Watch Orson Welles’ First Ever Film, Directed at Age 19

“It’s noth­ing at all. Absolute­ly noth­ing. It was a joke. I want­ed to make a par­o­dy of Jean Cocteau’s first film. That’s all. We shot it in two hours, for fun, one Sun­day after­noon. It has no sort of mean­ing.”–Orson Welles

The Hearts of Age may have indeed been a lark when it was shot in 1934, but giv­en that one of the two teenagers went on to direct Cit­i­zen Kane sev­en years lat­er, no doubt it’s worth a sec­ond look.

Like all things Welles, his 19-year-old life was much more fan­tas­tic than most high school grads. Though he and school chum William Vance shot the film at their alma mater, the Todd School in Wood­stock, Illi­nois, Welles had grad­u­at­ed three years ear­li­er. Accord­ing to Sens­es of Cin­e­ma, Welles

had spurned a schol­ar­ship to Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty, vis­it­ed Ire­land on a sketch­ing tour only to talk his way into per­form­ing for the Dublin Gate The­atre, writ­ten detec­tive sto­ries for pulp mag­a­zines, and trav­elled through Lon­don, Paris, the Ivory Coast, Moroc­co and Seville, where he spent an after­noon as a pro­fes­sion­al bull­fight­er. After return­ing to Amer­i­ca in 1933, intro­duc­tions to Thorn­ton Wilder and Alexan­der Wol­cott led to a posi­tion in Kather­ine Cornell’s tour­ing reper­to­ry com­pa­ny. Welles toured with the Cor­nell com­pa­ny from Novem­ber 1933 to June 1934, appear­ing in three plays and mak­ing his New York debut as Tybalt in Romeo and Juli­et.

Back in Wood­stock to spon­sor a the­ater fes­ti­val at the school, Welles and Vance bor­rowed a cam­era from their old prin­ci­pal and shot this eight minute short.

William Vance, Welles’ friend and co-direc­tor, kept the only copy until he donat­ed it to the Green­wich Pub­lic Library, where film his­to­ri­an and writer Joseph McBride dis­cov­ered it in 1969. McBride then wrote about it in Film Quar­ter­ly and the secret juve­nil­ia of Welles was out of the clos­et. (“Why did Joe have to dis­cov­er that film?” Welles was quot­ed as telling his cam­era­man).

Nev­er entered into copy­right, it’s a pub­lic domain film and so has been avail­able on var­i­ous plat­forms for years. (I saw it in the ‘90s as part of a “before they were famous” short film fes­ti­val with stu­dent work by Lynch, Scors­ese, and Spiel­berg).

The short indeed looks like a par­o­dy of sur­re­al­ist film, a bit like Jean Cocteau’s Blood of a Poet as Welles intend­ed, but with a bit of René Clair’s Entr’Acte and some good ol’ Eisen­stein­ian mon­tage thrown in.

Welles appears in heavy stage make­up as a rich, old­er man in a top hat and cane, look­ing not too far from the elder­ly Charles Fos­ter Kane. His then girl­friend and future first wife Vir­ginia Nichol­son plays an old hag who rides for­lorn­ly back and forth on a bell. There’s a clown in black­face played by Paul Edger­ton, an Indi­an in a blan­ket (co-direc­tor William Vance in a cameo) and a Key­stone cop, which some web­sites say is also Nichol­son. But Charles “Black­ie” O’Neal is also cred­it­ed as a per­former with­out a role and he indeed may be the actor play­ing the Key­stone Cop. (O’Neal, by the way, would lat­er be father to Ryan O’Neal.)

Although he dis­missed the film, Welles’ pre­oc­cu­pa­tions with death are here, right at the begin­ning of his career, with sui­cides, coffins, skulls, and grave­stones fea­tur­ing promi­nent­ly. And though it’s no mas­ter­piece and hon­est­ly a bit of a mess, it shows a direc­tor inter­est­ed in exper­i­ment­ing with film, with humor, and the won­ders of make­up.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Stream 61 Hours of Orson Welles’ Clas­sic 1930s Radio Plays: War of the Worlds, Heart of Dark­ness & More

Is It Always Right to Be Right?: Orson Welles Nar­rates a 1970 Oscar-Win­ning Ani­ma­tion That Still Res­onates Today

Young Orson Welles Directs “Voodoo Mac­beth,” the First Shake­speare Pro­duc­tion With An All-Black Cast: Footage from 1936

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the artist inter­view-based FunkZone Pod­cast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, read his oth­er arts writ­ing at and/or watch his films here.

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