Watch a Screen Test of 21-Year-Old Orson Welles (1937)

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.

via Eyes on Cin­e­ma

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

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

Orson Welles Explains Why Igno­rance Was His Major “Gift” to Cit­i­zen Kane

Orson Welles’ Last Inter­view and Final Moments Cap­tured on Film

Warhol’s Screen Tests of Lou Reed, Den­nis Hop­per, Nico & More

Mar­lon Bran­do Screen Tests for Rebel With­out A Cause (1947)

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.

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.