(Air Date: Week Of 5/1/91)
Orson Welles' early years were so spectacular that movie cultists might have preferred that he'd lived fast, died young and left a good-looking corpse. Media mourners tend to glorify sleek young gods and goddesses like James Dean and Marilyn Monroe who never disappoint us by growing old or fat or ridiculous. When Welles died at the age of seventy, he left behind an uneven but extremely memorable body of work. Movie hype is so pervasive that it's hard to separate the individual filmmakers from the legends that surround them. The overwhelming fame of "Citizen Kane" has unfairly eclipsed virtually every other project Welles tried to do and practically no one remembers that Welles had to wear a girdle throughout the film or that the film lost $10,000 when it was originally released in 1941.
Like everyone else, Orson Welles had only one chance to be 25 and he certainly made the most of it. He knew next to nothing about making a movie and his very innocence helped to make "Citizen Kane" the unique experience that it is. It was his one and only chance to be a kid running loose in R.K.O.'s candy store. His second movie "The Magnificent Ambersons", was a beautifully crafted interpretation of a Booth Tarkington novel, but it marked the beginning of Welles' nightmares with studio-enforced editing. A preview audience responded poorly to the finished film so R.K.O. insisted that forty minutes be trimmed before the film's release. Even when the studio stuck it on a double bill with "Mexican Spitfire Sees A Ghost", the movie lost $624,000 and R.K.O. was gun shy about their 26-year-old former boy wonder.
He started but never finished "It's All True", an Ill-fated South American documentary and the next two films he made for R.K.O. were directed by others. He directed his 1946 swan song at the studio when he was only thirty and promptly won a worst actor award from the Harvard Lampoon for his performance in "The Stranger". In the last three-odd decades of Welles' life, he made gems like "Jane Eyre", "The Lady From Shanghai" (a box office failure), "The Third Man" and "Touch Of Evil", but he also appeared in many movies his admirers felt were unworthy of him and, of course, that notorious series of wine commercials.
In honour of Orson Welles' birthday this week, you might enjoy seeing some of his classic films on video. All the titles I've mentioned are available, as well as his low-budget version of "Macbeth", and all hold up on countless repeat viewings. Orson Welles may have had a stormy and often disappointing love affair with the movies, but his work reveals that he never really lost his innocence or enthusiasm for life.
Copyright 1991 Monica Sullivan
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