Film Studies: Let me show you the glittering career you threw away, Orson

But to feel this speculation to the full, you have to believe that Ambersons was a great film in the making. The reasons for that thinking are the "ruined" film itself (still extraordinary), the complete script and stills of what is gone. No one can be sure that Welles back in Los Angeles could have saved his film. But he was intimidating in person, because he had a triple attack: lubricating eloquence; immense, coherent reason; and the most dreadful temper anyone had seen. He did not like to be crossed - he had little experience of it; but he had a habit of getting his own way. The guard was changing at RKO: Welles loyalist George Schaefer was giving way to Charles Koerner. Studio people were out to get Orson, and the first contract had been amended so that he did not have all the liberties on Ambersons that had applied to Kane. But Orson was truly brilliant. He could have heard the criticism of his film as slow, dark and gloomy and found ways to add pace and a bit more humour without sacrificing anything vital. It is a part of any great artist to hear shrewd, justified criticism and benefit from it. And while Welles was vain, on Kane he had regularly heeded people who knew more than he did - people such as cameraman Gregg Toland.

So I am supposing that a version of Ambersons would have been released - 120 minutes, say - to wretched business and tremendous reviews (the latter gently encouraged by Orson's own amusing stories of studio interference). He would have had two masterpieces to his name and, just by being back in the US, he would have been in a position to argue against going any further with the Rio venture (a film to promote relations between the US and South America). It had such problems already; it never amounted to a finished picture. And anyway, Orson might have said as a clinching aside, "Mr Roosevelt has asked me to stay."

And here we come to the most fascinating part of Callow's second volume - the way in which Welles devoted himself to a kind of political career as the war went on. He was not often single-minded: he did marry Rita Hayworth in 1943 and they had a daughter in 1944. But in those years, broadcasting on CBS, Welles shifted from the role of entertainer to that of political commentator and activist. He identified himself with the defendants in the Sleepy Lagoon murder case in LA, a case of racially motivated injustice. He wrote for a magazine, Free World, and he went on a lecture tour speaking against fascism. The Orson Welles Almanac on CBS became a political show and, in the 1944 election, Orson worked for FDR, despite the way in which Roosevelt had dropped Orson's political idol, vice-president Henry Wallace, from the ticket in favour of Harry Truman. He even indicated that he was not thinking of making movies any more.

When Roosevelt was elected for the fourth time, in November 1944, Orson was still only 29. Because he had been around a while, it was easy to overlook the prodigy in his career. By late '44, Orson Welles was one of the best known Americans: he had led the Mercury Theatre; he had shocked the nation with The War of the Worlds; he had made Citizen Kane; he had married Rita Hayworth; and - in our scenario - he had made The Magnificent Ambersons, which showed that the boy wonder of Kane, the trickster, the technician, could compromise with an ordinary, family story about America and Americans that stirred the nation.

When FDR died, in the spring of 1945, Orson wrote a great farewell for radio, and he could easily let it seem as if he had been very close to the dead president. There was certainly something in his early life that had the effect of a staircase: every year or so, Orson moved up and took on new challenges. He had conquered the theatre, radio and the movies. He had acquired a public voice - and it was one of the great radio voices of all time. He was handsome, funny, charming, smart - and he was all those things to excess so that there was an unquestioned feeling, in show business at least, that you couldn't trust Orson as far as you might throw him. He was divorced once already (and the Rita union would not last). He was egotistical, violent when angered and, as some saw it, fatally self-destructive. And in reality he didn't give up Rio to save Ambersons.

But it was a close call in the mid-Forties. Welles was from Wisconsin (long ago). In the post-war years, if he had tried for the Senate, he would have found himself running against Joseph McCarthy, a war veteran, a drunk, a tough guy and another pretty good speaker. A McCarthy might easily have pointed to Orson's Communist associates, his black friends, his marriages and affairs. He might have been able to point to Orson Welles as just an actor, and therefore unstable, dangerous, un-American. (Ronald Reagan was only four years older than Orson; in 1943-44, they were both Hollywood Democrats.)

You can say that Welles could never have made it. But in 1943-44 Ronald Reagan was a less likely candidate. Welles had made a film about a man who would try for president, a man whose weaknesses betrayed him. As if America has learnt not to elect fallible people. You have to wonder if America could have survived so brilliant a man as leader.

d.thomson@independent.co.uk

Arts and Entertainment
Thomas carried Lady Edith over the flames in her bedroom in Downton Abbey series five

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, seated next to a picture of his missing wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits