Tuesday, June 16, 2009


It is my good fortune to have gotten home tonight just in time for Turner Classic Movie's salute to Orson Welles.
I fear I won't be able to sleep; it starts with Citizen Kane and is followed with The Lady from Shanghai (not perfect, but too interesting to tune out), The Magnificent Ambersons (his best, IMHO), The Trial (based on the novel by one of my favorite writers, Kafka) and Macbeth (I liked his Othello and Falstaff both much better).
Kane, obviously, is the one he's most remembered for. I could drone on about why it's the most influential film in cinema history, but I think I'll settle for looking at how it came to be.
Welles was considered a bit of a prodigy as a child. He finished prep school at age 16 and toured Ireland alone. On a whim, he walked into the Gate Theater in Dublin and managed to get himself an audition. The Gate was run by Michael MacLiammoir and Hilton Edwards, two of the most progressive and well regarded theater types in Europe in the first half of the 20th century. He won them over, despite no professional experience.
In time, Welles found his way to New York. Barely in his 20s, he and John Housemann (a shipping clerk at the time) were able to start up their own theater company in Harlem, thanks to the Federal Theater Project (an arm of the New Deal). He found radio work, too, becoming the star of that medium in the 1930s. He couldn't fail if he had wanted to.
RKO, then flagging well behind Warner Bros. and the other Hollywood studios, lured Welles to Hollywood with the promise of complete control of whatever films he wished to make. He brought his theater comrades with him, and found Greg Toland, maybe the best cinematographer ever, seeking him out. The Kane film was written primarily by Herman Mankiewicz, a veteran writer who knew where all of the bodies were buried in Hollywood and New York. The film editor RKO assigned to him was none other than Robert Wise.
Everything fell together for Welles. Critics, including Pauline Kael, point to all of the above as good luck on Welles' part. I contend that it was Welles who brought all of the above together. He had every advantage and make the best of it. Sure, you could argue that going after Wm. Randolph Hearst was stupid; but it took a character of Hearst's magnitude to bring the story off.
I think Kane is a film to be savored. I can think of maybe one or two false notes in the whole thing. Welles took what he liked from Ford, Eisenstein and others, orchestrated superior actors, a great script (which he rewrote and edited), terrific camera work and wonderful editing into something unmatched before or since.
But The Magnificent Ambersons is still my personal favorite, for reasons I'll get into some other time.

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