I sometimes think you need a scorecard to keep track of this discussion.
Briefly, an old wrestling buddy of mine sent me a copy of "The Battle over Orson Welles." As soon as I saw the name of the magazine in which it appeared, Cineaste, I realized that I had read the review, perhaps still had a copy of the journal somewhere in my files. Anyway, I remembered the dismay it left me with because of my respect for both Rosenbaum and David Thomson, whose Rosebud I'd just read at the time. Rosenbaum's critique was the first negative one I ever read.
Rosenbaum tears into all the Welles biographies he discusses, but Rosebud is the only one that he attacks as being lazy, inaccurate, foolish -- entirely despicable. I was saddened when I first read his piece, and I accepted the observations of a scholarly, careful, meticulous critic without question, even if they were at odds with some of my impressions.
I did not have my own copy of Rosebud back then, but I have since purchased a First Edition of the work. Today, I set about comparing Rosenbaum's five or six hundred words devoted to Rosebud with the book itself.
Imagine my shock -- well, actually, it is pretty hard to be shocked any more around here -- when I found three of half a dozen of Rosenbaum's allegations I checked to be incorrect, misapprehended, careless, lazy, inaccurate or taken out of context!
No doubt the Wellsian style, the desire to be an intimate story teller to someone close to him -- perhaps his publisher or editor, as Rosenbaum suggests, or his wife or alter ego, as I surmise -- leads Thomson into errors and omissions. But, that said, here are a few of Rosenbaum's problems:
For instance, he begins by attacking both Callow (whom he praises, at least, for his understanding of actors) and Thomson for neglecting Welles' contributions to Radio. Now, I would like a whole book devoted to the subject, but in fact, Thomson gives a total of over 60 citations, probably easily 75 pages out of a 460 page book to Welles and the Mercury Players in Radio. I wish there were more, but that looks fairly generous to me.
Then, to the subject of Thomson's neglect, Rosenbaum adds misrepresentation, when he tells us how John "Jack" Berry, an early Welles' discovery, had told him personally the great and warm affection he had for Welles. Perhaps so. Rosenbaum proceeds to accuse Thomson of poor scholarship, saying that in Rosebud, he had quoted a story Berry told in an interview, which Thomson presumbably, failing in his opinion use primary sources, caged from one Patrick Gilligan. The story was all about how Berry, a hungry street kid, had been hired to hold up scenery for a summer rehearsal of Too Much Johnson, in 1938. The upshot of the story was that Welles shamed Berry while feasting lavishly on a picnic lunch with the cast. It went diametrically opposed to how Rosenbaum knew Berry felt about Welles.
Hmmn . . . 1938 was a long time ago, and it may be silly to quibble about a sixty-eight year-old lunch, but still -- Shameful!
Then, I went to the book, and on page 91, I found Jack Berry telling the story, in his own words: "[Welles] said, 'You haven't been fed? You must take my seat.' He said, 'You must!' Of course, we went back and continued to hold up the fucking sets. Orson did that all the time -- operate, manipulate, function."
Well, Thomson may be misquoting Berry, or misquoting the interview he cribbed, but on the page, it does not sound as if, in this instance, Berry was showing any particular warm feelings for his mentor and eventual benefactor.
Let us not pick at straws. Here is nother instance, this time of Thomson's fatal tendency to commit factual error: Rosenbaum is touching on MR. ARKADIN, and he says that Thomson knows so little about his subject that he has Patricia Medina, the femme fatale of the picture married to Joseph Cotten in 1954 [when in actuality, the did not get married to until 1960]
What a stupid, bonehead thing for Thomson to say!
Ah, heck! Let's give Thomson a benefit of the doubt. Let's look at Rosebud.
On page 221, Thomson is lamenting that Welles is trying to make MR. ARKADIN without the resources of an RKO Studios, and so his players must appear against sets and backdrops which often lack the atmosphere his earlier films:
"Welles seldom seems to have been more than a distracted organizer to a series of cameos -- Mischa Aurer with his flea circus and magnifying glass; Michael Redgrave as a touchy junkshop owner; Katina Paxinou practicing jeweled and sardonic nostalgia with the aid of a photo album; Patricia Medina (Jo Cotten's wife) as Van Stratten's show girl lover . . . ."
I would not agree with all the characterizations, but an argument might be made for the criticism.
However, of all the factual errors that Rosenbaum specify in a book he says is full of them, he picks a three word interjection as one of his examples.
My take is that Thomson is only saying, "You know her, the lady Joseph Cotten is married to." Cotten was still alive in 1994, when Thomson would have been writing those words.
I know, that sounds like special pleading, but Rosenbaum is so terribly negative toward Thomson's work.
Well, what about a clincher. Let's do one more: Rosenbaum accuses Thomson of suggesting that Welles was close to being a racist -- this man who most people thought risked his career at a time before Civil Rights was fashionable. But Rosenbaum, the careful scholar (as opposed to the irresponsible Thomson) has chapter, verse and page number for the carefully hidden prejudice he has Thomson attribute to Welles:
"'There is sometimes a perilous proximity of old fashioned racial stereotype and yearning sympathy,' he [Thomson] notes on P.144."
Wow! Thomson not only deals in slander, but doesn't make a hell of a lot of sense here either. Raise high Thomson's gallows!
There is only one problem. I went to page 144, as Rosenbaum directs us. It happens to be a half page. The top half shows a picture of Welles and the beautiful Dolores Del Rio, in evening dress. The above quotation does not appear on page 144, nor on page 143, nor on page 145. The passage in question is all about Welles, Miss Del Rio, the writing of Citizen Kane, and a running argument between Thomson and his girlfriend, editor, whoever it is, about what or who CITIZEN KANE is about.
Race never comes up, so far as I can see.
Now the passage may be somewhere else in the book, and if so, then Jonathan Rosenbaum was . . . well, careless.
We should not condemn him for that mistake, should we?
Still it does undercut a whole load of Rosenbaum's hypocritcal assertions, valid or not, that David Thomson must be flayed and burned at the stake for his crimes of scholarship against the gullible reading public.