Reviewed by Dennis Menard
The subject, the brilliant Orson Welles, is fascinating in itself. Though Patrick McGilligan’s writing style is a bit of “a dry do,” it is informative. And the “dryness” can perhaps be excused. For as Jack Webb, Detective “Joe” Friday in the old Dragnet series might agree, the biographer’s job is to get “just the facts.” Patrick McGilligan seems to bend over backwards to do this. He quotes other Orson Welles biographers often enough in either a skeptical or justifying manner. His information seems to have been very carefully and thoroughly researched. So, as such, this is perhaps one of the more accurate biographies of the Great Orson Welles’s life.
However, the very premise Patrick McGilligan bases his Young Orson on, ‘The years of Luck and Genius on the path to Citizen Kane’, I take some objection to. There is no question Citizen Kane is STIll among the Best Films Ever Made. Nor, If Citizen Kane were Orson’ Welles’s only accomplishment he would still be worthy of the label ‘genius’, hung on him as a young man. But the fact of the matter is Citizen Kane was NOT Orson Welles’s only, or even greatest, achievement!
My personal opinion, albeit colored by the fact I grew up playing Beatles records backwards to hear secret “Paul-is-Dead,” clues, is that Orson Welles’s greatest achievement was the 1939 Halloween prank radio broadcast of War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells. He obeyed current FCC federal regulations that all radio and television public announcements must state the following program is a dramatization. Which Mr. Welles very correctly did. But he very devilishly planned to air this announcement when most of America was tuned in to another radio channel. And so the public tuned in late to War of the Worlds just as Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, was supposedly blasted by invaders from Mars! This scared the ever loving bejesus out of a panic stricken public, and Orson Welles hoodwinked America. In my opinion you have to love the chutzpa to do such a thing. (Mr. Welles later paid for this chutzpa in lawsuits.)
In Young Orson Patrick McGilligan gives the many statements and transcripts when charges were brought of those who were involved. Although he neglects to state what the actual charges were. The same can be said after the proverbial poo hit the whirling object, when Citizen Kane was accused of plagiarizing the life of William Randolph Hearst. Patrick McGilligan reports that the story of Kenneth Anger’s from Hollywood Babylon (which alluded to “rosebud” being William Randolph Hearst’s pet name for silent actress mistress Marion Davies’ genitalia) as pure Urban Myth bunk lends the book credit.
And though Patrick McGilligan mentions Orson Welles was married for a time to Rita Hayworth, he does not comment that at the time she was a numero uno babe! Nor that, due to Rita, the first famous person to be afflicted with Alzheimer’s, her plight was brought to light. This caused research to be undertaken, and she was proven not to be just drunken and disorderly. Rita Hayworth suffered from an actual illness! So, just as some people tend to forget Betty Ford was a President’s wife, First Lady, and a person before she was a clinic, it is through Rita Hayworth we know Alzheimer’s is a disease! Although these things have nothing to do with Orson Welles per sé, these facts might have made the book a tad more interesting without stooping to gossip.
Dennis Menard is an artist. You can find his work at dennismenard.nl.
There is an ebook of Young Orson available here.