Editor’s Choice September 2006

Orson Agonistes

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By far the most penetrating and original aspect of both volumes is Callow’s vivid scrutiny of Welles’s work in the theater—I’ve never read accounts of long-vanished stage productions that equal the immediacy and precision of Callow’s—and on radio (“the medium,” Callow reminds us, in which Welles “earned a living for most of his professional life”). But Callow, a man primarily of the English stage (though many Americans know him best as the hammy, kilted homosexual in Four Weddings and a Funeral), falters the farther he gets from his milieu. He lavishes many pages on Welles’s political activity, for instance, but has little understanding of the history of American politics (Helen Gahagan Douglas was a liberal Democrat, but she was hardly a “radical,” as Callow avers and as the young senatorial candidate Richard Nixon tried to tar her; Truman was a creature of Tom Pendergast’s Kansas City Democratic political organization, not of the “southern Democratic machine”).

Far more crucial, Callow loses his sure touch when he examines the film work of Welles, which is, after all, that genius’s supreme artistic achievement. Without a commanding and subtle grasp of the technical and formal aspects of moviemaking, Callow, in analyzing Welles’s pictures, fails to employ the acumen and grace he brings to his assessment of Welles’s theatrical productions. Instead he resorts to lengthy summaries of plots and reviews—the very kind of bloated, unfocused approach he otherwise eschews. For all his insight into theatrical acting style and method, he, alas, fails (in both volumes) to illuminate and analyze with originality Welles’s most important collaboration as a director with an actor: his film work in Kane and Ambersons with Moorehead, whom he pronounced “the best actor I’ve ever known” (she’s the cynosure in what Thomson memorably calls “the two most indelibly humane moments” in Welles’s oeuvre). This is all the more disappointing in that Callow has actually written books on the two directors who most treasured her, Welles and Charles Laughton.

Not at home in the history and culture of Hollywood and, it seems, fundamentally indifferent to the movies, Callow brings few new insights to the much-discussed, pivotal event of the years covered in this volume: Welles’s fateful decision to leave Ambersons without finishing the film’s all-important postproduction work, in order to fly to Rio to film the Carnival for a wartime documentary the government had asked him to direct in support of inter-American unity. For Welles, the South America trip was equal parts patriotic gesture, serious attempt to make something like an anthropological art film, and sybaritic boondoggle. Indisputably, though, his adventure there destroyed his already-fragile relationship with RKO (the company was footing the bill) and led to the studio’s evisceration of Ambersons—RKO cut nearly an hour from the film, diminishing it from 131 minutes to eighty-eight, and the studio inserted new material that was neither written nor directed by Welles.

The adulterated fragment contains some of the finest moments in the history of the cinema (most famously Moorehead’s “strawberry shortcake” scene, Welles’s own poignant and witty narration, and the truncated but still lyrical ballroom sequence—the original sequence, a single tracking shot, was, Welles later maintained, “the greatest tour de force of my career”). But many cineastes agree with Thomson that the uncut movie, had it survived, “would now be regarded as the greatest film ever made” (Robert Carringer’s painstaking Magnificent Ambersons: A Reconstruction, based on the studio’s continuity script, surviving storyboards, and stills of missing scenes, gives the clearest sense of the original movie). At the time, the “giant boy,” as Welles was often called, seems to have been too absorbed in his pleasures and projects to apprehend fully the ramifications of the destruction of Ambersons—and his own role in that destruction. Four decades later he would recognize, as his film archivist recounted, that it “was the worst thing that had happened to him in his life.”

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Benjamin Schwarz is the literary editor and the national editor of The Atlantic.

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