Orson Welles, March 1, 1937 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Author Frank J. Batavick
The Germans always have a word for it. In this case it is wunderkind or wonder child, and it applies to any youth who has skills and accomplishments far beyond his or her age. There are many prodigies in human history, but few as fascinating as Orson Welles.
On my 50th birthday I was living in Bloomington, Indiana, the home of Indiana University and the Lilly Library. Among its many treasures are the papers and effects of Orson Welles. I decided to treat myself on my big day by skipping work and spending the morning rummaging through the Lilly’s Welles collection that includes everything from old radio and film scripts to passport photos of wife #2, Rita Hayworth. With each file box, I felt like I was touching genius.
Welles and John Houseman founded their own repertory company, the Mercury Theatre, and staged a number of creative efforts, including a version of Julius Caesar with actors in contemporary dress and set against the volatile fascism of 1930s Italy. During this time, Welles employed his mellifluous baritone to also work in radio, performing in various dramas. For thirteen months he played the popular detective hero, The Shadow. Welles used this experience to launch a repertory radio theater company, the Mercury Theatre of the Air.
The broadcast ratings for the series were tepid until Welles decided to adapt the H.G. Welles sci fi novel, War of the Worlds by telling the story of the Martian invasion through a series of radio news reports. The program aired the night before Halloween in 1938, and radio was never the same. The broadcast’s deft use of real-sounding government agencies, simulated interruptions of music for breaking news, and horrifying sound effects were convincing enough to panic thousands of listeners. Police switchboards lit up across the nation, and some people jumped in the family car and drove to safe havens. The FCC reacted by banning future uses of falsified newscasts, and Welles became the toast of radio.
He then went on to conquer cinema by directing and starring in Citizen Kane in 1941, a bio film about a fictional newspaper publisher who mirrored the real-life William Randolph Hearst. The film’s creative use of a faux newsreel, interviews, music, German Expressionist lighting, and deep focus cinematography later earned it a number one ranking among the American Film Institute’s 100 greatest films of all time. Not bad for a 26 year-old’s first feature.
However, as sometimes happens with geniuses, Welles peaked too soon, a victim of his own hubris, questionable project selection, and messy personal life. Aside from some virtuoso acting performances in A Touch of Evil, which he also directed, and The Third Man, he never helmed any movies to match Citizen Kane, and regrettably left a long string of unfinished projects and films.
Toward the end of his life, Welles was forced to take any assignment offered, appearing on talk shows and even narrating documentaries like Bugs Bunny: Superstar. He also became a pitchman for Paul Masson wine and Carlsberg beer. Though his critical reputation didn’t grow, his waistline did, and to obese proportions. He joked, “My doctor told me to stop having intimate dinners for four. Unless there are three other people.” Welles died of a heart attack on October 10, 1985.
American culture is richer and more textured because of Orson Welles, and we are left to wonder what might have been had he continued as one of show business’ greatest innovators. Perhaps another Welles quote offers the best characterization of his conflicted life: “If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.”
Frank Batavick is a graduate of Gloucester Catholic (‘63) and La Salle University ('67) with over 40 years of experience as a television writer/producer/director for public TV and media companies in IN and NJ. He has also served as adjunct faculty and visiting professor in Communications at colleges and universities in NY and MD. Frank now lives in MD with his wife Dori (GCHS, ‘63), where he is the vice chair of the Historical Society of Carroll County’s board of trustees, editor of the Carroll History Journal, and a weekly columnist and occasional feature writer for the Carroll County Times.