Orson Welles: M Is For Mystery

by Brian Darr

Orson Welles loved a good mystery. Some of his greatest films, from Citizen Kane  to Touch of Evil  to F For Fake , use conventions of that literary and film genre to draw his audience into their labyrinthine worlds. An intensely private man, he also frequently employed his incomparable skills as raconteur to obfuscate the truths about his own life, creating mysteries that each new biographer or reader must try to unravel if he or she wants to understand more about Welles than he intended to to reveal. 

With a celebration of Orson Welles and his film, theatre, and radio legacies already underway in Palo Alto, less than a year before the centennial of his birth next May, here’s a look at just a few of the mysteries about Welles’ life and work that still puzzle fans and scholars in 2014.

The Case of the Cosmic Radio

welles, orson_time_may 9, 1938_photo by paul dorsey


The first article on Welles and his creative pursuits (acting, poetry, painting, etc.) was published in a Madison, Wisconsin newspaper in 1926, before the lad had reached his eleventh birthday. By April 1938, not yet twenty-three, his face was on the cover of Time Magazine (in the old age make-up and beard worn for his stage production of George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House). But the young Orson’s first truly permanent mark on popular consciousness was his groundbreaking radio update of H.G. Wells’ science fiction classic War Of The Worlds broadcast nationally the night before Halloween of that year. Welles and his colleagues at the Mercury Theatre On The Air performed the alien invasion tale as if it were live journalism carried out by reporters and eyewitnesses on the scene in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, where Welles and Mercury Theatre writer Howard Koch had transposed the story’s original Martian landing site from Horsell Common in Surrey, England.

welles, orson_war of the worlds

The mystery:

Did listeners indeed panic at hearing the broadcast? Newspapers headlines the next day screamed, “Radio Fake Scares Nation” and “Radio ‘Martian Attack’ Terrorizes U.S. Hearers”. Though films like It Happened Here , This Is Spinal Tap , The Blair Witch Project , etc. have acclimated us to fiction taking documentary approaches today, a 1938 public may have been primed by Hitler’s territorial expansions to believe invasion reports, and may have missed the program’s initial disclaimer that it was just a radio play, not repeated again until 40 minutes into the broadcast. Jefferson Pooley and Michael J. Socolow have recently argued that the audience for War of the Worlds was actually quite small, that the few instances of listeners believing their ears did not amount to mass panic, and that newspapers exaggerated the results of the play in order to discredit the competing medium of radio.

However, the existence of a letter from a Trenton City Manager to the Federal Communications Commission complaining of “two thousand phone calls” that “crippled communication facilities of our Police Department” indicates that there was at least some heightened concern in New Jersey, if not the exodus of frightened citizens from their homes nationwide that Welles and others spoke of later. In any case, the Mercury Theatre On The Air received no government censure but rather widespread notoriety and sponsorship from the Campbell Soup Company in the wake of the stunt, and offers from Hollywood beckoned the young showman who made a brilliant “non-apology” apology the following day. If the newspapers had overstated the effect of the War Of The Worlds broadcast in a bid to damage broadcasters, they’d inadvertently put one of them in position to skewer their own medium with his first feature film, Citizen Kane .

Stanford connection:

Stanford Repertory Theater will present 10 performances of its own “theatrical recreation of Welles’ famous 1938 radio broadcast” at the Nitery Theater, Thursdays through Sundays August 14-24.

The Case of the Backstage Passport

citizen kane


During the 1940s Orson Welles continued working in radio and the theatre (directing a successful stage version of Richard Wright’s Native Son with Canada Lee as Bigger Thomas, for instance) as he simultaneously embarked on a frequently-embattled movie career. Citizen Kane ‘s release was severely compromised by attacks on it by its barely-veiled subject, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. His follow-ups The Magnificent Ambersons  and It’s All True  were mutilated in the editing room and snatched away before completion, respectively, in the midst of a corporate restructuring that pushed president George Schaefer (who had arranged Welles’ unprecedented catre-blanche contract) out of RKO Radio Pictures. Welles found jobs directing films for Sam Spiegel (The Stranger ), Columbia (The Lady From Shanghai ) and Republic (Macbeth ), but in 1947 he suddenly departed Hollywood for Europe, where he remained for most of the next 23 years.

The mystery:

Why did Welles choose this moment to leave the United States, and what were the circumstances of his occasional returns before his decision to permanently resettle here in 1970? Most biographers point out that 1947 was when the Hollywood Blacklist began gaining steam, after the Republican triumph in the 1946 midterm elections launched anti-communist witch hunts. But they often arrive at contrary conclusions. Joseph McBride makes a case in his book What Ever Happened to Orson Welles that the FBI, under the influence of Hearst and his allies, had Welles under investigation for connections to alleged Communist “fronts” and for his support for labor leader Harry Bridges as early as 1941. His efforts on behalf of seventeen Mexican American youths unfairly convicted in Los Angeles in 1942, and of an African American veteran beaten and blinded by a South Carolina police chief in 1946 were also looked down on by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI and the House Un-American Activities Committee.  His flight across the Atlantic right when Republic was asking for revisions to Macbeth  may have been his method of avoiding a call to testify before HUAC.

third man, the

David Thomson’s Welles biography Rosebud, on the other hand, states that “the FBI and others were losing interest in him as the red scare grew”. He attributes the director’s relocation to woes with another Washington acronym: the IRS. Even McBride is puzzled by the timing of Welles’ first return trip, a brief New York sojourn marking his first live television appearance, a CBS production of King Lear  in 1953. This was at the height of the blacklist, unlike his next stint in the US, a longer stretch during which he filmed Touch Of Evil . Whatever the reason for his years in the Old World, he spent his years away from Hollywood as a truly independent and international film director, making (for instance) Othello  in Italy and Morocco, The Trial  in Paris, Rome and Zagreb, and Chimes At Midnight  in Spain, and funding his own projects with the salaries he took for acting roles such as Cardinal Wolsey in A Man For All Seasons  and Harry Lime in  The Third Man .

Stanford connection:

Through August 18th, Stanford Repertory Theater hosts free Monday night screenings of Orson Welles films introduced by faculty from appropriate disciplines. The selections are a balance of some of Welles’ best-regarded Hollywood and European feature films, concluding with a presentation of Carol Reed’s The Third Man , starring Welles, with Stanford English Professor and acclaimed author Tobias Wolff.

The Case of the Missing Outtakes


It’s frequently pointed out that Orson Welles’ film career path went the direction opposite what we tend to think of as usual for an ambitious movie maker. His first feature films were made with all the resources of state-of-the-art Hollywood studios. As the decades progressed his budgets, casts and crews generally grew smaller and his final products more and more resembled the independent films that they were, though a clear overarching directorial vision and an exuberant sense of experimentation essentially remained constant.

discovering orson welles

There’s an alternative to the usual narratives, that Hollywood destroyed Welles’ creative energies, or that his own self-sabotaging instincts did. Perhaps they were never really destroyed. That’s the argument driven home by Jonathan Rosenbaum’s essay collection Discovering Orson Welles, which proves that he kept being creative on a scale appropriate to his circumstance, undertaking and constantly revising all sorts of film projects whether or not they’d ever have viability in the marketplace. Though most movie lovers have seen at least a handful or two of the thirteen feature-length films he completed and released in his lifetime, this book’s appendix lists more than thirty-seven distinct Orson Welles-directed films of varying lengths and stages of completion (not counting screenplays which never went before his camera), from his 1934 teenage doodle Hearts Of Age to the legendary The Other Side Of The Wind, which Welles asked Peter Bogdanovich to finish after his death, but which has yet to be unravelled from its mire of legal and financial claims in the twenty-nine years that have passed since.

don quixote

The mystery:

Will there ever be a day when all of the film projects Rosenbaum lists might be available for viewing by the general public? Each individual project is tied up in its own special set of circumstances. Some are complete but commercially unavailable, whether because of a copyright dispute or a perceived lack of general appeal. Others were left incomplete when Welles died in 1985, and of those only a few (Don Quixote  and The Other Side of the Wind , most notably) are thought to have enough material associated with them to be possibly finished by someone sensitive to Welles’ intentions for them during his lifetime. Conflicting personalities with differing ideas on how to approach a proper edit can be overwhelming obstacles to our ability to view these films. In fact, an edit of Don Quixote  was made by Jess Franco in 1992 and is available on DVD, but has been roundly disapproved by most Welles fans and scholars. Hope remains alive that a better version may be constructed someday, but this Don Quixote  version can also be taken as a lesson to “leave Welles enough alone” when it comes to other projects. Certain fans would actually rather not see their favorite filmmaker’s brand diluted by any more posthumous appearances of films he left unfinished.

moby dick

Other films on Rosenbaum’s list are nowhere to be found in known archives—i.e., “lost films”. These include, for example, a film prologue for a 1939 Mercury Theatre production of The Green Goddess , a 1956 half-hour television pilot entitled Camille, The Naked Lady, And The Musketeers , and 75 minutes of footage filmed of his typically unconventional 1955 London theatrical hit Moby Dick – Rehearsed . The latter included in its cast a young Christopher Lee, although he was not part of the original stage production cast, and the footage has been said to have been annihilated in a fire that broke out at Welles’ home in Madrid while he was away. Yet the narration on the 1995 documentary Orson Welles: The One-Man Band  claims that this house never caught aflame. Joseph McBride has noted that the reels of another Mercury Theatre prologue, Too Much Johnson , were also supposed to have burned in this non-existent conflagration.  They curiously turned up in Pordenone, Italy not long ago and have been restored for touring at film festivals and cinematheques worldwide (including a stop at the Pacific Film Archive this past March).  Might the Moby Dick – Rehearsed  footage resurface somehow as well?

Stanford connection:

Orson Welles’ play Moby Dick – Rehearsed  will receive 16 performances at the Pigott Theater by Stanford Repertory Theater over a four-week period this summer, starting Thursday, July 17th.  In addition, the same venue will host an all-day community symposium focusing on both Welles and Moby Dick author Herman Melville August 2nd.


Orson Welles books and DVDs can be found at Indiebound and Amazon.

Brian Darr headshot
Brian Darr has been a cinephile for over fifteen years, a vegetarian for over twenty-five, and a San Francisco native all his life. In 2005 he founded the blog
Hell On Frisco Bay to document his perceptions of the Bay Area film screening scene.

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