Gavin Millar

  • Citizen Welles: A Biography of Orson Welles by Frank Brady
    Hodder, 655 pp, £18.95, January 1990, ISBN 0 340 51389 6
  • If this was happiness: A Biography of Rita Hayworth by Barbara Leaming
    Weidenfeld, 312 pp, £14.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 297 79630 5
  • Norma Shearer by Gavin Lambert
    Hodder, 381 pp, £17.95, August 1990, ISBN 0 340 52947 4
  • Ava’s Men: The Private Life of Ava Gardner by Jane Ellen Wayne
    Robson, 268 pp, £14.95, November 1989, ISBN 0 86051 636 9
  • Goldwyn: A Biography by Scott Berg
    Hamish Hamilton, 579 pp, £16.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 241 12832 3
  • The Genius of the System: Hollywood Film-Making in the Studio Era by Thomas Schatz
    Simon and Schuster, 514 pp, £16.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 671 69708 0

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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in