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Orson Wells

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Orson Welles: The Man, the Myth… the Communist?

“One of the most promising artists of our day,” “ One of the most accomplished dramatic artists of the twentieth century, “ and “A major creative force and ultimate auteur,” were all praises and titles from major media moguls, publications, and critics given to Orson Welles. Not too shabby for someone who hasn’t even turned thirty yet, eh? Right out of the gate Welles proved to be an innovative and artistic force that could hold its own, and even surpass, the heavy hitters of his day. His career seemed to be on a steady incline for almost a decade; however, did his talent and work hit a plateau? Welles was always seen as an active political figure that was not afraid to voice or project his own viewpoints in the public, but did this have a negative or lasting affect on his later career? Critics argue the best work Welles produced was before he hit thirty years old, so was this a direct result from the negative attention he attracted from media magnates, specifically William Randolph Hearst, Hollywood elite, and most importantly the United States government? Also, Welles left the country at a time when the dreaded “blacklist” was starting to funnel through Hollywood (“Orson” 17). Whether this was coincidence or intentional is debatable, but either way the ramifications may have helped account for the different direction he took with his post-Hollywood career. Did Orson’s fame draw too much attention and lead to his downfall? The Orson Welles we all know was an American writer, director, producer, and actor. He was known for his innovative productions, unique voice and personality, and was acclaimed as one of the most successful artist of the twentieth century (“Orson” 1). Welles expanded many medias, working in radio, television, film, and theatre (which is how Welles got his start). Welles made his stage debut in 1931 at the Gate Theatre in Dublin, appearing in Jew Suss as the Duke. In 1933, he toured in three off-Broadway productions with Katharine Cornell's company, including two roles in Romeo and Juliet (“Orson” 2). Impatient when the planned Broadway opening of Romeo and Juliet was canceled, Welles staged a drama festival of his own with the Todd School, which proved to be a roaring success. The subsequent revival of Romeo and Juliet brought Welles to the notice of John Houseman, who was casting for an unusual lead actor for the lead role in the Federal Theatre Project (“Orson” 2). In 1936 Welles was hired by Houseman to direct Macbeth for the Federal Theatre Project’s Negro Theatre Unit. The production later became known as Voodoo Macbeth because Welles set it in the Haitian court of King Henri Christophe and voodoo witch doctors played the three Weird Sisters. The play later toured the nation and Welles even flew to the location and played a lead role in blackface after the lead actor fell ill on tour. All in all the play was rapturously received and by the age of twenty, Welles was hailed as a prodigy (“Orson” 3). In 1937, after the success of Macbeth he rehearsed Marc Blitzstein’s highly political operetta, The Cradle Will Rock, and added another successful and controversial production to his resume.

After resigning from the Federal Theatre, Welles and Houseman formed their own company, the Mercury Theatre. In it’s second year, Welles shifted his interests to radio, which lead to CBS giving the Mercy Theatre a weekly hour-long show titled The Mercury Theatre on the Air to broadcast radio plays based on classic literary works. Their October 30, 1938 broadcast of The War of the Worlds brought Welles instant fame, but now also on an international level (“Orson” 7). After conquering theatre and radio, Welles’s growing fame soon attracted the attention of Hollywood film companies, such as RKO Pictures. President George Schaefer offered Welles what generally is considered the greatest contract ever offered to an untried director, which is complete artistic control with a two-picture deal. RKO, after rejecting Welles’s first two movie proposals, finally agreed to the third offer, which Welles co-wrote, produced, directed, and performed the lead role. In 1941 it eventually became Citizen Kane, Welles’s first feature film and also his most famous and honored role (“Orson” 8). The film was well received, by almost all critics, and not only did it gain nine Academy Award nominations, but it is also hailed as one of the greatest films ever made. His second film for RKO, The Magnificent Ambersons, also received several nominations, including Best Picture (“Orson” 9).

All of these endeavors would build Orson Welles to a status of high fame and reputation that expanded just the boarders of the United States. Why then just a few years later does Welles leave the country and his opportunities in Hollywood to live in Europe for the next several years of his life? According to Joseph McBride’s What Ever Happened to Orson Welles? A Portrait of an Independent Career, Welles incurred the wrath of right-wing publisher William Randolph Hearst for not only his radio, theatre, and film work, but also his personal and political stances as well. Attacking Hearst and all that he represented within the American ruling elite, in McBride’s words, brought down the wrath of a whole powerful network of right-wing Communist-hunters, including the FBI, the Dies Committee, and the American Legion, all of which were allied with and supported by the vociferously anti-red publisher (McBride 45).

Welles’s inability to get a picture off the ground began when he first associated with RKO pictures and their rejections of his initial drafts. This sparked the interest of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and in 1943 a report stated, “This same source states that RKO pictures did not produce any of the scripts written by Welles during that period because the subject matter of the same was considered to be too far ‘leftist’ to be used by the studio (McBride 34).” There must have been some political timidity behind the studio’s rejections since Hollywood was hesitant to deal with the European situation before the United States entered the war in 1941. His position at RKO was always fragile because of this and longtime assistant to Welles, Richard Wilson, stated, “From the very beginning of Citizen Kane, Orson was a marked man. I don’t think the board really approved the original Orson deal (McBride 36).” It is often said that Welles was the first person in Hollywood ever to have full artistic control over his own films, so even though there was a battle in Hollywood and with RKO with releasing Citizen Kane, the movie turned out to be a great success. John Huston said, “Welles violated two cardinal rules, first, you’re not supposed to go against the establishment. And if you do go against the establishment, you’re supposed to suffer.” McBride explains how Welles was hated in Hollywood almost upon his arrival because of his reputation; it was a cultural reproach from the East, and Hollywood tried to protect themselves by rejecting Welles and putting his in the spotlight (McBride 37). He was a challenge to establishments because he often came crashing up against the powers that be. “His progressive, antifascist, and pro-black political stands and his refusal to be confined within the conventional boundaries of either “art” or “entertainment” made him seem dangerous to the powers that be and to the supporters of the status quo from both ends of the political and cultural spectrum,” writes McBride. This time Welles offended (or scared) Hearst, whose papers had immense power to flatter, promote, and intimidate Hollywood. Because the film angered Hearst and his minions, Hollywood “went about detracting Orson” even before it was completed, in order to placate the publishing and movie magnate and secure their own fears of Hearst attacking them next (McBride 43). However, even before the Citizen Kane controversy Welles was still a target for Hearst papers because his progressive political views, expressed in speeches and print, and his politically radial work in the New York theatre made him an increasingly prominent and inviting target in the late 1930’s. Hearst’s New York American, which in 1935 hailed the nineteen-year-old Welles as “one of the most promising artists of our day,” turned on him after he began mounting plays for the Federal Theatre Project. The Federal Theatre was one of the primary targets of Roosevelt’s enemies because right-wingers saw this program as dangerously revolutionary and infested with Communists (McBride 45). His involvement with Voodoo Macbeth and The Cradle Will Rock in the Federal Theatre, both extremely controversial for the time, solidified his radicalism and only gave further reasons to suspect Orson of un-American activities. According to McBride, Welles’s Hollywood career never recovered from the battle over releasing Citizen Kane and he suffered because it caused lasting damage and was the source for all of Welles’s succeeding career problems in Hollywood (McBride 42).

Hearst was a longtime ally of Dies in opposing Communism and the New Deal. In Louis Pizzitola’s book Hearst Over Hollywood: Power, Passion, and Propaganda in the Movies, he writes, “In many ways Hearst and the Dies committee were indeed one and the same. Hearst used the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, his widely read columnists and editorialists, and other operatives to support the committee, and the committee in turn used its channels to Hearst as sources of information and as a machinery of publicity (McBride 47).” Hearst pressured the committee to investigate Hollywood and they adhered with the notion to advance and support Hearst’s decade-long crusade against Communism The FBI opened a file on Welles in April 1941, only shortly before the release of Citizen Kane, and kept it active until 1956. McBride cites an FBI report’s conclusion about this film: “The evidence before us leads inevitably to the conclusion that Citizen Kane is nothing more than an extension of the Communist Party’s campaign to smear one of its most effective and consistent opponents in the United States [i.e., Hearts] (McBride 48).” One activity that especially outraged the American Legion and the FBI was Welles’s role in protests over the threatened deportation of the West Coast labor leader Harry Bridges, a native of Australia who was accused of being a Communist. Welles co-founded the Citizens’ Committee for Harry Bridges in 1941 to stop this, which the government saw as protecting a member of the Communist party. The hostility of the FBI towards Welles was so great, that although the bureau’s agents could find no proof of his membership in the Communist Party, Lost Angeles special agent R.B. Wood took the drastic step of recommending to Hoover in November 1944 that Welles be listed as a Communist on the FBI’s Security Index. Welles’s name would remain on the Security Index until 1949 (McBride 50-51). In the spring of 1941 Welles even issued a public denial that he was a Communist stating, “ I had hoped that I would not continue to be the target of patriotic organizations who are accepting false statements and condemning me without knowing the facts. But I can’t remain silent any longer. The Hearst papers have repeatedly described me as a Communist. I am not a Communist. I am grateful for our constitutional form of government, and I rejoice in our great American tradition of democracy (McBride 54).” However, this public statement did little to clear his name and get the studios, critics, or the media off of his back.

Welles’s artistic and political choices seemed to be under close watch and on the radar of the government and their ally Hearst. Was this too much pressure for Welles to continue working under this government microscope? Was he afraid to be associated with the Communist party? Regardless Welles left Hollywood for Europe late 1947, saying that he had chosen “freedom (“Orson” 17).” However, the time he had chosen to leave the country may leave some in question of his reasoning behind the decision. In his FBI file, it was reported that Welles left in late November of 1947, which was shortly after the House Committee on Un-American Activities began its hearings on alleged Communist influence in Hollywood. It was also significant because that was the same month the Hollywood Ten were cited for contempt and the studios launched the blacklist (McBride 94). As if the constant attacks from Hearst papers and the government wasn’t enough to tarnish his career as a studio director, in 1940 the Red Channels, a book of the names of everyone who was blacklisted and what they were associated with that may seem “un-American”, listed Orson Welles (Red Channels). According to McBride, when Welles was asked directly whether he went to Europe because he was being investigated, he denied it, stating again that leaving US was not a political choice, but rather because he felt his career in Hollywood was barely sustainable. Whether this is true or not, there is no doubt that if Welles had stayed in Hollywood he would have been called in HUAC’s far more extensive second round of Hollywood hearings in 1951, after the blacklist was greatly expanded (McBride 94).

From Hollywood’s and the public’s perspective, Welles might just as well have given up directing movies all together after he departed for Europe, since his later career as a filmmaker seemed too obscure. His films took years to arrive in the United States and then were scarcely seen in his native country. The FBI’s interest in Welles gradually diminished after it became clear that he was settled abroad; however, those few years of scrutiny would have a much longer effect on Welles’s career (McBride 99). Artistic critics claim Welles’s would never create work that was as brilliant or up to par as before he left the States. Was it because the blacklisting tarnished his reputation as an artist in America, preventing him from doing his work or having the artistic freedom he was allowed before he was accused, or perhaps it was just coincidence that Welles’s talent blossomed at an early age and then plateaued or declined?

Victor S. Navasky explains in his 1980 book Naming Names how the menacing system of show-business blacklisting worked from 1947 through the early 1960’s: “Each naming went out like a burglar alarm to the freelance enforcer network, remind them that there was a subversive to be fired, harassed, or embarrassed, a career to be derailed (McBride 100).” According to this, once a person’s name appeared on the blacklist it was very difficult to continue working in the same caliber, which was very evident with many artists’ careers. However, Orson Welles seemed to be somewhat of an exception. His first visit to the United States in the nearly six years since he had fled came in the fall of 1953, when he visited New York to make his first television appearance in a live CBS production of King Lear (McBride 106). He was able to return to work in New York while the blacklist was still in force, which either means CBS pulled strings to help him return or Welles had some secret deal with the government. John Houseman, Rita Hayworth, and many others who wanted to continue working in that period had to write letters dissociating themselves from so-called “Communist front” groups, however there are no public documents or statements of Orson Welles ever clearing his name from the Red Channels in order to work again (McBride 107). In 1955 he returned to the U.S. and appeared in several more CBS-TV shows, interviews, and even returning to Hollywood to star in a film with Betty Grable called Ford Star Fubilee and appearing on the I Love Lucy show. Therefore it is clear that the blacklist didn’t have the extreme effect that it had for many others in the U.S, but the eight years he spent in Europe may account for the change in Welles’s cinematic style after 1955. Welles spent 1947-1955 wandering and regrouping, as he only completed two feature films and began molding into the role of a more independent filmmaker. Welles admitted that Othello, one of the films made in Europe, was a “desperate adventure” and his screen Iago and old friend Micheal MacLiammoir described the production as “chic but highly neurotic lumber camp (McBride 111).” By Hollywood standards, his free-spirited filmmaking adventures and scrambling for funds seemed an embarrassing and shameful comedown for the maker of Citizen Kane. Pauline Kael argued, “When Welles went to Europe he lost his single greatest asset as a movie director: his sound… [Sound] became his worst problem as he began to work with actors who didn’t speak English and actors who did but weren’t around when he needed them… Welles compensated by developing great visual virtuosity (McBride 113).” As a filmmaker Welles became more and more experimental, which is evident though his version of Don Quixote. The 1957 film turned into what Welles called “my home movie… an experimental film” where he dabbled with on-the-fly, handheld filming techniques (McBride 123). Upon his return to Hollywood until 1958 he attempted to direct three half-hour TV pilots, but none result in a series. His different approaches to television narrative were rejected as too unconventional as networks and sponsors in the U.S turned their backs on TV’s early creative energy. Networks failed to appreciate his idiosyncratic approaches and they viewed Welles in a new wary light that was never present before. ABC president Leonard H. Goldenson stated, “One of our worst ideas was giving Orson Welles $200,000 to do a pilot… Welles was vague about what he planned to do. But he was the Orson Welles, and nobody pressured him too hard. I should have known better.” He also described Welles’s 1958 film Viva Italia! / Portrait of Gina as “very poorly done... little more than a home movie of splendid homes and ostentatious yachts belonging to obscure European royalty (McBride 125-126).” Welles came to realize his new place in Hollywood and even admitted to Kenneth Tynan in 1967 that, “It was the rise of the independents that was my ruin as a director. The minutes the independents got in, I never directed another American picture except by accident. But an independent is a fellow whose work is centered around his own particular gifts. In that setup, there’s no place for me.” The picture he describes as an “accident” was Touch of Evil in 1958, which Films in Review magazine said was, “all the negative characteristics which appeal to Welles… He must return to moral values of America if he is ever to be the artist he could be (McBride 129).” When Welles attempted his final Hollywood comeback in 1970, it didn’t prove to be successful. His attraction for dangerous material and his reputation as a troublemaker preceded him and continued to shadow his every move. McBride explains how as a result of this in later years he tended to avoid any involvement with studios on his own projects, with the exception of some brief projects that never led to consummation. He continued to venture farther down the independent path and blames Hollywood’s own fears of his new filmmaking techniques as the reason he was no longer a big success. Even though Welles still received some recognition after his return in 1955 such as a Lifetime Achievement Award by the American Film Institute in 1975, inducted in the Radio Hall of Fame in 1979, and was ranked the 16th Greatest Male Star of All Time in 1999, he never received any more Academy Award nominations for the films he made (“List of” 2). Not only was his artistic and professional career changed, but also his personal and political life had changed as well. In his later life, Welles was less visibly active in politics; probably for self-protection and to try to salvage whatever career he had left in Hollywood. He told Hedda Hopper in 1956, “Politics still interest me, but I’m more amused about it than I used to be. I used to take it very seriously (McBride 110).” The continued worries over political persecution even caused Welles to destroy a book he had been writing in the early 1950’s about international government. All the attacks from Hearts, the U.S. government, and critics in the 1940-1950’s proved to take its toll on Orson Welles. His personal, political, professional, and creative life changed in some way after he was blacklisted and left America in 1947. His return proved to be less than welcoming, and he never regained his status as one of the best filmmakers in Hollywood again. He still had the opportunity to work in America, which many artists after being “named’ did not have, however it was never the same. Whether he fled because of the blacklist, fear of testifying in the HUAC trials, or the constant pressures from the FBI and Hearst to prove his loyalty to American values, Welles never again lived up to the acclaim he received in his twenties. The Orson that we all knew and revered for his innovation and ability to stretch boundaries and mediums that had never previously been crossed went in a different direction after the 1950’s; one that was more independent, experimental, and held less appeal to the general masses of the film industry in America. He continued to direct, act, and write until he died in 1985, but ultimately the people’s fear of Communist activities in the United States lead to his reputation being investigated and questioned, which ultimately caused his downfall in the Hollywood film industry. It is hard to determine if Orson would have only received more fame and achievements if he had remained in America because nobody can predict what would have become of his career if he testified before the committee and continued to battle with Hearst. It is also impossible to know if it was just nature and his own mind’s abilities that caused him to blossom so early as an artist and be revered as a genius before the age of thirty, but there is definitely evidence to support that in his later years numerous outside public and political forces were influences in the amount, ability, and vision of the work Orson Welles created. He began as a highly charged political person who wasn’t afraid to push limits with Voodoo Macbeth, The Cradle Will Rock, Citizen Kane, etc., but ended his career as perhaps too ahead of his time or avant-garde for the American public to handle at this time (McBride 135).

Works Cited

"List of awards and nominations received by Orson Welles." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 27 Mar. 2010. Web. 11 May. 2010.
McBride, Joseph. What Ever Happened to Orson Welles? A Portrait of an Independent Career. Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 2006. Print.
"Orson Welles." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 6 May. 2010. Web. 11 May. 2010.

Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television. New York: Counterattack, 1950. Print.…...

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