Tag Archives: William Vance

Woodstock from Welles to Ramis: A Photo Tour

I recently drove 50-odd miles northwest of my fair city of Chicago to visit, for the first time, the quaint suburb of Woodstock, Illinois. The purpose of the trip was to take pictures for possible inclusion in Flickering Empire, the forthcoming book that I co-wrote with Adam Selzer about the history of early film production in Chicago. I specifically wanted to visit the former location of the Todd Seminary for Boys where Orson Welles, an alumnus, co-directed the film The Hearts of Age in 1934 when he was just 19-years-old. Although I knew the Todd School had closed in 1954 and that all of its buildings had since been razed, I wanted to see where it once stood and hopefully take photos of any surviving landmarks — such as a giant outdoor bell or a distinctive gravestone — that contributed to such striking images in the movie. I also knew that historic downtown Woodstock — standing in for Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania — was where Illinois-native Harold Ramis had filmed Groundhog Day in 1993. Since Groundhog Day is one of my favorite comedies and a movie I frequently show in film studies classes, I decided to try and visit prominent locations from that film as well. Below is a photo tour of my day-long expedition.

Here’s Orson Welles and his classmates in front of the residence building known as Grace Hall. This photo would’ve been taken sometime between 1926 and 1931. Click on the photo to enlarge it (Orson is the tall lad standing in the middle — his head is directly beneath the window on the far left side of the building):
orson Photo: Woodstock Public Library

No one knows exactly where The Hearts of Age, Welles’ debut film, was shot but it was almost certainly somewhere on the Todd campus. Here’s 19-year-old Welles heavily made-up as “Death” in a still I created from the DVD of the film:
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Tragically, Grace Hall, the final building standing from the original Todd School campus, was razed in 2010. It was reportedly still in excellent condition when the owners demolished it in order to build new “duplex” housing for seniors:
grace Photo: Woodstock Advocate

Here’s the same location (318 Christian Way) as seen today:
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Welles also performed at the famous Woodstock Opera House. Here he is (bottom left), with fellow summer-stock players Michael MacLiammoir and Louise Prussing, onstage at the Opera House in 1934:
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The exterior of the Woodstock Opera House as seen today (note the Italianate bell tower, which probably inspired the climax of Welles’ 1946 film The Stranger):
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Speaking of which . . . one of the many ways Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day character, Phil Connors, attempts to commit suicide in the film is by leaping from the tower:
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Here’s a frontal view of the Opera House. Located at 121 Van Buren St, it also plays the “Pennsylvania Hotel” where Andie McDowell’s character, Rita, stays in the movie:
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Phil, meanwhile, stays at a bed and breakfast known as the “Cherry Street Inn.” In real life, this gorgeous Victorian mansion is actually a private residence:
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Here’s the Woodstock Theater, which plays the “Alpine Theater” in the film, as seen today. The address is 209 Main Street (sadly, Heidi II was not playing when I visited):
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The “Tip Top Cafe,” where Phil has breakfast with Rita and Larry (Chris Elliot), is now a taqueria. It is located at 108 Cass St:
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Woodstock Square, which plays “Gobbler’s Knob” in the film:
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Some of the most memorable moments in Groundhog Day involve Phil’s repeated run-ins with annoying insurance salesman Ned Ryerson (Stephen Tobolowsky):
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The same sidewalk as seen today:
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“Watch out for that first step. It’s a doozy!”:
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There are some very impressive Orson Welles celebrations planned for Woodstock in 2014 and 2015. You can learn about them on Wellesnet, the invaluable Orson Welles Web Resource, here: http://www.wellesnet.com/?page_id=5387

You can learn more about Woodstock and Groundhog Day here: http://woodstockgroundhog.org/pages/tour.html

Unless otherwise noted, all of the above photos were taken by me.


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:


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