Orson Welles

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Orson Welles, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1937

George Orson Welles (May 6, 1915October 10, 1985) is generally considered one of Hollywood's greatest directors, as well as a fine actor, broadcaster and screenwriter. His first feature film, Citizen Kane (1941), is universally acknowledged as an important step in the history of cinema and widely cited by critics as among the best films ever made.


Early career

Welles was born in 1915 in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He had an unusual childhood, being somewhat of a prodigy, and his personal relationships suffered as a result. His mother died when he was nine, and his father, Richard Head Welles, receded into the past, a drunkard.

Welles made his first plays while at the Todd School and was brought under the guidance of the principal, Roger Hill, who became a surrogate father to Welles. The sometimes seen work Hearts of Age was made there while he was a student and also stars his first wife, Virginia Nicholson. He later made his stage debut at the famous Gate Theatre in Dublin, Ireland in 1931 when he talked himself onto the stage and appeared in small supporting roles, and by 1934 was a radio director/actor in the United States, working with some of the cast that later became the Mercury Theatre. In that year, he married the actress and socialite Virginia Nicholson. Welles drew a great deal of attention in 1937 with a production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar set in Fascist Italy and a voodoo-themed version of Macbeth featuring a primarily African American cast. Shortly afterward, he and producer John Houseman founded the Mercury Theatre company.

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Orson Welles's signature

Welles began playing The Shadow in late 1937; his deep voice suited the role well. In the summer of 1938, Welles and the Mercury Theatre began weekly broadcasts of short radio plays based on classic or popular literary works. Their October 30 broadcast of that year was an adaptation of the War of the Worlds. This brought Welles his first public notoriety on a national level—the program created panic among some listeners who found it completely convincing. Welles's adaptation of H. G. Wells's classic novel simulated a news broadcast, cutting into a routine dance music program to describe the landing of Martian spacecraft in Grovers Mill, New Jersey. The innovative broadcast was realistic enough to frighten many in the audience into believing that an actual Martian invasion was in progress. Recordings of the broadcast are still available (see old-time radio and also the UK Region 2 DVD of Citizen Kane). The publicity that resulted from this led to the offer of a three-picture Hollywood contract from RKO.

Welles in Hollywood

Welles toyed with various ideas for his first project for RKO, settling briefly on an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness before ultimately rejecting it. RKOs budget projections made it impractical. In a display of his avant garde sensibility, Welles' plans for that project included filming the action entirely from the protagonist's point of view.

Welles was once again the centre of controversy with his first film, Citizen Kane (1941). The gossip writer Louella Parsons convinced the yellow-press magnate, William Randolph Hearst, that he was the basis for Kane, with the result that Hearst's media empire boycotted the film. On its release, this event overshadowed the film's radical formal innovations. Welles is said to have sardonically remarked, concerning Hearst's attitude, that if he were to do a movie about the journalism magnate, the fact would be more grand and shockingly unbelievable than the fiction. This possibly apocryphal quote is uttered by Liev Schreiber (as Welles) in the 1999 TV movie RKO 281.

Welles' second film for RKO was the more traditional The Magnificent Ambersons, adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Booth Tarkington, and on which RKO executives hoped to make back the money lost by Citizen Kane's relative commercial failure.

Simultaneously, Welles worked with his Mercury Theatre fellows on a spy thriller, Journey Into Fear, which he co-wrote with Joseph Cotten. In addition to acting in the film, Welles was also a producer. Direction was credited solely to Norman Foster, but the film contains several expressionistic sequences indicating input by Welles. Welles denied having directed the film, but the visual style is very similar to his credited works. Whatever the case, Welles played a major role in its production, but he expressed disappointment at the finished product.

During the production of Amberson's, Welles was asked to make a documentary film about South America on behalf of the U. S. Government. Welles left the United States to begin shooting this documentary after putting together the first rough cut of The Magnificent Ambersons, on the understanding that further editing decisions would be carried out via telegram. At this point RKO, in a perilous financial situation and fearing another commercial failure, wrested control of the film from Welles' Mercury Productions staff, cut over fifty minutes of footage, and added a reshot, upbeat ending: the cut footage, including Welles's original ending to the film, has been lost, apparently permanently. This event marked the beginning of a recurring pattern in Welles' Hollywood career of damaging executive interference. Ironically, Welles' South American documentary, entitled It's All True, never saw completion in Welles' lifetime. The surviving footage was released in 1993.

In 1946, International Pictures released The Stranger, starring Edward G. Robinson and Loretta Young as well as Welles himself. Sam Spiegel produced the film, which gave Welles an opportunity to salvage -- briefly -- his reputation in Hollywood. A noir-ish suspense film about the hunt for a Nazi war criminal, The Stranger was Welles' only commercial success as a director. Welles supposedly made the film to prove that he could make a conventional picture within time and budget constraints. He followed The Stranger with another noir drama for Columbia Pictures, The Lady from Shanghai. Welles played the protagonist, while his second wife, Rita Hayworth, played one of the villains. Like The Magnificent Ambersons, The Lady from Shanghai suffered heavy editing by its studio, and the excised portions are believed to be lost permanently. Columbia removed an hour of footage from Welles' final cut. Welles' notes for the film suggest that the excised footage would have aided audiences' comprehension of the story. Despite the editing, the theatrical cut still contains many examples of Welles' Expressionist film-making. Once released, the film was savaged by critics for its convoluted plot, and audiences disliked Hayworth as a villain. Welles' marriage to Hayworth -- already troubled during filming -- ended shortly after production ended.

Welles changed studios once again, moving to Republic Pictures, a studio with a reputation for making B-movies. The move marked a return to Shakespeare for Welles -- he chose to direct and star in an idiosyncratic production of Macbeth. Working with a very limited budget, Welles fashioned a Macbeth that emphasized the darkness of the play's themes and characters. Unfortunately for Welles, the finished film once again proved unpalatable to the movie-going public.

Welles after Hollywood

Frustrated by his experience with the studio system, Welles left Hollywood in 1948. The following year, he made a notable appearance in front of the camera. In Graham Greene's The Third Man, Welles (as Harry Lime) gave the infamous "Cuckoo Clock" speech. This is the only piece of dialogue in the film which Greene himself did not write: Welles penned it himself and insisted that it be put in. Greene is reputed to have hated it.

Barring a brief return in 1958 to make Touch of Evil (which was also butchered by the studio, but has since been restored to something close to Welles' vision), the rest of Welles' directorial career was spent in Europe, his films self-financed with acting fees or, later, funded by sympathetic producers. On almost all of these projects he retained final cut, but the independence thus gained also resulted in drastically reduced budgets and technical facilities. Despite such setbacks, some of Welles' best work was produced during this period. He was an aficionado of stage magic and often appeared at Hollywood's Magic Castle. He even did TV, performing a few tricks with Lucille Ball as his assistant in an episode of I Love Lucy. In his later years, when his weight had ballooned, he appeared in a sketch on Johnny Carson's show, playing an extremely heavy and tyrannical king not unlike Henry VIII.

Welles starred in many of his films and wrote the scripts, often using the talents of the Mercury Theatre. These included several stories from English literature, such as Macbeth (1948), Jane Eyre (which he produced uncredited, and in which he appeared opposite Joan Fontaine), and Chimes at Midnight (1965), an underrated classic in which Welles played Falstaff.


A lesser known, but still important, aspect of Welles' career was his work in television. The Orson Welles Sketchbook (1955) was created for the BBC and featured Welles telling stories and drawing pictures to illustrate them. The director also created Around the World with Orson Welles (1955) for the BBC. In this series he gleefully experimented with a film-essay format, foreshadowing the later F for Fake (1974). The Fountain of Youth (1958) was made for American TV and in it Welles offers some possibilities for expanding the medium's vocabulary. One of his most playful efforts was Portrait of Gina (1958), in which the director/narrator wanders through Italy, finally arriving at Gina Lollobrigida's home at the end of the film. Welles continued to work in TV through the 60s, 70s and 80s, but little of the work he directed from this period was ever broadcast. A version of The Merchant of Venice (1969) was not completed because a reel was stolen and never recovered. Clips from unfinished TV projects appear in the documentary Orson Welles: The One-Man Band (1995), a fascinating but bittersweet look at many of the director's varied efforts,

Unfinished projects

Welles' exile from Hollywood and reliance on independent finance meant that many of his later cinema projects were filmed in a piecemeal fashion and some were not completed at all. In the mid 1950s Welles worked on a film adaptation of Cervantes' Don Quixote, initially on a commission from CBS television. CBS were unhappy with the original half hour television play and rejected the footage. Welles gleefully took this as an opportunity to expand the film to feature length, developing the screenplay to take Quixote and Sancho Panza into the modern age (an idea that later formed the basis of Jean-Marie Poir's Les Visiteurs). Filming continued in a fragmentary fashion for a number of years whenever cast and crew could be assembled in one place. The project was finally abandoned with the death of Francisco Reiguera, the actor playing Quixote, in 1969. An incomplete version of the film was released in 1992.

In 1970 Welles began shooting The Other Side of the Wind. Finance was from a number of sources, the largest of which being an Iranian company based in Paris and run by the brother in law of the Shah of Iran. The film is apparently the story of the efforts of a film director (played by John Huston) to complete his last Hollywood movie and is largely set at a lavish party. Although in 1972 the film was reported by Welles as being "96% complete" its legal ownership became a matter of dispute. Argument continued for a number of years until the 1979 Iranian Revolution effectively consigned it to a legal limbo. The negative remained in a Paris vault until in 2004 Welles's friend Peter Bogdanovich (who also acted in the film) announced his intention to resolve the legal difficulties and complete the production.

Another unfinished project was The Big Brass Ring, the script of which was adapted and filmed by US-director George Hickenlooper in 1999.

Mark Millar wrote an article about a failed Orson Welles Batman project. This generated a considerable amount of buzz, especially on Ain't It Cool News, but the rumor has since been proven false.

Final years

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Orson Welles in The Muppet Movie

During his career he won one Oscar and was nominated for a further four. One of his last notable film appearances was as Cardinal Wolsey in A Man for All Seasons (1966). In 1971 the Academy gave him an Honorary award "For superlative artistry and versatility in the creation of motion pictures".

Overweight for decades, he became profoundly obese in his later years. He capitalized on his image in various advertising campaigns hawking certain brands of wines, hot dogs, and correspondence courses. A bootleg of the recording session for one of his later commercials still circulates on the Internet and elsewhere, often known simply as Frozen Peas. In the commercial, Welles flubs lines, grows progressively more annoyed with the copy, and gets slightly profane.

Welles died of a heart attack in Hollywood, California at age 70 on October 10, 1985 (the same day as Yul Brynner). The final role Welles performed was that of Unicron in the box-office bomb, Transformers: The Movie, recording his lines mere weeks before his passing. However, it was not his last appearance on the screen, as the previously-filmed 1987 independent movie Someone To Love, was released two years following his death. His last TV appearance was in the introduction of the episode "The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice" of the series Moonlighting. Welles also recorded a narration for the 1987 re-release of The Alan Parsons Project's Tales of Mystery and Imagination shortly before his death.


Orson Welles' distinctive voice was used in Warner Brothers animated cartoon "Pinky and The Brain", with Maurice LaMarche providing the voice of The Brain with a dead-on impersonation of Welles.

Initally George Lucas wanted to use Orson Welles' voice for Darth Vader in Star Wars. However, he decided that Welles' voice is too well known. After all, Welles was hired to read the text for the first trailer of the movie.

Selected Filmography

Directed by Welles

Other notable films

Further Reading

  • Mac Liammir, Michel. Put Money in Thy Purse: The Filming of Orson Welles' Othello, Methuen, 1976.
  • McBride, Joseph. Orson Welles, Da Capo Press, 1996.
  • Naremore, James. The Magic World of Orson Welles, Southern Methodist University Press, 1989.
  • Naremore, James. Citizen Kane: A Casebook, Oxford University Press, 2004.
  • Welles, Orson et al. This is Orson Welles, Da Capo Press, 1998.

External links


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