Orson Welles: A Turbulent and Brilliant Life

Based, in part, on a Smithsonian Associates lecture by author/lecturer/film historian Max Alvarez.

Max Alvarez opens his lecture with a quote from Kafka’s The Trial : Someone must’ve maligned Joseph K. for without having done anything wrong, he was arrested. “Not only has Orson Welles been maligned, but slandered, vilified, libeled and betrayed…” he declares. An admitted uber- fan, the historian intends to correct disinformation and “intellectual violence” found in his research.

George Orson Welles (1915-1985) was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin. His father was a businessman, inventor and alcoholic. Mrs. Welles gave concerts of her own piano compositions and poetry. George’s older brother was institutionalized at an early age. The family moved to Chicago and Welles’ parents divorced. By 15, the boy was an orphan and, like John Foster Kane, was placed in the hands of a guardian. At libertarian Todd Seminary for Boys in Woodstock, Illinois, he concentrated on subjects that interested him including theater and film.

Welles in Ireland 1931 (Public Domain)

In 1931, at 16, Welles embarked of a walking and painting tour of Ireland. He strode into the Gate Theatre in Dublin announcing himself a Broadway star. Though management didn’t believe the boy, his audacity was admired, an audition showed talent. The teenager acted at the Gate for about a year, then got a role in a play at The Abbey. London was not as welcoming. Unable to secure a work permit, Welles returned to the states.

At a party in Chicago, he was introduced to Katharine Cornell then forming a rep company. Welles was cast in three plays and toured until age 19. The multi-hyphenate worked in radio, co-produced a drama festival and made an eight minute silent film called The Hearts of Age which owed much to German expressionism. Its star, socialite Virginia Nicolson would become his first wife and the mother of his first daughter. (He would leave her for Dolores del Rio.)

Cornell’s production of Romeo and Juliet made it to Broadway – Welles played Tybalt- which brought him to the attention of John Housman then casting Panic, a verse play by Archibald MacLeish. Performing a scene from the play, the young actor additionally made his debut on CBS Radio. In short shrift he became one of the most employed radio actors in the business.

Macbeth poster (Library of Congress; Public Domain)

He and Housman would work together for 7 years, at first under the aegis of the WPA where much ahead of their time, they staged an all African American Macbeth that took place in Haiti, with Jack Carter made to resemble Haile Selassie and vodou replacing witchcraft.  The successful play toured. Welles made sure it was only booked into integrated theaters.

Howard Da Silva and Olive Stanton performing The Cradle Will Rock – Stage Magazine (Public Domain)

Also a groundbreaker, Mark Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock was so incendiary in its viewpoint on corruption and corporate greed that it was shut down. (The powers that be said Federal funds were inadequate.) Welles announced to waiting ticket-holders that the show was being transferred. The audience collectively walked to a theater a mile away. Musicians  refused to perform in a commercial venue for lower than non-union government wages. Blitzstein played piano and much of the cast performed from the audience. In 1999 Tim Robbins directed a film about this event which garnered 65% on Rotten Tomatoes. (Prime Video)

Promotional photograph of the Mercury Theatre production of Julius Caesar -Joseph Holland, center- including Brutus -Orson Welles, left- (Public Domain)

The collaborators then established Mercury Theatre from which Welles would later draw many of the actors for his Hollywood films. He had the artistic vision, Houseman, the organizational skills. Once again ahead of his time, Welles mounted a version of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar set in 1930s fascist Europe.    The 24 year-old found himself the cover of Time Magazine. In 1938, Mercury produced Too Much Johnson based on a 1938 William Gillette play set in the 1890s. Within the live play was a silent comedy film starry Joseph Cotton in a Buster Keaton-like role. (YouTube) “He had full command of the medium before going to Hollywood,” Alvarez comments.

Orson Welles meeting with reporters after the War of he Worlds radio broadcast. 1938 (Public Domain)

That year, Welles broadcast his infamous War of the Worlds radio play. “We tend to believe that millions of Americans took it at face value and panicked, but chaos didn’t occur at that level…The Welles show was up against Edgar Bergen’s Chase and Sanborn Hour where most people were tuned.” Welles told journalists he had no idea people would take it seriously. One wonders. Publicity was vast.

Orson Welles in the America’s Most Interesting People section of The American Magazine 1938 (Public Domain)

Broadway’s youngest impresario, 22-year-old Orson Welles, has made a sure-fire hit out of Shakespeare. So successful was his production of Julius Caesar this past season that he’s now buried in timetables, planning a coast-to-coast tour for the summer with five more Shakespearean plays. Simplicity and gusto—that’s his slogan for a hit show, and it works. In November he produced and directed Caesar and played the leading role. By the middle of March it had broken all Broadway performance records for that play, and was still going strong. from America’s Most Interesting People

Hollywood came calling with an unprecedented two film contract entitling him to creative and artistic control.  Various projects were bandied about until the concept of Citizen Kane – a ruthless newspaper boss fraternizing with fascist dictators.  “There’s an oft told lie that Joseph Mankiewicz was the true author of Citizen Kane, not Welles, which dates back to a very damaging essay from a 1971 New Yorker. (Raising Kane by Pauline Kael) “Mankiewicz and John Housman worked on one screenplay and Welles another.  Welles then combined the two making editorial changes/ adjustments.

Citizen Kane 1941 Joseph Cotton, Orson Welles, Erskine Sanford (Public Domain)

“The recent Netflix movie, Mank, which cost more than all of the icon’s films combined, is a Welles bashing account regurgitating all the myths. Mankiewicz is played as a brave, political, Hollywood rebel which he wasn’t, Welles as a credit-stealing sociopath which he wasn’t.”  One can hear and see Alvarez’s bile. In fact, Mankiewicz signed over all screenwriting credit, yet Welles put his friend’s name above the title. Innovations on Kane include the director’s wide-angle and extremely long shots, his deep focus, and overlapping dialogue- anathema in Hollywood at the time. It was The artist’s first screen appearance.

Needless to say William Randolph Hurst (on whom it was loosely based) tried to stop the film. MGM boss Louis B. Mayer offered to buy and destroy the negative. Though he couldn’t stop production, Hurst did manage to curb distribution. Even Radio City Music Hall turned it down. The film flopped. (Amazon Prime, HBO Max)

The Magnificent Ambersons 1942 (Public Domain)

Welles’ second effort, The Magnificent Ambersons suffered when studio executives revised his contract removing final edit. Based on the Booth Tarkington novel of a Midwest family resisting social change and a star-crossed romance, it’s hauntingly narrated by Welles who doesn’t act in it.  “The film was previewed to a group of mostly clueless teenagers who didn’t get it.   Scenes were cut or reshot, including a flat new ending giving us a whittled down version. Even though it’s a shadow of its former self, it shows genius.”   I’ve always found it an enchanting, snow globe like piece. (Amazon Prime)   

While his work was being reconstructed, the director was in Brazil at the behest of Nelson Rockefeller. His assignment was to make short propaganda films encouraging our good neighbor policy with Latin America.  Welles was told it was his patriotic duty to go, but there was another reason. If the filmmaker had stayed in Hollywood, it’s likely he would’ve been drafted. Instead of creating a rosey look at the country, however, he featured poor, Black locals living in poverty. “You can imagine how that went over in political and Hollywood circles.”

Movie Mystery Magazine 1946 (Public Domain)

Fired by RKO, he turned to freelancing. In 1943, Welles met and married Rita Hayworth with whom he’d share 4 years and a second daughter. She was, he said on the Merv Griffin show, “one of the dearest and sweetest women that ever lived .”During this time he had a single breakout box office hit in The Stranger. Loretta Young plays a Midwest woman unaware that her professor husband is a Nazi in exile until government man Edward G. Robinson unmasks him. It was the first film to include actual footage of a Concentration Camp. “We learn from our casualty list the price of looking away. For Germans, the Messiah is not the Prince of Peace but another Barberosa, another Hitler,” the character says. Chilling. (Prime Video)

Movie poster 1947 (Public Domain)

After their divorce but on good terms, Welles made The Lady From Shanghai with Hayworth. This noir film contains an iconic house of mirrors scene in which guns shatter images in search of victims. “With these mirrors, it’s difficult to tell if you’re aiming at me. I’m aiming at you, lover,” warns Rosalie Bannister’s husband Arthur Bannister -Everett Sloane.(Amazon Prime) The last film he’d direct for 10 years was a low budget version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth shot in 23 days on recycled sets. The studio insisted Scottish accents were difficult. Welles acquiesced and two versions exist.

Promotional photograph of Orson Welles and Suzanne Cloutier in Othello 1951 (Public Domain)

Two months after initial HUAC meetings, Welles left the country to take up residence in Europe. The FBI had been monitoring him for 8 years and though not a party member, he’d certainly have been blacklisted. Overseas the problem was production financing. Othello was filmed over 9 months starting autumn 48, but took 2 ½ years to edit. It won top prize at Cannes in 1952.

By the mid 1950s, he worked his way back to Hollywood with movie and television appearances, then directed one more film, Touch of Evil which resulted in another editing defeat. The plot centers on a corrupt detective on the US side of the Mexican border who hates Mexicans enough to plant false evidence after a car bombing. Charlton Heston plays a local narcotics agent who confronts him. (Prime Video) Welles married actress Paola Mori, an Italian aristocrat who bore him a third daughter. They never divorced.

Touch of Evil From left Orson Welles, Victor Millan, Joseph Calleia, Charlton Heston (Public Domain)

Abroad again, 1962’s The Trial cast Tony Perkins as Kafka’s Joseph K. Welles interpretation made the protagonist more assertive than in the novel and more convincing. Production design is surrealist and unnerving.  (Prime Video) Four years later, he made Chimes at Midnight drawing material from six Shakespeare plays to tell the story of  Sir John Falstaff (Welles) and his relationship with Prince Hal (Keith Baxter) The battle of Shrewsbury was shot in 10 days with only 100 extras. You’d never know it from results. (Criterion Channel or for a fee on other services)

Welles as Falstaff 1967 (Public Domain); Falstaff Poster (Public Domain)

Welles acted in A Man for All Seasons and Catch 22. “His own projects were either not finished or derailed after completion. A fabled production of  Don Quixote backed by Frank Sinatra, The Deep with Jean Moreau and Laurence Harvey (made by Phillip Noyce as Dead Calm in 1989) and The Merchant of Venice with Welles as Shylock all fell by the wayside. The Other Side of the Wind, his story of an aging, larger than life director played by John Huston,filmed in LA intermittently 1970- 1976. With the concerted effort of cinephiles it became available to the public in 2018. I find it a jumble.

Film Poster (Public Domain)

The artist had left his third wife (and another daughter) for Oda Kodar whom he met filming The Trial. A stunning Croatian model/actress, she became his collaborator and lover until he passed.  Kodar features prominently in the provocative and entertaining 1973 film F is for Fake which is about trickery, lies, and forgery. (Prime Video) Welles was in demand on television talk shows and as a narrator of documentaries.

Max Alvarez has delivered a rich, detailed narrative of Orson Welles’ working life filled with both elusive facts and anecdotal interest.All unattributed quotes are the lecturer’s.

Opening : Citizen Kane lobby Card (Public Domain)

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About Alix Cohen (1395 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of ten New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, TheaterLife, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.