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"Airborne," new Orson Welles documentary

Orson Welles directing on CBS.
Orson Welles directing on CBS.
Orson Welles directing on CBS.
Isaac Woodard, seated left, blinded by Linwood Shull.
Orson Welles directing on CBS.
Welles in 1937, when he was 21.
Carl Van Vechten

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You know about "Citizen Kane" and maybe "Touch of Evil," but besides "War of the Worlds," the famous Halloween broadcast, what do you know about Orson Welles' radio career? In his new documentary, "Airborne: A Life in Radio with Orson Welles," produced for Off-Ramp, filmmaker and author R.H. Greene makes the case that Welles' decades of work in radio -- from guest appearances to the Mercury dramas to wartime productions to his failed variety show to his searing political commentaries -- tell us much about one of the most potent creative forces of the 20th Century.

An extract from "Airborne: A Life in Radio with Orson Welles.

It’s appropriate that Orson Welles’ first significant radio work was as star and adapter of William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” in a CBS program that debuted September 19, 1936. As an actor, the equivocating “Hamlet” never suited him, but the character is a perfect avatar of Welles’ extremely varied future in radio.

Welles first emerged on radio as a literary classicist, but he loved the most lowbrow kind of baggy-pants popular culture. His career shifts between these two poles almost mid-sentence at times, and his iconoclasm was apparent from the start. Among the cuts made in his radio Hamlet were the words “To be or not to be.”

In 1937, the Mutual Broadcasting System hired Welles to adapt “Les Miserables,” which was perfectly suited to the Depression Era, then signed him to be the voice of “The Shadow,” a crime-fighting proto-super-hero. At 22, he instantly became a national star.

CBS took note of his growing reputation, and seduced him away from Mutual with an unprecedented contract. He and his then-producing partner John Houseman got one hour every week with total creative control and no commercial interruptions. It was the Mercury Theatre on the Air, which scared the hell out of its audience with a superb dramatization of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” and then with “War of the Worlds,” which has become American radio’s most famous narrative program.

Then, in 1941, came another side of Welles, a show called “His Honor the Mayor” for another CBS experiment, an anthology called “The Free Company.” Like many Depression-era progressives, Welles was fascinated by radio’s potential for addressing social ills. “The Free Company” was New Deal populism at its zenith. Written in the artificially homespun voice Welles sometimes adopted for his more populist pieces, “His Honor the Mayor” tells a story of smalltown American fascism.  

Millions of listeners heard it, and not all of them were pleased. The right-wing Hearst papers, already frustrated by their inability to block “Citizen Kane,” made common cause with reactionary elements of the American Legion. “His Honor the Mayor” was attacked as “subversive propaganda … cleverly designed to poison the minds of young Americans. The name itself, Free Company, sounds suspiciously Communistic.”

Three weeks the broadcast of "His Honor the Mayor," the FBI opened a covert file on Welles, and he was later put on a watch list of undesirables to be rounded up in a time of national emergency. His file stayed active for thirteen years.

In 1942 and 1943 came one of Welles’ more high-spirited radio contributions to the war effort: a 12-part series called “Hello Americans” produced for CBS as part of the Roosevelt Administration’s Good Neighbor policy. Welles’ cook’s tour of Latin America showed his internationalist side. Welles often used it to let his hair down, at times joyously. During the first broadcast, he sounds genuinely shocked when Brazilian samba queen Carmen Miranda insists that he join her for a musical number.

In 1943, Jack Benny signed Welles for a month-long guest hosting run on the “Jack Benny Program.” He’d also star opposite wife Rita Hayworth in “Break of Hearts,” a sudsy melodrama performed for Lux Radio Theatre.

Q. What was the Hollywood reaction generally to [The Lady From Shanghai]? Welles: Friends avoided me. Whenever it was mentioned, people would clear their throats and change the subject very quickly out of consideration for my feelings. I only found out that it was considered a good picture when I got to Europe. The first nice thing I ever heard about it from an American was from Truman Capote. One night in Sicily, he quoted whole pages of dialogue word for word. Q. I guess that’s called being ahead of your time. Welles: It’s called being in trouble. -excerpted from This Is Orson Welles"

Welles’ busy broadcast schedule during the mid-1940s found him taking up and discarding programs with an almost dizzying speed. He was a welcome guest across the dial—lending class with his dramatic readings, or conjuring The Shadow through appearances on programs like “Suspense.” His performance in Louise Fletcher’s radio thriller “The Hitch-Hiker” became a contemporary classic.

But Welles seemed most committed to his war-related broadcasts, where his god-like voice emerged as something of the official radio voice of the American effort. A week after Pearl Harbor, Welles was on CBS giving a fevered central performance in “We Hold These Truths,” written and produced by radio legend Norman Corwin and broadcast simultaneously over all four radio networks, where an estimated 63,000,000 listeners tuned in.

In 1944, Welles launched the one true fiasco of his radio career, a variety show called "Orson Welles' Almanac" on NBC. The central idea was to present Orson Welles as a master of comedy. The results were often painful, and unfailingly unpopular. Welles discovered there’s a big difference between a ten-minute guest shot and carrying a show.  By week ten, the Almanac was dead, and Welles was running out his contract with live broadcasts of the Mercury Wonder Show, his USO troupe. The servicemen he played to were a captive audience, but an appreciative one.

But Welles was still a towering figure in American cultural life and as the Allied Invasion of Europe launched, Welles was recruited to spearhead a radio push for the Fifth War Loan Drive. The loan drive’s success exceded expectations by an order of magnitude, and Welles pivotal role was universally acknowledged.

Welles’ radio career was coming to a close, although he didn’t know it. In 1945 he started “Orson Welles Commentary” on the fledgling ABC Radio Network. In 1946, he began his blaze of glory, telling the harrowing true story of a black WW2 veteran, blinded in a savage beating by a Southern cop’s billy club just a few hours after his honorable discharge from the military. Welles demanded justice.

Rosa Parks’ epochal bus ride was nine years in the future, and Martin Luther King Jr. was just 17. Jim Crow was in full effect throughout the American south, denying millions of African-Americans their rights to property, to marry as they chose, to vote. These were subjects not spoken of publicly -- certainly not over the same airwaves that brought Abbot & Costello into American homes every week. But Welles ignored that nicety.

The program provoked an uproar and behind the scenes, network executives grew deeply concerned, afraid of libel suits and the growing controversy. ABC jerked the reigns, demanding Welles to seek prior approval for any future remarks. But Welles did not submit his new scripts to ABC’s censors, and was banned by ABC from doing political commentary. They offered him a fig leaf: a non-political show—fifteen minutes a week of cultural and showbiz commentary. Welles politely declined.

His goodbye was gracious … proud, even. “I’ve been burned and hanged in effigy because of the things I’ve said on this program,” he said. “I’d like to say that if I ever got the chance to say those things again… I’d say them again.

And then, this most peculiar and sprawling of American radio careers came to an end. In pursuing the unpopular cause of racial equality so ferociously, Welles had, I think knowingly, sacrificed a child that was very dear to him. Not the medium he loved best – that would always be the movies – but perhaps the canvas best suited to his hungry gypsy intellect, and almost surely the medium that had given him the most joy. Presented with a clear moral challenge, as so many of the classical and populist heroes he played over the airwaves had been, he seems not to have hesitated for an instant. And so he proved, in the end, equal to what he pretended to be.