Review by Judith Roberts, Louisiana Tech University
The Magical World of Orson Welles
Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2015. 352. Non-fiction.
The dive into the motion picture world of the first half of the 20th century, and discover Orson Welles's eccentricities, his mannerisms, and his plots that characterized his "magical" ability in James Naremore's most recent edition of The Magical World of Orson Welles, published by the University of Illinois Press this year. This third edition covers Welles's movies and details his most famous ones, including Citizen Kane and Chimes at Midnight, as well as his less-known and unfinished works, such as The Other Side of the Wind. The author discusses each piece individually but also delves into how various movies have features of previous ones, such as how some characters from
Naremore, whose other books include The World Without a Self: Virginia Woolf and the Novel and Acting in the Cinema, is a film scholar who is professor emeritus at Indiana University at Bloomington. According to the university's communication and culture department website, Naramore has served on editorial boards of the PMLA, the journal of the Modern Language Association of America; and Cinema Journal. He also was chair of the MLA Film Division and the Publications Committee of the Society for Cinema Studies. Other than Welles, his research topics include Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Alfred Hitchcock, John Huston, and Vincente Minnelli (Emeriti Faculty | James O. Naremore). Because of his knowledge, his background, and his teaching, he makes an excellent source for authoring this book, and his in-depth research on this topic makes this book detailed and intriguing. His research for this book took him to the Museum of Modern Art, the New York Public Library, the Library of Congress, the Wisconsin Center for Theater Research, among others. The last edition of this book was published in 1989, but this update includes giving more information on critical and biographical literature, including Anderegg's volume on Welles, Shakespeare, and popular culture; Alberto Anile's discussion of Welles's years in Italy; Catherine Benamou's study of It's All True, Jean-Pierre Berthome and Francois Thomas's books (5). This edition was published to celebrate the centennial year of Welles's birth.
George Orson Welles was a writer, a director, an actor, and basically a master of trades who used radio, television, and film to enchant and entrance people in his world of fiction. He had a fascinating life, a life that seemed like a movie itself. In fact, many of his characters were almost autobiographical in personality and character. His movies often reflected his attitudes of the so-called American dream. However, Welles, while known for his films, is also legendary for his famous The War of the Worlds radio broadcast in which individuals actually believed aliens had landed on Earth and were destroying humanity. In fact, the only aspect of the book I disagreed with the author on related to this broadcast. Naremore stated that, "Listened to today, the program seems quite naive, and despite Welles's and Koch's occasional cleverness one finds it difficult to believe that so many people were deceived" (32). However, as many individuals are susceptible to believing and clicking on every link they see on social media that basically speaks of the same world-is-ending scenario, I have little trouble believing that individuals in 1938 were petrified of aliens invading Earth.
Naremore generally spent each chapter discussing one of Welles's films. Welles's most prominent works—Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, Macbeth, The Trial, and Chimes at Midnight were very thoroughly covered, as were some of Welles's films with multiple versions, such as Mr. Arkadin and Touch of Evil. The author spends less time analyzing Welles's later and less acclaimed projects, such as Don Quixote, which was in production fore more than a decade, and The Other Side of the Wind, one of Welles's incomplete films. Through the analysis of these movies, Naremore discusses how much of Welles's work is somewhat biographical, as stated with, "The real intensity (of The Magnificent Ambersons) therefore lies in its autobiographical relevance, in the poignancy with which Welles depicts a scene that partly represents his own childhood, brooding over the way everything passed, turning to chaos" (103). This is one way the author alludes to Welles's childhood, though Welles's personal life is infrequently covered in the book.
One of the many aspects Naremore succeeds at in discussing Welles's work is his analysis for Welles's film style. Those who are not well versed in film analysis will not be lost in Naremore's discussion of Welles's techniques, such as the wide-angle, deep-focus photography that Welles's used in Citizen Kane and that, as Naremore pointed out, became a distinctive feature of Welles's work (46). He also discusses other film plot influences, such as Eisenstein, whose work influenced Welles in F for Fake. One of the greatest aspects of Naremore's study is how he allows new fans of Welles's films and those who are more familiar with the legend's work the ability to glean information, to garner new knowledge, and to be able to relate it to other film and/or Welles's fans. The book is highly versatile for film students and fans alike, a hard task to achieve but one at which Naremore excels.
Naremore briefly mentions financial woes for Welles as related to his films. As he quoted Welles saying to a Spanish interviewer, "During the twenty years that I worked in or was associated with Hollywood, only eight times did they permit me to utilize the tools of my trade. Only once was my own final cut of a film the one that premiered, and except for the Shakespearian experiment only twice was I allowed to give my opinion in the selection of my subject matter" (188). Welles was, without a doubt, a performer, and all of his works—whether they were on radio, television, film, or on a platform—boomed of his expertise in the field, and Naremore goes into great detail of why Welles is so revered in film circles and why he is still remembered and celebrated today. His revolutionary ideas surrounding cinema, the American dream, politics, and even his own life added up to an individual who continues to be a subject of great interest and study.
As mentioned earlier, the author completes extensive research for this project, adding new information, but the book in general is very well documented and organized. The book is generally organized in chapters based on Welles's movies, starting with Citizen Kane and ending with a quick overview of Welles's work. However as Naremore mentioned, it is difficult to define Welles's work, as much of his work was incomplete at the time of his death. As Naremore wrote, "We could make a good-size volume from the manuscripts of Welles's public speeches, but even though the volume would contain some incisive political commentary, it would have relatively little literary value and would do very little to explain why Welles was one of this country's most effective platform speakers" (290). The could explain Naremore's decision to focus so little on Welles's biographical details. Naremore spends very little time discussing Welles's childhood, his marriages, or his family life. He does mention his money problems in reference to his inability to complete some films or as a reason why film projects were delayed at parts. If the book does have a fault, it is the lack of biographical detail, though as a subject for film analysis, it covers the gamut excellently. Naremore picks one subject of Welles's life and covers it well; and, after all, perhaps that should be how Welles's life is covered. His life was full of political discourse, failed marriages, and critically acclaimed films; perhaps it would be an injustice for one book to cover everything, as it would be impossible to discuss his life and work adequately in 300 pages.
Overall, the book is a well-organized, well-researched book of study. Orson Welles, whether it is his films, his political rhetoric, his family life, or his letters and speeches, is a fascinating individual. He is a worthy topic of study, and Naremore covers his subject topic with ease, readability, and wisdom. The book includes Welles's more notable works, such as Citizen Kane, but it also doesn't leave out Welles's less-known films. As someone whose background is not in film, I found the book to be an entertaining and informative read, a great scholarly work that would fit well in a classroom or on a reading list for an Orson Welles's fan.
Judith Roberts is an assistant professor of Journalism at Louisiana Tech University.
© 2016 Judith Roberts, used by permission