John Houseman on “What happened to Orson Welles?”
Coming across the Autumn, 1962 issue of Sight & Sound at a flea market recently, I was struck by a John Houseman interview, who of all people, defends Orson Welles from that absurd question that seems to have plagued him ever since the fiasco of It's All True: "What went wrong?"
In 1962, Houseman had yet to write his own detailed account about guiding Herman J. Mankiewicz through writing the script for Citizen Kane, nor had he spoken to Pauline Kael. Which brings up an interesting point about the whole Citizen Kane writing controversy. From Houseman's point of view, his story is what indeed did happen, because he had no knowledge of what Welles was doing on his own in Hollywood, while he and Mankiewicz were holed up in Victorville. In fact, since the whole controversy mirrors the structure of Citizen Kane itself, is seems like it would be quite a fascinating idea to take the making of Citizen Kane, and tell it from four distinct point of views: Those of Welles, Houseman/Mankiewicz, George Schaefer and Joesph Cotten. It would certainly be far more more interesting than the lamentable mess of a movie that RKO 281 turned out to be!
INTERVIEW WITH JOHN HOUSEMAN
by Penelope Huston - Sight & Sound, Autumn, 1962
JOHN HOUSEMAN: (The writing of Citizen Kane) is a delicate subject: I think Welles has always sincerely felt that he, single-handed, wrote Citizen Kane and everything else that he has directed—except, possibly, the plays of Shakespeare. But the script of Kane was essentially Mankiewicz's. The conception and the structure were his, all the dramatic Hearstian mythology and the journalistic and political wisdom which he had been carrying around with him for years and which he now poured into the only serious job he ever did in a lifetime of film writing. But Orson turned Kane into a film: the dynamics and the tensions are his and the brilliant cinematic effects—all those visual and aural inventions that add up to make Citizen Kane one of the world's great movies—those were pure Orson Welles.
PENELOPE HUSTON: Do you think what has happened to Welles was inevitable?
JOHN HOUSEMAN: What has happened to Welles? What do people mean when they ask that question? Welles has a substantial body of brilliant work to his credit. I'm sure there's more to come. To complain that he hasn't ground out his annual quota of masterpieces is like complaining that Leonardo only left a few paintings behind him and a bunch of drawings, that some of the paintings haven't lasted because he used the wrong kind of paint, and what the hell was the man thinking of not to accomplish as much as Titian or Rubens? Orson is a prodigious but capricious worker: he has lived his life exactly as he wanted to. We, his friends and associates from the early days, always supposed that having started so early, he must also end early. We assumed that he would be carried off in middle age by some ghastly glandular disturbance, or else disappear on a freighter and turn up as a missionary on some obscure South Sea island. Since he has done neither, I can only assume that he'll soon come up with a fresh masterpiece: I hope—The Trial.
Orson is a very extraordinary artist with the gift of magic. Kane is filled with a personal magic so intense and durable that the film actually seems to get better and more immediate as the years go by.
Strangely, Houseman mentions Welles's upcoming film, The Trial, which he hopes will be a masterpiece. However, by this time, Welles considered Houseman as more of an old enemy than an old friend, and Houseman was invited at short notice to serve on the jury of the 1962 Venice film festival, where The Trial was supposed to be shown. Could Welles have abruptly pulled his film from Venice, once he found out that John Houseman was on the jury?
In any event, in 1969 John Houseman provided Pauline Kael with his own version of how Citizen Kane came to be written, but Ms. Kael never bothered to check his version against Orson Welles's own account of the same events. As a result, Kael's book is akin to leaving Susan Alexander Kane's segment out of Citizen Kane!
In this 1975 interview with John Houseman, by Kate McCauley, he says Kael's The Citizen Kane Book had caused an "idiotic controversy."
KATE McCAULEY: You worked very closely with Herman Mankiewicz on the script for Citizen Kane. I know this is a very old question, but do you have anything more to say about the controversy over whose film it really is?
JOHN HOUSEMAN: No. I wrote it all in my book (Run-Through) and I really have nothing to add to that because it's an idiotic controversy. It bores the hell out of me. Mankiewicz wrote a script, Gregg Toland was a wonderful cameraman and all that, but it was Orson's film completely. The argument is Orson's own fault. He wanted to be given all the credit because he's a hog. Actually, it is his film. So it's a ridiculous argument.
Houseman's final word on the subject came in 1983 when the third volume of his autobiography, Final Dress was published. He reproduced his diary entry for the day he met with Pauline Kael:
May 14, 1969: Long Chinese lunch with film critic Pauline Kael, who is doing a piece for The New Yorker on the authorshop of Citizen Kane and seems highly agitated over her "discovery" of Herman Mankiewicz. I gave her all the information I had and will send her more. (Without being disloyal to Orson I am glad that Mank's essential role in the making of that great film is finally to be recognized.)
In a footnote, Houseman added his own note of disapproval over Kael's final verdict, saying he felt she "underestimated Orson's contribution..."
JOHN HOUSEMAN: Kael's New Yorker pieces were later published as The Citizen Kane Book, which created considerable uproar in professional film circles. Her facts were correct and well researched, but, in her excitement over vindicating Mankiewicz, I have always felt she ended up underestimating Orson's contribution to the tone and quality of Citizen Kane.