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’?

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[*] 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.