Orson Welles: Hello Americans
by Simon Callow
Post Your Opinion
by Todd Swift
Orson Welles would have greatly enjoyed the recent midterm elections in America¨and not from the sidelines either. Had he been alive today, Welles would have been orating on the festooned platform with all the rhetorical grandeur that we associate with his role as Charles Foster Kane. If this seems like an unfamiliar way to begin a review of that seemingly all-too-familiar subject, Welles, the meteoric super-kid and ultimate failure, then look again.
That's what Simon Callow has done in this follow-up to The Road to Xanadu, the first part of a projected trilogy. In that superb work, Callow focused, in convincing detail, on everything the boy wonder had done right up until the premiere, in May 1941, of the world's greatest feature film, Citizen Kane, when the director-writer-producer-star (in all his hyphenated glory) was not yet twenty-six years old. It was a time of triumph for the "genius"; he could sell a movie idea casually tossed off in a chat over dinner with Charlie Chaplin for $5,000.00 (when that was real money), or summon Duke Ellington on to a set and pay him a thousand per week to write a total of 28 bars for a film that never was to be. Just then, Welles was the Napoleon of Hollywood.
Hello Americans was originally meant to be the book to answer the perennial question: what went wrong? The prevailing image of Welles, post-Kane, is, after all, not so much tragic, as pathetic¨propagated somewhat by Welles himself, who, in later years, became notoriously heavy, tended to exaggerate his genuine setbacks, and wasted valuable creative time on third-rate advertising campaigns and dubious cameos. Instead, Callow has unearthed an active and fascinating interregnum period, between the extraordinary early flowering, and a later period of supposed decline (the post-1947 period of self-imposed exile in Europe after the critical failure of his film Macbeth). Callow concentrates on the key years of 1941ű1946. This is a mere six years, during which America was mainly at war with Germany and Japan.
If the Welles failure myth is to hold, it requires a root cause, even an enemy perhaps. Callow finds many self-inflicted causes for Welles's failure, as well as evidence that he was attacked and thwarted, but he also presents a thrilling spectacle of a Miltonian fall so monumental that it becomes the best part of the story.
Welles was never judged by ordinary standards. How else could one explain the branding of a man, not yet thirty-three, as a failure, especially a man who had already accomplished all of the following: produced hundreds of Mercury radio broadcasts, reinvigorated Broadway, directed film masterpieces Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, and The Lady from Shanghai, and married Rita Hayworth. (Nor is the part of the story presumably to be covered in the third book lacking in greatness; Othello, Chimes at Midnight, and his late Gothic masterwork, Touch of Evil, were still to come.) It is true that most of his films were butchered by the studios, but, as Callow makes clear, Welles was neither cut out to be a commercial filmmaker, nor did he ever envision himself as one. It appears that he thought he was, first and foremost, a presidential candidate.
In that curious interstitial period, after Ambersons (a critical and commercial flop in 1942), when Welles is usually perceived to be in the Hollywood doghouse and struggling to make more films, he became one of the leading political figures in America. He was almost blithely unaware that his fortunes could even be slightly described as waning. Callow maps this secret Welles, superbly restoring him to his former glory, like one of those re-edited versions of one of his great films. It is such a revisionist feat that I was amazed¨and I'm something of a Welles buff.
Callow begins by exploding the myth that RKO set out to ruin The Magnificent Ambersons. After Kane, Welles was still considered a very desirable commodity in Hollywood. Indeed, though he did not have total control of his second feature, he had enough to do most of the damage to the movie himself. Film critics often festishize Ambersons because before most of the footage was cut away, and then disposed of, it contained several bravura sequences (now lost) that would have supposedly revolutionized cinema as Kane had done. This is no doubt true, but somehow beside the point. As Callow explains, Ambersons was never going to be a truly great film. Welles made a series of blunders when casting the picture, selecting several actors who clashed terribly with the source material, derived from Booth Tarkington's novel. The central character in both the book and film is that of George Amberson Minafer. As Callow observes, "at the centre of Welles's [Ambersons] is a pettish lout; at the centre of Tarkington's is a gilded youth who seeks to arrest history." Callow, himself a character actor, notes that Tim Holt (who had starred in Stagecoach) was "a one-performance actor, a performance with which Welles was very familiar." Welles had watched Stagecoach over a hundred times in preparation for Ambersons, and wanted no one else for the role.
Welles then cast his good friend and Mercury regular, Joseph Cotten, as Eugene Morgan. Morgan was intended to be a more reckless and powerful figure, juxtaposed with Minafer, but Cotten's "easy Virginian charm and soft handsomeness" instead rendered his character far gentler, and paradoxically more like Minafer (in the novel). The dramatic core of the story was consequently mostly nullified by Welles before he even began shooting.
Welles, too, was a youth unable to arrest history. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in December, 1941, his new-found career was, in a sense, sunk, as the mood of the nation swung away from the sort of thoughtful eclecticism he had epitomised. At just the moment when Welles was discovering his dark and complex genius, America was deciding it wanted light entertainment. Ambersons would never have qualified, even if Welles had bothered to stay and edit it. Instead, he was approached by the State Department and agreed to be sent to Brazil and act as a goodwill ambassador to help maintain relations with South America.
Welles abandoned Ambersons to RKO, but he did so with a great sense of mission. Unable to sign up (he famously tried and flunked his medical due to flat feet), he felt he could contribute to the cause by assisting America with Brazil (America feared Brazil would join the Axis side). His idea was to film a three-part pseudo-documentary, called It's All True, in which the central scenes would celebrate Rio de Janeiro's frenetic Carnival. Callow superbly depicts (in voluptuous and often comic detail) how quickly Welles unravelled. Greeted with complete adulation by the people and government of Brazil, he soon plunged into a lifestyle of promiscuous sexuality, partying until dawn with a beautiful new lover each night, plucked from the carnival erupting in and around the film set. He was overwhelmed, and couldn't find a narrative structure to impose on the musical and sexual chaos. Within months, Welles had squandered all the goodwill RKO had to offer.
He had also shot the best footage he was capable of, according to Callow. The sequence celebrating the lives of brave indigenous fishermen, the jangadeiros, was fraught with disaster: the national hero JacarT was drowned in a scene that Welles had staged. Nonetheless, in "Fortaleza, wind-whipped and sun scorched, Welles was gravely welcomed back into the community" without reproach, and managed to emulate his heroes, Robert Flaherty and Eisenstein, by working with a single Hungarian cameraman, a cast of amateurs, and without any funding or support. Welles went further in exploring nature and faith and cinema than he ever would again. Within weeks he had mastered, and then extended the language of a different kind of open-air filmmaking, using a style that was neither flamboyant nor artificial.
Welles returned to America, where, unable to secure funding for new film projects, he promptly accepted acting jobs in several major films. He recreated himself as a radio comedian competing for prominence with Jack Benny (while also being among the first white artists to champion black Jazz), ran a circus where he sawed both Hayworth and Marlene Dietrich in half, wrote weekly columns for The New York Post, became close friends with the vice-president of the United States, agricultural innovator and now largely-forgotten man of the people, Henry A. Wallace, campaigned tirelessly for Roosevelt in the presidential elections of 1944, and ignored the birth of his second child, Rebecca. He was also being groomed by senior political figures in the Democratic Party as a potential future presidential candidate.
And yet, by 1948, Welles's The Lady from Shanghai was being reviewed in The Herald Tribune as "inept" and his Macbeth had been savaged by critics (particularly in Life), making brutal comparison with Olivier's Hamlet, which had appeared around the same time. The public and the critics no longer respected him in America, and he no longer had the ambition or platform to change it, politically or with art or magic.
This is a wonderful, entertaining, compelling, and sometimes sad study of a man whose limitless potential held him back. Or rather, his many appetites and his self-devotion ceaselessly carried him away from his commitments and his artistic projects. As Callow says near the end, Welles "could only function as a free agent, untrammelled by partners, children, wives, administrators, accountants, producers, studios, political mentors." A perfect nightmare, you might say, or the perfect model of the imperfectly great artist. Welles never really managed to finish anything but himself. ˛