10

Orson Welles and the Modern Sound Film

At the very moment that France was being occupied by the Nazis and the rest of Europe was engulfed in war, a young American director made a film which was to substantially transform the cinema. In 1939 Orson Welles (1915-85) was brought to Hollywood by the financially troubled RKO Pictures under an unprecedented six-film contract which gave him complete control over every aspect of production. * At twenty-four, Welles' experience in radio and theater was vast. From 1933 to 1937 he directed and acted in numerous Broadway and off-Broadway plays, including a production of Macbeth with a voodoo setting and an anti‐ Fascist Julius Caesar set in contemporary Italy; in 1937, with John Houseman (1902-88), he founded the famous Mercury Theatre company; and between 1938 and 1940 he wrote, directed, and starred in the weekly radio series Mercury Theatre on the Air, whose pseudodocumentary broadcast based on H. G. Wells' War of the Worlds caused a nationwide panic on Halloween night in 1938.

Welles had made several short films in connection with his theatrical productions (such as Too Much Johnson, 1938), but he had never been on a soundstage in his life. His first feature film was to have been an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, filmed with a subjective camera from the point of view of the narrator (who is also a participant in the action), but this project was abandoned indefinitely due to technical problems, cost overruns, and other difficulties, including the outbreak of war in Europe and the internment of its female lead, the German actress Dita Parlo. Next, Welles undertook to film a script written by himself and Herman J. Mankiewicz (1898-1953) about the life

____________________
*
According to Frank Brady in Citizen Welles: A Biography of Orson Welles (New York: Scribner's, 1989), the original RKO contract, signed on July 22, 1939, was actually a two‐ film deal which gave Welles a remarkable degree of control over production on the set but also gave the studio the right of preproduction story refusal and postproduction "consultation" on the release print (pp. 199-200). The exaggeration of the contract's terms was probably the work of RKO's publicity department.
Dita Parlo (1906-71) was working in the French film industry when the war began (she had played featured roles in Vigo's L'Atalante [1934] and Renoir's La Grande illusion [1937], among other films); military officials had her arrested as an alien and, ultimately, deported to Germany. For a full account of the Heart of Darkness project and its termination, see Robert L. Carringer's The Making of Citizen Kane (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), Ch. 1.

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