Orson Welles: Hello Americans By Simon Callow

Thorough, eloquent but lacking direction - much like Welles' final years
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The Independent Culture

Twenty years after his death, the reputation of Orson Welles shows no signs of reaching equilibrium. He remains the man who told America it had been invaded by Martians and, later, that it should drink Domecq sherry; the titan whose filmography begins with Citizen Kane and ends with The Transformers: The Movie.

The reasons for his epic fall from grace are usually sought in the year following the release of Kane. Welles, still only 26, threw himself into a variety of projects, most importantly The Magnificent Ambersons: the elegiac story of the ruin of a rich, mid-Western family.

It would probably have been a better film than Kane but for a pair of disasters. The first was America's entry into the Second World War. Welles was called on to make a patriotic film to promote "pan-American unity" and rushed off to film the Rio Carnival, leaving a rough cut with his studio, RKO. While he was in Brazil, RKO cut Ambersons from 148 to 88 minutes, trashed Bernard Herrmann's score and inserted an upbeat ending. To no avail: it flopped, giving the studios an excuse to ostracise Welles.

This pattern - of superb work removed from Welles' control and bastardised - repeated itself in every film he made for Hollywood. It has made him, in Simon Callow's words, "cinema's sacrificial victim". The purpose of his biography might be to wrestle back Welles from the film buffs. Not only was he partly complicit in his failures, Callow says, he didn't necessarily care about them as much as his acolytes.

During the years Hello Americans covers, from 1941 to his flight to Europe in 1947, Welles produced five films, three stage shows and worked in radio. He was also a prolific journalist, and a successful speaker and political activist, campaigning for the war effort, Roosevelt and civil rights. Callow's insistence on treating these activities as more than mere sidelines has expanded his work from two to three volumes - this being the middle one.

What's missing from his thorough and eloquent book is any serious attempt to square the circle of how Welles gave up so easily on his later films. Callow approvingly quotes Welles on John Barrymore: "What he hated was the responsibility of his own genius." Yet he says that to apply this idea to Welles "is sheer romanticism". Callow clearly hasn't yet made his mind up about his subject - perhaps not such a bad thing for a biographer.

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