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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference