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Some classic outtakes

Imagine DVDs with a time-warp option. That Beethoven interview may be loud, but it's enlightening.

March 06, 2005|Gerald Nachman | Special to The Times

As Hollywood releases more and more remastered classic films on DVD, with outtakes, alternate scenes, additional material and commentary by those involved, the public may also want to peek behind the scenes at other great works of art we'd like to see rereleased.

"The Sistine Chapel"

In the special features portion of this much-anticipated DVD, Michelangelo "Mickey" Buonarroti divulges the agonies he encountered in finding just the right size sling from which to hang while daubing his widely acclaimed mural. The artist also discusses the financial hoops he had to jump through to obtain funding for his offbeat un-bankable project.

"Don't kid yourself, those popes are bottom-line guys," observes the Italian painter-sculptor hyphenate, who reveals how he was able to paint while lying sideways and how the project ran over budget when he was unable to find the proper azure tint for God's eyes.

He tells an amusing anecdote about all the yolks that fell to the chapel floor while mixing his palette, increasing the time it took the artist to wrap up his landmark ceiling. "People don't realize all the little things that can go wrong when you're working on location."

The comprehensive DVD includes examples of unused swatches of paint, sure to fascinate chapel aficionados.

"Oliver Twist"

On this just-released disc, Chuck Dickens unravels the many early alternate plots for his popular tale of an orphaned London lad. In one discarded version, the story opens with a miserly Oliver being visited by three ghosts, a device that the author opted to save for a later property.

Dickens reveals that Oliver Twist was originally called "Oliver Twit." "I'm pretty good with names, but my editor thought maybe that was too clever by half," explains Dickens in a fascinating sidelight, commenting that the character of Fagin was considered "too Jewish" by his publisher and was deleted in an earlier draft, replaced by a kindly rabbi who befriends Oliver and converts him to Judaism.

"The Fifth Symphony"

Ludwig van Beethoven, always a tough interview, begrudgingly gives his reasons for using fewer oboes than he had originally intended and explains why an eighth-note in the second movement was not a triplet or even an expected dotted quarter-note.

Beethoven, compensating for his hearing loss, shouts his answers, which detracts from the sound quality. But the composer proves himself a wry storyteller as he spins a few risque yarns of cuckolding an elderly patron.


The prolific playwright W.R. "Billy" Shakespeare is in an expansive mood as he discusses the derivation of his famous tragedy, which he reveals here began as a comedy of mistaken identity in which Hamlet proposes to an effete Laertes by mistake and Ophelia winds up marrying Claudius -- "a pretty pickle indeed," as the veteran scribe chuckles.

"I decided it might have been one farce too many at that stage of my career and a real stretch, so I decided to go with something darker. It seems to have worked out OK," remarks the self-effacing bard, who also reveals how he managed to write all the plays despite a minuscule budget for parchment.

He also dashes tabloid rumors that he was not the actual author of his plays and merely an idea man.

"Mount Rushmore"

Gutzon Borglum confides the behind-the-scenes story of carving Lincoln's lower lip, why it took him 17 attempts over two years' time to get Teddy Roosevelt's mustache to resemble the real thing and how he mistakenly gave Jefferson a beard. He also discusses which tools he used in sculpting the famous faces.

A highlight is an anecdote of how Mrs. Borglum persuaded her husband to erase James Polk's face and begin again on what became George Washington, whom Borglum had decided against carving as "too obvious."

"Moby Dick"

Among the extras on this new DVD, a chatty Herman Melville takes readers behind the scenes of his greatest novel as he discusses the problems he had finding a proper No. 7 goose quill with which to finish the lengthy work.

During the interview, we also learn about whales' mating and dietary habits and the history of the harpoon. Melville, once and for all, explains the difference between a knot, a league and a fathom, which helps to clear up the more puzzling aspects of his epic work.

He refuses, however, to speculate on any larger allegorical meaning, remarking, "Sometimes, you know, a whale is just a whale."


Among the bonuses on this newly released DVD, Richard Wagner glumly discusses the problems he ran into trying to cut his so-called "Ring" cycle to seven hours from its original two weeks and three days. No producers would stage the opera at that length, but Wagner was adamant that it be allowed to run at least a week, whether anyone was in the opera house or not.

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