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Monday, June 28, 2010

Favorites List --- Orson Welles --- Part One

We need to finally and for all time put rout to ideas that Orson Welles finished up a broken and frustrated has-been. Having watched Orson Welles --- The One-Man Band again (it's an extra on Criterion's F For Fake DVD), I've decided this was one happy and continually creating force who never let (so many) reversals get him down. Turns out Orson, according to that fine documentary, generated his own fun making movies virtually alone at home when studios or backers shut him out, and does not appear to have moped unduly over lost opportunities. What we sometimes forget about artists is their ability to keep on generating art, provided senses remain intact. A public's acclamation is secondary to the process itself. Welles had a blast shooting film while his (gorgeous) girlfriend was out of town and surprising her with footage when she got back. The rambling Spanish country house he maintained was location for all sorts of projects OW juggled between acting and commercial gigs. One-Man Band presents an always cheerful Welles excited over what he's currently up to, whether that be a photographed reading of Moby Dick (he and Gary Graver evidently did that largely by themselves) or conjuring another reel of legendarily unfinished The Other Side Of The Wind. Enough of poor Orson, then! We should all be so lucky as to find such joy in what we do, whatever the rewards bestowed or withheld. Of many things I admire about Welles, his never seeming to feel sorry for himself is uppermost.

To (begin to) know Orson Welles is to put aside everything else and submerge in the glut of books written about his amazing life and career. I'll go on a Welles binge from time to time and not come up for a week. Recommended starting points include two volumes so far from Simon Callow, This Is Orson Welles by the title subject and Peter Bogdanovich, an authorized biography by Barbara Leaming, Frank Brady's Citizen Welles, and Joseph McBride's Whatever Happened to Orson Welles ... for starters. Iron man status is achieved upon completion of these, even as I suspect, as would these authors, that but a fraction of Welles' history lays before us. Why does it matter? Well, for Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, if nothing else. Plus all the radio work ... how many Orsonists have listened to all his broadcasting that survives? Do we have sufficient hours left of life to hear the lot of them? More and more I envy Welles his citizenry of the world. Does anyone know how many languages he spoke? To have been a certified genius in childhood was surely a heavy burden. Orson had few friends among peers, according to biographers. His father was said (by Welles) to have turned the boy loose (and alone) on a European tour when he was ten. Now that is hard to imagine, particularly in our modern day when parents won't let their angels go to a mail box unaccompanied. I thought I'd been liberated at ten for venturing solo to watch Castle Of Blood at the Liberty, so all this is icy water in my cosseted face.

I enjoy Welles' shows of humility in late-life interviews, especially when he talks of Boy Genius days. There was always humor in the telling and recognition that here was a youngster too precocious for anyone's good. I'm sure Orson recast much of what was disagreeable about his youth; certainly he did so to the pleasure of his listeners. Maybe he came to believe the revisions himself. Welles liked to laugh and did so boomingly. I wish there was even more footage of him just talking (a good DVD is recently out, Orson Welles: The Paris Interview, done in 1960). There's not much denying the young Welles could be obnoxious ... too many others have testified to that. Well, so was I, and without the license genius confers. Did Orson lack patience with those (nearly everyone) running several ticks behind him? All's Well That Ends Welles, said one of his detractors (my favorite of many putdowns), and the Lord knows, much of Hollywood wanted to see Orson get his own George Minafer-ish comeuppance. Sometimes he spoofed the ego on radio. Those would be fun listening to. Again, it was his mischief and showmanship that delighted OW's public. He did magic acts at state fairs and service camps (commenting later that few people really seemed to enjoy watching him, or anyone, do tricks). Welles squired Dolores Del Rio and married Rita Hayworth, so had to be doing something right. Being such a big guy with a commanding voice made opponents stand down, but that didn't stop many of them knifing him from behind. If Welles' life had a continuing thread, it was recognition that he'd been betrayed by a lot of folks he thought were friends.

There were tales he told and retold. I want all of them to be true. Orson just got better at raconteur-ing as he approached anecdotage. It was a mercy he died before old age robbed him of such remarkable faculties (there was a talk show taped the evening before his sudden passing). That black tent he wore preceded him like circus set-up, and a lavish bow of a tie must have taken forever to get right (did companion Oja Kodar also serve as dresser?). Audiences loved Welles on TV. He may have talked down to RKO brass during Kane-days, but OW surely learned by middle-age how to play mass viewing's fiddle. How many guests were as welcome (recurringly so) on The Dean Martin Show as irresistible humbug Orson? I don't find any of such work degrading, and would submit neither did he. You can tell he liked people. Welles seemed to have been nothing if not social. I never heard of him dismissing anyone who wanted an autograph. The fictionalized cameo in Ed Wood is spot-on for showing Welles' generous nature toward a newcomer. I'm not unaware of a certain notorious tape of him sparring with technicians recording that green peas commercial. Well, who wouldn't get annoyed with such hair (or pea) splitting, especially when you just want to collect the fee, buy raw stock, and get home to read some more Moby Dick for posterity?

Just what made Pauline Kael attack Orson Welles with such ferocity? You wonder how many even remember that confrontation of nearly forty years ago. Certainly less than know Citizen Kane, the object of Kael's broadside. She proposed that Welles wrote none of it and tried rooking Herman J. Mankiewicz out of proper screenplay credit besides. Frank Brady speculated on Kael's own frustrated ambition to pen movies guiding her invective toward Welles. Certainly she seemed bent of hurting the man personally and professionally. It was as if forces resentful of OW when he first arrived in Hollywood were gathered once again to pull him down. To that point, Kael had assist from longtime Welles nemesis John Houseman, his infection having taken decades to fester. I guess Kael used Houseman to lend credence to her bold thesis, while Houseman used Kael to finally get even for wrongs inflicted long before she first dipped quill to acid. Or perhaps her enmity had origins more prosaic. Did Welles overlook or (God forbid) snub this woman in a long-ago theatre lobby or restaurant he (but not she) had forgot? Maybe PK wrote him a letter once and OW failed to respond. That so-called Golden Age of film criticism produced monster egos, if not writing of permanence. I'd just bet Pauline Kael was miffed with Welles over something a lot more personal than a 1941 movie credit. Even allowing for attention she knew such a radical position would generate, still hers was an assault you'd reserve for someone who'd really done you dirt. In Orson Welles' case, it might have been something so banal as failing to accord her respect she felt entitled to.
Also see Citizen Kane --- Parts One and Two at Greenbriar's Archive, plus The Stranger and Why Pick On Orson?


Blogger Paul Penna said...

The Orson Welles Sketchbook, from the BBC 1955. Several multi-part episodes now on YouTube. Don't you wish you could speak extemporaneously like this?

11:44 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

At NitrateVille there's a discussion of when Welles became a joke, or at least a joke he was in on, when he started playing the caricature of himself. (Ambersons, in which Tim Holt plays the caricature of himself, doesn't count.) Somebody cited some 1943 Jack Benny programs as having created and popularized the popular image of Welles, and shortly after that I heard a 1940 show, his first appearance on the Benny program:

" was interesting that the gags were somewhat different at that point.

"Mostly, they were focused on two things: how young he was (there's a gag about him and Benny having been in high school together-- oddly, as Waukegan and Kenosha are so close to each other, they almost could have been-- followed by the revelation that Benny was 16 and Welles was 4 at the time). And how busy he was (during Benny's climactic acting moment-- Welles is coaching him in the role of Quasimodo (!)-- Welles takes a phone call from London). Welles is portrayed as a bit of a stuffed shirt intellectual, he talks in very proper academic English, but the gags play off of this-- having heard Phil Harris say "ain't," a moment later Welles uses it too, to save a word on the telegram he's sending. There's definitely not the mockery of later Welles performances, and he's treated throughout as someone whose intellectual achievements warrant respect, even if the show can't exactly relate to them (it's not like they chat about the ideas behind Voodoo Macbeth or anything).

"So to answer the original question... I don't know exactly, but it clearly was not until Welles had been in Hollywood long enough to be "one of them." When he was an exotic figure from the New York theater, he was clearly treated much more respectfully."

1:13 PM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

John, time for you to watch his guest appearance on I LOVE LUCY.

2:22 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Donald Benson sent the following about Welles and Buster Keaton:

The extra disc in the Kino Buster Keaton set had filmed intros to television showings of The General. Gloria Swanson and Lillian Gish (I think it was them) are elegantly bland. Welles PERFORMS his intro, literally filling the frame as he recalls "that beautiful man" washing dishes at the Hollywood Canteen. You had the sense he was a BS artist, but one who wanted you to appreciate how phenomenally good he was at BS. In some alternate reality Welles should have starred in a W.C. Fields biography.

Donald, I do get the sense that Welles could be a BS artist, yet his tribute to Keaton as he introduces "The General," which I've watched numerous times, seems utterly sincere even in the context of OW's own performance style, and unlike some of the other intros in that silent film series, there's every indication that he wrote the piece himself.

2:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In everything he's in, from "Kane" to "Touch of Evil" to "F for Fake" to a Paul Masson wine commercial to his 150th appearance on Merv, I find him infinitely watchable. It's difficult to take your eyes off him. Yes, he's a bit of a stuff shirt, but still fascinating.
Tom Ruegger

1:59 AM  
Anonymous Scoundrel said...

The NitrateVille thread is here:

I love the alleged story of the Bundy Drive boys and their canned ham with a beard.

11:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Houseman on Welles and the 'Kane' hooha...

Perhaps not his best buddy but he does give what credit he believes is due.


12:59 PM  
Anonymous mido505 said...

Excellent post, as always; I used to name drop your blog over at the Wellesnet message board back when it was up and running. Back in the day, Pauline Kael was involved in a long-running and quite heated debate with Andrew Sarris over the merits of the "auteur theory"; I suspect she went after Welles as the most obvious and vivid personification of that theory. She also seems to have had a genuine desire to restore to public and critical consciousness the very genuine contribution of Herman Mankiewicz, which was the most interesting and informative part of RAISING KANE. In Kael's early days she was anything but a Welles detractor; her review of Welles's largely unseen late masterpiece, FALSTAFF, is one of the best things ever written about that tremendous film. Unfortunately she went overboard, and fell for Houseman's line of bull; he is the real villain in that unfortunate dust up.

Here is a great link to most of Welle's radio work; just about every available interview with him is there as well:

5:34 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Thanks a lot for this link, mido505. I used to read a lot and am sorry it's become more or less inactive. There's still great stuff in its archive, however.

As for Pauline Kael, I have enjoyed reading her program notes for films she ran while operating that revival house in california before she became a magazine critic. Had I met her, I would have asked what sort of rentals her theatre paid for titles back in the 50's, and what kind of prints they ended up with (I'll bet they continued using nitrate well into the fifties, just as smaller theatres around here did). She seems to have been something of a pioneer at repertory screenings.

Michael, I'm a follower of most every discussion at Nitrateville, my first web stop every morning. I appreciate your insights too into Welles' guest appearances with Jack Benny. I mean to listen to some more of these programs soon. Did any of the many Welles interviewers ever ask OW about his many guest spots on popular radio shows after he came to Hollywood? They certainly should have.

KD, I went to Welles Net about the Houseman remarks. Thanks for alerting me to it.

6:23 PM  
Anonymous Kevin K. said...

I saw Welles at a Q&A in Boston in the mid-70s. He was surprised that it had been advertised as an evening of lecture and magic for "cinema buffs" (a phrase he clearly found silly). A fascinating evening nonetheless, whether the stories he told were true or not (he claimed to have co-written the script for "Monsieur Verdoux" with Chaplin).

Watch his BBC series on YouTube and weep that there is nobody in show business today one-tenth as witty, brilliant and articulate.

1:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

But why was his take on Buster Keaton's later career so dark(no mention of the LIFE magazine rediscovery)?

3:35 PM  
Blogger Dugan said...

Thanks for the Welles post And thanks to everyone else for the great Welles information. I wish I could remember where I saw an interview with Robert Wise explaining the circumstances behind his reediting of Ambersons. The interviewer was giving him a pretty bad time and I slowly watched the smile leave Wise's face. It was very funny

3:47 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

I met Houseman once when he toured talking about his life in the theater; I asked him if, when Welles threw a chafing dish at him at Chasen's, he believed Welles had intent to kill.

He barked a hearty seal-laugh and then said, jauntily in that inimitable voice, "Ohhhr-son and I were ALWAYS throwing things at one another-- telephones, chairs, desks-- but I do NOT believe we meant to do pehr-man-ent DAMAGE."

I thought then, and think now, that that was maybe the closest to an apology for having injured Welles' reputation back in the 70s that Houseman was going to get; that he felt like Welles knew that they always played rough, but no hard feelings.

3:12 PM  

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