Wednesday, May 6, 2015

This Day in Film History (Birth of Orson Welles, Genius-Manchild)

May 6, 1915—George Orson Welles, who dropped his first name and thus stood out even more than his sizable talent and ego would have warranted alone, was born in Kenosha, Wisc. Appropriately enough, his first name would come up again in the headstrong young protagonist of the pivotal film of his career, the one that demonstrated his creator’s enormous skill and his crippling inability to work with others in bringing his cinematic visions to fruition: the 1942 period drama The Magnificent Ambersons.

Welles was like a little kid, so fascinated by a brand-new toy that he was easily distracted by the one he already possessed. In 1942, he had been so excited about the prospect of directing a documentary at the behest of the State Department, It's All True, that he assigned work he considered beneath him--editing and dealing with studio bosses--to his assistant, Robert Wise. He was not around, then, when Ambersons was reduced to 88 minutes, a shell of its former length.

Interest in the centennial of the creator of Ambersons and Citizen Kane, the perennial winner of those Greatest Film of All Time lists, has been intensifying for awhile now, not just because of his achievements but also because of the grand projects he left unfinished at the time of his death 30 years ago. 

The saga of The Other Side of the Wind is typical in this regard. It appeared, for the longest time this year, that Welles’ film about a director struggling to make a movie would at last be finished in time for this centennial year. But, earlier this month at the University of Indiana, film historian Joseph McBride elicited from a fellow panelist the news that potential distributors of this film want to see a negative before committing themselves any further, posing the risk of further delays.

Longtime readers of this blog know that my interest in Welles, a multifaceted but troublesome genius, runs deep. One way of thinking about how strong that interest is might be by this fact: I know that I saw an entertaining, somewhat fictionalized account of the young Welles’ Mercury Theatre production of Julius Caesar—a movie called Me and Orson Welles, directed by Richard Linklater and starring Zac Efron, Claire Danes, and Christian McKay as a charismatic but willful Welles—but I can’t recall a single other film I saw on the big screen that year (2008).

I have given full vent to my fascination with Welles in seven prior posts. If read in the following order below, as the events occurred chronologically, they will demonstrate how Welles developed his projects, how he unintentionally sabotaged them through his ego and wandering attention span—and how nevertheless, against all odds, he still managed to complete as much as he did:

* Welles’ First Break (1934)—a supporting role in Katherine Cornell’s Romeo and Juliet.

*The Second Hurricane (1937)—how Welles directed high-school students, only slightly younger than himself, in an Aaron Copland opera created just for them.

*The War of the Worlds (1938)—the radio show that scared America out of its wits.

*Citizen Kane (1941)—Welles’ original title, “American,” perfectly fit his masterpiece of the corruption--and loneliness bred by--power.

*The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)—how Welles’ eagerly awaited follow-up to Citizen Kane Changed the Course of His Career.

*RKO Ends Contract With Welles (1944)—two years after the wreck of Ambersons, the studio cut Welles--and a contract guaranteeing unprecedented creative freedom for a director--adrift.

*Othello (1952)—in an act of guerrilla film financing, Welles took his daring Shakespearean adaptation on the road.

After all I have written about Welles, I am still eager to write even more about this magnificent but maddening moviemaker: how he experimented with radio before and after War of the Worlds; why the FBI was so interested in him; how he improvised his famous clock speech in The Third Man; how one film project of his after another from the Fifties through the Seventies never fulfilled the promise of Kane; how he died old and embittered…and that’s just the start. I can't wait.

Come to think of it, he never could, either...

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