For our Saturday movie date this week, a muted centennial:
Orson Welles was born one hundred years last Wednesday - May 6th 1915, in Kenosha, Wisconsin - and I thought the anniversary would have been a bigger deal. But I guess the conventional wisdom on the Wunderkind - meteoric rise, then squandered talent - is prevailing posthumously, too. If you're under a certain age, you may find it hard to distinguish between the real Welles and the John Candy version on "Second City", fruitily intoning his way through some or other bit of telly-slumming. The day before he died he'd been on "The Merv Griffin Show", and he'd had a good time, but you expect more of a chap who over half-a-century earlier, on a hike around Ireland, had strolled into the Gate Theatre in Dublin and told Hilton Edwards, in those pre-Google days, that he was a big Broadway star. Edwards didn't believe him but he liked the kid's moxie and put him in the Gate's production of Jew Suss, the tale of the eponymous Suss, a court Jew in the service of Duke Karl Alexander of Württemberg. Welles played the Duke. He was 16 years old.
Actor, writer, director, Welles had conquered the three dominant media of the day by the time he was 26: a groundbreaking Broadway adaptation of Julius Caesar in 1937, the hit radio version of War Of The Worlds in 1938, and then in Hollywood Citizen Kane.
Directing-wise, I prefer Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons and A Touch of Evil. And acting-wise, of course, his Harry Lime turn in The Third Man. Yet Citizen Kane is the great film of all great films — the one that from the Sixties on would reliably come in at Number One whenever anyone compiled a Top 100 Films Of All Time list. But, if you were a 25-year-old radio director given carte blanche by a Hollywood studio, what would you do? Orson Welles knew it wouldn't be enough just to hand RKO a nice little movie: he had to make a splash; he had, at the very least, to top his own War of the Worlds for the Mercury Theatre Of The Air. And, in topping himself, he managed to top everyone else, too. And yet, for all that, the more you watch Citizen Kane, the more Welles' sense of it as a great film threatens to overwhelm its greatness.
It's about Charles Foster Kane, who's really William Randolph Hearst, up to a point. Welles planted the thought with his cast, and sure enough, just before Citizen Kane was to open at Radio City Music Hall, Ruth Warrick (who plays Kane's first wife) carelessly gave it away in a publicity interview: "He's a composite of the kind of men that Americans make into heroes, when, really, they are despoilers," she said.
"Like who?" asked the reporter, reasonably enough.
So she told him. He dropped his pencil. "I've gotta make a phone call," he said, and never came back. The next day, Radio City canceled the opening, Hearst's papers banned all advertising and news coverage of the film, and Hearst himself sued. Miss Warrick outlived almost everyone else in the cast and became better known to American audiences as Phoebe Tyler, the queen of Pine Valley, on ABC's long-running daytime soap "All My Children". After the director's death in 1985, she would tell people that Welles, a master of magic and misdirection, knew he could rely on her to give the game away: the fuss over War of the Worlds had got him the RKO gig and taught him the importance of a big commotion.
As a huckster himself, Hearst might have appreciated the stunt. But that's hardly important now: these days, no one knows or cares who William Randolph Hearst was; he lives on in America's collective memory only as the pretext for an Orson Welles performance - which is a shame, as the real Hearst was a more complex and fascinating figure than Kane, or Welles. But, in the simplicity of its trajectory - precocious child to empty genius - Welles wound up prefiguring his own autobiography. Which you sort of feel he knew as he was making it.
"Here's a man who could have been president, who was as loved and hated and as talked about as any man in our time," says newspaper editor Philip Van Zandt, positing the film's mystery. "But when he comes to die, he's got something on his mind called Rosebud. Now, what does that mean?" What it turns out to mean is a bit of bargain-basement Freud about the contrast between our adult lives and the innocence of childhood, those lost days that laugh and run away, as Johnny Mercer remarked in another context, "toward a closing door, a door marked nevermore". Bernard Herrmann, Welles' radio composer making (like everybody else) his film debut, pretty well gives away the answer to Van Zandt's question by using the "Rosebud" theme again and again to accompany images of childhood, scenes of snow (Welles' symbol of innocence) and so on. There's something glib and pat and faintly second-rate about this Hollywood psychology, even before its denouement. Gore Vidal floated the story that "Rosebud" was Hearst's pet name for his mistress Marion Davies' clitoris, which is, in its way, not unendearing, but seems to have been concocted out of whole cloth. Welles' co-writer Herman Mankiewicz came up with the idea of "Rosebud" and the director kept it, reluctantly. "It was the only way we could find to get off, as they used to say in vaudeville," he said. "It manages to work, but I'm still not too keen about it."
You still get the odd twenty-something wunderkind in Hollywood, but it's different now: they've all been to film school. If there are still any radio drama directors in America, no one's giving them movies to direct. Yet it's Welles' radio skills that make the picture. Close your eyes and Kane is the best radio play ever made — the voice, the sounds, the music all knit together into one seamless whole in a way that, with eyes wide open, they never quite do with Greg Toland's photography, excellent though that is. One of my favorite scenes in the picture has really nothing at all to do with what meets the eye: it's the moment when Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore) makes her operatic debut. Bernard Herrmann had to come up with a piece of grand opera which would demonstrate that, though Susan had a pleasant voice of a kind, it was completely unsuited to what she was singing. At the same time, it had to convey Susan's hysteria over the growing realization of her own inadequacy, and also the chaos around her — the stagehands, the blare of the lights, the orchestra drowning her out, her singing teacher frantically signallng. And on top of that we also need to see the scene through the eyes of Kane's best friend Jedediah Leland (played by Joseph Cotten). Herrmann mulled it over and wrote a pastiche aria in late 19th-century French style but using 20th-century harmonies. He pitched the vocal line so high and scored the orchestra so heavily that only a tough dramatic soprano would be able to hold her own. He then hired a light lyric soprano and got her to sing it straight — i.e., without telling her that the scene was about the singer's awareness of her own failure. The result is extraordinary: a composition which manages to be both real music played at a musical performance but also character commentary and more than that the very drama and plot point itself. Once again, though, the pictures aren't really doing anything but illustrating the sounds. Even as Welles got more confident in his new medium, that quality never quite departed. His fondness for chiaroscuro seems to derive as much from an inability to fill the screen with stuff he was interested in looking at.
But it's easy to find fault when a cocky 25-year old decides he's going to make a masterpiece. The jigsaw puzzle symbol now seems trite and obvious, the non-chronological narrative flashy and arbitrary, and the film fails its own test: we never really get to know who Charles Foster Kane was. And yet there's always something there to hold us and draw us in, and marvel and wonder. Look at the first ten minutes alone - the distant light of Kane's Xanadu, the fake 'March Of Time' newsreel with its scratches and wobbles. The radio boy presents us with a bravura summation of state-of-the-art American moviemaking and then says: Right, let's move on.