NEW YORK — One hundred years after his birth, Orson Welles remains one of the most representative American artists of what some call the American Century. Born in Kenosha, Wisconsin (home of Jockey underwear and not much else), he was an innovator in theater, radio and film.
Welles is best remembered, of course, for his masterpieces “Citizen Kane” and “The Magnificent Ambersons,” both of which ooze mainstream, Protestant Americana. Put bluntly, when you first think of Welles, you don’t think of him as being particularly Jewy. But in taking a closer look at his work and associates, you’ll see that this boundless, dare-I-say “wandering” spirit, had his share of connections to the Chosen people.
For starters, there’s a man who looms importantly in his upbringing, one Dr. Bernstein, a Chicago physician, who lived with Welles and his father after his mother died when Orson was just nine years old. The specifics are a little sketchy here, but, if you believe Peter Biskind’s book “My Lunches With Orson: Conversations between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles,” Welles was never quite sure who his biological father was. It may have indeed been Richard Head Welles, who died when Orson was 15, or it may have been this Bernstein fellow — or, it may have been another of his mother’s lovers. (Interestingly enough, the notion of a “love child” may have been passed on a generation. British film director Sir Michael Lindsay-Hogg recently determined that he is Welles’ son. History repeats itself!)
Regardless of who his father actually was, there’s little doubt that Dr. Bernstein left an impression. When Welles and Herman Mankiewicz were writing the script to “Citizen Kane,” Welles refused to downplay the Jewishness of the Everett Sloane’s character, Charles Foster Kane’s aide-de-camp simply called Bernstein.
In a story filled with contradictory characters, Bernstein is one of the few truly likable good guys. Mankiewicz, who was Jewish, had been raised in Hollywood, and was hewing to the unwritten code that Semitic characteristics had to be played close to the vest. (For further reading on this, see my interview with Professor Eric A. Goldman, author of “The American Jewish Story Through Cinema.”) But newcomer Welles was adamant, and, according to his later-in-life chum Peter Bogdanovich, part of his reasoning was to be supportive of Jews while they were being oppressed in Europe. (“Citizen Kane” began shooting in June of 1940.)
Prior to coming to Hollywood (at the ridiculously young age of 24) Welles had established himself as a theater whiz and radio enfant terrible. His primary producer was John Houseman, who much later became known as an actor and television pitchman. Yes, the very British face of Smith Barney (“they earrrrrrrn it) and the nasty professor from “The Paper Chase,” was, in fact, born Jacques Haussmann in Romania to an Alsatian Jewish father. With Houseman he produced “Voodoo Macbeth,” a retelling of Shakespeare’s classic with an black cast that was, in 1935, unheard of.
At a time when most American politicians were turning a blind eye to the troubles in Europe, Welles was sounding the alarm
In 1937 Houseman and Welles prepped a pro-Trade Unionist operetta “The Cradle Will Rock,” the very production of which ruffled establishment feathers. Then came their adaptation of “Julius Caesar,” in which ancient Rome was modernized to Fascist Italy.
At a time when most American politicians were turning a blind eye to the troubles in Europe, Welles was sounding the alarm. In an interview with The New York Times he referred to the play’s villains as “the same mob that maltreats the Jews in Germany. It’s the Nazi mob anywhere.”
A year later, in 1938, Welles the Trickster panicked a nation with his post-modern use of radio tropes with his adaptation of H.G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds.” (If you’ve only read about it, but never heard it, this is what the Internet is for.) Welles was certainly the puppet-master of that important turning point in mass communication but the writer who adapted the story was the later blacklisted Jewish author, and co-writer of “Casablanca,” Howard E. Koch.
Skipping ahead to Hollywood, Welles’ third movie was “The Stranger,” released in 1946. I won’t lie and call it masterpiece but it is an important post-war film in which Welles himself stars as a Nazi fugitive hiding in New England. On the hunt is a United Nations War Crimes Commissioner played by Edward G. Robinson (who was Jew born Emmanuel Goldenberg in Bucharest). Robinson’s character must convince Loretta Young that her new husband is actually a culpable Nazi, and he shows her newsreel footage of concentration camps.
The images, taken from a documentary shot by, among others, George Stevens, and also shown at the Nuremberg Trials, was the first time scenes from the camps were shown in a commercial film. Welles had seen the footage a few months prior to the start of “The Stranger”’s production and wrote about it in the New York Post. “The thought of death is never pretty but the newsreels testify to the fact of quite another sort of death, quite another level of decay. This is a putrefaction of the soul, a perfect spiritual garbage.” Welles collaborated on “The Stranger” with producer Sam Spiegel, the Galician Jew whose name is now synonymous with the emerging Israeli film industry.
One of the best things Welles ever did was pitch in on someone else’s movie, Carol Reed’s adaptation of Graham Greene’s black-as-ink “The Third Man.” Shot on location in post-war Vienna, and co-produced by two Jewish legends Alexander Korda and David O. Selznick, Welles is the notorious Harry Lime. He isn’t a Nazi, he isn’t even specifically an anti-Semite. He is the personification of destructive self-interest in a time of new weapons and new ways to distance yourself from morality.
The scene between Welles and Joseph Cotten atop the Wiener Riesenrad, where Lime refers to humans as “dots,” is a chilling moment for a culture emerging from World War II and sliding into the Cold War. Reed’s shooting style was greatly influenced by Welles, and some of Lime’s lines were penned by Welles himself. And that includes one of the greatest zetzes in cinema history, the bit about the cuckoo clock.
In 1958 Orson Welles made one of the greatest, grimiest crime movies ever, “Touch of Evil.” As it depicts an amoral sewer of sin and depravity, it’s only a good thing it doesn’t have too much of a Jewish connection. (We have enough problems!) However, there is one scene of tenderness. The morbidly obese and corrupt Captain Quinlan (played by Welles in a fat suit) visits an old flame, a brothel-keeper named Tanya. From out of the shadows, and out of the past, emerges Marlene Dietrich. Since “Touch of Evil” is a movie that works on dream logic, it’s no problem that Dietrich is playing a Mexican. But a screen legend can’t appear without bringing everything she represents. Dietrich was a refugee from Nazism and a friend to Israel, and she being the vision of salvation to a mixed-up world works for me, anyway, as some sort of Jewish signifier.
By 1974 Welles’ career was an anarchic carnival of half-completed Shakespeare adaptations, supporting acting roles, quick voice overs, advertising and theater. If he was the great personification of American art, well, this was a mixed-up period. But his last completed film to be released in his lifetime, “F For Fake,” was a perfect capper to a man whose life had been devoted to slight-of-hand and showmanship.
“F For Fake” lovingly profiled two scoundrels, art forger Elmyr de Hory and “hoax”-biographer Clifford Irving. These men may not have been ethical, but they were at least extremely dedicated to their craft. Neither of these men are, on paper anyway, what we’d typically call Good For The Jews. But they were, in fact, Jewish, and Welles’ portrait comes from a place of respect.