film, which is no surprise since the film itself is a cryptic skein of weird images that may or may not have a purpose. Some people have read deep meaning into its imagery, while others (including Welles himself) have looked upon it with bafflement.
“The Hearts of Age” opens with a shot of a spinning ornamental Christmas tree ball. That’s followed by shots of a church bell, then a hand creeping across a cross atop a gravestone. The shadow of a bell is reflected on the ground. Then there’s a weird old woman outside of a house, where she is riding a large bell like it was a rocking horse. A servant (a white man in blackface) is pulling the rope of a large church bell. In the house behind the old woman, a strange parade of people come down a staircase, including a Keystone Kop and an Indian wrapped in a blanket. There is also a leering old bald man, who tips his top hat at the old woman. The old man comes down the stairs repeatedly.
The rest of the film finds the woman riding her bell, the servant ringing his bell, and coins being dropped on a wood floor and then swept away with a broom. The old man climbs up a ladder, then exchanges harsh words with the old woman. The servant is hanged from his bell rope – we see him in death, then we see a drawing of him in death. The old man then retreats into a dark room that is lit by candles. He plays maniacally on a piano, then picks up a stack of thin headstones and shuffles through them until he finds one that says “The End” – which he holds up to the camera.
So what does it all mean? According to Welles, it means nothing. When queried about the film during his later years, Welles revealed the short was meant to parody European surrealist experimental films such as Jean Cocteau’s “Blood of a Poet.” Welles stated there was no script and all of the scenes were improvised on the Todd School grounds. The film was made on a single Sunday afternoon and was shot without sound, which is merciful given the amount of bell ringing that goes on.
Indeed, “The Hearts of Age” looks like a home movie. The cast is made up of teenagers, and their attempt to disguise their youth with heavy theatrical make-up never works. Welles, in particular, is fooling no one – despite make-up to give the impression of being an evil, elderly bald man, his body language clearly belongs to someone in the prime of youth.
But is there any meaning to “The Hearts of Age”? Some theories have been advanced it is an allegory with Welles as Death, who comes to torment and claim the old woman and her servant. Welles, however, claimed the film had no meaning – and he was astonished anyone took it seriously.
There is another problem in trying to analyze “The Hearts of Age” – who is responsible for what? Much of today’s focus on the film is on Welles, but evidence would suggest that Vance should receive the lion’s share of the credit. The film was clearly made at his initiative, and Vance was responsible for most of the camera work (he only turned up briefly in the film as the Indian). It is easy to imagine that the film’s glut of tilted angle shots and baroque imagery would signal the embryonic cinematic imagination that later spawned the jolting imagery of the Welles’ film canon. However, the film was clearly having fun with the expressionistic excesses associated with the avant-garde films of that era – particularly the frenetic editing, which is clearly not a hallmark of the Welles’ filmmaking style.
There is no record of “The Hearts of Age” being theatrically screened. Most likely, it was only shown at the Todd School and then forgotten. Welles and Vance never collaborated again, and Vance went on to a career in the production of radio and television commercials.
In the 1960s, Vance donated the sole copy of the film along with his collection of films and papers to the Greenwich, Connecticut, Public Library. Welles biographer Joseph McBride was the first to discover the film in 1969, much to his astonishment (there was no previous mention of its existence in any of Welles’ biographical text up to that point).
McBride later arranged for the American Film Institute to preserve the film, which was later donated to the Library of Congress. Since “The Hearts of Age” never had a copyright, anyone who wanted to make a bootleg dupe was free to do so. And thanks to the growing Welles cult, many people have. There is no shortage of cruddy dupes in circulation, and the film has turned up in anthology collection of early avant-garde cinema – which is ironic, considering that Welles and Vance were making fun of that genre with their work. It can also be located on several online sites.
“The Hearts of Age” is strictly a curio blip in Welles’ career. But for those who think Welles walks on water, this eight-minute flick provides a glimpse of the first puddle that he strode across.
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