We remember Orson Welles as a film director, and given the influence of Citizen Kane, we do it with good reason. It certainly doesn’t hurt the image of Welles-as-auteur that he was only 25 years old when he made that movie, now considered one of the greatest of all time. Not only did he direct, he co-wrote, produced, and starred, showcasing a set of acting skills he’d been honing on radio and the stage since childhood. If any man was ever born to give commanding performances, it was Welles; when silent film gave way to “talkies,” which favored actors with strong presences and strong voices both, Hollywood studios should have beaten a path to his door. And yet, when he came to Hollywood, one of its biggest studios turned him down.
These clips show a 21-year-old Welles doing a screen test for Warner Brothers in early 1937, by which time he had already established himself as a radio and theatre performer. Whatever spark of genius we feel we can recognize in Welles’ line-readings today, the people at Warners’ evidently couldn’t see it then — or more charitably, they didn’t know how to sell his preternatural gravitas.
As history shows, Welles could in any case make more of a mark with projects under his own control. Later that same year he would co-found the Mercury Theatre, the repertory company now best remembered for its radio broadcasts, specifically the 1938 adaptation of H.G. Wells’ alien-invasion novel War of the Worlds that, so the legend goes, proved a little too real for many listeners across America.
Mastering the dramatic arts is one thing, but setting off nationwide controversy — now that’s the way to get the entertainment industry’s attention. Welles found himself able to parlay the interest generated by War of the Worlds into a historically generous three-picture deal with RKO Pictures, one that allowed him total creative control as well as the use of his actors from the Mercury Theatre. After coming to grips with the art of filmmaking as well as the art of putting together projects, Welles came up with the story of the rise and fall of character modeled on William Randolph Hearst, Howard Hughes, and other American tycoons. Released in 1941, Citizen Kane would mark the zenith of Welles’ fame, though over the next 44 years he would labor over many other cinematic visions — efforts more acclaimed now than they were in his lifetime, and all financially supported by the acting skills that never deserted him.
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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.
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