Joseph Cotten and the Mercury Players

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Mr. Cotten, I presume.

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Pinterest

Joseph Cotten was an unusual actor. Sure, he was handsome and funny and could play a variety of roles, but he was also a late bloomer when it came to film. Born in 1905, he didn’t make his stage debut until 1930 and his film debut in 1938. The latter is due, of course, to a little-known group called the Mercury Players, and Cotten found himself on a roller-coaster ride, the crest of which was, of course, 1941’s Citizen Kane.

Cotten was always a gifted storyteller, which prompted his parents to put him in acting lessons. However, he was more interested in sports, starting out as a lifeguard and playing small-time football. However, when he became a theater critic in Miami, his interest in acting was piqued.

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Pinterest

In 1934, Cotten was living and acting in New York, where he met one Orson Welles, and the rest, as they say, is history. Cotten and Welles became fast friends after working together on the CBS series, The American School of the Air. While the two of them were talking, in typical dramatic fashion, albeit inadvertantly, Welles emptied his pipe in a trash can and it caught fire.

Cotten and Welles found that they had similar senses of humor. One episode of the School series was about rubber plantations in Asia, with Ray Collins describing “barrels and barrels of pith.” Our two imps broke up laughing because they imagined the line differently, shall we say, and Collins also got the giggles. Welles respected Cotten’s acting abilities immensely, and he was one of the first people Welles asked to join the Mercury Players when it was formed in 1937.

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wellesnet

Ah yes, the infamous Mercury Players. Those young rapscallions who shook up the establishment and ruffled all the feathers.

Founded by Welles and John Houseman, the group got its name from an old magazine called The American Mercury, and set out to cater to those who wanted classic works with a twist. Initially, they opened up shop at an empty theater on 41st Street and Broadway called the Comedy, which became the Mercury Theater.

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One of the surviving production stills from Caesar. (wellesnet)

Welles was, of course, the big name of the company, receiving sole production credit, and in a nutshell, he was Il Divo. Everything had to be exactly the way he wanted it or people would know the reason why. Mercury’s first production was Julius Caesar, set in then-current fascist Germany, and Welles insisted on realism. Not even the daggar used to murder the titular character could be fake, which did lead to John Holland getting stabbed one night.

Cotten played Publius, the senator who gets banished for no apparent reason, and in his autobiography he described the production as “so vigorous, so contemporary, that it set Broadway on its ear. But only one ear, as with the other it was listening and running scared with the rest of the country while O. Welles, in a Madison Avenue studio, was reading his adaptation of H.G. Wells’s account of the Martian invasion of Earth.” (Vanity, 108)

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The Digital Deli Too

Since Mr. Cotten got us there, this is the part when we mention the Mercury Players hitting the airwaves.

The Mercury Theater On the Air ran between July and November of 1938. Like their stage productions, the troupe presented classic works with a modern slant, and the pilot episode was Dracula, broadcast on July 11, 1938. In the aftermath of the War of the Worlds frenzy, the show was rebranded as the Campbell Playhouse, and ran for three more seasons.

When The War of the Worlds was broadcast on October 30, 1938, the pacing was set at its usual frenzy. While he had a basic outline for the script, Welles filled out the production on the fly, handing lines to his actors as they were about to speak them, giving the show a chilling immediacy. Cotten didn’t have a role in the episode, although he was occasionally featured in the series.

Here’s one example of Cotten’s work on The Mercury Theater On the Air, the October 16, 1938 episode, “Seventeen.” Cotten plays Genesis.

1938 was a very busy year. Ever the innovators, Welles and Houseman decided to make their next production a multimedia event, and Cotten got the lion’s share of the exposure. It was here, at the age of thirty-three, that Cotten finally made his first film, Too Much Johnson.

As its source material was rooted in Victorian melodrama, the Players filmed the movie in the silent format. It must have been seen as a little odd in 1938, since the movie business had been firmly entrenched in sound pictures for almost a decade, but odd was how the Mercury Players rolled.

Based on an 1894 play by William Gillette, Too Much Johnson looks like a silent film done badly, with obviously fake props and set pieces, tops of sets visible, and hammy acting galore. Cotten as guy-on-the-side Augustus Billings goes full-on Harold Lloyd, jumping over a bed and climbing over rooftops. While he and his mistress, Mrs. Dathis (Arlene Francis) are presumably going the way of all flesh, a palm frond keeps tickling Billings’s nose. The two of them are blissfully sleeping when Mrs. Dathis’s husband comes home. Billings has to think fast to avoid this guy, and he figures the best way is to stay off the ground as much as possible. When that doesn’t work, he heads to Cuba.

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Eastman Museum

Seen today, Too Much Johnson is college camp humor and plenty of fun. Cotten is incredibly athletic and limber, which isn’t surprising, considering his background in sports, and he gets in a few gotcha moments where he pretends to be losing his balance while high in the air.

The film couldn’t be shown, though, because the theater where Too Much Johnson was being tried out wasn’t set up for movie exhibition. Welles decided to cut the filmed parts of the play, and the tryout flopped. With no other purpose in view, the unfinished Too Much Johnson sat in a can in Welles’s house in Spain for decades, before being rediscovered by Welles, who was amazed at its pristine condition. Rediscovered again (not by Welles) in 2008 and restored by the George Eastman House, the film finally premiered in 2013.

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Cotten with Katharine Hepburn and Van Heflin in The Philadelphia Story. (Pinterest)

Cotten didn’t spend all his working hours with the Mercury Players. In fact, in 1939, he was cast as C.K. Dexter Haven in The Philadelphia Story. That property was filmed, of course, but Cotten couldn’t come along, as he was busy making one of the ultimate filmmaker’s films, Citizen Kane.

Kane is evergreen. It’s watched and rewatched, studied, and revisited, considered to be a seminal moment in American film. In addition to a small part as a journalist at the beginning of the movie, Cotten plays Jedediah Leland, Kane’s old friend and confidante, and, coincidentally, a theater critic for Kane’s newspaper empire.

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Variety

Jed knows Kane well enough to try to hold him accountable for his actions. As Kane’s ego grows, though, Jed’s influence shrinks. Jed wants to support his friend, but he can’t cop to Kane becoming more and more self-serving. The destructive trajectory comes to a head when Jed has to cover Kane’s wife, Susan’s opera debut, which is grating on both the ears and the sensibilities. It bothers Jed that he can no longer be the happy-go-lucky friend that he once was, and before writing the inevitable rotton tomato review, he gets mind-numbingly drunk. Kane finds Jed passed out with his face in his typewriter keys, and by way of tossing the first handfuls of dirt on their dead friendship, finishes the review for him. Jed wakes up to find Kane stormily and steadily typing.

Jed has the last word, however. As Kane and Susan are arguing about all the bad reviews she’s gotten, Kane opens a piece of mail from Jeb and pulls out the Declaration of Principles that Kane had drafted when he first bought the New York InquirerOf all the points he laid out in the Declaration, the underlying thread is honesty. Instead of seeing his former yardstick as a call to repentance and reform, Kane looks at it as if it’s a snake and tears it to pieces. In the end, Jeb winds up cockily explaining his story to the reporter investigating Kane, while Kane winds up alone in his Xanadu mansion with nothing of real value.

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Museum of Modern Art

Cotton’s scenes had to be filmed rather quickly. He later remembered, “Mine was a heady beginning in the movies. With Orson in a wheelchair, and a ‘stop date’ on my time to enable me to return to my contractual obligations in the road tour of The Philadelphia Story, the Citizen Kane production department had no choice other than to concentrate the schedule on scenes in which I appeared.” (Vanity, 47) Cotten famously stayed up for twenty-four hours straight in preparation for the post-opera scene with Kane so as to appear drunk, but it may have been an unneccessary step. What with the pace of filming his scenes, he was probably already exhausted as it was.

In a way, Cotten’s role in Kane was art imitating life. Cotten was never bigger than Welles, because Welles was a towering figure, but by that point in his career, Cotten was a formidable presence in his own way. When Jeb shines a light on Kane’s actions, it just may have been a veiled nod to the real dynamic between Cotten and Welles. Amazingly enough, when Cotton’s career started taking off, Welles told him, “You’ll never make it as an actor, but as a star, I think you might well hit the jackpot.” (Berg, Erskine, 72) He was right; Cotten stayed busy until almost right up to his death in 1994.

Cotten paid his own tribute to Welles on February 17, 1975, the night Welles received the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award:

The Mercury Players were effectively disbanded in 1941 when Houseman and Welles parted company, but Welles kept the name for several years after. Cotten and Welles made eight more movies together after Citizen Kane, the last being 1949’s The Third Man. 

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My Romance With Movies

A lot has changed since the Mercury Players plied their trade. Many of its members have died. The original Mercury Theater was demolished in 1942, and an office building occupies the site. Their work still stands, however, as a feisty and innovative part of theater and film history, and it wouldn’t have been the same without the robust and memorable contributions of Joseph Cotten.

For more Mr. Cotten, please visit Crystal at In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Maddy at Maddy Loves Her Classic FilmsThanks for hosting, Crystal and Maddy–it’s always fun! Thanks for reading, and I hope you’ll check back here tomorrow for a very special announcement…


Bibliography

The Battle Over Citizen Kane. Director: Michael Epstein. Narrator: Richard Ben Cramer. Host: David McCullough. PBS. 1996. (Documentary)

Berg, Chuck and Tom Erskine. The Encyclopedia of Orson Welles. New York: Checkmark Books, 2003.

Cotten, Joseph. Vanity Will Get You Somewhere. San Francisco: Mercury House. 1987.

Thomson, David. Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996.

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9 thoughts on “Joseph Cotten and the Mercury Players

  1. Thanks so much for this interesting article about Joseph. I think he was an actor who could do a bit of everything really, a very talented man indeed. I’ve always wondered what Joseph was like in The Philadelphia Story, I wonder if there are any audio recordings anywhere of his performance? I would love to listen to that if there is.

    Thanks for joining us to celebrate Joseph Cotten and his films.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Fascinating article! The friendship between Welles and Cotten interests me greatly, mainly because I find both men slightly enigmatic. I’m glad you included that AFI video — what a treat!

    Liked by 1 person

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