After Citizen Kane, Orson Welles directed a dozen films of pure genius, some of which have come down to us only as tattered fragments. And yet, despite this less than protean output as a film director, books on Welles abound, especially since his death in 1985.
The true litmus test for the omnivorous reader of all things Wellesian is - how much new information about the Laird of Xanadu is dug up in each volume? According to this criterion, film scholar Peter Conrad's Orson Welles: The Stories of His Life more than measures up.
The book's conceit is a clever one, tracing the arc of Welles' life (from child prodigy to pantheon director to obese wine peddler) through the literary characters he identified with and who served as mirrors for his psyche at various stages of his 70 years on this planet. Each chapter of Orson Welles: The Stories of His Life focuses on a character with whom Welles identified or whom he portrayed on radio, stage, screen or television: Peter Pan, Faust, Mercury, Kurtz (Heart of Darkness), Kubla Khan/Kane, Cesare Borgia (Prince of Foxes), Ahab, Falstaff, Harry Lime (The Third Man), Don Quixote, Prospero and others.
The book has a loosely-structured, kaleidoscopic quality, with one story tumbling into another. Example: Welles' profound identification with Don Quixote leads to tales of his own adventures trying to film Cervantes' epic novel in modern dress. This leads to a dissertation on how Welles' failure to complete Don Quixote influenced other artists to recast the novel in a contemporary setting, followed by commentary on Welles' political evolution from a youthful anti-fascist to a middle-aged conservative who embraced Spanish strongman Generalissimo Francisco Franco for sheltering Spain from corrupting modernity. It seems at times that Welles himself was baffled by his own enigmatism. As death approached, he was increasingly preoccupied by apocalyptic visions. (Rewriting his narration for the 1981 documentary The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, Welles - and not Nostradamus - predicted 9/11 and the War on Terror.) And so on and so forth, with no letup - one fascinating anecdote or telling observation after another.
As for fresh information unearthed by Conrad, here are a few facts I wasn't aware of (and I've read just about every book on Welles written in the past 30 years):
In Citizen Kane, the newsreel clips of Xanadu under construction are actually documentary footage of medieval sets being built for RKO's The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Director Michael Powell cast Welles as a Russian general in "a musical version of The Third Man" entitled Oh... Rosalinda!! (1955), which transferred the plot of Johann Strauss's opera Die Fledermaus (The Bat) to postwar Vienna. Welles signed the contract, then promptly disappeared. The role of Gen. Orlovsky was taken by Anthony Quayle. Powell had no better luck with Welles in 1952, when he tried to interest him in playing Odysseus in the Circe episode of an anthology film that would have been titled Powell's Tales. Welles turned down the role (even though the script was penned by the immortal Welsh bard Dylan Thomas) because he planned to film Homer's The Odyssey himself - one more project that never materialized, as Welles continued to appear in mediocre films directed by lesser (but more bankable) talents than himself to finance his own pictures.
During the height of the Cold War, Welles agreed to play Winston Churchill in a Russian film about the liberation of Europe, with Paul Scofield cast as Franklin Roosevelt; but this epic was unfortunately never made.
In the early 1940s, producer Alexander Korda signed Welles to play the lead role of Pierre Bezukhov in War and Peace, which would have been directed, not by Welles, but by Sergei Eisenstein of Potemkin fame. Never happened. Thirty years later, a gargantuan Welles settled for a cameo as deposed King Louis XVIII in Sergei Bondarchuk's Waterloo travesty.
To sum up, Orson Welles: The Stories of His Life is a compulsive read, the best book about the great, self-defeating genius since Frank Brady's Citizen Welles, published in 1989. Conrad's book gives the reader much to ponder and is essential reading for Welles completists.
- Harvey F. Chartrand