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Young Orson: The Years of Luck and Genius on the Path to Citizen Kane by Patrick McGilligan

Young Orson 01

A Book Review by Tony Williams.

I must admit that I approached this book with hesitation. Although the author has edited excellent interviews with blacklist victims and screenwriters from Hollywood’s Golden Age to the 1990s, his biographies have sometimes tended to go into National Enquirer territory distracting from a more objective consideration of artistic achievement. McGilligan is at his best when he sympathizes with his subject matter. His explorations of the work of Fritz Lang (2013), Clint Eastwood (2002), and Nicholas Ray (2011) often leave much to be desired since his critical insights often lack the rigor of his otherwise unbiased journalism when he does not succumb to negative subjectivity. Even Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light (2003) has received detailed criticism by Australian Hitchcock expert Ken Mogg on his valuable Web Page “The Macguffin” and one can question whether stories about an aged director’s use of hookers or another’s alleged home movie recording of sexual exploits add much to understanding person and work. However, after learning first hand of favorable reactions to the galleys of McGilligan’s new book on Welles from critics such as Joseph McBride and Jonathan Rosenbaum as well as the enthusiastic approval of Chris Feder Welles and finishing the nearly 800 page book yesterday, I must add my contribution to the positive voices that have acclaimed this study so far. Young Orson is undoubtedly the best book recently published of the early years of Orson Welles concluding with the first day shooting of Citizen Kane (1941) and ending with a detailed account of his last day in 1985. It is far better than Simon Callow’s The Road to Xanadu (1997), the first part of a four-part series which began with the usual negative approach to the director before his more balanced assessment in Hello Americans (2006). (I’ve yet to read his third volume, last year’s One Man Band).

Young Orson 02McGilligan has wisely decided to avoid the problematic path of interviewing those who knew Welles now in their 90s whose memories are now subject to the passing of time like the aged Jed Leland in Citizen Kane. The author instead has researched not only well-known sources but also explored reliable archive material to provide a more objective evaluation of his subject that is neither too partisan nor too derogatory. He takes issues with several interpretations of figures such as John Houseman and Simon Callow for the neutral aim of setting the record straight. McGilligan also explodes the myth that Welles fathered Michael Lindsay-Hogg by Geraldine Fitzgerald as “a biological impossibility” (602) examining the supposed facts in a scrupulous manner few have ever done as well as supplying the most logical and less salacious origin of “Rosebud” in Citizen Kane.

Yet, how can one review such a mammoth book that deserves a place in the library of any serious critic or budget-assaulted college libraries in the space available? I will focus on the second, often ignored part of the title to reveal how it is so important. Young Orson comprises five main parts, the first beginning with the decades before his birth and the last dealing with his final day. For the first, McGilligan supplies an important backstory concerning the cultural world of the Mid-West that Welles was born into and the creative aspirations of his parents Richard Welles and Beatrice Ives, the first a talented inventor and the second a very cultured woman, Kenosha’s first female school board official, and a leading suffragette. Young Orson was born into a very uniquely creative world, one long gone and sadly lacking today.  As he grew up and made his way towards radio and theater, he frequently encountered figures who would later play major roles in Citizen Kane such as young Agnes Moorehead in 1925 (114) Erskine Sanford, Harry Shannon, and Fortunio Bonanova in the same year (116-117). Later in New York during 1934, he would see Joseph Calleia on stage and meet the African-American leads of the anti-racist stage play Stevedore (1934) – Jack Carter, Edna Thomas, and Canada Lee whom he would soon cast in the Harlem stage production of Macbeth (297). In this exciting time of Cultural Front ferment in the realms of radio and theater, he would also meet other future collaborators such as Paul Stewart (326) , Joseph Cotton (325), Everett Sloane (338), George Coulouris (365-366), Bernard Herrmann (379), William Alland (382), as well as temporary ones such as Burgess Meredith (later Prince Hal in Five Kings, an early version of what would later become Chimes at Midnight) ) in Project 891’s production of “Fall of the City” in 1937 (378-379). Robert Coote was engaged for the ill-fated film version of Heart of Darkness but would later appear in 1952’s Othello (589). At the same time he met Cotton working in CBS Radio Welles also encountered Ray Collins (326). McGilligan describes Five Kings as “fated to be the great white whale that Orson chased across miles and years” (518). Not only did it feature Burgess Meredith (an underrated actor not deserving Andrew Britton’s scorn in later years) but also burlesque comedian Gus Schilling, Edgar Barrier, Erskine Sanford, John Berry, Richard Wilson, and William Alland. All these now familiar names appear like thespian version of Pennies from Heaven (music by Arthur Johnston, lyrics by Johnny Burke, 1936) who would appear like rabbits from a magician’s hat in an era of stimulating creativity within the Great Depression and do their most creative work with Welles. McGilligan’s version of his own Road to Xanadu implicitly and explicitly records the influence of the progressive cultural trends of the New Deal movements whose representatives mostly became victims of the Cold War blacklist a decade later, such as radio actress and Radio Guild activist Georgia Backus (616, 727) later uncredited in Abraham Polonsky’s Force of Evil (1949) who would soon disappear from the scene. Welles’s “friendships with the out-of-work black Harlemites who populated his Voodoo Macbeth, and the very public crucible of mounting the production, deepened his liberal politics and his sensitivity to black history” (352). This racial sensitivity would later appear in his defense of wrongly arrested young Mexicans in the 1942 Sleepy Lagoon murder case in Hollywood and his defense of blinded veteran Isaac Woodard Jr. on his 1946 ABC radio show.

Critics have long remarked on the cinematic qualities of Welles’s radio productions but McGilligan also notes cinematic features that occurred in the problematic Five Kings production noted at the time by Philadelphia news critic J.H. Keen and later by Burgess Meredith in his 1994 memoir So Far, So Good:

The impasse with Five Kings had softened Orson’s resistance to Hollywood. But he had also been gravitating toward a cinematic style for some time. He had been using blackouts and onstage curtains to minimize the time between shifts. The revolving platform of Five Kings, as critic Nelson B. Bell wrote in the Washington Post, was a type of `motion picture technique’, bringing mobility to the settings and characters ‘in such a way that the effect is one of continuous action and dialogue with a revolutionary blending of scenes’. (541)

Events in Welles personal life either marked him deeply or provided material for a preliminary mental sketchbook he would develop later. The tragic death of his mother in 1924 implicitly evokes the future cinematic demise of Isabel Amberson while his 1929 encounter with Beijing Opera in Shanghai when on holiday with his father would provide inspiration for one memorable scene in The Lady from Shanghai (171-172). McGilligan notes that “Without the tragedy of his parents, Welles might never have developed his singular drive, his quixotic belief that time and money should not matter” (178). Whether brief or longer, Welles often used the names of those he encountered for humorous effect as with that of his guardian Dr. Bernstein or the father-in-law of his beloved teacher Arthur Lincoln Gettys (221) later embodied in the different characters played by Sloane and Collins in Kane. Yet, no type of reductive derivations appeared in that film. McGilligan notes that despite Herman J. Mankiewicz’s allusions to William Randolph Hearst in the initial screenplay, Welles “wanted Kane to serve as an archetype, not a replication of Hearts. Houseman had failed this part of his task, allowing too many real-life references to Hearst to sneak into the script” (654). As Robert Carringer has shown, the real creative talent in this association was the director not the scenarist. Two other very different real-life tycoons, Samuel Insull and Robert R. McCormick, also went into Welles’s artistic Macbeth-like witches’ cauldron to create Charles Foster Kane (237). A never produced 1934 Caribbean version of Romeo and Juliet set in Martinique envisaged by Welles and journeyman actor Francis Carpenter (294) would provide the inspiration for the Harlem Macbeth’s location in Haiti, the Negro Unit’s first classical play following previous productions such as Conjur Man Dies (1936) directed by Wisconsin-born Joseph Losey (331-332). The development of Welles’ creativity and the presence of a supportive culturally progressive historical era blended in making him the artist that he became.

Throughout this book, McGilligan takes special care to correct many errors and misconceptions due to John Houseman who became envious of his partner’s success. Welles’s detractors should note such instances (see especially 371-2, 375,384, 408-9, 480, 483, 504, 612-13, 650-51). McGilligan frequently questions Callow’s account of this period in The Road to Xanadu in terms of relying too much on Houseman as well as other questionable assertions derived from Maurice Bessy and unfortunately continued by other reliable scholars such as Joseph McBride (418-19). What really matters to McGilligan is the issue of reliable evidence rather than the type of dubious and irrelevant assertions that appear in some of his other work. One can only hope that this will represent a new path for him as Hello Americans did for Simon Callow.

In view of such excellence it may be churlish to note one typo where Leaming is misspelled “Lemming” (211) but this is only meant to make future printings as perfect as possible. Along with the many tributes and reissues of books that marked Welles’s Centenary last year, the appearance of Young Orson makes a fitting conclusion not just to that celebrated event but also in providing a stimulus to future work on the director that will avoid falling into two extremes that have characterized most previous studies. It sets a very high standard in research and critical integrity for others to follow.

Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and author of Larry Cohen: The Radical Allegories of an American Filmmaker – Second Edition (2014).

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