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Showing posts with the label Orson Welles

Orson Welles: Introduction

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Best known as the director of Citizen Kane and for the radio broadcast of H.G. Wells 's "War of the Worlds," Orson Welles was a polymath who excelled as an actor, writer, director, and producer on radio, film, and television. In fact, his reach went so far as television commercials, and by the end of his life, he was a household name for his Paul Masson wine commercials ("we will sell no wine before its time.") Welles was the director of (in addition to Citizen Kane ) The Magnificent Ambersons, The Lady From Shanghai , Touch of Evil, and Chimes At Midnight. In addition to playing major roles in some of these films, he also starred in the classic The Third Man and has more than a hundred screen acting credits to his name. Orson Welles began his career on stage, directing plays under the Federal Theatre Project and then with his company Mercury Theatre. He took the Mercury Theatre to the Air , becoming a radio celeb with broadcasts of productions of va

Early Life

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While the universe of film, TV, radio, and music stars glitters with stories of people who made good after childhoods in which they were underrated or underappreciated, their potential not recognized, Orson Welles was early recognized as a comet that would blaze a dazzling trail. “The word genius was whispered into my ear, the first thing I ever heard while I was still mewling in my crib,” Welles told biographer Barbara Leaming. He began mewling on May 16, 1915, christened George Orson Welles, the child of Dick and Beatrice. A head wound suffered by the young Orson brought a doctor named Maurice Bernstein into the Welles’ home. The doctor immediately sprouted the opinion that the boy was a prodigy, a genius in the making. He began calling him Pookles and Orson developed the nickname Dadda for Dr. Bernstein as the two of them began a mentor-student relationship. Dadda initiated a young Orson into a group of adults in Chicago’s music scene, which convened at the home of critic

The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus

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The Federal Theatre Project (FTP) kept on rolling with a New York production of The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, which opened at Maxine Elliot’s Theatre on Jan. 8, 1937. It was one of many Welles works in which he cast himself in the lead role. Also starring were Charles Peyton, J. Headley, and Bernard Savage. The rave reviews the play garnered established the (still just twenty-one year-old) Welles as one of the greatest living talents in the world of drama. The Sun judged it to be the FTP’s “principal artistic achievement.” What allows us to insert “startling” before the phrase “artistic achievement” is that during the play’s run, Welles was also recording a radio show twice a week. He’d arrive at the radio studio at 8--in Faustus makeup--buzz through his show, jump, bank robber style , into a waiting car, dash to the theatre, act in the play he was directing, and then go back to the studio to broadcast a show for the West Coast. For his radio shows, it was “hand m

The Second Hurricane

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A brief aside during Welles’s stint working on Federal Theatre Project productions, The Second Hurricane was an operetta by Aaron Copland. The production ran for just three performances, the first on April 21, 1937. It ran at New York’s Henry Street Settlement, with some proceeds going to public schools, and included mainly child performers. One adult included was Welles’s longtime friend and colleague, Joseph Cotten.

The Cradle Will Rock

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A major theme in Welles’s life and career was strong male presences, men with whom he was deeply enamored. These included Dr. Maurice Bernstein (Dadda), Roger “Skipper” Hill, and John Houseman. In 1937, Welles would meet another object of near-worship, Marc Blitzstein. “When he came into the room, the lights got brighter,” Welles would later say of the Left-wing intellectual and leader of the radical Actors’ Repertory Company. Blitzstein had a labor opera named The Cradle Will Rock but not the funds to produce it. That is, until he got Welles involved. Blitzstein’s script depicted the unionization of the steel industry, a topic that was very timely. Set in Steeltown, USA, it pits the workers against the greedy Mr. Mister. The dicey political themes caused the government to order Welles not to go ahead with production. To ensure compliance, guards locked the gates of Maxine Elliot’s Theatre. The next move seemed to be to just go elsewhere. While some of the play’s pe

Mercury Theatre

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The Mercury Theatre was a theatre company Welles established with John Houseman in 1937, right after Welles finished his work with the Federal Theatre Project. It would later have an incarnation as Mercury Theatre On the Air, the radio series in which the infamous “ War of the Worlds” broadcast would air. Productions of the Mercury Theatre were: Julius Caesar  The Shoemaker’s Holiday  Heartbreak House  Danton’s Death  Five Kings Always ambitious and goal-oriented, Welles wanted first to clarify and publicize the Mercury Theatre’s aims. So on August 29, Welles published, on the front page of the New York Times Sunday drama section, the theatre’s “declaration of principles.” These were few in number, promising merely that Mercury would produce four or five classic plays that had some current political relevance. However, the quality of the play would always be a more important criteria than its political content. Mercury would offer tickets at two dollars and under.

The War of the Worlds

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A hoax that will be remembered for all time, Welles’ broadcast of an adaptation of H.G. Wells ’ “War of the Worlds” on Oct. 30, 1938, stands as a vivid reminder of the power of the media and of the general public’s vulnerability when it is gripped by fear. In Fall of 1938, Europe was at war. Hitler had just stormed into Czechoslovakia and had earlier taken the Sudetenland. He was a force the likes of which the world, including the American public had never seen. Welles was interested in exploring the evils of fascism, which he was doing with his current project for Mercury Theatre, Danton’s Death. Clearly, the idea of powers large enough to wreak an apocalypse was on his mind as Halloween approached and he was pressed to choose programming for his “Mercury Theatre on the Air” radio series. While re-tellings of the episode suggest that Welles merely read “The War of the Worlds” by the science fiction author, his colleagues in fact did adapt it into an original script. Howa

Five Kings

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The end of 1938 was a chaotic time for Welles. His radio career had been jump-started by the brouhaha surrounding “The War of the Worlds” and he was producing a radio series called Campbell Playhouse. He was no stranger to juggling projects, but and had done so with great success, but his luck in this regard would run out with Five Kings. Biographer Charles Highman writes that Houseman recalls that Welles was tossing back multiple bottles of booze per night and still finding time for sexual exploits. This time these things would prove toxic, leading to sloppy rehearsals featuring a late director with a nasty headache. In fact, they opened without having a proper dress rehearsal. The play was long and unwieldy, and Welles insisted on including two intermissions. This meant it didn’t wind down until 1:00 a.m., at which time the majority of the audience had headed home. The usually effusive press didn’t fail to notice the lack of preparedness at the Feb. 24, 1939 Broadway

Columbia Workshop

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This radio show for hardcore fans of the medium of radio plays a small role in the Orson Welles story. The Columbia Workshop was just that, a place for playwrights and others to lend their artistic touch to the then-new medium of radio. It prided itself on, and became known for, its high production values. It aired on the network that christened it, the Columbia Broadcasting Network, CBS. Welles made an appearance on the show, playing Hamlet in his own adaptation of the play. Irving Reis directed.

Les Miserables

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In 1937, amid his run with the Federal Theatre Project but before Mercury Theatre and Mercury Theatre on the Air, Welles wrote, produced, and directed a seven-episode version of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. It aired on The Mutual Network. The episodes were The Bishop 7/23/37 Javert 7/30/37 The Trial 8/6/37 Cosette 8/13/37 The Grave 8/20/37 The Barricade 8/27/37 Conclusion 9/3/37

Campbell Playhouse

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The radio program that began as Mercury Theatre on the Air became Campbell Playhouse when the soup company deciding to come on board as a sponsor after the show’s rising fame which came as a result of the “The War of the Worlds” controversy. The switch took place in November of 138, and under the new name, the series kept the tradition of the old version, airing classic and contemporary plays of high quality. Here’s the roster of broadcasts: 12-9-38: Rebecca 12-23-38: A Christmas Carol 1-6-39: Counselor-At-Law 1-13-39: Mutiny on the Bounty 1-27-39: I Lost My Girlish Laughter 2-3-39: Arrowsmith 2-10-39: The Green Goddess 3-10-39: The Glass Key 3-17-39: Beau Geste 3-31-39: Showboat 4-14-39: The Patriot 4-21-39: Private Lives 5-5-39: Wickford Point 5-12-39: Our Town 5-19-39: The Bad Man 5-26-39: Things We Have 6-2-39: Victor Regina 9-10-39: Peter Ibbetson 9-17-39: Ah, Wilderness 9-24-39: What Every Woman Knows 10-1-39: The Count of Monte Cristo 10-8-39: Alg

Hello, Americans

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This travel show took intrepid listeners into South America, from its mountains to its jungles. It aired in ‘42 and ‘43, each episode running half an hour. Episodes Carmen Miranda The Christ of the Andes Santa Domingo The Alphabet of the Islands (two parts) The Story of Adendgo, the Slave The Bad Will Ambassador Rhythms of the Americas Mexico Romantic Rhythms of the Americas Pan-Americanism

Ceiling Unlimited

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Orson Welles completed more projects before his thirtieth birthday that most of us ever will. And his endeavors were quite varied in scope. In addition to creating a series of travel documentaries on South America, Hello, Americans , Welles got in touch with the airplane manufacturer Lockheed and Vega and developed a series of radio vignettes to be sponsored by the company. The resulting series was Ceiling Unlimited , which focused primarily on the role of airplanes in the war effort. Welles hosted the series from Nov. of ‘42 ‘til Feb. of ‘43. After that, a long series of guest hosts took their turn: Ronald Colman , Marlene Dietrich , Cary Grant and more. In all, Welles hosted thirteen episodes. During rehearsal for one, an account exec from an advertising agency dropped in. Witnessing Welles dashing around in a near-fury, barking orders at everyone, the exec asked Welles’ business partner, Jackson Leighter, “how do you handle this man Welles?” Orson’s reply was “young

Orson Welles' Almanac

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Twenty-six episodes of this variety show aired during its life of Jan. 26 to Jul. 19, ‘44. Guests included Lucille Ball, Lionel Barrymore, King Cole Trio, and Groucho Marx, and Jimmy Durante. Right after the WWII D-Day Invasion of Normandy, Welles aired a special episode for D-day, in which a woman named Agnes Moorehead, the wife of a fighter pilot who was in France, read an open letter to her infant son.

This is My Best

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Seeming to have more hours in his day than a mere mortal, Welles racked up a dizzying array of projects. One of them was the CBS radio program “This Is My Best,” of which he hosted 6 episodes. The show’s run was from ‘44 to ‘46, and it was sponsored by the Cresta Blanca Winery. The show’s original format involved contemporary authors choosing various literary scripts to adapt into radio plays, a highbrow guest DJ concept. However, when Welles hosted, he made all the choices of material, which did not ingratiate him to his bosses, and which kept his stint on the program brief. One project he was adamant about was Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness , which he’d struggled to bang into shape for a film.

Tomorrow (1950's Civil Defense)

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Tomorrow was a stand-alone radio program produced by ABC in 1956, in which Welles played the role of narrator. The program is generally described as a propaganda piece for national defense, seemingly with the intent to convince viewers that it’s important to have a national defense program.

The Adventures of Harry Lime

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This British radio program went by the name “The Lives of Harry Lime” stateside. It starred Orson Welles as Harry Lime, his character in the 1949 film The Third Man. The radio iteration serves as a prequel, revealing Lime’s adventures on an earlier chronological plane. Each episode begins with a gunshot and Welles saying, in a sepulchral tone, “that was the shot that killed Harry Lime.” After a couple of sentences of exposition, this stock intro continues with Welles intoning, “Harry Lime had many lives. And I can recount all of them. How do I know? It’s simple. Because my name is Harry Lime.” Each story commences with Lime narrating in a near-mumble and in a slightly glib, world-weary tone. The British running dates of the series were Aug. 3, 1951-Jul. 25, 1952, with all 35 episodes airing later in syndication in the U.S. Hear all 52 episodes of HARRY LIME! The show was produced by Harry Alan Towers, with episodes directed by Towers, Welles, and Tig Roe. Bes

The Black Museum

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The Black Museum is another collaboration between Welles and producer Harry Alan Towers. The radio series treated audiences to crime thrillers based on actual Scotland yard cases. Its life spanned exactly the year 1952, with a few weeks off at the beginning of June. Welles played his usual role of host and narrator, and also steered the series in terms of its major direction and aesthetics. Though Welles and Towers drew inspiration from Scotland Yard ( the Black Museum was Scotland Yard’s crime museum), and while Towers produced another series The Secrets of Scotland Yard on that entity’s crime-fighting exploits, the aim with The Black Museum was not historical accuracy. Welles was out to provoke and to amaze with gruesome details. The format of the show was his host character strolling through the museum, whereupon, as radiohorrorhosts.com tells us, he would “casually pick up or point out various murder weapons and examine them, all the while droning on about the related

Cavalcade of America

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“Maker of Better things for Better living...through chemistry,” DuPont sponsored Cavalcade of America , a wholesome, family program airing from 1935-53 (a television version airing from ‘52-’57). It broadcast historical events, with tales of courage and strength. Representative titles include “Faith in Education,” “Defiance of Nature,” and “Woman’s Emancipation.” The Fall of 1942 found Orson Welles in a dismal state. His recent film “The Magnificent Ambersons” had gotten strafed by critics and had a lackluster performance at the box office. Other films “Journey Into Fear” and “It’s All True” were in various stages of disarray and being patched. He was in the midst of producing the Ceiling Unlimited series, but he had time for two guest appearance of Cavalcade. On Sept. 28, ‘42, he hosted an episode made up of “Thunder from the Mountain,” by Arthur Miller, the story of Benito Juarez, and on Oct. 12, “Admiral of the Ocean,” a corny celebration of the anniversary of Christ

Command Performance

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Command Performance was a radio program for the troops overseas. It aired from 1942-1949, broadcast via shortwave, not on commercial radio. It was a star-studded variety show, with a panoply of American showbiz icons performing at the request of servicemen. The various rosters were filled by Bob Hope , Ginger Rogers , Ella Fitzgerald, Gene Autry , Rita Hayworth , and many others. Welles’s turn came on Dec. 21, 1943. He had just married the gorgeous Rita Hayworth , and was also making forays into geopolitics by writing articles for the journal Free World and by speaking at the Third World Dinner in New York City in October. While he was suffering from both back problems and jaundice, he still found a way to make the guest appearance on  Command Performance . He co-starred with Fred Waring and Kate Smith . Sources Command Performance. Old Time Radio Catalog. Higham, Charles. Orson Welles: The Rise and Fall of An American Genius New York:   St. Martin’s Press. 198