Joseph McBride: All is Welles

Michael Fox October 16, 2006

Can a movie change your life? Joseph McBride first saw
Orson Welles’ 1941 tour de force,“Citizen Kane,” in a film class at the University of Wisconsin in the ’60s. As McBride recalls in the introduction to his revelatory new book, “What Ever Happened to Orson Welles?: A Portrait of An Independent Career” (The University Press of Kentucky), he was sufficiently inspired to devote four years to a critical analysis of Welles’ work. That volume led to a friendship with the director, a role as a pretentious, pseudo-intellectual critic in Welles’ protracted production of “The Other Side of the Wind,” and a stellar career as a film historian. McBride has gone on to write a dozen books, including the definitive and popular biographies “Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success” and “Searching for John Ford.” In the new work, he catalogs Welles’ amazing output in the last 15 years of his life, demolishing the widely held perception of Welles as a debauched clown. McBride has lived and taught in the Bay Area for years, and we chatted in his office at San Francisco State. McBride introduces “The Magnificent Ambersons” at 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 26 at the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.

SF360: Does Welles’ reputation really need to be resurrected? Isn’t he universally recognized as, at the very least, one of top five American directors of all time?

Joseph McBride: Samuel Goldwyn once referred to Welles as a very clever genius, which I thought was pretty funny. He certainly has a high reputation, but it’s limited in some ways in the American media. Not so much the world media-when he was turning 70, a few months before he died, the BBC did a retrospective of his films on television. And when he died the French press had long, thoughtful obituaries. But the American press basically said he was a has-been who had made one great film, and then everything else was a downhill slide and he had squandered his talent. There was a lot of crowing about how he had supposedly indulged himself. And you keep reading about his weight, as if that matters, but that’s sort of a symbol for his supposedly being an out-of-control artist and self-indulgent. For the last 21 years, since he died, I’m tired of hearing all these lies about him. People like Ford and Capra and Hawks knew how to play the system better than Welles, and they were popular artists in a way that Welles never was. That was part of his problem, and in a way you can’t blame Hollywood for the fact that he was making films about subjects, and with a style, that was over the heads of a lot of the public and was avant-garde. But the public and the media should know better now that he was a great artist and made several of the greatest films ever made, and over a long period of time. And kept working until literally the very end of his life. He died of a heart attack while he was typing notes for a project he was going to start shooting that morning at UCLA.

SF360: Granted, a certain generation remembers those oft-parodied Paul Masson commercials that Welles did, but kids today haven’t seen them. So don’t they know him as the quintessential maverick and independent filmmaker?

McBride: If you go on YouTube and those kind of places, they have the Paul Masson commercials. They even have the outtakes of the one where he’s drunk. And the famous peas commercial — it’s hilarious. It’s a British television commercial taping that he was doing in the ’60s in which he was just revolting against the terrible copy that we was given.

SF360: And terrible direction.

McBride: And the direction. That’s online, and ‘Pinky and the Brain’ and other shows spoofed that. So I think that a lot of young people see him as a kind of funny character. One of the sad things I find with students is they don’t know a lot about old films until you bring them to the films. It’s sort of an acquired taste. I first noticed that when I went to a screening of ‘Touch of Evil’ at the Nuart in LA some years ago. It was a UCLA audience, and they didn’t seem to like or get it, which was a surprise. It seemed kind of alien to them. You had the impression they thought it was over-the-top and melodramatic and florid, and they wanted something different.

Joseph McBride played the role of a pretentious, pseudo-intellectual critic in Welles’ protracted production of “The Other Side of the Wind”; his new book reframes Welles’ career not as a downward spiral, but as an exercise in independence. (Photo courtesy University Press of Kentucky)

SF360: At least critics and entertainment writers now consider Welles a master.

McBride: The media don’t do their job of keeping him in the foreground. Hitchcock is the only director from that era who’s watched by the younger generation. Even people like Capra and Ford, people don’t pay attention to them either.

SF360: Is there any chance your book will prompt a re-release of ‘Chimes of Midnight?’

McBride: That film has always been ill-fated. When I saw it in 1966, I went to Chicago, I was living in Madison, and I saw it three times in one night because I figured I might not get another chance for awhile. It played five days, and the theater then became a soft-core porno theater as soon as it closed. It hardly played anywhere in America at the time, and I actually called the distributor, whose name was Carl Peppercorn, to complain that he wasn’t doing much with it. He admitted to me that it was Bosley Crowther in the New York Times, who wrote two pans of the film, who discouraged him from really doing anything with the film.

SF360: Discouraged him, or discouraged theaters from booking it?

McBride: Maybe he got some feedback, but he wasn’t really inclined to try; he thought it was a dud. And I tried to persuade him otherwise but he was kind of irritated that this kid would be calling him and pestering him. It’s still a film that very few people have seen and invariably, whenever somebody says that Welles was a failure and his later life was barren, I say, ‘Well, what about ‘Chimes at Midnight,’?’ and they don’t even know what it is. It’s not even that they haven’t seen it; they never heard of it. And it’s kind of vanished from the screens. There is a legal dispute among the people who own it, unfortunately. A lot of Welles’ films have complicated legal and financial problems. I saw it at Locarno last year, at a Welles conference, and we got a 35mm print, but they had to get special permission from the people who own it.

SF360: The thing about Welles that perhaps we forget is he was always an entertainer. When is someone is considered ‘great’ and ‘important,’ and also did a lot of Shakespeare, we think ‘serious.’

McBride: There’s a wonderful book by Michael Anderegg, ‘Orson Welles, Shakespeare, and Popular Culture.’ That’s really the thesis of his book, which is that Welles always tried to bridge the divide between high and low culture. Not so much middlebrow culture; he wasn’t interested in that at all. But he was interested in Shakespeare and baggy pants comedy, and finding a common ground. ‘Chimes at Midnight,’ to me, unites those two things. And it’s a very accessible work. That’s the irony. I first saw it in Chicago in a theater downtown, and there were intellectuals from the University of Chicago and winos, old bums, who wandered in, and they loved the film. Obviously, Falstaff was a role model for these people. It’s very accessible and the language is made accessible and it’s brilliantly entertaining and serious at the same time.

SF360: It’s heartbreaking, ultimately.

McBride: You don’t have to even have read the plays necessarily to get it. And Welles did that throughout his lifetime. He said he wanted to be the American Charles Dickens and he admitted he couldn’t connect with the public in that way, but he was trying. As a radio performer, he was very popular doing a lot of low comedy. He would mix it with Shakespeare and other authors — he would do adaptations of all kinds of literature — and for a while he was very successful. But in Hollywood, he tried variations of that and it never quite worked out so, as Truffaut said, he accepted his position as an avant-garde director. And when he went to Europe, primarily he made films that were not designed for the mass audience, like ‘The Trial’ and ‘Mr. Arkadin.’ So he kind of was resigned to the fact that he was a taste for the elite.

SF360: You argue in the book that Welles’ last years are discounted and dismissed because he was unable to finish most of the numerous projects he worked on.

McBride: I think part of what I’ve learned from Welles is that finishing things is not the be-all and the end-all. I started thinking about great works of art, and ‘The Last Tycoon’ by Fitzgerald was not finished. Kafka’s novels were not finished. Schubert’s ‘Unfinished Symphony’ was unfinished. Coleridge’s poem ‘Kubla Khan,’ which Welles quotes in ‘Citizen Kane,’ is a famous unfinished work. And we don’t think any less of them for leaving these works unfinished, because we’re grateful for what we have and they’re eloquent for what they are. With Welles, it’s frustrating that part of ‘The Merchant of Venice’ is missing, and he never completely finished [a one-man film of] ‘Moby Dick,’ but the parts we have hold together and speak to us. It’s a question of showing these things. Part of the problem is his youngest daughter, Beatrice, has been an obstacle, suing people and threatening lawsuits of people who are trying to put together his unfinished works, or even re-issue some of his major films. So she’s kind of scared people away.

SF360: What will it take to finally destroy the myth of Welles as the wunderkind who went straight downhill after one masterpiece? And the other myth that he spent the last 30 years of his life in drink and debauchery, and complaining and clowning?

McBride: Well, it’s a tall order for one book, but that was my goal, to reverse the conventional wisdom that he was a tragic failure. Even though other people had written to some extent about his later films, there’s never been a book that goes into as much detail and depth. The last 15 years of his life in particular, from his return to California in 1970 until his death, when he was living in L.A. but working outside the industry for the most part. Even though he would do acting and voice-over roles in commercials to make money, and made a good living, he was funneling it all into his independent filmmaking. He was basically an independent filmmaker who sometimes used the resources of studios and television networks to make his quirky independent films. Why did this great American filmmaker, who conquered the world with ‘Citizen Kane,’ wind up making independent films outside the system and having trouble getting them shown? I realized to answer that I had to look back over his whole career and trace the path that led him to that complete break with the system. So I reinterpreted his entire career, and dispelled a lot of myths along the way.

SF360: So what’s left?

McBride: What really needs to happen is for all this material to come out in DVD form so we can look at everything. I’ve spent my last 40 years running around the world looking at all the material. But the average person can’t do that. So it would be nice if there was an easy way for someone in Iowa or Wisconsin to go out and buy these films on DVD.

SF360: Or San Francisco.