|Welles. Ta da!|
There are a select few people in film that I can say are flawless, and even less that I can say I admire to no end. One of these lucky people (were he alive I’m sure he’d be so flattered to hear that) is Orson Welles. On the anniversary of his infamous 'War of the Worlds' broadcast, I’d just like to pay homage to him with a blog post (again, he’d be overwhelmed with flattery) about three of the most significant things he ever did.
When he first came to Hollywood they nicknamed him the ‘wiz kid’, the ‘boy genius’. At 24 he had already conquered the fields of theater, radio, what was left for him to tackle but film? Ironically, considering his freshman effort Citizen Kane is considered to be the greatest film of all time, Orson famously said that he doesn’t even like films and doesn’t see many of them. It just so happens that he was such a genius that whatever he touched he not only succeeded in, but became the master of.
He came to Hollywood with a beard and a ‘fuck you’ attitude that infuriated everyone, especially when they learned that he refused to play by their rigid rules. He was the youngest person in history at that time to have a do-whatever-you-want contract with RKO. This was unheard of. Imagine, a studio with thousands of employees and a solid reputation are entrusting everything to this kid who’s never made a film in his life. They banked on the right horse. But as you’ll see, it came with a very serious backlash, for the studio and their golden boy.
As I said, I think there are three significant points in his life that changed it and the world as we know it. All of them happened before he celebrated his 25th birthday. Do you feel like a failure yet? Anyway, here they are.
|Enormous crowd outside the Lafayette theater on the opening night of Macbeth.|
First there’s the ‘Voodoo Macbeth’. Quick and term-paper like backstory. In the midst of the great depression, FDR signed for a program called the WPA (Works Progress Administration), to help people find work. A fraction of which went to the arts; particularly the FPA (Federal Theater Project). Orson saw a chance, and at 19 went to Harlem to audition many African American actors to read Shakespeare, the majority of which had never even been on a stage before. But with Welles directing them, he made what’s known in theater circles as one of the greatest theater productions of Shakespeare ever made. That’s ever. It opened before he turned 20. One critic described it as ‘chaos, but very carefully contrived chaos’. Clips of it actually exist and I believe you can youtube them. Somehow, this kid who had never directed anything outside of school could get non-actors to recite the words of Shakespeare like they’d been preparing for this performance their whole lives. After that I don’t have to tell you he was the shining star of the FPA. He went on to direct Julius Caesar, which was more critically and commercially successful than the Voodoo Macbeth, but I think that considering the circumstances, the Voodoo Macbeth is definitely one of his greatest achievements. There are some actors from it that are still alive and when interviewed, are still astounded by what they experiences in working with Welles. Not only did it generate publicity for Welles and give hundreds of out-of-work African Americans jobs, it put a spotlight on the FPA and the importance of the arts even in the midst of a depression. If only we could see that now and not nix arts first when we run short of cash in classrooms.
|Seriously, the whole play was recorded. The sound kind of sucks and picture quality is sub par, but the content is worth it.|
The second was a year later. 20-year-old Welles was already an established radio actor with that baritone bellowing voice. He was so popular that he actually hired an ambulance to drive him around New York City so he could make it to every recording no matter where because he figured out that there was no law that said you had to be sick to travel in an ambulance. He finally decided to take this a step further. As a child, he loved magic, and was a skilled illusionist. Now, he was ready to drop his biggest magic trick on the world. He chose the classic H. G. Welles story 'War of the Worlds' as his source material, he decided that he would broadcast it, with all of the showmanship and drama that only Welles could manufacture. He did not broadcast a disclaimer before it saying ‘this is just a reenactment’, but went full force with the story, landing his Martians right in the middle of America’s dinnertime. He knew that the most popular radio show at the time was one that would cut away to some commercial every now and then, and used those intervals when people were changing the station to put the whole nation into a state of panic. He stood in the middle of his radio actors with a long conductor’s stick and cued everything with the precision of a surgeon. If you listen to the broadcast (you can buy it on iTunes), it’s unbelievable. You can’t blame anyone for actually buying the fact that they were being invaded by aliens and the world is in a full on panic. He plays a newscaster that narrates a horror he sees in front of him with people screaming in the background. ‘People are flocking to the East River, thousands of them’ he would report as the chaos continued and just when it reached its zenith, he went silent.
|The infamous pause that Welles held, and everyone in the studio as well as across the country held their breath.|
Everyone was literally glued to their radios at that point because they thought that the broadcast had been discontinued and the employees eaten by Martians. People who participated in this broadcast remember the image of Orson standing there with both hands in the air, holding that silent pause as long as he could. Even they were relieved when he finally started speaking again. Welles later said of the incident that ‘most people would have been thrown in jail for that, and I got a Hollywood contract’. After the truth came out, and Welles had a press conference where he played dumb saying that he had no idea that the nation was taking the broadcast seriously, everyone in Hollywood understood that this is a man who could put on a serious show and get everyone’s attention. With two amazing achievements under his belt, his next logical step was to conquer the movie world.
|Welles directing Kane, smoking a pipe which Hollywood also inexplicably hated.|
Ergo his third greatest achievement. At 23, he arrived in Hollywood with a contract that no one had ever heard of; total creative license and access to whatever he wanted. Hollywood vets like John ford and Cecil B. Demille hadn’t ever seen such leeway, and they gave it to a kid who’d never made a movie in his life. Fortunately for him, he had a lot of help. A wealth of seasoned professionals helped this cinema neophyte create what we now consider to be the greatest film of all time; Citizen Kane (1941). Gregg Toland came into Welles’ office one day, plopped his Oscar down on his desk and said that he would be honored to photograph the picture. His childhood friend Joseph Cotton was already a respectable actor when he was cast as Kane’s best friend Jedediah Leland, but there was no question who would play Kane himself. At that time, Welles began hanging out with renowned screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz; a talented, shrewd writer with a huge alcohol problem.
|To achieve those iconic low angle shots that accentuated the figure in the frame as being incomprehensibly tall and powerful, Welles and cinematographer Gregg Toland tore up the floor of the set and mounted the camera in the hole.|
During one of their drinking binges, Mankiewiecz spilled the beans about his frequent trips to San Simeon. San Simeon was the home of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst. It was literally a castle; the property on which it sat (also owned by Hearst) was half the size of Rhode Island. There was a veritable plethora of juicy gossip Mankiewicz disclosed to Welles and a light bulb went off in his head. After sitting on his ass in the hot California sun for months at that point, Welles finally figured out what the boy genius would do for his first film. He’d make the story about a gargantuan figure; the embodiment of the American dream; a man who has everything, except a soul. He was smart enough to thinly veil the story by giving his main character a different name and setting the castle in Florida instead of in San Luis Obispo where San Simeon was, but that was basically all he changed. You’ve seen the film probably so I’m not going to get into plot or anything…if you haven’t my god what’s wrong with you? Anyway, what happened in the aftermath was something not even Welles could run from. Gossip columnist and devoted slave of Hearst, Louella Parsons, demanded an early screening and was livid by the end of it. She immediately told Hearst that it was all about him and painted him as a bitter old lunatic, alone and alienated in his giant palace full of ‘stuff’. But what really stuck in Hearst’s craw was the depiction of his then mistress, later wife actress Marion Davies, whom they painted as a gold digger and a whiney floozy; a party girl without much of a brain. Hearst knew how much power he had and showed up in every studio head’s office with a thick folder of scandalous news that he had kept out of his papers as a favor, threatening to reveal all of it if they dared release Citizen Kane. He wanted every single print burned, and the studio heads had a meeting where the general consensus was to comply with Hearst’s demands. After all, they didn’t want orgies, hit-and-run accidents, and the fact that they were all Jewish to come out. That last part isn’t even a joke. Hearst literally threatened to expose that fact, which apparently back then wouldn’t be so great. Oh the blatant racism of those times.
It was 1940 and Europe was engulfed in the Second World War. With Hitler and the Nazi party being the constant diet of the newspapers, Welles used this to counter their decision. He made the argument that at a time where there is no freedom of speech and blatant persecution of races, religions, and political groups in Europe, that they couldn’t possibly do the same thing in America. After all, we stand for something…even the studio heads. They couldn’t deny he was right and RKO released the film in 1941. The critics loved it, the public loved it, but it didn’t matter. Hollywood still hated and resented Welles for being so arrogant (considering he had total license to be) and the film was completely overlooked. It had a regular run in theaters and really didn’t gross that much. At the Academy Awards that year it won only one Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, which was really an award for Mankiewicz even though it was shared with Welles. It wasn’t until Andrew Sarris and other critics, particularly from Cahier du Cinema and the general French New Wave, started mentioning it as their favorite film that it became relevant again and now we all know it to be that really amazing film that we just haven’t gotten around to seeing because it’s black and white, long, and dated. Fuck you, watch it.
Well there’s the three. After that, Welles’ career became somewhat of a black hole. No one wanted to neither hire nor work with him. His ego preceded him and everyone basically said; ‘thanks but no thanks’. By the time he was 30, he looked about 50, was about 100 pounds overweight, and totally box-office poison. He had played by his own rules his whole life, and everyone allowed it, everyone except Hollywood. Then and still, they have a ‘it’s my way or the highway’ sensibility. And Orson chose the latter. He died miserable and alone, because being Orson Welles, he couldn’t even make a marriage work considering that in his life, it was always Orson Welles who came first. But that doesn’t matter. Even though the majority of his life was a decline, this is a man who had accomplished things we can only dream of doing perhaps once in our lifetime. He did 3 before he was old enough to rent a car. The legacy he left behind remembers that. We didn’t hear much about Welles after he turned 30, because we remember him as that ‘boy genius’ that turned everything he touched into gold. Yeah he was difficult, yeah he was self-obsessed, yeah he was probably an asshole…but above all, he was perhaps the greatest genius of the 20th century; a renaissance man who could take on anything, except his own demons. In my life, I don’t think anyone has influenced me more than Welles. He didn’t set any new standards because his standards are totally unachievable. But he did gift us with his talent, which is literally incomparable, and even 70 years after his golden age, there has been no one that has come anywhere close.
Below, some stuff.