Welles During Wartime: The Genius Distracted

Orson Welles is the one that got away, the director with the greatest gifts and the strangest career, a man whose run of programmed bad luck eventually engulfed a bevy of biographers.

Books about Welles generally fall into three categories:

It was all his fault (Charles Higham).

None of it was his fault (Joseph McBride, Clinton Heylin).

Some of it was his fault (Barbara Leaming, Frank Brady).

Ms. Leaming’s was more or less the authorized version, Mr. Higham’s was more or less the unauthorized hatchet job, Mr. Brady’s was the journalistically dry, chronologically correct version.

But Simon Callow (whose book about Charles Laughton is one of the few great books about a great actor) has saddled up as Welles’ Ahab and draws ever closer to the heart of the great, imposing beast.

Hello Americans, the second of three volumes, takes as its primary theme Welles’ allegiance to the Popular Front—his anti-Fascist, vigilantly anti-racist and pro-Roosevelt sympathies, how he strenuously diverted much of his creative energy into political and social battles during and just after World War II, and how fatally easy it was for Welles to be distracted.

It’s a book eminently worth reading, if only for the section devoted to the insane year—from mid-1941 to mid-1942—in which Welles wrote, produced and directed The Magnificent Ambersons, produced and acted in Journey into Fear, then went to South America to make It’s All True, only to have Ambersons and Fear fall apart as George Schaefer was maneuvered out of RKO, rendering Welles’ Mercury Theatre an orphan without a patron. Soon, It’s All True ran on the rocks as well.

Mr. Callow’s is by far the most detailed and, I believe, most penetrating analysis of that critical period, and it makes clear that Welles’ capriciousness, his essential lack of focus, was the bedeviling factor that would hamstring his career and so many of his films.

“Welles: What Went Wrong?” is an evergreen subject, but I happen to think it’s absolutely the wrong question: Welles made at least four great movies, more than all but a handful of directors. Still, from the point of view of the movie industry, it’s always been the question, and it has a very simple answer.

I once asked Richard Zanuck why, despite his father’s great love for Welles, Darryl Zanuck never hired him to direct a movie for Twentieth-Century Fox.

“Because Orson didn’t care about money,” replied Zanuck fils succinctly. Brutal. And basically true. Welles never saw an actor he couldn’t enthrall, or a producer he wouldn’t shaft. And producers responded in kind. Mr. Callow reports that The Lady from Shanghai (1947) took 98 days to shoot, as opposed to the budgeted 65—a rather generous schedule to begin with—and went a whopping $500,000 over budget. The Magnificent Ambersons—an art movie then, an art movie now—went 14 days over schedule and nearly 25 percent over budget. And when Welles did make a movie on budget—as he did with Citizen Kane (1941) and Touch of Evil (1958)—both subject matter and treatment left audiences cold.

Beyond the money going out, there was the money that wasn’t coming in, for Welles never had a hit. Citizen Kane lost money, Ambersons was a financial debacle; ditto The Lady from Shanghai and Touch of Evil. Macbeth (1948), Othello (1952) and Chimes at Midnight (1966) never even got proper releases. Only The Stranger (1946) actually made a profit, but that film was made under very stringent conditions and, as released, was Welles’ most conventional movie.

Mr. Callow comes as close as anyone to defining the core problem when he writes that Welles was “an experimental artist, deeply unconcerned with commercial success or indeed with the idea of a finished art-work—finished either in the sense of being completed or of having a smooth veneer.” This trait becomes most obvious in the later stages of his career, with the distressingly random, ragged nature of the self-financed projects he took up in the last 15 years of his life, after the great Chimes at Midnight.

I’d go further than Mr. Callow, however. John Huston once casually mentioned that he thought that Welles was a sort of inspired “amateur,” a flashing insight that I think explains a lot. Along with Robert Flaherty, Brando and a few others, Welles could be classified as one of those very occasional geniuses who is out of sympathy, either emotionally or intellectually, with the idea that the art of movies comes out of the craft of an industry. For example, as Mr. Callow notes offhandedly, it wasn’t until Welles had been in Brazil for two months, accompanied by a large crew drawing salaries, that he finally defined in writing what kind of movie It’s All True was supposed to be.

As Mr. Callow writes, Welles “made his films, as he had made his theatre, on the floor, in the heat of the moment. As he worked, the full possibilities of what he was making revealed themselves, and only then …. Nothing could be more inimical to an industry operating within the confines of the studio system.” No wonder everybody at RKO eventually turned against him, up to and including George Schaefer, his protector; no wonder he could never find another studio to offer extended shelter.

Gore Vidal wisely wrote that Welles “was a miracle of empathy, and he knew the gradations of despair the oyster experienced as it slid down his gullet. But the romantic genius aims not for perfection in his art but for poignant glamour in his ruin.” Welles’ roistering Byronic component decimated the observant Midwestern component—and, ultimately, decimated his career as well. Welles was an authentic rogue (he was brilliant playing Harry Lime for a good reason), and rogues do a great deal of damage.

Hello Americans is a superb book, but not quite perfect. Among other things, Mr. Callow seems oblivious to Booth Tarkington’s deep sense of the American grain, and he completely misinterprets F.D.R.’s magnificent deviousness.

Also, the book is almost entirely focused on professional matters. Beyond a mention of Welles’ marriages—in the period of this book, to Rita Hayworth—or assignations (Lena Horne, Judy Garland, Dolores Del Rio, among many others)—Mr. Callow confines himself to Welles’ life as a director and actor. Welles’ carelessness—there’s no other word for it—was by no means confined to his working life, but when it comes to domestic matters, Mr. Callow simply repeats information gathered by Barbara Leaming, among others, and moves on to what seems to interest him to the exclusion of everything else.

I also sense that Mr. Callow is not eager to have voices other than his own intrude into the narrative. He was an actor before he was a writer, and, by God, he’s not about to share this scene with anybody. It follows that he’s very good on acting, paying overdue tribute to Joseph Cotten and the great Agnes Moorehead, but almost always slamming Orson Welles the actor: “Welles is always doing the performance; it’s never simply happening, never out of his control … [it’s] essentially projected: the camera (and hence the audience) is never allowed to make its own discoveries, it is always told what to feel, what to think.”

This is true, but it’s also colorblind; you could say the same things about Welles’ performance in The Third Man (1949)—though not Chimes at Midnight. Welles was a theatrical, oratorical actor whose mode was dominance, either overtly or passive-aggressively. It’s possible that Welles was one of those actors subtly ruined by the crutch of a great voice.

That said, Hello Americans makes most books on Welles feel like cop-reporter slogs (because that’s what most of them are). It is, in fact, much better than Mr. Callow’s first volume, which took the story up through Citizen Kane and struck me as oddly censorious. As Robert Wise remembered, Welles made Citizen Kane as a model professional—more or less on time, more or less on budget.

Despite the minor problems, Hello Americans is at all times a ravishing read, brilliantly allusive, with lightning leaps of insight. It eerily replicates the experience of watching Welles at his dazzling best. Great biographical writing is often a cloak for indifferent research, but Mr. Callow has clearly spent the requisite time in the libraries.

He ends his book in 1948 with the release of Macbeth, meaning volume three will have to encompass nearly 40 years of Welles’ life and career, presumably rushing through some pretty good films and the final, vast masterpiece of Chimes at Midnight (the greatest Shakespearean film of them all). It wouldn’t seem to be a good idea, let alone possible, except for the fact that a wizard can do almost anything, and with this book Simon Callow has proven himself entirely worthy of our trust—and our admiration.

Scott Eyman’s Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer was published last year by Simon & Schuster.

Welles During Wartime: The Genius Distracted