The Fountain of Youth (Orson Welles, 1956)

Eclipse LogoProduced by Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball’s production company Desilu, The Fountain of Youth was a TV pilot for an unmade series tentatively titled The Orson Welles Show.  Shown only once, airing two years later on NBC’s Colgate Theatre, The Fountain of Youth‘s innovative and experimental narrative techniques won Welles the prestigious Peabody Award in 1958.  Utilizing Hollywood sets, over-lapping and dubbed dialogue, visual effects, in-camera editing, and rear-projection, Welles positioned himself in the central role of the program’s onscreen narrator and created a revelatory show that removed the boundaries between story and teller.

I Love Lucy was an innovative television program, utilizing a multi-camera system, was the first studio to combine it with a live audience, and was recorded on 35mm, but the network made its stars and creators, husband and wife team Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, bear the production costs, in turn letting them retain program rights and providing the team with a highly valuable asset.  Ball and Arnaz promptly founded Desilu, a production company that grew quickly into a major industry player.  Desilu paid off Welles’ tax issues, allowing him to return to the States to start work on his own anthology drama for the company.  Arnaz wanted something different out of Welles’ program, saying to him, “If we could accomplish the effect of you, as the host, in front of the television set in the viewer’s living room, telling them what is happening or about to happen behind you, it would be much more intimate.”  Welles was naturally receptive to the concept as it fit well with his own ideas for the medium, and a pilot for the would-be Orson Welles Show was made.

The Fountain of Youth was a half hour drama, intended as Desilu’s first episode to their anthology program hosted by Orson Welles, but it was never picked up despite the buzz that surrounded it.  Adapted from John Collier’s short story Youth from Vienna, the show portrayed the romance of famed actress Carolyn Coates (Joi Lansing) with glandular scientist Humphrey Baxter (Dan Tobin).  Baxter travels to Vienna for 3 years to conduct research, and returns to discover Coates now on the arm of American tennis star Alan Brody (Rick Jason).  As a wedding gift, Baxter bestows on the couple a single dose of his anti-aging serum, purported to allow its drinker to stay young for 200 years, and then watches the couple succumb to doubts and self-interest.  On paper, The Fountain of Youth sounded like soft-boiled Twilight Zone, but Welles creates in the episode something genuinely unique by making himself nearly omnipresent.  Welles functions as the show’s quasi-narrator, but his role is far more invasive than might usually be expected.  He is present onscreen, stepping in and out of narrative space, halting progress and moving it forward or backward as is convenient to him, even replacing his voice for those of the characters as his influence extends into the enacted exchanges of the story’s characters.  Even when Welles’ inventions are not occurring, The Fountain of Youth performs its own manipulations of time and space.  Lighting and rear projection allow characters to shift spaces and scenes in a moment and without a cut.  Still photos and poignant insertions of motion anticipate Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962).  In its most disturbing sequence, Carolyn’s fear of aging is represented through dissolving images of her face transitioning to anatomical diagrams of blood vessels, musculature, nerves, and finally a skull.

The show won a Peabody Award for Creative Achievement (the only unsold pilot to do so), but daring and cleverness are infrequently a recipe for commercial success or institutional support.  The head of CBS programming called it “the greatest pilot I have ever seen” but feared about its accessibility to the general public.  And TV networks were unsure of Welles and unconvinced that the famed director would stay with the series to its conclusion.  After all, wasn’t this the same man who was just exiled to Europe for failing to pay his taxes?  It took years for Desilu to build interest in the project and by that time, sure enough, Welles had lost interest in the project.  Watching it today, one wonders what might have been, what other episodes could have produced, how it would have been publicly received, and what impact it might have had on television going forward.  The Fountain of Youth is, as Ben Walters describes “a radical masterpiece of television art” and would likely be the jewel of an Eclipse retrospective on Welles’ TV work.

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