ORSON WELLES’ ALMANAC: On John Barrymore and Cecil B. DeMille
In his third column Welles really hits his stride, producing an absolute gem! Here he pontificates for the first time on two of the great actors and directors of the time: John Barrymore, who was a great friend to Welles when he first came to Hollywood, and C. B. DeMille, who was more of a nemesis. So there is little surprise in seeing how Welles stands up for the memory of John Barrymore, while noting that Mr. DeMille was little more than a Fascist. Welles, as it turns out, was quite correct about DeMille, as we now know from the famous directors guild meeting where Mr. DeMille attempted to force a loyalty pledge from film directors during the McCarthy era witch hunts. Ironically, it was Welles own favorite Hollywood director, John Ford who stood up to DeMille and basically called C. B's proposal "Un-American" since they attempted to suppress the right to the individuals freedom of speech, as well as the artist's right to freedom of expression.
What is even more interesting is how Welles's takes such an interest in the progress of the war in Italy. This in especially important because at the time, Welles had already made his own neo-realist style documentary in Brazil, while in Italy, in 1945, Roberto Rossellini and Vittoria De Sica were shooting their first Neo-realist masterpieces, after the yoke of Mussolini's Fascist rule had been overturned. Later, when Welles actually saw the first Italian neo-realist films, he was especially taken by the simple poetry of DeSica's SHOESHINE.
In this column we also get Welles's feeling about hack biographies, such as Gene Fowler's tome on John Barrymore. Welles writes, " I suggest that a collection be taken up among (Barrymore) enthusiasts, the money to be used to buy the rights to Mr. Fowler’s book and keep it off the screen." Ironically, this advice could apply today to hack biographies about Orson Welles, such as those produced by David Thomson and Charles Higham, but luckily, Hollywood producers have been wise enough to not even bother optioning such "disgraceful" biographies.
ORSON WELLES' ALMANAC
By Orson Welles - January 24, 1945
January 24th is St. Timothy’s Day and St Babylas’ Day.
Recipe Department: A teaspoonful of chocolate will improve the taste of your coffee …An almanac is supposed to provide this type of useful information, but readers should be warned now that this almanac is got out by a very short order cook.
Little Known Fact Department: The fascist salute was invented by the Hollywood film director, Mr. C. B. DeMille. There is no record that any of the Caesars were hailed by the now famous stiff-armed gesture. It first appeared in a silent movie, “the Eternal City.” As a matter of fact, a great part of the pomp and pageantry of Fascist spectacles is just so much Cecil B. DeMillinery.
Foreign Affairs Department: We did ourselves no good when we refused, for such a long time, to recognize DeGaulle. Now our refusal to recognize the democratic elements in Italy is driving many of our friends there into the Communist Party. A Fascist major—an Anglo-American appointee—rules Naples today, and the people of Naples can’t do anything about it. Romans are revealing the depths of their cynicism over the ways of Allied rule by scrawling on the wall off the city freed from Fascism: “Give us back the old stinker!”
Special note: Vittorio Mussolini is at home to his remaining friends in a Milan hotel. He is registered as Pietro Lombardone.
Under the armistice terms accepted last year by Badoglio, the Allies refuse to permit the Italian government to send aid to the Partisans fighting Nazis in north Italy. Now, General Alexander has appealed to the Partisans to demobolize. A few tried to obey, but when they returned to their homes, local Fascists put the finger on them. The Nazis captured them and they were hanged.
Department of Military Certainties: An army of 110,00 men simply cannot lay down its arms in enemy territory.
Personal Opinion Dept.: For the first time since many seasons before his death, there is a great scramble to put John Barrymore in the movies. In Hollywood, the mightiest among the Satraps are vying for the rights to Fowler’s boozy biography of him, “Good Night, Sweet Prince.” This is a tireless pub-crawl of a book with the author tagging along after his subject from chapter to chapter, buying him the drinks and shouting, “Atta boy!” on the top of each page, and “You tell ‘em, Jack!” at the bottom.
Who will play Barrymore? In filmville that’s one of the hottest questions today. One myopic producer went so far as to offer it to me. I wouldn’t wish that part on John Wilkes Booth. The luckless player who tries it is committing suicide. If he manages to substitute his own personality for Barrymore’s, he’s committing murder. We think of Jack as he really was …“alas poor ghost,“ we’re tempted to say. But we already know the answer. The great voice rumbles up to us—“Pity me not!”
Jack could live through anything and he was immensely entertained at the circumstances of his own survival. In his last most self-destructive period, he sustained the Barrymore legend on the level of low comedy, but he was never merely a buffoon. At his worst, he was the last Bohemian, and he was always the Old Romance personified—the ambassador form the Nineteenth Century. No matter what he did, he was the living symbol of the living theatre.
They built a memorial for Will Rogers. I think Jack deserves one too. And I suggest that a collection be taken up among his enthusiasts, the money to be used to buy the rights to Mr. Fowler’s book and keep it off the screen.