Sunday, September 17, 2006


Hello Americans by Simon Callow

By Edward Copeland
In the preface to the second volume in his Orson Welles bio, author Simon Callow apologizes for the 11-year wait between installments, wondering if Welles' inability to complete some projects in a timely manner may have infected his biographer. Volume 1, The Road to Xanadu, covered Welles up until the Citizen Kane premiere in 1941. The second volume, Hello Americans, amazingly only takes its subject forward another seven years until Welles' self-imposed exile overseas. Despite that small slice of Welles' history, Hello Americans actually turns out to be a better read than the first volume. Callow promises that he will cover the rest of Welles' life in a third and final volume — but who knows when we'll see that one.

The Road to Xanadu provided many fascinating details about Welles' early life as a prodigy, but it also suffered from Callow's frequent, almost hopeful, speculation that Welles might have been gay or bisexual, not that there would have been anything wrong with that if it had been true. In Hello Americans, the subject never comes up as Callow frequently points out what a heterosexual horndog Welles was, including many affairs during his marriage to Rita Hayworth (including one with Judy Garland).

Still, it's not the gossip that makes this biography worthwhile, it's the detailed rendering of how project after project in the post-Citizen Kane era were taken away from Welles, often caused just as much by Welles' short-attention span as studio interference.

Most everyone knows about the studio butchering of The Magnificent Ambersons, but that film still comes off as a masterpiece despite the interference, which was caused mostly by Welles' distraction overseas trying to put together It's All True during the editing process. However, the most fascinating case of wondering what could have been are the details of what Orson Welles wanted to do with The Stranger. It's an OK film, but if it had been made the way Welles intended, it could have been so much greater.

One of the most fascinating sections of Hello Americans details Welles' massive stage mounting of Around the World in 80 Days, including the brief involvement of producer Michael Todd, who would later make the lame film version of Jules Verne's story. Another fascinating tidbit that either I didn't know or had forgotten was that Welles sold Charlie Chaplin the idea for Monsieur Verdoux and had a brief legal fight over a promised story credit that Chaplin failed to put on the movie as promised.

If there's a weakness to Callow's second volume, it's his tendency for some reason to seek puns for chapter titles like "Wellesafloppin'", but if you ignore the titles and just read the words, it's more than worthwhile. Also, it could have used some better editing. I can excuse the British spellings of words, but there is no excuse for misspelling the names of famous people such as Katharine Hepburn or Vincente Minnelli. I just hope Callow can get us the final volume a bit more quickly than he did the second.

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