The Magic World of Orson Welles (4 page)

It is a shame no publisher has thought to reissue these books; they remain excellent introductions to Shakespeare, written in an unpretentious, often amusing style that can inspire kids to put on a show. In 1939, after the successful run of the Mercury
Julius Caesar
in New York, Welles persuaded Harper and Brothers to publish Mercury editions of the original three books, plus a fourth on
; he also persuaded Columbia Records to issue long-playing, 78-rpm recordings of full-length Mercury performances of the four plays (these excellent recordings are still widely available). The Mercury Text Records, as they were called, were the first full-length recordings of Shakespeare's plays
ever produced. Michael Anderegg, who has written a fine study of them, observes that they were “the most obviously pedagogical of Welles's Shakespearian activities, and . . . can fairly be considered a distinctive contribution to the teaching and general appreciation of Shakespeare in America” (
Orson Welles, Shakespeare
, 46). Welles and Hill wrote a brief article about them for the National Council of Teachers of English; the recordings were widely used in schools and were favorably discussed as teaching aids in the first issue of
College English

After World War II, Welles was interested in making 16mm educational films, but nothing came of the idea. In the early 1980s, when he was having regular lunches with Henry Jaglom at Ma Maison in Los Angeles, he told Jaglom, “At one point I decided that the best thing I could do, the most use I could get out of what I was born with . . . would be in education. I spent five months going to every big foundation, saying, ‘I'm going to give up my entire career.' I was then very famous and successful. . . . Nobody wanted it. . . . But I would have been very happy to do it” (Biskind,
My Lunches with Orson
, 70). There was, however, a pedagogical quality to most of his career, especially in his radio shows of the war years; his postwar newspaper column and radio commentaries for ABC and the Blue Network; and his two BBC television series,
Orson Welles's Sketchbook
Around the World with Orson Welles
. Much of his later film work, such as
In the Land of Don Quixote
Orson Welles's Vienna
(1969), and
Orson Welles's Moby Dick
(1971), takes the form of lectures, guided tours, and readings.

The pedagogical tendency also had an influence on Welles's fiction films, where the impulse toward lecturing and instruction blends with an impulse toward oral storytelling—as with the omniscient narrator of
The Magnificent Ambersons
, or with such characters as Michael O'Hara in
The Lady from Shanghai
, who tells a long, illustrative story about sharks; Harry Lime in
The Third Man
, who gives Holly Martins a lesson about the Borgias versus the Swiss clockmakers; or Mr. Arkadin, who tells his guests a parable about the scorpion and the frog. As I've argued elsewhere (
Invention without a Future
, 187–97), one of Welles's distinctive accomplishments in these moments was to synthesize two apparently contradictory forms of theatricality. He was indebted to a romantic or gothic tradition of Shakespearian drama, grand opera, and stage illusionism, but he was also a didactic, somewhat Brechtian storyteller whose acting technique was visibly rhetorical, dependent upon various forms of direct address to the viewing audience or to an audience within the film. “The thing I do best in the world,” he told Bill Krohn in a 1982 interview, “is talk to audiences. And that's really what confuses me and
makes me think I should have been in politics, which is nonsense. What I'm really talking about is a profession in which I talk to people. Which seems to get us back to Orson Welles' little lessons in how to make movies in some mid-Western university, you know what I mean” (Drössler,
Unknown Orson Welles
, 70).

The dialectic between these extremes—between Welles as conjurer and Welles as narrator/teacher/storyteller—can be seen throughout his career but is nowhere more obvious than in
F for Fake
, a playfully educational film that also puts strong emphasis on Welles as conjurer or trickster. It can be seen as well in certain of Welles's TV shows, where he adopts a slightly unusual form of address, occasionally turning away from the camera as if reaching for a thought or looking at an audience in an auditorium. The most important case in point is “The Fountain of Youth,” a twenty-five-minute television pilot Welles wrote, directed, designed, narrated, and arranged the music for in 1956. This show, which was shot in only three days, is almost entirely governed by a storytelling narrator who toys with his characters in a style vaguely adumbrated by the opening moments of
The Magnificent Ambersons
. Produced by the Desilu studio (which, ironically, had taken over the old RKO lot where
Citizen Kane
was shot), it never resulted in a series. Welles said the networks didn't want it, and Desi Arnaz said it was too difficult to get Welles to commit to a long-term deal. Whatever the reasons, “The Fountain of Youth” was aired only once, as part of a summertime miscellany on NBC in 1958. Even though it was buried in the midst of summer reruns, it won the Peabody Award, the highest honor a TV program could receive in those days. Currently it can be seen only in museums or in poor-quality bootleg copies on YouTube.

Brief and swiftly paced, “The Fountain of Youth” is Welles's adaptation of a humorous short story by John Collier about a beautiful but narcissistic married couple (Rick Jason and Joi Lansing) who meet the inventor of a youth serum (Dan Tobin) and betray one another in order to gain sole possession of a test tube filled with the stuff. Welles described the show during his 1982 interview with Bill Krohn:

“It was [the pilot for] an anthology of that kind of comedy. . . . I was going to be the permanent star—not as a host like Ronnie Reagan coming out at the beginning of
Death Valley Days
, or like Hitchcock, but woven all the way through the show. It's a style I'd like to go back to. I was very fond of it, that way of doing it. It was based entirely on back projection, there was no scenery. . . . We just took props from the prop department and put them behind a screen, and a few little things in front. . . . It was a style that I liked very much
and I'd like to do for a whole movie. And, of course, it's the only comedy I've ever made on film. I used to do a lot of comedy in the theater, and radio. But in film I've always been rather solemn” (Drössler,
Unknown Orson Welles
, 61).

The show opens with Welles looking a bit like a well-dressed classroom lecturer who is presenting a slide show to the audience. During the dramatized story he reappears, interrupting the action to discourse briefly on such topics as Narcissus and Ponce de Leon. As a storyteller, he infiltrates the film's diegesis so thoroughly that he begins to resemble a puppeteer or godlike manipulator—an effect reinforced by the simplicity of the mise-en-scène and the occasional use of freeze frames. Now and then he even breaks into the individual performances and speaks the characters' lines so that we get the amusing effect of Joi Lansing moving her lips and sounding like Orson Welles. Ultimately, as Jonathan Rosenbaum has pointed out, the all-controlling narrator's “moral fallibility (that is to say, his narcissism)” becomes identified with the narcissism of the leading characters, “and the implicit nastiness of Welles's amused, glacial detachment consciously boomerangs” (Drössler,
Unknown Orson Welles
, 14–15).

The influence of “The Fountain of Youth” on Welles's late work was significant. It opened the way to the narrative technique of
Don Quixote
and partly determined another TV pilot Welles wrote and directed in 1956 for a proposed series of half-hour programs about the lives of historical figures. Now lost, this pilot was titled “Camille, the Naked Lady, and the Musketeer” and concerned the three Dumases, about whom Welles had long wanted to make a movie. Another short film that used a similar technique was “Portrait of Gina,” a 1958 TV pilot intended for a magazine series about “people and places” on ABC. The pilot episode, which failed to interest the network and never aired, centered on Gina Lollobrigida and the movie industry in Rome. Strongly reliant on Welles's narration and gift for humorous storytelling, it also featured drawings by Saul Steinberg, still-photo montages, and brief interviews with Vittorio De Sica and others in the Italian film industry. Welles described it as a “personal essay . . . in the newspaper tradition . . . it truly is an essay” (Drössler,
Unknown Orson Welles
, 101). Indeed in certain ways it anticipates
F for Fake
, which movie historians often describe as the invention of the essay film.

In the year “Portrait of Gina” was made, Welles discussed TV in an interview with André Bazin for
France Observateur
. “It's a marvelous form,” he said, “where the spectator is only a few feet away from the screen, but it is not a dramatic form, it's a narrative form; so much so that television is the
ideal means of expression for the storyteller. . . . Above all, it is a method of satisfying my own penchant for telling stories, like the Arab storytellers in the marketplaces. I adore that. I never tire of hearing stories told, you know; so I commit the error of believing that everyone shares the same enthusiasm! I prefer stories to plays, to novels: that is an important characteristic of my taste” (Bessy,
Orson Welles
, 113–14).

Welles's attitude toward TV in the late 1950s was much like his attitude toward radio in the late 1930s; “television is in fact only illustrated radio,” he told Bazin. In both cases he put stress on the intimacy of the medium and its potential for experiments with narration. If he had lived until now, he would no doubt think differently about the changed forms of TV viewing. I suspect that digital streaming, highly portable digital photography, and digital editing would stir his imagination. He was a lover of old-fashioned storytelling who will always be appreciated for what he contributed to twentieth-century cinema, but he was also an innovator who was excited by the possibility of new forms of expression, especially when they allowed him personal freedom. “I am an experimenter,” he explained to Bazin during their 1958 interview. “Experimenting is the only thing that excites me . . . It is the act that interests me, not the result, and I am not impressed by the result unless the odor of human sweat or thought emanates from it” (Bessy,
Orson Welles
, 114–15). Too bad we are unable to see what magical experiments he might perform today.

The Prodigy

By the age of twenty-six Orson Welles had achieved a success in show business unlikely to be repeated by anyone. He had been the New York Federal Theatre's most dynamic showman; he had cofounded and directed the most critically acclaimed repertory company in America; he had been chiefly responsible for the most sensational radio broadcast in history; he had gone to Hollywood with one of the most generous contracts ever offered by the film factories; he had cowritten, produced, directed, and starred in what is arguably the most important American movie since the birth of the talkies. A fatalist would say that the gods, or the laws of success, were bound to turn against him.

And something ostensibly like that did happen. Welles went on to make an extraordinary series of films after
Citizen Kane
, films that give the lie to the notion that he was “self-destructive” or wasteful of his talent; none of these subsequent projects, however, gave him the same combination of freedom and technical resources, and he was never again to orchestrate such a talented group of people. Even if
did not exist, Welles would still be included in the pantheon of American filmmakers, but having made that picture at an early age, he created expectations for his career that probably no one could have fulfilled.

The spectacular events that led up to Welles's early success have been told many times, in magazine profiles for the
New Yorker
(1938) and the
Saturday Evening Post
(1940); in two early, now out of print, books, Roy Fowler's
Orson Welles
and Peter Noble's
The Fabulous Orson Welles
; and in five later biographies, which I list in order of their appearance: Charles Higham's
Orson Welles: The Rise and Fall of an American Genius
(1985), Frank Brady's
Citizen Welles
(1989), Barbara Learning's
Orson Welles
(1985), Simon Callow's
Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu
(1995) and
Hello Americans
(2006), and Patrick McGilligan's
Young Orson
(2015). John Houseman and Micheál MacLiammóir, former associates possessed of considerable theatrical and literary talent, have written their own recollections, and Welles himself was interviewed many, many times. I do not propose to go over familiar ground in much detail, but a sketch of the more important episodes, and a description of some early works by Welles that have not been discussed by previous writers, may help place
Citizen Kane
and the subsequent films in their proper context.


Although Welles was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin, he always reminded his biographers that he was conceived in either Paris or Rio while his parents were on a world tour. From the beginning, therefore, he was a gypsy. He was the second son of prosperous and eccentric Midwestern parents, and his upbringing was anything but conventionally bourgeois—in fact it was exactly the sort of childhood that produces a misfit, a prodigy, or both.

Welles's father, Richard Head Welles, was in his forties when the boy was born. He had a good income from several wagon factories and earned still more as an inventor, the money enabling him to be a bon vivant—the sort of character his son would grow up trying to emulate. “Dick” Welles had traveled on three continents, maintaining a winter home in Jamaica, making pals with celebrities, and, according to the
New Yorker
, having a restaurant, a cigar, and a racehorse named after him. He married the former Beatrice Ives, daughter of a Springfield, Illinois, family that had boasted a friendship with Abraham Lincoln. Mrs. Welles, a beautiful, active woman, was a gifted concert pianist and a suffragette; she is known to have written a life of Jesus, and at her death she was preparing to tour the country giving poetry readings to music.

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