A Big Man on the Small Screen – The Televised Orson Welles

Eclipse is a selection of lost, forgotten, or overshadowed classics in simple, affordable editions.  Each series is a brief cinematheque retrospective for the adventurous home viewer.

Eclipse LogoWhile most appreciated for his film, theater, and radio work, Orson Welles also pursued his artistic visions on the small screen.  More often than not, his efforts struggled to achieve public broadcast, yet they remain a source of fascination, providing our clearest, most direct access to Welles as a storyteller, a traveler, and an individual.  These programs place the famed artist at their foreground and compel attention by the sheer force of Welles’ magnetic onscreen charisma.  The Kenosha Kid now returns to the small screen, in some cases for the first time, with this retrospective on his televisual creations, obediently yours.

Orson Welles’ Sketch Book

In six 15-minute episodes recorded for the BBC, Welles shares his personal artwork and uses them as inspiration for his stories, recollections, and editorials, creating an intimate and conversational rapport by directly addressing his audience.

Around the World with Orson Welles

Welles tackles the travelogue while touring the Basque country, attending the Spanish bullfights, and interviewing Jean Cocteau and Juliette Greco in Paris, all while inventing the grammar of on-location reporting.

The Fountain of Youth

A formally innovative presentation of a love triangle between a superficial starlet, a top tennis ace, and scientist possessing an anti-aging serum that Welles failed to get picked up as a series (tentatively titled The Orson Welles Show), but nonetheless won the Peabody Award after a single broadcast.

Portrait of Gina aka Viva Italia

Long banned due to the legal efforts of Gina Lollobrigida who took offense at her portrayal, Welles’ portrait of the Italian actress more generally provides a forum to contemplate Italy and its national character, told with his typical wry commentary and brisk editorial panache.

In the Land of Don Quixote

Recounting Welles’ travels through Spain with his wife Paola Mori and their young daughter Beatrice, this 9 episode travelogue made for Italian television includes an exploration the Roman history of Spain, a visual history of flamenco, and an examination of unique settings like the Alcazar Palace tobacco factory, the Feria De April celebrations in Seville, and Welles’ beloved bullfights.

Caesars Guide to Gaming with Orson Welles

Guests at Caesars Palace Las Vegas had the good fortune in the 1970s of letting Orson Welles into their room via closed circuit TV to explain the basics of casino gaming, reassured to put down some bets by his genial demeanor and historical anecdotes.

The Orson Welles Show

Welles’ final, failing effort at a television series saw him take on the talk show format with the assistance of his guests Burt Reynolds, the Muppets, Frank Oz, Jim Henson, and Angie Dickinson.

Orson Welles’ Magic Show

Filmed between 1976 and 1985 as a television special in which Welles performed various illusions while promising no trick photography, Orson Welles’ Magic Show is presented as reconstructed by the Munich Film Museum.

With notes on the programs by Welles-historian Ben Walters.

Orson WellesDespite a career often treated as one of squandered potential or diminishing returns, Orson Welles achieved unqualified successes in radio, theatre and film to such a degree that his artistic genius was cemented at an early age.  Later challenges in achieving his creative visions no doubt surmounted him in each of these mediums, but Welles’ legacy had already been established.  In television, however, the Kenosha Kid never made his indelible mark.  It was not for lack of interest though.  Welles saw in TV’s early days potential for this most mass of mediums.  He also saw opportunity for abuse, fearing that Hollywood’s closed cinema system would take hold on television.  To Orson, television had an opportunity that other mediums lacked – being able to reach into living rooms across the country, to be seen and heard, and too create an intimate space between the artist and the audience.  TV, in his view, could become a space where high culture and popular appeal could legitimately co-exist, if not merge, but his vision for the tube would never grasp success remotely comparable to Citizen Kane (1941) or his 1938 The War of the Worlds radio broadcast.  There were many reasons for this.  Welles was in self-imposed exile in Europe, avoiding his tax liability, during television’s surge into American homes in the late 1940s and 1950s.  His reputation as a fickle artist unlikely to see a TV series through to completion before becoming disinterested and wandering to a new project made television studios (and possibly sponsors) disinclined to embrace Welles and turn over the keys to the channel for a half-hour to an hour each week.  And Welles’ vision of television as a socially positive, culturally advancing, artistically progressive medium quickly fell out of synch with what NBC president Robert E. Kintner called “a schedule of meat-and-potatoes” dominated by soap operas, quiz shows, and football.  Still, regardless of their reception at the time, Welles managed to leave a fascinating body of television work full of technical advances, artistic achievements, and portraits of himself as a storyteller and a personality.  No clearer expressions of his status as an auteur can be seen beyond his TV work, as Welles places himself at the forefront of the programs, carrying them by the pure magnetism of his personality, buoyed by his slick editing (both in camera and out), creating complicity by his emphasis on direct address and close-ups, and full of his pet interests – theatre, bullfighting, cinema, magic, Europe.  In many ways, his television work provides access to Welles at his most essential.

Few of these titles have ever seen release on hard media and those that have are either out of print or have been incorporated into other works.  Putting this package together would likely be no easy feat, as it would require wrangling differing rights holders and sorting out legal issues that preclude circulation of some titles.  Still, Welles is one of the great narrative artists of all time and it’s a shame that his television work has not been given greater attention, as these programs seem our best document of Welles as a man, an artist, and a figure of popular culture, all at the same time.  And it would all look pretty sharp in gray-on-gray packaging (similar in style to the Norman Mailer Eclipse set) and alluding to a grayscale test pattern.

Credits:   My greatest debt for this proposed set is owed to Ben Walters’ highly informative essay “Arrested Development: How Orson Welles Tried to Revolutionize Television, and Why Television Wouldn’t Let Him”.  Walter’s primary focus is The Fountain of Youth, but his essay provides an excellent overview of Welles’ largely frustrated relationship with television and his particular aesthetic for the medium.  Walters would make an excellent author to the set’s liner notes.

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