Saturday, August 26, 2006

The Kenosha Kid Does America

Ten years have passed since the publication of Simon Callow’s “Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu”, the first volume of what was supposed to be a two-part biography of the great actor-director. The first book, which contained a more thorough analysis of Welles’ 1930s theatre work than any previous biography, ended on a moment of triumph: the 1941 premiere of Citizen Kane. Anyone familiar with Welles’ career will know that the rest of the story - not to discredit the many excellent films that followed Kane – is largely a journey downhill.
It’s also too big to adequately fit in a single volume, so Callow has made the wise decision to turn his two-volume work into a trilogy, the second part of which - the just published "Hello Americans" - follows Welles through much of the 40s, ending with the 1947 departure for what essentially became a period of exile in Europe for most of the rest of his life. It was not a good time for Welles and the failures and false starts far outnumber the successes. His second film, The Magnificent Ambersons, confused preview audiences and was butchered by RKO as Welles’ primary sponsor, George Schaefer, lost control of the studio. Welles himself was unable (or unwilling, some would say) to defend the film because he was occupied elsewhere, having relocated to Rio for an ambitious but under-planned promotion of the Good Neighbor Policy called It’s All True. It was never completed (A partial restoration was assembled and released in 1993) and created the legend of Welles as a spendthrift and dilettante, starting projects that he could never complete.
His career as a director, much less as the Boy Wonder and Master of All Media, was not entirely over, but the films he made during the time covered in this book - The Stranger, The Lady From Shanghai and Macbeth - were the result of hurry and compromise, the result of the diligent work of his agent. (The one near-masterpiece in the batch, Lady from Shanghai, came about because Welles, desperate to finance his ambitious and circus-like stage production of “Around the World in 80 Days”, bartered the services of his soon-to-be-ex-wife Rita Hayworth).
While Callow takes a few shots at those who would defend all of Welles’ work, he doesn’t quite take the position of those critics who accuse the director of being constitutionally incapable of finishing a project. Instead, he points out that the director’s mind was often elsewhere during this period. Yes, that elsewhere often involved chorus girls and night clubs, but this was also a period in which Welles served as a radio commentator, wrote a newspaper column, gave speeches and contemplated a political career. He was, as Callow shows, committed to the cause of a co-operative world government, with close contacts in the Roosevelt administration.
So what went wrong? The story recounted in Hello Americans is largely and sad and frustrating one, and those familiar with Welles’ life know that it will only get worse in Volume Three. Callow shows how Welles’ was often his own worst enemy, not just because he overextended himself or refused to commit himself to ambitious schemes when they got in trouble (though he did those things) but also because he had to live up to his own reputation, a public image that raised as much suspicion among an increasingly reactionary and anti-intellectual America as it did praise. From preview cards at the test screenings of Ambersons (where one viewer complained that the film was “even worse than Citizen Kane”) to hate mail generated by his broadcasts against racism, Callow provides many examples of how the very public figure of Welles was already on his way to becoming a bigger-than-life caricature. Volume Three should have a field day with that issue.
But we should also remember that, brilliance and ambition aside, Welles was still barely an adult in the period covered in this book, only 25 years old when Kane opened, when America entered World War Two and when Nelson Rockefeller asked him to visit Rio as a representative of his country. Callow’s story is of a young man who has been handed a pretty heady gift, makes the most of it and remains, nonetheless, a fairly young and inexperienced man. Welles’ achievements sometimes make us lose sight of that. His story is an extraordinary one, and Callow’s detailed account, more than any previous biography, shows how the talent young man grew with and was shaped by his times.

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