An interview with Marguerite Rippy on her new book, ORSON WELLES AND THE UNFINISHED RKO PROJECTS by Jake Hinkson
Jake Hinkson who frequently writes about Orson Welles at his blog, The Night Editor, has sent along this informative interview he conducted with Marguerite Rippy for Wellesnet readers to enjoy.
By Marguerite Rippy
Interviewed by Jake Hinkson
Inttoduction by Jake Hinkson
Southern Illinois University Press has just released Orson Welles and The Unfinished RKO Projects: A Postmodern Perspective by scholar Marguerite Rippy. In it, the author provides an in-depth look at the many projects Welles worked on but never brought to fruition during his tenure at RKO. There aren’t many filmmakers whose uncompleted films could sustain such a thorough investigation, but Rippy deftly demonstrates that Welles’s work during this period was intriguing both in terms of subject matter and proposed execution.
Rippy begins with an examination of Welles’s often overlooked innovations in theater and radio and seeks to explain their impact on his novice forays in film. Drawing on archival materials from the Welles Manuscripts housed at the Lilly Library in Bloomington and the Richard Wilson collection at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, she investigates the origins of Welles’s attempts to film a subjective camera version of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, his plan to film a version of the gospels set in the Old West, and his proposed adaptation of Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers with W.C. Fields. She also provides an interesting look at the way in which Welles’s burgeoning interests in documentary film and South American culture created the perfect storm of It’s All True. What The Unfinished RKO Projects makes strikingly clear is that Welles used his time at RKO as a kind of laboratory training period. Throughout his career Welles was a constant experimenter. With her new book, Rippy has given us a valuable look at his first experiments.
I recently had a chance to discuss Orson Welles and The Unfinished RKO Projects with its author, Marguerite Rippy.
JH: What was the impetus for this book? Why Welles, and specifically, why Welles during his relatively brief tenure at RKO?
MR: Originally, I was working on a project regarding Welles and his 1938 radio adaptations of Charles Dickens—I was interested in Welles’s experiments with mass media adaptation and his techniques of interacting with a broadcast audience. While working in the archives of Indiana University’s Lilly Library on that project, I was overwhelmed by the amount of previously unstudied archival material on Welles during this formative phase of his career. Welles’s first interactions with Hollywood reveal his struggle to translate his performance theories from radio and theater onto the screen, and this struggle is key to understanding his later cinematic styles and themes. I think people tend to privilege Welles’s work in cinema over his stage and radio work, even at this early stage when he was clearly working with all three media simultaneously. It’s fascinating to watch his ideas regarding mass media and performance evolve during this period in his career.
JH: The subtitle of your book is “A Postmodern Perspective.” Do you consider Welles a modernist or a postmodernist?
MR: First, I don’t think these categories are necessarily mutually exclusive. The boundaries between the movements are blurry, and Welles’s career spanned what is usually seen as the chronological period that provides a transition between the two movements. But if I were forced to categorize his work overall, I would say that the films of his that were distributed and marketed to the public have a distinctly modernist style; however, his collaborative working method, interest in adaptation, and thematic preoccupation with media constructions of truth are very postmodern. Since these last three areas are the major topics of my study, we ended up with the “postmodern perspective” subtitle.
JH: In your book you write about Welles’s failure to create a commercially viable artistic brand as a moviemaker. What was the essence of that brand, and why did it fail to take hold during his lifetime?
MR: One of the chief hallmarks of the Wellesian brand is a preoccupation with the schism between public and private selves in larger-than-life figures—Kane, Kurtz, Christ, in the early phase of his career. His brand is also marked by intellectually elitist but socially progressive themes, a funny and self-deprecating narrative voice, and a visually alluring style that utilizes and yet transcends the film noir vocabulary. He is himself one of his greatest projects. He became one of these larger than life characters, which helps his popularity remain safely intact posthumously. He is a cultural touchstone, a man who is recognized even by people (like my freshmen) who have not seen his films. His resonant voice played a role in his iconicity, of course, but he was also acutely aware of and adept at self-performance. I often use a quote he scribbled in a journal written around his 20th birthday to help explain why I find the personal Welles as elusive as the personal Charles Foster Kane. Welles noted, "we are all of us merchants of our biography, buying the future with the past." I think he didn’t see a clear line between truth and fiction when it came to either narrative or self-creation.
JH: It seems to me that Welles was correct when he once told Peter Bogdanovich, “God, how they’ll love me when I’m dead.” Why do you feel that his posthumous artistic brand has met with more success?
MR: The Wellesian brand struggled during his lifetime because (as he acknowledged) he was never a very savvy businessman. In my book I contrast him with “star” directors like Steven Spielberg who are adept at packaging themselves, even creating companies like DreamWorks to support the marketing and distribution of their projects. Welles always had trouble “selling” his own cinema products—he was good at the initial pitch, but bad at the final packaging and marketing of his products. In part, I think he never felt his projects were really finished. His creative process was complex, his interests diverse, and he tended to keep revising projects even as he worked. He was an excellent huckster for other people’s products—for Paul Masson wine, which secured his posthumous pop culture image, for example--but he was never a great salesperson when it came to his own work.
My short answer for his continued niche popularity is that his experimentation with media and performance influenced many later filmmakers and performance artists, and that the breadth of his interests connected him to a wide range of audiences. Even during his lifetime, his diverse political and aesthetic interests earned him fans throughout Europe, the Americas, and even within diverse subsets of the U.S. community. His 1936 black-cast Macbeth, for example, earned him a strong following among African American actors. Norris Burroughs, the son of actor Eric Burroughs, even wrote a graphic novel on this subject. I think Welles’s brand will achieve even more popularity as it extends beyond his reputation as a cinematic auteur whose work is inaccessible to casual film viewers—something I think is not the case.
JH: One of the famous RKO projects was the proposed adaptation of Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness. In discussing this project, you assert that the overall structure of the film was racist and not too different from other “jungle pictures” of the day. Yet you also make reference to a complex “Wellesian version of psychological primitivism.” What was the nature of the tension in Welles’s proposed handling of race? Would the director’s use of the subjective camera have made it more difficult to complicate traditional cinematic images of primitivism and blackness?
MR: Welles’s concept for Heart of Darkness struggled to differentiate itself from jungle pictures of the day—he specifically refutes any connection to “love in the tropics” films. But the economics of film production would have, I think, confined the film within the racist practices of its era. While Welles himself was certainly averse to racism, Heart of Darkness had two limitations placed upon its radical potential: Welles’s interest in modernist primitivism and the racist structure of Hollywood at the time. As a result, I think the film reproduced contemporary patterns of both racism and oppression. For example, Welles was evidently going to incorporate a fair amount of stock footage from films like Sanders of the River to depict African native life, and every single white actor was paid more than the highest-paid African American actor, Jack Carter, who earned about $200 per week. In other words, racism was inherent in just the process of putting the film together and paying the actors.
This is not to say that Heart of Darkness would have been just another jungle picture. Obviously, Welles’s concept for the introduction is quite radical. It highlights issues of self-referentiality, audience manipulation, and the power of the subjective camera, all of which would have radically departed from conventional cinematic practice. Had it made it to the screen, this self-critical, ambivalent film would have posed an interesting challenge to modern viewers.
Part of the struggle against an overall racist structure comes from the novel itself. Joseph Conrad was a master of questioning or mocking his own narrative, but he also reproduced the imperialist gaze on the native body. Marlow embodies a psychological struggle over racist imperialism and fascism. But he is also an unreliable narrator, and Welles’s film would have undoubtedly reproduced many of these tensions between a critique of racism and a reproduction of it that lie within the novel itself. It was a remarkably ambitious first film project.
JH: I’ve long thought that Welles’s proposed adaption of the life of Christ was among the most fascinating of his unrealized projects, and your book gives us an interesting look at the way Welles tried to gather religious support for this project. What was his plan for the Life Of Christ and what kind of reception did his ideas receive?
MR: The concept seems to have had a relatively positive reception from religious leaders, but for very different and at times contradictory reasons. Welles didn’t get very far with this concept, although we know he worked on it from roughly August to October of 1940. He may have backed off the project not only because of the complex reactions he received from the religious community when he “pitched” it to them, but also for pragmatic reasons in terms of satisfying his RKO contract.
Welles had experienced the unpleasant conjunction of religious controversy and censorship, even at this early stage of his career. He pitched the Life of Christ project less than a year after he was involved in a censorship battle with Campbell Soup’s agent, Ward Wheelock, regarding his radio broadcast of Liliom, so to understand what happens with his idea for a Life of Christ, I think you have to understand what happened with the Liliom broadcast. Welles actually had to negotiate script approval with the Catholic Charities and Publicity Bureau (CCPB), a job which he found distasteful and handed over in large part to John Houseman. Welles approved script changes to minimize controversy, a process that one might not immediately associate with his creative style. Nevertheless, he chafed at this interference with his artistic process. One can see the youthful Welles struggling with the urge to please his funders and yet to express himself—a problem that would plague him throughout his career. Welles slipped and complained semi-publicly of the CCPB’s narrow middle-class concept of the profane, and his remarks were reported in The Philadelphia Record by Leonard Lyons. Welles was forced to explain his comments to the Wheelock agency, and to write a somewhat contrite letter of apology on November 4, 1939. He seemed to find he whole experience with Liliom very distasteful. So, there was probably some hesitance on his part even at the outset of the project—there is certainly no record of him contacting a group of people outside the studio to solicit feedback on any of his other RKO projects.
In addition, he was in the middle of a financial and personal crisis between October 1940 and January 1941. His attorney, Arnold Weissberger, wrote a strongly-worded reminder to Welles that he was in default for not finishing Citizen Kane by October 1st, thus jeopardizing his whole RKO contract. Weissberger recommended that he finish Citizen Kane by February 1941, and start his second film within 30 days of Kane’s completion. In other words, Welles needed to pick up the pace of production, and a straightforward adaptation of a script he had already used on the radio—The Magnificent Ambersons—seems a much more logical choice than a sprawling epic adaptation of the New Testament. Additionally, in October 1940, he was in the process of divorcing Virginia and worried about being drafted, so he was not eager to create additional tension with RKO.
I think he probably dropped the Life of Christ project for a number of reasons, but first and foremost because it was an ambitious concept not readily realized and overtly controversial. He could tell from the responses of various religious leaders that they were looking for very different qualities in the representation of Christ on film. Even though most of them approved of the project overall, it was clear that they felt heavily invested in the production and had widely disparate views of how the production should portray Christ, his resurrection, and his relationship with the Jewish community. None of their views jibed with Welles’s view of a contemporary Christ grounded in an American setting.
JH: In your book, you claim that during his RKO tenure Welles lost his enthusiasm for his plan to adapt “classics for the masses.” Since half of his eventual films are adaptations of people like Tarkington, Kafka, Dinesen, and, of course, Shakespeare, is it safe to say that he reclaimed this interest? Or do you see some lasting change in his attitude toward the concept of classics for the masses?
MR: I think there was a shift in his attitude—not that he gave up on adaptation of literature, but that he backed off the Mercury mission of “classics for the masses.” I think he increasingly saw himself as less interested in the “masses” half of that equation, and during the RKO years in particular, I think he wanted to establish his own authorial voice. After the failed Heart of Darkness project, the Mankiewicz controversy surrounding Citizen Kane and the Ambersons debacle, I think Welles wanted to establish a more independent voice in his films. He saw this opportunity in his concept for It’s All True. Perhaps he was also tired of double-dipping in his radio and cinema projects—he experimented with Ambersons on the radio in 1939, and there’s a great deal of evidence that at the time it was not a favorite project of his. The pace of his adaptations for radio may have made him a bit tired of literary adaptation at this juncture, even though RKO clearly wants him to work more with literary adaptations. When he returned to adaptation—and of course he does return to these projects right up until his final Lear concept—I think he did so with much less interest in selling adaptations of classics to the masses.
JH: But why do you think he continued in planning adaptations of works by people like Dinesen (The Dreamers), Melville (his Moby Dick monologues), Shakespeare (The Merchant of Venice, King Lear), and Cervantes (Don Quixote)? Had his concept of 'adaptation' itself changed?
MR: I think Welles was always interested in adaptation, but during his last phase at RKO, this interest was subordinated to his desire to develop his own independent authorial voice. When he returned to cinematic adaptation of classics, he had less interest in marketing his interpretation of these works than he had in experimenting with the shift of narrative from text to film. That is to say, he didn't necessarily expect to create popular successes like his 1936 black-cast Macbeth or his 1938 radio broadcast of War of the Worlds. The RKO years shifted his sense of artistic purpose away from mass marketing of the classics to a more experimental vein of entertainment.
JH: Perhaps Welles’s most famous uncompleted RKO project was It’s All True. I don’t want to get into the controversies surrounding the shooting of the film—the attribution of blame for its eventual demise—but I am interested to know what you think the project tells us about Welles’s artistic ambitions during this period. How had the experience of making Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons changed these ambitions?
MR: As I mentioned above, I think Kane and Ambersons profoundly impacted Welles’s sense of ambition and his sense of self. He anticipated a very different career in Hollywood when he came to RKO, and the proposal for It’s All True proclaims a type of creative independence for him. His disintegrating relationship with RKO created a painful fracture with people whom he trusted, like George Schaefer, and It’s All True symbolized an effort to distance himself both geographically and philosophically from RKO’s control. It’s All True is a fascinating project, and one that reflects his movement away from the label of “boy genius” to a more mature interrogation of the power of film as a tool of both entertainment and propaganda.
JH: In your book you write, “His unfinished RKO projects are powerful reminders that unfinished works can hold as much meaning—in fact can more easily embrace plural meanings—than can finished works, and therefore can support a range of possible interpretations.” This passage struck me because I think many people would see this unfinished quality in much of Welles’s work—from The Magnificent Ambersons on down to The Other Side Of The Wind. (This was, after all, a director who half-jokingly said he was going to rename his decades-in-the-making adaption of Don Quixote to When Are You Going To Finish Don Quixote?) There’s an endless debate over how much of this was due to Welles’s failings as a producer/business manager and how much of it was the result of a steady supply of bad luck. What I’m interested to know, however, is the artistic consequence of this inside the works themselves. In other words, what is the resultant effect of the unfinished quality of Welles’s films? How does their lack of closure as finished works affect out reception of them as art?
MR: In terms of appreciating Welles’s work, it really doesn’t matter how projects got to be in their final states, whether mass marketed, or scripted, or just conceived. They can still be enjoyed in their existing states, all of which, as you point out, lack a certain sense of finality. If you’re looking at Welles’s output as an artistic body of work, not just of an individual but as a brand identity, his works have certain qualities or hallmarks that make them hold together as a body, and these traits have little to do with their commercial release.
Welles’s difficulty with “selling” his cinema products may have been a failure in a business sense, but not in an artistic sense. The sense of ongoing work, that such projects are never really finished, is his hallmark as an artist. In this way he’s a performance artist, and a collaborative one at that. His works need to be understood in terms of process as much as product. They work best as live performance pieces in which he uses the camera (and the microphone, and his own voice and image) to interact with the public and to create a friction of meaning from this interaction. That holds true from his early work, like his staging of a fascist Julius Caesar, through War of the Worlds, Heart of Darkness, It’s All True and on into later works like F for Fake and Filming Othello. His creative process was complex, his interests diverse, and he tended to keep revising projects even as he worked. I think his work has been waiting for interactive media platforms in order to be better understood in their complexity, and to have their vibrant interaction with live audiences duplicated, repeated, and reinvented with every viewing/listening/reading experience.
JH: What do you mean by interactive media platforms? And what is it about his work that seems to make it especially suited to these new and emerging ways of experiencing art?
MR: Interactive media platforms represent a shift in the concept of how to deliver information. Instead of seeing information flow as primarily a one-way street (the director shows his work a single time to a passive audience), interactive media suggests a more dynamic relationship between artists and audiences, a relationship in which the boundary between these two categories blurs. Social networks like Facebook, the texting voters on American Idol, video blogs and DVD "extras" that let viewers shuffle and respond to information, all represent forms of interactive media. What has been regarded as "incomplete" in Welles's works can be experienced as fullness, if not completion, by using these delivery mechanisms. Interactive media embraces the aspects of art that are Wellesian hallmarks: performance ephemera such as photographs, correspondence, interviews commenting on earlier work, memos suggesting re-edits, various script revisions, and even multiple versions of the same film can all co-exist via interactive media. A clear example of this would be the rich viewing experience offered by the Mr. Arkadin Criterion DVD--a very different experience than seeing the film in a single showing in a theatrical setting.