Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Orson Welles - John Russell Taylor

 I recently watched Orson Welles' masterpiece Citizen Kane, ( of which I hope to review some time this century! ) and realised I knew literally nothing about him. How could this be so considering he created what is considered the greatest film ever made? I knew he created a stir with his War of the Worlds radio presentation in the 1930's but still that isn't much is it? So I though I'd put things to right and read up on the man.

 I'm not having a good year reading non-fiction, and have in fact read more fiction so far in 2011 than I have in the last five years combined. Suffice to say I didn't want to bog myself down in anything too detailed as I just spent a whole month plowing my way through a very meticulous, detailed 850 page of Alfred Hitchcock. So this book was just the ticket as it is only 128 pages long and can be read by an accomplished reader in less than three hours.

 So straight off if you are after a definitive work on Orson Welles then this is not it. It is what I would call an introduction. Books like this are a very good place to start if you want inital background information, or a light framework to build on, and upwards to more detailed works. I don't envisage myself ever reading another Welles biography and this one just scratched the quiet itch I had after Citizen Kane.

 Well in brevity I got what I expected from this book and learnt a few things along the way. Most notably that Welles, before he made Citizen Kane, wanted to turn Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness into a film. Like so many ideas and projects of his it never got of the ground but was later immortalised by Francis Ford Coppola as Apocalypse Now. Funnily enough though is that he had actually adapted the novel to radio. It is one theme that seemed to have run through Welles whole life was the amount of projects he started but never completed. He generally seemed to blame everyone else but himself for these failures but the fault I think generally lay within him.

 He certainly started out his career in a hurry and was looked on as a boy genius. After a somewhat up and down stage director/actor career he was invited to Hollywood to make films. He saw the possibilities film would give him and took the plunge. But amazingly after Citizen Kane he never scaled the heights again. One of the things that is often forgotten with Citizen Kane though is that it wasn't an instant success and only gathered its fame many years after its release. He reached this height at the young age of 25 and in a 1973 interview succinctly summed up his following career thus, ' I began at the top and have been making my way down ever since'.

 Orson Welles was an active man and was always busy but he has an uncanny knack of alienating those he needed. Taylor says he had a self destruct gene! Charlton Heston, an admirer of Welles as an actor stated, ' There's a kind of maverick streak in Orson....he just wants to work, but at the same time, there's something in him that drives him to alienate the people with the money'. This sums Welles up perfectly. He constantly had projects on the go but no funding so he had to find acting jobs in an effort to raise cash. It is interesting because even though no-one wanted him as a film maker he was always in demand as an actor! This even though he was notoriously difficult to direct as he tried to be the director as well!

 Welles is also famous for his radio programmes. He had a voice that could hold an audience enthralled and he continuously turned back to radio as a form of income. In later years he made most of his money making successful radio commercials, a somewhat sad, but somehow appropriate, acknowledgement of where he stood in the scheme of things. I dont' think Orson Welles was a bad guy or even overly egotistical. His problem was he tried to do too much at one time and hence did nothing. He did take too much credit for Citizen Kane, ignoring the input of Herman  J. Mankiewicz, but he isn't the only person to ever do that type of thing is he?! 

 The only other thing that leaped out at me was I ever realised he and Rita Haworth were married for a time, and that he was married four times. He certainly strayed, which didn't help his marriages, but again he wasn't alone in doing that. I think in such a short book one thing marks Orson Welles for me. That was that his heavy work load, and somewhat difficult persona, meant he never attained and prevailed to the heights his talents said he should have acquired. He had some successes, which were huge, but overall his was a career that I would sum up as unfulfilled.

 This is certainly not a definitive biography, but if you wish to read an introductory book on Orson Welles then this is a good place to start. A short and effective summary, no more.

Amazon has this with 4 1/2 stars from 5. And even though very short this type of brevity can be quite a demanding write, and I think John Russell Taylor has produced a good example of this type of concise biography.


  1. That sounds like something I'd enjoy to read, nice little overview of his career. Nice review!

  2. Hmmm ashamed to say I don't know much about him myself. In fact, I have not even seen Citizen Kane. That's pretty bad...

  3. I don't much about Orson Wells either, other than that he directed Citizen Kane at the age of 25. Oh, to have such accomplishments at such a young age! Thanks for the recommendation!

  4. Thanks Daniel. It isn't a taxing read and that is a good thing if you want something quick and easy.

    Matt...it isn't bad because I only saw it myself for the first time several weeks ago .Greatest movie ever made..quite probably!!

    Laura..isn't it just enviable!! An abundance of talent at such a young age. But he is a man who just seemed to squander his career from there onwards which his is a shame because he was extremely talented. A worthy read if you want something quick and easy.