Christopher gives good and trusted advice.
To illustrate how quixotic Wellsian biographers may become here is an excellent Gary Giddins' review, just published in the New York Times:
Surviving ‘Citizen Kane'
By GARY GIDDINS
(Published: September 3, 2006)
Film Society of Lincoln Center
By Simon Callow.
Illustrated. 507 pp. Viking. $32.95.
WHAT is it about Orson Welles that drives his chroniclers around the bend? Each emerges from the great man’s messy life and messier legacy convinced that he or she has found the explanatory Rosebud. The mystery they feel obliged to explain is not how Welles survived as an independent filmmaker, creating remarkable films that were not mutilated by producers; but rather, why the erstwhile genius of radio, theater and movies, friend to presidents and champion of civil rights ended up as an obese TV pitchman for cheap wine. Welles’s biographers mingle like the sharks in “The Lady From Shanghai,” devouring one another.
The reputation of his onetime colleague John Houseman has receded from that of a mighty producer, professional elitist and financial investment shill to that of an unreliable memoirist with an ax planted in Welles’s skull. Pauline Kael’s “Raising Kane” cashiered any respect she might have earned as a scholar, not because she got so many facts wrong but because she refused to correct or acknowledge them. In his psychological broadside “Rosebud,” David Thomson expressed the wish that Welles’s “Don Quixote” not be released because, given its “tattered” legend, “actual screenings would be so deflating.” The British critic Clinton Heylin has written a defense of Welles, “Despite the System,” that is so violently ill mannered as to render his good research indigestible.
We also have Welles’s own many accounts of his life and career, most notably in interviews with the biographer Barbara Leaming and with Peter Bogdanovich (in the posthumously published collaboration “This Is Orson Welles”), which are charming, informative and proof that Welles liked a good story as much as a good meal and a pretty woman. Frank Brady’s “Citizen Welles” remains the most reliable one-volume biography (despite nearly 20 years of subsequent research), but is out of print. Still, the elephant in the room is Simon Callow’s extravaganza, of which Volume 2, “Orson Welles: Hello Americans,” covers just seven years — from the release of “Citizen Kane,” in 1941, to the completion of “Macbeth,” in 1948.
Callow claims he will finish his biography in one more volume. That hardly seems possible or desirable. He has another 38 years to go, involving much of Welles’s best work and many controversies to adjudicate. A glance at the contents page of “Hello Americans” suggests that Callow has already been too long at the well: the sedate chapter and section titles in his first volume, “The Road to Xanadu” (1996), have now given way to puns: “Welleschmerz,” “Wellesafloppin’, ” “The Welles of Onlyness.” Additional intimations of weariness are a string of minor errors, pointlessly long paragraphs, an obsession with insignificant details (he describes what has been presented as evidence of Welles’s involvement in the Black Dahlia murders, before dismissing it as madness) and excessive excerpts from reviews and previously unexamined files.
Yet “Hello Americans” is a far more levelheaded and illuminating work than its predecessor. In “The Road to Xanadu,” Callow often adopted a tone of ironic dismissal. Greatly influenced by John Houseman, he was determined to bring Welles down a notch, punishing him for his arrogance and self-promotion, challenging his every claim, trivial or significant. Although he doesn’t acknowledge a change of heart in the new book, it is unmistakable.
Having previously described Welles as little more than a bystander to the 1938 broadcast of “The War of the Worlds,” he now seems to regard it as a major Wellesian achievement. He accepts as fact (“famously” so) an anecdote regarding Welles, voodoo and the death of the critic Percy Hammond that he had previously disparaged as doubtful. He now relies frequently on the veracity of the Bogdanovich interviews, suggesting that Welles, like Jelly Roll Morton, was an inveterate liar whose most outrageous claims often turned out to be true.
Of far greater importance, Callow no longer defines the arc of Welles’s career as a downfall. In the earlier work’s munificent tribute to Houseman, he writes off Welles as “the uncontested great white hope of the American theater who came to nothing in the end.” Now, having performed insightful close readings of Welles’s 1940’s films — especially “The Stranger,” “The Lady From Shanghai” and “Macbeth” — he is obliged to agree that Welles was more sinned against than sinful. He admits that Welles was never cut out for Hollywood and that his most fulfilling work may well have come in later years as a voluntary exile. He champions “Othello” and “Chimes at Midnight,” a fondness that might surprise readers of “The Road to Xanadu.”
For here is the crux of the Welles conundrum, boiled down to one question: Which is the more impressive feat? A gifted young man is given a film studio, its technicians and almost unlimited funds to make any movie he desires, and he comes up with “Citizen Kane.” A mature, experienced, stubbornly individual artist in middle age, working with little more than rent money and spit, makes “Chimes at Midnight.” The first film revolutionized cinema, yet merely hints at the sublimity of the later work. The question implies — as does “Hello Americans” — that the Welles debate has shifted ground. It used to center on the cause of his decline: Was the fault in Welles, the stars, the system? Now the decline itself is in question.
The problem is that most readers cannot answer it, because “Chimes at Midnight” is unavailable — rarely screened and almost impossible to find on home video. “Don Quixote” has been issued only as a DVD import in a version edited after Welles’s death, and “The Other Side of the Wind” has not been released in any form. The documentary “Filming Othello,” which has never been distributed in theaters or on home video, is the one film of its kind to come up with a creative alternative to the dullness of talking heads: Welles assembled his heads at a banquet and let drink and camaraderie loosen their tongues. On the other hand, recent “restorations” of “Touch of Evil” and “Mr. Arkadin” demonstrate that while Welles’s cuts were far better than those released by producers, the films were always undeniably Wellesian.
Callow arrives at his more generous assessment with some reluctance. Early in the book, discussing the butchery of “The Magnificent Ambersons” and the opposition to Welles’s unfinished Brazilian film, “It’s All True,” he denounces the suggestion, “widely promoted by certain of Welles’s apologists, that he was the victim of a cynical and ruthless studio system.” Yet a few pages later, he describes the indulgences at RKO as “aberrant,” and concedes that “had he shot nothing else in his life” but the footage of fishermen in Brazil, “the surviving fragments would have marked him out as a supreme artist in film.” By the time he details the demolition of “The Stranger” — which Callow provocatively, convincingly describes as a catastrophe almost equal to that of “Ambersons” — he has himself morphed into a scornful apologist.
Even so, there is a hole in the grueling account of “Ambersons,” Welles’s second film, the lost paradise of American cinema. The last third was not only cut but consigned to the flames. In Callow’s account, the renowned Welles fury, the wounded indignation, is muted almost to the point of nonexistence. He abandoned a complete print in Brazil (now lost) and made no attempt to retrieve it. The reader expects Welles to howl, but he meekly moves on.
Nor can Callow explain Welles’s political ambitions, which took him away from working as a director in film and theater for three years while he tried to reinvent himself as a Fred Allen-type comedian, a liberal orator and a political columnist (for The New York Post). Welles’s stand against racism was genuinely courageous (Callow tells it better and in more detail than anyone else) — his crusade on behalf of a black veteran assaulted by a police officer in South Carolina led to the arrest of the officer while hastening Welles’s banishment from radio. Yet a man who signed off broadcasts with the breathtakingly insincere phrase “I remain, as always, obediently yours” was not cut out to be a man of the people. The sheer immensity of his needs undermines him. He must always do more, be more, take in more, give out more, grow ever larger. At one point, Callow can barely manage to juggle on paper all the balls Welles kept aloft in life: he directs and stars in “The Stranger” while writing his fabled and financially disastrous Broadway epic, “Around the World in Eighty Days,” broadcasting weekly, turning out a newspaper column and dickering with Bertolt Brecht and Charles Laughton over producing “Galileo.” Slacking was not his problem.
INEXPLICABLY, when Welles finally got to shoot and edit a film, “Macbeth,” with full studio support, he left the country right before the editing, delaying its release, refusing to promote it and yet agreeing to cut two reels — boasting that it was he who mangled it, not “some idiot” in Hollywood. The reader is stunned. Yet Callow is sympathetic. He sees Europe as a solution to Welles’s uneasy existence at home, where critics and studios alike routinely root for his comeuppance. Welles’s great crime was his genius, which he was obliged to wear like sackcloth.
Callow says little about Welles’s personal life, including his marriage to Rita Hayworth, to whom you might think any man would be delighted to come home at night or in the afternoon or in the morning or at teatime. Welles preferred the constant turnover of prostitutes at a producer’s home. He appears to have completely ignored his two daughters, though he cast one as Macduff’s son. Callow doesn’t grapple with reports that Welles wanted a girlfriend to star in “The Lady From Shanghai,” and not Hayworth. Nor does he add anything to rumors concerning Welles’s alleged affair with Billie Holiday, though he makes a few meaningless references to one with Judy Garland.
He does, however, inadvertently make a case for the one Orson Welles book we don’t have: a collection of his writings — speeches (he was not above a Kane-like demagogy), essays, columns, scripts, memos, letters and so forth. Callow prints enough of them to suggest that the genius had more genius than he knew what to do with.
Callow began, in The Road to Xanadu, by turning the Welles' legend of his early life and the accounts his greatest triumphs into shambles. Now, in Hello Americans, Callow begins to draw a more charitable portrait (according to his lights) of a self-indulgent man, saddled with a manufactured reputation for all-seeing genius, struggling with his weaknesses to become an interesting if flawed experimental artist.
One can only guess what Callow will come up with in his final volume.