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Citizen Welles

During the 2016 US presidential election campaign, Donald Trump was more than once compared to one of the great fictional characters of American cinema, Citizen Kane.  Kane was the creation of Orson Welles, one of Hollywood's greatest - but in the end least successful - movie directors.

    Orson Welles was a man who stood head and shoulders above most of his contemporaries, yet he was, in a sense, Hollywood's greatest failed genius..

Poster for Cirtizen Kane
Orson Wells as Citizen Kane

For both Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, Orson Welles was one of the greatest figures in the history of Hollywood. So it is surprising when we learn that Welles was never really accepted by Hollywood. Probably he was too much of a genius, too much of an intellectual for a Hollywood which was interested in money more than in anything else.

Hollywood has often been reluctant to accept a genius. Charlie Chaplin had to fight to do what he wanted: Welles too, though Welles did not always succeed.

Orson Welles was certainly a genius. Born in 1915 in Kenosha, an industrial town in the American state of Wisconsin on the banks of Lake Michigan, he was the son of a failed inventor and an artistic mother. According to legend, Orson could talk like an intellectual by the time he was only 18 months old. It is said that at this age, he sat up in his bed one day and said to the doctor : "The desire to make medicine is one of the greatest features that distinguishes man from animals".

The legend is perhaps best taken with a pinch of salt, but it illustrates perfectly Orson Welles's reputation. Certainly, by the age of 5, the young Welles was reading Shakespeare, a writer who was to remain one of his principal passions until the end of his life; yet Shakespeare was not to make him famous.

Welles began his career when he was only 16, by leaving the United States and going to Ireland, where he soon got a job as an actor at the Gate Theatre in Dublin. After a while there, he returned to New York, and began building up a certain reputation in intellectual circles in the city. One of his earliest defiant gestures, which helped bring him to the attention of New York critics, was his presentation of Macbeth, with an entirely black cast.

In 1937, Welles founded his most famous theater group, the Mercury Theater, with whom he worked not only on stage plays but on radio plays too. Ever drawn towards experimenting with Shakespeare, he presented an avant-garde modern-dress version of Julius Ceasar, which he made into a bitter attack on fascism, at a time when Hitler and Mussolini were preparing to subject Europe to their dictatorship. The following year, Welles and his actors went on to radio, and, for the first time the 23-year old director gained a national reputation. On the evening of Hallowe'en, a national panic spread across the United States as Welles's dramatization of H.G. Wells's novel "The War of the Worlds" convinced millions of Americans that Earth really was being attacked by people from Mars. Listeners who turned on their radios without knowing what was on were terrified to hear the voice of Welles describing, as in a live news broadcast, the arrival of the visitors in their "fighting machines"; it just sounded real.

When he was 25, Welles went to Hollywood. A year later, in late 1941, he produced Citizen Kane, a film which to this day continues to be considered as one of the greatest films ever made. Directing and acting the leading role, Welles produced a movie that was not only a revolution in cinematographic techniques, but also in a sense a film which analyzed a major aspect of the spirit of America, in the form of the Self Made Man — himself the symbol of 19th and 20th Century American capitalism.

Kane was based on the rise and fall of the California newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, whose ruthless journalistic techniques and driving quest for power made him into the most important media figure of his day. The inventor of sensationalizing journalism, Hearst had become at the moment of his greatest power (1937) the owner of 26 daily newspaper, 8 radio stations, 12 magazines, and two film companies. Even in his decline, he was a powerful man, a man who did his best to make sure that Citizen Kane was a failure.

In a sense, he succeeded, since the film, after very successful openings in New York and California, was not a big success in the rest of the USA. Still, it is rare for the qualities of "greatness" and commercial success to coexist in the same work of art, even in a film, and Welles was to be victim of this truth.

After Citizen Kane, he produced a number of other films, but Hollywood studios did not encourage him: he left behind him a list of films some of which were cut by the studios, others never finished for lack of finance, and others produced in a fashion that was little more than the shadow of Welles's original idea. The blame was not all Hollywood's: on the contrary, Welles was often considered as a man who lost the ability to finish transforming his dreams into reality. In his final years, Welles was perhaps best known to Americans as the voice in the TV adverts for such products as wines and airlines; but even as he recorded these, he was still dreaming of the ultimate masterpiece he would make, a film of King Lear: it was the last of his dreams that never came true.

failed genius : very clever man who did not succeed - be reluctant to : not really want to - feature : characteristic - take with a pinch of salt : not really believe - cast : the actors in a play or movie - Hallowe'en : All Saints Eve, 1st. November - broadcast: transmission, radio program - ruthless : without concern for others - - a driving quest : an irresistible search - lack : absence - - a fashion : manner - adverts : advertisements, commercials, publicity

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Orson Welles

Interactive exercise Question forming : Inteview with Orson Welles

Here is a fictitious interview with Orson Welles, in which you are the interviewer.  Below you will see Welles's answsers; what were your questions ? Type your questions into the boxes, which will expand if necessary.

You : Have 
Welles: No, I was born in Kenosha Wisconsin, a small town on the banks of Lake Michigan.
You : And 
Welles : Yes, I worked in Ireland when I was a young actor.
You : How
Welles : 16.
You : Who
Welles : Shakespeare.
You : Why
Welles :  Well I guess that they believed the program was a real news report. It was very realistic, and people are willing to believe all sorts of things.
You : And what
Welles : Citizen Kane.
You : What
Welles : It's about American capitalism, and the power that can be reached by some self-made men.
You : Was
Welles: Well Kane was modeled on the California newspaper owner Randolph Hearst.
You : Was
Welles: Yes, very powerful indeed. At one point he owned 26 daily newspapers, 8 radio stations, 12 magazines, and two film companies.
You : So
Welles : Yes of course, far too much influence for a man who was not elected.


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