Welles, Orson (1915-1985)

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WELLES, ORSON (1915-1985)

When Orson Welles's name is mentioned, the first thing that comes to mind is Citizen Kane (1941), which is still considered to be one of the best films in the history of motion pictures. However, Welles's "show business" success began long before (and continued long after) the creation of Citizen Kane.

Welles was born George Orson Welles on May 6, 1915, in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He was the son of Richard Head Welles, who became wealthy by owning wagon factories, and Beatrice Ives Welles, who was well known for her devotion to the arts and community involvement. Orson Welles was involved in theater from the age of three, when he played the role of "Trouble" in a production of Madame Butterfly at the Chicago Opera. By age ten, he had produced, directed, and starred in his own production of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In his young adult life, Welles produced Macbeth at the Negro Theatre in Harlem in 1936. Then, Welles, with the help of the Federal Theatre, formed the Mercury Theatre, for which The Cradle Will Rock was the debut production.

As radio became a successful entertainment medium, Welles made a smooth transition from theater to radio. He was involved in more than one hundred radio productions from 1936 to 1941. His productions ranged from classics such as Hamlet(1936) and Julius Caesar (1938) to new shows such as The Silent Avenger (1938) and War of the Worlds (1938). War of the Worlds, an adaptation of the H. G. Wells novel, used fake news bulletins to announce that there were disturbances noted on Mars and then that there was a Martian invasion of Earth taking place. Although it was stated quite clearly four times during the broadcast that it was simply a radio drama, many listeners believing that Martians had really landed and were dispensing poison gas. As a result, panic struck from coast to coast. Phones rung off the hook at Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) offices, some people flocked to churches to pray, and traffic jams were attributed to people fleeing areas where the Martians had "landed." However, myths surrounding the extent of the panic continue to exist. Stories abound about people committing suicide to avoid succumbing to the invaders and about other people dying of heart attacks from the shock of the Martian landing. None of these stories have ever been substantiated.

Sociologist Hadley Cantril (1940) studied the people who were most and least affected by the radio drama. Simply put, there was a direct correlation between the degree of panic and the amount of education and/or religious belief. The less educated and the more devoutly religious a listener was, the more often he or she believed the reports. Nothing major occurred in the regulation of the radio broadcast industry because of the event; Welles simply illustrated the power of the medium. The Federal Communications Commission issued a terse response saying the incident was "regrettable."

Citizen Kane, coming just a few years after Welles's War of the Worlds radio production, started a new chapter in the career of Orson Welles. Citizen Kane is remembered for a multitude of reasons, including that (1) it was Welles's first feature film, (2) he was only twenty-five years old when he made it, (3) the film featured many technical innovations, such as the creation of deep-focus lenses, the use of camera movement, and audio mixing, that had previously only been used in radio, and (4) the subject matter was highly controversial, since it was a thinly disguised biography of William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper mogul. The movie angered Hearst so much that none of the Hearst newspapers carried advertisements for the film and Hearst-employed film critics were harsh in their reviews. Other reviews were essentially good, but Citizen Kane was still a failure at the box office, and though it was nominated for nine Academy Awards, the movie won only the Best Original Screenplay award, which Welles shared with Herman J. Mankiewicz. Citizen Kane was voted the best film of all time in 1972 (and then again in 1998) by a panel of international film critics. In addition, film historians Thomas W. Bohn and Richard L. Stromgren, in Light and Shadows: A History of Motion Pictures (1975), wrote that Citizen Kane had the greatest influence on filmmaking since D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915), which had ushered in the art of storytelling in motion pictures.

Welles's second feature film, The Magnificent Ambersons, was released in 1942. The studio system made the film possible because Welles's style demanded extensive facilities, polished actors, and skilled technicians. For example, Welles filmed winter scenes in a cold storage locker, achieving the desired realism while still having complete control over lighting and camera positioning. Although The Magnificent Ambersons featured such additional technical innovations, it has generally received less attention because it followed so closely on the heels of Citizen Kane, which was released only one year earlier. During his career, Welles directed fewer than twenty feature films (some of which were never completed) but acted in more than sixty. In his later years, he primarily served as a "voice" (i.e., he did voiceover narration, hosted various television shows, and provided voices for animated characters).

Welles's personal life included three wives and at least two other long-term relationships. Welles eloped with actress Virginia Nicholson in November 1934. They had a child, Christopher, in 1937 but were divorced in February 1940. Welles had an affair with Dolores Del Rio, another actress, while she was still married to Cedric Gibbons. Welles married Rita Hayworth, the actress, dancer, and "pin-up girl," in 1943. The couple had a child, Rebecca, in 1944, but were divorced in 1947. Actress Paola Mori was the next woman to marry Welles, in May 1955; Mori and Welles had a child, Beatrice, that same year. During Welles's later years, his female companion was actress and director Oja Kodar. Welles suffered a fatal heart attack on October 10, 1985, at age seventy.

Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote in a December 1996 article in Cineaste that there are probably two main perspectives about Welles's career. Rosenbaum contends that one view, which is most common in the United States, is that Welles's life is a bit of a mystery with some wondering why Welles did not live up to his potential, referring to Citizen Kane as his one and only major achievement. The other view, according to Rosenbaum, looks at Welles's life more compassionately, objectively considering a body of work—from theater to radio to film—and giving credit to Welles beyond focusing simply on Citizen Kane.

See also:Film Industry, History of; Griffith, D. W.; Hearst, William Randolph; Paranormal Events and the Media; Radio Broadcasting, History of.


Anderegg, Michael. (1998). Orson Welles, Shakespeare, and Popular Culture. New York: Columbia University Press.

Bazin, André. (1972). Orson Welles: A Critical View. New York: Harper & Row.

Bohn, Thomas W., and Stromgren, Richard L. (1975). Light & Shadows: A History of Motion Pictures. Port Washington, NY: Alfred Publishing.

Callow, Simon. (1997). Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu. New York: Viking Penguin.

Cantril, Hadley. (1940). The Invasion from Mars: A Study in the Psychology of Panic. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Naremore, James. (1978). The Magic World of Orson Welles. New York: Oxford University Press.

Rosenbaum, Jonathan. (1996). "The Battle Over Orson Welles." Cineaste 22(3):6-10.

Thomson, David. (1996). Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles. New York: Knopf.

Lawrence N. Strout