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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