Weep Not For Welles (Rewriting the Narrative on Orson)
Today is the birthday of America’s great actor-director-gourmand-and-raconteur Orson Welles (1915-1985). We’ve already done a tribute to Welles the actor (here). Today I thought I’d rant some about Welles the director and his legacy in general.
I’ve long been tired of these old tragic narratives depicting 20th century cinema artists (Keaton is another one) as stunted and thwarted could-have-beens when in reality they had utterly prolific, productive, fortunate and long careers. In the fullness of time, as access increases, a true accompt may be made, and their stories will hopefully be rewritten to reflect the triumphs their lives actually were.
Welles’ biography is normally told as though, poor shmo, he had made but one or a half dozen movies…with the rest of his professional activity over four-plus decades disregarded as some sort of inconsequential background noise. Through this dramatic but false lens we are encouraged to see his life as one of failure. For those of us whose lives overlapped his, that impression was fed by television images of Welles hawking Paul Masson wine or narrating a cheesy documentary about the predictions of Nostradamus. We saw that — but we didn’t see the other 23 hours a day Welles spent at the Steenbeck, cutting films every waking hour. And of course Welles encouraged the notion that he was persecuted and unappreciated. Of COURSE he did! Because he was trying to gain sympathy so he could raise money. Are we supposed to shed tears that he lost some movie deal that was so luxurious that than no one else has ever enjoyed it before or since? Were people just to hand him wheelbarrels full of cash because he’s Orson Welles? No one ever gets that! There are always strings attached. Every Michaelangelo must tussle with his Pope. This is not just how it was for Welles. That is how it IS. For EVERYBODY.
The truth is that Welles never actually stopped making films, and he never stopped being a great actor, and when you do a complete tally: the finished films, the nearly finished films, the films finished by somebody else, the films he acted in and “backseat drove” the direction, the television work (skipped over in previous times because inaccessible), the radio work (ditto), the reports of stage productions, and the PLANS for films, you get a tremendous, astounding body of work to contemplate. Ere the final sunset, one hopes a more accurate picture of the artist will emerge to fire the public’s imagination.
So much teeth gnashing about the “unfinished!” Let’s stop bewailing unfinished works. Nothing is ever finished. Most published plays, for example, have no definitive version — I know for a fact that guys like Brecht and Tennessee Williams found it impossible to stop working on their plays — even if the plays were already famous. The same is true of film-makers. They often can’t stop working on them, even after they’ve been released (Coppola is a good example here). As we know, Welles definitely had this compulsion. As one painful example, on more than one occasion he had a version of Don Quixote finished or almost finished, just about ready to release — then tore it apart and started working on it again. You know what? That doesn’t make me sorry for Welles, that makes me sorry for ME. His endless dicking around deprived me very much of a movie I would have liked to have seen. But no use crying over spilled milk. So Welles had visions in his head that never made it to the screen? Great. Too bad. That doesn’t detract from the fact that what DOES exist is gravy.
And just so I can make my point, we’ll skip all the “wunderkind” stuff in the 1930s, the book he published as a teenager, the Broadway plays he acted in with Katherine Cornell, his legendary theatre productions for the Federal Theatre Project and the Mercury Theatre, and the early years of radio stardom (he actually constantly had his own starring radio shows in the U.S. as late as 1946). Yes, that stuff is all dazzling, but our text today is that he dazzled all his life.
Citizen Kane (1941): So Welles’ masterpiece didn’t get properly released or advertised? H’m…but it was generally conceded — while Welles was living (how often does that happen?) — to be the greatest film ever made by just about everyone on earth. Surely that was some consolation, some satisfaction?
The Magnificent Ambersons (1942): I’m not particularly broken up about the fact that Welles’ cut was tampered with. I happen to love the existing movie. The additional scene the studio shot and tacked on is stupid, but that hardly turns the hour and a half of film that precedes it into garbage.
It’s All True (1942): Welles’ notorious Latin-American friendship project was canceled before completion in 1942, sure. But what was in the can was turned into a terrific 1993 documentary, and frankly that satisfies me. It makes a wonderful chapter in his legacy that we can all now enjoy. There is also tons more of existing footage that will probably see the light of day at some point. As far as I’m concerned, It’s All True is no longer “lost”.
Journey into Fear (1943): Ostensibly directed by Norman Foster and produced by Welles, but Welles’ touch hangs over the thing so heavily it’s impossible to conceive that he wasn’t calling all the shots, if only in the pre-planning and by telephone. It’s a Mercury Production. I call this a Welles film.
Jane Eyre (1943): Also impossible not to regard this as a Welles film — based on a Mercury radio production of the literary classic, starring Welles as Rochester, co-written by John Houseman, and shot by director Robert Stevenson in a manner that can only be called distinctly Wellsian. He may not have been sitting in the director’s chair, but it’s as though he directed it with his mind through sheet force of will. The fact that Stevenson’s other credits include That Darn Cat and Son of Flubber reinforces the notion.
The Stranger (1946): Directing and starring in his own Hollywood film opposite Edward G. Robinson. Not too washed up, eh?
Narrates Duel in the Sun (1946): I only include this tidbit because it was such a high profile movie and the voice of Welles presides over it like God himself. Welles did many such narration jobs over the years. I’ll only mention a handful of the most important ones.
Around the World (1946): Yes, I’ll concede this as a blow to Welles, but much hubris was involved. Directing and starring in his own partially self-financed Broadway version of Jules Vernes’ Around the World in 80 Days with music by Cole Porter, he suffered bad luck: a broken leg and crummy box office. The fact that producer Mike Todd had a movie smash with it ten years later — without involving the difficult Welles — was a loss to Welles if not the audience.
The Lady from Shanghai (1947): Starring in and directing his own Hollywood movie opposite his wife, the sexiest woman in the world Rita Hayworth. Again, I call that not too shabby.
MacBeth (1948): It’s only Republic studios and a very small budget, but he’s still STARRING IN AND DIRECTING HIS OWN HOLLYWOOD FILM, FROM HIS OWN SHAKESPEARE ADAPTATION! Boo hoo!
Black Magic (1949): This film adds to Welles’ legend as a magician and charming theatrical con man by casting him as the legendary Cagliostro. Gregory Ratoff is the director of record, but Welles is said to have directed some scenes.
The Third Man (1949): A Wellesian classic reuniting him with Joseph Cotten, even if it is directed by Carol Reed. Is there any question the vision and influence of Welles hangs over the thing? That said, though Welles plays an important role as Harry Lime (and devised his own speech), his screen time is minimal. And Reed was a highly accomplished director who can be said to have been capable of “doing” Welles (as opposed to Welles surreptitiously directing it). It’s almost like Welles fan art.
Prince of Foxes (1949): More casting magic: Welles as Cesar Borgia, opposite Tyrone Power and Welles’ old Mercury cohort Everett Sloan.
Othello (1952): The first of Welles’ films made as a total independent, outside the Hollywood system, and through his patented piecemeal fashion. Working without a net must have its frustrations, and yet when the artistic quality is this high it’s hard to hate the circumstances under which it was made, at least from this comfortable distance.
The Adventures of Harry Lime (1951-1952): Welles reprised his role as Harry Lime to star in this British radio series.
King Lear (1953): Add this and The Merchant of Venice (below) to the list of Welles’ better known Shakespeare portrayals and adaptations (i.e., Julius Caesar, MacBeth, Othello and the Henriad). This production was for American television. We don’t often think of tv as a medium Welles “conquered” in the same way he conquered stage, screen and radio. And it’s true that, in the States, at least, he never sold any of the many pilots he created for original tv series. So instead we saw normally saw him in the most demeaning of circumstances: on talk shows and shoddy commercials and the like. But Welles was bloody prolific. He actually did a lot of amazing, high quality, interesting television work. Once you add up what he did and hack away all the chaff you can see that he has an impressive record in this medium as well.
Three Cases of Murder (1955): I caught this on TCM not too long ago. The film is in three segments, only one of which features Welles. But the Welles’ segment, adapted from a Somerset Maugham story, is amazing! Welles’ performance as Lord Mountdrago, a politician haunted by conscience and dreams, is top notch, and Welles is said to have directed his segment himself (uncredited). A worthy edition to the canon.
Confidential Report/ Mr. Arkadin (1955): Yes, it’s a mess, but a kind of glorious mess. Individual shots and scenes are gorgeous. It has taken me several viewings to sort out what is supposed to be happening in the plot, but that is true, really, of most of Welles’ films, which is why producers were constantly removing control from his hands. And in reality there is no definitive version of this film. There are several different cuts extant. In light of that, one almost has to say that the unfinished/ unreleased films that are now being finished by others and shown to the public are just as legitimate as this one. (or for that matter, Ambersons. Ya know?)
Moby Dick — Rehearsed (1955): A really interesting, “meta” stage play in which a 19th century stock company rehearses a stage version of Moby Dick. The cast of the original London production is enough to make you drool: Welles, Christopher Lee, Patrick McGoohan, Joan Plowright, and Kenneth Williams??? Further, Welles filmed the production for television, but sadly scrapped it, and then the footage was burned in a fire. As far as I’m concerned that’s Welles getting in the way of himself yet again, not anything the world did to him. In 1972, he filmed part of a new version, with himself in all the parts. And of course, in 1956 he played Father Mapple in John Huston’s Hollywood version of Moby Dick, the existence of which (one year after the Welles’ project) is surely no coincidence.
Don Quixote (1955-1985): Fittingly, the most Quixotic of Welles’ projects, it kept evolving and changing into new and different versions as time dragged on. Some of what remained was assembled by Jesus Franco and released in 1992. Ordinarily, I would say, as with It’s All True, “there art thou happy”, but the Franco version is wretched and unworthy. Hopefully, at some point, some one else will pick up the gauntlet and give it another try. At any rate, we have Terry Gilliam’s version to look forward to again now.
The Fountain of Youth (1956): Welles won the Peabody Award for this half hour episode of a proposed anthology series that would have transferred the techniques of Welles’ radio work to television. It was produced by Desi Arnaz for Desilu Productions. The pilot didn’t sell. But, hello: award!
Twentieth Century (1956): A high profile tv adaptation of the hilarious Hecht-MacArthur play. There had already been a classic Howard Hawks movie version and several other tv versions as well as a radio version (starring Welles) but I would really like to see Welles in the role of grasping stage producer Oscar Jaffe, as I’m sure he was very funny.
The Long Hot Summer (1958): Proof that Welles still had it as a conventional Hollywood movie star, as a patriarch in this Southern Gothic tale adapted from the stories of Faulkner. Used to being boss, he did have several run-ins with director Martin Ritt.
Touch of Evil (1958): His last outing as DIRECTOR AND STAR OF HIS OWN HOLLYWOOD PICTURE. Although the studio recut the film, it remains amazing in all its versions. In addition to its formal brilliance I find it fascinating for being simultaneously A) one of the last Hollywood noir pictures, and B) an intriguingly modern Welles picture — a feeling that will no doubt be diminished when we finally get a look at The Deep and The Other Side of the Wind.
Compulsion (1959): Welles gives another bravura acting turn as a Clarence Darrow stand-in in this fictionalized version of the Leopold and Loeb trial.
David and Goliath (1960): Welles played King Saul in this Biblical epic and reportedly directed his own scenes.
King of Kings (1961): Welles narrated this smash Hollywood film of the life of Jesus.
The Trial (1962): Welles is back to producing and directing independently but this time with a top Hollywood star, Anthony Perkins, fresh from Psycho, in the lead. This is the one major Welles film I personally find unwatchable, although plenty of people like it.
Chimes at Midnight/ Falstaff (1965): Not as revolutionary as Kane but in some ways perhaps Welles’ best all-around film, both as director and actor (especially as actor). See my review of the recent re-release here.
A Man for All Seasons (1966): Welles played Cardinal Woolsey in this all-star historical drama about Sir Thomas More, alongside Paul Scofield, Wendy Hiller,Leo McKern, Robert Shaw, Susannah York, Vanessa Redgrave, Corin Redgrave, Colin Blakely, John Hurt, et al.
Casino Royale (1967): Welles as James Bond villain Le Chiffre in the hippest film of 1967.
The Immortal Story (1968): Welles directed and acted in this adaptation of an Isak Dinesen story for French television, later released theatrically. Remarkably, given this late date, it’s his first release in color! (Although he had experimented with color in tests for an early version of Don Quixote.) Personally, I found this film to be a snooze-fest, distinctly unspectacular, although there is a role in this world (I suppose) for intimate drama. Perhaps I will give it another chance when I am 80.
Oedipus the King (1968): Welles played Tiresias in this all-star version of the Sophocles classic, alongside, Christopher Plummer, Lilli Palmer, Richard Johnson, Cyril Cusack and Donald Sutherland (not yet famous from Klute and M*A*S*H). It was shot in the ruins of an actual Greek amphitheatre.
The Merchant of Venice (1969): I am very excited to see this! Welles directed and played Shylock in this 30+ minute film short. Long considered unfinished and lost, it was recently restored and screened last year at the Venice International Film Festival. Small sections of it are available on Youtube.
Start the Revolution Without Me (1970): This is the stage when there began to be a real danger (beyond a danger, a reality) of the tarnishing of Welles’ image through constant self-parody. It’s not unlike what happened to John Barrymore, Vincent Price and others. One of the most frequently employed voice-over actors and narrators in the industry, he was often cast in comedies as a spoof of same. I only include this one because it is a favorite comedy of mine (I first saw it as a kid) and it was undoubtedly one of the first places I encountered Welles.
Catch-22 (1970): Welles’ presence as an army general adds to the magic of this great Mike Nichols absurdist army comedy based on the Joseph Heller novel. The entire cast is to die for, but it’s too many names to type.
The Deep (1966-1969): This is another one we have a prayer of seeing in the future. Produced, and directed by Welles, and starring himself, Laurence Harvey and Jeanne Moreau (who’d also starred in The Immortal Story ), this film was designed to be a commercial thriller, but funding ran out in 1969 before some crucial scenes had been filmed. And then Harvey died in 1973 before it could be completed. But one version was cobbled together for the Munich Film Festival and apparently plans are under way to make a proper stop-gap completion, with visual aids to explain the unshot portions. Some scenes from the film are included in the documentary Orson Welles: The One Man Band (1995). Another film based on the same novel, Dead Calm was released in 1989 starring Sam Neill, Nicole Kidman and Billy Zane.
Treasure Island (1972): Welles as Long John Silver! It’s great to see him as late as this taking on one of his old Mercury roles.
The Man Who Came to Dinner (1972): A TV version of the Kauffman classic. Ordinarily I hate this play, but mostly because I find the central character of Sheridan Whiteside so detestable in the hands of most actors that it is unwatchable. (I can’t even watch Monty Wooly do it). But, I’d like to see Welles give it a try. With his combination of innate charm and his ability to mine humor from his delight in his own arrogance, Welles might have been the only actor who could sell it. Don’t disagree with me. I WILL bite your head off.
F for Fake (1973): Long regarded as “Welles’ Last Film”, though time is changing that. It is an interesting animal, and definitive proof of Welles’ distinctive genius. As he had done in radio, as he had done in It’s All True, and like some of America’s greatest writers (Melville and Twain spring to mind), Welles mixes non-fiction and fiction, in an ostensible documentary about fraud in the art world, and the long con in general. It’s a small film, with a big theme, and a big MAN putting himself, as always, front and center.
Orson Welles’ Great Mysteries (1973-1974): British anthology tv series which Welles’ narrated and hosted. It’s madness that he couldn’t manage to do the same thing in the U.S. On the other hand, doing it for the British public isn’t too shabby.
Tikki-Tikki-Tavi (1975): Har! Welles did voice-overs for this animated family tv special based on Rudyard Kipling stories. I only include it because the show was a big deal in my 4th grade class when it first aired. We all talked about it at school the next day.
The Other Side of the Wind (1970-1976): This is the most exciting object on the horizon as we write. I don’t mean the most exciting Welles’ completion project on the horizon. I mean the most exciting ANYTHING. (With only slight exaggeration). Shot by Welles in the early 70s with an all-star cast (notably John Huston in the lead), some post-production work had been completed at the time of his death, but the movie was still unfinished. Difficulties arising from the fact that part of the funding was IRANIAN (pre-revolution) held up the film for years and years. But a crowd-funding campaign was recently conducted to raise completion funds and a version is slated for release in the next few months. By all accounts this is an amazing film…whatever shape it’s in when it makes it to theatres, there’s likely to be something in every frame for people to talk about. This is a big cinematic event.
History of the World, Part One (1981): More Orson self-parody as narrator, but this one was a big hit.
Butterfly (1982): A notorious film, of course, famed for being a vanity project for the naked and talent-challenged Pia Zadora, I don’t think the film is nearly is bad as is claimed. And what a special reward to have Welles in it, appropriately cast as a small town judge. Though he’s getting old and infirm at this stage, he does give it the full Welles treatment.
Okay, as I’m sure you’re aware, this is just the tip of the iceberg. I left out the majority of his performances, in films and television programs that ranged from “garbage” to”meh” to “not as noteworthy as these.” As you can see, the man had something amazing in front of the public nearly ever year of his life. The day of reckoning is at hand, a day when we, with eyes fully open, no longer weep for the Welles that wasn’t, and only cheer for the Welles that WAS.