The Highs and (not quite) Lows of Orson Welles

Citizen Kane

Volatile, uncompromising, obstinate, visionary. These are but a small handful of the words used to describe actor, writer, director, producer, and constant thorn in the side of the Hollywood establishment, Orson Welles. A veteran of stage and screen with hundred of credits to his name, Welles only became widely known for a handful of well crafted and often trouble projects that helped to add to his reputation and mystery as an artist who demanded as much from others as he did from his own ambition. He was a power broker who often had his power stripped by those of a higher class and chequebook who found him to be too passionate and pushy to forward his own projects.

It’s no surprise then that only a small handful of Welles’ big screen directorial output would be seen by wider audiences, and smaller still the number of those that measured up to his own high standards. Starting this weekend, the TIFF Cinematheque gives a nice blend of Welles’ more established and widely known work and a rare glimpse at some little seen efforts in their mini-retrospective titled Lost And Found (running Friday May 9th through Tuesday, May 13th).

Most obviously the series includes Citizen Kane (Saturday, May 10th, 6:30pm), which next to his now infamous stunt reading of War of the Worlds over the radio airwaves to a shell shocked nation and his groundbreaking avant garde documentary F for Fake might be the greatest distillation of Welles’ talents. Set aside the fact that scholars have deemed this almost mockumentary styled, fictionalized look at William Randolph Hearst as one of the greatest films of all time (if not the film that probably shows up at the top of the lists the most), and you’ll find that the film also serves as the Rosetta Stone for deciphering Welles’ other screen, stage, and radio works. It’s playful to a point of being almost magical, introspective, technically and narratively complex, and bearing a firm middle finger aimed almost squarely at the establishment that helped to create it. It’s everything both on screen and off that made Welles a beloved artist and a hated business partner.

The Magnificent Ambersons

If Citizen Kane was the cinematic achievement of its time, then by all rights his immediate follow-up The Magnificent Ambersons (Sunday, May 11th, 2:45pm) should have been seen as an even greater achievement. His adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s bestselling novel about a titular aristocratic family in the Midwest trying to accept and outsider trying to marry in while their empire crumbles was the lynchpin for creating Welles’ own personal downfall. Almost universally loathed by test audiences who found the film too depressing coming on the heels of Pearl Harbor, the film notoriously suffered almost a full hour of cuts, reediting, and a changed ending all done without Welles’ knowledge. The final results that have survived suggest a troubled project, but one that could have outdone Kane in scope and technical accomplishment. Even in its truncated form (and with little hope that any of the excised footage will ever be found since it’s believed all of it was destroyed), The Magnificent Ambersons shows an effortlessness on Welles’ part that Kane didn’t have. It’s more aesthetically nuanced, yet more dramatically humbled.


After some time out of the limelight spent predominantly acting (despite a detour to make the 1946s World War II drama, The Stranger, a film that Welles always cited as his weakest effort), Welles returned to the big screen via the comfort of Shakespeare: the literary figure and influence that lorded mightily over the tone and structure of Kane and Ambersons. His 1948 Macbeth (not included in this series) was a costly misfire that restructured the play almost from the ground up: reassigning dialogue, emphasizing style over substance, and most notoriously having his cast affect the worst Scottish accents in film history (so awful that they were notoriously dubbed over following its premiere where it was almost laughed off the screen).


But in 1952, his big screen take on Othello (Sunday, May 11th, 12:30pm) would be awarded the prestigious Palme d’or at the Cannes Film Festival. Much like his Macbeth a few years prior, Othello was most readily accepted by those outside of English speaking countries for its hyperstylized recontextualization of established canon. Shot over the course of three years due to budgetary constraints with a constantly shifting cast due to scheduling and Welles’ notorious disposition and drive towards perfection, Othello was sadly his last noteworthy success in fiction cinema. This film wouldn’t have even existed had he not taken a job acting in Carol Reed’s exceptional noir The Third Man (Friday, May 9th, 9:15pm, Sunday, May 11th, 5:00pm, and Tuesday, May 13th, 9:15pm), the proceeds from which he would use to complete this effort. With the exceptions of the flawed by interesting Mr. Arkadin (a.k.a. Confidential Report) in 1955 and his somewhat contentious and foot dragging work on 1958’s Touch of Evil, Welles largely found himself stuck in a rut working unhappily as a gun for hire, product spokesperson, or put upon/trolling talk show host.

Too Much Johnson

But the real gem of this mini-retrospective (and essentially the reason for the series’ title) looks back to a time when Welles had boundless possibility, credibility, and still untapped potential. Long thought lost in a 1970s house fire on Welles’ estate, the silent 1938 66 minute short Too Much Johnson (Saturday, May 10th, 4:30pm) resurfaced in 2012 via an unlabelled, archived workprint that was housed at Cinemazero in Pordenone, Italy. Designed to screened in three parts before shows at the Mercury Theatre, the project was never completed, but this 35mm restoration (making its Canadian debut) shows Welles working outside of the dramatic comfort zone he was most widely remembered for and showcases his abilities as a comedic and slapstick filmmaker. The screening, which quite likely won’t happen again for quite some time while the restoration makes the rounds, will feature music from noted accompanist William O’Meara (who is a real treat to watch at work when providing music for a comedy) and commentary from Caroline Yeager, a preservationist and historian for the famed George Eastman House who was involved in the restoration efforts. There’s even a rare three minute short that looks behind the scenes of the production.

The screening of Too Much Johnson also plays nicely into not only to the greater picture of who Welles’ was as a classically trained artist, but also into TIFF’s overarching commitment to film preservation which also gets exemplified in a completely tangential free gallery exhibit on the building’s fourth floor (outside the reference library where one could learn more on Welles and film preservation if they felt so inclined). From now until June 15th and in conjunction with the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival, patrons can get a look at The Booth, an exhibition of snapshots and portraits courtesy of Joseph O. Holmes taken in and around projection booths in New York City. The pictures speak to a wealth of experience from back when screening films was a precise science and craft that Welles himself spoke very lovingly and articulately about throughout his career. We’ll have a greater look at The Booth in the coming weeks, but be sure to check it out for an added slice of nostalgia while reliving the work of one of cinema’s greatest shaman, madmen, and showmen.


For more information on the Welles retrospective, The Booth, and for tickets, please visit the TIFF Bell Lightbox website.