In the summer of 1941, with praise for Citizen Kane still booming in his ears, Orson Welles began adapting and directing a Booth Tarkington novel about the collapse of old-fashioned gentility, a favorite subject for this Midwesterner with a lifelong devotion to mythic pasts. During production, Welles found aching poignancy in the story, drawing extraordinarily fine acting from his cast and wedding it to the technical virtuosity of Kane. Count me among the believers: The Magnificent Ambersons is the greatest film almost made.
Almost—but ultimately not. Before he’d completed a print, Welles jetted off to Brazil. He went to shoot a wartime propaganda film, but, as Simon Callow makes clear in Hello Americans, his new book about Welles, the 26-year-old was hardly overwhelmed with patriotic devotion to craft. In the crush of Carnival, nobody could control Orson, hopped up on booze and speed. “I fucked her,” he said while screening footage of some chorus girls, “and her, and her … ” When Ambersons met uncomprehending audience reactions—“Make pictures to make us forget, not remember” was typical—RKO started chopping up the film in his absence. “They wrecked Ambersons,” Welles would say later, “and the picture wrecked me.”
That wreckage, where the greatest career in American drama ought to be, has been a popular destination for admirers and detractors ever since. So far none has been more expansive than Callow. Hello Americans, the second part of his planned three-volume biography of Welles, devotes 450 pages to just seven years of Welles’s life, offering the most detailed look yet at the descent from Kane in 1941 to self-imposed European exile in 1947. You have to admire this diligence from Callow, who’s also keeping up a healthy acting career. You also have to wish that the results cohered better than they do.
If the book disappoints, it’s partly because Callow’s first volume, The Road to Xanadu, was sinfully pleasurable. Assuming the stance of matador to bull, he conceded his quarry’s power while taking—and relishing— the occasional jab. “This is shameful nonsense,” he chided Welles when the boy wonder claimed that the Mercury Theatre dissolved in part for lack of quality actors. (John Houseman, Welles’s enabler and partner, admitted that they lost interest once they grew famous.)
For the follow-up, Callow writes, the task is “not to dispel myths, but to reconstruct a part of his life.” The relationship suits neither biographer nor subject, who begin to resemble Ahab and the whale. Abundant detail certainly helps to appreciate the lunacy of Welles’s Brazil trip, which sounds like Hunter S. Thompson–meets–Heart of Darkness. But the same lavish attention hardly needs to be paid to a three-page costume memo for Macbeth, or to the political efforts that occupied Welles in mid-decade. Orson being Orson, he kicked off a lecture tour, a newspaper column, and dozens of radio broadcasts about world affairs. He did some work to be proud of, particularly for civil rights, but over plenty else hangs a faint whiff of the ridiculous.
Yet Callow uncocks his eyebrow when he needs it most. In these years, he writes, Welles was “increasingly preoccupied with … what it was to be an American.” Really? His radical sympathies were certainly genuine, but his political work seems preoccupied mainly with himself (he told an interviewer later he thought he’d be president). Nor does his creative focus seem more engaged with the world than, say, his fascist Julius Caesar of 1937—just bigger. Welles returned to Broadway with an adaptation of Around the World in 80 Days, a “musical extravaganza” that toppled under its own weight. He filmed The Stranger, which was messed up by the studio but probably wasn’t a great loss, and The Lady From Shanghai, which was also messed up, and probably was. When he skipped the country during Macbeth, he alienated Bernard Herrmann, the composer of Kane and Ambersons, maybe the most important collaborator he ever had.
For Callow, Welles’s constant search for new forms wasn’t self-destructive: It was a way of fulfilling his genius, a “tale of heroism” that will occupy volume three. That strikes even a devotee like me as a little romantic. Later in life, Welles made a revealing comment to Merv Griffin (as quoted in David Thomson’s Rosebud): “I have to say that I have doubted, since the first movie I made, that I could do anything except show that I can still do it. Now who wants to show that you can still do it?”
Having made one great film, Welles couldn’t merely make another: Instead he would make a great film while also doing his patriotic duty 6,000 miles away. One shoot-the-moon gesture followed another. He would film War and Peace. He would record the Bible. He wooed Rita Hayworth—then he divorced her.
This refusal to accept limits helped make him a creative pioneer. It also kept him from becoming a mature artist, one who could sustain himself at the height of his powers. A journalist in Rio was more precise than he knew when he called the lumbering, carousing Welles “the Giant Boy.” For all his bursts of genius, an exasperating part of Orson never seems to have outgrown his days at the endlessly nurturing Todd School, or wanted to. There, for what it’s worth, a graduation ritual involved seniors passing along to juniors an emblem of the school—a sled. Next: Where to Find Welles’s Hard-to-Find Works
For years, some of Welles’s best work has been the hardest to find—even Ambersons, which still isn’t a proper DVD. But lately technology has made his other triumphs for stage, radio, and film accessible.
Macbeth (1937) A golden artifact: Before Welles’s Hollywood fame, a newsreel camera captured the last few minutes of his all-black Macbeth in Harlem, apparently the only surviving footage of this pioneering work. Even now, the bold use of sound, huge cast, and voodoo transpositions are exciting. (On YouTube.com; search for “Voodoo Macbeth.”)
Les Misérables (1937) Broadcast the year before The War of the Worlds, this seven-part adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel may be his supreme work for radio. Taut pace, inventive sound, and—a great surprise—two exquisite, restrained performances by Welles, as Jean Valjean and the narrator. (Google reveals many CDs and downloads.)
F for Fake (1974) Cinematic essay—not quite a documentary—about the world’s greatest art forger, Elmyr de Hory, and his biographer, Clifford Irving, who had previously duped McGraw-Hill and Life magazine with a faux autobiography of Howard Hughes. It’s not easy to separate truth from illusion here, which is just how Welles—director, magician, and cape-wearing star—wanted it. (On DVD in the Criterion Collection; $39.95 at Amazon.com.)
As Simon Callow put it to a British reporter, “Orson and I have two very big things in common—asthma and flat feet. That’s where it ends.” Yet there’s something about Callow’s omnivorous career that calls to mind Welles’s. Callow, an actor (Gareth in Four Weddings and a Funeral), then a director, then a memoirist, subsequently turned to theater and film biography. And like Welles, he can be a touch obsessive about his subject matter: He’s written extensively about Charles Dickens, played the writer four times on TV, and made his Broadway acting debut in The Mystery of Charles Dickens, a solo show starring Callow as the narrator, Dickens, and 49 of his characters.
Orson Welles (Volume 2):
By Simon Callow. Viking. 528 Pages.