When Orson Welles Denounced Elia Kazan as a Traitor for Giving Other Filmmakers’ Names to Joe McCarthy (1982)

As we’ve pre­vi­ous­ly not­ed here on Open Cul­ture, Orson Welles was not giv­en to minc­ing words about his col­leagues. And the old­er he got, the few­er words he minced, as evi­denced by the clip above from a talk he gave at a Paris film school in 1982. Dur­ing the Q&A, he took a ques­tion that quot­ed Elia Kazan’s remarks on the dif­fi­cul­ty of rais­ing mon­ey in Amer­i­ca for a film about Puer­to Ricans. Or rather, he heard part of the ques­tion and launched right into his thun­der­ing response: “Made­moi­selle, you have cho­sen the wrong met­teur en scene, because Elia Kazan is a trai­tor.”

Welles took a minute to elab­o­rate: “He is a man who sold to McCarthy all his com­pan­ions at a time when he could con­tin­ue to work in New York at high salary. And hav­ing sold all of his peo­ple to McCarthy, he then made a film called On the Water­front which was a cel­e­bra­tion of the informer. And there­fore, no ques­tion which uses him as an exam­ple can be answered by me.” Welles made a habit of pub­licly demon­strat­ing his prin­ci­ples, both artis­tic or polit­i­cal. It was the lat­ter that had decades before got his name into the jour­nal Red Chan­nels, one ele­ment of the larg­er Amer­i­can anti-Com­mu­nist move­ment per­son­i­fied by Welles’ fel­low Wis­con­si­nite, Unit­ed States Sen­a­tor Joseph McCarthy.

“When Stal­in­ism was fash­ion­able, movie peo­ple became Stal­in­ists,” wrote New York­er film crit­ic Pauline Kael. “They per­formed pro­pa­gan­da ser­vices for the var­i­ous shifts in Russia’s for­eign pol­i­cy and, as long as the needs of Amer­i­can and Russ­ian pol­i­cy coin­cid­ed, this took the form of super-patri­o­tism. When the war was over and the Cold War began, his­to­ry left them strand­ed, and McCarthy moved in on them. The shame of McCarthy­ism was not only ‘the shame of Amer­i­ca’ but the shame of a bunch of new­ly rich peo­ple who were eager to advise the world on moral and polit­i­cal mat­ters and who, faced with a test, informed on their friends — and, as Orson Welles put it, not even to save their lives but to save their swim­ming pools.”

This pas­sage comes from “Rais­ing Kane,” Kael’s well-known essay on Cit­i­zen Kane that plays down Welles’ influ­ence on the film and plays up that of screen­writer Her­man J. Mankiewicz. But what­ev­er ground Welles had to resent Kael, he had more to resent Kazan, who gave tes­ti­mo­ny as a wit­ness before the House Com­mit­tee on Un-Amer­i­can Activ­i­ties in 1952. That marked the height of the “Hol­ly­wood black­list” that put a tem­po­rary hold on, or per­ma­nent end to, the careers of sus­pect­ed Com­mu­nists or sym­pa­thiz­ers in the enter­tain­ment indus­try. Nev­er­the­less, Welles pos­sess­es sound enough artis­tic and polit­i­cal judg­ment nev­er to let the one inter­fere with the oth­er, as evi­denced by what he said of Kazan after receiv­ing a round of applause from the audi­ence: “I have to add that he is a very good direc­tor.”

via Michael War­bur­ton

Relat­ed con­tent:

Orson Welles Trash­es Famous Direc­tors: Alfred Hitch­cock (“Ego­tism and Lazi­ness”), Woody Allen (“His Arro­gance Is Unlim­it­ed”) & More

An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to McCarthy­ism: What Is It? And How Did It Hap­pen?

What Hap­pened Hazel Scott? Meet the Bril­liant Jazz Musi­cian & Activist Who Dis­ap­peared into Obscu­ri­ty When She Was Black­list­ed Dur­ing the McCarthy Era

Bertolt Brecht Tes­ti­fies Before the House Un-Amer­i­can Activ­i­ties Com­mit­tee (1947)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, 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 or on Face­book.

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