ORSON WELLES – Seer, Genius, Maverick, Producer & Director: Writing about Hollywood, February, 1941
In February of 1941, just three months before Orson Welles first film as a director would be universally acclaimed as a masterpiece, Welles, who was only 26, had the gall, the nerve and the temerity to write a piece that was extremely critical about what he felt was wrong with the Hollywood system.
This brilliant piece of writing is perhaps one of the key reasons Welles career as a director would never take root in Hollywood. In retrospect, I think it is easily one of the great essays on Hollywood ever written by a film director. Re-reading it today, it is especially remarkable, since it is so accurate about what is still wrong with Hollywood. In fact, if it were to be published in The New York Times next week, (with the names of the actors and producers from 1941 updated to reflect the current names in Hollywood), I doubt if anyone would even realize it had been written over sixty-five years ago!
Unfortunately, one can also see the seeds of destruction that Welles planted when he wrote this piece. After all, when this article appeared, he was a young man who was quite obviously biting the hand that fed him. Citizen Kane would not be seen for three months. Welles was considered by many Hollywood veterans as a callow 26-year old youth who had undeservingly gotten a contract with a final-cut clause. Now, here is the bearded Mr. Welles,writing a impertinent article telling Hollywood's top producers and moguls what they are doing wrong. Back in 1941, I've no idea how many established directors had written articles that had been published, but I'm sure there weren't very many. So talk about nerve. Talk about audacity. Talk about not giving a damn! Here is Orson Welles imperiously criticizing the same moguls he would need to pitch story ideas to over the next several years. The very people he needed to woo if he wanted to continue making movies in Hollywood.
Even with his popular radio and theatrical triumphs behind him, this was not a good way to go about getting jobs as a director, or as Welles himself states in the opening line of his article, "to make friends in Hollywood." In short, this can be seen as the young Orson Welles declaration of principles to Hollywood, before his first movie was even widely screened. But unlike Charles Foster Kane, Welles never veered from these principles. In fact he wrote a companion piece 30 years later, "But Where Are We Going" (www.wellesnet.com/?p=85) which was still quite critical of the new direction Hollywood had taken in the late sixties.
Welles 1941 article also shows why, in all likelihood, Citizen Kane, would win only one Oscar, even though it was clearly the best picture of 1941. Hollywood and the moguls who ran it, were only too happy to put Orson Welles in his place and give him his comeuppanace. After all, you don't reward people who tear you down, even if they happen to be right. Perhaps this is why, some 65 years later, there is still no one in Hollywood who is willing to finance Welles last movie, The Other Side of the Wind. After all it's a movie by that crazy maverick, Orson Welles, which just happens to be all about Hollywood and what's wrong with it.
ORSON WELLES WRITING ABOUT ORSON WELLES
From Stage, February 1941 ______________________________________________
This article will probably make me no friends in Hollywood, but I haven't been making friends there at a rapid rate, and since my recent lectures on the motion pictures, it would be hard to say how I could make any new enemies.
I know it's a mistake to talk about Hollywood at all, but it can't be helped. As a matter of fact, I appear on the lecture platform only when I am flat broke. The money is easy, but it's hardly worth the trouble I get into.
I mention these personal matters because I'm here about to strike out at certain Hollywood institutions, and I'd like it understood that I'm not striking back at Hollywood.
I couldn't if I would. Hollywood has more to say against me, and says it, than I have to say against Hollywood. This is because I have proposed and contracted to do more work on a movie than anyone on the regular assembly line of the industry is allowed to do, and as though this weren't enough, for some time I didn't make the movie.
That's why I'm broke, and that's why I had to make that lecture.
I had the same trouble last year in New York. Almost everybody in the metropolitan area had failed to share my enthusiasm for a stage production of mine, which cost me everything I had made on the radio. I therefore spoke on "What's Wrong with the Theatre." The proceeds, together with additional sums even more dishonestly come by, were dedicated to another flop. A second lecture—called "What's Wrong with the Theatre"—provided the money for a trip to Hollywood.
This year I am a movie producer. But since I've only just produced a movie and don't get paid until I do, I've found it necessary to lecture on ''What's Wrong with the Movies."
Neither topic was my choice. The Lecture Bureau, which ought to know about such things, assures me that nobody at all wants to hear what I have to say about ancient Chinese ceramics, the origin of waterfalls, or regional planning, subjects on which I am fully as well grounded and informed as I am on motion pictures, as anybody in Hollywood will admit.
I'm told that people will only pay money to hear me say something I shouldn't. My lectures, it would seem, are mainly attended by the same elements which support those more pointless and most reckless of sporting exhibitions, whose expectation of disaster is very high. If this is so—if getting myself into trouble is the sum of my appeal as a public speaker—then in candor I must admit that I seldom disappoint my audiences.
The newspapers, to pay tribute where tribute is due, have contributed whole-heartedly to my success as a lecturer, by sharpening and polishing what they swear they heard me say. For instance, I take little credit for having said last year: "The theatre is dead." My own words, which were: "The theatre will never die," can scarcely be called a sizeable contribution to those immortal lines. The press, however, generously overlooked my negligible collaboration. Walter Winchell took the opportunity to point out that I was dead in the theatre, and George Jean Nathan proclaimed eloquently "The theatre will never die." Others, excoriating me for my ingratitude, were kind enough to record all my flops as smash hits and a widely syndicated cartoon showed me gorging myself at an expensive restaurant, attended by a skeleton dressed as a waiter and labeled "The Theatre."
The waiter motif appeared again this season when my "Actors are the servants of the public" was translated by the newspapers (somewhere between my lecture and the linotypes) into "Actresses should all be waiting on table." At this, Miss Bette Davis, in a special interview, leaped to the defense of waitresses, who, she said by way of rebuttal, are very nice people. Miss Ann Sheridan, surely in a moment of temper, stated for publication that I was no better than a Harvard undergraduate. The general feeling against me in the movie community, in fact, reached such an intensity of unfriendliness that I felt obligated to spend what I had made on the lecture advertising my apologies in the trade papers.
And so I'm broke again.
And so I'm writing this article—very glad indeed for the chance to state my sentiments in print as clearly as I can. And before I begin, I'd like to assure any readers I may have that any opinions I may express are prejudiced as little as possible by my own curious record in the movie business. I shall not deal with that record nor attempt to explain it since I am not the subject of this article, and anyone who cares to say I am is simply changing the subject.
Out of consideration for my feelings, I'm not going to talk-about myself any more. I'm going to talk about Hollywood because Stage invited me to, because I've retired from the lecture field, and I've got to eat.
Also, there are a few things wrong with Hollywood...
I've been here quite a spell now (long enough for the circumstance of my not making a movie to have become more generally interesting than my movie contract—which still exists—and my beard—which does not).
But I haven't lived here long enough to admit that I live here. Nobody ever does. The movies, that is, may be here to stay, but not the moviemakers. The notion of permanent residence is the assumption only of the California tax-gatherers, and citizens of twenty years' standing have scarcely unpacked. I myself know some of the oldest inhabitants of this Athens of the Southwest, whose possessions include estates, children born on the premises, and furniture imbedded in the heaviest of cement, whose delusion it is that they're occupying a hotel bedroom, not necessarily with bath, just passing through. Hollywood, apparently, is as hard to leave as Tahiti. Its inhabitants, deeply tanned but unresigned to the sunshine and the flowers, all confidently expect to take the next boat home—to write a novel, play another part on Broadway, resign, or commit suicide. But if nobody lives here, nobody leaves.
The gold rush is still on, for one thing. The boomtown is in its second generation, and the dirt—figuratively speaking at least—is still paying. Walter Wanger's fifteen-year-old description of Hollywood—"A western mining camp with service from the Ritz"—is still pretty accurate.
Grand Luxe on the frontier is certainly the peculiar and considerable charm of the good life, as we know it in the movie colony. But whether the good life is what keeps us here is an interesting question. The Grand Luxe is beguiling all right, but even the softest of our Hollywood species—the highest flier, let us say, no matter how deeply and contradictorily immersed in his swimming-pool—is bound to be intrigued by the other half of the combination: the frontier part of it. As it happens, the worst that can be said by the movie-buying public of movie-making Hollywood recommends it most to us who make movies (and, I hasten to add, we who have just made one). Hollywood is still a frontier. That it should be after all these years (the motion picture is an older institution in our time than the professional theatre was in Shakespeare's) is to the movies' shame and our advantage.
Bigger money or a bigger market can never be offered an art form, and the form itself is for every art a new hemisphere.
The actor is just now in possession of the means to act without the necessity to project. The close-up is the first new thing he's had to play with since he took off his mask three thousand years ago and added his face to his voice.
The dramatist, mostly impotent since the invention of the novel, has a new dimension now, a new thing to write besides words. Newly equipped with an imagery which is simply the image itself—more literal than sight and more eloquent than modern language—he is again capable of poetry.
A public is drafted for serious music whose composer (starving these days in opera and ballet, those monetary infeasibilities, and worse: esthetic bankruptcy) now finds himself, unbelievably, with a paying job and availed of a fresh and flexible narrative form.
Finally the director's art becomes a major art. It was a new art, apparent only just before the movies were invented, and its importance was exaggerated, and still is, in the theatre. But if an actor can do without a director, a camera can't. Call directing a job if you're tired of the word "art." It's the biggest job in Hollywood. (It should be anyway, and it would be, except for something called a producer.) If you don't like artists, call a movie director a craftsman. He won't mind. He's the world's happiest man, and if he isn't, it's because there are producers in the world.
I'm coming to producers in just a minute.
For the craftsman, the motion picture is a field of beautiful opportunity. The opportunity is just as beautiful for the merely crafty. Precisely according to the tradition of frontiers, Hollywood, with everything to offer anybody with anything to offer, has failed to restrict itself against the nobodies with nothing. The mere takers swarm. There is always room, on any frontier, for the untalented.
Beauty is syndicated for its own sake.
Power and glory, never cheaper than here, are obtainable without the nuisance of an utterly heartless exploitation of labor. Thus the extremely great among studio executives get more might for their money than all the other industrialists in history—a king's portion at cut-rates.
And it's always Christmas morning for the percentage boys.
These last (they would like to be called artists' representatives, but they will not be called artists' representatives by me) are many of them as comfortably situated as the average Maharajah; all are more accurately certain of their future.
Boom money has always cheerfully subjected itself to a good bit of finger sifting by interested third parties, none less deserving or better organized than the Hollywood agent.
Not that some agents aren't honest. (I heard one of the biggest tell another, "My office ain't been unethical in two years!") But even the hungriest stragglers in the pack strike every attitude of respectability—an attribute previously unmentioned in the record and richly undeserved.
Some agents do sometimes bring together someone who wouldn't otherwise get a job and someone else who wouldn't otherwise give it to him; but the majority of ankles into which these artists' representatives have clenched their parasitic teeth belong to people who need agents as much as a street-car needs an attendant stationed on its step to announce that for a fare the street-car will carry passengers along the track.
Other tolls are exacted in the movie industry: compulsory charities and space ads in the trade papers, but nothing hurts more than that tidy missing ten percent of your earnings that indicates you have somewhere, with your eyes open, voluntarily swallowed a tapeworm. It hurts because the money is likely to be worse than wasted. Unless your agent wraps you up in a package with a couple of other clients, involves you, that is to say, in some sort of swap or combination offer, he is telling you the truth when he tells you he's working in your interests. But your interests represent only a small percentage of the interests of your representative—less than ten percent, invariably. Your agent needs the goodwill of the studios more than you do, and so he can't afford to fight as hard for you as you could. He's either afraid of getting in bad with a producer, which makes him useless to you, or he's useless to you because he's in bad with a producer.
Sometimes an agent leaves the racket and gets a job as a producer. You can't blame him for trying to better himself. It's just too bad that anyone ever was an agent to begin with. Now that we're finally on the subject, it's too bad anybody ever gets to be a producer.
Only a little less superfluous than the agent and almost as successful, unlike certain others among Hollywood's middlemen (the publicity man and the columnist, for instance) the producer is not a necessary evil. He's unnecessary, and he's an evil.
The functions of the agent, with minor exceptions (appropriate payment for which could then be arranged for), could all be handled by a clerical bureau with a small fee above the cost of maintenance. The functions of the producer are already taken care of, and if they aren't they should be, since they're all somebody else's functions. Simply stated, the producer's functions are none of his business. The producer as a functionary is thus, naturally enough, hard to define.
In England, a producer is a man who stages a play; on Broadway, he is the man who finances a play; in Hollywood, he is the man who interferes with a movie.
I say nothing against the executive head of any studio. I wouldn't if I dared.
Several studio executives are seriously ignorant and some are absolutely foul. A lot of them are just old-fashioned small-time showmen who got in cheap on a new thing that turned out to be a sure thing and were shrewd enough to hang on.
With a few outstanding exceptions, none of them is very smart or very, very stupid. They are part of a success story. They had all the regulation Horatio Alger pluck and luck. Nimbly they stayed at the top of one of the world's fastest growing industries. They helped it grow, but it's also true that it couldn't help growing. It's grown too big for them—that's all right, if they're no longer young enough to grow, they're old enough to die. Let them die rich. They found more gold than they earned, but it's all theirs. None will outlive the boom, and nobody wants them to. Few are equipped to face an increased possibility of failure; very few deserve a new success. There are these few, I admit, a very few, in the valley of the shadow of prosperity, who've kept their eyes on the horizon. There are also men in charge of big studios who are undeniably gifted, honest, and even amenable to progress. The existence of these men cannot be overlooked. There are about three of them.
But a studio head is only occasionally, incidentally, and never properly speaking a producer.
A studio head is to the motion picture industry and the motion picture art what a publisher is to the book business and to literature.
A producer has no equivalent in any other craft or profession, which is one of the good things about any other craft or profession.
It's true there is such a thing in journalism as the editor, but an editor dictates policy—at the worst—and stops at that. He buys writers, but he lets them write. He collaborates very rarely, he tells you what he wants only if he knows what it is, and then he leaves you alone. When this article was commissioned, for example, no special functionary was delegated to supervise its execution. These words are not offered up as they're written down to somebody who thinks he could write better if he could write. Your (average) writer of movies knows such freedom only in his dreams, and then only if his producer leaves his dreams alone. Your (average) writer of movies is scarcely allowed to sign his name without submitting it to a story conference, and often begs permission not to sign it at all.
Like the writer—the actor and the designer of sets, and the composer of music, the cameraman, the wardrobe man, the make-up man—all are subjects of his undeniable highness, the Hollywood producer.
Please understand, I think a movie needs a boss. There has never been a motion picture of consequence that has not been, broadly speaking, the product of one man. This man has been the producer, could be the writer, has been and usually should be the director. Certain pictures are rightly dominated by their stars or even their cameramen.
Good pictures and even bad—like paintings—bear the signature, though it be unwritten, of this dominant personality—items: Selznick, Zanuck, Thalberg, Guitry, Von Sternberg, Von Stroheim, Vidor, Capra, Ford, Menzies, Sturges, Chaplin, Sol Wurtzel.
Not that the dominating personality of one picture is necessarily the dominating personality of another, though he be part of the second set-up. A motion picture dominated by Sol Wurtzel, for example, bears the Wurtzel stamp, but this can be eradicated in another picture of which he is officially the producer but in which, say, John Ford is the personality.
This dominant personality is the essential of style in the motion picture art. When it is absent, a motion picture is a mere fabrication of the products of various studio departments from the set builder to the manufacturer of dialogue, as meaningless as any other merchandise achieved by mass production.
Let's have more personalities in the picture business and let them dominate all they want to, but let them be the personalities of those who really make pictures. What we can do without is the dominating personality of a high-salaried official with nothing to do except dominate, and no other talent.
Actually and exactly this is the producer's only real function. Of course, he also "coordinates." He administers finances and schedules shooting, but so does an obscure, very efficient member of the studio system known as the unit manager.
What the unit manager can't do, the producer shouldn't.
It is argued that somebody is needed to pick the story for a picture, decide on its casting, and determine its esthetics. The director would seem a pretty obvious candidate for these jobs, and when he can, he claims them as his right.
When the director or somebody else nominally in the producer's charge manages to dominate the producer, the producer is harmless enough, but most producers manage, through the exercise obviously of the devious abilities which made them producers in the first place, to negate all other potential dominant personalities. The resultant motion picture at best is a coherent interpretation by the craftsmen he employs of what the producer, as dominant personality, asks for but can't execute.
At worst, what emerges is the worst that can ever be said of the Hollywood product—a motion picture without any personality at all.
As I leave this sketchy discussion of the motion picture producers, I feel it essential to point out that being a motion picture producer myself; I am utterly without bias on the subject.
I must further admit that producers, agents, and other personal grudges are merely contributors like myself to what's wrong with Hollywood, which is finally, absolutely and simply the scarcity of good movies.
There have been, I anticipate the answer, four or five pictures recently of truly adult excellence, but Hollywood makes almost six hundred feature pictures a year, and every year for almost twenty years has presented a public with at least a couple of pictures good enough to make it look as though Hollywood had come of age.
There is, I think, a moral or a conclusion to be drawn from this.
Ten years ago one of these pictures of truly adult excellence was (Lewis) Milestone's superb "All Quiet on the Western Front." A serious thinker attended the opening of this picture with Lionel Barrymore, and on their way to supper spoke passionately to Mr. Barrymore on the theme that pictures had finally hit their stride, that from now on—witness "All Quiet on the Western Front" — to deal with pictures would be to deal with a mature, a serious, and an important art. Mr. Barrymore was just as enthusiastic about the picture, but he asked our mutual friend not to forget the age-old situation to be encountered the world over in high-class brothels. Four or five rimes a year, beyond doubt, a patron would show up, said Mr. Barrymore, who would both ask for and listen respectfully to the Suite from Peer Gynt, or even the Symphony in D Major by Mozart. The rest of the year it was far more likely that the customers would get and like Frankie and Johnnie.