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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.