The Secret History of Chicago Movies: The Hearts of Age

“I warn you, Jedediah, you’re not gonna like it in Chicago. The wind comes howling in off the lake and gosh only knows if they ever heard of lobster Newburg.”

– Orson Welles as Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane, 1941

In 1934, seven years before he set the film world on fire with Citizen Kane, a nineteen-year old Orson Welles made his proper directorial debut with The Hearts of Age, an experimental short shot during downtime while he studied at the Art Institute of Chicago. Ostensibly a parody of classic avant-garde movies he had seen while on trips to New York City (in particular Jean Cocteau’s The Blood of a Poet, Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Luis Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou), the seeds of Welles’ visionary genius are already evident in this formative work; it is yet one more example of a fascinating film, and the story of its making, that are both rooted in Chicago and yet too little known.

Young Mr. Welles shot The Hearts of Age entirely in suburban Woodstock, Illinois, on the campus of the Todd School for Boys where he had graduated from high school three years earlier. Welles was living in Chicago at the time but frequently returned to Highland Park to direct theatrical productions for the Todd School. It was during one such trip that he made The Hearts of Age with a team of close friends including producer/co-director/cinematographer William Vance and actors Paul Edgerton and Virginia Nicholson (also his future bride).

While the resulting eight minute short film is unquestionably the work of an amateur, fans of Welles’ feature films should find it especially interesting; the entire movie relies on rapid-fire montage editing, which Welles would eschew in his early features a few years later in favor of the deep-focus/long take style so beloved by the French critic Andre Bazin. Intriguingly, Welles would return to montage-based filmmaking towards the end of his life, primarily out of necessity due to budgetary constraints. From The Hearts of Age to F for Fake nearly forty years later, Welles’ film career truly came full circle.

The Hearts of Age begins with shots of a well-dressed woman (Nicholson) wearing old age make-up sitting atop a giant bell on the second story of an anonymous-looking building. On the first floor below her, a man in blackface and Colonial dress (Edgerton) pulls a rope that rings the bell. At one point, the woman waves her umbrella at the man and seems to chide him into ringing it harder. It is impossible to miss the disturbing psychosexual implications while watching the woman pleasurably rocking back and forth astride the bell with what appears to be a black servant toiling under her. But the ringing of the bell also seems to have an unintended consequence: it brings a series of strange-looking characters out of a door on the floor above the woman, all of whom acknowledge her as they walk past her on a nearby fire escape. One of these passers-by is a sinister-looking dandy (Welles), also wearing old age make-up, who repeatedly passes the woman and politely tips his top hat to her each time in the process.

Then things get really weird: the man in blackface hangs himself and we see shots of a gravestone with a beckoning hand superimposed over it and shots of a human skull in negative (à la Nosferatu). The sinister-looking dandy enters a room holding a candelabrum. He sits down at a piano and begins to play only to find that one or more of the keys don’t appear to be working properly. The old man, whom the viewer now can infer is Death, opens the piano to find the lifeless body of the woman inside. The film ends with Death holding up a series of gravestone-shaped title cards reading: “SLEEPING / AT REST / IN PEACE / WITH THE LORD / AMEN.”

It is not known when or even if The Hearts of Age was screened in the years immediately following its production. It was certainly an “unknown film” for decades. In the late 1960s it was unearthed by film critic and future Welles biographer Joseph McBride who discovered a 16mm print in the William Vance collection of the Greenwich, Connecticut Public Library. McBride published an article in the spring 1970 issue of Film Quarterly titled “Welles Before Kane” covering both The Hearts of Age and another Welles short, the lost Too Much Johnson. In McBride’s excellent bio What Ever Happened to Orson Welles? (The University of Kentucky Press, 2006) he writes, “Welles seemed bemused and somewhat irritated by the discovery . . .” before quoting Welles’ longtime cinematographer Gary Graver: “Orson kept saying, ‘Why did Joe have to discover that film?’”

In This is Orson Welles, Peter Bogdanovich’s indispensable book-length interview with Welles, the great director claims that The Hearts of Age was nothing more than “Sunday afternoon fun out on the lawn” and “a send up.” Of course it is entirely possible that Welles did not originally intend the film to be a light-hearted parody of the avant-garde but rather an earnest attempt to work in a mode that he had seen and admired as a young man – and his later comments may have been made defensively in hindsight. But if Old Mr. Welles was embarrassed by The Hearts of Age, he needn’t have been. Like the early sketches of a master painter, the film in many ways points the way towards the greatness that would come (in particular in Welles’ use of elaborate make-up and in how he blends techniques gleaned from the German Expressionist and Soviet Montage movements), which makes it an invaluable piece of the Orson Welles puzzle when viewed today.

The sole existing print of The Hearts of Age has been deposited with and preserved by The Library of Congress and is also readily available on DVD (featuring an excellent acoustic guitar by one Larry Morotta). Yet in spite of Orson Welles’ reputation as one of the greatest directors of all time, it seems that even Chicago-area movie lovers are unaware of his local filmmaking roots.

The Hearts of Age is available on Kino Video’s essential DVD compilation Avant Garde: Experimental Cinema of the 1920s and ’30s featuring an excellent acoustic guitar score by Larry Morotta. You can also view it on YouTube here:


About michaelgloversmith

Filmmaker, author and Film Studies instructor. View all posts by michaelgloversmith

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