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Orson Welles Is Still Bigger

Than Life At Centennial

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Orson Welles, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, March 1, 1937.
Whether Making Classic Films Such As Citizen Kane Or Pitching No Wine Before Its Time, Orson Welles Left An Enduring Mark On Popular Culture


By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special for Modern Times Magazine

May 18, 2015 — It’s no surprise that the late comedian John Candy satirized Orson Welles in sketch comedies on SCTV, portraying the legendary actor and filmmaker as a person with a short artistic temperament and a voracious appetite for food and drink. Satire, yes, but the real-life Welles didn’t seem to do anything small.

He sent the U.S. populace into an alien-invading frenzy with his radio broadcast in 1938 of War of the Worlds. He bucked the establishment and media mogul William Randolph Hearst with his searing drama Citizen Kane in 1941. And did we mention that he was also married to movie goddess Rita Hayworth?

If he sold out at his nadir by becoming a huckster for Gallo Wine and appearing on Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts as the target of jibes about his enormous girth, Welles’ early career was packed with milestones. (The millstones would come later.)

Orson Welles was born May 6, 2015 in Kenosha, Wisc. While the centennial of his birth received scant attention, Welles’ birthplace commemorated the occasion with a week-long series of events.

Called the “boy wonder” while still in his early 20s, Welles conquered Broadway by forming a legendary company with actor John Houseman called the Mercury Theatre which morphed quickly into the Mercury Theatre on the Air. The Mercury aired many dramatic broadcasts during 1938, culminating with War of the Worlds. The acting during that epic broadcast was so convincing it had listeners in a panic bracing for an alien invasion. Hollywood soon called, and in 1941, at the age of 25, Welles produced, co-wrote, directed and starred in the movie, Citizen Kane, based loosely on several newspaper tycoons, most notably William Randolph Hearst. A film school staple, Kane is still considered among the very best American films ever produced.

Said the New York Times review upon its release: ”For, in spite of some disconcerting lapses and strange ambiguities in the creation of the principal character, Citizen Kane is far and away the most surprising and cinematically exciting motion picture to be seen here in many a moon. As a matter of fact, it comes close to being the most sensational film ever made in Hollywood.”

As a Hollywood studio system rebel, Welles only went on to direct 12 other feature films and none attained the classic status of Kane. The “boy wonder” became a man, and was riddled with frustrations as many of his projects never came to fruition and those that did, such as Touch of Evil, were butchered by studio-ordered edits.

Incidentally, Charleton Heston, who with Welles starred in Touch of Evil, told us during an interview in the 1980s that he thought Welles was a certifiable directing genius and the film the “best B-movie ever made.”

In addition to Kane, Welles’ most notable films include The Magnificent Amberson’s (1942) and The Lady from Shanghai (1947) in which he starred with his wife at the time, Rita Hayworth.

Welles was married three times with his marriage to Hayworth a limited run from 1943-47.

"If Welles were starting out today, new technologies would enable him to realize his most ambitious visions. His independent films could be assembled quickly, easily and cheaply using digital video editing tools. He could crowdfund his projects using sites like Kickstarter, while maintaining creative control over his work,” wrote Robert Nason in the Wall Street Journal.

As the years passed, the handsome “boy wonder” became portly and bearded and was sometimes reduced to a comic punchline on talk shows. But he never lost his sense of humor or erudition (which was prodigious) on many subjects.

Welles died in 1985 at the age of 70; a true auteur whose example continues to inspire young filmmakers the world over.

David Fantle & Tom Johnson have been entertainment journalists for more than 30 years and co-authored the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 Years Of Celebrity Profiles From Vaudeville To Movies To TV. Fantle teaches film and television at Marquette University in Milwaukee and Johnson is a former senior editor for Netflix. They can be reached at
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