Film Studies: Oh, Orson! You sold your genius for a carnival down in Rio...

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The Independent Culture

The good news is that the second volume of Simon Callow's Orson Welles biography has just appeared. It was in 1995 that The Road to Xanadu was published by Cape, 640 pages, taking us up to the opening of Citizen Kane, an event that occurred as Orson reached his 26th birthday. The book was properly celebrated, but a question remained: would there be more? Could anyone as busy as Callow find the time to go further into the problematic career of Welles? Or had he been interested above all in those first few years? The book's sequel arrives now, 11 years later, from Cape again. It is called Hello Americans, and if it is a mere 508 pages, don't jump to the conclusion that Callow is easing up in his diligent scrutiny. This second volume covers just the next seven years. Callow is tight-lipped about the future, but at this rate I can easily see five volumes. We must cross our fingers.

There are many books on Welles (I admit that I am the author of one of them, Rosebud) and I have said before that we are still waiting for a dull one. But Simon Callow's thoroughness is as unrivalled as his credentials: he is an actor, a director, a showman, and an immense enthusiast in his writing. He is careful not to become Orson (a hazard for so many people who admired Welles but shrank from his excesses), but he has the drive still that comes from the belief that he is telling us about a genius, a phenomenon and a devil.

It may yet prove that the years of Hello Americans (1941-47) are the turning point in Welles's hurtling shambles of a life. As this second volume opens, Kane is released: it may or may not break even; it suffers from the wrath and the blocking of the Hearst organisation; yet it gets many fine reviews, even if it baffles the general audience. In other words, the plans are laid for the history in which Citizen Kane has been hailed as the greatest film ever made for at least 40 years. It is part of Welles's contract at RKO that he makes a second major film, and he has settled on The Magnificent Ambersons, an adaptation of the novel by Booth Tarkington. But Welles never had a tidy desk in his life. He is always working on radio; he is forever thinking of other things - and he has two other movie projects in hand, a quick thriller, Journey Into Fear, and a large, but still vague, thought of a picture about Latin America.

It is already plain that his status at RKO has altered for the worse. His patron there, George Schaefer, may be losing his power and even his job. But, in the fall of 1941, Welles shoots Ambersons, no matter that his replacement cameraman Stanley Cortez is as slow as his first choice, Gregg Toland, was swift. Ambersons is a very different type of film: the gradual disintegration of a great Mid-West family and their house, a story of America being scarred by its own progress.

Welles does not act in the film, but he is working again with his Mercury Theater players and a couple of newcomers. Pearl Harbor occurs just as the shooting comes to a close. Welles has so many health problems, no army is brave enough to take him. But he wants to help, and so he proves vulnerable to an offer from the Office of Inter-American Affairs, a government agency.

Can he adapt his existing Latin American plans to make a larger film that will promote relations between the US and South America? Welles says yes and, in an instant, he knows that Carnival in Rio de Janeiro must be part of the project. (Carnival is early February, 1942.)

At hectic speed, he makes a rough cut of The Magnificent Ambersons that is 148 minutes long. And then he sets off for Rio with a crew, Technicolor cameras and miles of film. We are talking about one of the small tragedies of the 20th century, and you have to go to Callow's book for the details.

At this point, the South American picture is a dream at best. Whereas Ambersons is something we can savour: we have the film in its 88-minute version; we have the larger script; and we have haunting stills of sequences that no longer exist. That Ambersons, I suspect, would now be regarded as the greatest film ever made, for these reasons: it is more ordinary in its subject; it is more deeply felt; it is less easily dismissed as a bag of tricks.

Kane will always be a show-off's film, to some extent. Ambersons is an old man's reverie. You cannot concede this resonance without allowing that Orson knew it.

In Rio, there was a kind of chaos. The shooting went badly. It was said that little of it was usable. Welles was betrayed by RKO people with him in Rio. They cabled news back home that he was being stupid, reckless - it's hard to see that those reports were wrong, even if they were malicious. In Los Angeles, Ambersons' editor Robert Wise was trying to do Orson's work, but finding diminishing studio support. There were previews of Welles's cut and the audience generally mocked the film and complained that it was slow, gloomy and worthless. Word was sent to Orson in Rio, time and again, that the film was in mortal danger.

Welles did not come back to defend his work. He remained in Rio and accomplished very little, though every observer remarked on his considerable self-indulgence there. The South American film never materialised (there is footage released as It's All True). And Ambersons was brutally reduced, just as George Schaefer was fired. If Welles was gambling, he lost badly. It is the clearest occasion in his life when some mixture of defiance and self-destructiveness led him disastrously astray. It may be the moment when his life changed direction.

Next week, with your patience, I'll discuss the rest of Hello Americans and sketch out a life of Orson that might have been if his gamble had paid off.

d.thomson@independent.co.uk

'Orson Welles: Hello Americans', Cape, £25

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