Arrested Development: How Orson Welles Tried to Revolutionize Television, and Why Television Wouldn’t Let Him
In 2003, I began writing a book about Orson Welles. It was part of a series of short biographies, each of around 40,000 words. Although this was longer than any writing project I had previously undertaken, it was a small amount of space for such a large life. As I researched Welles’s career—a remarkably broad and various one—I became better acquainted with the film, radio, and theater work for which he remains famous. I was also struck by the peculiarities of his later life. Contrary to the reputation for profligacy and wasted potential that he acquired, he never stopped vigorously pursuing new and ambitious creative projects, funding them with the money he made from his widely mocked appearances on television, in talk shows, commercials, and voice-over work.
But long before television was a source of revenue for Welles, it was an area of fascination. For more than three decades, from the early 1950s until his death in 1985, he was creatively engaged with T.V., bringing as much radical insight to that medium’s particular strengths as he had to those of film, theater, and radio. Yet, despite producing a handful of intriguing programs, he was never able to gain a foothold in the industry, other than as a hired performer. Even within Welles scholarship, the story of his artistic passion for television and the lessons that it can offer to today’s very different home entertainment landscape is a largely untold one.
Although Welles’s interest in T.V. spanned several decades, I decided to focus on the production history of one particular project, an unsold half-hour pilot Welles made for American television in 1956, called The Fountain of Youth. This witty cautionary tale is, in my opinion and many others’, Welles’s best work for television, a consummate showcase of his radical and unique ideas for the medium that remains fresh and stimulating to this day. The circumstances of its production also offer an enlightening window onto Welles’s career and the T.V. industry in the mid-1950s, a period during which both were in considerable flux.
I set out to synthesize for the first time the many glancing references to The Fountain of Youth distributed throughout the numerous biographies of Welles, studies of his work, and autobiographies and memoirs of those involved in the pilot’s production. I was able to make use of notes from various screenings of rare Welles work that I have attended over the years, notably those coordinated by the Munich Filmmuseum, which holds much of Welles’s unfinished, unreleased, or little-seen work. I consulted the Paley Center’s television archive to watch other television appearances Welles made around the time of his work at Desilu, and to deepen my knowledge of the general state of American television in the mid-1950s. And I benefited from the generosity of many friends and Welles scholars, whose contributions are gratefully detailed in the acknowledgments below.
‘Nobody seemed impressed’
A party at an apartment in Burbank, northwest Los Angeles, in the mid-1960s. At one end of the room stands a small 16mm projector and a stack of film cans. Two dozen young women are chatting over snacks, soft drinks, and champagne punch. There is some shop talk, as the host and several of those present are secretaries at Desilu, the television production company founded by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in 1950. I Love Lucy and The Untouchables were created there, and new science-fiction and action series called Star Trek and Mission: Impossible are currently in development. But the company has also had its share of non-starters, and, as an added attraction for the party, the host has secured prints of a few unsuccessful Desilu pilots.
The guests watch sitcoms and crime shows, most of them entertaining enough, if unremarkable. On the screen, the host of the next pilot, which is a decade old, extends his invitation with a solemn chuckle: “The eternal triangle plus eternal youth equals a wacky little romance, which we’ll bring you, if we may, in just a few seconds.” The story that follows is set in New York in 1922, and concerns an actress, a tennis player, and the scientist who dangles a youth serum under their well-turned noses. The action unfolds on limited studio sets with back-projected scenery, and still photos regularly take the place of the moving image. The tone, mostly playful, turns ruminative at times, perhaps cynical, even macabre: at one point, the lead actress’s face is replaced by anatomical drawings of veins, muscle, and bone. The whole thing hangs on a knowing, worldly narration that doesn’t seem to convince its audience. As the half-hour show plays out, sympathy flags, attention wanders, limbs are rearranged, and feet shuffle.
“Nobody really liked The Fountain of Youth,” remembers Sandra Delaney, one of the Desilu employees present. “Nobody seemed impressed. It was very slow when you consider what was on air at that time—Westerns, a lot of action, stuff like that. It just took forever to get from Point A to Point B. It was just talk, talk, talk, talk, talk. And he was the one doing the talking.” 1
“He” was Orson Welles, the mercurial artist whose radically independent sensibility had repeatedly left its stamp on twentieth century culture. “He knew how to define a medium,” says the director Peter Bogdanovich, a friend and collaborator of Welles’s for many years. “He did it in radio, he did it in theatre, he did it in film, he did it in television—then nobody could follow it.” 2 Steve Bell, the late director of the Museum of Television and Radio in Beverly Hills (now called the Paley Center), agreed, noting in the introduction to an evening dedicated to Welles in 2000 that he “electrified the Broadway theatre in the mid-1930s…transformed radio in the late 1930s…and arguably [had] more influence on filmmakers and film history than any other filmmaker since D.W. Griffith.” Furthermore, “he provided a direction for T.V. with the ‘Fountain of Youth’ pilot and other experiments, here and in Europe, in the late 1950s. Unfortunately, T.V. wasn’t interested.”
Welles was a promiscuous artist. His half-century of creativity is still defined by his passionate, enduring marriages to film and theater, but those relationships were far from exclusive. He stayed with radio for nearly two decades, and dallied regularly with the written word and musical scoring. His talents as a draughtsman remained largely private, enjoyed by collaborators and loved ones. He flirted with ballet. In television, with its potential to tell intimate stories to a mass audience, he believed he had found a great match. The Desilu pilot constituted a showcase for his ideas about the medium—ideas as radical as those he had about film or theater, ideas that are filtering onto our screens half a century later. But, at the time, Welles’s advances were rebuffed: like the guests at that party, the T.V. industry shied away from The Fountain of Youth, and from his other overtures. For Welles, television was the one that got away.
The early, not-quite-intersecting careers of Welles and television
Welles was an old hand at new tricks. In 1936, he was the 21-year-old director of a federally funded theater company whose productions made the front pages, and prepared the ground for the Broadway triumphs of his independent Mercury Theatre Company. On the air, he achieved stardom as the elusive, crimefighting Shadow, then conceived and conducted First Person Singular, a series whose immersive sound design remains a high watermark of radio drama—and whose Halloween, 1938, ‘War of the Worlds’ broadcast inadvertently convinced more than a million listeners that America was under attack from Mars.
The following July, Welles accepted the most generous contract Hollywood ever offered to a filmmaking novice. Two years and several false starts later, he vindicated R.K.O. Studios’ gamble with Citizen Kane. Triumphantly disruptive of studio norms, it was a critical sensation, a commercial disappointment, and an industry-wide public-relations headache, thanks to its ribbing of William Randolph Hearst. Welles’s equally masterful follow-up, The Magnificent Ambersons, was dumped into theaters in a truncated, mitigated form while Welles was at large in Brazil, immersed in an ambitious documentary project called It’s All True, which he never finished. Working on his own terms and making little effort to communicate with the studio, Welles alarmed his backers with spiralling costs and a focus on street-level—that is, black—Brazilian culture. Eventually, R.K.O. cut him loose, and took out advertisements in the Rio papers to publicize the fact.
Welles’s reputation for genius had led a national radio network, a Hollywood studio, and two government departments to place their resources at his disposal. This veteran of twenty-seven would never enjoy such institutional confidence again. But nor would he be idle: following his return from Brazil, he performed on air, on screen, and on stage, vigorously pursued progressive liberal causes, and, in 1943, married Rita Hayworth. He also wrote a column for the New York Post, leavening his political ruminations with pseudo-astrological advice and nuggets of celebrity news.
On February 27, 1945, his thoughts were on television. He was always fascinated by mass culture and popular entertainment, but he had not been well-placed to observe this new medium in its infancy: public T.V. broadcasting began in New York only three months before he left for California in 1939, and the War Production Board put set production on hiatus around the time of his return from Brazil. As the nation prepared for peace, the new technology’s potential to rival radio’s dominance remained highly questionable, but it was once again an object of active interest. Welles had been looking into it, and the potential for abuse concerned him.
After advising his readers in the Post “Don’t argue with relatives today” and wishing the actor Franchot Tone a happy fortieth birthday, he observed that the Hollywood majors were sniffing around T.V. licenses. He stressed the dangers of the vertically integrated business model that still made a closed shop of the movie industry, and had undoubtedly diminished his own filmmaking opportunities. “The Me-Only boys are now trying to sew up television, and they will, too, unless we stop them,” he warned. “I say that sort of ownership is what makes independent productions so perilously close to the impossible.” Three years later, the Supreme Court concurred, outlawing the studios’ domination of film distribution and exhibition.
By then, T.V. was securing its place in national life—and Welles had abdicated his, having achieved clear success in none of the spheres he pursued, despite, or because of, their variety. His political aspirations—he mulled a senatorial run—and his marriage to Hayworth fizzled, and his attempts to return to directing saw more features lost to studio control: even The Stranger, which he undertook specifically to prove his ability to function on institutional terms, was confiscated and recut. The failure of a grand-scale stage adaptation of Around the World in 80 Days established a substantial tax burden that would dog him for years. Welles was done with America, at least for a while—or perhaps America was done with him. In July, 1947, he boarded a boat for Italy.
Television’s position, by contrast, had been slowly improving. T.V. remained more or less a curiosity, often dismissed as a flash in the pan, until 1948, when “video” coverage of the World Series and the presidential election campaign constituted its first serious challenges to radio as America’s premier news source. The popularity of The Howdy Doody Show and Milton Berle, meanwhile, staked out its potential as the entertainment medium of choice for baby-boom families. Still serving less than half of one per cent of American households in 1948, T.V.’s popularity grew exponentially over Truman’s second term.
Even once its market was proven, however, the medium’s larger form and purpose—its programming content, commercial structure, and geographical locale—remained up for grabs. During this period, James L. Baughman notes in his recent history of television’s formative years, Same Time, Same Station, a swathe of Manhattan by the East River was earmarked for use as a multi-network “T.V. City.” 3 After television’s focus shifted to California, that area became the site of the U.N. Headquarters. Contrary to Welles’s fears, the Hollywood studios kept their distance from T.V. well into the 1950s, while many in the nascent industry saw filmed programming as inherently inferior to live broadcasting. Rather than movies, the medium’s presumed model and initial backer was radio. Radio content was dictated less by studio management than by advertisers, generally a single sponsor with a large degree of control over a given show. This was a familiar model to Welles. Following the publicity boost of the Martian scare, his radio drama show had become The Campbell Playhouse, and things had not always gone smoothly with the soup people. (“The atmosphere was stunning in its perfection,” ran their backhanded appraisal of one show, “but there was too damn much of it.”) A few years later, the sponsor of another of Welles’s radio shows was discomfited by his treatment of black guests as respected peers, and said so.
Such chafing aside, Welles had been lucky to find himself at the epicentre of the radio boom, equipped with the talent and charm to parlay that good fortune into great financial and creative opportunity. When it came to T.V., though, he was far from the action. In Europe, the war’s greater physical and economic toll had forestalled the new medium’s development. “Television is the one thing this country can’t export to Europe,” he later told the New Yorker. “In every other way, America is so deeply involved in Europe that you don’t feel cut off there.” 4 The tipping point came roughly five years later for British television than for its American counterpart, with the broadcast of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, in June, 1953. Welles was unimpressed by the signal reception available at the time, calling it “as bad as a picture of a Chinese play, in which someone brings on a chair and tells you it’s a mountain.” 5 But, that August, he gave a speech at the Edinburgh Festival that suggested he saw in the new medium the potential to reach what he called “a third audience” between populism and intellectualism, a commercially viable market for innovative, accessible work. “We have to find a way of making films—and here television may help us—by which, if two or three million people see them, we have a return for our money,” he suggested. 6
Welles’s first steps in television
Two months later, he had an opportunity to indulge his curiosity about T.V. at first hand. On October 5, 1953, he returned to America for the first time in more than six years, at the invitation of the theatre director Peter Brook. Asked to head up an edition of C.B.S.’s flagship magazine program, Omnibus, Brook saw an opportunity to realize his longstanding aspiration to collaborate with Welles. They agreed to present King Lear. Having confirmed his involvement, Welles proved characteristically inaccessible while in Europe. Some of the New York production team doubted he was coming. But as the company gathered for the first meeting at the East Fifty-Ninth Street rehearsal space, Welles strode in, right on time. “Let’s eat,” he said, “and I’ll tell you how I think Lear should be played.”
Shakespeare was familiar territory, but Welles told the New Yorker he “wanted to find out something about television here. I’ve never seen an American television show.” [Hellman, ibid.] At his suite at the Plaza, further along Fifty-Ninth Street, he consumed a nightly diet of anthology drama, comedy, talk and variety shows. The third season of I Love Lucy began the day he arrived in New York, and he saw Fireside Theater, Ford Theater, and Four Star Playhouse, along with Today and the sitcom The Life of Riley, and got his first glimpse of Perry Como. Picture quality remained a bugbear, according to one of Welles’s biographers, Frank Brady:
“Snow” seemed to fall constantly; characters appeared in triplicate; halos and shadows accompanied objects; the heads of performers were often cut off at the ears. “Good God, is this what Lear is going to look like?” he asked one of the television producers visiting him at his hotel. A new television set was ordered for his suite, but the reception was equally bad. Finally, the hotel suggested that he move from the Fifth Avenue side of the building to the Central Park side, where, they claimed, reception would be better. 7
He declined, made do, watched what was being done, and suspected he could do better.
Welles enjoyed his experience on the studio floor acting for Brook, and was impressed by the ease with which sets and cameras could be mobilized, as well as by the relative cheapness of the process. “Technologically,” he said, “television is a hundred years ahead of film.” 8 He and Brook slashed King Lear down to 74 minutes, which they persuaded the sponsor, Ford Motors, to air uninterrupted by commercial breaks—a television first. This pared-down, non-stop approach was of a piece with Welles’s Broadway productions, and, though Brook’s direction now feels stage-bound, it benefited from powerful compositions and many neat touches. The conflation of certain locales allowed for easy transitions; a small spotlight isolated Lear’s face in the darkness after Cordelia’s death.
The program attracted an impressive 15 million viewers and enthusiastic reviews. “Like a confidently patient boxer who lets his opponent flail away for eight or nine rounds and then calmly steps in to finish the fight with one blow, Orson Welles burst into television (after several years of watchful waiting) and knocked everything for a loop,” said Cue magazine. “The performance he gave as King Lear established a new high for the medium in terms of power, heart and sheer artistry.” 10 According to Frank Brady, the experiment led to Welles’s discussion of further adaptations for Omnibus—perhaps Steinbeck, Hemingway, or Cervantes. A.B.C. and N.B.C. also expressed interest, but no agreement was reached and Welles returned to Europe.
Exactly why there was no deal at this stage remains unclear, though Welles’s outstanding tax problems might have played a part. It’s tempting to wonder whether, had circumstances been different, N.B.C. might not have offered especially fertile ground. That year, 1953, Sylvester L. Weaver, Jr., became the network’s president. Under “Pat” Weaver, who had previously been vice-president in charge of television, N.B.C. made a point of testing the boundaries of the medium. “We must think,” Weaver once wrote his staff. “We must analyze. We must gamble. We must experiment.” 11 Development money went into projects with names like “Operation Frontal Lobes,” and “Operation Wisdom.” Where C.B.S. programmed soap operas in the afternoon, N.B.C. presented the Matinee Theatre, a series of dramatic offerings that the network claimed was “adding sophistication to the ordinary person’s life that was lacking before.” 12 During this period, Today and Tonight were created, innovative programming concepts initially greeted with broad scepticism. Your Show of Shows, which ran successfully from 1950 to 1954, proved that audiences were open to a mix of “high” and “low” culture, with classical readings one minute and magic tricks the next—precisely the sort of blend that Welles embraced.
Back in Europe, Welles continued to pursue his interest in television. Having already established a profile on B.B.C. radio—notably in a Third Man spin-off called The Lives of Harry Lime—he managed to secure his first B.B.C. T.V. series. Beginning transmission on April 24, 1955, Orson Welles’ Sketch Book was a series of six 15-minute programs in which he addressed the camera on a variety of themes, largely autobiographical. His monologues were intercut with sketches that he doodled on a pad as he spoke, illustrating such subjects as his teenage stage debut, his love for bullfighting, and his use of the teleprompter. (“In this particular show, of course, I don’t need a prompt as I make it up as I go along.”)
His renown for stage and screen work notwithstanding, Welles’s preferred mode of performance was expository rather than dramatic; he was always more comfortable as a talker than an actor. In television, he recognized an ideal platform. Like radio, but unlike theater or cinema, it was a personalized medium in which the performer addressed no more than the number of people with whom one could have a conversation. On T.V., Welles noted, “you’re only addressing two or three people. And above all, you’re addressing the ear.” 13 It was therefore a gift to the charismatic raconteur, and his tone in the Sketch Book was accordingly intimate, flattering, conspiratorial, always on the verge of a chuckle or a wink. This was first-person T.V., programming that made eye contact with the viewer. It was rather like having Welles over for dinner.
During the show’s run, Welles celebrated his fortieth birthday, and his third marriage, to the beautiful 27-year-old Italian aristocrat, Paola Mori. The Sketch Book was a moderate success, especially given its minimal production costs, and that summer he presented another British television series, this time for the new commercial network, I.T.V. Around the World with Orson Welles was a travelogue series, very different in form to the Sketch Book but also a showcase for Welles’s intuitive grasp of the language of television. His subjects were just as various as in the former show, but this time shown at first hand. He visited Chelsea pensioners and almshouse widows in London, proving to be as gracious a listener as he was engaging a talker. In Paris, Vienna, and the Basque country, he celebrated local tradition, individuality, and eccentricity; in Spain, he attended a bullfight, handing over main presenting duties to Kenneth Tynan and his wife, Elaine Dundy, but commentating on the actual fight in supposedly real time himself. In a program not broadcast at the time, and the source of some controversy itself, he investigated an elderly French farmer’s recent capital conviction for the murder of a vacationing British family.
Exploiting the latest technology, Welles used location shooting and synchronized sound to a degree unusual in television of the time, allowing for on-the-spot interviews alien to newsreels or broadcast news bulletins. He was among the first to make sure that the camera caught the back of his head and shoulder to establish his presence in the scene, and to use handheld, first-person shots to simulate a violent attack. And he never neglected the audience. Alternating between interview footage and cutaways recorded later on—another of his innovations—he constructed a careful nexus of eye-contact to ensure a three-way conversation between himself, his subject, and the viewer.If the Sketch Book allowed Welles to get a sense of television’s power to seduce, Around the World was where he learned its stops, felt his way around its own particular forms. But he would shoot only six of the twenty-six episodes to which he committed.
In the fall of 1955, Welles received an offer that persuaded him to make the U.S. home again. By November 25, he was in a suite at the Sulgrave Hotel on Park Avenue, chatting politely into a camera. Edward R. Murrow, cigarette in hand, was ten blocks downtown at the C.B.S. studios, where his celebrity interview show Person to Person was based. Welles introduced him to Paola, and humbly insisted on showing him, and the viewers at home, a photo of their 12-day-old daughter, Beatrice. Murrow touched on the 1938 ‘War of the Worlds’ radio broadcast and heard Welles’s thoughts on social conformism. “Orson,” Murrow said as the exchange wound up, “there’s something I’ve been wanting to ask you all evening. Do you think television has lived up to its potential?”
“Well, I don’t, Ed,” Welles replied. “No, I don’t.” He adopted the tone of a supportive but disappointed schoolteacher: terrific potential, must try harder. “It’s a medium maybe as important as the printing press was when it first popped up on the cultural horizon, and I don’t think people quite realize how important, how dangerously important it is, and how wonderfully important. I think it’s too much a medium of casual entertainment and not enough one of serious exchange of ideas. I don’t mean it should be solemn and boring and all of that, but I do think that there are new forms that haven’t even been attempted in T.V. and that ought to be. It’s solidifying and crystallizing too quickly.” 14
Less than six months later, Welles made The Fountain of Youth, broaching serious subjects without solemnity and experimenting boldly with form. “T.V. is above all a way to satisfy my predilection for telling stories, like the Arabian storytellers in the marketplace,” he later told Cahiers du Cinéma. “I adore that, myself; I never tire of hearing stories told, you know, and I make the mistake of believing that everyone has the same enthusiasm!” 15
Orson meets Lucy and Desi
Welles’s experiences at R.K.O.—the studio that backed Citizen Kane, broke up The Magnificent Ambersons, and balked at It’s All True—established the reputation that would accompany him for the rest of his life. Rightly or wrongly, he was perceived as quixotic and unaccountable, by turns profligate and inspired. Even those who admired his accomplishments would think twice about hiring him. His spell in Europe did little to improve things: an exiled king across the water to a few, Welles was more generally considered a curiosity, a has-been, or a liability. His profile as a movie actor had declined, and his own films of the period—The Lady from Shanghai, Macbeth, Othello, Mr. Arkadin—were not, to put it mildly, sympathetically treated by U.S. studios, distributors, critics, or audiences. Triumphs like the London stage production Moby Dick—Rehearsed, meanwhile, barely registered in America.
Yet for all this, Welles retained a unique international profile, a reputation for intelligence, innovation, and wit, and a yen for populism. When he returned to New York late in 1955, he seemed determined to make a go of it again in his native land, and was happy to use shows like Person to Person to promote himself. He had been invited to mount a production of King Lear at City Center, and hoped it would restore him to primacy on the American stage; he already had Ben Jonson’s Volpone in mind as a follow-up. Lear, however, proved a disaster that ended Welles’s U.S. theater career for good. Too busy directing to learn his own lines, he also broke both ankles at the start of the run in January, 1956. His attempts to perform from a wheelchair, pushed by his Fool, were not judged a success.
That February 5th, Welles appeared on Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town, gamely reciting from the production that had folded in ignominy a week earlier. The show’s other guests included Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, who were plugging their own half-cocked, over-reaching failure, Forever, Darling, the feature that dashed their movie hopes as effectively as Lear ended Welles’s theatrical ambitions. Welles had known Ball and Arnaz, he later said, since “before they met each other.” He and Ball had shared radio bills in the late 1930s, and, when he arrived at R.K.O. in 1939, she was a contract player at the studio. One of the many rumors about Welles buzzing around Hollywood at the time was the suggestion that he was homosexual, prompting the publicity department to arrange a press-friendly rendezvous. As Welles recalled it, “my official escort, given to me by the studio one night, was one of the stock girls, who was Lucille Ball. That’s how I met her first. We went to see the opening of some movie or other—I simply picked her up at her house and we went to the movie and got photographed and came home and I said ‘Good night,’ and that was the end of that. That was the end of that romance, but it was the beginning of a long friendship.” 16
Between 1934 and 1942, Ball appeared in more than 40 pictures for R.K.O., including Too Many Girls, on which she met Arnaz in June 1940. She was given occasional supporting parts in features, and leading roles in B pictures, but was not considered a particular asset. When Welles proposed her for the lead in the comedy thriller The Smiler with the Knife—one of the projects he considered before settling on Citizen Kane—he remembered being told “Lucy Ball is washed up, finished, we’re letting her go, her career is over.” 17 They would work together on radio during the war: like many movie actors, she appeared several times on C.B.S.’s Orson Welles Almanac. (In a March 1944 skit, she played his secretary, Miss Grimace. “That’ll be all,” she told him. “That’ll be all who?” he haughtily replied. “That’ll be all, Fatso.” 18) Ball’s memories of Welles were mixed. “I had a real love-hate relationship with Orson,” she said towards the end of her life. “His mind was awesome…but he was also a pain in the ass…He was so wasteful. He left a huge trail of garbage in his wake. He did it with everything. He left debts behind, wives behind, children behind, everything, as he just sailed through life.” 19
Now here they all were, together again for Ed Sullivan. Welles lined up a residency at the Riviera Hotel, Las Vegas, a characteristic combination of Shakespearean recitation and magic tricks that went down so well its run was extended from four weeks to six. Other than that, he was at a loose end, with distinctly limited opportunities in the fields for which he was famous: he had probably never seemed less appealing to film and theater producers, and radio was in decline.
Ball and Arnaz, meanwhile, headed the country’s most ambitious and successful independent television production company, Desilu. Its name—which Thornton Wilder said “sounds like the past participle of a French verb”—was, of course, derived from its founders’ forenames, and had previously been bestowed on a ranch and a yacht. The company was created in 1950, when C.B.S. was considering a television transfer of Ball’s successful radio sitcom, My Favorite Husband. The network doubted that audiences would accept a W.A.S.P.-Latino marriage, so the real-life couple established Desilu Productions to underwrite a vaudeville tour that proved C.B.S. wrong. The pilot episode of I Love Lucy, starring Ball and Arnaz as Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, was filmed in February 1951; a year later, it was the nation’s top-rated T.V. show.
I Love Lucy was formally and industrially pioneering, too. Arnaz and Ball insisted on shooting in Los Angeles, where their lives and careers were based—a demand so unusual in 1951 that C.B.S. almost dropped the program because of it. As Coyne S. Sanders and Tom Gilbert note in their history of the company, Desilu didn’t, as is sometimes suggested, pioneer the multi-camera system that became the industry standard for much T.V. production. But Lucy did offer the finest demonstration of the system’s efficacy, and was the first program to combine it with a live studio audience—another Desilu innovation, exclusive to the company until the mid-1950s. Almost as novel was its decision to film the show on 35mm, rejecting the standard practice of live broadcasting, with later transmission in other time zones made possible through kinescoping, a mediocre recording format. To assuage some of the network’s concerns about this unorthodox set-up, Desilu agreed to shoulder the start-up and production costs of I Love Lucy itself, retaining program rights in exchange. Lucy thus became one of the first shows to be owned by its creators rather than the network, and proved an enormously profitable asset once it became clear that, contrary to industry expectations, viewers were happy to watch repeats of their favorite series.
Despite his inexperience, Arnaz proved an effective and popular corporate president, and, with Lucy attracting audiences of more than 30 million in its first season, Desilu soon began launching other shows. The company also poached managerial talent from C.B.S., including Martin Leeds, who became Arnaz’s executive vice-president in 1953, effectively becoming Desilu’s chief operating officer. By early 1956, with hundreds of employees and an eight-figure turnover, the company’s standing as a major industry player was assured. Ratings for “Lucy” were holding up, but it was showing signs of creative strain, with Desi lobbying C.B.S. to switch to a one-hour, color format with an emphasis on guest stars. The previous year’s season, during which the Ricardos relocated from New York to Los Angeles, had certainly established a pattern of celebrity cameos, and the company was always open to innovative programming proposals.
When Welles crossed paths with Arnaz and Ball again that February, then, it’s easy to imagine that they discussed collaborating: Orson simply must appear on the Lucy show! Why, he’d be delighted, naturally. And, do you know, he had one or two ideas of his own. Had Lucy and Desi heard about his work for British television, by any chance…? Such exchanges would have been lubricated by the performers’ longstanding friendship, and the sentimental streak they all brought to bear on business decisions. Ball, for instance, had recruited the undistinguished Al Hall to direct Forever, Darling because, in the words of Bernard Weitzman, “she liked him and he was nice to her when she was a nobody.” 20
Weitzman, who left C.B.S. to become Desilu’s head of business and legal affairs in 1955, remembers the situation with Welles being similar. “The whole thing really came about because Lucy and Desi, when they were contract players at R.K.O., were treated very nice by Orson Welles. He had no place to go, really, and they wanted to show him the appreciation that he showed them when they were kind of down and out. So Desi said to him, ‘Come out to Desilu, we’ll do something together.’ They still had great faith and confidence that Orson was a great creator, and a star, and a genius.” Arnaz was still aware of Welles’s reputation, however, reporting in his autobiography: “I told him, ‘Orson, I know you are partly responsible for breaking R.K.O. Studios. You went to Brazil to do a picture, shot a million feet of film and never made the picture, and you couldn’t have cared less. But I am not R.K.O. This is my ‘Babalu’ money [Arnaz’s signature song], so don’t you fuck around with it.’” After that, he wrote, “I never had any trouble with Orson.” 21
Following his Las Vegas run, Welles departed for Ball and Arnaz’s Beverly Hills home. Less than a year earlier, the couple had reluctantly relocated from their beloved Desilu ranch in Chatsworth, California, to a five-bedroom white Georgian brick house at 1000 North Roxbury Drive. James Stewart, Agnes Moorehead, and José Ferrer lived on the same block. Jack Benny, their next-door neighbor, was known on occasion to pass wordlessly through their living room playing his violin. The plum trees were in blossom when Welles arrived to take up residence in the Arnazes’ guest house, a large studio space reached via a brick path that ran alongside the long lawn and swimming pool.
“It was only a few months,” Ball later told Jim Brochu, who described their friendship in the book “Lucy in the Afternoon,” “but it seemed like ten years. He had the servants hopping. He’d walk in the living room, all in black with his big cigar blowing, and scare the hell out of the kids. I heard Little Desi crying one afternoon, and I thought, ‘Orson’s home.’ ” 22 Certainly, Welles could be less house guest than force of nature; when he appeared in I Love Lucy, one character mentioned a plan “to get out of town until Mr. Welles blew over.”
In the episode, called ‘Lucy Meets Orson Welles,’ Orson is lined up to appear at Ricky’s club, doing what Ricky calls “the same act he did in Las Vegas: some Shakespeare, and, of course, his magic routine.” Orson needs a supporting performer. Despite Ricky’s best efforts, Lucy gets wind of this and volunteers, not realizing that she will be a magician’s assistant rather than a Shakespearean heroine. It was, in other words, a farce plot built around the fault lines in Welles’s own public persona—was he high artist or vaudevillian? Mostly, of course, the episode was a showcase for Ball’s comic talents. After Lucy fails to conceal her disappointment at the true nature of the gig for which she has lobbied so hard, Orson tells her she can “take it or leave it.” “I’ll take it,” she snaps, and you can see Welles break up at her perfect timing. (“I am watching the world’s greatest actress,” he had said while observing her rehearse from the wings. 23) Ball and Arnaz in turn watched Welles’s delivery of Romeo’s dying soliloquy in rapt silence.
The show’s climax saw Orson levitating “Princess Lu Si” and then leaving her spinning in air, defiantly reciting Juliet. The illusion involved the use of a couple of broomsticks. “It was the most painful experience of my life,” Ball later said. “Worse than childbirth. It felt like the broom was up my ass, and I had to stay on the goddamned thing for at least five minutes.” Nor was that the only problem with the shooting of the episode. According to Ball, Welles struggled to fit into the biggest set of tails Desilu’s costume department had to offer. “They were like big velour drapes that you used for backdrops,” she said. “It was like putting skin on a sausage. He put me on the broom for the dress rehearsal, and made some sweeping gestures and rrrrip! The tails split right up the back. There was no time to get another set…. so [the costumier] cut some black cloth and pinned it the best she could. If you look at the show, you see how self-conscious he is about turning his back to the audience. God, that show was a stinker.” 24
Welles gets to work
Welles’s initial proposal for his own project was a version of Volpone, the Ben Jonson play he had hoped would follow his City Center King Lear. It was an inventive concept, in which the actors would bring the stage equipment and set dressings on and off the set as they performed. With Arnaz on vacation at Del Mar, where he bred horses, several Desilu executives looked Welles’s script over. “And everybody said, ‘Oh my God, this is terrible’,” remembers Bernard Weitzman. “Who would ever do a thing like that? The networks certainly wouldn’t. It was a Shakespearean type script, which nobody knew about, nobody understood, and nobody really felt it would go anywhere.”
“Don’t bother me unless it’s really an emergency,” Arnaz had instructed his staff before departing. “So we called up Desi and said, ‘It’s an emergency!’ ” Weitzman recalls. The executives went to Del Mar to meet Arnaz. “You can’t do this script,” they told him. “It’s outrageous. The networks would laugh you out of the business.” Arnaz looked at it, agreed, and charged Weitzman to work with Welles to develop a more commercially viable property—perhaps an anthology drama format.
Desilu had some experience with anthology dramas built around film personalities, having shot (though not developed) The Loretta Young Show, which had begun in September, 1953, and was still going strong three years later. Another useful recent model, from outside the company, was Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which had debuted six months earlier, in October, 1955, to immediate success. Welles was perhaps the only other working director with a high enough public profile to host his own anthology series. Although they were always hit and miss, such anthologies were considered T.V.’s most prestigious format. That year, Gore Vidal, who had had his first taste of anthology writing, wrote that “the Golden Age for the dramatist is at hand,” 25 while Life magazine earlier suggested that “if William Shakespeare were alive today, he might well be writing for television.” Yet the success of these dramas was judged on theatrical or filmic terms; few explored a uniquely televisual aesthetic. The genre’s outstanding example, for instance, “Marty,” was praised as Broadway-worthy in its original T.V. incarnation, then garlanded with Oscars after being adapted for the cinema.
Arnaz recalled suggesting an alterative approach to Welles: “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.” 26 The suggestion chimed with Welles’s own ideas. He had little interest in being a conventional compère, like Hitchcock, who had introduced his own pilot by noting “I shall not act in these stories, but will only make appearances—something in the nature of an accomplice before and after the fact.” Welles fully intended to be present at the scene. As early as 1937, when he began directing radio drama, he suggested that broadcasting’s “particular amendment is the personalising of Chorus, of making him a character in the play instead of an outside character looking in.” 27 He applied this notion of the active commentator to his sophisticated trailer for Citizen Kane, and the start of The Magnificent Ambersons. He also seems to have intended it for the unfinished Brazilian documentary, It’s All True. Now he planned to give the approach free reign on the medium to which it was perhaps best suited. “I was going to be the permanent star,” he later told Cahiers du Cinéma. “Not as a host like Ronnie Reagan, coming on at the beginning and end of Death Valley Days [in 1965-66], or Hitchcock, but woven all the way through the show.” 28
Welles was full of suggestions for literary properties that might make good pilot fodder, but most were under license to major studios. Then Bernard Weitzman suggested an unoptioned short story by John Collier, ‘Youth from Vienna,’ which tickled Welles. It concerned Dr. Humphrey Baxter, an unworldly endocrinologist specializing in the “ductless glands” who falls for a Broadway ingénue, Caroline Coates, who falls right back. Humphrey departs for Vienna to pursue his research, and they plan to be married on his return, three years hence. But, as Welles knew, things can change while one is away in Europe. Humphrey returns to find that Caroline has transferred her affections to a tennis ace, Alan Brodie, whose vanity and narcissism rival her own. Displaying gracious indifference, the scientist presents to the couple as a wedding gift the fruits of his research: a phial of liquid that, he says, will grant its drinker two hundred years of healthy youth. Unfortunately, the dose is indivisible, and neither lover is quite ready to forfeit the antidote to aging…
Thanks to their cunning, simple plots, Collier’s stories would later feature on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone, and Tales of the Unexpected (which adapted ‘Youth from Vienna’ in 1983). Often lost in translation, however, was Collier’s detached, sanguine narratorial voice—something that Welles’s storytelling approach was uniquely well-placed to preserve. For instance, Welles’s script, renamed The Fountain of Youth, retained more or less verbatim Collier’s description of what happens after Humphrey leaves for Europe:
Humphrey’s boat sailed; Caroline’s play opened; she was more idolized than ever, and everyone expected her to fall in love with someone else. But the first year passed, and the second year passed, and the third year wore on, and Caroline was still faithful. There were two excellent reasons for this. She was so extremely fond of Humphrey, and she was so extremely fond of herself… 29
Welles did tweak the characters, making Humphrey a generation older than Caroline and Alan, and the words, inserting, for instance, the observation that “almost all of us wish we were just a little younger than we are.”
He already had a strong conception of how the finished program would look and feel. His flirtatious rapport with the audience would be the show’s core, but his narration would be intermingled with the characters’ dialogue—we might hear his voice when their lips moved, or vice versa. For the visuals, he proposed a combination of illustrations, still photography, and back projection. Individual moments could be expressionistically unpacked to powerful psychological effect through the use of freeze-frames, drawings and ironic juxtapositions, while transitions across time and space would be made within a single shot through simple changes in lighting, costume, or the projected backdrop. Humphrey might be standing at a pier in his hat and coat, for instance; then the lights would dim, the back-projected quayside would dissolve to a cozy interior, a waiter would appear to take Humphrey’s coat, and when the lights came up he was in a nightclub.
Nimble and witty, the approach was as keenly attuned to the quintessential qualities of television as Welles’s Fascist-themed “Julius Caesar” had been to theater, “The War of the Worlds” had been to radio, or “Citizen Kane” had been to film. Most of the individual elements had been used before, but the beguiling fluidity of Welles’s unified conception was unprecedented—as Desilu’s staff recognized. “It was a terrific script, and everybody agreed that we should do that,” says the executive, Bernard Weitzman.
Shooting The Fountain of Youth
“It was just a blow-away experience,” agrees Dann Cahn. 30 Cahn had worked with Welles a decade earlier as a junior editor on his troubled film of Macbeth. Now, he was Desilu’s supervising editor, one of the industry’s most experienced hands, and something of an innovator himself. Cahn was impressed not only by Welles’s ideas, but his thorough preparation. “He laid out in his mind a lot of the editing ahead of time. It was modified to some extent later, but he had a very clear picture of the way it was going to go, and he was right. The novelty of the way that thing is presented—no one else has really attempted that.”
Desilu was confident enough to fund the script’s production single-handed. “That was very unusual,” says Weitzman. “Generally speaking, it was too expensive for an independent company to finance pilots. One of the networks would finance it because it gives them the right to put the series on the air. With Orson, we did it without even talking to the networks. We thought we had something so special that we didn’t need their help, because Orson was the genius of the show. He didn’t want some young kid from the network to tell him, ‘I don’t like this scene, I don’t like this casting.’ We went ahead and did it our way.”
It was not an especially expensive proposition. Aiming for a tone of conversational intimacy, Welles required only a small cast, studio locations, and minimal set dressing. Personnel costs were low too, with one individual serving as producer, writer, director, star, production designer, and music supervisor. “He did everything,” Dann Cahn says. “He didn’t operate the camera, but he had a hand in the lighting, with the cinematographer, and he had a hand in the editing.” The total budget was calculated at $49,832—barely half the $95,000 the pilot for I Love Lucy had cost five years earlier.
Even under these circumstances, Welles could not entirely check his constitutional aversion to institutional accountability. One afternoon, Arnaz’s number two, Martin Leeds, took him for lunch at Romanoff’s, the Beverly Hills restaurant. Welles’s weight was a perennial problem—one cast member, perhaps uncharitably, placed him at 340 pounds—and he was on a crash diet. He polished off his meagre lunch of three balls of cottage cheese while Leeds’s meat was being carved. It took him only slightly longer, Leeds recalled, to storm out of the restaurant after being informed that, for commercial reasons, an hour-long program would be out of the question. Cahn remembers a similar lunch during production: when Leeds began discussing commercial issues, Welles stood up and left the room. “Show a top bean-counter to Orson Welles,” Cahn says, “and he’d turn away from him.”
Welles’s attitude towards executives had always been distinguished by indifference bordering on disrespect or even hostility; when the R.K.O. top brass visited the set of Citizen Kane, he famously ceased shooting and fobbed them off with card tricks. The half-hour pilot’s five-day shoot, which began on May 8, 1956, proved no exception, even if the suits in question were Welles’s old friends. Ball remembered his reluctance to communicate, while the actor Rick Jason reported that, “By the third day of shooting, a somewhat hyper, and very nervous, Desi would pop onto the stage in a spiffy sport jacket and black-and-white wing-tipped shoes, every two or three hours, smiling as broadly as he could, and call out, ‘How’s it going, Orson?’ Welles, without looking up from whatever he was doing, would dismiss him in an offhand way. ‘Fine, Desi, I’ll see you later.’ ” 31
Tall and strikingly good-looking in an angular, delicate, and slightly cruel way, Jason was a contract player at Fox with some T.V. experience when Welles called his agent regarding the role of the tennis player, Alan Brodie. The actor could barely believe his luck. “I would have given anything to work with him,” he recalled in his memoir, “and afterwards I would have given anything never to work with him again.” When they met, “he greeted me like a long-lost brother,” Jason recalled. “I couldn’t have been treated nicer, until we got on the set.” 32
In contrast to his attitude to executives, Welles generally treated even the lowliest actors with consideration and respect; in the mid-1960s, an unsuccessful auditioner wrote to the London Stage simply to praise Welles’s graciousness at an open casting call. Jason, however, considered him unnecessarily brusque, with “a maddening [habit] of walking away from you as you were in conversation with him.” At one point during the shoot, after suffering several such indignities in one day, Jason put two fingers in his mouth and sent a loud whistle after Welles’s vanishing back. The director stopped and turned. “Something the matter?” he asked. “Yes,” Jason indignantly replied. “Well, what is it? Spit it out.” “When we’re conversing, will you kindly not walk away from me?” “Was I doing that?” Welles replied absently. “Sorry. What is it you wanted?” Jason stared at him. “Nothing,” he said, and walked away.
The actor recalled another clash during the filming of the scene in which Humphrey hands the vial of liquid to Caroline and Alan. Welles shot take after take, until eventually Jason snapped. “Orson, we’ve been standing here for thirty minutes. You’ve heard of tired?” “You’re right,” Welles replied, and asked for three cane-backed chairs to be brought over. “Turn the chairs around,” he commanded before Jason could sit down. “Now then, people. Rest your hands on the chair backs and let’s do it one more time.” Eventually, they got the shot. Jason strode off the set. “You son of a bitch,” he spat as he passed Welles, who looked at him for a moment, threw his head back, and roared with laughter. “It was,” Jason thought, “the funniest thing he’d heard all day.” 33
Welles seemed to get on much better with his other young lead, the pneumatic blonde Joi Lansing. Married barely a year, with an infant daughter at home, and a twenty-year track record of compulsive sexual conquests unhindered by either of his previous marriages, Welles enjoyed Lansing’s company very much. “I could tell you specifics,” says Cahn, “about a couple of events in the projection room. I leave it to your imagination.” Certainly, Welles was sufficiently taken to cast Lansing in his next feature, Touch of Evil. Others who had worked with Welles in the past were happily reacquainted: make-up man Maurice Seiderman had got his break on Citizen Kane, while veteran vaudevillian Billy House—who played Humphrey Baxter’s friend, Morgan—had delivered a memorable turn as a store-owner in The Stranger.
Welles’s ambitious plan to use, and interact with, back-projected photographs came off as hoped. The year before, Cahn had been involved in the first such work for television—the superimposition of the car bearing I Love Lucy’s leads onto a process shot of the George Washington Bridge for the episode ‘California Here We Come!’ He was impressed by Welles’s intuitive grasp of the technique. “He virtually did the whole thing in front of a process photography screen,” Cahn recalls. “Today it would be green screen. He would go crazy with what we could do today.”
The reliance on back projection and overlapping dialogue, and execution of scene transitions through lighting and camera movement, meant that much of the editing was effectively achieved in camera. The cutting of the film began during shooting, with Welles laying his ideas out for supervising editor Cahn and his assistant, Bud Molin, and then offering detailed responses to screenings of their assemblies. Welles’s habit was to take a cab to the studio, hop out, and stride toward the screening room, calling over his shoulder: “Somebody pay him. I don’t have any money.” “Because it was Orson Welles, we were very much in awe of him,” Molin later told the Welles scholar Peter Prescott Tonguette. “He would come in and he’d sit down and then we’d say to the projectionist, ‘Okay, roll it.’ And he turned around and said, ‘You know, the only time of my life that I regret wasting is waiting for the film to start.’ So from that day on, the minute the door opened, we’d say, ‘Okay, roll it!’ and we’d let him fumble his way through the theatre!” 34
“He rarely came to the cutting room and directed the cutting,” Cahn says. “He’d come bouncing in there in the morning, or the afternoon. He’d see what you did and he was always open to a suggestion. He was never the type of creative talent that couldn’t accept anybody else’s ideas.” His aversion to institutional oversight, however, remained evident. During one editing session, Welles’s least favorite lunch companion, Martin Leeds, telephoned the cutting room. “What’s going on with Orson?” he asked Cahn. “When’s he going to finish?” Welles’s reply was weary and imperious: “I can’t take that call. No Martin Leeds exists!” Cahn opted for a more tactful reply. “He can’t speak to you now, Martin,” he remembers saying. “And that was the end of that.”
Welles paid particular attention to the music. “We had a piano in the cutting room,” Cahn recalls, “and he had this interesting guy noodling [away]. Orson would tell him to do this and that, and Orson literally wrote the score while we were cutting.” Welles believed in trying new things for the sake of it. “What happens if you turn the sticks around,” he asked a xylophone player, “and hit the keys with just the sticks, rather than the hammer?” The player didn’t know, so they tried it, liked it, and used it. Also featuring clarinet, banjo, and throbbing drums, the honky-tonk score was in keeping with the 1920s setting yet in jaunty counterpoint to the story’s graver elements.
Welles completed shooting in the five days allotted, and delivered the pilot only five thousand dollars over budget. “He stuck with it,” Cahn says. “He came in, and he stuck with it, and he finished it. That was the great thing. So many times, he wouldn’t do that on projects.” As with many of Welles’s productions, rumors of profligacy persisted, even in the absence of any supporting evidence. Ball later suggested, contrary to documentation seen by the Welles researcher Bill Krohn, that Welles took six weeks to shoot the program, and blew $10,000 on a wrap party, suggesting that it could be written off against tax. “Desi almost punched him on the nose,” Ball claimed, demanding: “ ‘How would jou know? Jou hafen’t paid your taxes in twenty-fife years.’ Orson screamed laughing. Got all red in the face. Desi started laughing. We were all holding ourselves. Once Desi and Orson started drinking, that was it. Boy, it was a great party.” 35
The accusation of fiscal irresponsibility is questionable, but there was certainly reason for good cheer: The Fountain of Youth was a revelation. True to his notion of T.V. as a storyteller’s medium, Welles’s presence permeated the show. It opened with a card simply bearing his name, followed by a black screen over which he intoned: “Orson Welles speaking.” He introduced the main characters through cutaways to still photographs (“here she is…here he is…”) and showed his mastery over the material in other ways. When a captioned shot of Vienna appeared, for instance, he walked on-screen and declared: “Wait a minute, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Before going to Vienna, Humphrey Baxter spent an evening in New York.” As he stood there, the back-projected image duly gave way to Manhattan skyscrapers.
The initial feel, then, was of a slide show or narrated photo-roman. The theater outing that gave Humphrey his first glimpse of the actress Caroline Coates played out in eight still frames. Later, when Humphrey returns from his gland research in Vienna to learn of Caroline’s change of heart, the quayside scene is shown in sixteen still shots. On hearing the terrible news, Welles tells us, “Humphrey closed his eyes,” and the final photograph becomes a moving image that shows the eyes close. The power of this simple jolt anticipated by six years the celebrated single moving image of eyes opening that Chris Marker would insert into his photo-roman, La Jetée.
Even once the characters broke into independent movement, the boundaries between story and teller remained permeable: at one point, Joi Lansing’s voice came out of Welles’s mouth; at another, the three main characters’ lips moved in sync to his narration of their entire conversation. But at moments of dramatic momentum, Welles got out of the story’s way. After ten minutes dominated by his presence came five in which he was neither seen nor heard, and the story’s climax was also played as a straight scene between the two leads.
The cast was certainly up to the task. As Caroline, Lansing was pouty and faux-ingenuous, with an undercurrent of sharp self-awareness, while Rick Jason was plausibly tetchy and self-satisfied as Alan. Television stalwart Dan Tobin judged Humphrey perfectly, balancing bitter patience with winningly impish glints—a sarcastically obsequious smile here, a knowingly wrinkled nose there. Facial expressions were repeatedly emphasized; a couple of stills even showed Tobin exaggeratedly mouthing the letters “B” and “G” when spelling a colleague’s name for Caroline.
As a film director, Welles was conspicuously uninterested in tight framing—“I stay away from close-ups when I can,” he told Peter Bogdanovich 36 —but they dominate “The Fountain of Youth.” This was, of course, in tune with the idea of television as a conversational medium: a close-up on T.V. is pretty close to inserting a life-size head into the room. A character might then seem more like a peer than an idol. Welles recognized that the medium had something of the mirror about it, and that the face was thus its ideal subject; but he also saw the narcissism implicit in this, and made that his subject too. Once Humphrey has given Caroline and Alan his trick gift, a test tube of eternal youth, the lovers place it on their mantelpiece, below a mirror. From a position behind it, we see them look at themselves, and each other, as they offer increasingly hollow declarations of self-denial. Both stay in shot, but they keep moving, swapping places, turning their backs, approaching the camera, then backing away in an intricately choreographed manoeuvre. The effect recalls the climax of “The Lady from Shanghai,” which takes place in a hall of mirrors—a tar patch of narcissism.
- Alan and Caroline ponder their wedding present, to the narrator’s amusement
The Fountain of Youth is one of Welles’s few plainly comedic undertakings, but its gaiety masks its status as a disquisition on aging and vanity. The narration refers wryly to Narcissus and Miami Beach, monkey glands and “the wistful hope of turning the clock back, or at least slowing it up a bit.” Welles himself had always seemed more interested in turning it forward, or speeding it up: he started applying old-age make-up as a five-year-old; was playing middle-aged heavies at Dublin’s Gate Theatre aged 16; and was on the cover of Time magazine aged 22, costumed as the 88-year-old Captain Shotover from George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House. Charles Foster Kane was only the most familiar example of his playing beyond his years on film. Now in his forties, Welles was aware of “the simple truth…that I am not getting any younger”—the justification he had offered the readers of the New York Times earlier that year for why he should play the crumbling patriarch Lear. Now he laid the sound of a ticking clock over several scenes in his pilot—an emblem of mortality he would reprise for the opening sequence of Touch of Evil, which culminates in Joi Lansing’s character being blown to smithereens. The ticking in The Fountain of Youth is not associated with a bomb, but its implication is no less fatal.
At the start of the show, Welles proposes a kind of stasis. “How would you like to stay just as young as you are and not to grow a day older for the next two hundred years? No, I’m not plugging some new miracle cosmetic, the question is actually faced by the characters in our story…” Later, Alan expresses his resentment of Caroline in precisely the language normally used to plug cosmetics: “You’re not gazing at me with love,” he splutters, “you’re examining me for enlarged pores, and wrinkles, and sagging tissues!” Welles was not simply satirizing the language of commercials; his ideas were diametrically opposed to the values that they promoted and exploited. Like Welles, the advertising industry recognized the aptness of the human face to televisual expression, but it sought to glamorize it, and insisted that the viewer could buy a piece of what Humphrey calls “our little immortality.” In counterpoint, The Fountain of Youth uses the human face as a memento mori.
The program’s most disturbing sequence, toward the end, sees Caroline’s head silhouetted against images that illustrate her anxieties about aging. As the clock ticks, her glamorous publicity shot fades into a series of anatomical drawings: one of a normal face with some blood vessels exposed; then one showing the muscles; then the nerves. Welles speaks over the sequence, quoting Collier:
She stood and watched her reflection, and, in the stillness and silence of the apartment, she could feel and almost hear the remorseful erasures of time. Moment after moment, particles of skin wore away, hair follicles broke, splintered, and decayed, like the roots of dead trees. All those little tubes and lines of threadlike chains in the inner organs were silted up like doomed rivers. And the glands, the all-important glands were choking and clogging and falling apart.
The image turns to a skull, and Caroline screams. Revlon and Maybelline would not be lining up to offer sponsorship.
Within Desilu, the show was greeted with almost unanimous admiration. “Martin Leeds thought it was crazy,” supervising editor Dann Cahn recalls, but Ball and Arnaz “were thrilled with it.” So was Bernard Weitzman, the executive who had first suggested John Collier’s story to Welles. “What did I think of it?” he says. “Unusual. Spectacular. Way ahead of its time. Everybody was very happy with the results. We thought it would be very important for Desilu Productions—it would give us another feather in our cap.” The company’s investment in the program seemed sound. “Its commercial prospects we thought would be terrific,” Weitzman says.
A strange situation
The networks and advertisers were also impressed. “This is the greatest pilot I have ever seen,” Hubbell Robinson, head of programming for C.B.S. in New York, told Arnaz. “It’s the only innovation I’ve seen in television in years. Tell Orson it’s brilliant…But…will the average viewer understand it?” Arnaz, according to his autobiography, robustly defended the show’s accessibility (“You understood it, didn’t you, Hubbell?”), and C.B.S. tentatively assigned a slot. General Foods expressed interest in sponsoring the show, but, Arnaz recalled, “they began to have trouble with Orson about whether he was going to do thirty-eight weeks, thirty weeks or what. It’s kind of hard to pin Orson down. Everybody got scared and the show never went on the air as a series.” 37
“You couldn’t help but admire what he did,” says Bernard Weitzman, “particularly when you read the credits.” The final card read: “Screenplay, musical arrangement, the production designed, and directed by: Orson Welles”. “I mean,” Weitzman asks, “what was left to do?” The problem, Desilu discovered, was that the image of Welles as single-handed genius now inspired unease rather than excitement. “The networks and the advertising agencies had heard so much negative stories about Orson Welles they never believed that he could duplicate this show again, particularly on a weekly basis,” says Weitzman. “They’d say, ‘Mm, you know, we’d love to have it if it was somebody other than Orson Welles. He doesn’t know much about television, and we don’t really trust him. He didn’t pay his taxes, they shipped him out of the country, and what did he do when he was in Europe? He did a couple of things, but nothing comparable to Citizen Kane.’ ”
Institutional accountability was a non-negotiable requirement for any potential backer, and by the time television was established as a major medium, Welles’s credit in that department was bad. “Orson was one of these people who’s so bright and so much of a genius that he wanted to do it his way,” says Weitzman. “And if you want to do it your way, you’ve got to have a series of successes now, as opposed to the past. Once you go into a series of failures, I don’t care who you are, nobody wants to touch you.” Desilu’s mistake was not to anticipate this and downplay Welles’s responsibility. Any potential client’s first question, Weitzman says, would be: “ ‘Who’s your show-runner?’ Orson Welles was the show-runner because he didn’t have anybody else on the show except him! We should have said, ‘Look, we’ve got Orson Welles, but we’ve got this guy and this lady, this one’s a writer, this one’s a director. Here’s our team to support Orson. But we didn’t do that. It was as much our fault as it was Orson’s.”
Despite the continued efforts of the company, no backer was ever found. Years later, Welles recalled, “they finally got some kind of nibble. And I said, ‘I’ve just forgotten… It’s too late now.’ ” 38 Like so much of his career, the program stands as both inspiration and cautionary tale. “It was brilliant because of Orson, but we couldn’t sell it because of Orson,” Weitzman says. “It was a strange situation.”
The Fountain of Youth was broadcast once, on September 16, 1958, as one of several abortive pilots aired on N.B.C.’s Colgate Palmolive Theatre. As a result, it won a Peabody Award for Creative Achievement, and remains the only unsold pilot with that distinction. “Once you’ve seen it, you’ll know why it was never bought,” read the preview in the New York World-Telegram and Sun. “It’s too daring, imaginative and funny to be confused with the stodgy fare they think TV audiences want.” 39 The paper’s review the following morning was even more enthusiastic. It ran under the headline: “Orson Welles, TV Needs You.” 40
Television ossifies; Welles’s ideas about it do not
When Desilu chose to back The Fountain of Youth, there was still a chance that something radical could find a place in the ecosystem of American television. That soon changed. In September, 1956, Pat Weaver, the visionary, experimental president of N.B.C., was forced out. His eventual replacement, Robert E. Kintner, announced his intention “basically to create what we call a schedule of meat-and-potatoes,” founded in unchallenging content that would deliver high ratings and satisfy sponsors. Matinee Theatre—the show that was meant to add sophistication to the ordinary person’s life—gave way to afternoon soaps, the Sunday afternoon public-interest slot to football. On the day that The Fountain of Youth was broadcast in 1958, the president of C.B.S. used a speech to the Pittsburgh Advertising Club to insist that the “many who say that television is all quizzes and Westerns don’t know what they are reporting.”
In the late 1950s, A.B.C. overtook N.B.C. in the ratings for the first time, with a schedule of Westerns, crime, and Disneyland. Its success was transitory, but its model of competitive populism endured, along with its canny tactic of appealing to advertisers on the basis not of an audience’s size, but its demographics. More and more programming was calculated to appeal to the sponsors’ preferred sector, the young—or those who wished they were just a little younger than they were. Writing in Esquire in 1959, Welles described T.V. as “a branch of the advertising business,” and a penny-pinching one at that: “If there’s any conspicuous waste in this new industry it’s only in the area of talent.” 41 Formal innovation was discouraged. “Who,” Variety asked in 1960, “has dared come forward with one new form in television entertainment in recent years?” 42 By the middle of the 1960s, the network model that would hold sway for the rest of the century—a rigid prime-time schedule of formulaic genre programming—was firmly entrenched, and The Fountain of Youth was the fossilized record of an evolutionary dead end. Little wonder the women at that party in Burbank found it so unappealing.
Neither his pilot’s failure nor the industry’s ossification extinguished Welles’s enthusiasm for T.V. In the months following his work at Desilu, he spent $17,000 of his own money planning a series about Winston Churchill and making an illustrated essay on Alexandre Dumas. “I wanted to do a series of half-hour portraits of people,” he later told Peter Bogdanovich. “Nobody would have any part of it.” [Welles & Bogdanovich, p.290] The following year, after the studio ejected him from the editing suite on Touch of Evil, he went to Mexico to shoot a T.V. version of Don Quixote—a project he would continue working and reworking, without completion, until he died. In 1958, he once again left America for Europe, partly to shoot a program for A.B.C., some of whose executives had seen The Fountain of Youth at the Ball and Arnaz home on North Roxbury Drive. The network rejected the playful, impressionistic portrait of Gina Lollobrigida that Welles created in Italy, alarmed at his expenditure and unaccountability, and the unorthodox result. In the early 1960s, he made Spanish travelogues for Italian T.V.; at the end of the decade, he shot broad character-comedy skits in England unlike anything in his work for cinema. Many of his last completed films, including The Immortal Story, F for Fake, and Filming ‘Othello,’ originated as television projects. The last two, hailed on their release as indicative of a bold new direction, drew heavily on the T.V. grammar he had developed two decades earlier.
By the time Welles died, on October 10, 1985, he felt his earliest fears about the uses of television had come to pass, with the conservative, commercial imperatives of the networks eclipsing the medium’s potential to challenge and stimulate. “You don’t assist television,” he complained, “it’s just on. Sadat is killed and Lux soap is used and people sit eating food while another soldier bleeds to death in Lebanon and it’s unreal.” 43
Yet by then, many younger people most strongly associated Welles himself with not film, radio, or theatre, but T.V., in the form of talk shows, voice-overs and advertising—the “tripe” about which he complained to Edward R. Murrow three decades earlier. The industry found ways to use Welles’s skills as a raconteur, and he was happy to capitalize on his fame. In this respect, T.V. appearances took the place of movie cameos in his unorthodox personal economy, a means of funding the heartfelt artistic enterprises that he never stopped pursuing, even as they grew harder and harder to realize. His own television projects remained among these, but he never managed to gain a purchase on the medium in the way that other inventive minds did—minds more willing to come to terms with institutional requirements, and less burdened by reputation.
No one can say what contribution Welles might have made to the revolutionized home entertainment landscape that has taken shape since his death, but the echoes of his ideas can sometimes be heard there. Filming ‘Othello,’ for instance, is a D.V.D. commentary track avant la lettre. In 1978, he made a talk show pilot, with guests including Burt Reynolds and the Muppets, whose self-reflexive tone has certain similarities to H.B.O.’s The Larry Sanders Show. With the advent of V.H.S., he anticipated the straight-to-video market and pitched a King Lear composed mainly of close-ups that would “get back to the business of talking directly with the audience.” (Neither proposal found backing.) Many music videos offer fluid visuals that take their cue from the soundtrack, not unlike The Fountain of Youth, while Welles’s conception of storytelling resonates with the approach of N.P.R.’s This American Life (now also on Showtime), even down to the risk of the teller obstructing the tale.
Welles would perhaps have stood to gain the most from subscription cable television, whose more adventurous commissioning strategies have fertilized culturally ambitious programming of a kind that still remains unsustainable on conventional network terms. The closest recent analogue to Welles’s Desilu pilot is Arrested Development, a densely constructed sitcom that also used still photography and ironic juxtaposition, and combined knowing narration with jaunty music. It received huge critical acclaim but limited support from its network, Fox. In 2006, it was cancelled midway through its third season.
Such echoes, both formal and institutional, can be heard online, too. There, the notion of the small screen as a conversational conduit has been realized more literally than Welles could have anticipated: webcam exchanges play out across the globe in the same key of one-to-one intimacy pioneered in Orson Welles’ Sketch Book. He would probably have relished the diminution of corporate power that the file-sharing age has brought about, and celebrated the ways digital technology has facilitated the creation of new forms, and the rediscovery of neglected work. He always had faith in the ability of the audience to make wise choices. Thanks to YouTube, The Fountain of Youth is currently available to any online viewer within seconds, half a century after Welles set out to communicate his ideas about home entertainment to a mass audience. It hasn’t aged a bit.
Arnaz, Desi (1976). A Book. New York: William Morrow.
Baughman, James L. (2007). Same Time, Same Station: Creating American Television, 1948-1961 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007)
Bazin, André, Orson Welles: A Critical View (Harper & Rowe, 1978)
Bazin, André, and Charles Bitsch, ‘Interview with Orson Welles (I),’ Cahiers du CinémaJune, 1958 (trans. Alisa Hart in Estrin, cited in ‘Books’ below)
Ball, Lucille, Love, Lucy (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1996)
Berg, Chuck & Tom Erskine, eds, The Encyclopedia of Orson Welles (Checkmark, 2003)
Brady, Frank, Citizen Welles (Scribner’s, 1989)
Brochu, Jim, Lucy in the Afternoon: An Intimate Memoir of Lucille Ball (Wm Morrow, 1990)
Callow, Simon, Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu (Jonathan Cape, 1995); Orson Welles: Hello Americans (Penguin, 2007)
Collier, John, ‘Youth from Vienna’ in Fancies and Goodnights (Time Life Books, 1965), pp299-324
Conrad, Peter, Orson Welles: The Stories of His Life (Faber, 2003)
Cowie, Peter, The Cinema of Orson Welles (A.S. Barnes, 1973)
Drössler, Stefan (ed.), The Unknown Orson Welles (Munich Filmmuseum, 2004)
Estrin, Mark W., ed., Orson Welles Interviews (University Press of Mississippi, 1992)
Godbout, Oscar, ‘TV to Offer Story by Dostoevski,’ The New York Times, May 8, 1956
Goldenson, Leonard H., Beating the Odds (Scribner, 1991)
Hellman, Geoffrey T., ‘Le Gros Légume,’ The New Yorker, October 24, 1953
Heylin, Clinton, Despite the System: Orson Welles versus the Hollywood Studios (Chicago Review Press, 2005)
Higham, Charles, Orson Welles: The Rise and Fall of an American Genius (St. Martin’s Press, 1985); Lucy: The Life of Lucille Ball (St. Martin’s Press, 1986)
James, Caryn, ‘Welles’s Chance to Make Television Do His Bidding,’ The New York Times, March 26, 2000
Jason, Rick, Scrapbooks of My Mind: A Hollywood Autobiography (Strange New Worlds, 2000), also available at http://www.scrapbooksofmymind.com/orson_welles_and_feet_of_clay.htm
Kanfer, Stefan, Ball of Fire: The Tumultuous Life and Comic Art of Lucille Ball (Knopf, 2003)
Kleiner, Dick, ‘Orson Welles Epic Daring, Imaginative,’ New York World-Telegram and Sun, September 16, 1958
Krohn, Bill, ‘My Favourite Mask Is Myself,’ Cahiers du Cinéma, February, 1982 (expanded English-language version in Drössler, cited in ‘Books’ above)
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McBride, Joseph, Orson Welles (Da Capo Press, 1996, 2nd edn.); Whatever Happened to Orson Welles? (University Press of Kentucky, 2006)
Naremore, James, The Magic World of Orson Welles (Oxford University Press, 1989, 2nd edn.)
Rosen, George, ‘Television’s West Side Story,’ Variety, November 13, 1957; ‘TV’s Illegitimate Theatre,’ Variety, June 15, 1960
Rosenbaum, Jonathan, Discovering Orson Welles (University of California Press, 2007); This Is Orson Welles (Da Capo, 1998, 2nd edn., with Orson Welles & Peter Bogdanovich)
Sanders, Coyne Steven & Tom Gilbert, Desilu: The Story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz (HarperCollins, 1993)
Seldes, Gilbert, ‘A Clinical Analysis of TV,’ The New York Times Magazine, November 25, 1954
Sheehan, Harry, ‘TV as Snowglobe,’ Film Comment, January, 1992
Sterling, Christopher H. & John M. Kittross, Stay Tuned: A Concise History of American Broadcasting (Wadsworth, 1990, 2nd edn.)
Thomas, François & Jean-Pierre Berthomé, Orson Welles at Work (Phaidon, 2008)
Thomson, David, Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles (Little, Brown, 1996)
Tonguette, Peter Prescott, Orson Welles Remembered: Interviews with his Actors, Editors, Cinematographers and Magicians (McFarland, 2007)
Van Horne, Harriet, ‘Orson Welles, TV Needs You,’ New York World-Telegram and Sun, September 17, 1958
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Out of Darkness. Dir. Albert Wasserman, 1956, C.B.S. Continental Classroom
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Working with Orson Welles. 2000, Museum of Television and Radio Seminar Series
Welles remains at the center of a lively research community, and I was lucky to be able to discuss my ideas with such experts as Catherine Benamou, Simon Callow, Bill Krohn, Jonathan Rosenbaum, and Peter Prescott Tonguette, though our conversations are not quoted above. Peter Bogdanovich, for many years a friend and collaborator of Welles’s as well as a director in his own right, was also generous and helpful. Bill Krohn has written about financial documentation related to The Fountain of Youth that he was able to see, off the record, some years ago.
Although the production took place more than fifty years ago, I was able to speak to people directly involved in it. Desilu’s supervising editor, Dann Cahn, participated in an oral history project organised by the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, which was able to pass his contact details on to me. Through publicly available listings information, I located Bernard Weitzman, a senior Desilu executive at the time The Fountain of Youth was made, and Sandra Delaney, a Desilu employee with memories of the production’s equivocal status within the company. All three were patient and generous, and provided invaluable insiders’ perspectives on the story.
This article originated as the thesis for my Master of Arts in Journalism, and was submitted in 2008 to the Journalism School, Columbia University. I greatly benefited from the perceptive advice of my course leaders, Alisa Solomon and David Hajdu, and thesis advisors, Melissa Harris, editor of Aperture, and Mark Harris, who writes for Entertainment Weekly and recently published a book about American cinema of the late 1960s, Pictures at a Revolution. They were both essential to the overall structure and style of the thesis. At the redrafting stage, I also benefited from the suggestions of writer and journalist friends, including Emma Brockes, Chris Hogg, Michael Shaw, J.M. Tyree, and Jessica Winter, and Fabio Periera, whose insight, patience and support were of immeasurable help throughout the year.
- Interview with the author, February 29, 2008. ↩
- Interview with the author, November 29, 2007. ↩
- James L. Baughman, Same Time, Same Station: Creating American Television, 1948-1961 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007), p.91. ↩
- Geoffrey T. Hellman, ‘Le Gros Légume,’ The New Yorker, October 24, 1953, p.27-28. ↩
- Charles Higham, Orson Welles: The Rise and Fall of an American Genius (St. Martin’s Press, 1985), p353. ↩
- Orson Welles, ‘The Third Audience’, Sight and Sound, January 1954, p.121. ↩
- Frank Brady, Citizen Welles (Scribner’s, 1989), p.476. ↩
- Brady, p.477. ↩
- Welles in the CBS Omnibus production of King Lear. ↩
- Barbara Leaming, Orson Welles (Viking, 1985), p.390. ↩
- Thomas Whiteside, ‘The Communicator’, The New Yorker, October 16, 1954, p.46. ↩
- Baughman, p.103. ↩
- Cahiers du Cinéma, ‘Interview with Orson Welles (I)’, André Bazin and Charles Bitsch, June, 1958, trans. Alisa Hart in ed. Mark W. Estrin (ed.), Orson Welles Interviews (University Press of Mississippi, 1992), p.44. ↩
- Person to Person, C.B.S. Television, November 25, 1955. ↩
- Cahiers du Cinéma, ‘Interview with Orson Welles (I)’, p.44. ↩
- Bill Krohn, ‘My Favourite Mask Is Myself’, Cahiers du Cinéma, February, 1982 (expanded English-language version in Stefan Drössler (ed.), The Unknown Orson Welles (Munich Filmmuseum, 2004), p.59). ↩
- This Is Orson Welles, Orson Welles & Peter Bogdanovich with Jonathan Rosenbaum, (Da Capo, 2nd edition, 1998), p33. ↩
- Simon Callow, Orson Welles: Hello Americans (Penguin, 2007), p.204. ↩
- Brochu, p.149. ↩
- Interview with author, April 11, 2008. All Weitzman quotations from same source. ↩
- A Book, Desi Arnaz (William Morrow, 1976), p.307. ↩
- Lucy in the Afternoon: An Intimate Memoir of Lucille Ball (Wm Morrow, 1990), p.150. ↩
- Stefan Kanfer, Ball of Fire: The Tumultuous Life and Comic Art of Lucille Ball (Knopf, 2003), p.306. ↩
- Brochu, p.116. ↩
- ‘Writing Plays for Television,’ in Homage to Daniel Shays: Collected Essays, 1952-1972 (Random House, 1972), p.33. ↩
- Arnaz, p.305. ↩
- Simon Callow, Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu (Jonathan Cape, 1995), p.373. ↩
- Krohn, p.61. ↩
- John Collier, ‘Youth from Vienna’, in Fancies and Goodnights (Time Life Books, 1965), p.303. ↩
- Interview with author, February 1, 2008. All quotations from Cahn from this and a subsequent interview with author, February 19, 2008. ↩
- Rick Jason, Scrapbooks of My Mind: A Hollywood Autobiography (Strange New Worlds, 2000), also available at http://www.scrapbooksofmymind.com/orson_welles_and_feet_of_clay.htm ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Peter Prescott Tonguette, Orson Welles Remembered: Interviews with his Actors, Editors, Cinematographers and Magicians (McFarland, 2007), p.34. ↩
- Brochu, p.151. ↩
- Bogdanovich & Welles, p.22. ↩
- Arnaz, p.306 ↩
- Krohn, p.60. ↩
- Dick Kleiner, “Orson Welles Epic Daring, Imaginative,” New York World-Telegram and Sun, September 16, 1958. ↩
- Harriet Van Horne, “Orson Welles, TV Needs You, New York World-Telegram and Sun, September 17, 1958. ↩
- Orson Welles, “Twilight in the Smog,” Esquire, March, 1959. ↩
- George Rosen, “TV’s Illegitimate Theatre,” Variety, June 15, 1960. ↩
- Welles & Bogdanovich, p.451. ↩
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