This year is the centenary of Orson Welles, born in 1915 in Kenosha, Wisconsin. To honor this I looked for a good biography of the man, who lived a life that almost seems too incredible to be true. I found the right one with Frank Brady’s Citizen Welles, originally published in 1989. It covers the life of Welles from soup to nuts, from his early years as a child prodigy, to his astounding successes as a young man in the theater and then radio, to his making the greatest movie ever to come out of Hollywood, and then the pathos of his later life, when the man was lauded as a genius but no one would give him money to make films.
“Orson Welles had a remarkably complex life, filled with contrasts and extremes, and just getting down the bare facts of his various adventures and many careers over a half-century of relentless activity spanning several continents,” writes Brady, and he’s not kidding. It’s interesting to note that Welles only directed 12 films, but almost all of them were classics (some identified as so only years later) but also directed many plays; wrote, directed, and acted in countless radio scripts, as well as acting in many films directed by others. To those in a later generation, he may have been best well-known as a wine pitchman.
Welles seems not to have been born so much as emerged fully-formed from the forehead of Zeus. At a very young age he was putting on puppet shows, which led to a fascination with the theater. He attended a boarding school and and learned to love acting. He was orphaned as a teenager (his father was an inventor, who many say was the model for Joseph Cotten’s character in The Magnificent Ambersons) and went to Ireland, where he managed to get work with in a Dublin theater company. Then he went to London and had some success there before returning to New York.
Welles’ life on Broadway in the ’30s is enough for a book in itself, and in fact has been made into two films. He and John Houseman partnered for the WPA to mount several landmark productions, including the “Voodoo” Macbeth, the modern-dress Julius Caesar, and Marc Blitzteins’ opera, The Cradle Will Rock. Brady’s chapter on the latter reads like a thriller, as the theater where the show was to take place was closed by the government. Houseman and Welles found a different theater, and lead a march down the New York streets. In order not to violate union rules, the performers sang from the seats, not the stage, with Blitzstein playing on stage. After reading it I felt like I’d been there.
The most lucrative career Welles had was for the radio. He was an immensely popular radio star, trading quips with Charlie McCarthy and producing, writing, and directing adaptations of classic works. The most famous, or infamous, was his 1938 Halloween broadcast of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, which created a panic among the citizenry. For many years I lived a short walk away from Grovers Mill, the purported landing of the Martians, and there’s a water tower still there that someone took a shot at, thinking it was a Martian spacecraft.
All along there was a mutual interest between Hollywood and Welles to make films, but it wasn’t until William Schaefer and RKO came along that Welles made a three-picture deal. He struggled to find the right property to be his first film. He had always wanted to make Cyrano de Bergerac, for example. He finally hit on the story that was first called American, about a man who becomes successful but loses his innocence. In what would prove to be unusual, it was based on an original screenplay (all of Welles’ films after that would be based on published works), co-written by Herman Manckiewicz (there would be, and perhaps still is some controversy about how much Welles actually contributed to the script). But what would cripple the film’s success, and Welles’ career, was how much Citizen Kane would end up being similar to the life of William Randolph Hearst.
Brady devotes two long and thrilling chapters to Kane, and it struck me that if Welles had started his career with anything else, perhaps the non-offensive Cyrano, how things might have been different. Hearst was not an easy man to anger. He controlled many of the newspapers in the country, and not one of them would issue take any advertisements or do any press on Kane, except for vitriolic columnist Hedda Hopper, who strafed the film. Although filmmakers who saw the film realized it was the most amazing thing they had ever seen, and would rewrite the way films were made, it was not a big success with the public. It’s interesting to note though that it did receive several Oscar nominations (four for Welles); he won only for screenwriting.
The Magnificent Ambersons followed, and what followed would be repeated several times throughout his career–the picture was taken away from him in the editing room. The released film is still great, but Welles was done as a golden boy. A documentary he was making in South America, It’s All True, had the plug pulled on it after Schaefer was removed at RKO, and Welles, for the rest of his life, would struggle to find financial backing for his films.
Instead he worked for hire, trying to raise money by acting to make his own films. The most famous of these roles was as Harry Lime in Carol Reed’s The Third Man, one of the most famous cameos in film history. I find it interesting that Brady glosses over the controversy of whether Welles wrote the “Cuckoo clock” speech–Brady says he did, and that nobody disputes it. Welles says he got it from a German play. What I didn’t know is that for years Welles had a hit radio show in England playing the character of Harry Lime.
Welles managed to somehow make films–The Stranger, The Lady from Shanghai, Macbeth, and a long gestating film of Othello, that was finally released in 1950 and won the Palm D’or at Cannes. In the ’50s he made a film I’d frankly never heard of–Mr. Arkadin, which was again taken away from him and there exist a multitude of versions. I have a copy right now ready to watched from Netflix. He also scored a great triumph with Touch of Evil, which he was able to direct because of the influence of Charlton Heston (despite his gun fetish, Heston did do some noble things). The film was indifferently released, being on the bottom half of a double feature, but again, over the years, people have understood its greatness, both in his direction and his performance as a corrupt sheriff.
There are several films that Welles tried to make but never came to fruition, including Don Quixote (which also proved to be a Waterloo for Terry Gilliam), a picture called The Big Brass Ring, which was never made because he couldn’t get a big star to play a homosexual character, and something called The Other Side of the Wind. He earned a living appearing on television talk shows and in commercials, known primarily for being fat, a somewhat sad existence for someone with so much talent. To the very end he was trying to raise money for film projects, notably King Lear.
Brady is clearly a fan, but the book is not a hagiography. I did find it interesting that while discussing Welles’ three marriages and his affair with Delores Del Rio, there is nothing to the rumors about bisexuality. What comes across most is Welles’ huge appetite, not only for food but in all the good things in life. His genius is also apparent. When he adapted Shakespeare, he often rewrote him, and incorporated lines from other plays (Julius Caesar contained lines from Coriolanus). One of his projects was called The Five Kings, which took several of Shakespeare’s histories and boiled them down into one, very long evening. The play was not a success, and closed early. He also directed a stage musical version of Around the World in 80 Days, which included elephants on stage.
Welles was also a charming man, a great storyteller. He had a regular table at Ma Maison where he would have lunches with people he hoped would give him money. A very interesting one of these occasions was when he lunched with Amy Irving, hoping she would appear in a film he was trying to make. She was at the time married to Steven Spielberg, who was riding high after E.T., and joined Irving at the lunch. Spielberg was such a Welles fan that he bought one of the sleds used as Rosebud in Citizen Kane, but Welles said it was a fake. Spielberg probably was aware that Welles might cast Irving to get him to invest, and Spielberg didn’t give Welles a penny. Welles even had to pick up the check.
The life of Orson Welles comes across as one of the great “might have been” stories of all time, even with him making the film acknowledged by most as the greatest of all time. He was a man whose success was front-loaded in life–Citizen Kane is at the halfway point of Brady’s book, even though Welles was only 25 when he made it and would live another 45 years. Not to dump on Spielberg, but I wish he would have said, “How much do you need and you have full creative control.” Brady notes the irony of Welles receiving very high honors, especially only the third AFI Life Achievement Award (following John Ford and James Cagney). He was surrounded by dozens of Hollywood greats, singing his praises, but he couldn’t get a film financed.