Most of what’s written about Orson Welles — the Kenosha, Wis.-born giant of theater, radio and movies — centers on his boy-genius period.
You know: the cherubic face with the wicked grin who, by the age of 26, rewrote the rules on Broadway, destroyed the world before our very ears (the “War of the Worlds” broadcast) and made what some consider the best American movie of all time (“Citizen Kane”).
(Among the best early-Welles studies is Milwaukee film historian Patrick McGilligan’s “Young Orson,” a richly detailed biography published last year by Harper.)
Simon Callow started that way, too. In 1996, he published “Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu,” which, like McGilligan’s “Young Orson,” tells his story through “Citizen Kane” in 1941. At the time, Callow, an actor most remembered for performances in movies such as “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” envisioned “Xanadu” — an alluring read — as the first of a two-volume biography.
It didn’t work out that way. Vol. 2, “Hello Americans,” came out in 2006, covering Welles’ fall from grace from 1941 to 1947. That left 38 years, since Welles died in 1985.
Vol. 3, “Orson Welles: One-Man Band,” focuses on 1948 to 1965, a period bracketed by two of Welles’ Shakespeare-rooted obsessions: “Othello” and “Chimes at Midnight,” Welles’ brilliant stitching together of the story of Falstaff. (Vol. 4, Callow vows, will cover the final 20 years of Welles’ life.)
In many ways, the period covered in “One-Man Band” shows Welles at his most interesting, and most frustrating. He was on his own, free at last. Unfortunately, getting the financing to make that viable was as big a challenge as the work itself, and it didn’t help that his need to be larger than life made him as many enemies as it did admirers.
Like many of the people and players in Welles’ orbit, Callow wrestles with his fascination with Welles, in whom flashes of genius are balanced against really, really bad behavior — like a king in exile “who still considered himself king,” according to one Hollywood director Welles worked with, Richard Fleischer.
In this period of his life, more than any other, Welles’ fevered mind cooked up productions that seemed to defy the laws of arts and pop-culture physics.
Take “Time Runs,” a theater production created for the Paris stage in 1950. The play was “based on the works of Milton, Dante and Marlowe,” with Welles as Doctor Faustus and a choir including the young Eartha Kitt. When Welles began to fall for Kitt, he drafted Duke Ellington to write five songs for the show, principally for her.
Even more improbable was the 1956 revue Welles staged for three weeks at Las Vegas’ Riviera Hotel: part magic show, part readings from Shakespeare, and the latter stuff “really wowed the gamblers, the gangsters and their guests … ,” Callow recounted.
Those kinds of audacious projects dot the years covered in “One-Man Band.” Again and again, Callow recounts Welles’ improbable ventures, some — like the “Don Quixote” movie he never completed, or “Chimes at Midnight,” which he worked on off and on for decades — that consumed Welles and challenged his creative impulses.
Callow also recounts the back stories — many of them contradictory — behind Welles’ occasional successes: his iconic performance as Harry Lime in “The Third Man,” the thriller he didn’t direct but with which he was most identified; “Touch of Evil,” the 1958 crime classic that proved to be the last movie Welles directed in Hollywood; and “Chimes at Midnight,” which Welles considered closest to his heart and Callow calls his masterpiece.
Through it all, Callow shows that Welles defied easy analysis or explanation.
“It is characteristic of many of Welles’ commentators that they select one or other of the many Welleses as quintessential,” Callow accurately writes, “but the mystery of the man is that all the Welleses co-exist; all are true.”
©2016 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Visit the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel at www.jsonline.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.