Elia Kazan on Orson Welles Mercury Theatre in 1938
I find it quite fascinating to compare the legacy of two of America's greatest theatrical and film directors, Orson Welles and Elia Kazan.
Both were famous stage directors who started out in the thirties, and went on to make their best-known work in the movies. Mr. Kazan, however, became much more famous for his "naming names" in April, 1952 before that ridiculous and shameful side show of Congress known as The House Un-American Activities Committee. As Kazan was later to admit, this was a disgusting act on his part. Yet, like Orson Welles, Kazan was a lifelong liberal, and was (unlike Welles), actually a member of the communist party in 1935, when he was also a member of the Group Theatre, which shared the limelight on Broadway with Orson Welles’s Mercury Theatre in the thirties.
Of course, there is no doubt that Kazan was a great director of actors. Yet sadly, Kazan would never accept any responsibility for his “naming names.” In his autobiography, A Life, Kazan also goes into some detail to denigrate Orson Welles, for becoming fat and doing television commercials as he got older. Which made me think, “I wonder how I would view Orson Welles if he had appeared before the HUAC and had named names as Kazan did.” That probably wouldn’t change how I feel about Welles work as an artist, but I certainly would have very little respect for Orson Welles as a moral voice if he had done what Kazan had done. I think this is something any political artist must consider. For instance, Jean-Luc Godard essentially turned down his Academy Award this year, which certainly gives him a great moral authority, given that this same Academy had given Elia Kazan a Oscar for "Life Achievement " in 1999 . Of course, one of Kazan's most famous discoveries, turned down his Oscar in 1972 for The Godfather.
Welles, essentially did the same thing in 1970, by not showing up for his "honorary Oscar" even thought he was in Los Angeles to start work on The Other Side of the Wind. In fact Hollywood's hypocrisy is well demonstrated by Welles receiving an "Honorary" Oscar in 1970 and then getting the third AFI life Achievement award in 1975. It was precisely during those years that no Hollywood studio would come forth to back Welles and his new film. In a way, who could blame them, as a Welles movie would probably be released to baffled reviews, and certainly not make very much money. Today, there are still many who feel the The Other Side of the Wind should never even be shown. Yet in the seventies it was the era where everybody created whatever they wanted... and it often made money. So the studios heads would back any young director, yet "old man Welles " couldn't get any backing for his experimental movie which was far more worthy than anything done by Michael Sarne, Barry Shear, or any of the other young directors of that era!
Interestingly enough, both Kazan and Welles were very political artists who naturally made very political films, just as Godard does. Kazan's last film was based on F. Scott's Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon, who also wrote the short story Pat Hobby and Orson Welles, about Welles arrival in Hollywood in 1940.
Given the view Welles showed us about friends who later become traitors in Touch of Evil, Falstaff, and many of his other films, I don’t imagine Welles would have ever have caved into pressure to testify against anyone he knew, as Mr. Kazan did. Which is why I found it so strange to read Kazan complaining about Orson Welles supposedly “selling out” by doing TV commercials in his book!
Meanwhile, for the the record, here are the names of the 11 people Kazan’s testimony helped to ruin when he betrayed them by naming their names before the HUAC in April, 1952:
Paula Miller (Strasberg)
J. Edward Bromberg
So here is the young Mr. Kazan writing about Orson Welles direction of the Mercury Theatre in 1938, taken from Kazan on Directing. I'd say that the young Kazan was envious of Welles directing talent, and the "style" of his direction for the Mercury Theater. Of course, at the time Kazan was a mostly unknown name. He had acted in several plays with the Group Theatre, and although he had already directed five plays, he was certainly not the big name he would later become, when he staged an acclaimed play by one of Welles' first sponsors, Thorton Wilder (The Skin of my Teeth), followed by the sensational work he did with playwrights Arthur Miller (All My Sons, Death of a Salesman) and Tennessee Williams (A Streetcar Named Desire, Camino Real).
STYLE IN THE THEATER
By Elia Kazan (1938)
Style in considered an arty term in the theatre. Yet when an agent advises a playwright that the only director for his play is George Abbott (for farce or musical) or Jed Harris (for drama), they are talking about “style,” the style of production. Even safe directors have a style. Any sensible agent would be only too happy to entrust his client’s play to Guthrie McClintic, for McClintic gives his play “tone.” He’s definitely the modern expression of the old school who believes that the theatre had to sell glamorous, mysterious, and legendary beautiful personalities, and surround them with sterling actors, and beautiful décor—featuring flowers and the latest chapeaux. Thus Mr. McClintic takes an energetic, wholesome, intelligent woman with considerable beauty but with about as much mystery as a bar of soap and creates out of her a theatrical personality. (Kazan is referring of course to Katherine Cornell, who Welles appeared with as an actor, in his first major theatrical production of a Shakespeare play, Romeo and Juliet) .
There are some of the younger geniuses—everybody who has done one successful production of Broadway is a genius—who is aware of the rewards a conscious attitude brings. And chief among them is Orson Welles. Mr. Welles admits that his chief preoccupation is STYLE in his productions. He stars in an "Orson Welles Production." George Buckner (Danton’s Death) or William Shakespeare can't say what they feel about what Welles has done to their plays, but if you ask any of the actors who appeared in these works they tell you that all Welles is interested in is production. Mr. Welles hasn't been able to hold a single important actor; witness, Hiram Sherman, Martin Gabel, Burgess Meredith, George Coulouris, all of them quit Mr. Welles in disgust because they refused to be swamped in production or used as working parts in an affair of style, where nothing was suggested accept Mr. Welles's style.
Mr. Welles is only interested in HOW he does a production. He is a little vague as to what Caesar meant (in Welles's fascist themed production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar), or whether Danton was "revolutionary" or "counter-revolutionary," but he knew what he wanted from the lights in each case.
He has never consistently told an actor what he wanted from a performance in a way to make an actor know himself to be an artist, conscious and working toward a real performance, but he has without fail been able to tell an actor where to stand, where to run into the darkness, when to emerge from nowhere. In short, Mr. Welles has for two seasons done stunts with old plays. He has focused attention on the production, upon production as an art, and taken it off the play and the star--where it has been for the entire history of the American Theatre. But Mr. Welles, being merely interested in showing off, in stunting, in shocking, surprising, and upsetting a staid Broadway theatre, has nothing more to say than the theatre he is revolting against. In Mr. Welles's productions there is a certain vitality and energy, but no total meaning, no sense of the thick fabric of life, of its real BODY. Welles reduced theatre to the level of theatricalism, and this is anemic fare.