Life of Orson Welles

With a single feature film, the first one he ever made, Orson Welles changed the way motion pictures were made. The picture he made was Citizen Kane, universally hailed as the greatest film ever made, and despite its critical success, it was a commercial failure. In its wake, the cinema was changed forever, but its creator was practically finished. It is a cruel joke that filmmakers, producers, and famous actors all over the world would give Welles such great praise for decades to come, and yet every production Welles would be involved in would be plagued with problems in financing and distribution. If everyone held such great admiration for Welles, how come so few have ever helped him? It is a shame that Welles would have some regrets about working in the cinema when he is perhaps its greatest director. Perhaps he did not mean anything by his public lament, but most would agree that he should have received better treatment. When Welles was brought to Hollywood by RKO Studios, he brought with him years of experience in the theater and radio. Some would argue that he was not the great innovator that he was made out to be because most of his innovations were really techniques that were either used in other mediums or old tricks taken to new extremes. His technical accomplishments may not have been his own creation, but he used the medium to its fullest potential, showing a vision that was uniquely his own. The cinema is possibly the ultimate culmintation of modern art; a universal form that employs elements of music, theater, photography, and everything else that has come since cave paintings. With his first picture, Welles mastered almost every aspect of filmmaking to an unprecedented degree.

When Welles first entered a film studio, he said he felt like a kid in a candy store, and Welles sculpts Kane with the same great enthusias m as a child with a new toy. Like all of Welles's films, Citizen Kane was visually and aurally sumptuous. Welles combined dozens of elements layer after layer in each frame, creating a rich cinematic experience unlike any seen or heard before. Citizen Kane shattered all of the conventions of commercial filmmaking, and though many of its methods have been repeatedly duplicated over the years, the film still seems flamboyant and fresh. For years, there has been some controversy of the authorship of the film's screenplay, even after Robert L. Carringer's exhaustive research on the matter should have laid it to rest. As vital as the script is, it hardly makes up the film in most cases. The resounding impact Kane has had on the cinema originates from Welles's technique, not from Herman J. Mankwiecz's pen.

Perhaps only a person as ambitious and creative as Welles could have made such a film. Ever since his youth, Welles was brash, arrogant, and gifted in the theater, but then again the general definition of "gifted" youth is misleading. Welles may have been able to read Shakespeare, but he may not have understood it. Give any "gifted" child a chance, and he or she will be able to recite Dostoevsky without an inkling on the meaning.

As most people familiar with Orson Welles know, one should not take Welles's own autobiographical accounts of his life too seriously. He was notorious for wandering from truth when it came to his life story. Many of the fictional accounts he helped create have circulated in quite a number of books about him; to write on the life on Orson Welles is to navigate through a sea of exaggeration and fabrication. Like other star directors before him, Welles felt a need to maintain an air of mystery around him. He wanted glamour in addition to greatness. Nevertheless Welles lead what was without a doubt an extraordinary life. George Orson Welles was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin in 1915. His father, Richard Head Welles, was wealthy from a few wagon factories. As a result, Richard lived quite a number of his adult years in leisure rather than work. In one of his interviews, Welles credits his father with the invention of automobiles. While far from the truth, its interesting in light of his most personal work, The Magnificent Ambersons. Welles's mother, Beatrice Ives Welles, was a highly-regarded woman. Not only was she considered a beauty, but she was also very active in the arts and in her community. Welles parents were known to travel much of the world, making many connections and becoming a very prominent couple. In private, Welles's family was rather troubled. Welles actually had an older brother who is seldom discussed in many of his books. He was not very bright and considered a disappointment. He would be expelled f rom the progressive Todd School, where Welles would be sent years later, and later spent many years in a mental institution before settling into a normal life as a counselor. Meanwhile the relationship between Welles's parents was going sour as Richard Welles slipped into alchoholism. Welles would actually replace his father in the eyes of his mother, who hoped he would succeed where his father and older brother failed. She taught him to read using Shakespeare and later taught him to the piano, though he would never become accomplished musically. In school, Welles would actually write, direct, and act his own plays, catching the attention of local newspapers who immediately dubbed him a prodigy. It is uncertain how much the newspapers may have exaggerated, but one can be sure that they stretched the truth thanks to the influence of Dr. Maurice Bernstein, a pediatrician who would develop a disturbing interest in Welles's affairs. Bernstein had some connections with the local papers, and perhaps he was the one who alerted them of Welles in the first place. Bernstein was also infatuated with Welles's mother, and as a result he may have wanted to fill the role of We lles's father as well as Beatrice Welles's lover. Beatrice Welles was not very interested in him, but did remain close friends with Bernstein who shared an interest in the opera.

When Welles was six, his parents divorced and his mother took him to Chicago, immersing him in the theatre and classical music. Her unexpected death a few years later left Welles very shaken. His father would die when Welles was fifteen, reportedly alo ne and in despair from alcohol. After her death, Beatrice Welles left him in the care of his father and Bernstein. Bernstein sent Welles to Todd School, confident that he would do very well there. It was a wise decision for it would become a wonderful time in Welles's youth. Welles grew close to the headmaster, Roger Hill, and would spend much of his time producing plays at the encouragement of Hill. His father and Bernstein did not approve of Welles's interest in the theatre. After his graduation f rom Todd School, Bernstein sent Welles to Ireland, hoping that he would forget about his passion in the theatre and turn to painting. The plan backfired splendidly as Welles found his way to the Gate Theatre. He auditioned there for Hilton Edwards and M icheál MacLiammóir, posing as a famous, Broadway actor, a ploy that did not fool either Edwards or MacLiammóir. Though Welles was disappointed with his own audition, it was considered a brilliant piece of charismatic "ham-acting," an d it was enough to win him a place at the Gate. His performance as the Duke in Jew Süss was an incredible triumph. His next few roles would be disappointments, and Welles would leave the Gate in search of more famous theatres in England. Ho wever he was unable to obtain a work permit and returned to the Midwest. He kept himself occupied with various projects until a fortunate meeting with Thornton Wilder helped him land a job with a road company headed by Katharine Cornell. After a brief s tint there, he met John Houseman who, with Welles, began work with the New York Federal Theatre, a project formed under the New Deal reformation. They produced a few plays with the group including famous adaptations of Macbeth and Julius Caesar . Right-wing politicians began to protest the project, but with little reason since the plays contained little political content. However their last play,The Cradle Will Rock, was overtly leftist, and it was closed down by federal agents on o pening night. When the agents closed down the production, Welles and Houseman took it down the street to the Venice Theatre and threw a spectacular improvised performance of it in the aisles. Soon after Welles resigned from the project, and after his de parture Houseman was fired. Welles and Houseman went on to form a new repertory company called the Mercury Theatre, which according to James Naremore was lifted "from a copy of Mercury magazine lying in a corner of an empty fireplace at Welles's home."

Callow, Simon. The Road to Xanadu.
Cowie, Peter. A Ribbon of Dreams: The Cinema of Orson Welles. A.S. Barnes: New York, 1973.
Higham, Charles. The Films of Orson Welles. University of California Press: Berkeley, 1970.
McBride, Joseph. Orson Welles. Viking Press: New York, 1972. Naremore, James. The Magic World of Orson Welles. Oxford University Press: New York, 1978.


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