A National History Day student asks some interesting questions about ORSON WELLES
I recently received a letter from a 7th grade student in Mass. who asked me a series of interesting questions about Orson Welles. By a strange coincidence, I had just been talking with Joseph McBride about the upcoming group of younger Welles scholars. In any event, I was quite impressed by the intelligence of the questions about Welles and his career, especially coming from a student who was only in the 7th grade. So I thought instead of giving only short one or two sentence answers, I'd provide the answers to his questions here at Wellesnet, just in case there are any other budding Welles scholars out there who may also be writing about Orson Welles as an important "individual in history" for National History Day.
To begin, here is some background about the National History Day contest:
The National History Day contest engages students in grades 6-12, who engage in discovery and interpretation of historical topics related to an annual theme. Students hone their talents and produce creative and scholarly projects in the form of exhibits, documentaries, historical papers, performances, or web sites. After a series of district and state contests, the program culminates with a national competition at the University of Maryland in College Park each June.
Here is the letter I received along with my replies:
Dear Mr. French:
Hello, my name is Valentin Prince and I am a seventh grade student at a middle school in Somerville, Massachusetts. I am taking part in National History Day and I am writing my paper on Orson Welles. This project is a nation wide competition, and I hope to do well, so I am looking for more information on my topic. I have used your site as a large source of information for my project already, but I still have a few questions about Welles that I hope you have the time to answer:
Most of Orson Welles’ movies were very unpopular at the box office upon release, but some of his movies are now regarded as staples in the movie world, and Citizen Kane is widely regarded by critics as the best movie of all time. My question is: why do you think that Welles’ movies are so revered now, but when first released so unsuccessful?
This is the classic dilemma that all true artists face, but particularly artists who are considered "ahead of their time." Many movie classics from years ago were not very successful when they were first released. The prime example of this is The Wizard of Oz, which like Citizen Kane took years to break even. As did Walt Disney's Fantasia. All three of these movies were re-released in theaters after their initial runs, to much greater success and eventually all became movie classics.
But in terms of a different artistic medium, just think of important artists like Edgar Allan Poe and Vincent Van Gogh. In their lifetime of creative work, they could barely support themselves. In ten short years, Van Gogh completed nearly 1,000 paintings, each of which today is worth millions of dollars. But in his own lifetime, Van Gogh sold only two of his canvases!
Thankfully, Orson Welles was a success on the stage and in radio, before he ever went to Hollywood. But just imagine if Welles had only been able to make his living as a director of movies. In that case, it is very unlikely he would even been able to complete the 12 films he managed to finish in his career, although today most of these 12 films are widely considered to be milestones of the cinematic art.
The point to be made here is that great art rarely has any connection to great success, especially in the cinema. Citizen Kane was pretty much hailed as a masterpiece by every critic in America from the day of its arrival in 1941 (except for people writing for the Hearst press). However, it was simply a movie the public didn’t like. As a matter of fact I didn’t like it, either, the first time I saw it, when I was in High School. At the time I had no idea why people said it was the greatest movie ever made. However, when anything is difficult to understand or demanding, people seem to look to the experts to help them make up their minds. So it has now become almost impossible to say that Citizen Kane is not the greatest picture every made. Which is rather absurd, because Welles himself made a much better picture with Falstaff. Unfortunately, these "best of" lists which used to be fun to look at, have now become nothing more than marketing tools. In any case, it's dangerous to believe in the opinions of the so-called “experts” who tend to believe they are always right and you are always wrong.
This of course, was the theme of one of Welles's own later films, F For Fake. The public is supposed to blindly follow these experts, and believe everything they say. This seems to happen in all fields of the arts. Just look at the work of the sculptor Richard Serra. I personally find most of his work incredibly bad, not only conceptually but in execution. But art critics and museum curators tell us that these ugly slabs of steel are important works of art. Yet, a sculptor like Oja Kodar, who may make more beautiful works of art, is mostly unknown. Presumably, for exactly for the same reason Van Gogh was not discovered in his own lifetime, and why many minor painters who are now forgotten were considered to be great artists in their time.
So as Welles says in F For Fake, most experts views can often prove to be quite incorrect in the eyes of history. True art is in the eye of the beholder. So if you think Citizen Kane is a masterpiece, then for you, it is. If you don’t like it, why agree with the pack who parrot each other, if you in your heart disagree? Welles himself thought his best film was Falstaff, as do I and many other Welles scholars. Of course, that film is nowhere to be seen in the lists of best movies ever made. Probably one good reason why, is because many experts haven’t even seen it, including presumably most of the members of the AFI!
Orson Welles is a very popular man in the movie world, but he also is widely known for his radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds in 1938. Why do you think that this was such an important event for the world, and why did it make Welles so famous?
It was this event that really made Orson Welles career and contract at RKO possible. Welles had already established himself as a brilliant director on the stage in New York, and had appeared on the cover of Time magazine earlier in 1938, before the broadcast of The War of the Worlds. So when Welles’s famous broadcast caused such a panic in October of 1938, the massive coverage it received across the nation insured that there was literally no one in America who didn’t wake up on Halloween morning who didn't know the name of Orson Welles. The immediate result was that Welles's weekly radio show got upgraded with a sponsor, Campbell’s Soup, which allowed Welles's to hire name co-stars to act with him on the air, such as Katherine Hepburn, Laurence Olivier, Helen Hayes, Lionel Barrymore, Ida Lupino and Walter Huston. It wasn't long after that that Hollywood studios began to court Welles services as director and actor, with RKO winning out with it's offer of total artistic freedom.
How do you think that the world might be different today if not for Orson Welles?
This is a most interesting and rather perplexing question. Clearly, Welles early film work was extremely influential in inspiring more people than any other director in history to become directors themselves. So in terms of his influence world wide on the art of the cinema, it was clearly enormous. Then, when you multiply the work of the directors whose own works were inspired by Welles, his influence has to be considered nothing less than staggering.
Welles himself said in 1967, in his Playboy interview with Kenneth Tynan:
TYNAN: Given worldwide distribution of movies, do you think any film could change the course of history?
WELLES: Yes. And it might be a very bad film.
What other important background information can you tell me about Welles that you think I should include in my paper?
I think one important thing about Welles everyone should be aware of is this: There is a lot of false information about Welles out there, in print and on the internet, so don’t believe everything you read about him, even if it's here on Wellesnet! Much of it is simply not true, including what many biographers claim are statements made by Welles. Often these statements are taken out of context, or worse, simply made up! In general, the best books on Welles are those that document their sources, such as Simon Callow's biographies. By contrast, the two worst biographies of Welles are generally considered to be those by Charles Higham and David Thomson.
Mr. Higham came up with the well-know theory about Welles's supposed "Fear of completion." What else could possibly explain why there are so many unfinished Welles films? Welles himself was terribly upset by this theory, and I don’t believe it for a second, but there is no doubt, by Welles’s own admission, that he didn’t like to let go of his films. He wanted to keep on working on them as long as was possible. But that is not the same thing as having a fear of completion.
Another major point to be made about Welles is best expressed by him in another statement from his Playboy interview with Kenneth Tynan. Welles is asked “But how do you reconcile that (with what you just said):
WELLES: For 30 years people have been asking me how I reconcile X with Y! The truthful answer is that I don't. Everything about me is a contradiction, and so is everything about everybody I know. We are made out of oppositions; we live between two poles. There's a Philistine and an aesthete in all of us, and a murderer and a saint. You don't reconcile the poles. You just recognize them.
Do you know of any other sources that I could use to help me increase my knowledge on Welles?
Yes, right here at Wellesnet you can find practically anything you want to know about Welles. There are thousands of posts on our message board, and many articles you can sort through, including links to all the major books on Welles, as well as the Welles media resource page, where you can hear several of Welles major interviews and vintage radio shows.
Do you think that Welles is an important individual in history, and why?
Yes, without a doubt. Firstly, because Welles was very much a political artist. He wrote a column on world affairs in 1945, in one of the most important times in the 20th Century, and was very much involved in reporting on the founding of the United Nations. Welles was also one of the greatest artists in the field of the cinema, which is without a doubt the most important and only new art form that has come into being in the 20th Century.
Thank you so much for taking the time to read and answer these questions, as your answers will undoubtedly aid me significantly in my research and hopefully put me ahead in the competition.
You are most welcome, and I hope these answers help you advance in the contest.