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Orson Welles, Hollywood, and the Curse of Kane
The list of films in which Orson Welles played a part, as director, actor, producer, screenwriter (or any combination thereof), stands in direct contradiction to accepted Hollywood cinematic traditions of mindless entertainment, for Welles tried to raise the intellectual level of American filmmaking. Playing the part of Socrates, he created his own “Empire of the Mind” for an Athens represented by a palm-treed community so absorbed in its own manufactured landscape of cloying device and tactical sentiment that its failure to listen led directly to the loss of its preeminence in the American entertainment industry. Unlike the old Greek philosopher, Welles the artist succumbed early in life to the quicksand of institutional apathy and struggled uselessly against the greed of fearful toadies, who personified a force as natural and unyielding as gravity. It is no coincidence the power of the studios dissipated along with the influence of Hollywood’s greatest thinker. The slide began and ended with RKO Pictures and Citizen Kane.
Welles was a wunderkind, the product of a doomed family unit, cultivated by foster care and wealthy guardianship. He first made his mark on the Irish stage while on holiday and returned home determined to repeat his brief overseas success. A few fortunate events led to greater opportunities, already well documented, which molded him as a performer and director. His mixture of artistic subversion and carefree risk-taking, which worked well on both the stage and in radio, led to the offer of a two-picture deal by RKO at age twenty. It is at this age, two years before the contested premiere of Citizen Kane, that Welles movie career begins to die.
The RKO contract ceded to Welles an enormous amount of discretion except in two areas — the choice of project and budgetary limits — and RKO enforced both on him with a dullard’s touch. For instance, Citizen Kane was not Welles’ first, or even second, choice for his inaugural film. Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness, a Victorian-era thriller…