Genius. Maverick. Charlatan. Egomaniac. Orson Welles was called all of these things during his career (in fact, it was Mr. Welles himself who referred to himself as a "charlatan"). To a large degree the truth about Orson Welles probably depended upon whom one asked, but one thing is certain--he was an enormous talent who would have a lasting impact on Anglophonic pop culture. Indeed, who else but Orson Welles could have directed a film largely considered the greatest of all (Citizen Kane) as well as creating possibly the most famous radio play of all time (the famous Mercury Theatre of the Air adaptation of War of the Worlds titled "The Invasion from Mars"). Orson Welles was born 100 years ago today, on May 6 1915 in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Although today many, perhaps most people associate Orson Welles with film, he began his career in theatre. He made his stage debut on October 13 1931 at the Gate Theatre in Dublin, Ireland in a production of Jew Suss. He was part of a repertory theatre company founded by Katharine Cornell in New York City for a time. While his theatrical career was under way Mr. Welles also found work in radio. He first worked in radio in 1935 on The American School of the Air. In 1935 he worked on such radio shows as America's Hour, Cavalcade of America, Columbia Workshop, and The March of Time. Many of the radio actors with whom Orson Welles worked during this period would become part of his famous Mercury Theatre.
When the Federal Theatre Project was established in 1935, Orson Welles was one of those who took advantage of the programme. The Federal Theatre Project was a New Deal programme that was meant to provide employment for those working in the theatre by funding live performances during the Great Depression. As part of the Federal Theatre Project Orson Welles and John Houseman eventually ran two theatres in New York City. It was not unusual for Mr. Welles to use his own money from his jobs in radio to help finance productions. As part of the Federal Theatre Project Orson Welles swiftly established a name for himself. He directed a version of Macbeth that moved the action from Scotland to an unnamed Caribbean island. Nicknamed Voodoo Macbeth, the production proved to be a sensation. Among Mr. Welles' other productions while with the Federal Theatre Project were Horse Eats Hat (an adaptation of Eugène Labiche's play Un Chapeau de Paille d'Italie), Faustus, and The Cradle Will Rock.
Orson Welles left the Federal Theatre Project in 1937 to found one of his greatest claims to fame with John Houseman, the Mercury Theatre. The Mercury Theatre was not simply a repertory theatre company. During its existence the Mercury Theatre would also publish a book, The Mercury Shakespeare, along with accompanying records with abridgements of three of Shakespeare's plays. The Mercury Theatre's first production was an adaptation of The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, simply titled Caesar, that alluded to both Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Over the next few years the Mercury Theatre would stage such productions as George Bernard Shaw's Heartbreak House, William Gillette's Too Much Johnson (for which a two-part filmed sequence was made--some of Mr. Welles's earliest work in film), and Georg Büchner's play Danton's Death.
Unfortunately, a lack of funding and the company's move to Hollywood following Orson Welles's signing with RKO would result in the dissolution of the troupe in 1941 or 1942. The Mercury Theatre would have one last hurrah in 1943 in the form of The Mercury Wonder Show, magic-and-variety stage show staged for the troops serving in World War II overseas. Produced by Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten, The Mercury Wonder Show utilised veterans of the Mercury Theatre, including not only Messrs. Welles and Cotten, but Agnes Moorehead as well. Ultimately many of the Mercury Theatre's players would go onto fame in film and later television: Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorehead, Ray Collins, William Alland, and Everett Sloane among them.
Of course, the Mercury Theatre would gain lasting fame from the radio show spun off from it, The Mercury Theatre on the Air. In 1938 CBS approached Orson Welles and John Houseman about creating a summer replacement series for them. CBS gave Messrs. Welles and Houseman complete creative control over the show. The two of them decided that rather than adapting dramatic works for radio, they would instead adapt literary works. The series debut on July 11 1938 under the title First Person Singular with an adaptation of Dracula. It was with its second production, an adaptation of Treasure Island, that the show became known as The Mercury Theatre on the Air. Given the show used the talents of the Mercury Theatre repertory company, the new name was only fitting.
During its run The Mercury Theatre on the Air adapted such literary works as Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, John Buchan's The Thirty Nine Steps, Alexandre Dumas's The Count of Monte Cristo, and Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, but their most famous (or perhaps "notorious" would be the better word) episode would be an adaptation of H. G. Wells's War of the Worlds. Officially titled "The Invasion from Mars", the radio play not only updated the novel, but moved the action to the United States. What set it even further apart from a straight adaptation of the novel was the fact it was done in the form of a fictional newscast (a technique previously used by Monsignor Ronald Knox in 1926 for a drama on BBC Radio). Unfortunately despite the facts that the programme was announced in radio listings in newspapers well ahead of its broadcast, that disclaimers were aired during the programme, and even that in the broadcast itself the year was given as 1939 (it was 1938, after all), there were those who were convinced that Earth was being invaded by Mars.
Reports of the panic caused by The Mercury Theatre on the Air's "Invasion from Mars" were somewhat exaggerated at the time and have been ever since. That the radio play did cause some panic there can be no doubt. The switchboards at CBS were jammed with calls from people worried about the Martian invasion. The New York Times itself would receive 832 calls. A month after the broadcast there had been an estimated 12,500 newspaper stories on the broadcast according to Professor Ronald Hand in the book Terror on the Air!: Horror Radio in America, 1931-1952 (including The New York Times, who featured it as the top story on their front page). Immediately following the end of the broadcast of "The Invasion from Mars," police arrived at the CBS studio in New York. They took both John Houseman and Orson Welles to one of the CBS offices for questioning. Neither man was ever arrested. After the police released Houseman and Welles, they faced a rather hostile crowd of reporters. They would eventually have to sneak out of the building through the back door to make it to a rehearsal oftheir stage production of Danton's Death. The next morning CBS held a press conference where Orson Welles read what was a combination disclaimer and apology. The press conference was filmed for newsreels across the country.
The Mercury Theatre on the Air's radio adaptation of War of the Worlds certainly drew attention to the show. Originally a sustaining programme (a programmed aired without the benefit of a sponsor), the attention brought to Mercury Theatre on the Air a sponsor in the form of Campbell's Soup. Unfortunately in some ways this spelled the end for The Mercury Theatre on the Air. It became The Campbell Playhouse on December 4 1938. With the addition of a sponsor Orson Welles and John Houseman increasingly found themselves at odds. Mr. Houseman left the Mercury Theatre in December 1939. After Campbell Soup began assuming more and more control over the show, Orson Welles left The Campbell Playhouse following its March 31 1940 episode. While The Campbell Playhouse would continue for a time without Mr. Welles, it could no longer really be considered a continuation of The Mercury Theatre on the Air. Orson Welles would be in charge of a summer replacement series in 1946, The Mercury Summer Theatre on the Air. Some of the old Mercury Theatre players, including William Alland and Agnes Moorehead appeared on the show.
Of course, here it must be noted that not long before the debut of The Mercury Theatre on the Air, Orson Welles was the voice of Lamont Cranston on The Shadow. The Mutual radio network hired him to play the role in September 1937. He continued to provide the voice of The Shadow until September 1938. Over the years he starred in his own radio show (The Orson Welles Show from 1941-1942), The Orson Welles Almanac (1944), and The Black Museum (1952), as well as guest starring on everything from The Jack Benny Programme to Suspense.
Orson Welles's work with the Mercury Theatre (both on stage and on the radio) would lead to his contract with RKO. It was on August 21 1939 that Mr. Welles signed a contract with RKO to make two motion pictures that gave him nearly complete creative control. It was because of his contract with RKO that the Mercury Theatre repertory company moved to Los Angeles. Mr. Welles toyed with various ideas for his first film, including an adaptation of Joesph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. RKO rejected Mr. Welles's first two film proposals before accepting a third one, what would become Citizen Kane (1941).
Citizen Kane would utilise many of the Mercury Theatre's players. Aside from Orson Welles in the lead role, Joseph Cotten, William Alland, Ray Collins, Agnes Moorehead, Erskine Sanford, Everett Sloane, and Paul Stewart all appeared in the film. For many of them it would mark their film debuts. Citizen Kane would prove in many respects a difficult film to make. Many of the executives on RKO's board of governors did not like Mr. Welles and resented the amount of creative control he had been given. Fortunately Orson Welles had some very powerful allies on RKO's board of governors, including RKO studio head George J. Schaefer, millionaire Nelson Rockefeller, and NBC chairman David Sarnoff.
Things would not become any easier for Orson Welles once Citizen Kane was completed. Citizen Kane drew upon major business tycoons Samuel Insull and Harold McCormick for much of its inspiration, but it also drew largely upon publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst as well. Worse yet, Mr. Hearst assumed that the character of Susan Alexander Kane was based on his mistress Marion Davies; in truth she was based on Harold F. McCormick's second wife, Ganna Walsk. Regardless, the film angered Mr. Hearst, who declared all out war on Citizen Kane and Orson Welles. Every newspaper and radio station he owned was banned from mentioning the film. He pressured several movie theatres not to show the film. Sadly, Citizen Kane would lose $160,000 during its initial run.
Whether Citizen Kane lost money due to Mr. Hearst's campaign against the film or because it was in many ways different from so many films before is perhaps unimportant. Citizen Kane did receive some good reviews upon its initial release, from Anthony Bower of The Nation, New York Daily News critic Kate Cameron, Bosley Crowther of The New York Times, John O'Hara of Newsweek, and Time magazine, among others. Citizen Kane would be rediscovered in the United States in the Fifties following its release to television. Its reputation would grow until many considered it the greatest film of all time. It would top Sight and Sound's poll of the greatest films of all time from 1962 to 2012, when it was overtaken by Veritgo.
Despite the fact that Citizen Kane would come to be regarded as one of the greatest films of all time, Orson Welles' film career would not always run smoothly. Mr. Welles lost of control of editing his second film, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) to RKO, and the film ultimately bombed at the box office. Despite this it is still counted among the greatest films of all time. His third film The Stranger (1946), would actually prove to be a success at the box office, grossing $3.216 million. Sadly, Mr. Welles's other films would not prove to be box office smashes, although many are critically acclaimed today: The Lady from Shanghai (1947), Macbeth (1948--performed with authentic Scottish brogues), Touch of Evil (1958), The Trial (1962), and The Chimes at Midnight (1965--based on Shakespeare's recurring character Sir John Falstaff).
Of course, Orson Welles was an actor as well as a director, and his best known role besides Charles Foster Kane may well have been in a film he did not direct. Quite simply, Orson Welles played the mysterious Harry Lime in Carol Reed's film The Third Man (1949). As hard as it is to believe today, David O. Selznick (who financed the film with Alexander Korda) wanted Noël Coward for the role of Harry Lime. Fortunately, director Carol Reed wanted Orson Welles for the role. David O. Selznick did not like the idea of Mr. Welles in the role as he considered the actor/director to be box office poison, and Alexander Korda wasn't particularly thrilled about the idea either. Fortunately, Carol Reed was able to get Orson Welles cast in the role in the end.
Despite Messrs. Selznick and Korda's misgivings, not only did The Third Man proved to be a hit at the box office, but Harry Lime proved to be the most popular character in the film. So popular was the character that Orson Welles would reprise the role of Harry Lime in the radio show The Adventures of Harry Lime. The radio show chronicled Lime's adventures before the events of The Third Man, and ran from 1951 to 1952. There would even be a TV show centred on the adventures of Harry Lime, although Michael Rennie played the role on the programme. The Third Man debuted in 1959 and ran for five series. It was a joint production of the BBC, National Telefilm Associates, and Prestige Productions.
Later in his career Orson Welles would become well known
for his commercials for the Paul Masson Vineyards in which he intoned
"We will sell no wine before its time." He worked on and off on an
unfinished film, The Other Side of the Wind. He played Long John Silver in a 1972 film adaptation of Treasure Island, Sheridan Whiteside in a 1972 television adaptation of The Man Who Came to Dinner, and Henry F. Potter in the notorious television remake of It's a Wonderful Life (1946), It Happened One Christmas. His last appearance on film was in Someone to Love in 1987. He died on October 10 1985.
Over the years Orson Welles was called many things. Critics today are often apt to call him "a genius". Mr. Welles referred to himself as "a charlatan". There can be no doubt that many studio executives referred to him by things that no gentleman would repeat in public. In the end, it is perhaps best to regard Orson Welles as the consummate showman. This was true of Orson Welles when he was working in the theatre. It was true of when he was working in radio. It was true when he was working in film. Mr. Welles had a knack for creating spectacle, often with very little. His 1948 version of Macbeth was made on only a budget of $800,000, yet he delivered a film that was darker, moodier, and more impressive than many big budget adaptations of "The Scottish Play".
Indeed, Orson Welles's sense for spectacle can be seen in his best known works. If The Mercury Theatre on the Air's "Invasion from Mars" is the best known radio play of all time, it's not only because it scared much of the country. Orson Welles and writer Howard E. Koch crafted a script that was both realistic and yet very dramatic as well. It is easy to see how people could have been fooled into actually believing Earth was being invaded by Martians. By its very nature Citizen Kane had an epic quality to it. Not only did the film tell the life story of a tycoon, but it also utilised storytelling techniques and cinematography that had rarely been seen in film before and made a few innovations in the process. For all Orson Welles's talent, in the end it seems as if he was most interested in putting on a good show. And that he did repeatedly and in multiple media, from theatre to radio to film.