Citizen of the World
By Gabriel Jandali Appel
In a six-part pseudo-travelogue, Orson Welles playfully self-mythologizes his way across Europe.
Orson Welles does not appear in his second feature, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). Instead, his unmistakable voice narrates the opening while his camera illustrates a sequence that will forever evoke fantasies about the unadulterated masterpiece that it could have been. Welles returns at the very end of the film—or, rather, after the very end of the film. Once The Magnificent Ambersons concludes with an ending rewritten, reshot, and reedited without Welles’s consent, his disembodied voice proceeds to read the credits.
“Ladies and gentlemen, The Magnificent Ambersons was based on Booth Tarkington’s novel,” he says as his camera shows us a version of the book’s cover. “Stanley Cortez was the photographer. Mark-Lee Kirk designed the sets. Al Fields dressed them. Robert Wise was the film editor.” As Welles reads the credits, instead of the customary roll of text, we see a camera being loaded, a draft board of set designs, a reel-to-reel editing bay. This continues as Welles announces the remainder of the cast and crew, until finally, over a shot of a backlit microphone, he states: “I wrote the script and directed it. My name is Orson Welles.”
Nearly 15 years later, Welles opened his six-part travel series Around the World with Orson Welles (1955) with a static shot of a camera pointed directly at the screen. “This is Orson Welles behind the camera...” his disembodied voice begins once again. But as you probably know, much had changed in that time between the somber voiceover that concluded The Magnificent Ambersons and the boisterous, lighthearted one that opens Around the World.
Recounting the tragedy of Orson Welles, the mistreatment of the artist of American cinema, often begins with the fallout from The Magnificent Ambersons. The film was taken from Welles and thoroughly mangled. He was not given another directing job for four years, after which he fought a losing battle for control of every one of his Hollywood studio films. Years later, Welles would famously muse that “they destroyed Ambersons, and the picture itself destroyed me,” both recognizing and actively mythologizing the incident’s position in his own storied narrative. And that narrative is the prime one in Around the World with Orson Welles, with the host himself far upstaging the subjects, rituals, and institutions his camera highlights.
By 1955, Orson Welles had mastered his own persona to such a degree that merely turning a camera on him could unleash a legend.
The Orson Welles behind—and in front of—the camera in Around the World is on his way to the Falstaff he would portray a decade later in Chimes at Midnight. I won’t deign to guess his weight, but he’s large enough to fill an imposing frame without the lifts in his shoes or sunken camera angles of Citizen Kane (1941). No longer the boyish wunderkind, nor the man embattled with Hollywood studios over funding and edits, this Welles doesn’t seem particularly concerned with scrambling for control of the camera or the finished product—this is somewhat clear from the resulting series.
Following the delightful first episode, “Pays Basque I – The Basque Countries,” which features some cinematic flair (such as an impeccably edited sequence of locals catching pigeons out of the sky “like fish,” complete with Dutch angles and unforgettable footage of the net coming down on a large flock of them), the second episode, “Pays Basque II – La Pelote Basque,” begins with footage reused from that first, complete with those same canted angles and the certainly not-yet-forgotten image of the pigeons caught in a net. It’s somewhat jarring, and may induce viewers to go back and double-check the episode title.
An overarching atmosphere of “doing it on the fly” permeates each episode, and a sense of disorganization persists. The fourth episode, “St.-Germain-des-Prés,” lacks narration from Welles, and instead relies on several minutes of stock footage of Paris edited to music. In the third episode, “Revisiting Vienna,” Welles positions an interview with a subject sitting in front of a mirror such that both he and his camera are visible in addition to the subject. It’s an interesting, deliberate, and unusual setup for a travel series, and it recalls Welles’s mirror sequences in Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, and The Lady from Shanghai (1947). Yet one must admit that the entire episode consists of little more than Welles walking from one café to another (three in total: about a seven-minute walk, if Google Maps is to be believed) and describing various tasty treats.
Because we are watching an Orson Welles production, however, even this (let’s be honest) lazy reuse of footage tells a story—an imaginary story, perhaps, but aren’t those the most fun? One of Welles on the run, behind schedule and over budget, racing through Europe without enough time to finish the series properly before he dives headlong into his next three ideas. No, this time Welles will not engage in a battle for control of the final product; in fact, at times he seems rather indifferent to it, even relinquishing hosting duties to writers Kenneth Tynan and Elaine Dundy in the final episode, “Spain – The Bullfight.” But he maintains full control over the true subject of the series: himself. By 1955, Orson Welles had mastered his own persona to such a degree that merely turning a camera on him could unleash a legend. If the story of the second half of Welles’s life is one of struggle and repeated attempts at masterpieces (some realized, others not), then the most undeniable achievement of this period was that of his own mythological figure. Around the World with Orson Welles is a testament to that figure and that myth.
To fully understand this point, examine that third installment: again, an episode of a travel show that covers barely 600 meters of Vienna. To start, Welles emerges from behind a corner on a Viennese street, one hand in the pocket of his overcoat, the other cradling a prop movie camera. With his hat tilted just so, and his bowtie resting above his sweater, he begins to speak about the opera, prompted by the opera house he is apparently facing. He seamlessly flows into an anecdote from his youth about going to the opera when he was “just becoming interested in girls,” and believing a girl seated behind him was flirtatiously tapping on the back of his chair, he came to realize that she was cracking hard-boiled eggs. From there, he raises his prop camera to “give you a shot of that” and point out where the scene from The Third Man “where Jo Cotten was chasing me” was filmed. Finally, Welles tells another “famous story of the Viennese opera,” about tenor Leo Slezak performing Lohengrin, missing his climatic cue to ride onto the stage on a swan, and turning to a stagehand to remark: “What time does the next swan leave?” (The punch line of the story would be paraphrased seven years later by Leo’s son, actor Walter Slezak, in the title of his autobiography.) Much of the pleasure of the series derives from hearing him share little bits he’s picked up merely from living his life as Orson Welles.
Of course, there is no lack of footage of Welles telling anecdotes on a variety of talk-show couches. And it’s not for me to diminish the delight of going down a YouTube rabbit hole of Orson Welles with Dick Cavett, Johnny Carson, or Dean Martin—I recommend it wholeheartedly. But the experience of watching Around the World with Orson Welles is different; it’s more than just being around for the stories. While it’s a rushed production, it’s still a Welles production. During the aforementioned story about the girl cracking eggs, the shot of Welles switches midway through, a cut revealing that he must have made the speech at least twice. The rest of the opening includes choreographed cutaways to the facade of the opera house over which his voiceover plays. It’s a construction, and one in which Welles is completely comfortable. He periodically turns to the lens and states, “Now let’s take the camera over here, please,” as if to remind the audience of this.
This combination of the off-the-cuff storyteller seen later on talk shows with the deft hand of the great director recurs throughout Around the World. His charm and charisma serve up more than just guffaws. Episode five, “London – The Queen’s Pensioners,” opens with Welles flirting his way through an interview with six widows living in a Christian almshouse in Hackney. Midway through the charming banter, one of the women proclaims she is “an unrepentant old Tory.” Welles, a lifelong self-described progressive, merely chuckles and asks if “all you ladies are of the same political persuasion?” Upon hearing that they are, Welles points at one and remarks, “Well anyway she likes to dance back in the garden, Tory or not. She told me!” as he laughs along with all of the women, and moves on with the interview. Immediately after the interview, a swish pan transitions the viewer to a marvelous direct-to-camera soliloquy by Welles. He recalls that of his many aunts, the one who aged the best was the one with the most money. “I think that’s pretty obvious; I won’t belabor the point. Clearly it’s much easier to be graceful about being aged if there’s a little something put away in the sock,” he delivers perfectly. He goes on to praise England’s social welfare programs and institutions, not just the one that the Tories were living in. Welles shot the episode only seven years after the founding of England’s National Health Service (the benefits of which those Tories also, no doubt, enjoyed). This isn’t done meanly, or with any rancor toward the old birds he’s just interviewed; it’s barely even done seriously. His tongue is firmly planted in his ever-widening cheek. But the soul of the man who, a decade earlier, led an unflinching campaign to bring justice to an African American war veteran who’d been blinded by a racist police officer in South Carolina can be seen in full force.
As mentioned before, the final episode of the series, documenting a Spanish bullfight, is hosted by Kenneth Tynan and Elaine Dundy. To say nothing of the fun of watching the then-married, still-storied couple fumble their way through the hosting duties, the turnover—presumably caused by the rushed schedule and insufficient footage of Welles—aids the mystique of his figure: of course Welles would casually hand over the reins to a requisite it-couple waiting in the wings. Moreover, the Tynans’ introductory portion builds suspense for Welles’s eventual entrance into the episode, which happens nearly halfway in. A handheld camera follows behind Welles as he elbows his way through the crowd outside of the arena. People turn and stare as he passes, as if they know he’s the man we’ve been waiting for. Compare this to Welles’s entrance in The Third Man, as good a character introduction as cinema has to offer. In many ways, it’s the antithesis of this one: deliberately edited with careful angles and expert lighting, a memorable score, and a push in with a dolly. Now, all that’s needed for the grand entrance is a camera barely keeping up with Welles’s enlarged form as it swims its way through a sea of Spaniards. Yes, the latter entrance benefits greatly from taking place in a series that bears Welles’s name, but it’s still an affecting first glimpse. It works because of the persona Welles had by then established.
Part of the experience of watching a Welles production, especially a later one, is being able to see the obvious process and the limitations of his work: the bad overdubs, the continuity errors clearly resulting from stoppages and restarts as funding ebbs and flows. The visible brushstrokes of course help paint the picture of the independent maverick stringing these works together with tape and glue. And this is certainly the case with Around the World with Orson Welles. The episodes in and of themselves tell a story of the production; as I’ve said, they reveal the character of a rakish raconteur weaseling his way through his contractual obligations and speeding ahead to his next castle in the sky.
But the limitations reflect more than reality. In Around the World, and in so much of Welles’s work, there is a sense of incompletion. More than a sense, really. From the jarring end of The Magnificent Ambersons to the truncated beginning of The Stranger, so much in these films forces the viewer to consider what might have been. Perhaps this unrealized potential feeds the notion that Welles was the greatest filmmaker who ever lived. His work consistently conjures fantasies of the greatness he could have achieved if only he’d been given the resources he deserved, tantalizing us with heights we couldn’t even begin to imagine, an ideal that need never be realized. Yet the idea of these achievements, the presence of such beauty lingering, just on the other side of the wind, amplifies the magic of Orson Welles.
Long ago, Welles remained patiently behind the camera as he made a masterpiece, and in return, that masterpiece was taken away from him and practically erased from history. In Around the World with Orson Welles, he didn’t attempt to match the artistic heights he’d reached before (and would again), but instead turned the camera on what he’d already achieved: the legendary figure of Orson Welles. And even 65-plus years later, it is more than enough. •
Gabriel Jandali Appel is an editor at Metrograph.