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Orson Welles

...because if you’re at all interested in film, you probably want to know the person who made the great American movie. Always taking risks for the sake of art, Orson Welles walked the line between massive success and utter failure. A theatrical prodigy, Welles brought his bold, experimental dramatic style to cinema through such films as "The Lady from Shanghai," "Touch of Evil," "The Magnificent Ambersons" and, of course, that little picture called "Citizen Kane." About that last film…he made it at age 25, on his very first outing as director.



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From practically the day he was born, Orson Welles was deemed a prodigy in theater, which was still then the dominant dramatic form. By the time was in his twenties, he had already earned a well-deserved reputation as one of stage’s best actors and directors. He had even experimented with radio broadcasting, most famously – or infamously, perhaps – through his news style interpretation of H.G. Wells’s alien invasion novel, "The War of the Worlds." As film had taken off with the advent of sound in cinema, Hollywood proved the logical next step for Welles. "Citizen Kane" even utilized the fake newsreel technique he had experimented with in radio. While his artistic influence on the medium cannot be overstated, the commercial realities and power politics of Hollywood often proved an obstacle to someone used to being treated with the reverence due a genius.

While Welles’s overall career was marked by failures on the business side of film, his first contract stands as one of the greatest deals in Hollywood history. Because of his high standing in the world of theater and radio, film studios naturally wanted the talented Orson Welles to work for them. While we don’t know the specifics of the negotiations, Welles only agreed to make his entrance into cinema under the guarantee of full creative control. Of course, RKO, the studio who made him the offer he couldn’t refuse, regretted the decision as it proved to be a huge gamble on a novice. Welles also operated with an unorthodox and demanding style, driving the film over budget and courting controversy from the powerful media baron William Randolph Hearst. In fact, Welles famously told his cinematographer that they were setting out to break pretty much every rule in the book. The result may have been the greatest film ever made, but RKO still likely regretted giving Welles too much control over "Citizen Kane." The studio released an unauthorized cut of Welles’s next film, "The Magnificent Ambersons," which has generated much debate over the film’s status in the history of cinema. And Welles, of course, never received the same amount of freedom when making any of his subsequent movies.

Welles’s other film work is certainly worth watching: the noirs "The Lady from Shanghai" and "Touch of Evil" and his Shakespeare adaptations in particular show his skill as a storyteller, visual stylist and actor. Welles himself also called "The Trial," based on a story by Franz Kafka, one of his best films. Yet 1940 in particular stands alone as Welles’s greatest year – and considering he was still only 25, it’s enough to make anyone feel unaccomplished at any age. While still active in producing radio dramas, Welles also put on an acclaimed production of “Macbeth” with an all black cast – an extremely radical move at the time. In the same year, he also toured the country giving lectures, while also researching a planned film about the life of Jesus Christ. While he never made that film, which would have all its dialogue adapted directly from the bible and never revealing Christ’s face, he did end up writing and filming "Citizen Kane" in 1940. So is all this meant to make us feel bad about how little we’ve done this year? It simply goes to show that it’s never a bad idea to have multiple projects in different fields going at once. Or at least, it worked for Welles in 1940.

Resources

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The Epic Story of Orson Welles’s Unfinished Masterpiece

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