Extravagance and self-indulgence were among the kinder accusations levelled at Orson Welles by industry chiefs. For the most part the charges were unjust. Not only was Welles possibly the most distinguished film artist to be abused and all but broken by the system, and by leading individuals within it (including politicians, newspaper magnates, journalists, gossip-columnists and even critics), he was possibly the least culpable. Even Brady, an admirer, in his exhaustive and occasionally exhausting coverage, fails from time to time to set the record straight aggressively enough, and falls victim to what we should regard as the received malice.
Although an admirer, Brady remains a touch less devoted than Barbara Leaming in her 1986 biography, based as it was on long personal sessions with Welles. Brady never met Welles. They communicated by phone and letter, and so important and detailed – important if only because detailed – a study would have benefited from an appendix of notes and sources as in Leaming, who attributes every quote. As it is, we must take Brady on trust, an act of faith made more uncomfortable by his habit of quelling controversy by starting sentences with ‘Actually ...’
But Brady’s larger canvas at least enables him to give even more weight – some two hundred pages – to Welles’s career before the movies. He reminds us that the young Welles was an immense theatre and radio star by the mid-Thirties. Radio had a regular peak audience of 60 million. Double-bills were interrupted in cinemas at 7 p.m. while a large console radio was set up in front of the screen, so that audiences could listen to Amos ’n’ Andy. Welles became a celebrated voice on the March of Time series and the voice of the fabled ‘Shadow’ himself. He was an enfant terrible in the theatre, with adaptations of Shakespeare, a negro Macbeth, a famous Mercury Julius Caesar and the banned The cradle will rock by Marc Blitzstein. The notorious radio production of The War of the Worlds and his epic compilation of Shakespeare’s History plays, Five Kings, convinced Hollywood that they wanted him as actor, or director, or, eventually, anything that might persuade him to go west.
His contract with RKO was signed in July 1939. He was 24. The terrible child had already established radical political credentials, for which he had suffered, and for which he would continue to suffer throughout his life. Involving himself with the New Deal spirit of the Federal Theatre Project, he took the Negro People’s Theatre job for $50 a week and was sneered at by critics for his black Macbeth. When money was short, he personally subsidised his FTP Doctor Faustus: not the first time, nor by a long way the last, that he used his own money to keep a show going. The anti-capitalist stance of The cradle will rock didn’t encourage the authorities to make an exception during ‘cut-backs’ which shelved many FTP projects.
When he made the cover of Time Magazine in May 1938 (as Shotover in Heartbreak House), they called him a ‘marvellous boy’. But already the snipers were getting into position. Welles devised the War of the Worlds programme (in one week) partly as a spoof to deflate the impregnable authority of radio. Nobody was pleased, least of all the producers, CBS, who had to apologise to listeners, the Federal Communications Commission and H.G. Wells, all of whom appeared shocked. CBS made Welles apologise too and settled out-of-court claims for injuries received by panicking listeners falling downstairs and jumping out of windows in an effort to escape the little green men. The newspapers jumped on the bandwagon, calling for more government regulation of radio, much as they do now for television. When the Mercury Theatre’s Danton’s Death opened to mixed reviews the following week, they were quick to pounce. ‘For the Mercury Theatre, the honeymoon is over.’ But it was a newspaper man who shrewdly identified the problem that was to stay with Welles the rest of his life. Arthur Pollock of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle: ‘At 23 a man’s future must appal him if he has begun where others, at their peak, left off. Is he good enough to get better throughout two-thirds of a lifetime?’
This was the man, a novice to movies, whom George Schaefer brought to RKO in 1939: a household name, a radical in politics as in theatre and radio, an iconoclast, a cultivated bon-viveur, a wise old man, a baby, a sophisticate, a tearaway – above all, an intellectual. He was entering a community, noted then and now chiefly for its attachment to money rather than ideas, and to style rather than substance, which looked upon this rich mixture with profound dismay. They reacted with luminous stupidity: they objected to his beard.
Welles had grown a beard for Five Kings and intended to keep it for his first movie part: that of Kurtz in Heart of Darkness (later shelved). RKO executives took soundings. It appeared that Welles’s beard was deemed pretentious and disrespectful. Schaefer had Gallup do a poll on Welles’s beard. There were newspaper cartoons. Someone cut his tie off in Chasen’s restaurant. Nobody (as in ‘nobody who is anybody’) came to his house-warming party. The beard was felt to be potentially damaging to the studio, but a board meeting concluded they had no power to make him shave. This was the studio and the community in which, little more than a year later, and having taught himself cinema, Welles made Citizen Kane: still revolutionary, still dazzling half a century on. This was the community which, deeply ungrateful, spent the next half-century sabotaging his work and blaming him for it.
It has been customary to accept the industry version that Welles was his own worst enemy: that he wilfully failed to complete films, feared the cutting-room, damaged his own movies by lack of planning, waywardness, profligacy. This is almost wholly untrue. It amounts to a lifelong calumny on an artist who spent most of his time and most of his money trying to rescue his work from uncomprehending botchers. What little time he had left was engaged in defending himself against enemies such as the Hearst empire, or the poisonous interference, malice and slander of Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons (and their successors). Hopper, a gossip-columnist and a friend of Hearst, invited herself to a private screening of the unfinished Kane. Her verdict announced a campaign whose fury would not abate: ‘Not only is it a vicious and irresponsible attack on a great man, but the photography is old-fashioned and the writing very corny.’ The day after Welles received his Life Achievement Award from the American Film Institute, in 1975, a writer in the Hearst paper the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner judged that perhaps the time had come to lift the 35-year-long ban on mentioning Welles or Kane. He wrote up the AFI event, praising both. The editor pulled the piece in the second edition and admonished the journalist.
Even Brady is persuaded that Robert Wise’s defensive protestations about the editing of The Magnificent Ambersons amount to a proven charge of obscurity and indecisiveness on Welles’s part. But the memo from Welles to Wise that he quotes from as evidence is perfectly clear: technical, knowledgeable and precise. Welles knew that films were made or marred in the cutting-room. He loved the editing process, but time and again was prevented from either cutting the film his way or cutting it at all. The evidence is there. Why has the movie world continued to believe the studio version and not the artist’s?
Even Brady, again, lays insufficient stress on the reasons for Welles’s absence from the cutting-room. He had started the disastrous It’s all true enterprise, earlier than was convenient, at the studio’s and later at Nelson Rockefeller’s behest, as part of the latter’s Good Neighbours project. He was obliged to work on Journey into Fear as a condition of doing Ambersons, and it was the studio who moved the production dates so that, uncomplainingly, he found himself working round the clock on three films at once. For this he has been blamed as ‘irresponsible’ and ‘neglectful’. He was shamefully treated over It’s all true, the studio refusing to print most of his material, although he put up a great deal of his fee to purchase unprocessed negative – most of which the studio later dumped in the Pacific, still unprocessed. Welles spent the rest of his life recovering from setbacks like these. He never caught up, principally because Hollywood never let him. The best account of the problems on Kane, Ambersons and It’s all true can be found in Robert Carringer’s admirable The Making of Citizen Kane, 1985, a reasoned defence against studio chiefs and their apologists.
Brady allows himself to misrepresent the crucial progress of the editing of the eccentric masterpiece Touch of Evil, largely because he has no feeling for the editing process. ‘It is only then the director has the power of a true artist,’ Welles told André Bazin. ‘The only place where I exercise absolute control is in the editing-room.’ After quoting this, Brady writes: ‘Although this slavish attention to the fine points of his film helps to create a certain unity or consistency of vision, it can also serve as a detriment to the final look or as an impediment to the logic of the story.’ If this is all Brady has understood he understands nothing, and though he means well, once again his apologist has sold Welles short. He dismisses the weeks of work done by Welles with the editor Virgil Vogel in the cutting-room and accepts the studio version of events thereafter. According to Brady, Welles ‘willingly relinquished control of the film’. This is nonsense, but it is heartbreaking nonsense.
Brady’s text suffers from eccentric usages. Did you know that Malvolio is affectatious or that Welles threw a number of bombastic parties? After Heart of Darkness fell through, Welles apparently considered a virtual cafeteria of ideas. And despite his ‘somewhat creative cathexis of Cortez’ (cameraman on Ambersons) he still got annoyed by him. No wonder, it must have been painful. By the time we have heard that the AFI award made Orson somewhat felicitous, and that from time to time he was roisterous, not to say elixirous, we might be forgiven for wondering if his reputation, at last, is in utterly safe hands.
The title of Barbara Leaming’s new book is a quotation from Welles, Rita Hayworth’s second husband. She told Welles, in later years: ‘You know, the only happiness I’ve ever had in my life has been with you.’ ‘If this was happiness,’ Welles reflected subsequently, ‘imagine what the rest of her life had been.’ On Leaming’s evidence, despite rows, infidelities and estrangements, Welles seems to have been the most loved and the most genuinely loving of her five husbands. The first was virtually a pimp who tried repeatedly to sell her to Harry Cohn, the lecherous head of Columbia Studios. She never succumbed. Aly Khan seems to have loved her, but outside the bedroom preferred the company of card-players and horses. Dick Haymes was a brutal, abusive, manipulative drunk. Her brief marriage to the director James Hill was a last misconceived attempt to find calm and stability away from the film business. It was typical of her that she had chosen a man determined to reestablish her career. She was divorced from him by the judge who had married her to Orson Welles 18 years before. She swiftly declined into the illness, popularly believed to be alcoholism, which, much too late, was diagnosed as Alzheimer’s.
‘All her life was pain,’ said Welles. Leaming will not be categorical about the allegations of incest with her father. But Welles clearly believed that when Eduardo Cansino drafted his 12-year-old daughter Margarita into his flamenco act in vaudeville, casino and beer-hall, she became something more than his dancing partner.
If she had no choice then, she appears to have been unable ever to break out of that pattern. When she married Orson, she encouraged him to leave Hollywood and go into politics, as he was tempted to do, so that she might escape too. Friends from her early days found her ‘quiet and shy. If she hadn’t been so beautiful, she would have been a wallflower.’ ‘I don’t think she’s glamorous,’ said a woman friend. ‘I just saw her in a completely different light: a very sweet, adorable homebody.’
Hollywood was not about to let her turn into anything but a sex symbol. A typical horror: when she found out that GIs had fixed her pinup to the Bikini bomb and dubbed it ‘Gilda’ after her, she was so shocked that she wanted to go to Washington and hold a press-conference to dissociate herself. Harry Cohn wouldn’t let her go; he said it would be unpatriotic. When she was not owned by her men, she was owned by the studio. Her reward was to be denounced, frequently and with refined hypocrisy, by the gutter press, particularly in Britain.
There is little here about her screen personality. But it is clear that despite herself, despite Hollywood even, something happened in front of the camera. Some irresistible vitality burst out, along with her beauty, especially when she danced. Astaire admired her enormously. But when she went home in the evening she would burst into tears, fearing that she was an inadequate partner to the great perfectionist.
If the Love Goddess became a star despite herself, Norma Shearer pursued the goal with cool, ferocious ambition. A curiously unlikeable portrait emerges, almost as though Gavin Lambert, face to face with the idol, realises he has shouldered a burden he’d rather have been spared. Her courage at any rate can be admired, much as people, casting about for something agreeable to say about Thatcher, praise her determination. Both D.W. Griffith and Flo Ziegfeld told her she was no beauty and would never make it. She made it, in spades. After Garbo, she was MGM’s number one, by a nose from Joan Crawford, and she married the boss, Irving Thalberg. When the boy wonder died young in 1936, Hollywood’s own rabbi, Rabbi Magnin, provided a suitably dignified funeral oration. ‘The love of Norma Shearer and Irving Thalberg was a love greater than that in the greatest motion picture I have ever seen – Romeo and Juliet.’ This was an unsolicited plug for a limp movie that had Shearer straining after girlishness at the age of 34.
But then her whole life, and career, were a strain. Scott Fitzgerald said on Thalberg’s death, ‘The Golden Bowl is broken,’ and the same might be said for Shearer’s career. A more accurate portrait of the Thalberg-Shearer ménage than the rabbi’s can be found in Fitzgerald’ short story ‘Crazy Sunday’, based on an uncomfortable afternoon spent at their home, when Scott got drunk. The portrait of Norma/Stella, Lambert points out, shows a woman whose expertly charming front barely conceals ‘someone restless and impatient, not far from the emotional bursting point’.
If she has faded faster than other great stars of the golden era, could it be that she was more artificially sustained than any other? She was more smoothly ambitious than Crawford but she was every bit as ruthless. No one worked harder at creating and maintaining an image, and when it worked it was supported by the best team available: Clark Gable, Cedric Gibbons sets, Adrian gowns, William Daniels lighting, accommodating directors. (Who wouldn’t be accommodating? As Crawford pointed out, the star was sleeping with the boss.) It seems appropriate that little Eva Duarte left home for the bright lights of Buenos Aires after seeing Riptide and had seen Marie Antoinette six times by the time she married Juan Peron.
It’s a relief to turn to Ava Gardner, who was not impressed by Hollywood, and fully expected them not to be impressed by her. Of MGM, she said: ‘They never took much interest in me. I can’t say I blame them.’ She was spotted by a talent scout and used to say she cursed the day her photographer/brother-in-law put her picture in the window of his New York studio. But she didn’t let her success drive or depress her any more than she pursued it. Her sardonic self-awareness was protective. ‘I shot enough sultry looks round the MGM photo gallery to melt the North Pole.’
Most of Hollywood’s leading men fell for her and she took her pick. She was famously married: Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw, Frank Sinatra. Shaw was the cultivated one. He hated her walking round the house in her bare feet and was shocked to discover she had only ever read one book: Gone with the Wind. ‘I left before he had a chance to flunk me.’ Her three husbands had 20 wives.
Sinatra seems to have been the serious one. Shooting Mogambo, John Ford gave a party for the British Governor of Uganda and his wife. A man’s man, as they say, Ford thought of a little joke to put Ava on the spot. ‘Why don’t you tell the Governor what you see in that hundred-twenty-pound runt you’re married to?’ ‘Well,’ Ava replied, ‘there’s ten pounds of Frank and one hundred and ten pounds of cock.’ She died in London last year, and Sinatra spent over a million dollars caring for her during her last illness.
Of all the Hollywood moguls Goldwyn was the one who, allegedly, most respected literary quality in his sources. He courted Shaw, Wells and Somerset Maugham. He recommended Maurice Maeterlinck as ‘the guy who wrote The Birds and the Bees’ when pressmen would enquire why the mysterious Belgian was under contract. Later, to his regret, moving down-market, as he saw it, he bought a 4000-word story of Thurber’s called ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’. He thought it would make a good musical vehicle for Danny Kaye. Two writers invented a melodramatic plot, turning Mitty from a henpecked husband into a young bachelor working in a pulp-fiction publishing-house. Yet Goldwyn wanted to involve Thurber. He met Thurber in New York with the 160-page draft script, recommending the first 60, but asking Thurber not to read the last 100, since they were ‘too blood and thirsty’. Thurber read the whole script, however, and confessed that he was ‘horror and struck’. Goldwyn concluded that Thurber had nothing useful to contribute, and that his proposed dream-sequences were getting in the way of the musical numbers mostly inserted by Sylvia Fine, Kaye’s assertive wife. (Her absence from a script conference one morning while at the psychiatrist’s gave rise to one of the most celebrated Goldwynisms. He exploded with fury. ‘Anybody who goes to a psychiatrist should have his head examined.’)
Goldwyn’s taste and judgment must be at the heart of any serious estimate of his contribution to the cinema. Scott Berg is nothing if not serious, but his massive study still fails to make the case for the famous ‘Goldwyn touch’. If any of his writers had thought up a gag as good as Sam’s inadvertent psychiatrist joke, he would surely have had to have it explained to him. One of the two Thurber adapters, Everett Freeman, once told me how he had rowed with Goldwyn over Mitty and other matters. Goldwyn raged at him: ‘You’re fired, Freeman! You’ll never work for me again! Unless I need you!’
Bullying and bathos go clumsily together and Hollywood never knew whether to fear Goldwyn or laugh at him. It certainly was difficult to laugh with him. Much of Scott Berg’s record is a history of litigation, where slights, slurs, libels, thefts, poachings, deceits and disloyalties, imagined or not, by Goldwyn or against him, make a dreary catalogue of the least attractive of the movie business’s working practices. In a world where standard operational procedures involved lying and cheating, Goldwyn’s combination of humourlessness, insensitivity and ruthlessness was not a handicap. It was perhaps his negative qualities which served him best. Edgar Selwyn, the man who gave the second half of his name to a joint enterprise with Schmuel Gelb- or Goldfisz (much to Hollywood’s dismay, which felt a more appropriate conflation might have been Selfisz), went to the oldest mogul of them all, Adolph Zukor, for advice about the merger. ‘As far as his honesty and integrity are concerned, there is none,’ replied the sage. ‘Sam is like a Jersey cow that gives the finest milk, but before you can take the bucket away, he has kicked it over.’
The question is, if there was any milk, was Sam the cow or the lucky farmer? Scott Berg repeats the famous story of his offer to Eisenstein. He told Eisenstein that he admired Potemkin, then said: ‘What I would like is for you to do something of the same kind, but a little cheaper, for Ronald Colman.’ Eisenstein was unable to oblige. (Scott Berg’s way of describing this episode in Eisenstein’s life is, in its entirety, as follows: ‘After a great misadventure making a film in Mexico, Eisenstein kissed Hollywood goodbye and returned to a far less vagarious life under Stalin.’) The story may be apocryphal but it is certainly typical. On the other hand, there is no unconvincing invention in the many anecdotes which show Goldwyn’s judgment to have been simply wrong, even by the standard of box-office success. He grudgingly paid $15,000 for Mitty, saying the story was worth only $2500, but at the same time bought a non-starter called Earth and High Heaven for $100,000 (this in 1947) and spent six years trying to develop it. Ring Lardner Jr, Howard Koch and Elmer Rice between them wrote eight drafts. He wouldn’t have Barbara Stanwyck as Stella Dallas: she was too young and had no sex appeal. King Vidor’s wish to have Stanwyck prevailed and the picture grossed $2m in 1937; it is still thought of as one of Stanwyck’s finest performances. He turned down – for $25,000 – the advance rights to a fellow called Hemingway’s novel about the Spanish Civil War on the grounds that it wasn’t yet written. He thought Niven had no future in pictures. He persistently miscast Merle Oberon as a virgin. He made more money out of contract players he loaned out, and they made better pictures for other studios. It was always said that Ronald Colman’s best pictures were made after he left Goldwyn (with whom he barely spoke by the end of their association). The list is long of those writers and actors who willingly bought themselves out of their contracts. ‘He doesn’t get ulcers,’ said Vidor, ‘he gives them.’ ‘No more Goldwyn pictures,’ Vidor wrote a note to himself in his diary.
One man who did more Goldwyn pictures was William Wyler: These Three, Dodsworth, Dead End, Wuthering Heights, The Westerner, The Little Foxes, The Best Years of our Lives. If anyone could judge the quality of the milk, you might think, it would be Wyler. Yet they, too, went for long periods without speaking. When Wyler finished Best Years the terms of his contract were up and he was off. Scott Berg wryly notes that his relief was enshrined in the title of his new production company: Liberty Films. Wyler the director who worked most closely with Goldwyn and did more pictures – and successful pictures – with him than anyone else, said of him: ‘I don’t recall his contributing anything other than buying good material and talent. It was all an attempt to make a name for himself as an artist. But as far as being creative, he was zero.’
It is hard to know where to dip into the Wyler/Goldwyn saga in order to give the fullest flavour of their working relationship. To call it a collaboration seems an abuse of the word. Lillian Hellman formed part of it until she could take it no longer. She finally broke irrevocably with Goldwyn when he re-wrote the politics of North Star (later retitled Armoured Attack to rub out any lingering hint of a warm reference to the Russians – a fact that Scott Berg doesn’t mention. But then the House Un-American Activities Committee condemned even Best Years as Communist propaganda). Wyler was both more pliant and more obdurate. He fought Goldwyn in his own way, from a less strident political platform, and perhaps from a less arrogant artistic base. Indeed, Wyler confessed once that the only reason for his staggering number of takes on each set-up was simple insecurity. He didn’t quite know what he wanted and wasn’t sure when he’d got it. It is certainly a matter of endlessly repeated record that he would never give notes between takes: just ‘do it again.’ Perhaps the combination of insecurity (to the snobbish Goldwyn it looked like the pains-taking of genius) and Goldwyn’s willingness to bankroll artistic striving (enabling Wyler to relax with his prevarication) was what kept them together for ten years. Another studio head – Thalberg perhaps – would have been less tolerant of Wyler’s work methods: he shot 400,000 feet of film for Best Years – about seventy-five hours, a ratio of between 35 and 40 to one. Most contract directors were on the carpet, or simply fired, for anything over ten to one, since it usually meant a film was over-schedule and over-budget. In the circumstances it might seem a little churlish of ‘Willie’ to say, as he did in 1980: ‘Tell me, which pictures have “the Goldwyn touch” that I didn’t direct?’
Goldwyn’s problem was that he equated tastefulness with art. He may have agreed to make the slum story Dead End but he insisted that the waste paper carefully blown onto the set be removed before shooting began. He wanted the waste paper out of his movies, he wanted clean stories, clean actors, a clean record. Shakespeare, Shaw, Dickens, Wells, Somerset Maugham – all the greats wore neckties in Schmuel Gelbfisz’s Parnassus.
This is a book in which writers are powder kegs of talent and take Broadway by storm. It reveals that beauty has been a passport across social borders since time immemorial. People tend to forge new careers for themselves and hover on the threshold of momentous decisions. There is little critical analysis in it, but it is exhaustively researched and will prove a useful source to set beside others.
‘Encomiastic’ is one of Scott Berg’s occasional plunges into the jacuzzi of archaism, so let us say of Thomas Schatz’s book that it is encomiastic about the studio system to which Goldwyn was such an eccentric exception, since he used his own money and made only two or three pictures a year. It judges the system to have been at its apogee in the Thirties and Forties, declining under the impact of television principally, but damaged also by the growth of star and agent packages, overhead costs and location shooting. It tells us a good deal more than most of us will want to know about the month-by-month growth and decline of the majors – Universal, Warners, MGM, and a separate strand for Selznick International, almost a major in his own right. There is hardly any mention of 20th-century Fox, a studio which from time to time had to be rated one of the big five. Is there some hidden scenario here? At any rate that makes us treat with a scintilla of froideur the gushing encomiasm with which Schatz dogs the footsteps of even the most obscure studio executive, in preference to the wilful and hot-headed directors. Granted that it may be time to redress the balance of the politique d’auteurs, but the process leads Schatz into philistine contortions that he can surely not have intended. Stroheim is such an obvious target – extravagant and wayward – that it hardly needs the boy wonder Thalberg to shoot him down. But Schatz discusses the problems of Foolish Wives in exactly those terms. Thalberg locks Stroheim out of the cutting-room: petulant, wilful and foreign, Stroheim stamps his boot and walks off the lot.
Take another trouble-maker, Buster Keaton. Thalberg ‘indulged’ his work-methods in the early years, but when he came back to MGM in 1928 ‘the constraints of sound production and of Thalberg’s system were too much for Keaton, abetted as they were by alcoholism and a failing marriage. He hung on into the early Thirties, but by then his career was effectively over.’ Is that all? Buster Keaton? Broken on the wheel of Thalberg’s ‘system’, and now consigned by the historian to the industry’s dustbin. Not a hint of regret about lost years, the films not made, the waste of talent; or even the suspicion that it just might have been the ‘system’ that produced the alcoholism and the failing marriage. ‘Anarchic’ W. C. Fields (the nicest thing Schatz says about him) gets the same treatment. But there are useful sections paying proper tribute to producers and production supervisors like Hal Wallis and Henry Blanke who ‘made’ their films as much as some of their directors. (Arthur Freed, for example, emerges as the real maker of The Wizard of Oz.) The main emphasis, however, is not so much on talent as on money. You will not find much analysis of the former, but if you know how much they’re earning, who needs it? It is hard to be more encomiastic about a book which puts so much in, but which leaves so much out.