Looking for Citizen Welles

Chimes at Midnight

a film directed by Orson Welles
Orson Welles on the set of Chimes at Midnight, 1964
Nicolas Tikhomiroff/Magnum Photos
Orson Welles on the set of Chimes at Midnight, 1964

There is a special risk in writing about Orson Welles. The dimensions may get a little out of hand, as if they had to mime the physical size and imaginative reach of the subject. Patrick McGilligan’s excellent biography of Alfred Hitchcock takes 750 pages to cover the director’s life and his fifty films. By page 706 of Young Orson, Welles is about to start shooting Citizen Kane, his first full-length movie: he is twenty-five years old, and he lived till he was seventy. There is a thirty-nine-page postlude about the day and night of Welles’s death.

The Road to Xanadu, part one of Simon Callow’s two-volume biography of Welles, appeared in 1996; Hello Americans, part two of the now three-volume biography, appeared in 2006; and One-Man Band, part three of the (maybe) four-volume work, appeared last fall in the UK and will appear in the US in April. Perhaps the most touching expression of this condition is the wistful remark that McGilligan makes about Welles in 1944 on page 726 of his work: “An entire book could be written about that single year, with much left out.”

The McGilligan and Callow biographies are a pleasure to read, the comic effect of their length soon fades, and their difference from each other enhances the pleasure. McGilligan has an infinite patience with details, and is always happy to pursue a historical event for its own sake. The event may tell us something about Welles, and McGilligan gestures toward this justification: “The backstory of his life and early career would help explain the genesis and ideas behind the famous film.”

But much of the book reads as if the causality went the other way. Citizen Kane is a great excuse to study a lost America, the culture and politics of Kenosha, Wisconsin, in the early years of the twentieth century, the involvement of the talented pianist Beatrice Welles, Orson’s mother, in the women’s movement and the artistic life of the time, the lapse of Orson’s father, the rich and adventurous Richard Welles—the first man in town to drive an automobile—into drink and heart disease.

It’s good too to ponder the image of the five-year-old Orson dressed as the White Rabbit and telling the shoppers at Marshall Field’s department store in Chicago that he has to hurry—“or else it will be too late to see the woolen underwear on the eighth floor!” It doesn’t say much about the genesis of Citizen Kane perhaps, but we surely learn something about the uses of literature.

McGilligan doesn’t skip over or hide Welles’s blemishes, but he doesn’t bluster about them or anything else. One of the most entertaining things in his book is the way he scrupulously avoids accusing anyone of lying. Thus Charles…

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