Today is the birthday of George Orson Welles (1915-1985).
Because he is almost universally celebrated as the greatest American film director of all time, it is sometimes overlooked that he was also one of our most important stage directors, actors, and impresarios. Gifted with a precocious intellect, a fine physique and good looks (in his youth), and a rich voice, he also possessed talent in nearly every art form, and more importantly a brazen, antic spirit that spurred him to constantly try new things, bluffing the querulous dupes around him to give him the opportunity to do so.
At age 16 he lied his way into a job at the Gate Theatre in Dublin, claiming to be a professional when his only training and experience had been at the private boy’s school he’d attended in Illinois. The critical acclaim from his performances there permitted him to spend three season with Katharine Cornell’s company in New York. He got his first job in radio through Paul Stewart in 1934. John Houseman hired him to direct for the Federal Theatre Project in 1936. His first production for the project was his groundbreaking all-black “voodoo” production of MacBeth; his last was the equally famous (because nearly aborted) production of Marc Blitzstein’s left-wing musical The Cradle Will Rock in 1937. From here it was on to the Mercury Theatre (co-founded with Houseman) and their famous “fascist” production of Julius Caesar, and radio stardom in The Shadow (and countless other programs), culminating in the notorious prank production of H.G. Wells ‘The War of the Worlds in 1938.
His 35+ year career of marred, mutilated and murdered masterpieces is too well known for me to recapitulate here. I think too much is made of what isn’t, what might have been, what could have been, not only in the career of Welles but many others (Buster Keaton springs to mind). Not only is Welles’ existing body of work as a director remarkable as it is (and I think that body of work will be added to as the decades roll on as long-vaulted near-finished movies become available), but when you throw in Welles’ record as an actor, his legacy becomes even more impressive. (For much more on this topic ,see my post here).
Welles is of that old school tradition of bluster and bombast, of wigs and spirit gum and foreign dialects and rolled Rs. Hollywood people thought him an effete Eastern snob (although he was from Wisconsin.) Hemingway once told him to his face that his voice on radio “made him sound like a cocksucker”, a remark which, to Welles’ credit, led to a fistfight. Welles’ acting ranges from the truly great, truthful and moving…to the absolute acme (or nadir, however you see it) of preposterous phoniness. Which is true of all the greats. Either way, bad or good, you know they are THERE. The worst sin of all is giving a forgettable performance. I think Welles’ old age make-up is the worst thing about Citizen Kane; his dime store Irish accent the worst thing about The Lady from Shanghai. Yet I lap up his phony Turk Colonel Haki in 1943’s Journey into Fear and his Scottish MacBeth with a fork and spoon. God, look at his legacy as an actor — he’s so under-rated as an actor and a star. I mean outside of his own movies. He’s Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre (1943), Harry Lyme in The Third Man (1949). There are television versions of him doing the title role in King Lear (1953) and Shylock in Merchant of Venice (1969), and his own Moby Dick Rehearsed was done for tv in 1955. Classic turns in The Long Hot Summer (1958) and Compulsion (1959). Did you know he played Long John Silver in a 1972 film version of Treasure Island with Walter Slezak and Lionel Stander? And in the same year he was Sheridan Whiteside in a tv production of The Man Who Came to Dinner?
One of his last turns was a classic of its kind. Already suffering from ill health, he plays the exasperated judge in Pia Zadora’s notorious Butterfly (1982). This is just some of it, there are scores of other cool roles on stage and screen.
So why don’t we think of him primarily in this light? Well I think he lowered his stock immeasurably by taking whatever work that came his way, ostensibly to raise the money for his own films, which ironically went unfinished anyway. He narrated a gazillion movies and television shows, hosted hokey tv specials (one about Nostradamus springs to mind), did endless commercials, and was a frequent guest on tv talk and variety shows. This was primarily how I knew him as a child — I had no idea he was a great film director or actor. He was just a fat guy with a beard on television. Acquainting oneself with his real life’s work is a joyous lifetime journey.
For me, Welles’ orientation as a man of the stage is really what fuels and fertilizes his most brilliant films. That curtain call at the end of The Magnificent Ambersons always makes me want to bust out bawling. There’s nothing intellectual about it. It’s just a flair for showmanship. It’s kind of how I want all movies to be.
To find out more about show biz past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc