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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, finds himself at the centre of a media storm when his wife is reported missing and assumed dead

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lindsay Lohan made her West End debut earlier this week in 'Speed-the-Plow'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Artist Nathan Sawaya stands with his sculpture 'Yellow' at the Art of Brick Exhibition

art
Arts and Entertainment
'Strictly Come Dancing' attracted 6.53 million viewers on Friday
tv
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver in the US version on Broadchurch

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School in 'The Caretaker'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ni , Rock of Rah, Vanuatu: The Ni live on one of the smallest islands of Vanuatu; Nelson flew five hours from Sydney to capture the 'isolation forged by their remoteness'
photographyJimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style
Arts and Entertainment
David Byrne
musicDavid Byrne describes how the notorious First Lady's high life dazzled him out of a career low
Arts and Entertainment
Sergeant pfeffer: Beatles in 1963
booksA song-by-song survey of the Beatles’ lyrics
Arts and Entertainment
music'I didn't even know who I was'
Arts and Entertainment
Cheryl was left in a conundrum with too much talent and too few seats during the six-chair challenge stage
tvReview: It was tension central at boot camp as the ex-Girls Aloud singer whittled down the hopefuls
Arts and Entertainment
Kalen Hollomon's Anna Wintour collage

art
Arts and Entertainment

TV Grace Dent on TV
Arts and Entertainment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

music
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer is believed to be playing a zombie wife in Patient Zero

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Gatiss says Benedict Cumberbatch oozes sex appeal with his 'Byronic looks' and Sherlock coat
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Clothing items bearing the badge have become popular among music aficionados
musicAuthorities rule 'clenched fist' logo cannot be copyrighted
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson will star in Seth MacFarlane's highly-anticipated Ted 2

film
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike in 'Gone Girl'

film
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.

    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
    The magic of roundabouts

    Lords of the rings

    Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
    Why do we like making lists?

    Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

    Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
    Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

    A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

    As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
    Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

    Paris Fashion Week

    Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
    Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

    Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

    One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
    10 best children's nightwear

    10 best children's nightwear

    Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
    Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

    Manchester City vs Roma

    Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
    Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

    Trouble on the Tyne

    Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
    Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

    Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

    and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
    Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

    Last chance to see...

    The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
    So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

    Truth behind teens' grumpiness

    Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

    Hacked photos: the third wave

    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?