Orson Welles: Hello Americans by Simon Callow - review by Frank McLynn

Frank McLynn

Mister Bombastic

Orson Welles: Hello Americans


Jonathan Cape 461pp £20

After ten years’ gestation, Simon Callow’s superb biography of Orson Welles moves on another six years with this second volume; at this rate the author will find himself involved in a race against time to complete his mammoth work. The years in question are 1942–47, during which Welles directed The Magnificent Ambersons, It’s All True, Journey into Fear, The Stranger, The Lady from Shanghai and Macbeth. Flushed with his triumph in Citizen Kane, Welles began 1942 in a mood of vaulting ambition. He came to the end of 1947 in despair – his political hopes shattered, his movie career in tatters – and was on the point of going into an almost lifelong exile in Europe (there were, of course, the bizarre last years in a Las Vegas penthouse). Callow makes the case that in the years covered by this second volume Welles was implicitly posing the question: what does it mean to be an American? Having by 1947 given up trying to get America to listen to his answer to this question, with his finances in chaos and Truman’s anti-Communist Cold War crusade beginning its reign of terror against liberals and radicals in Hollywood, the previously pugnacious Welles concluded that standing firm against the post-war American ethos was like issuing a papal bull against a comet. He did not battle it out with the HUAC, Senator McCarthy and the right-wing zealots, as his more courageous movie confrères did, but lit out for the territory of (of all people) General Franco. Meanwhile, he had become persona non grata in Hollywood, and this formidable and talented man had allowed himself to be habitually worsted by lesser men in the production of his films. How did all this happen? To answer this question, Callow takes us through the six movies Welles directed during this period in great detail, sometimes shot by shot, and then deals with the studio politics in each case.

What exactly went wrong for Welles after 1942? Politically, all his hopes had been pinned on Vice President Henry Wallace. When the Democrat party machine replaced him with the venal and corrupt Harry Truman at the 1944 convention, it was the beginning of the end for those who had backed

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