Orson Welles began in the theater as a “boy wonder,” then drifted into radio dramas in New York in the 1930s by playing “The Shadow” and other popular characters. It was then that he founded the Mercury Theatre Company, which produced plays on Broadway and on the radio with scandalous success. His 30 October 1938 radio adaptation of H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds was his ticket to international fame, or infamy; designed as a breaking news story, Welles’s production convinced millions of listeners that Martians were invading the earth, landing en masse in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey. There was immediate, widespread panic: churches were jammed with terrified citizens as people prayed for deliverance from the alien onslaught. The second half of the hour-long broadcast made it clear that the entire story was, indeed, fiction, but Welles’s brilliant use of the medium had so unnerved the nation that he was summarily forced to apologize for the riots he had caused.
Sensing that he would do just as well in the cinema as he had on stage and in radio, RKO Pictures signed Welles to direct in 1939. Once in Hollywood, Welles locked himself in a screening room for months, taking a self-imposed crash course in cinematic technique, aided by the brilliant cinematographer Gregg Toland. After considering and then abandoning a film adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (which would have used first-person camera work to force the audience to identity with the protagonist), he settled on a thinly fictionalized life of the notorious yellow journalist William Randolph Hearst. Hearst was an immensely rich and powerful man who controlled much of the nation’s media, with a string of newspapers, radio stations, and even a film production company that existed primarily to provide star vehicles for Hearst’s longtime mistress, Marion Davies. Welles saw Hearst’s career as a tragic example of overreaching, and Citizen Kane (1941) is thus the story of a man who has greatness and wealth thrust upon him and then destroys himself and all those around him—friends, wives, business associates—with his greed, thirst for power, and egomania.
Citizen Kane is justifiably one of the most famous works in cinema history. As a debut film (Welles was just twenty-five years old when he began shooting) Kane is all the more extraordinary. Welles served as co-writer (with Herman Mankiewicz) and director and also played the Hearst character, Charles Foster Kane, in what would be the greatest performance of his long career. In addition, he kept the production on a tight schedule, contrary to persistent rumors at the time. He even used screen-test footage from the famous breakfast table sequence with Ruth Warrick in the final print, and in the end brought the entire film in for well under a million dollars.
But in his youth and brashness, Welles had not reckoned with Hearst’s considerable power and influence. After seeing the film, Hearst used his papers’ top gossip columnist, Louella Parsons, to threaten the entire Hollywood studio system with a series of embarrassing revelations about the private lives of its top stars unless the negative and all prints of Kane were destroyed. A consortium of studio heads
offered Welles and RKO a million dollars to destroy the movie, but to their eternal credit RKO refused to negotiate and released the film, uncut, to rave reviews. The film, tracing Kane’s life from an unhappy childhood to old age and death through a series of complicated flashbacks, was a masterpiece of set design, camera placement, deep-focus composition, lighting, and editing. Indeed, critical acclaim for Kane was overwhelming, especially in Europe and the rest of the world, yet the movie did poorly at the box office. In addition, the film predictably brought down the wrath of the Hearst organization on RKO, which now found itself banned from all Hearst newspapers, both in reviews and advertising. As a result, RKO became invisible to millions of Hearst readers, and Welles acquired a reputation for being a brilliant but difficult and potentially dangerous filmmaker. He would never again have the freedom he had enjoyed on Citizen Kane.
Welles’s second feature, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), about the decline and fall of a prosperous midwestern family, featured many of the members of the Mercury Theatre unit. Welles’s original cut ran 148 minutes, but the studio was no longer willing to accommodate the young director as they had in the past. The film was taken out of his hands and savagely recut to eighty-eight minutes by the film’s editor, Robert Wise (later a solid director in his own right), and a happy ending was hastily shot and tacked on to satisfy audiences, who had reacted negatively to the original version in previews. Demonstrating their new attitude toward Welles, RKO released the mutilated version of Ambersons on the bottom half of a double bill with Leslie Goodwins’s program comedy Mexican Spitfire Sees a Ghost (1942).
Welles’s career never really recovered, although he displayed flashes of brilliance in his subsequent films and went on to a long career as an actor, voiceover artist, and commercial pitchman. His 1943 production of Journey into Fear for RKO was also taken out of his hands, and the film was completed by a former Welles collaborator. Though but a scant sixty-eight minutes, Journey into Fear is still talky and tedious, almost entirely devoid of Welles’s signature bravura style.
Only two years after his spectacular debut as an auteur, Welles saw his directing career slipping away. It was not until 1946 that he was allowed to direct again, when independent producer Sam Spiegel (then known as S. P. Eagle) agreed to finance the shooting of the modest suspense melodrama The Stranger. Welles also stars in the picture as an ex-Nazi in hiding after the war, teaching at a small college in Connecticut. The film went off smoothly during production, but Welles hated the result, calling it “the worst of my films.”
Nevertheless, it was a solid commercial success, and at Columbia Pictures Harry Cohn decided to give Welles a shot at directing, starring in, and co-writing The Lady from Shanghai (1947), an overheated suspense thriller starring Welles’s wife, the glamorous Rita Hayworth. Shooting dragged on for months, as the director supervised location shooting in Mexico and New York City to bring his fevered vision to the screen. When he delivered his final cut, Cohn and the Columbia brass found it incoherent and bizarre (as it is), but they missed the film’s originality and quirky brilliance. Substantially recut, the film was shuffled into theaters with a minimum of fanfare, where it failed miserably.
The only studio in Hollywood that would hire Welles now, after long negotiations, turned out to be Republic Pictures, best known for its westerns and Saturday morning serials. Welles then turned out his version of Macbeth (1948), a bold attempt to visualize the play in long takes on stark, minimalist sets, but his insistence that the actors perform with thick Scottish accents rendered much of the sound track incomprehensible. His last American film was also one of his best, the dark Touch of Evil (1958), which the studio (Universal in this case) again took out of his hands and reedited over Welles’s objections. (The film has been restored to the director’s original cut and is available on DVD.)
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