Welles was just 25 when he directed, produced, co-wrote and starred in his first film, a veiled biography of newspaper potentate William Randolph Hearst. Yet so controversial was Kane before its release in 1941, and so overwhelming its pressure on Welles' reputation, that it can be seen as the apex of his career, perhaps of Hollywood's Golden Age. It surely makes the man worth one more biography, Simon Callow's Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu (Viking; $29.95), and the film worth a long documentary look, The Battle over Citizen Kane by Thomas Lennon and Michael Epstein, on PBS's The American Experience next Monday. These solidly researched works revive a thrilling era in American theater and film--a five-year span dominated by the Boy Wonder from Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Kane's beguiling arrogance and neediness come straight from its creator. As Callow meticulously shows, George Orson Welles knew acclaim and misuse from early childhood. Declared a genius at three, staging Shakespeare in a toy playhouse at five, walking on water in his wading pool--the legend goes something like that--he was adrift in a strained family. His opera-loving mother died when he was nine, his suavely alcoholic father three years later. Welles would memorialize his mother in Kane and find father-sponsors in his prep-school principal, Broadway's John Houseman, RKO's George Schaefer. He would also make himself a father figure, at 20 playing men of 80. From early days, then, Welles was one wily orphan. Who was left to love him? Only the rest of the world.
Welles had the star quality of some tribal monster-god. Ten pounds at birth, he just kept growing, especially the head, Churchillian even in youth. But he had more. Before Sinatra, Welles was the Voice: "softly thunderous," Irish actor Micheal Mac Liammoir called it, "like a regretful oboe." Intimate, intimidating, sonorous, it almost mooed with mellowness.
Like Kane, Welles exerted all his charm, bluster and infinite energy to win love. He was indeed a genius at getting theater people to do what he wanted. Callow admiringly calls Welles "a creative opportunist without peer," fashioning art from the sweat of many and daring to call it all his. A lifelong credit hog, Welles could indeed do it all. His sin was that he wanted people to think he did it all alone.
Callow's book, which ends in 1942, the year after Kane, follows half a dozen earlier Welles biographies and precedes by a few months yet another, David Thomson's eagerly awaited Rosebud. Callow, a crafty English actor (he played the ebullient, doomed gay man in Four Weddings and a Funeral), excels at what must have been his most frustrating task: analyzing theater work he could not see for himself.
The book expertly evokes Welles' wildly inventive productions of the mid-'30s: a "voodoo" Macbeth with the Negro Unit of the WPA's Federal Theater; a Julius Caesar set in Fascist Italy; a violent farce, Horse Eats Hat, with 74 actors; Marc Blitzstein's folk opera The Cradle Will Rock, which the WPA shut down and Welles reopened the same night, marching his cast and audience from the original Broadway house to another, empty one for the triumphant outlaw premiere. There were riots outside Welles' shows--to get in. His work was denounced by the Communist Party and the Hearst papers, proving he had done something right. Under his spell, theater was not just dynamic; it was dynamite.
Callow draws telling word pictures of Welles' early years. But to evoke a film, it helps to have moving pictures, and The Battle over Citizen Kane, which runs the lives of Welles and Hearst on parallel tracks until they collide in 1941, is a two-hour tornado of a documentary, with rare clips of the 1936 Macbeth, some quaint home movies of Hearst's costume parties, reminiscences by such Welles colleagues as lighting designer Abe Feder (still jazzy after all these years) and William Alland (who played the reporter in Kane). Best is the cogent narration, written by Lennon and Richard Ben Cramer and delivered by Cramer with tart authority, like a wiser Winchell. "Appetite drove [Welles]," he rasps. "Applause wasn't enough. He wanted amazement, the gasp of a common crowd."
Welles got it. For five years he symbolized America's worship and suspicion of the Artist. He was famous in New York for the Mercury Theater (which he and Houseman started after leaving the WPA) and to the rest of the nation from radio--as the voice of the Shadow, or from the Mischief Night frenzy his The War of the Worlds broadcast stoked in 1938.
A year later, Welles arrived in Hollywood with a fussy, je-suis-l'artiste beard and an RKO contract giving him total control over his films. To an industry in robust middle age, Welles was a pampered brat. They called him Little Orson Annie, the Christ Child. One local wit said, "There, but for the grace of God, goes God."
The speaker was Herman J. Mankiewicz, ornament and outrage of many a dinner table in Bel Air--and also at Hearst's San Simeon, where he was a favorite of Marion Davies, keeping her giggling as they went outside for a swig. A former New Yorker drama critic and a full-time gambler, drinker and wit, Mank was the missing link between Hearst and Welles. Befriending the new kid, he proposed they write a life of a newspaper tycoon.
Hearst and Welles--did Mankiewicz know how right, and how wrong, the two men were for each other? Both thrived on sensation: one journalistic, the other theatrical. They brought art and news to the masses, showed it in images an immigrant could understand; some said they lowered standards to become rich or famous. The arc of Hearst's career--early innovation and influence followed by fruitless runs for office, by the ebbing of his empire--would be Welles' too. And there were the famous liaisons with actresses: Welles wed three, Hearst one. For decades, while his papers denounced Hollywood morals, the old man lived openly with Davies, a comedian he foolishly tried to remake as Garbo. She stayed with him, good times and bad, in San Simeon (the "Xanadu" of Kane), his Spanish-Moorish-Italian "ranch" crammed with four millenniums' worth of trophies. It was your crazy uncle's attic, half the size of Rhode Island.
Welles, thrilled by Mankiewicz's idea for a Hearst film, was also desperate. His first RKO project--Heart of Darkness, which would be told with a subjective camera and would star Welles as Marlow and Kurtz--was deemed too pricey. Now, with Mank's unbilled help (the deal specified no screen credit for his script), Welles hoped to turn a jolly plutocrat into a tragic figure, swathe the San Simeon Sun King in the menacing shadows of movie melodrama. Kane would be Welles' Hearst of Darkness.
By putting so many facets of his young boss into Kane--the inhuman vigor, the using of others, the sled he loved as a boy--Mank effectively wrote Welles' autobiography for him in screenplay form. There was a lot of the sour old writer too in the dark vitality of the newspaper scenes, the habit of looking down on men in high places, the name of young Herman's bicycle: Rosebud. The two men privately insisted it was Hearst's pet name for Marion's sex. But that could be an impish trick, just as the whole Rosebud plot is--since, on the evidence of the film, no one heard Kane's dying word, so no one could search for its meaning.
The main thing for Welles, beyond the games, was the work. He goaded his newcomer cast and ace cinematographer Gregg Toland into playing the script's long scenes with few cuts; the audience, he figured, would be smart enough to find the drama without the nudging of montage. He kept the film secret from studio brass. But he couldn't keep Kane from Hearst. Mank couldn't, anyway. He handed the script to Charles Lederer, who was both Davies' nephew and the new husband of Welles' ex-wife. It came back annotated by Hearst's lawyers. And that was just a hello. Soon the old man was promising scandal and lawsuits against RKO and any theater chain that dared exhibit the film.
Hearst's action against Kane suited Hollywood's Old Guard fine; MGM's Louis B. Mayer offered to buy the picture for $1 million and destroy the negative. Kane was finally released, amid raves and some skepticism from critics, a yawn from the public. At the following year's Oscar party, having earned nine nominations, the film was booed every time it was mentioned. Callow says that by today's counting methods, Kane would have won for Best Film. In fact, the only statuette went to Welles and Mankiewicz, for Best Screenplay. Mank, who did not attend the ceremony, told Welles he would have said, "I am very happy to accept this award in Mr. Welles' absence because the script was written in Mr. Welles' absence."
The anti-Kane forces achieved their goal: the movie flopped. In the long run, of course, Hearst lost. What people know of him today is what they remember from the movie; the definitive biography, by W.A. Swanberg, is titled Citizen Hearst. But Welles lost too. His next film, The Magnificent Ambersons, is a magnificent shard in its surviving form; RKO pulled Welles off the film, cut it by a third, hired a hack to shoot a new ending. He was now "Hollywood's youngest has-been," condemned to haunt Hollywood and other film capitals till he died looking for work. People knew him only as the fat man, a butt of lame jokes. Unable to finance his dream projects (including a film about the making of The Cradle Will Rock), Welles earned eating money as a narrator and pitchman. He ended as he began. The Voice. The Shadow.
Callow has all that to consider in his second volume: how the seductive boy became the self-destructive man; why Hollywood blackballed a director who loved film so recklessly and, in his first pass at the mechanical muse, conquered her. But Welles left a monument no one can chip away. As the documentary notes, "There is only one winner in the story of Citizen Kane, and that's the film...In its 55th year, the movie is still a marvel, a circus of camera wizardry enlivening the story of a failure: a powerful man who loses it all. The young Welles did more than anticipate, somehow, his disappointment and decline. Through Kane he revealed how we all, as we age, become smudged parodies of ourselves--more comfortable in our weaknesses, less sure of our strengths...with little more to treasure than one image from a frosty childhood."
A movie of such profundity, and so much fun, was an anomaly even in 1941. Now we can hardly imagine a filmmaker, let alone a film industry, capable of creating it. That impulse is lost in the snows of time. Citizen Kane is our Rosebud.