The Man Who Came In From The Radio
An Insight on Life and Times of Orson Welles by Naveen Gupta
1. In a recording studio, 1938 2. As Citizen Kane 3.In 'Lady from Shangai'
2. As Citizen Kane 3.In 'Lady from Shangai'
In Hollywood and its sister city Bollywood; petty mean hearted men with deep pockets or brandishing imposing staffs in their hands, goad the genius.
Orson Welles’s mother died of jaundice four days after his ninth birthday, and the young boy put down his ambition to be a musician. Orson lost his father, when 15 years old, the summer after his graduation from
Welles asked to direct a project for Harlem’s American Negro Theater by John Houseman, had the ‘boy wonder’ casting an all-black ensemble in ‘Macbeth,’ moved to Haiti at the court of King Henri Christophe, with a setting of voodoo witch-doctors (please someone remind me of ‘Maqbool’ by Vishal Bharadwaj with Shah and Puri as witches!). The play became a landmark of African-American theatre, he further consolidated his image by mounting the farce ‘Horse eat hat’, and ‘Dr. Faustus,’ where he used light as a prime unifying scenic element on a dimly lit stage. He carried a coup of sorts when he staged pro-union ‘labour opera’ by Blitzstein, at Venice Theater at the last minute, instead of the usual venue at Maxine Elliot, blockaded by National Guardsmen, because of a worried Congress on the overt communist tones of the opera. The hallmark of Welles’s genius, in that his creativity was a spontaneous burst, full of panache and bluster, and with just a dash of improvisation, was fast becoming his calling card. He was a true genius; he never had to labour at anything he overtook.
Welles and Houseman now formed the Mercury Theatre, its actors included Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorehead, Ray Collins, George Coulouris, Everett Sloane and other who would continue under Orson Welles baton on stage, radio and later films. Orson Welles was the first biggest superstar of the radio, which in 30s was bigger than the movies and there was no television. His ability as round the clock writer, actor, director, producer made him voice Lamont Cranston in ‘The Shadow’, the resounding success of which had CBS give him ‘The Mercury Theatre on the air,’ a weekly hour long show to produce at only 22,it was going to catapult Orson to international fame.
A day before Halloween, on Oct.30, 1938; 9 million Americans tuned into the performance of that evening- an adaptation of ‘War of the Worlds,’ by H.G. Wells, a science fiction novel about a Martian invasion of the earth. What they heard was ballistic and out of this world, Welles wrote and performed his play so that it sounded like news broadcast about an invasion from Mars. The dance music was interrupted by fake news bulletins about a flaming object landing on a farm near
For his first project Welles settled for an adaptation of Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’, but the excessive budget and the anti-fascist tenor of story made RKO do a double turn. His second project, ‘The Smiler with the knife’, was not approved because the studio had no faith in Welles’s protégée Lucille Ball’s acting prowess. Hard pressed by RKO, Orson left his radio show to Houseman, and came up with ‘American,’ conceived with his fellow radio-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz; it would eventually become Welles first feature film, ‘Citizen Kane.’(1941). The film was mired in controversy from the seeding only. Mankiewicz, banished from the table of the great media baron William Randolph Hearst and his mistress Marion Davies, the actress, for being a perpetually drunk and notorious gossip based the film on an expose of Hearst’s life. But Welles wanting to create a complex character asked Mankiewicz to incorporate elements from lives of Joseph Pulitzer, Howard Hughes, Robert McCormick and the 300 pages of notes he had written on ‘Heart of Darkness’, in the screenplay. John Houseman was summoned to keep Mankiewicz sober. But the duo in their sly malice towards their young boss worked in cunning autobiographical allusions to Welles, particularly regarding his guardianship. Welles refused unfortunately to incorporate claims about the death of Film Director Thomas Ince being killed on an excursion on a Hearst yacht. Mankiewicz, ironically later lamented and wisely so, that if this material had been left in, Hearst would never have dared to make the public connection to his own life and would have left the film alone.
The completion of the script drew in legendary cinematographer Gregg Toland, who in a moment of bravado placed his Oscar on Orson Welles’s table as his calling card and asked for work! Welles with the entire Mercury group in tandem filmed, what is considered the greatest film ever made, by the critics the world over. During the 1950s young French film critics such as Francois Truffaut, Goddard, Chabrol and others were inspired by Welles ‘example to make their own films in keeping with ‘auteur theory’, and gave birth to Nouvelle Vague. The innovative elements of Welles’style exhibited in ‘Citizen Kane’ were: 1. Composition in depth: the use of extreme deep focus cinematography to connect distant figures in space. 2. Complex mise-en scene, in which the frame overflowed with action and detail. 3.Low angle shots that revealed ceilings making the characters dominant yet trapped in their destiny. 4. Long takes. 5. A fluid moving camera that expanded the action beyond the frame. 6. The creative use of sound as a transition device and to create visual metaphors.
The film was well received by the critics, but it faced distribution and exhibition problems due to the entire might of Hearst thrust against it, the media mogul made it sure that it fared poorly at the box-office. It garnered 9 Oscar nominations but snagged the only one for original screenplay for Mankiewicz and Welles. In the 1999 HBO movie, ‘RKO 281,’ John Malkovich as Mankiewicz reminds Liev Schreiber playing Welles – whether Welles will outdo himself at 26 ever again!
His second film, ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’, (1942) was an adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s novel and starred Cotten, Anne Baxter and Agnes Moorehead. At the editing stage RKO and the
His fortunes continued to waver, with success in radio, but flops on stage especially the musical, ‘Around the world in Eighty days.’ He agreed to helm the Columbia Pictures, ‘The lady from
After ‘Black Magic’ (1948), Welles appeared as the immortal Harry Lime in ‘The Third Man,’ written by Graham Greene and directed by Sir Carol Reed in 1949. His bravura performance with Cotton made the film an international hit, and in a poll carried out by BFI in 1999, it was considered the greatest British picture ever made. As luck would have it Welles turned down a percentage of the gross in exchange for a lump-sum advance. Orson Welles now took to channeling his money from acting roles into self-financed adaptation of, ‘Othello,’ which after two years of filming on location in Europe and
His return in 1956 to
‘The Immortal Story’,(1968) was for French television and his final completed film, ’F for Fake’(1973) was sweeping collage of documentary and staged footage, that investigated the thin line between reality and illusion, celebrated all tricksters- including its director, who had once wanted to be a magician.
In 1971,he was awarded an honorary Oscar for his superlative artistry and versatility in creation of motion picture. Welles sent his best friend John Huston to claim the award. Huston criticized the Academy for awarding Welles while they refused to give him any work. In 1975, AFI presented Welles with their third Lifetime Achievement Award (the other two being John Ford and James Cagney). In his later years Welles did any work, be it voicing of commercials on Radio& TV, Radio Serials and as host on Talk shows to realize funds for his projects. As a lecturer and storyteller, he had no equivalent even when serious
obesity restricted his ability to travel. He died of a heart attack at his home in
At the time of his death, ‘The other side of the wind,’ an obvious autobiographical film he had been pursuing since 1970s remained unfinished. It was a story of a famous filmmaker, played by John Huston, struggling to find financing for his film, just as Welles was forced to do many times.
Sparkling genius is its own enemy! It makes the foolish look how dumb they actually are; this is the reason why a film making maverick like Orson Welles, who in words of Martin Scorsese was, “ responsible for inspiring more people to be film directors than anyone else in the history of cinema,’ remained an outsider in Hollywood, which did not allow him to make a greater picture than ‘Citizen Kane.’
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