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.”
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.