Article abstract: As an actor, director, and writer, Welles breathed fresh life into all the media he explored: stage, radio, and film. Most important, his innovative cinematic techniques in such areas as lighting, camera angles and focus, and sound continue to influence film directors.
George Orson Welles, the second son of Beatrice and Richard Welles, was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin. When he was three, the family moved to Chicago. His mother—an accomplished amateur pianist—saw to his education, immersing the precocious child in literature, the visual arts, and music as she sought to enter a Chicago society that boasted some of the United States’ most prominent Midwestern families.
Doctor Maurice Bernstein, a man of varied medical interests and pioneering work, was a frequent visitor to the Welles home and the probable lover of Beatrice. When the family moved to Chicago, Bernstein moved with them. With the deaths of Beatrice when Orson was nine and Richard when he was fifteen, Bernstein became his legal guardian; indeed, Bernstein had acted as guardian for the boy since Beatrice’s death. Bernstein and Richard had recognized the extraordinary talents and intellect of Orson and sent him to the famous Todd School in Woodstock, Illinois, where he received a more disciplined education.
After completion of his studies, the sixteen-year-old Welles took a trip to Ireland, where, after talking himself into an audition, he performed many plays at the Gate Theatre in Dublin. His performances earned him excellent reviews, made more remarkable by the fact that he often portrayed characters more than twice his age.
After leaving Ireland, Welles arrived in New York in 1933 and became part of a touring company of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, headed by the husband-and-wife acting team of Guthrie McClintic and Katharine Cornell. His performance as Tybalt drew the attention of John Houseman, himself an actor and producer. Together they founded the Mercury Theater, their first production being a version of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar set in fascist Italy that became the talk of New York in 1937.
However, the production that made the Mercury Theater possible was the now infamous “voodoo” version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth in 1936, staged at the Lafayette Theater in Harlem and later moved to Broadway. This adaptation of William Shakespeare’s play set in the jungles of Haiti was produced by the Negro Theater Unit, part of the Federal Theater Project of the Depression-era 1930’s and directed by the twenty-year-old Welles. A theatrical sensation that turned away thousands (an estimated ten thousand people crowded the streets of Harlem on opening night), Macbeth ran for ten weeks before moving to Broadway.
In the same year that Macbeth was staged, Welles began his famous radio adaptations of literary classics, which became known as Mercury Theater on the Air (later known as the Campbell Playhouse). He starred in the radio series The Shadow playing the mysterious Lamont Cranston. With several projects competing for his time—stage productions, radio adaptations, speaking engagements, and essays on the theater—he was quickly earning the nickname “Boy Wonder,” which would follow him for much of his career. Welles enjoyed several theatrical successes over the next two years, but it was his notorious radio adaptation of H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds for Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) that gave him national fame. The 1938 production, aired on Halloween night, dramatized a supposed invasion of Martians in Grovers Mill, New Jersey. Of the thousands who heard the program, many panicked, believing the United States (and the world) was under attack.
Although Welles and his cast were condemned by the press, disciplined by CBS, and threatened by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) over the program, it led to an unprecedented offer by Radio-Keith-Orpheum (RKO) Pictures Corporation in 1939. Welles would be given total creative control over any project he might choose to develop—an offer unheard of in times when the studios “owned” stars, directors, and writers. After a disastrous first attempt at a motion picture project that never materialized, Welles followed up on RKO’s unique offer by turning out a film perennially chosen as the finest film ever made, Citizen Kane (1941). Modeled after publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, the film in fact draws its particulars from Welles’s own youth. While Citizen Kane was not a commercial success, those knowledgeable about film marveled at the creativity and innovation found in Welles’s cinematic technique.
The following year, Welles adapted Booth Tarkington’s novel, The Magnificent Ambersons (1918), about life in a small Midwestern town at the beginning of the twentieth...