Xanadu: A Castle in the Clouds: The Life of Orson Welles

By Steve Vertlieb: An elderly man sits alone in a room, contemplating the years of his life. He is large of form. His belly hangs loosely over his belt. His hair has grown gray. He has known the enormity of success, and the emptiness of failure. He has known great wealth, and has had to beg for loans. He has experienced international success and fame, and succumbed to the torment of obscurity.

He knew blinding respect and, later, endured the humiliation of ridicule. He savored the delicate passions of some of the world’s most beautiful women and, for this particular moment, suffered unimaginable loneliness. Somewhere in the night, he expired. Frustrated, spent, he considered his life a grand exercise in futility. And yet, for a time, he had wielded power and fame like no one before him.

Orson Welles

No, he wasn’t Charles Foster Kane. Rather, he was the actor who portrayed him. At the end, in one of life’s innumerable and cruel ironies, the controversial story of the greatest film ever made seemed to resemble less the life of the newspaper czar it was inspired by, than by the cocky, self-assured wunderkind who filmed it. Long after the influence and memory of William Randolph Hearst had passed into history, Citizen Welles had drafted the tragic screenplay of his own demise.

Some years earlier in another lonely hotel room, the legendary filmmaker had entertained his friend, Peter Bogdanovich. Welles sat in his great chair, seemingly transfixed by the image on the small television screen. A local station had been airing his version of The Magnificent Ambersons. The younger director noticed that Welles had been crying. “Orson,” he asked, “What’s the matter?” The older man, tears streaming down his cheeks, replied “It’s over–it’s all in the past.” Bogdanovich stared quietly at his friend. There was nothing, after all, that he could say.

George Orson Welles was born on May 6, 1915, in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He weighed ten pounds at birth. His imposing size and larger-than-life demeanor precluded the company of friends. He wasn’t particularly liked by the other children, and seemed to enjoy being a loner.

His parents regarded their son with the same awe as the neighborhood children. Richard Welles and Beatrice Ives had married in November, 1903. Beatrice had been a concert pianist until hard times forced her into more mundane work. Richard pictured himself a struggling inventor, although he invented little. Both Richard and Beatrice realized early on that George Orson was a specially gifted child. As such, he was given free reign of his existence and rarely admonished or controlled. At times, it seemed that he had become the parent, while they obeyed and adhered to his every wish.

His dreams flourished with the passing years. As far as his parents were concerned, their son was a genius and could do no wrong. Whatever he desired was given freely and with devout encouragement. From his earliest years, the boy was told that he could do virtually anything…that he was a genius. The continuing idolatry by his parents gave the boy a feeling of weightlessness, of superhuman destiny.

His gifts, he learned, were virtually without limit and he was nourished and nurtured as one might paint and develop a delicate portrait. The enormity of his talents and massive intellect were stimulated beyond imagining by this unfettered environment. The results of such pampering would both bless and curse him in later years when exposure to the elements of societal pressures would scar and diminish him. The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune would not suffer genius easily.

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When Dr. Maurice Bernstein moved his practice to Kenosha he was called to the Welles house to treat Beatrice’s ailing mother, Lucy Ives. He quickly insinuated himself into the family persona and seemed, gradually, to take over the roles of husband and father. Richard was ineffectual in both roles, thereby incapable of halting the disintegration of his own familial identification. If there was a growing identity crisis within the Welles household, it was surely aggravated by the boy’s insistence on referring to the intrusive physician as “Dadda.”

On May 6th, 1924, George Orson celebrated his ninth birthday in Chicago. The boy spent most of his day with his mother who was confined to bed with Hepatitis. She read poetry to him while he sat, dutifully, by her bedside. When it came time to blow out the candles on his cake, Beatrice asked him to make a wish. The boy blew out the candles, but never made a wish. Four days later, Beatrice passed quietly away. The boy never forgave himself, believing that it was his refusal to wish for his mother’s return to health that had prevented her recovery.

Richard faded further into the family background, while Dadda Bernstein became more firmly impregnated into the boy’s perception as both mentor and parental intermediary. George had an older brother, Richard, ten years his senior, who was mentally unstable. While his brother spent much of his youth in psychiatric institutions, young Orson was mesmerized by the theatrical flights of fancy introduced into his life by his surrogate father.

Dr. Bernstein purchased a puppet theatre for the boy and encouraged him to act out his fantasies while wearing colorful costumes. Upon the untimely death of his mother, Orson accompanied Dr. Bernstein on a summer European tour.

After the trip, Bernstein moved his offices to Highland Park, both entertaining and treating respected artists, journalists and musicians. He would adoringly display his most prized “possession,” the young prodigy whose company and affection he jealously coveted.

Richard Welles continued to squander his funds. He purchased an ageing hotel, The Sheffield House, in Grand Detour and encouraged his pals to visit, eat, and drink, on the house. Orson would divide his time between Grand Detour and Highland Park. Under Bernstein’s tutelage and scrutiny, Orson had become a precious acquisition to share with his important friends.

Back in the comparative simplicity of Grand Detour, the boy seemed to recapture something of his childhood, a recollection of lost innocence. Young Charley Kane was able to traverse the snow covered streets of a simpler existence, astride Rosebud once more.

According to Orson, he had once encountered Booth Tarkington at the Sheffield House. An acquaintance of his father, Tarkington authored his novel, The Magnificent Ambersons in 1918.

Richard Welles deliberately resisted the advent of twentieth century technology until well into the 1920s, the boy recalled later, stating that electricity had not found its way into the Sheffield House until the advent of the Flapper era. Perhaps, it was this nostalgia for simpler times that influenced Orson’s affinity for the Ambersons, and their hopelessly antiquated life style.

In the Fall of 1925, Dr. Bernstein conspired with Richard Welles to find ten-year-old Orson some formal education. They sent him to Madison, Wisconsin, where he was interviewed and examined by Dr. Frederick Mueller. Mueller placed the lad in his boy’s club, Camp Indianola, where Orson wrote, directed and starred in a hasty production of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, performed for the other children serving time for the summer.

Mueller, however, found the boy darkly beautiful, and made sexual advances toward him. Orson later wrote that this had become a recurring problem. “From my earliest childhood, I was the Lillie Langtry of the older homosexual set. Everybody wanted me.”

Whether these inclinations were provoked or invited by the youngster remains unclear. Yet, well into his adulthood and legendary association with producer, John Houseman, the celebrated dissolution of the their partnership seemed rooted in Houseman’s sexual longing for the younger actor.

Richard Welles decided then to send his son to the Todd School in Woodstock, Illinois, where Orson’s brother had attended. Orson was happy at Todd, challenging his teachers with his superior intellect and honing his performance skills in enumerable school productions. It was during his stay at Todd that Orson’s older brother, Richard, was certified as insane in 1927 and sent away to the Kankakee Institute for the next ten years of his life.

Dick Welles, like his son after him, died alone in a hotel room on December 28th, 1930. While Orson was growing tall and strong, his father was deteriorating rapidly. Depression and chronic alcoholism eventually killed him and Orson, as he had done with his mother, blamed himself for not intervening in his father downward spiral.

In the summer of 1931, armed with what portion of his inheritance Dada Bernstein would allow him, Orson left America to pursue a painting tour of Ireland. He fancied himself an artist and, at age sixteen, found his way to Dublin where he encountered actor Micheal MacLiammoir and his partner, Hilton Edwards, who managed the Gate Theatre together.

Orson informed the pair that he was a distinguished thespian and, with typical bravado, persuaded them to hire him for their Irish repertory theatre. In his first professional work as an actor the teenager, forever identified with roles as older men, played the part of the Archduke in Lion Feuchtwanger’s play, Jew Suss. Hopelessly amateurish, the boy still had a presence and a powerful, commanding voice. He performed in several plays for the duo but grew quickly bored and left Ireland for the bull fighting rings of Madrid, Spain. With his dark good looks and hypnotic voice, he had little trouble attracting sponsors, either male or female.

He returned to America in 1933 at age eighteen where, at a party in Chicago, he was introduced to writer Thornton Wilder. Welles attempted to impress Wilder by telling him that he was, in fact, a writer, as well. Wilder, like many others, saw through the nonsense but was intrigued enough by the young man’s confidence and flamboyance to offer him the lure of further connections…in this case, an introduction to celebrated New York theatre critic, Alexander Wolcott.

Wolcott took Welles to dinner and bought him a new, more presentable suit of clothes with which to wear when knocking on the doors of well-placed producers and directors. One such director was Guthrie McClintic, the husband of legendary stage actress Katharine Cornell. Purely on the basis of his striking appearance and voice, and on the enthusiastic recommendation of Alex Wolcott, Welles was hired to play important supporting roles in the soon to be touring Cornell repertory company. A train ride from Chicago to Broadway had paid off handsomely.

From November, 1933 until June, 1934 the company toured the United States performing three plays in repertory. Basil Rathbone was the star attraction as a forty-one year old Romeo in a production of Shakespeare’s famous play, opposite Katharine Cornell as Juliet. Welles played Mercutio in the traveling performance, and the older actress found her young protege a dynamic and theatrical presence.

1934…age 21

It was during the summer of 1934 that Orson Welles filmed his first motion picture, a four-minute, 16-millimeter silent titled Hearts of Age. Produced with his friend, William Vance, the experimental short featured Welles as the figure of Death, confronting a frightened, elderly lady played by Virginia Nicholson, a young Chicago socialite he would, perhaps, frivolously wed in November of that year.

On December 21st, Romeo and Juliet opened on Broadway at the Martin Beck Theatre. However, in order to secure the talents of Brian Aherne for a production of The Barretts of Wimpole Street, Cornell was forced to offer the actor the part of Mercutio in the current Shakespearian production. Welles lost the part but was offered two roles in return, Tybalt and the Chorus. In the audience on opening night was a thirty two year old producer attempting to make his own mark in the New York theatre. Years later, John Houseman remembered being shattered by the performance of the young actor that night.

Orson Welles and John Houseman. Houseman will regain fame later in life as Professor Kingsfield in The Paper Chase (1986)

Houseman was putting together the cast of a play he was producing based upon a drama by Archibald MacLeish. Panic concerned a Wall Street financier named McGafferty whose world crumbles about him when consumed by the crash of 1929. Although the central figure is a man in his late fifties, Houseman became obsessed by the notion that only the man he’d seen on the stage that evening could play the part.

He went back stage to meet Welles and invited him to join him after the performance at a local bar. Welles consented and, after preliminary conversations, agreed to leave the Cornell Company after a single night to take the lead in Houseman’s play.

MacLeish was similarly impressed with the raw power and vibrant enthusiasm of the boy and, despite protests by the stranded Cornell players, it was to be the beginning of a long theatrical association.

Panic opened at the Imperial Theatre on March 15th, 1935. Among the cast members was Houseman’s ex-wife, Zita Johann, who had co-starred with Boris Karloff three years earlier in Universal’s The Mummy. The production, however, opened to indifferent notices and ran for a mere three performances. It was the genesis, though, for the forging of a great theatrical team in which Houseman would produce, and Welles would star in and direct a variety of productions for both the New York theatre and the radio airwaves. Their company would be called The Mercury Theatre.

By the early days of 1934 Welles had already become a familiar player and vocal persona on live radio in New York. Actor Paul Stewart introduced Orson to Knowles Entrikin, the favored director of drama at the Columbia Broadcasting System.

While auditioning for Entrikin, he encountered another young hopeful from Virginia by the name of Joseph Cotten. The two became fast friends, and worked together on a low-paying CBS educational series, designed for schools, called the School of the Air of the Americas.

In addition to Cotten and Stewart, Welles began working with another struggling actor named Ray Collins. These actors would soon work together again. Meanwhile, Welles began gaining a reputation for his impossible stamina and childlike enthusiasm. He was rapidly becoming a fixture on the New York airwaves, finishing one live broadcast, then hopping a cab to the other side of town to act in another. Among the programs he appeared in at the time were Cavalcade of America and The March of Time, both for NBC.

Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?

In the spring of 1937, Welles received a telephone call from the Mutual Broadcasting System asking him to take on the role of Lamont Cranston in the popular series, The Shadow. There he intoned the immortal lines: “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow Knows.”

Rarely had such fantastic scripting taken on such dramatic and epic proportion. His faithful female companion, Margot Lane, was played by Agnes Moorehead as, little-by-little, a growing stock company had begun to form. Welles starred as The Shadow for Mutual from 1937-1938, but he and his partner were already planning more explosive and provocative works. (After he left the series, it continued for another decade with other actors in the role of The Shadow and Margot, such as Bill Johnstone and Marjorie Anderson.)

Houseman produced, and Welles directed an all-black ensemble cast in a decidedly contemporary variation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

Negro Theatre Project

In 1935, John Houseman had become actively involved with the Negro Theatre Project, a division of the Federal Theatre, promoted by the Works Progress Administration (WPA). While the productions featured large casts of black performers, the Negro Theatre was run by Houseman and Welles.

Macbeth premiered at the Lafayette Theatre on April 14th, 1935, to enthusiastic reviews and remained sold out for each of its nightly performances. The play was regarded by critics and patrons as an enormous, if controversial success.

After its initial run, the play moved to the Adelphi Theatre. Welles had greater ambitions, both for himself and for his company, than the limitations of a strictly Negro ensemble would allow, and so the two ultimately severed their brief connection to the Harlem troupe and moved on to more diverse projects within the umbrella of the Federal Theatre. Among the many performers joining the newly formed repertory company were Joseph Cotten and George Coulouris.

In the fall of 1936, composer Virgil Thompson introduced Welles to a more radical contemporary by the name of Marc Blitzstein, a socialist musician ten years Welles’ senior. Blitzstein had been developing a radical musical about labor strikes and the prostitution of societal conscience. It was to be called The Cradle Will Rock. Blitzstein composed the score for the leftist production and Welles was determined to direct it for the Federal Theatre.

America in 1937 was in a state of social unrest. There were strikes across the country at major steel plants and violent confrontations as workers actively sought union representation. The Federal Theatre production of Blitzstein’s play was causing grave concern in the hallowed halls of conservative Washington, and rumors were running rampant that the production was inspired by Communist influence in America.

The WPA announced that, due to increasing budgetary concerns, no new theatrical productions would either be sanctioned or paid for during the remaining months of the calendar year. That the edict was aimed at The Cradle Will Rock, in an attempt to cancel the production before it had an opportunity to open, was an open secret. Sets were confiscated, and salaries cancelled.

Welles had pretended to sympathize with the composer’s beliefs more than he actually did in order to produce what he had perceived would be a controversial play. Placed in the unlikely role of hero, he was determined now to see the production through, rather than bend to the histrionics of fear and unreasoning bigotry.

Even without props, sets, or salaries he felt that honor and integrity must be served and that compromise was not an option. After a special preview on June 14th, the WPA sent armed guards to the theatre and had the facility padlocked.

In order to put on a show, Houseman and Welles were obliged to finance it themselves and rent another theatre. On the night of June 16th, 1937, at seven o’clock, theatergoers who had gathered at the entrance to the Maxine Elliott Theatre were asked to walk twenty-one blocks, in the smoldering heat of summer, to the Venice Theatre. The stage was bare, and the darkened theatre was ill equipped to accommodate either audience or cast…and yet, as Blitzstein played and sang at his solo piano, and actors and singers performed their roles in the aisles and amidst the audience, the fury and brilliance of raw theatre took hold of everyone in attendance, resulting in a legendary living theatre experience that no one who was there that night would ever forget.

On November 11th, 1937, the Mercury Theatre production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar opened at the Comedy Theatre.

Updating the text to reflect modern concerns and betrayal, the setting was moved to Fascist boundaries in Europe where matters of idealism and conscience were agonized over upon an empty stage, populated by quasi-Nazi storm troopers and the threat of intellectual oppression.

Welles and Houseman continued producing live experimental theatre for Mercury, while Welles continued to act on radio.

In the summer of 1938, CBS was searching for a replacement for the popular Lux Radio Theatre. They approached Welles with the idea of doing a weekly series of dramas with his Mercury Theatre company. The Mercury Theatre of the Air was born. The program, First Person Singular, had scheduled an adaptation of “Treasure Island” as their first broadcast. Houseman had been working feverishly on the script.

However, a week before the show was to air, Welles decided that a program far more dramatic was required. To Houseman’s horror, Treasure Island was momentarily abandoned in favor of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Welles would play the infamous vampire.

During an all night session at Perkins’ Restaurant, Welles and Houseman hashed out a script. The program aired to tremendous success, due to the dramatic urgency of Welles’ sparse scripting and vocal intensity, as well as the eerily effective mood music written by a young composer/conductor he had encountered at CBS by the name of Bernard Herrmann. While Herrmann raged at the young director’s arrogance, he soon came to respect and admire the artistic brilliance of his newly acquired friend and colleague.

The War of the Worlds, October 30, 1938

For their Halloween production, Welles and Houseman decided to produce an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. The scripting assignment was handed to Howard Koch, a former attorney turned playwright.

Houseman changed the locale of the Martian invasion to Grovers Mill, New Jersey and, for the sake of time and economy, suggested that the play be conceived as a series of breaking news bulletins. Koch was given a week to come up with a script. A transcription was recorded of the rehearsals. Both Welles and Houseman found it plodding, and requested a greater sense of urgency. Welles felt more comfortable with a realistic, documentary style approach.

The play was scheduled to air the night before Halloween. Paul Stewart was busily directing the rehearsals, while Orson was appearing on Broadway. CBS gave its approval to the final script. They requested that several names be changed, including that of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. When the program aired, however, the vocal intonations of Roosevelt remained…even if he was referred to as a lesser positioned official. Legend has it that the actor hired to play the “high government official” was artistically limited to impressions of the president, so a Roosevelt by any other name was still a Roosevelt, yet more discreet.

Welles arrived at CBS on Sunday, October 30th to direct, and star in the live broadcast. Announcements were delivered at the start, the middle, and at the conclusion to the effect that the audience was listening to a dramatization of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, performed by the Mercury Theatre.

Enacted as a normal radio broadcast, the program was made deliberately innocuous with long stretches of band music, occasionally interrupted either by staged commercials or increasingly urgent news announcements disturbing the proceedings. The program began at eight o’clock in the evening in New York, concluding just one hour later.

However, if one had missed the opening declaration or gone channel-surfing, so to speak, and tuned in late…there was nothing remaining in the context of the program, until the half hour point, to indicate that this was merely a dramatization. The somber tones of the announcer (Welles, himself) began his deliberate descent into calculated madness…

If America had become willfully naive, consumed by home spun innocence of spirit, then the treasured security of a nation, with its isolationist head buried comfortably in the sand, was about to change forever. The life altering reality of the war in Europe and Hitler’s own “envious eyes” would soon challenge our perception of dominion over this “small, spinning fragment of solar driftwood,” and signal the terrible beginning of our own great disillusionment.

For now, however, and for hundreds…perhaps thousands of bewildered radio listeners, the onslaught of an invasion from space was quickly becoming a horrifying reality. It all seemed so real. The mundane orchestral readings, punctuated increasingly by breathless news reports of destruction and slaughter by marauding Martian war machines laying waste to the Earth, was simply too horrifying to endure. It mattered little that CBS was, apparently, the only radio network privy to the startling news…for no other frequency carried the story with such fearful urgency.

Yet, desolation of spirit and terror of heart seemed to consume and inspire a morbid, willing suspension of disbelief among countless Americans. Panic precluded the possibility of actually listening to, or comprehending the periodic network disclaimers. The CBS switchboard lit up like a demonic Christmas tree and, according to legend, filled the outer studios of the network with dozens of angry police officers and officials, while the program was still live on the air.

Welles, Stewart, Ray Collins and the rest of the cast looked through the studio windows incredulously, while attempting to continue on with the dramatization. Outside the comforting confines of the sheltered radio facility, mobs of frightened citizens were taking up arms in order to defend themselves against the alien onslaught, while others calmly considered the preferable alternative of suicide.

As the program concluded, anxious network executives pressured Welles and Houseman to prepare a statement, calculated to protect CBS from moral outrage, legal action and political condemnation. A bewildered Orson Welles confiscated the bloated radio microphone, delivering a hastily composed disclaimer to the listening audience…

“We know now that in the early years of the twentieth century this world was being watched closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own. We know now that as human beings busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacence people went to and fro over the Earth about their little affairs, serene in the assurance of their dominion over this small spinning fragment of solar driftwood which by chance or design Man had inherited out of the dark mystery of Time and Space. Yet across an immense ethereal gulf, minds that are to our minds as ours are to the beasts in the jungle, intellects vast, cool and unsympathetic, regarded this Earth with envious eyes and slowly and surely drew their plans against us. In the thirty-eighth year of the twentieth century came the great disillusionment.”

“This is Orson Welles, ladies and gentlemen, out of character to assure you that The War of the Worlds has no further significance than as the holiday offering it was intended to be. The Mercury theatre’s own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying Boo. Starting now, we couldn’t soap all your windows and steal all your garden gates by tomorrow night–so we did the next best thing. We annihilated the world before your very ears, and utterly destroyed the Columbia Broadcasting System.

You will be relieved, I hope, to learn that we didn’t mean it, and that both institutions are still open for business. So, goodbye everybody, and remember, please, for the next day or so, the terrible lesson you learned tonight. That grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if your doorbell rings and nobody’s there, that was no Martian. It’s Halloween.”

If Orson Welles’ star had been on a steady rise since he first opened his eyes to the possibilities of fame and fortune he was now, arguably, the most famous man in America. Headlines screamed their inflammatory banners across the country…”Fake Radio “War” Stirs Terror Through U.S.” (The New York Daily News)… “Radio Listeners in Panic, Taking War Drama as Fact” (The New York Times). If his intellectual apology was considered by some to be somewhat less than apologetic, it mattered little.

Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre of the Air were planted firmly on the map of human events. Much has been spoken of that fateful broadcast over the years, and its impact on both American culture and the entertainment industry.

Homage: The Night That Panicked America (1975)

In October 1975, the ABC Movie of the Week produced its own wonderful salute to the Panic Broadcast. The Night That Panicked America was a ninety-minute telecast, a dramatic recreation of the famous evening. Paul Stewart served as Creative Consultant for the telefilm which featured, as its basis, a “story” by Nicholas Meyer. Directed by Joseph Sargent, the movie won critical and popular acclaim in its own right for its fascinating, meticulous account of the actual broadcast, and a marvelous, magical portrayal of Orson Welles by actor Paul Shenar. Welles had, indeed, created his own nearly mystical persona. He could write his own ticket now, and its destination was the only place on Earth large enough to accommodate his enormous talent and ego–Hollywood.

Welles began preliminary discussions with RKO’s newly installed head of production, George Schaefer, in the spring of 1939. They had come to an agreement in July, with the actual contracts finally signed in August. Welles and his Mercury players had been given a generous two-picture deal, in which Welles would produce, direct, perform, and have full creative control of his projects.

For his motion picture debut, Welles considered Joseph Conrad’s dark tale of ambition and madness, Heart of Darkness, which later evolved into Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 epic, Apocalypse Now. He had played Kurtz in a radio adaptation of the novel. Boris Karloff had enacted the part on live television in the 1950s.

A 200-page script was written. Some models were constructed, while the shooting of initial test footage had begun. The proposed budged for Heart of Darkness chilled George Schaefer’s corporate blood, and he cabled Welles that, with a war going on in Europe, the project had become simply too extravagant.

Welles was commuting weekly between Los Angeles and New York in order to fulfill his contractual radio obligations. Finally, the radio program relocated to the west coast, along with the Mercury players and production team. Little, if anything, had been done either to whittle down the budgetary difficulties of Heart of Darkness, or begin filming.

When RKO threatened to eliminate the payment of salaries by December 31st if no progress had been made, Welles announced that he would pay his cast out of his own pocket. Houseman proclaimed that there wasn’t enough money in their business account to pay anyone.

During a corporate dinner for the Mercury crew Welles exploded, calling his partner a bloodsucker and a crook. As Houseman attempted to leave, Welles began hurling dish heaters at him, effectively ending both their partnership and friendship.

Welles had begun finding himself the uncomfortable object of derision and ridicule within the film industry. It was during this debacle that he encountered an alcoholic writer named Herman J. Mankiewicz. The writer had been experimenting with the germ of an idea…a screenplay concerning the rise and fall of a great man, as expressed and experienced by the people who had known him.

He had considered the life of John Dillinger or controversial evangelist, Aimee Semple McPherson. He settled at last on publishing tycoon, William Randolph Hearst.

Welles was brilliant, but erratic. Though, unquestionably, a creative genius, his ego rarely permitted acknowledgment of contributions by others. In later years, an embittered Mankiewicz would remember his collaborator with something less than affection, writing “There, but for the grace of God, goes God.” Welles always gave “credit”, however, to his co-author for inventing the catch phrase “Rosebud,” which may have been something of an in-joke. According to author Gore Vidal, “Rosebud” was actually Hearst’s affectionate name for Marion Davies’ clitoris.

He claimed that he retrieved that spicy information from screen writer, Charles Lederer (The Thing From Another World), who was Ms. Davies’ nephew. In any case, Welles was irresistibly drawn to the story of a great tycoon, abandoned by his mother, and forced by circumstances to overcome a childhood cut irreparably short by circumstances. He had flirted with similar themes on his weekly radio program, and seemed obsessed with digging his own boyhood sled from out of the snows of memory.

At this point in time, Welles did a curious thing for, like Charley Kane…first firing, and then sending a check to his former friend and colleague, Jed Leland…Welles telephoned John Houseman in New York, asking him to return to Hollywood in order to “baby sit” Mankiewicz while he completed the script, and keep him away from the booze.

Still drawn to Welles, as was virtually everyone in his sphere, Houseman agreed. A seasoned editor and writer, himself, it may be argued that in assisting with the preparation of the script for Citizen Kane, he directed the story toward a more deeply complex duality…a Jekyll-and-Hyde conception of good and evil in which Charles Foster Kane represented the best and the worst personality traits of both Jekyll and his darker persona…or, Orson Welles and his imagined perception of William Randolph Hearst. Welles may unknowingly have been filming, at least in part, his own early autobiography.

The earliest version of the complex and lengthy script was titled American. There is no denying that Hearst was a famous Newspaper Tycoon who had meddled in politics, seen his star rise and fall, had as his consort a motion picture actress who enjoyed playing with jigsaw puzzles, and built an extravagant fortress called San Simeon. And yet…the story of a precocious boy abandoned by his parents, conquering the world in sweet revenge for his early betrayal, might easily have been a metaphor for Welles’ own frustrations, anger over his mother’s death, and fantasies of becoming famous and rich in order to prove to the world that he was, indeed, special and important.

Citizen Kane

After the impressive first draft of American had been completed and submitted, Welles began making a number of necessary, if excessive cuts to the script. In subsequent interviews, he inferred to the press that he alone had written what would become Citizen Kane. Mankiewicz became enraged, calling Welles a juvenile delinquent and threatening to go public with his own version of the story.

Welles had recently divorced his wife, Virginia, and was happily involved with sultry Dolores Del Rio.

He hired perhaps the most inspired cinematographer in Hollywood, Gregg Toland, to photograph his film. Welles knew nothing of the language of film, asking for improvisational set-ups and bizarre shots that had never before been thought of or attempted. He simply cared little that it had never been done before. Toland was excited by the prospect of a more adventurous shoot than was normal in the film community.

He indulged his young collaborator, plunging exuberantly into an artistic wonderland, accommodating his every desire and, in so doing, developing an entirely new cinematic dictionary from which motion pictures matured virtually over night. Floors were torn apart, and cameras inserted beneath set level, creating bizarre angles and mesmerizing imagery. Like Howard Hawks before him, Welles experimented with overlapping dialogue and exotic sound effects. Toland’s crisp, brooding cinematography created a highly stylized, nearly documentary feel to the picture in which reality disturbingly dissolved into a haunting, netherworld of sullen images and bleak architectural insinuations, evoking a surreal canvas worthy of Gustav Doré.

For the music, Welles introduced Bernard Herrmann to a world that would consume the gifted composer for the remainder of his life. Rather than the standard four or five weeks allotted most film composers, Herrmann was allowed a luxurious fourteen weeks in which to construct a score, and was often present on the set conferring with Welles. Herrmann’s dramatic instincts were ideally suited to the screen and, like Welles, brought a revolutionary modernism to the newly evolving sound of cinema.

Welles allowed only a handful of trusted associates access to the “rushes,” among them a young, junior editor who he had taken into his confidence. Robert Wise was a talented technician, infinitely quieter and more introspective than his flamboyant sponsor, but he realized that, despite the spiraling intensity of studio pressure to see what their Merlin was conjuring, he had found an unparalleled opportunity to evolve within this glorious experiment perilous.

It wasn’t long before Hearst’s innumerable spies caught wind of the conspiracy theories unfolding at RKO, inviting catastrophic rage within the vast newspaper empire. The legendary tycoon was mortified at the unhappy prospect of finding ridicule and critical dissection in movie theatres across America. He had no desire to see his world and relationships placed beneath an enormous microscope, and set about instigating harsh, preventative measures. He tried vainly to purchase the negative of the picture from RKO, and have it destroyed. When that failed, he commanded his literary generals to begin a full-scale assault on the credibility of the young interloper from New York.

The Hollywood branch of his editorial family was lorded over by a rather large, power hungry gossip columnist by the unlikely name of Parsons. The reigning queen of mean, Louella Parsons, began inserting daily doses of artistic poison into her columns, feigning moral outrage she was incapable of realizing…all of which was calculated to prevent release of this threatened outrage filming within the walls of RKO.

George Schaefer fought valiantly to preserve the integrity of the director’s work, but the economic reality of life in Hollywood would find studio executives cowering in fear at the thought of losing their cherished avenues of promotion. The national community of Hearst newspapers would boycott the studio’s releases, refusing to acknowledge or advertise them across the country. They would accept no paid announcements for the release of Citizen Kane, thereby relegating the picture to the trash heap of box office receipts. According to legend, a frantic Welles personally arrived at the New York offices of the studio, dramatically insisting that the very nature of freedom and personal liberty demanded a rejection of Hearst’s blatant threat of censorship.

Shooting of Citizen Kane began on July 22nd, 1940 and wrapped on October 23rd. Among the visitors to the set were Dada Bernstein and his new bride. After three months of filming, and another seven months of editing, controversy and indecision, Citizen Kane premiered on May 1st, 1941, at the RKO Palace in New York.

After Hearst threatened the Rockefeller family with a reciprocal smear campaign should any of their theatres screen the film, Radio City Music Hall politely declined to open it.

Predictably, Kane performed reasonably well in the artistic confines of New York but fared far less successfully in middle America where its intellectual pretensions fell upon blank stares and deaf ears. And yet, something unparalleled in motion picture history had occurred…the production and release of a film so daring and revolutionary that it has not only influenced, but dominated the evolution of world cinema for some sixty five years and remains, by common consensus, the single greatest motion picture ever made.

The Magnificent Ambersons

Welles, despite his bravado, maintained an affectionate melancholy for simpler times and was particularly drawn to Booth Tarkington’s nostalgic novel, The Magnificent Ambersons. Since Tarkington had known his father, he even fancied that the character of Eugene Morgan might have been based upon the life of Richard Welles. After disappointing receipts for Citizen Kane, Welles decided that a quieter story of family values might interest middle America more. RKO gave the green light to filming of Ambersons in the summer of 1941 and a new contract was signed on July 7th.

Welles would direct, write and produce the picture but not perform in it. The lead role was given to Joseph Cotten. Welles wrote a deeply sensitive and literate screenplay about the passage of time and values, adding a poignant finale of his own, not found in the original novel. The story was a tragic tale of changing cultures, and of a social climate gone with the wind. It would not pander to the tastes of simplistic audiences but, rather, pose provocative questions uneasily resolved.

Shooting of the picture began on October 28th. Predictably, the budget exceeded what RKO had expected.

While production continued, forces of the Japanese army attacked the American base on Pearl Harbor on December 7th. On the air that night, Welles made an impassioned plea to the American public…

“Ladies and Gentlemen, as we all know, our country has answered a vicious and unprovoked attack by declaring war on Japan. This is a time for energetic and unashamed patriotism on the part of all of us. I know we all agree to that because I know that none of us will be satisfied with anything but complete victory.”

President Roosevelt created the Office of Inter-American Affairs, an agency whose purpose was to foster good will among the Americas. Nelson Rockefeller was asked to take charge of the mission, along with socialite producer, Jock Whitney. Whitney immediately took an interest in the motion picture division of the agency, promoting the good will export of American films to South America in order to further the war effort.

He approached Orson Welles about making some personal appearances, and Welles accepted the assignment. He suggested a series of three short films within a film, a documentary of sorts to be called It’s All True, based in part upon an earlier failed project with Mexican thematic materials. Meanwhile, filming of Ambersons wrapped on January 22nd, 1942. Welles considered it his masterpiece, a haunting and fragile work of cinematic poetry.

He was committed to a February 2nd departure for briefings on the South American venture, joining with Robert Wise in an exhausting three day editing session of The Magnificent Ambersons prior to departure. Welles left for Rio de Janeiro on February 6th, 1942, leaving Wise in control of the nearly completed “cut.” Wise would cable Welles in Rio if questions arose, and Welles would wire back his instructions.

He trusted Wise and, somewhat precariously, RKO to keep his vision intact while he went to work for the War Department. As raw footage began arriving from Brazil, the studio became increasingly concerned that there seemed no cohesive thread to the material. It seemed confused, without purpose, or any rational semblance of patriotic significance.

There was still a good deal of resentment toward Welles in Hollywood where he was perceived as an elitist and a loner. Citizen Kane received nominations for Best Picture, Actor and Director but, when the Academy Award ceremonies were held on February 26th, the Oscar for Best Picture of the year went to John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley. Failure of the film to achieve Oscar validation, combined with the rambling quality of rushes from Brazil angered the studio, fostering apprehension and resentment toward their boy wonder. Previews of Ambersons in mid March were not going well and public criticisms ranged from “too talky and boring,” to “we don’t need trouble pictures.” Joseph Cotten attended one of the early screenings, writing that “the feeling in that theatre became disinterested, almost hostile and as cold as that icehouse they had just seen and my heart as heavy as the heart of Major Amberson who was playing wonderful scenes that nobody cared about.”

George Schaefer tried continually to contact Welles in Brazil in order to voice his concerns over both the fate of The Magnificent Ambersons and the incomprehensible footage he had been receiving for It’s All True. Welles, however, was heartily enjoying the local culture and Brazilian women, and could rarely be found by the telephone in his hotel room. Whatever confidence the older producer still had in Welles was rapidly eroding, fearing that the fabled wunderkind was spiraling out of control and restraint. At the command of the studio, and without Welles’ intervention or input, Robert Wise was ordered to re-cut Ambersons by forty four minutes, eliminating its delicacy and soul. The negative was confiscated and Welles was barred from interfering in the virtual castration of his masterpiece.

Meanwhile, funds were cut off from the well publicized debacle of It’s All True and Welles was forced to return to the United States a wounded, severely bloodied artist with a permanently soiled reputation in the industry. It was the end of the beginning, and the beginning of the end for Welles as a director.

Like Erich von Stroheim before him, his excesses, lack of focus and vanity seemed to preclude accountability for his behavior, thereby condemning his brief, erratic dominance of the film community to ultimate failure and rejection. What little of the film remains is but a pale shadow of the vision that might have been. Performances, though abbreviated, are uniformly excellent. The musical score by Bernard Herrmann (band leader Ramon Raquello for the celebrated War of the Worlds broadcast four years earlier) once again demonstrated his unique gifts for composition, but the butchered version of the film we’ve come to know is merely a phantom, a ghost of a would be masterpiece haunting the corridors of our imaginations.

Subsequently, the treasured forty four minutes of Ambersons central nervous system were “lost,” never to surface again…a mystical plateau in Shangri La…the Holy Grail for film historians and preservationists.

Welles and Joseph Cotten had written a screenplay together for Journey Into Fear, based upon the novel by Eric Ambler. Norman Foster directed the picture for RKO, and Cotten took the lead role. The studio, characteristically, was unhappy with Foster’s handling of the film and asked Welles to step in at the last minute to re-cut the picture. He did so willingly, if only to be allowed an opportunity to walk back through the doors.

The picture, a story of foreign intrigue, was muddled but had the look of a Welles production. Welles, himself, took a minor role in heavy makeup as Colonel Haki, and directed an additional scene with Cotten. Released in 1943, Journey Into Fear had little success at the box office. Norman Foster would go on to direct films and television shows for Walt Disney, most notably the Zorro television series in 1957 on ABC.

Jane Eyre – 1944

Twentieth Century Fox had purchased the rights to produce an adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s novel, Jane Eyre, from David O. Selznick and decided to cast Orson Welles as Edward Rochester, opposite Joan Fontaine as Jane. Released in 1943, the picture remains the most memorable of screen interpretations.

Directed by Robert Stevenson, and featuring a lush, sultry score by Bernard Herrmann, the picture enticed audiences with the lure of Orson Welles in his single leading romantic role.

As the tragic Rochester, Welles delivers a searing portrayal of man robbed of his soul. He is a lonely, empty shell of a man, clinging to tattered particles of honor and nobility. Cast frequently in shadow, his dark, proud eyes and shattering voice proudly concealed a phantom, lost in deep emotional pain. Anguished and alone, his lyrical torment ravished by Herrmann’s operatic cloak, Welles is the perfect embodiment of Bronte’s tortured hero.

Meanwhile, in Hollywood, RKO was taking dramatic steps to repair its image among exhibitors and audiences by publicly divesting itself of anything Wellesian. A new logo began appearing on posters for upcoming releases, and in newspaper and magazine ads promoting their product. It read, simply, “Showmanship Instead of Genius.” It was intended to refute the notion that the studio was an effete, intellectual company offering a product too good for the masses, and was an unashamed slap in the face of Orson Welles. Parent had once again abandoned child, while Welles openly referred to himself as “America’s youngest has been.”

Welles had been dating Lena Horne in the early Forties, and seemed quite taken by her beauty and maturity. However, it was America’s pin-up girl–.the girl that every American G.I. wanted to take home to mom–who captured his imagination. Rita Hayworth was, arguably, the most beautiful woman in the movies when Welles was introduced to her. He was taken with her nearly childlike vulnerability.

Despite her sensual bravado and confidence on screen, Hayworth had been sexually abused by her father and was emotionally fragile. As Rita Cansino, she had danced on stage and in early film appearances with her father. Outwardly, she had become America’s Love Goddess. Inwardly, however, she had known little happiness. While Welles was entranced by her beauty and fragility, she was flattered by his wit and brilliance. They married on September 7th, 1943. She assisted him on stage in his magic acts and, on December 17th, 1944, gave birth to their daughter, Rebecca. Welles eventually grew bored with his intellectual superiority to her — after all, he was intellectually superior to virtually everyone –and by 1945 was seeing Lena Horne once more, and enjoying a torrid affair with Judy Garland.

Tomorrow is Forever – 1946

In 1946, Welles took the lead in an independently produced film, Tomorrow is Forever , in which he co-starred with Claudette Colbert and George Brent. Directed by Irving Pichel, Welles played a newlywed during the first world war who leaves his young bride to enlist. Wounded and horribly disfigured, he decides to let his wife believe he has been killed, rather than endure her pity as a scarred, shell of what he had been. Years later he returns to America with a new name and face, and a little girl he cares for as his own child. As emotionally bruised as himself, he adopted the waif after her own parents had been killed in Europe.

A chemist now, with a German accent, he finds himself employed by the second husband of his former wife. Sentimental, perhaps. Cliched, most certainly. Yet, Tomorrow is Forever is a beautiful story and one of the loveliest tearjerkers of the decade. Welles is a haunted specter in a plastic body, only partially convincing a distraught Colbert that he is not her former husband. Max Steiner’s rhapsodic score is among his finest, perfectly suiting the romantic tragedy on screen. A young Natalie Wood, meanwhile, is thoroughly disarming as his “daughter.” It is compelling melodrama.

The Stranger

For his next film, Welles played another German character, but this time for real. In The Stranger, he is an escaped Nazi war criminal, hiding out in a small college community in America as a thoughtful professor. He marries the daughter of a Supreme Court Justice, Loretta Young, for security and has a fascination with clocks. Posing as Charles Rankin, he is actually Franz Kindler, among the most notorious Nazi butchers of the war.

Edward G. Robinson, in a characteristically wonderful performance, is Wilson, the investigator for the War Crimes Commission, determinedly on his trail. A Cincinnati criminal defense lawyer would be needed to assist with any criminal charges. No matter what the crime, an experienced lawyer is a right of the defendant.

Produced by Sam Spiegel and directed by Welles, himself, The Stranger is a fascinating little film with a marvelous Wellesian set piece at the finale in which he is impaled by the figures of his own beloved clock tower.

In 1946, Welles seized upon the idea of directing a big Broadway musical based upon Jules Verne’s celebrated novel, Around The World in Eighty Days. Mike Todd would produce the extravaganza, while Cole Porter would compose the tunes. As Welles vision for the show grew, Mike Todd was forced to drop out of the production, claiming that he had been bled financially dry. The show finally opened on Broadway at the Adelphi Theatre on May 31st to mixed reviews. It ran for seventy five performances before closing. Ten years later Mike Todd gained control of the rights to the Verne story once more, producing a highly publicized film version starring David Niven.

After Mike Todd had left Around The World in Eighty Days, Welles turned to Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia Pictures for revenue. In return, he would make a picture for Columbia. The project he chose had, unknown to him, already been associated with producer/director, William Castle for the same studio. Welles and Castle collaborated on the project, with Castle writing the first draft of the script and co-producing. Welles would direct the picture and star, along with his estranged wife, Rita Hayworth. For the sake of cohesiveness and believability, Cohn insisted that Welles move back into the house he had shared with his wife.

If I Die Before I Wake by novelist Sherwood King became the basis for one of Welles’ most interesting films as a director, The Lady From Shanghai (1948). Welles re-wrote the screenplay for this convoluted thriller of jealousy, deception and revenge, whose most famous sequence entertained a shooting inside a funhouse corridor of mirrors. Reflections expire amidst explosions of shattering shards of glass, clear and lethal daggers assaulting the senses until, one by one, the dastardly pair of conspiring combatants (Everett Sloane and Hayworth) have been killed. Interestingly, both Errol Flynn and his yacht, the Zaca, were employed for the film as boat, and off camera skipper.

The marriage was over, and Welles’ business and financial affairs were disastrously in disarray. However, he continued to act, direct, write and produce for the theatre, films and radio.

In 1948 he directed and starred in an exciting, beautifully realized adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth for Republic Pictures.

The next year, for producer Edward Small, he delivered a mesmerizing performance as the evil magician, Cagliostro, for the otherwise mediocre Black Magic.

During that same year, Welles offered one of his most charismatic performances as Harry Lime in Carol Reed’s classic thriller, The Third Man. No stranger to controversy or artistic espionage, he had earlier been considered a communist by the FBI for his persistent liberal writings and speeches. For The Third Man, Welles assumed the identity of an utterly charming swine, proliferating the ugliest drug trafficking in Europe. Believing Lime dead, an old friend (Joseph Cotten) is consumed by moral outrage in learning the trouble with Harry. Discovering the chaotic chameleon still very much alive, under Reed’s breathtaking staging, Holly pursues Harry in righteous indignation and with murderous intent…all to the accompaniment of the withering zither score by Anton Karas.

Welles frequently worked as an actor in order to help finance his own productions. With funds from The Third Man in 1948, he began work on his film version of Othello. Major studios had grown understandably wary of his excesses and so he spent much of the remainder of his life funding his own pictures with whatever finances he could beg, borrow or quite literally steal.

With Herculean effort, he somehow managed to keep his casts together, even though there would be monumental gaps between filming. He would often begin filming, run out of funds, perform for other directors and producers, then re-group and begin where he had left off. Othello took four years to complete, with his cast members remaining steadfast and loyal. For all of his infamous squandering of funds, he remained among a handful of certified geniuses whose gifts would become the stuff of legend.

His company of players knew that they had participated in something quite special, and they remained loyal to the master. During this period, Welles made several trips to Dublin where friends and corresponding debts flourished. He appeared in a short, twenty-three-minute ghost story, directed by Hilton Edwards, titled Return to Glennascaul.

Meanwhile, Othello premiered in 1952 in Cannes, winning the prestigious Palme d’Or for his efforts.

In England in 1951, Harry Alan Towers produced a series of radio programs based loosely upon the Harry Lime character Welles played in The Third Man. Retaining little beyond the name of the character, Welles once again starred as Lime. For this incarnation, however, Lime was portrayed more as a heroic detective.

Welles himself wrote some of the scripts, particularly an episode called “Greek Meets Greek” about a Greek tycoon who hires an investigator to look into his own mysterious past. He began composing a novel from the radio episode, in which the magnate’s name was Arkadian. From this idea seemingly sprang Welles’ next directorial effort, Mr. Arkadin–an interesting, if murky melodrama released in 1955. Also known as Confidential Report, the picture starred Welles as Gregory Arkadin.

During the editing of Mr. Arkadin, John Huston hired Welles for a mere two days work to play Father Mapple in his film version of Moby Dick. Welles was concurrently writing his own theatrical production of Moby Dick to be presented on the British stage.

Envisioned as a philosophical exercise in which a company of nineteenth century actors, preparing their presentation of King Lear, digress to rehearse Moby Dick, the play featured Welles as Ahab and Patrick McGoohan as the idealistic Starbuck. Since it was conceived as a “rehearsal,” the venture precluded the need for sets. The play enjoyed an all-too-brief run at the Duke of York’s Theatre until, predictably, funds ran out. Welles wanted to find a way to film the production, sobbing in frustration when it became apparent that it would never be.

Touch of Evil 1957

In 1957, Universal hired Charlton Heston to star in their screen version of Badge of Evil, based upon a novel by Whit Masterson. Paul Monash had written a script for the picture, now titled Touch of Evil, about a corrupt sheriff in a small Mexican town. Orson Welles had been chosen to play the heavy, but a director had not yet been assigned to the project.

Heston, who was riding high on a wave of success and popularity, remarked to studio executives “You know, Orson Welles is a pretty good director.” It certainly didn’t hurt that William Alland, now a producer for Universal, had worked with Welles on Citizen Kane, and for the Mercury Theatre radio company.

Heston lobbied heavily for Welles, and his selection suddenly seemed to everyone within the studio hierarchy an inspired choice. Welles brought in his makeup man from Citizen Kane, Maurice Seiderman, to create the sleazy, slovenly appearance of the decaying, bigoted sheriff.

The film is filled with wonderful performances by some of the finest character actors and actresses in Hollywood, including Akim Tamiroff, Joseph Calleia and Dennis Weaver.

As for the leading roles, Janet Leigh clearly delivers a powerful, nerve-wracking portrayal as the drugged and kidnapped wife of Heston’s Mexican district attorney, while Welles is, himself, impossible to take your eyes off of. Marlene Dietrich is often fascinating in a role that conjures memories of her Gypsy alter ego in Golden Earrings ten years earlier.

However, the most mesmerizing performance in Touch of Evil is the director’s astonishing contribution as a filmmaker extraordinaire. This is the old Welles returning to the scene of his prime, a brilliant creative artist enjoying consummate reverence for his craft. His legendary opening tracking shot, the chilling–nearly nightmarish hint of rape, dark corners and crevasses within a pretense of mannered or lawful society, the shadowy underbelly of corruption, unforgettably painting a seedy canvas of danger and uneasy tension–this is a final masterpiece from one of the screen’s handful of genuine visionaries.

Yet, fate would once again have the last laugh, robbing Welles of the critical acclaim he was due. As Universal grew more conservative in its handling of the picture, Welles grew more defensive and ultimately abusive, defiantly refusing to honor studio requests for clarity or brevity.

Ultimately, upon its release in 1958, Universal had taken a cue from RKO, re-cutting the picture without input from the director, shortening its length by some fifteen minutes and assigning a studio director, Harry Keller, to shoot some additional scenes. Orson Welles had allowed himself to be castrated once again by a marauding band of company jackals. Eventually, Touch of Evil was restored to its director’s “cut” but far too late for Welles to enjoy the blossoming fruit of his artistic labors.

Such would be the frustrating pattern of his remaining years. His size ballooned until he had become a twisted parody of the “beautiful boy” who had so enchanted his elders and peers. His consumption of food, alcohol and women exploded beyond rational expectation, while his legendary temper required little to detonate. The consensual degradation of this incomparable cinematic magician became heart breaking to witness. Succumbing to the most unashamedly blatant prostitution of his persona, he began selling his image and name to virtually anyone who would pay for it…anything to raise more funds for partially realized or abandoned film projects in the fragile years to come. He even succumbed to the shameless burlesque buffoonery of Lucille Ball in a classic 1956 episode of television’s I Love Lucy.

Yet, there were moments of triumphant artistry involving other areas of his creative mastery of the arts. His narrative skills were ever in demand and, in 1961, he signed to perform the moving narration for Samuel Bronston’s remake of Cecil B. DeMille’s King of Kings. His voice was, perhaps, the most wondrously beautiful instrument in the history of film. Here he was, in all his stunning vocal majesty, speaking the spiritual text written by Ray Bradbury, to the magnificent musical accompaniment of the incomparable Miklos Rozsa. His powerfully commanding voice could still the night, bringing warmth and comforting reassurance to the Winter’s chill. Miraculously, he managed to finish a mere handful of remaining pictures as a director.

The Trial (1962) is an often brilliant, visual exploration of Franz Kafka’s frightening novel, while Chimes At Midnight (1966), filmed on locations in Spain, was a heroic homage to Shakespeare’s Falstaff.

In 1980 he directed a controversial exploration of a flamboyant film director, patterned after himself and enacted by another difficult director, John Huston. Tantalizing as the completed sequences appear, The Other Side of the Wind was left unfinished, never entirely realized.

Orson Welles as Le Chiffre in Casino Royale

The American Film Institute presented Welles, perhaps too late, in February, 1975 with its prestigious trophy and televised celebration honoring a life in film. Presided over by host, Frank Sinatra, the program shared a whisper of melancholy reflection. Still, as he tearfully lamented in a hotel room to Peter Bogdanovich years later, it was truly over. He had battled his personal demons, and lost.

Endless years of excess and lack of rational accountability had finally done him in. The man who could do anything had, at least in his own mind, done nothing. He had dwelt in a mythical castle, a skeletal sarcophagus erected to epic proportions with grand tales that conquered reason and responsibility. The Xanadu of Charles Foster Kane became a repository for a lifetime of failed dreams…a lonely sled left out in the snow to wither and expire. Then, during the early morning hours of October 10th, 1985…as it must to all men…death came to George Orson Welles.

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One thought on “Xanadu: A Castle in the Clouds: The Life of Orson Welles

  1. As an aside, the actor who played the “high government official” in “The War of the Worlds” was Kenny Delmar, who may be best known for playing Senator Claghorn on the Fred Allen radio show. “Senator Claghorn” was one of the inspirations for the cartoon character Foghorn Leghorn and sounded nothing like FDR.

    Perhaps the Secretary of the Interior in “The War of the Worlds” (Delmar) sounded like FDR because Welles recommended to Delmar that he could still use a Roosevelt-like voice even though he wasn’t playing the president. It wasn’t that Delmar couldn’t do another kind of voice; in fact, Delmar played three other characters in “The War of the Worlds,” not just the Secretary of the Interior — a policeman, Captain Lansing, and the Bayonne radio operator.

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