Orson Welles: Magician

Growing up, as I did, in front of the television in the seventies, I was pretty familiar with Orson Welles. If he wasn’t extolling the virtues of the vintages of Ernest and Julio he was performing impossible feats of magic a la Kreskin. So ubiquitous a television personality was Mr. Welles that it was years before I discovered he had been an actor, director, genius, etc. It was not until I first saw Citizen Kane that I realized he was several notches above a Charles Nelson Reilly or Paul Lynde in the pecking order of the rich and famous.

Although Mr Welles’ fall from grace with Hollywood is pretty well documented, two things still bother me: How did he get into doing magic tricks? and Why would he choose the Merv Griffin Show as his forum?

Any theories or data?

Orson Welles did magic tricks from when he was a young man in boarding school. . . and he continued to do magic tricks throughout his career. One of his more flamboyant tricks involved sawing Rita Hayworth in half (before he married her).

His interest in magic ran the course of his life and he always had time for young performers. One of my friends had the great good fortune to be a protege of Welles in the magic world and he’s told me some pretty amazing stories. … . Welles would get drunk and call him up in the middle of the night and they’d talk for hours.

For those of you that think all he was about was “we sell no wine before its time” and his television appearances, you have missed about 98% of what Orson Welles was all about. Go rent Citizen Kane, Lady From Shanghai or (especially!) Touch of Evil and check the cable channels; both AMC and TCM routinely run his movies. And I also recommend Barbara Leaming’s excellent biography Orson Welles: A Biography, available in paperback from all the usual online bookstores. Simon Callow also has Volume One of a multi-volume set out as well, but I haven’t read it yet. (Leaming’s book is a much more gossipy read.)

your humble TubaDiva

Another worthwhile book is “This is Orson Welles”–a collection of interviews with Peter Bogdonavich. The reason Welles was in so many bad movies and commercials is that Hollywood hated him , and so he would put himself to work wherever he could, to earn his own money to make his own films.

In addition to the films TubaDiva mentioned, he did a fantastic MacBeth, bleak and almost surreal. If you’re going to watch Touch of Evil (which I strongly recommend), be sure to get the restored version – the original version mangled Welles’ vision, and there’s a restored version that’s a few years old. For instance, the opening shot (which is one of the marvels of cinema) was disrupted by the title credit sequence in the released version; the restored version has no disruptions in that one long, amazing, continuous take.

And there’s his famous War of the Worlds radio broadcast.

The reasons for his decline depend on whether you are pro- or anti-. Some argue that his creative years were his early years, and that his talent was dried up… Other argue that he was shunned by the establishment because his creativity was so high, he couldn’t find funding for experimental projects. In any case, he certainly was willing to do about anything to grab money, and then he used his money to finance his own projects.

According to my friend of the late night phone calls, Welles himself attributed his fate to luck . . . or lack thereof. “All the good fortune I ever had all happened before I was 25,” Welles said. “After that . . . nothing.”

So would you rather be lucky . . . or good?

Man was a genius, no doubt about it . . . and sometimes that genius extended to how thoroughly he could piss people off. Like most of us, Welles was his own worst enemy.

your humble TubaDiva

PS CKDextHavn is right . . . get the restored Touch of Evil . . .it’ll knock you out. Just saw it recently (again) . . . incredible. (Robert Altman’s hommage to Welles and that scene is what makes the first several minutes of The Player the amazing piece of work that it is. Can’t hold a candle to the master, though.)

That lack of luck in his latter years might explain the Merv Griffin connection. Talk about your bad karma. :slight_smile:

Then again, I suppose I could bring up the fact that, during the making of “It’s All True” in the early 40’s (Brazil, I think), he pissed off a witch doctor, who proceeded to put a voodoo curse on him.

Speaking of his interest in magic, and more generally, trickery, Welles has an excellent documentary called “F is for Fake”, about one of the most famous forgers in painting (I forget his name right now), the fake biography of Howard Hughes, and a few other things. Excellent piece, i think…

Hungry Boy said:

Just what pecking order is this? Character actors on supernatural sitcoms? Game show personalities? Or the gay and famous?

And what exactly is the order of these people? And where does Rex Reed, Alan Sues, Liberace, and Nancy Kulp appear on the list?

Inquiring minds want to know!

Hadn’t really thought that one out. In my mind it had to do with people that were famous for their contributions to talk shows, quiz shows, commercials or guest shots on “Bewitched.”

That list would also include the likes of Brett Somers, Jaye P. Morgan and Austin Pendleton.