Simon Callow - Orson Welles: Hello Americans

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HELLO AMERICANS: Conscience of a Patriot; Orson Welles' Fight against American Fascism.

Oct 26, 2006 (Updated Oct 30, 2006)
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Superior scholarship. Important little examined radio, political speeches and journalism. A generally engrossing read.

Cons:Rough stylistic patches. Unfamiliarity with America: Mistakes Congressman Will Rogers for father, Humorist Will Rogers.

The Bottom Line: Simon Callow's HELLO AMERICANS, second volume of a projected three (four?) volume biography of Welles, presents greater understanding of his political and social idealism than did Volume One.


When I finished Actor/Film Scholar Simon Callow's The Road to Xanadu, the first of what is now a projected three volume biography of Orson Welles, it seemed inescapable to me that Callow's purpose was to entirely demolish Welles' reputation. I could see attacks in future volumes going directly from the, then, "artistic thief" and "difficult director" to "lonely outcast" and "drunken wine salesman." Where could the trail lead for Callow after suggesting how relatively little the spoiled "boy genius" had contributed to "The War of the Worlds" and *CITIZEN KANE, the benchmarks of his career?

Well . . .

Callow, in Hello Americans, the second volume, accomplishes a remarkably graceful shift in course.

Evidently, what Callow learned of Welles' political and philosophical dedication, through scholarship and interviews with those who knew him and of his activities, caused him to focus on the five years from 1942 to 1947 as crucial to his life and what came after. In Callow's Hello Americans, there begins the outline of a grudging respect that would almost make one think a different man wrote Hello Americans than the one who produced Volume One: The Road to Xanadu.

For those who wish further details, you may wish to consult the book itself. But be warned, for in addition to his snobbish tone, a number of Callow's conclusions in that first volume are contentious.

---------------

Though an occasional example of the old snideness dominates certain passages, Callow's Hello Americans follows a line suggesting that Welles could not help himself; that, however the man and the PR flacks exaggerated his career -- no matter whatever the failings of his maturation could not surmount -- a human being was struggling bravely and often productively with a talent out of his control. And his restless imagination and desire not to repeat himself became combined with an old-fashioned Midwestern Americanism, which crippled his career in the American Studio System, for he profoundly rejected fascism and racism in any of its forms.

The latter observations have not been so strongly emphasized since Welles memorably alerted America to Fascism in his "Modern Dress," Black Shirted, Heil the Leader, 1937 Mercury theatrical production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.

Callow ends his Preface to Hello Americans:

"Beyond his gifts as a film-maker, Welles was a phenomenon, a remarkable member of the human race, and I have been especially grateful for the testimony of those who made him more vivid as a man. I hope I have been able to do justice to what I have been told." [p. xviii]

I could hardly believe my eyes as I read those words, and on that basis alone, I recommend this book to you. It restores ones faith in humankind, these days, that a critic could so change his tone in the face of new evidence.

Without minimizing Welles' failings, Callow has created a measured study of five crucial years in the career of what an admirer who knew him at his best and worst said was a "child-man [who] was also a genius, a supreme artist, an exceptionally brilliant man with a fascinating personality."

----------------

Hello Americans (a title derived from a wartime "Good Neighbor Policy" Radio Series Welles launched on the eve of his trip to South America) takes up "the boy genius's story" again with the triumphant Los Angeles Premiere of CITIZEN KANE. That night, May 2, 1941, with Latin bombshell fiancee Delores Del Rio on his arm, 26 year-old Orson Welles was almost literally on Top of the World. Though old-line Hollywood Studio hacks were suspicious and jealous of him, even they recognized the accomplishment his first film represented.

Orson Welles on that night was immediately in great commercial demand as a film director and actor, as he was still a renowned Radio actor and director, and as a welcome speaker for various political and social causes -- most prominently in defense of, and sometimes as a stand-in for, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Welles lent himself to Liberal causes in all these areas, in a time when Liberals, Progressives and Democrats tended to stand against Fascism, and many Republicans were Isolationists, or admiring of those wonderful Germans and Italians who had, at last made, European trains run on time.

But meanwhile, Welles had done several things which would set loose the phenomenon of Wellsian anti-matter.

He had:

Gone back to Broadway and directed Richard Wright's Native Son, the first great American dramatic play about the "Negro" race relationship to the rest of our society. And that led him, near the end of the period Callow describes in his book (1946), to take up the cause of Sergeant Isaac Woodward, Junior, who was beaten blind by a South Carolina Sheriff, five hours after his discharge from heroic military service in the Pacific.

Written, produced and directed "His Honor, the Mayor," one of the first dramatic critiques of Anti-Latino racism on the Mexican border in the Radio medium. And that involved him the next year (1942) with "The Shady Lagoon Case" in LA, when 17 hispanics were arrested for murder and convicted on confessions beaten out of them (see LA CONFIDENTIAL). Welles published (under the Mercury Press imprimatur) a study of the case, and kept agitating for justice in the matter until the convictions were overturned in 1944.

Prepared a film history of Jazz, with such great talents as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Lena Horne under personal contract to him. That project, originally planned to be part of IT'S ALL TRUE, years later was turned by other hands into *NEW ORLEANS (1947). He was also seen in the company of Black people, on a professional and social basis.

Welles had, thus, shown that his 1935 "Voodoo Macbeth" was not a theatrical trick but a commitment to multi-ethnic culture and Civil Rights (before the term was widely used) -- to real Democracy -- and in doing so, he had touched the American Political Third Rail #1 of the time, that aspect of American life which most gave the lie to our professions of moral superiority in the World. These projects and his political activities got an FBI file opened on him which would dog him for decades.

In his free time, Welles was romancing publicly Miss Del Rio (an established Latina Star in Hollywood), secretly (perhaps) Lena Horne, and he was about to meet Rita Hayworth.

[All these activities were dutifully reported by nameless informants to the FBI. One breathless report stated "that Welles was going to make three short films for the Mercury Theater, to be shown throughout the country in public schools, 'on the contribution of the Negroes to American music and letters.'" It is amusing (in these days when such surveillance is once more on the rise) that the Bureau Investigators, given all the man's hundreds of projects, and with all of their resources, could not connect Welles with what became known as "The Communist Conspiracy," and had to give up eventually in frustration. But their part of the damage had been done, nevertheless.]

During the next five years covered in Hello Americans, Welles would stage three plays, two of them on Broadway: take part in over 200 radio shows, writing, directing, and acting in most of them; make five major films, and appear in several others; write fourteen editorial essays for print publication, plus a regular column in the New York Post for a couple of those years; continue to edit accessible, personal editions of Shakespeare's plays; and bring out four record albums. Many of Welles' efforts, in one fashion or the other, would deal with the conflict between totalitarianism and democracy.

It is this steadfast interest and effort which seems to have brought about Callow's change in attitude toward Welles, as he dug into seldom examined files of programs, writings, and speeches.

But despite this incredible output, and a System which wanted to make money from "the boy genius's" early celebrity and talent, Callow suggests, because of his deeply felt political and social ideals (drawn in large part from his suffragette mother's teachings, his unconventional education, and his early travels), Orson Welles was doomed to leave America in a kind of exile for much of his prime.

---------------

One of his many projects, It's All True, soon turned out by most accounts, including his own, to be the greatest mistake of his life. Callow devotes about 150 of his 450 pages of text to this sad fiasco.

Within days after December 7, 1941 -- well into production on THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, preparing for filming an adaptation of Eric Ambler's Journey into Fear, throwing himself into an additional whirlwind of artistic activity, and fund raising for the U.S. Treasury -- Welles was summoned by his old New York acquaintance, Tycoon Nelson Rockefeller (who may have helped him get the gig at RKO.) Now also an Under-Secretary of State for Latin American Affairs, Rockefeller wanted Welles to make a little documentary on Brazil for FDR's "Good Neighbor Policy" in the Western Hemisphere, an effort to cement the Latin countries firmly in the American camp, never more important than after the coming of WWII.

Welles accepted the task out of patriotic motives and his hatred of fascism , but also, perhaps, from a sense of shame that various physical problems (flat feet, a misshapened spine, etc.) made him 4-F (and would continue to do so). He was a patriot and anti-fascist who could not serve, and even in those days, comfortable right-wing critics were quick to make suggestions of cowardice.

He was soon re-shaping the "It's All True Project" to encompass Latin American culture. He sent Director Norman Foster to Mexico, and supervised him long distance in the making of a segment for the Project: "Bonito the Bull." And having completed major filming on THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, and all of his part in *JOURNEY INTO FEAR (to be completed by Foster), Welles flew to Rio in February 1942, where he spent the next six months, plunging into the rich multi-racial culture, creating in typical Wellsian fashion an epic extravaganza, both monochromatic and in Technicolor, centered around Carnival -- for what RKO and the State Department thought woud be a modest travelogue.

[A long awaited book by Catherine Benamou, a broad study of this part of Welles' progress, has just been announced for publication by the **University of California Press.]

Against the wishes of his sponsors, Welles took up the causes of the fisher-folk of Recife, and the poor of Rio's favelas, against the fascist Vargas Government. He shot hundreds of thousands of feet in brilliant color of black dancers mixing with the other peoples of Brazil, little of which his bosses back in Hollywood could be expected to understand or appreciate.

[In a matter of dollars and cents, such a film could not have been shown beneath the Mason-Dixon Line of America in 1942. But Welles evidently felt that, if the whole World was united against Fascism, Western Hemisphere Americans, particularly North Americans, should take a look at their own diversity. But as Lynn Shores, RKO's man in Rio, had reported back to the Home Office: "Last Friday Welles ordered some day and night shots in some very dirty and disreputable N*gger neighborhoods throughout the city."]

When Welles returned to the United States in August, his second masterpiece, THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, had been all but destroyed by RKO; JOURNEY INTO FEAR had been cut by twenty minutes; his supporter and protector at the Studio, CEO Charles Schaefer, was out, and hard money-handed Charles W. Koerner was in; his Mercury Unit and fabled contract were a thing of the past; and what remained of his ill-fated IT'S ALL TRUE footage would not be released until 1993 (as a documentary on Welles' experience), nearly a decade after his death.

---------------

And what does Callow conclude from this experience central to Welles' career?

"Welles felt frustrated by the limiting demands of commercial production: when he insisted on the artist's right to experiment, he was not speaking idealistically; he was very precisely expressing the only conditions under which he could work. He made his films, as he made his theater, on the floor, in the heat of the moment." [p. 150]

That principle, plus his political activities, would drive him from Hollywood.

-----------------

For the next two years, Welles devoted himself to Radio (over-all, the means by which he actually supported himself through the much of his adult life), also to the War Effort, and to political or educational causes. Among the now lesser known radio programs he participated in were "Juarez: Thunder from the Mountains," "Slavery -- Abednego, "Latin Music," "Mexico," "Bolivar's Idea" (all 1942); 25 "Orson Welles Almanac" variety shows (in 1943-1944), which latterly exposed America to Dixieland Jazz; several Democratic Party programs in support of FDR, which led certain king-makers to suggest that Welles take on a Republican populist named Joe McCarthy for the senatorial seat vacated by Progressive Bob LaFollette, Jr., in Welles' home state of Wisconsin, or that he might think one day of being President; a few War Bond Drive programs, one of which he organized, among the most successful volunteer grassroots finance efforts in the History of the World; a number of Armed Forces "Command Performances," always most popular when he brought a volatile beauty with him; and over 50 political and social "Commentaries."

Welles also managed nightly to saw both his new wife, Rita Hayworth, or Marlene Dietrich, in half for his highly successful 1943 "Mercury Magic Show," designed to entertain the troops shipping out from Long Beach and San Pedro for the Pacific Theater of War.

And he held his own with Jack Benny and Fred Allen, the two premiere radio humorists of the time, by cultivating self-deprecation, a talent Welles would need later in his life, just to earn his bread or wine -- and finance his independent productions.

In the final days of of FDR's 1944 Presidential campaign against former New York District Attorney Thomas E. Dewey, Welles passionately summed up a series of attacks on Republican Isolationists in a manner which ironically echos Charles Foster Kane's condemnation of Boss Jim W. Gettys: "Strong words are called for. I say that dangerous, woefully, terribly dangerous forces foisted this present candidate [Dewey] on the Republican Party. I say those forces are the consecrated enemies of American Progress and the professional wreckers of world peace." [p. 216]

[A small but influential group, some of these Isolationists had been caught "trading with the enemy" -- war profiteering -- and most were dead set against the "One World" concept adopted by the recently dead Wendel Wilkie, the 1940 GOP Presidential Candidate. One of the men Welles refers to was Prescott Bush, Grandfather of our present President, showing as we shall see: "The charm's wound up!"]

FDR won that election, though Welles' hope for the future, Henry A. Wallace, had been dropped from the ticket, and a few months later FDR was dead -- as grief-shaken Welles attended the Founding of the United Nations in San Francisco, that next Spring, as a fully credentialed correspondent. Our American political climate had already begun to grow chilly for New Dealers and One Worlders. Yet, in 1945, Orson Welles was among the best known, most popular figures in America, if not the Western World. Callow suggests that it was his political commentaries in the New York Post and on Radio, his efforts to fight racial bigotry, plus his refusal to be a purely commercial performer, which brought him down.

--------------

Welles' return to film production, the year the War ended, was an attempt to make a profitable thriller, *THE STRANGER, for an independent company, run by Hollywood hands, the likes of S.P. [Sam] Spiegel and William Goetz, written (uncredited) by his old friend John Huston, with contributions by others, including Welles. But even there, Welles was trying to warn America about fascism, by adding little-seen-yet, footage of the German Death Camps, and suggesting that Franz Kindler (Welles), an escaped Nazi architect of the camps, could slip into America, marry the daughter of a Supreme Court Justice, and prepare for the coming of the Fourth Reich.

[Within a couple of years, that's exactly what happened, aided by the CIA. Some of these war criminals or their supporters, until fairly recently, had formidable positions in our Government. They have done their job well.]

Though the "rat-line escape of Kindler from Europe," which Welles considered the best thing in the film, was cut, THE STRANGER proved a solid commercial success (the only picture he ever created which was).

--------------

After a brave try to successfully stage on Broadway a collaboration with Cole Porter of a musical based on Around the World in Eighty Days (and an aborted attempt to direct Charles Laughton in Bertolt Brecht's Galileo), Welles returned to Hollywood, deeply in theatrical debt, to make *THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI for Columbia Pictures. Boss Harry Cohn did not realize it, but Welles' script was his bitter requiem for his marriage to Rita Hayworth (then Columbia's Top Star).

Welles cut Miss Hayworth's long [dyed] red hair, bleached it blonde, and made her Elsa Bannister, the femme fatale who lures Spanish Civil War veteran, Mike O'Hara (Welles), an Irish sailor, on board the yacht "Circe," and into a group of the very kind of people Welles had been castigating in his political speeches, two years before. Among them are Elsa's husband Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane), a wealthy crooked lawyer, and George Grisby (Glenn Anders), an operative, a fixier, who is so sure of an atomic war that he wants to stage his own "murder," and slip off to a far distant isle. In THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI, Welles seems to recapitulate his Rio debacle, his battles with fascism, and his experience in Hollywood, when he has Mike tell these decadent fascists the following magnificently dark parable:

"Once, off the hump of Brazil I saw the ocean so darkened with blood it was black and the sun fainting away over the lip of the sky. We'd put in at Fortaleza, and a few of us had lines out for a bit of idle fishing. It was me had the first strike. A shark it was. Then there was another, and another shark again, 'till all about, the sea was made of sharks and more sharks still, and no water at all. My shark had torn himself from the hook, and the scent, or maybe the stain it was, and him bleeding his life away drove the rest of them mad. Then the beasts fell to eating each other. In their frenzy, they ate at themselves. You could feel the lust of murder like a wind stinging your eyes, and you could smell the death, reeking up out of the sea. I never saw anything worse... until this little picnic tonight. And you know, there wasn't one of them sharks in the whole crazy pack that survived."

What could better describe the end of Fascism in Europe at the conclusion of World War II -- or elsewhere, then and now -- but also the end of Welles?

It was earlier that year of 1946, after an appeal by Walter White of the NAACP, when Welles, so aware of the re-growth of fascism in America, and the possible return of wide-spread lynching, had taken up the cause of the blinded veteran, Sergeant Woodward. Acting like his first Radio sensation, "The Shadow," Welles used his on-air "Commentaries" to track down "Officer X," the sheriff who had punished the veteran (on his way to re-unite with his wife) for asking a bus driver if he could use a bathroom at a rest stop. After a couple of errors (shades of *TOUCH OF EVIL), "The Shadow" got his culprit (who subsequently -- one might almost say, of course, in that time -- was acquitted).

Opposition to Welles' campaign caused ABC to cancel his radio series, no matter how hard a Citizens Committee of the Arts (consisting of Olivia De Havilland, Lena Horne, Linus Pauling, Dore Schary, F.Y. Harburg, and Frank Sinatra) protested. Welles' last scheduled Commentary in October 1946, just as he set to work on THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI, was the finish of the greatest career in American Radio.

---------------

Welles had one more thing to do before he left his native land.

As an educational fund raiser, at the request of the American National Theater and Academy (ANTA), he mounted for a Salt Lake City pageant a production of Shakespeare's Macbeth, not unlike in style his historically famous Harlem "Voodoo Macbeth." In it, he re-united members of the Mercury Players, other actors from Radio, along with local players. Then, he made a deal with Republic Pictures' CEO Herbert J. Yates to film a cinematic version of the pageant production, on a 21 day shooting schedule.

And so he did, and though a badly re-cut edition of THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI reached American theaters almost as soon, Welles' *MACBETH was finally released following extensive re-editing and re-dubbing. By that time, Orson Welles was in Europe where, for the most part, he would remain for the next twelve years. He would at least be beyond the reach of the House Un-American Affairs Committee, which had already begun the process that would cost thousands in Entertainment their careers, and in some cases, their lives.

Once again, as he had been attracted to Julius Caesar among Shakespeare's Roman Plays, Welles had picked the major Tragedy which illustrates the banality and lack of empathy in our craving for power, which is the essence of individuals to whom fascism appeals. [Most of us, I'm afraid.] MACBETH could be seen as the story of a man led by ambition into arrogance, then into an overweening will to power. Welles, haggard, ill, and over-worked, so well personifies his usurper character, in Callow's description, that he well may have felt himself, in some small measure, to be that man.

Had MACBETH been released on time (partly Welles' fault), it would have been the first sound film adaptation in English of what is considered a major Shakespearean Tragedy. According to Callow's professional eye, this crude, raw version is superior in a number of ways to Olivier's smoother HAMLET, which gets the credit, and which critics and cultured audiences took to, on its 1948 release here. Unfortunately, the broad-Scots deliveries (which are again in the standard edition of Welles' restored MACBETH) were thought by Studio Executives foolish and laughable, and they had them re-dubbed.

Another of MACBETH's failings was said to be the use of a clay doll [the voodoo magic again, which so fascinated Welles)] to create a metaphor for an underling's desire to rule Birnum Wood. At the beginning, one of the Three Witches lifts the graven image out of the boiling goo (like the globe in CITIZEN KANE or the bird's egg in TOUCH OF EVIL), and intones: "The Charm's wound up!"

At the end, we see the doll again rising up, and hear, "The Charm's wound up." In other words, the snare which caught poor dumb Macbeth, good soldier that he was, is good to go again.

The last of Callow's chapters in Hello Americans is entitled, "The Charm's Wound Up." As Welles took off for Europe to make pictures in Italy, the strengths and weakness of this superbly talented man were still in play. The snare had simply been re-set.

As we can see, that is so for us Americans -- on this day.

Hello Americans: The charm's wound up!

-----------------

Hello Americans by Simon Callow. 507 pages; 31 pictures and illustrations, some quite rare. Random House, 2006.

-----------------

Note: This long, thorough review is dedicated to Lee Gordon, who sent me the English edition of Hello Americans, which I've muddled over for months. And to CWF -- who is so patient and sensitive.

----------------

CITIZEN KANE --

http://www.epinions.com/mvie-review-4874-81FD18C-38741497-bd4

JOURNEY INTO FEAR --

http://www.epinions.com/content_165963533956

THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI --

http://www.epinions.com/mvie-review-7FE6-1372ED58-38FA6B62-prod3

NEW ORLEANS --

http://www.epinions.com/content_91456573060

THE STRANGER --

http://www.epinions.com/content_140772085380

TOUCH OF EVIL --

http://www.epinions.com/mvie-review-56EB-4CC3BE-38C95F91-prod4

------------------

** Advance details of Catherine Benamou's study of Welles' Brazillian adventure may be found at --

www.wellesnet.com


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