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
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
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.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine