The fact that Orson Welles made Citizen Kane at the age of 25, reverberates, even twenty-six years after his passing, with Promethean splendor. The story of Charles Foster Kane however has one significant rival and superior, and that is the Life and Times of his creator, George Orson Welles. Born in Kenosha Wisconsin, in America’s Midwest, Welles came from a tradition of great sensibility. His father was an inventor and an investor in the automobile business, his mother was a woman of culture who taught young Orson how to play the piano and instilled in him a passion for literature. However, financial difficulties marred his early childhood, coupled with his parents’ troubled marriage. He would find stability under the care of Richard Hill, the headmaster of Todd School for Boys. It was in this period that Welles revealed his notoriously prodigious talents. He would stage Shakespeare plays and write extensively on the dramatist during his teenage years. However, on graduating, Welles turned down prestigious scholarships in American universities, seeking experience in Europe instead. While training to be a painter he travelled across Ireland. He would later boast in F for Fake, that he passed the audition for Dublin’s famed Gate Theatre by claiming to be an established Broadway star. It would not be long before Welles spun this white lie into golden truth.
He returned to America in 1933, at the height of the Great Depression. To curtail the high unemployment rate, President Roosevelt launched several schemes as part of his New Deal. One of them was the WPA’s Federal Theatre Project which directly subsidized artists, writers and other craftsmen working in the stage. This initiative, while brief, launched a Golden Age in American culture, nurturing future talents such as Elia Kazan, Arthur Miller, Paul Bowles, Joseph Losey, Aaron Copeland and others. Welles provided the Federal Theatre Project with its most storied successes and controversies. Working with African-American actors, Welles mounted a production of MacBeth, its setting and theme transplanted to Haiti, with Voodoo replacing medieval sorcery. This proved to be a great success, noted especially for its atmosphere and the high quality of its stagecraft. Welles’ more traditional film version of MacBeth (1948), made for Republic Pictures, evinced a similar focus on the primordial aspects of the play. Welles would revision Shakespeare again for another landmark success of 30s American theatre. Julius Caesar, which updated the action of the play to thinly disguised Fascist Italy.
Under his Mercury Theatre company, Welles also embarked on radio shows to fund his ambitious projects. Their radio adaptations included works such as Dracula, Les Miserables, along with popular fare such as The Shadow. Most famously, their landmark broadcast of The War of the Worlds created actual panic. The science-fiction classic was staged in the fashion of a contemporary news broadcast documenting an alien attack in contemporary New Jersey. So precise was Welles’ simulation of radio journalism, that listeners believed that an actual alien invasion was imminent. This incident would make Welles a household name in America, paving the way for a contract with RKO Pictures; a two-picture deal to develop and produce, with complete creative control, any project of his choosing. After mastering theatre and radio, Citizen Kane was but another step in Welles’ artistic development.
Although young and youthful, Welles projected himself into figures of great age and remoteness. Citizen Kane dwells longer on the middle-aged and the older Kane, than the brash, arrogant youth seen at the film’s early sections. Aging was Welles’ preferred theme, he conceded to Peter Bogdanovich as much, but he admitted that it wasn’t good at the box-office. Heralded as an artistic and technical breakthrough in later years, in its own time Citizen Kane was controversial for its alleged biographical connection to real-life media mogul William Randolph Hearst. Up to his film-making debut, Welles’ career was one of ascendancy, a success and scandal after another success and scandal. Rather than marking the beginning of his film career, Kane marked the start of a slow irreversible exile away from the mainstream of American culture. As he would wearily lament in F for Fake, “I started at the top and worked my way to the bottom.” The Magnificent Ambersons, his second film made for RKO was famously botched during its post-production and a documentary on Brazil was prevented from completion. After directing two stylish genre films, The Lady from Shanghai and The Stranger, Welles bade goodbye to Hollywood for good; barring the striking exception of his 1958 film noir Touch of Evil.
The greater part of Welles’ life and career was spent in Europe. His fame and demand as an actor allowed him to fund his ambitious directorial projects. His most iconic performance in a film not directed by him comes in Carol Reed’s The Third Man. His fees for that film funded the itinerant production of The Tragedy of Othello, which proved to be as visionary and innovative a work of cinema as his 30s theatre productions. Made piecemeal over four years, the film nonetheless went on to win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. This film marked the beginning of Welles’ career as an independent film-maker, as per critic Jonathan Rosenbaum. The hardships of this period bear fruit in several troubled productions, most notoriously Mr. Arkadin, as well as films which remained unfinished at the time of Welles’ death in 1983(Don Quixote, The Deep, The Dreamers, The Other Side of the Wind). Yet this period also produced three completed works that reveal Welles at the height of his powers and imagination. The 1974 F for Fake, wreaks havoc with the conventions of non-fiction cinema, while his adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Trial (starring Anthony Perkins, of Psycho fame) conjures some of 20th Century cinema’s most nightmarish images.
Welles’ own personal favorite was Chimes at Midnight, which proved to be the culmination of his lifelong engagement with Shakespeare. Sir John Falstaff, described by Welles as “the only good man in all of Shakespeare”, has more lines in the canon than any other character, save for Hamlet. By placing him at the centre of his adaptation of the Henriad cycle, Welles created an elegiac meditation on ‘Merrie England’, a Golden Age which fades with the decline of the fat knight. Welles noted to Peter Bogdanovich that the fact that humans could believe in a Golden Age, the belief in a past richer in achievement than the present, is one of humanity’s greatest glories. By the same measure, the life of Orson Welles is one of the great treasures of the 20th Century.Picture by Cecil Beaton, Portrait of Orson Welles, 1937