Thunder in the Mountains

J. Hoberman

  • Orson Welles: Hello Americans by Simon Callow
    Vintage, 507 pp, £8.99, May 2007, ISBN 978 0 09 946261 3
  • What Ever Happened to Orson Welles?: A Portrait of an Independent Career by Joseph McBride
    Kentucky, 344 pp, $29.95, October 2006, ISBN 0 8131 2410 7

Like Dead Elvis and Dead Marilyn, Dead Orson is very much with us. He lives on, not only in the restored ‘director’s cuts’ of his re-released movies, the posthumously completed projects and newly adapted screenplays of never-made films, but as a character in other people’s novels, plays and movies. He haunts the murderous teenagers of Heavenly Creatures as ‘the most hideous man alive’, matches wits with Kenneth Tynan and Laurence Olivier in Austin Pendleton’s play Orson’s Shadow, and has even been fingered posthumously as a suspect in the 1947 Black Dahlia murder. Welles appears, larger than life, in documentaries and dramatisations, of both his own story – or rather the story of his productions – and the stories of others he might never have met. (Tim Burton’s biopic of the ‘world’s worst film-maker’, Ed Wood, contrived to have the two misunderstood auteurs meet in a tawdry Tinseltown lounge.) In addition to all this, there is an apparently unending succession of books, of which Simon Callow’s ongoing biography is the most monumental, now two volumes in and not even arrived at The Third Man, the 1949 movie that made Welles a myth.

Callow’s second volume, Hello Americans, is named after the series of radio broadcasts Welles delivered during World War Two. It’s arguable that no one before Welles had addressed his countrymen in so many different ways. In his biographical memoir, What Ever Happened to Orson Welles?, Joseph McBride depicts Welles as a multimedia dynamo who worked in ‘radio, theatre, vaudeville, television, recordings, magic, oratory and journalism’. More than that, he was the first American artist to take ‘the media’ as his medium. (In this, Welles anticipated Andy Warhol, who also enjoys a posthumous existence as a movie character.)

George Orson Welles was born in 1915 and appeared first as the wunderkind whose Shakespeare productions – the ‘Fascist’ Julius Caesar, the ‘voodoo’ Macbeth – dazzled New York theatregoers in the 1930s and who, when not spooking radio listeners as the voice of the Shadow (an invisible detective ‘who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men’), threw his fellow citizens into a panic with his 1938 faux newscast War of the Worlds. After his first movie, the word ‘boy’ was no longer needed to modify Welles’s ‘genius’: Citizen Kane changed the course of film and, as Andrew Sarris put it, infected American cinema with the ‘virus of artistic aspiration’. Not only a brilliant, innovative picture, it dramatised – in a way no previous movie had done – the act of film-making itself.

And then, after the studio butchering of what might have been an even greater work, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), there followed years of apparent failure. Or so the story goes. Welles, like his fellow Midwesterner Scott Fitzgerald, had no second act. The most lavishly gifted American film-maker of his generation became a Promethean figure, the outsize artistic temperament laid low, by Hollywood or perhaps by his own character. The intractable nature of character was a career-long concern for Welles. Human nature is eternal: The Lady from Shanghai (1947) stops dead in its tracks so that Rita Hayworth can say so, claiming it’s a ‘Chinese proverb’; some versions of his 1955 film Mr Arkadin begin with a printed title that uses the fable of the scorpion and the frog to assert it. But was he Welles the Wastrel, squandering his own talent and other people’s money; Welles the Glutton, a parody bon vivant who ended his public career shilling for a cut-rate California winery; Welles the Has-been, making small talk on chat shows? Or was he Welles the Martyr, Cult Figure and, as McBride sees him, ‘High Priest of Cinema’?

Some reviews of the first volume of Callow’s biography criticised him for largely ignoring the political aspects of Welles’s career. But Callow devotes a chapter to his 1937 Federal Theatre production of the agitprop opera The Cradle Will Rock and attaches suitable significance to Welles’s 1941 Broadway staging of Richard Wright’s Native Son, which was no less daring than Citizen Kane. In any case, it would be impossible to ignore politics when writing about Welles’s wartime activities, and especially the ill-fated government-subsidised documentary It’s All True, the altar on which The Magnificent Ambersons was sacrificed.

It’s All True was the first of Welles’s legendary never-completed projects. Already planning an anthology film to be based on real-life stories and shot partly in Mexico, he was recruited by the US State Department to make a ‘good neighbour’ travelogue in Brazil. Welles flew to Rio to film the carnival (using anti-aircraft searchlights lent by the Brazilian government). While there, he began poking around the favelas and became interested in the story of four fishermen who had recently undertaken a seemingly impossible 60-day voyage, sailing a six-log raft fifteen hundred miles from their north-eastern village to Rio to dramatise their demand for social reform. Thus, Welles managed to lose the sympathy of the Brazilian regime as well as the support of his studio, RKO, which underwent its own palace coup and, in the summer of 1943, pulled the plug on the project. ‘For the new men who came to power in RKO it was all too easy to make this giant, scriptless documentary in South America look like a crazy waste of money,’ he would later recall. ‘A truly merciless campaign was launched, and by the time I came back to America my image as a capricious and unstable wastrel was permanently fixed in the industry’s mind.’[*]

Scarcely had Welles returned from Brazil than he married Rita Hayworth, soon to become Hollywood’s reigning sex symbol. His political engagement and new-found celebrity meant, as Callow notes, that ‘his endorsement and his oratory were widely sought by the many committees and councils, anti-Fascist, pro-second front, pro-labour, pro-education, to which the war had given a new relevance.’ Welles was strongly identified with the most progressive elements of the Democratic Party. Callow quotes an excoriation of institutionalised racism, given at a 1943 New York rally on a bill with Paul Robeson and Vice-President Henry Wallace.

Welles’s debut as a political orator was as sensational in its way as his first forays into theatre and the movies. ‘Until the other day,’ the New Yorker noted, ‘we regarded Orson Welles as simply an actor, producer, writer, costumer, magician, Shakespearean editor and leading prodigy of our generation, and then out of our mail fluttered an announcement that he was … delivering an oration called “The Nature of the Enemy” at the City Center.’ As 1944 ended, Welles was writing a daily newspaper column, editing Free World magazine and hosting two new radio series, as well as addressing rallies and, it seemed, pursuing a political career. The secretary of the treasury called on him to spearhead a radio campaign for the War Loan Drive; and when Roosevelt died in April 1945, CBS radio drafted in Welles to record an immediate response.

Welles was the original activist-actor, the precursor of John Wayne and Jane Fonda, if not Ronald Reagan. Hoping to reclaim the prodigal for the theatre, the Broadway producer Billy Rose addressed an open letter to him: ‘Listen, Thunder-in-the-Mountains, isn’t it about time you made up your mind whether you’re Senator Pepper, D.W. Griffith or Kupperman the quiz kid?’ He did undertake theatrical projects after this, notably a spectacular musical adaptation of Around the World in 80 Days. Only a handful of tepid Cole Porter songs remain of this gigantic flop, but Bertolt Brecht called it ‘the greatest thing I have seen in American theatre’. (He and Charles Laughton hoped in vain that Welles would direct their 1947 production of Galileo.)

By the mid-1940s, Welles regarded Hollywood as a place where he made money by acting. But he also persuaded the independent producer Walter Wanger to buy the rights to Howard Fast’s novel Citizen Tom Paine for him to direct and, as the FBI noted (they had a dossier on Welles), planned a series of educational short films on ‘minority problems’. The Stranger (1946) – a frankly commercial production which Welles made for another independent, Sam Spiegel – was the first Hollywood feature to refer to the Nazi death camps, and used newsreel clips. The movie, in which Welles hams shamelessly as a German war criminal hiding out in a New England college town, was severely cut. Callow compares its lost twenty minutes (including dream sequences and expressionist flashbacks) to the lost original ending of The Magnificent Ambersons. What remains, however, is Welles’s desire to educate his audience.

No doubt Welles was hyperactive and easily distracted. ‘During our two hour conversation, he struck a match to his cigar not less than 20 times, and paced about the room, flinging himself into chair after chair,’ the gossip columnist Hedda Hopper noted in her unsympathetic account of a 1947 interview, during which he informed her that his plans included three pictures for Alexander Korda and a Ben Hecht story about a girl and a magician, as well as adaptations of Macbeth and The Glass Menagerie, not to mention a version of Moby-Dick for the London stage.

Louis Dolivet, a leftwing activist who arrived in America during the war as the embodiment of Free France, spearheaded the International Free World Association and published its journal Free World, hoped that Welles might serve as the UN’s first secretary-general. (Dolivet was later denounced as a Communist and effectively prevented from returning to America; he wound up producing Welles’s most enigmatic feature, Mr Arkadin, and taking the film away from him by impounding the original footage and editing it.) Welles, however, idolised Roosevelt and maintained that Roosevelt had encouraged him to think of himself as a future president, suggesting that he run for the Senate in his native Wisconsin (which, had it happened, would have pitted him against future senator Joseph McCarthy). Welles was also touted as a senatorial candidate in California, though he evidently changed his mind when Senator Hiram Johnson died during the summer of 1945. At the height of the 1946 election season (which ended with the Republicans regaining control of Congress for the first time in 14 years), Welles was in Acapulco, making The Lady from Shanghai with Rita Hayworth.

Although their marriage was virtually over, Welles had managed to persuade Columbia to allow him to direct their most valuable property in a commercial thriller. The Lady from Shanghai, a quintessential film noir with Hayworth as a blank-faced femme fatale, is often read as Welles’s poisonous kiss-off to Hayworth. But, as Callow notes, if the movie ‘allegorised any relationship in Welles’s life, it was the one with Hollywood, the treacherous beauty whose intentions could never be fathomed and whom it was impossible to know on an equal basis’. Plagued by bad weather, illness, death, fatigue and labour issues, the film took an extra month to shoot and ran $500,000 over budget.

As Welles was editing The Lady from Shanghai, the House Un-American Activities Committee turned its attention towards Hollywood. The FBI, whose files described Citizen Kane as ‘nothing more than an extension of the Communist Party’s campaign to smear one of its most effective and consistent opponents’, namely William Randolph Hearst, had long been interested in Welles. He was regarded as a threat, and placed on the FBI Security Index largely because of his political activities on behalf of the committee organised to defend the beleaguered Communist labour leader Harry Bridges and the 17 Mexican-American youths charged with murder in the 1942 Sleepy Lagoon case.[†]

Welles submitted himself to the 1947 interview with Hedda Hopper, a red-baiting ally of the FBI, in an attempt to get right with the authorities: ‘I’m sick of being called a Communist,’ he protested. ‘It’s true that I’ve worked for some of the things the Communist Party has advocated. But that was merely coincidental. I’m opposed to political dictatorship [and] organised ignorance.’ Welles seemed particularly anxious to clear himself of appearing, at Charlie Chaplin’s behest, at a Carnegie Hall rally for a second front. Chaplin, to whom Welles had given the idea for his wildly unpopular dark comedy Monsieur Verdoux, was Hopper’s bête noire and another potential HUAC target. In the end, Welles did not receive a HUAC subpoena, but he left the US a month after the hearings ended in late October 1947, just before the blacklist was made official and six months before the Columbia boss Harry Cohn released a re-edited, re-scored version of The Lady from Shanghai. Welles’s political period was over, though as McBride points out, there are aspects of political allegory in a number of his subsequent movies: informing in Othello (1952), abuse of power in Touch of Evil (1958) and state persecution in The Trial (1962).

Welles’s American career was finished, too. There was one last Hollywood movie – a low-budget, rough-and-ready Macbeth (1948) made for Republic, a studio that specialised in musical Westerns. In its meditation on murderous ambition and intimations of apocalypse, this raw and disturbing Macbeth was a postscript to The Lady from Shanghai. Shot against minimal backdrops with a hand-held camera, set in a not yet Christian Scotland and played by radio actors speaking with an imaginary 11th-century Scottish burr, Macbeth pleased no one. Olivier’s more conventional and genteel Hamlet won the Oscar; Welles was consigned to the dustbin. He moved to Europe, where he would remain, more or less, for the next quarter-century.

American audiences had rejected The Lady from Shanghai; critics found it not only trivial but disastrous. The French, however, saw it as the birth of something new. ‘The Lady from Shanghai is paradoxically the richest in meaning of Welles’s films in proportion to the insignificance of the script,’ André Bazin wrote. ‘The plot no longer interferes with the underlying action.’ According to Maurice Bessy, Welles’s film maudit anticipated the European avant-garde of the 1960s: ‘Fifteen years before Last Year in Marienbad, Welles created a film whose raw materials were the absurd, the irremediable, the incomprehensible.’

Working hand to mouth in half a dozen European countries, financing his movies largely by acting in other people’s, Welles produced a superbly inventive Othello, the remarkable Mr Arkadin, his tragically unfinished Don Quixote, a bombastic but fully realised version of The Trial, the melancholy Chimes at Midnight (1965), and several low-budget, self-reflexive documentaries. These movies constitute a substantial body of work in themselves, and a brief return to Hollywood in the late 1950s yielded Touch of Evil, a noir which looks better every year.

McBride, the feisty author of biographies on two complex and problematic directors (Frank Capra and John Ford), loves Welles too well to subject him to a full biographical treatment. Having taken part as an actor in The Other Side of the Wind (1972), the last feature Welles would attempt to make in Hollywood (an ‘improbable, exasperating saga’), he is writing personally as well as historically. McBride casts himself as the artist’s friend in court; if he seems more defensive than need be, it’s because of his justified desire to redirect attention from Welles’s failures to ‘the wider pathology of American hostility’ that attached itself to him.

Callow and McBride both demand that Welles be understood as something other than a frustrated Hollywood director. After 1942, Welles aspired to a role that, Chaplin notwithstanding, scarcely existed in America. Unlike his contemporary John Huston, McBride notes, Welles was heroically unwilling to compromise. Increasingly, after The Lady from Shanghai, each of his movies took the form of an existential adventure. The fascination of these projects – the failures not least – is a factor of Welles’s unflagging imagination and willingness to persevere. For a time in the 1950s, his attention was captured by Moby-Dick; Welles told Hopper in their 1947 interview that Captain Ahab was the literary character he most wanted to play. But, inevitable as this identification might have been, it was the white whale that Welles ultimately came to resemble: an outsized creature, solitary freak of nature, hunted and feared, his hide punctured with broken harpoons.

[*] In It’s All True: Orson Welles’s Pan-American Odyssey (California, 416 pp., £14.95, March, 978 0 520 24248 7), Catherine Benamou reports that in 1945 Welles managed to buy the footage from RKO for $200,000 and had plans, never realised, to distribute the project as two separate movies.

[†] A 1948 report by the California legislature’s version of the House Un-American Activities Committee classifies Welles among the ‘faithfuls’, one of Hollywood’s ‘outstanding Communist Party liners and sympathisers’. By way of proof, he is listed with 14 subversive associations, including the American Committee for the Protection of the Foreign Born, the American Committee for Yugoslav Relief, the American Student Union, the American Youth Congress, the Friends of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, and the Hollywood Democratic Committee, which (on Welles’s suggestion) became the Hollywood Independent Citizens Committee of the Arts, Sciences and Professions. Soon afterwards this last committee presented The American Caravan, a production – in which Welles appeared – in support of the United Nations Charter.