In an Orson Welles movie, you need actors who aren’t overshadowed by his charisma.
Welles established himself as a legend before he came to Hollywood, a Man Of Vision who discarded convention, but was smart enough to cast actors who could push against him.
This is crucial when playing Welles’ adversary.
Look at his film noir, The Lady from Shanghai (1947). Welles stars as drifter, hired as a sailor on a private yacht owned by wealthy Everett Sloane and his wife, Rita Hayworth. The couple are planning an excursion from New York, through the Panama Canal, to San Francisco.
Welles narrates the film in a faintly amused manner, as though he can’t believe What Just Happened. His account focuses on this sunny voyage with strange undercurrents. He refers to it as “a bright, guilty world.”
Sloane and Hayworth portray the wealthy but unusual couple. Hayworth is young and beautiful, while Sloane is a twisted-up middle-aged man who can’t walk without his canes.
Hayworth wants a divorce, and Sloane knows it. Welles, the poor slob, falls in love with Hayworth, and Sloane knows that, too.
At first, we have confidence in Welles’ character; after all, he’s a healthy young man. If he chose, he could easily take on Sloane.
But Sloane is an especially tough customer. What he lacks in physical strength, he has in mental acuity – especially when it involves Mind Games.
Sloane steals the movie with his tightly-coiled bitterness and obvious delight in torturing others. For example, he addresses Hayworth as “Lover”, in a sing-songy, demeaning way.
His character smugly occupies his Rightful Place in the world, and his continual boasting about it is restorative.
In one scene, he discusses his domestic servant, Bessie (Evelyn Ellis), as though she weren’t standing there, serving his tea. Sloane, the actor, digs into a lengthy monologue as though he were digging into a buffet:
“Money cannot bring you health and happiness, et cetera. Is that it? Pfft! … Look at this yacht. It once belonged to Jules Bachrach, the great Bachrach, who kept me out of his club because my mother was a Manchester Greek. I got him on perjury. He died bankrupt, and here I am. Each man has his own idea of happiness, of course, but money is what all of us have in common. Take Bessie here. She used to work for Bachrach. I pay her more, don’t I, Bessie? … Her salary means happiness…. Bessie goes to church every Sunday she gets off and prays to God she’ll never be too old to earn the salary I pay her.”
See what kind of a person we’re dealing with here?
He’s a man with a twisted-up soul. Yet, Sloane offers glimpses of his character’s love for Hayworth, which automatically defaults to mockery when rebuffed.
Eventually the yacht arrives in San Francisco, where the action culminates in one of the most famous and oft-copied scenes in filmdom: The chase through the Hall of Mirrors.
Everett Sloane (1909-1965) wanted to be an actor ever since he was a kid growing up in Manhattan. He joined a repertory theatre company in the late 1920s, but had to take a job on Wall Street to support himself. Thanks to the 1929 stock market crash, his salary was cut in half, so he took acting roles on radio.
It was a smart choice; Sloane became a very busy radio actor. He began appearing on Broadway in 1935, and later joined Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre. Welles subsequently cast him as Mr. Bernstein in the film Citizen Kane, which may the role he’s best known for today.
Sloane moved into television in the 1950s and received an Emmy nomination for his performance as Walter Ramsay in Rod Serling’s corporate takedown, Patterns. (Sloane played Ramsay in the 1956 film version as well.)
But. Sloane’s eyesight began to deteriorate, and in 1964 he retired from acting. Wikipedia says his failing eyesight caused him severe depression, and he committed suicide in August, 1965.
Fortunately, some of his work survives, allowing us to study his impressive versatility. You can watch a tribute to him here.
Everett Sloane never played to type or public image. He was the best kind of Hollywood actor: The character actor.
Correction: Mike Doran, in his comment below, says Everett Sloan never formally retired. Mike writes: “In 1965, the final year of his life, he racked up quite a few TV guest shots (see IMDb for details); the final one, an early episode of Honey West, aired in November of ’65, shortly after his death. TV Guide called attention to its posthumous status in its listing for that date.”
This post is part of the WHAT A CHARACTER! BLOGATHON hosted by Once Upon a Screen, Outspoken & Freckled and Paula’s Cinema Club.
The Lady from Shanghai: starring Rita Hayworth, Orson Welles, Everett Sloane. Written & directed by Orson Welles. Columbia Pictures Corporation, 1947, B&W, 87 mins.