Everything You Didn't Know About Orson Welles

Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts
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From 'Magician.' Orson Welles was revered as a visionary, but considered a magnificent failure.Credit: Warner Bros.
Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts

The TV program I want all of you to watch – and marvel, and learn, and become a better person (and a better TV viewer, for what – not much – it’s worth) is not going to be on the air in the coming week. Yes Docu will run it on August 25 at 22.00, and it will be, of course, on Yes VOD. It is a 95-minute long documentary made by Chuck Workman, and is called “Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles.”

Why am I giving you such an advance warning? Mainly because it is a documentary about such a momentous personality, full of so many exciting details never before seen on screen (but which have been mere rumors for many years), that you’d better do your homework, to better appreciate the worth of it. There is so much there to see, listen and read about, since 
Orson Welles, that huge whale of a male, was, as it were, the embodiment of a master communicator and manipulator on a global scale. A TV personality par excellence, he achieved his unique status on the radio and theater stage, in the movies, and only marginally on the TV screen. But he was indeed a magician, who had, at times, a huge portion of American minds almost literally in his hands. And yet, there is a distinct notion that somehow he was a magnificent failure.

He was born 100 years ago (May 6, 1915) in Wisconsin, and died 35 years ago, in Hollywood, revered by all as a visionary, but shunned by the industry he had forced, almost single-handedly, to shape itself. He did innovative European expressionist theater on Broadway, with federal funding. In 1941 he wrote, directed and acted in a movie which to this very day is considered one of the best – most special, innovative, daring, trailblazing – movies of all time. It was his first time on a movie set, in whatever capacity. This was “Citizen Kane.” Because that was the way he was: he did not experiment. He did not theorize. He did not seek (inspirations, solutions, techniques). He went out there and did what he had an urge to do, creating the means and tools he needed as he went along. For him failure was not an option, because he did not really care about success. There was something in his fertile mind that needed to emerge, so he felt destined to deliver it to the world. Luckily for all of us he was dealing with fiction and illusion, and he knew the difference. Such energy and personality in a political leader is a terrifying notion.

Possibly his greatest, and actually unique, achievement took place on October 30, 1938, on the radio, and in an eerie way it was a precursor of 
reality TV.

One might say it was comparable to that moment in 1969 when all the world had its eyes glued to the TV screen for Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon. Welles had adapted for radio a novel by H.G. Wells, “The War of the Worlds,” about an alien 
invasion of earth. For the unsuspecting
listener it was a regular broadcast of dance music, interrupted by a “breaking news” bulletin about space ships landing in the U.S., with a live report from the field. In a studio, Welles was directing the radio play: a pickle jar was unscrewed inside a toilet bowl, producing an eerie sound picked up by a microphone. The American public heard the sound, then the terrified voice of an actor gabbled something about “it’s coming out,” then a scream, and a long, dead silence, which goes on and on and on, as though at the end of the world. There is footage in the documentary (but it’s unclear if this is the real thing or one of many reenactments of the moment) of Welles with his arms raised, holding the silence and suspense in his huge hands, savoring his rule over the world’s imagination and fears.

There are many interviews with Welles in the film, in various stages of his career, and he has a gift of the gab. About “The War of the Worlds” he says it was not merely a stunt by a genius. He explains that he had the feeling that the public trusted the technology (radio and TV) too blindly (as opposed to print, which it had learned to doubt, and he aimed to prick the balloon. He does not say that it all happened just a year before an actual War of the Worlds erupted on our planet, and he was probably tapping into that well of fear as well.

Most of the greatest things Welles left us were tidbits he sort of tossed out on second thought. Most of his great works remained unfinished. Some of his memorable moments are bits in someone else’s works. One of these is a piece of monologue he improvised on the set of the movie “The Third Man” (1970, based on a novel by Graham Greene, written and directed by 
Carol Reed). It is still probably the most succinct statement about the world, nationality and the arts: “Don’t be so gloomy. After all it’s not that awful. Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

Do yourself a favor. Prepare yourself, and watch it. He was, and is, the ultimate magician.