Favorites List --- Orson Welles --- Part Two
A lunch companion told me the other day about his son sitting through Citizen Kane recently at a community college film class. As expected, the pic was an ordeal, the group of nineteen year olds bludgeoned into submission by a pompous introduction assuring they'd resent a film Welles hoped might entertain them. Has there ever been a show so badly used by academia as Citizen Kane? You'd think it never ran to paying customers who came voluntarily. Telling an audience they're about to see The Greatest Picture Ever Made is fastest route to getting your wings clipped; let them enjoy Kane first and then try spoiling it. I'd venture patrons liked Kane best when it was winding through late 1941 neighborhoods combo billed with westerns and ding-dong comedies. Those folks didn't have to bear up under intimidating weight of a reputation CK could better have done without. The below 1943 theatre ad for Mrs. Miniver includes an interesting poll result from Radio City Music Hall in which customers were asked to pick their ten best films of all time. Citizen Kane made the list with 28% of respondents choosing it. This public found and embraced Kane for themselves, long before a critical and academic establishment imposed it upon them.
Orson Welles had three daughters. One controls some of his films and roused controversy over her said-to-be misguided stewardship. Another wrote a bittersweet account of a mostly inattentive father. Being Orson Welles' child would amount to hardship for anyone, I should think. Minus inherited genius, what would you have? Any life experienced would seem utterly commonplace beside his. I was with a film instructor friend when we came across In My Father's Shadow: A Daughter Remembers Orson Welles by Chris Welles Feder on a book store shelf. I just don't think I can read another book about him, my friend said, and indeed, you wonder just how many more the market can sustain. Even writing about Welles here, I'm nagged by probability that everything I say has been covered elsewhere, and better ... yet here I've gone and ordered a second-hand copy of the Feder book for $2.55 (those used Amazon prices being hard to resist), plus a David Thomson book I'd overlooked called Rosebud. So how much is enough on the subject of Orson Welles? As long as they keep excavating lost and unfinished films of his, we'll never see an end to it. Just lately there's a You Tube find(s) called Orson Welles' Sketchbook, a barely known something he did for British television in the mid-fifties. Altogether new to me were five episodes of OW spinning tales and inventing new ones, as though he'd managed a few hour's furlough from the beyond to regale us all again.
I've read Vanity Fair's article about The Magnificent Ambersons several times in hopes that it would end differently, perhaps with an announcement of that fabled print in South America turning up and enabling us to see the film complete at last. I'm one of those who thinks it still exists ... that is, the 132 minute work print that was shipped to Welles while he was working on It's All True in Brazil. RKO sent word in the forties for this to be junked, but South America being honeycombed with collectors, I'd just bet one of them smuggled it off to a zone of safety. If war criminals could be concealed so readily down there, why not a lone 35mm nitrate print? Collectors are particularly adept at hiding stuff. That's the kind of hairpins we are. Imagine a noirish Pan-American search for the missing Ambersons: A world-weary but intensely engaging and romantic film collector (played by myself, of course) embarks upon a danger filled quest for film's most elusive treasure, his path littered with spent bodies of those who've tried and failed before him. Could said complete Ambersons turn up after all these years? Judging by what has surfaced in recent past (a near intact Metropolis below the equator), why not?
If only Orson Welles had stayed home and finished The Magnificent Ambersons instead of taking that State Department requested trip to South America! To read accounts of what happened to Ambersons after he left is to grieve anew for a masterpiece that was lost. I don't use that word inadvisedly, for The Magnificent Ambersons is for me the Number One most-desirable of all missing films. What's left, at least in the first hour, is fully the equal of Citizen Kane and then some. What a shame RKO ignored David Selznick's suggestion that they deposit a complete print with The Museum Of Modern Art ... and how well it speaks of DOS that he pursued them on this point. Poor Robert Wise spent most of old age defending the fact he'd cut it. Welles used to refer to a Freddie Fleck helming added scenes after the studio wrested control from Amberson's director. Freddie Fleck ... what an ideal name to evoke imagery of a hack hireling busily vandalizing a great man's canvas. I can just picture Freddie years later (he died in 1961) telling anyone who'd listen that he directed scenes in The Magnificent Ambersons, but then I wonder ... would Freddie have even remembered doing so? There's been much fuss over the film's shameful distribution and the fact it played on double features with Mexican Spitfire Sees A Ghost ... like Freddie Fleck all over again. The two sound like profanities when mentioned in the same breath with The Magnificent Ambersons. Now if Freddie had directed Mexican Spitfire Sees A Ghost, we'd have no problem. As it is, the idea of Ambersons sharing a bill with Lupe Valez seems blasphemous, but hold on ... didn't most features ride double in first-run Los Angeles (and elsewhere) bookings? The ones I've checked during wartime did, especially those from RKO. Ambersons was certainly the top billed. Had its companion not been Mexican Spitfire, then I'd guess a Saint or Falcon would do ... maybe something with Fibber McGee and Molly? Few "A" attractions were too proud not to carry a passenger in rear seats, The Magnificent Ambersons being no different from any other RKO release in that respect.
I'm still waiting to see certain Welles films. Someone slipped me a contraband Chimes at Midnight, but the DVD wouldn't play, so I chalked that up to punishment for having accepted a bootlegged copy. Fragments from uncompleted projects turn up here and there. The Other Side Of The Wind continues to tantalize in glimpses, even as the bulk of it lays fallow in a contested vault: A world-weary but intensely engaging and romantic film collector (me again) embarks upon a dangerous journey into Europe and the Middle East to rescue Orson Welles' almost finished masterwork, the impenetrable vault concealing it being no obstacle to this intrepid champion of film preservation. But could even such a titan locate Don Quixote, Othello with its original sound, Making Othello, plus innumerable projects Welles did for television? Through varied miracles, Mr. Arkadin and Welles' intended Touch Of Evil have been reclaimed. I regret not liking the latter more. For me, TOE is a very unpleasant sit, notwithstanding remarkable directorial tricks OW brings to bear. It's heresy to prefer his more subdued villainy in otherwise workmanlike Man In The Shadow that preceded Touch Of Evil, but frankly I do. Maybe Touch Of Evil remains somewhere ahead of me (as was alleged vis-à-vis 1958 patronage), and I've yet to grow into it. That may be the case as well with a lot of what Orson Welles left behind. Will we have caught up with his vision by the time all these missing projects are finally reconstructed and accounted for?