Orson Welles Week: It was 100 years ago today

naremore coverToday marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of George Orson Welles. The pride of Kenosha, Wisconsin, Welles dropped into life as the son of inventor-wagon factory owner Richard Welles and musician-suffragette Beatrice Welles (nee Ives). A pampered childhood evolved into an impossibly precocious young adulthood, laying the groundwork for the Welles of legend and lore.

Scholarly works on Welles helped build the field of film studies. No project did more for the effort than James Naremore’s The Magic World of Orson Welles: The Centennial Anniversary Edition. This month, UIP presents an expanded and revised edition of Naremore’s book, a classic dubbed “The most perceptive study of Welles’s art” upon its initial release. Naremore’s additions include a new section on the unfinished Welles project The Other Side of the Wind, itself the topic of much recent hype surrounding a rumored near-future release.

Even Orson Welles did not burst forth fully formed. But, as Naremore shows, the circumstances that shaped the future director were . . . unique:

George Orson (named in memory of his distant relative George Ade and Chicago businessman Orson C. Wells) was a sickly child and spent his earliest years in an environment as chaotic as anything he experienced afterward. His parents had a troubled relationship and were divorced when he was six. Beatrice then took the boy to Chicago, where he lived in a musical salon. (Even as a baby, he had been in demand as a sort of prop for the Chicago Opera.)

Orson-Welles-baby-pic2-275x213His mother died unexpectedly three years later, and Welles was obviously shaken by the event; he was already an accomplished violinist, but he said that he did nothing with music afterward–although François Truffaut has called him the most “musical” of directors. After a brief stay with friends, he returned to his father, who by this time had developed an addiction to gin. The two of them made an incredible world trip together, visiting China, among other places, and then settled in Illinois at a bizarre hotel that Dick Welles had purchased. Fire destroyed the hotel, the two Welleses moved again, and not long afterward, when Welles was fifteen, his father also died.

During all this time, young Orson had been treated as an adult and was on speaking terms with a number of well-known artistic figures. He was given very little conventional education, partly because of illness and partly because in his earliest years his mother kept him always by her side. Welles claimed to have been learning to read from his mother’s copies of Shakespeare at the age of five, and he was smoking his father’s cigars at twelve. At various periods in his youth he made a study of Nietzsche, met Harry Houdini, and staged elaborate plays and puppet shows.

But if he was like an adult, he was also something of a freak, overgrown in body and talent, and he quickly became a subject for child psychologists to examine and reporters to publicize. Such precocity doubtless made him insufferable, yet it did not conceal the essential pathos of his circumstances. Virtually from the time he could walk, he was attracted to playacting, using a makeup kit to fulfill two kinds of pretenses. On the one hand was an aggressive or perhaps defensive disguise; for example, during a brief stay at Washington School in Madison, Wisconsin, he frightened teachers and bullying schoolmates with bloody horror makeup. On the other hand, he liked to change his appearance to make himself as unlike a child as possible; repeatedly he put on whiskers and wrinkles, pretending to be an old man. Interestingly, these two elements—horror and old age—are central to much of his later work.