A Tribute to Orson Welles
It is perhaps the most supreme irony in the movie business that the man who directed and starred in what is generally acknowledged as the greatest, or at least the most influential film of all time, never made a movie, including his masterpiece, that was commercially successful when first released.
Orson Welles’ life story is littered with unrealized dreams and incomplete projects (see The Unseen Orson Welles, in Part II of this article). Whether it was a disagreement with the studio or a dearth of financing or just a lack of time and/or energy, he left more things unfinished than finished — including his career itself. He began as the “boy genius,” who would put together the best drama troupe in the history of radio, scare the hell out of much of America with a single radio broadcast, and go on to achieve his greatest artistic success with his first film — then end his life as one of the most celebrated has-beens in Hollywood history, doing magic tricks on talk shows and appearing in TV commercials.
However, we choose to look back on the successes of his life in this four-part tribute. After all, most people have never even made one movie, let alone several really good ones, and sometimes high expectations can be the kiss of death.
Born in Kenosha, Wisconsin in 1915, Welles endured the death of his mother when he was 8, and his father when he was 12. But he was a precocious youth, and dabbled in painting, music, magic, and even bullfighting. He also did some acting, writing, and directing while a teenager. And when no less a pair of personages than Thornton Wilder and Alexander Woollcott helped him join the theatre company of Katherine Cornell, his path was set. The Mercury Theatre on the Air soon followed, with its celebrated War of the Worlds broadcast, after which Orson Welles, at the age of 25, was given unprecedented artistic freedom and produced Citizen Kane. The studio didn’t quite know what to do with it, although William Randolph Hearst did, reportedly offering a fortune for the negative so he could have it destroyed. Luckily, he was unsuccessful, and the film gathered nine Academy Award nominations, with a win for Best Screenplay.
Welles next tackled The Magnificent Ambersons, but following unsuccessful test screenings, the studio (RKO, under new management) decided to shoot new footage and re-edit it without Welles’ participation. (He was in South America at the time.) The resulting controversy tainted Welles’ reputation from that point on, and seemed to set the pattern for his later dealings with studios. Though he appeared in a couple of films, most notably Journey Into Fear (1942), Jane Eyre (1944), and Tomorrow Is Forever (1946), he didn’t officially direct again until 1946, when he made The Stranger, with himself, Loretta Young and Edward G. Robinson. This was followed by The Lady From Shanghai (1948) at Columbia, starring his then-wife Rita Hayworth. Once again there were problems with management, specifically Harry Cohn, and that was his last picture for that studio.
After making Macbeth at Republic, Welles took off for Europe, where he appeared in The Third Man (1949), considered one of his best acting roles. There were several interesting directorial efforts — Touch of Evil (1958) and The Trial (1963) being two of the critics’ favorites — and even more uncompleted projects. But from the 1950s on, his career as an actor was perhaps more successful than his career as a director, cases in point being The Long Hot Summer (1958), Compulsion (1959), Crack in the Mirror (1960), A Man for All Seasons (1966), Is Paris Burning?(1966), and Oedipus the King (1968) He continued to work in the theater, and wrote some unsuccessful TV pilots. He also put his unique and powerful voice to work as a narrator for films and television shows.
Finally, he appeared in several TV commercials — promising to “sell no wine before its time” in the most well-remembered of them, and continued to perform his magic tricks in assorted venues. These latter items, plus his rather extreme weight gain during the latter part of his life, no doubt contributed to his image as a washed-up former celebrity. However, for his fans, nothing can possibly tarnish his early accomplishments as a director and actor, and we salute him with this tribute.
Part I: Introduction
Part III: Movie Reviews & Where to Find His Movies
Part IV: Photos, Art, and Posters