Thursday, December 31, 2009

Orson Welles: The Making, Undoing and Remaking of A Creative Legend (Part One)

Orson Welles (1915--1985) was always a walking double-act  in American pop culture---one part of the act was the recognition that here was a great multi-faceted star who could bend cinematic story-telling to his genius for imagery and montage and dramatic flair. 

Exhibit A:  Welles from his debut feature, "Citizen Kane", a film about a newspaper tycoon who had a insatiable desire for political and media power. Probably no performer, director, writer and producer came to Hollywood with more expectations than the twenty-three year old Welles did in 1939.  And two years later he delivered a masterpiece, but not before arousing the ire of many powerful people and making many older professionals in the factory town that was Hollywood wish he'd fall on his butt and never get  up again.  Welles had a major ego, and that rubbed many powerful people the wrong way.  But he could back it up with a film that no one else could have made.  (Which just  ticked off many of his peers and a hostile press all the more.)    


 The other act was Welles as a burn-out case, a guy who popped up on variety shows and did "sthick" comedy or card tricks or added a bit of cosmopolitan flavour to an ordinary  documentary or a run of the mill commercial. Sure, folks must have said watching junk like this below, he had done something amazing earlier in his career, something to do with making people think Martians landed in New Jersey back in '38 and really scared people. The "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast put him on the map and he made the cover of Time Magazine, not bad for a guy that young.   Here he is lampooning his own past success some thirty year later.   



    His first feature, "Citizen Kane", was not a successful picture when it was released in the Spring of 1941 (although many critics and fellow artists regarded it as the best film they had ever seen.)   Welles carried on for the next forty years, both acting and directing films--often doing such work as he could find of any caliber to finance his projects. 

 Like the critics and fellow artists said above in the "Kane" clips, all of Welles eight completed directorial efforts leave one in awe of how much he could do with so little. 

Here is a clip from his last completed film, "F for Fake" (1976), in which Welles used documentary techniques to get to the heart of how art forgers and other con-artists (like a magician, one of Welles' favorite public guises) fool the public and the experts with a talent for artifice.  It is in the middle of this small, wonderful film that Welles gives one of the most moving soliloquies on human creativity.     

How Welles carried off this double act for so long is a sort of testament to the need for creativity at whatever the cost.  One thing is for certain: Orson Welles overcame adversity and is finally getting the recognition he deserved in life a quarter century after his passing. I'll examine that in my next blog.    



  1. Doug I literally used to read and read and all are within storage I am going to come back to this but he had a very huge ego.

  2. it takes real dedication to do whatever anything you have to do to get to do your art.

  3. LIke William Randolph Hearst, Welles most famous living subject. That ego made him perfect for playing Falstaff and other Shakespeare films.

  4. You are totally right Mary Evelyn. Welles set a standard for that as few others have. Everything he did was larger than life of course, but he worked very hard from all I've read about his life.

  5. yeah, but i was thinking about what dude said about his big head, it's hard for somebody with talent to live up to all the legends and not act that way, if indeed his peers did think he was a real artist.

  6. I think that was part of Welles' fate from the very beginning, mary --he was treated by his Mother and other adults as a boy-genius. He was only human; it had to go to his head and swell it, especially since most of his greatest public successes happened before he was mature.

  7. I've never cared much for Citizen Kane, but I did like him in "Jane Eyre" He had those dark, broody looks and the sexy, husky voice to go with them.
    I've heard he was a better director than actor. My mom adored him.

  8. I think his real career killer was McCarthyism, back in the 50's. A lot of wonderful actors were blackballed.
    By the way, Ronald Reagan wasn't one of them. He turned his coat so fast everyone got dizzy!

  9. To many, myself included, he is the definative Mr. Rochester. (Just as Joan Fontaine was and is Jane Eyre.) He had an amazing voice and his entrance in that film was perfect. I gather Welles would have rather been remembered as a director as well.

  10. The charges that Welles was a Communist did indeed hurt his career. There was nothing to that; he was an artist, not a politican and only stumped for one President, Franklin Roosevelt.

    You were rigth about Reagan , Jacquie. He turned on a dime when the real witch-hunting started.

  11. Most of the people accused of being communists weren't. Although, I often wondered what difference it made. It wasn't illegal to be a communist, and more than it was to be a republican or democrat.
    I love my country, but I don't always like the people.
    I was surprised that Gary Cooper turned too. I'd always liked him until I learned that.

  12. I'm not crazy about some of the people either. That was a bad time to be a person with their head above the crowds that's for sure.

    Yeah, Cooper's father was a judge and he was well-educated so you'd think he'd have known better. Instead he played it dumb. Perhaps he was just afraid, like that sheriff in "High Noon". I'm not sure.

  13. Well, the sheriff was nervous, but he didn't back down! Most of the celebrities were, I think just trying to save their careers.
    This era was a big black mark in our history, I think.

  14. Breathtaking, especially, was Orson Wells' soliloquy on Chartres. I was so moved by this infamous master with the deep, rich voice that, alas, speaks to us no more excepting on old reels and tape. And TG for those, eh!

    My thoughts on the New Year are really the same for any year, simply said....

    IMO, taking God out of the equation and making it a ME-centred world invites in all types of unsatisfying ugliness and purposelessness to life. Looking back, I wouldn't say it's been the worst generation, but it's a very self-orientated generation, indeed. I know myself to be happiest when my creative process includes a life force moving through me instead of me just writing empty pleasantries. Having fun, yes. Who wants to go through life with a dour spirit and embittered perspective? But also caring for others in the process, as well as for the communities in which we live and are passing on to future generations, these thoughts should be utmost in all our continued musings as well. This includes supporting quality education, obligatory healthcare for all in our individual societies; and, to me, most importantly is the ongoing research, support and implementation of renewable energy.

  15. What more is there to be said of Orson Welles? Of course that won't stop more documentaries about him and his work being made, in other words people cashing in on his brilliance. I prefer to just enjoy the films and forget the numerous turkeys he was involved with.

    We have the Third Man recorded for viewing later today, a treat we have been looking forward too.

  16. So true, he didn't back down. Cooper did try to get Carl Foreman, one of the writers of 'High Noon', off the blacklist in '51 or so, but by then it was too late for that.

    Yes, the blacklist was a terrible overreaction. The Era really was emblematic of the sort of hysteria many Americans seem to fall into all too easily--and, of course, the real enemies become our own fears.

  17. "The Third Man" is another of those truly great films that holds up so well. I saw a restored version of this in San Francisco a few years back and was blown away by the photgraphy and the story (once more) and the actors, direction, etc. The audience reaction to it was wonderful--it was like we all watching it again for the first time!

    Carol Reed was an absolute master and he uses Welles and Joseph Cotten's chemistry perfectly, the two are just as good here as they are in "Kane".

  18. You said Red--thankfully we live in a time when we not just read of the great artists of the past but heart and see them again, recreating over and over a special magic.

    The "Chartes" scene really deserves a blog of its own. It's had quite a profound effect on me over the years from when I first saw it a long while ago. Here is Welles stripped of all cinematic elan, simply stating that life and creativity are worth it all just in and of itself.

    And, as a more mature person, I am of the opinion that society has gone too far in turning away from our real spiritual selves, and the result is too often selfishness and bitterness. It must take quite a developed persona to turn away so definately from the Idea of God. I confess it quite escapes me.

    Mark Twain said it well, "To cheer yourself up, try cheering someone else up." Practicing real creativity and pursuing worthy goals is one way to do that I believe. Thanks for your remarks.

  19. Jim, you have successfully anticipated one of the main themes of my seconf part of this brief series on the career of Orson Welles--how so many are now making capital from his image and his work in feature films and documentaries, when he is dead and gone!

    But the "double act" I wrote about is indeed waning; that "turkey" part of Welles' career--like that "Laugh-In" bit from the 60's---things he did to keep his face before the public and pay his bills-- is finally lifting like a cloud of smog over his public life to reveal the man as he should have been regarded and supported in his best and most meaningful work all along!

    The only good part of this renewed attention to Welles' work is that we are rid of the double act---the artist who gave his best is the real Welles those who care about film can see now. And part of that of course is his unforgettable contribution to "The Third Man".

  20. And a Happy New Year to you, Frank!

  21. I watched Citizen Kane recently, a real classic. I also like Joseph Cotton in films.

  22. Me, too, regarding aa recent viewing of "Kane", Cassandra.

    If you ever get to rent the most recent DVD version there's a very interesting documentary that contrasts Welles life with that of publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst, the major inspiration for the film, called "The Battle for Citizen Kane". Both men were larger than-life, to say the least, and Hearst got a big dose of his own medicine from the younger man. Although parts of the film, like the shattering early death of Kane's mother, is from Welles' own life story.

    Joseph Cotten is an indispensible factor in several great films of the 1940's--Not only "Citizen Kane", but in George Cukor's film with Ingrid Bergman, "Gaslight" (1944), as well as playing the dastardly "Uncle Charlie" in one of Hitchcock's personal favorites, "Shadow of a Doubt" (1944). He's also great as the automobile manufacturer in Welles' second film "The Magnificent Ambersons" (1942) as well being perfectly cast as the tapped-out writer in Sir Carol Reed's magnificent "The Third Man"(1949).

    Not a bad decade for one actor I'd say!