Walter Kerr on “Wonder Boy” Orson Welles
A few months ago I found several old issues of Theatre Arts magazine in the tenderloin district of San Francisco, a few short blocks from where Wellesnet "legend" Glenn Anders lives. The mags were priced at a big 100% mark-up over their original price.
Well, since the original price was only .50 cents, they were actually great bargains, so I quickly grabbed several issues, including the September, 1951 copy that featured an article by Walter Kerr assessing Orson Welles career in both theatre and film, up to that point. Indeed, in 1951 Welles had only been active for 15 years in radio, the stage, and on the screen, and he had already become something of a legend. Or, according to Walter Kerr, a legendary "has-been."
Which is why I thought Kerr's article was way off the mark. Especially since he begins by stating:
(Welles's) fourth career—that of international joke, and possibly the youngest living has-been—has occupied him for the past five or six years, and threatens to become the only one by which he will be remembered and dismissed.
However, after that rather attention-grabbing opening statement, Kerr goes on to praise Welles work as director, while at the same time savagely attacking his work as an actor.
After my initial reading of Kerr's article, I thought it would be fun to tear his smug opinion of Welles apart, just as can be so easily done with the inaccurate and idiotic pieces that have been written about Welles by people like Charles Higham, Pauline Kael and David Thomson.
However, I found this rather difficult to do.
Because Kerr voices his negative feelings about Welles the actor, as his own opinions. He doesn't try to mix his opinions into the facts about Welles' career, in order to make some dubious point, as Kael, Thomson and Higham so readily do.
In fact, in Kerr's article, there are none of the errors and factual mistakes that can be found in the books on Welles by that Unholy Three. Instead, Kerr neatly sums up Welles career until 1951, mentioning almost every major film and stage production he had produced until then.
What is even more important, Kerr had actually seen several of Welles's stage productions. So his description of the Harlem Macbeth, for instance, brings out this interesting point:
''(Welles's) backed the banquet scene with a blasting recording of The Blue Danube Waltz."
A rather fascinating footnote for a play that can no longer be seen and evaluated, but quite germane, since Kubrick would use the Blue Danube Waltz so effectively 32 years later in his score for 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Even stranger, if you play The Blue Danube Waltz to Welles's film of Macbeth, you can easily see how, with a bit of music editing, the piece would beautifully fit in with the sequence. It's also worth noting how carefully choreographed the banquet scene is: As Macbeth arrives everyone rises in unison, and later everyone rises to give Macbeth a toast. When Macbeth sees the ghost and upends the banquet table, there is a perfect crescendo that matches that action in the Strauss music. Perhaps someone in Europe, where the Macbeth DVD can more easily be found, could add the The Blue Danube music to the Macbeth banquet scene and post it on YouTube!
In any case, here is Walter Kerr's somewhat schizophrenic article on Orson Welles, alternating as it does from praising Welles's for his directing genius, to damning him for his lack of acting ability:
WONDER BOY WELLES
By Walter Kerr
THEATRE ARTS — September 1951
Orson Welles once made a picture—The Magnificent Ambersons—about a boy who got his comeuppance. Mr. Welles' own comeuppance is now a matter of record. At thirty-six, the wonder boy has been through at least three careers: spectacular success in the theatre, spectacular success in radio, spectacular success in films. Of each spectacular success he has made an equally spectacular mess. His fourth career—that of international joke, and possibly the youngest living has-been—has occupied him for the past five or six years, and threatens to become the only one by which he will be remembered and dismissed. I hope not.
There is no denying the justice of the ridicule, which has pursued the latter-day, or maybe middle-day, Welles. He has made, and then unmade, a motion picture Macbeth in which the actors delivered the Shakespearian lines with a Scotch burr. He has produced plays on the continent, which were hooted off the stage. He has hammed up many a Twentieth Century-Fox costume epic in which he was cast as a Borgia or some unreasonable facsimile thereof. And he also seems to have fallen into the unattractive habit of explaining to the press, in pained tones, that a good many of these debacles were caused by mechanical breakdowns, hostile environment factors, evil spirits, or just about anything except his inability to assay, and make judicious use of, his own personal equipment.
By now Welles' stock has fallen so low that if he were to bite himself to death in one of his more impassioned performances, his obituaries would probably have more to say about the entirely accidental phenomena of his 'Mars' broadcast than about any of his real achievements. In the popular mind he is vaguely remembered as a sonorous voice called The Shadow, and more concretely as an ex-husband of Rita Hayworth who developed a fondness for publicly sawing her in half. If the tag 'wonder boy' still sticks, it sticks without any general awareness of how it may have been earned, or whether it was ever earned at all. The supposition probably is that he invented it for himself. Even those of us who do remember the good, the promising, the exciting things about Orson Welles are not much inclined to say so any more. We have a feeling that our earlier enthusiasm may not have been justified, that we may have been taken in.
This is as unfair, as ungracious, and as ungrateful as it was understandable. It is one thing to plug for the comeback of a man who has failed in a more or less dignified fashion. A quiet obscurity may be the prelude to renewed fame. But a noisy, busy obscurity is something else again. Welles has let himself turn into a buffoon, and buffoonery is a quality hard to erase from the public mind. In fact, the imprint of the clown is by now so firm that the talents Welles once displayed as a serious, or at least respectable, director, producer, and scenarist have been all but obliterated.
They're worth recalling. It's true that there always was an air of extravagance about Welles' work as a director, and when he set Macbeth in Haiti, cast it with Negroes, and backed the banquet scene with a blasting recording of The Blue Danube Waltz, he was pulling off a stunt. But he pulled it off. When he did a bare stage, modern dress Julius Caesar, there was still an air of effrontery about the whole business but there was also some sound, legitimate excitement. By the time he turned to the long-forgotten Shoemaker's Holiday and gave it a roaring, accurate Elizabethan production, he was thoroughly legitimate. His direction of the later Native Son was the only good thing about that production: what tension the play had was infused, and infused by Welles.
His work in radio was not confined to the night he inadvertently scared the wits out of half of America. His dramatizations were among the best ever done on the air. I remember listening with fascination to an hour-long version of Around the World in Eighty Days at a time when I couldn't normally have kept a radio tuned in for three minutes. His innovations by way of the then undeveloped narrator technique became the standard, and best, practice of the medium, and his inventive transitional devices are still imitated.
Citizen Kane was an astonishing film not simply because Welles had dared come within an inch of libeling Hearst. Nor was it a good film simply because Welles had put ceilings on the sets or dabbled in odd camera angles. The film was distinguished for its electrifying cutting: In his first try, Welles had used the essential tool of the medium more precisely and more effectively than any director in the ten years before him.
As a director, Orson Welles may always have been excessively theatrical, though I can't think this much of a vice at a time when so much stage direction is so studiously un-theatrical. He may have borrowed heavily from the Gate Theatre in Dublin, from Piscator, from Hitchcock—though I never saw anything of his that didn't bear his unmistakable personal stamp. Whatever defects his work may be charged with, everything he did had a buoyant air about it, a challenging exuberance, and it was impossible to go to something he had directed or produced without feeling that you were in for some fun. At his best, he was legitimately exciting; at his worst, he was never dull.
The 'wonder boy' came by his title honestly, and it is dishonest of us to forget it. He was and probably still is a first-rate director, producer, and scenarist. In fact, the only thing that was ever seriously wrong with Orson Welles was his unfortunate notion that he was an actor. Everybody's talent stops some place, and Welles' covers a lot of ground before it gets winded. But it does stop. It stops somewhere just short of the footlights.
I think everybody in the world has always known about the ham in Orson except Orson. He has concealed it from himself with a remarkable tenacity. He must, in fact, be one of the most resolutely obtuse men now wondering what hit him—he has been able to see himself emote in pictures, and he still wants to act. And, because he is constitutionally incapable of resisting the temptation to cast himself, he has turned each of his budding careers into a battle between the imaginative director and the dead fish performer. If he has lost every battle, it is Orson in grease paint who has done the dirty work. And it is Orson in grease paint who began the legend of the buffoon.
The issue was pretty clear from the beginning. Welles called attention to himself—with an assist from Ashton Stevens—when, still in his teens, he produced a newsworthy Hamlet on a vacant second floor out in Woodstock, Illinois. Katharine Cornell picked him up as an actor, for her Romeo and. Juliet Company. Quickly and wisely, she put him down again. Welles might have taken this as an omen, or even as a piece of advice; but his curious ability to resist self-analysis won out, and he established the pattern of sudden success—sudden failure which has become the distinguishing mark of his career.
His first Broadway triumph, after his provocative forays with the Federal Theatre, came with Julius Caesar and the establishment of the Mercury Theatre. There were hosannas for this one. Robert Benchley enthused that there were now two ways of doing Shakespeare, the old way and the good way—Welles had discovered the good way—and Alexander Woollcott was in seventh heaven. With the Mercury's second successful production, The Shoemaker's Holiday, it began to look as though Welles had established not only himself but also the first workable repertory theatre on the American scene. For his third production, the conqueror of Broadway cast himself in the leading role. The play was Heartbreak House, the part was that of Captain Shotover, and the man running screaming up the aisle was Alexander Woollcott. The love affair between Orson and Broadway was over.
Citizen Kane made him a figure in Hollywood. It also played a dirty trick on him and helped confirm him in his own most destructive ambition. Welles had not only directed the film—brilliantly—but he had acted the leading role and apparently his performance hadn't spoiled anything. Actually, he had played in Caesar, too, and that had been successful. Why shouldn't he act? The loophole, in Kane as in Caesar, was the kind of part he had assigned himself, and the only kind of part he ever could play: cold, intellectual, and emotionally dead. The part recurs in Harry Lime of The Third Man, and, characteristically, this is the only acceptable thing Welles has done in the past six or seven years. Not that he plays this part exceptionally well—George Sanders would do it better—but he does it passable. What has never struck Welles is that this thin, expressionless vein—an emotional vacuum hardened into a mask—constitutes his entire range as a performer. The moment he steps outside it he must thrash about like a man in danger of drowning, which he is.
As an emotional actor Welles is without insight, accuracy, power or grace; in short, without talent. His substitution of scowls, sudden shouting, and arid rapid unintelligible speech for the nuances of the craft gels him nowhere. Single-handedly he has destroyed at least three films of potential merit: Jane Eyre, The Stranger, and The Lady from Shanghai. Jane Eyre was almost a very good rendering of the Bronte classic; it had sensitive performances from Joan Fontaine and other members of the cast, it had a nice suggestion of the right atmosphere, and it had shrewd direction and camera work; it also had Mr. Welles as Rochester, and the producers would have been better off with Eddie Anderson in the part. The Stranger was a taut little melodrama which Edward G. Robinson and Loretta Young did a lot to keep taut; they were, however, confronted with the spectacle of Mr. Welles, as a disguised Nazi spy, walking through the film with an expression on his face which would have brought out the entire staff of Bellevue in an instant, and how they were able to keep their faces straight, I shall never know. The Lady from Shanghai was directed by Welles, and his work in this capacity was, as always, interesting. The violent finale in a Hall of Mirrors may have been pure Hitchcock, but it was good Hitchcock, and much of the rest of the film was fresh in feeling, well acted, and suspenseful. Mr. Welles had, however, cast himself as a happy-go-lucky young Irishman, the romantic lead opposite Rita Hayworth, and that was the end of that one. The fact that he looks like an adolescent Satan did nothing to dissuade our hero from playing the part or to make the love story even remotely convincing.
After one Hollywood catastrophe too many, Welles headed back toward Broadway—with an unusual and promising—musical version of Around the World in Eighty Days. The show had a bagful of theatre tricks, a score by Cole Porter, attractive performances by Arthur Margetson and Mary Healy. When the show went out of town to try out, it wasn't quite right. The production needed work the direction needed work. Welles ‘solved’ the problem by throwing out the leading man and taking over the part. The show came in, and missed. To this day there are those who think Around the World could have been fixed if Welles, the director, had minded his business and buckled down to it.
The film Macbeth came next, with Orson as the Thane of Cawdor. This little turkey has already had its dressing, and there is nothing to be added in the way of jocular remarks. There is something to be added, though, in the way of lamentation. Macbeth need not have been an altogether lost cause. It had the usual interesting camera work. It had a strikingly barbaric atmosphere, by way of reminding us of Welles' sharp intuition for shooting fresh blood into old bores. And it had an arresting, largely superimposed structural line which turned the witches into druidical outcasts determined to wreak revenge on a society just turned Christian. By this device, handled pictorially for the most part, the witches were made plausible in themselves and more acceptably integrated into the narrative line. If this represented something of an embellishment on Shakespeare, it did no more—and it did it rather more coherently—than Laurence Olivier's development of the incest motif in Hamlet. And it also served to remind us of Welles' talents as a scenarist. The audience with which I saw Macbeth—an average, not an intellectual audience—attended the film closely and with some interest up to a point. The point was reached when Orson began to burble a soliloquy. From then on the candy wrappers were deafening.
There would be no point in belaboring the bad in Welles if there were not so much good in Welles. The American theatre is not notably overstocked with directors capable of making Doctor Faustus a vivid and believable experience. It is not wallowing in producers imaginative enough to spot The Shoemaker’s Holiday as a possible commercial success. Hollywood has not been turning out the like of Citizen Kane with any regularity, and even Hitchcock isn't always up to the best parts of The Lady from Shanghai. Television is starving.
If Welles were willing to throw in the towel as an actor, it's my guess that he could find plenty of work to occupy him in the American theatre. There is some possibility that he will return to this country soon—presumably after cleaning up a little misunderstanding with the income tax people—and it will be nice to see him back, provided we don't have to see him.
Welles is once supposed to have arrived somewhere for a lecture engagement only to be confronted with a dismally small audience and no one on hand to introduce him. He is thereupon supposed to have introduced himself as Orson Welles, producer, director, scenarist, magician, editor and actor, concluding with the remark that ‘It's a pity there are so many of me, and so few of you.'
The trouble with Orson Welles is that there is just one too many of him, and a quick—and for the rest of us, painless—amputation might restore an invigorating talent to a theatre which could make use of it.