Off-Ramp

Off-Ramp host John Rabe and contributors share thoughts on arts, culture, and life in L.A.

"Airborne" -- New R.H. Greene radio documentary about Orson Welles' radio career

Editor's note: Here are some thoughts on the new Off-Ramp documentary special Airborne: A Life in Radio with Orson Welles,  from R.H. Greene, which debuts Saturday, October 29, at noon on Off-Ramp. Greene writes:

 

One of the great things about working for Off-Ramp is that I've been able to fulfill two of my longstanding dream projects — that stuff every maker has buried in the mental sock drawer, waiting for a stretch of free time, an unexpected surplus of cash, or the credible hope of an audience to activate it.

The first of these works was Vampira and Me, a radio documentary about my friend the late Maila Nurmi, which debuted on Off-Ramp exactly a year ago, and which has since blossomed into the full-length documentary feature film I always meant for it to be.

I was able to pay off a lingering karmic debt by telling the story of someone who truly wanted her story told, and simultaneously to grieve for someone I loved and to ensure that she would, in a sense, stay with me.

Now comes Airborne: A Life in Radio with Orson Welles, a labor of love culled from about 600 Welles-related radio transcriptions in a collection I’ve been building up and listening to for many years, and a documentary I hope and believe breaks new ground by dramatizing the vast and hectic entirety of Welles’ American radio achievements, rather than focusing primarily on his fabled Mercury Theatre and Campbell Playhouse broadcasts. To bring these shows at least partway back to life in the medium they were made for is especially meaningful to me.

In a sense, this is the longest gestating project I’ve ever done. It begins with me, jobless and in that grey period between my receipt of an undergraduate degree in English and my enrollment as a grad school production major at USC Cinema. I am sprawled on a couch (a daily routine at the time), wondering what comes next, and watching Orson Welles’ buoyant documentary about fraudulence F for Fake on TV. I was already an admirer of Welles’ work, especially his underrated movie adaptation of Macbeth -- brilliant as cinema and unequalled as a taut and nightmarish reconfiguration of Shakespeare’s leanest dramatic text.

But watching F for Fake, I fell in love. Not only with Welles’ cinematic brio, which was of course considerable, but also with his ability to make something totally unique out of found footage, limited resources and the power of his own creativity. Among other things, it was a noble (as well as a practical) induction into the possibilities of the documentarian’s magpie art.

A few years later, I caught Touch of Evil at LACMA just months after Welles’ death, seeing it for the first time with a packed, affectionate and responsive audience — one of my peak experiences as a moviegoer.

(The famous crane shot from the opening of Touch of Evil.)

And then, through some mysterious flick of the rake by life’s croupier, I became TA to a man named Richard Wilson when he joined the directing faculty at USC — the beginning of a friendship that lasted until Dick’s death.

(Richard Wilson and Orson Welles.)

Dick is the great unsung hero of the Orson Welles saga — a close Welles collaborator who began as a founding member of the Mercury Theatre group (among his other cameos, he’s one of the faceless execs in that projection room at the start of Citizen Kane) and who succeeded John Houseman as Welles’ primary producing partner after the legendary Welles/Houseman falling out of 1941.

Dick remained at Welles’ side for most of Welles’ American filmmaking career (everything save the uncompleted late projects and the Indian Summer oneshot that was Touch of Evil in 1957 and 58), and he was present from the earliest Mercury radio broadcasts of the 30s through the end of Welles’ American radio career in 1946. Even more importantly, Dick gathered up all the Mercury’s and most of Welles’ personal papers and artifacts, and he stored them, at his own expense, during the decades when Welles was principally a European filmmaker and an international hired gun as an actor.

(Welles as Harry Lime in Carol Reed's The Third Man (1949).)

Welles was addicted to the immediacy of the creative act, and almost pathologically disinterested in preserving anything to do with his past. He once left an entire completed project (a TV documentary on Gina Lollobrigida that had met with network disapproval) in a French hotel checkroom, where it was discovered, unclaimed, a quarter of a century later. Without Richard Wilson, it is virtually certain that much of the critical documentation on one of the 20th century’s greatest media artists simply would not exist.

Dick was a courtly, dapper, mild, and intellectual man, with an amazingly wide streak of kindness and an overwhelming amount of patience for my constant and sometimes intrusive questions about Welles, and their shared past. Like most grad students, I was broke, so Dick and his wife Betty (a more conflicted personality) routinely took me and my then girlfriend out to dinner, or had us to their lovely beach house (where a wall was covered with rare original photos of the Mercury’s stage work), or else treated for shared passions like the sole LA screening of the final Fellini movie The Voice of the Moon.

Had Dick lived, my introduction to the documentary form would have been as a sound man on the Brazilian shoots he was planning for the documentary feature It's All True—his tenacious, end-of-life project, based on extant footage from the blighted Latin American docudrama he and Welles were working on at the time RKO shut down the Mercury’s film unit, and pulled the financial plug.

Dick died of cancer and the project passed into other hands. So I didn’t get to make that journey, and we never got to collaborate on a documentary about Orson Welles.

For this and other reasons, Airborne: A Life in Radio with Orson Welles is dedicated to Dick Wilson — mutual friend, unsung hero, keeper of the flame, and, to use his own playful epithet for people he liked, “nature’s nobleman.”

I hope it’s a show that would have brought back a few memories for him, and that it would have made him proud.

(Richard Wilson in 1987 in a documentary about RKO. Image: BBC)

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