“Director Danny Wu takes us back to the 1940s with a collection of stories leading to the year 1947. Most notably exploring the life and politics of Orson Welles from his days at the Todd School for Boys in Woodstock, Illinois, to his shocking decision to leave for Europe in the prime of his career.” So says the IMDB synopsis, but there is a story about Civil Rights pioneer Isaac Woodard and Japanese interment in WWII also shoe-horned into this interesting documentary.
Chinese director Danny Wu can (and has) done it all. He is listed as a producer, director, cinematographer, editor on this 102 minute documentary and apparently did everything except the music, which is credited to Sean William. The Canadian picture was akin to watching one of the documentaries that Ken Burns releases, which inform us and educate us while entertaining us. The documentary was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Austin Film Festival; it was released October 20th in the U.S.
There is so much information crammed into this film that explains some of the enduring cache of “Citizen Kane,” long regarded as one of the best (if not THE best) films of all time. I came away feeling that it wasn’t just the quality of “Citizen Kane,” —-although, for a director releasing his first picture, the excellence was astounding—but the crucifixion of Orson Welles at the hands of William Randolph Hearst and J. Edgar Hoover, finally leading to his exile from his native land for the last 20 years of his life, that may account for some of the enduring popularity of “Citizen Kane.”
For me, the realization of how politics shaped the world’s reception to “Citizen Kane” was akin to the realization that Elizabeth Taylor deserved to win an Oscar, but probably not for “Butterfield 8.” Why then, did Taylor win in 1960, when she didn’t win in 1957, 1958, or 1959 (“Raintree County,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “Suddenly, Last Summer.”) Explanation: she nearly died just prior to her win in 1960 and suffered a tracheotomy. Was her role as Oscar-worthy in “Butterfield 8” as it was in “Raintree County,“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” or “Suddenly, Last Summer?” No. Politics entered the decision.
In Orson Welles’ case, born in 1915 in Kenosha, Wisconsin, he was exceptional early on. His mother’s death when he was 9 and his alcoholic father’s death at 15 left him in the care of the Todd School at a time when its new director, Roger Hall, had taken the boys’ school in a very progressive direction. The school had a very good drama department and young Orson excelled at acting and directing and became the drama department head’s right hand man while very young.
Following his schooling, the young Orson went to Ireland and was hired to be the villain (Jew Suess) in a production at the well-regarded Gate drama school. While the job did not last, later, at a cocktail party hosted by the University of Chicago, he met Thornton Wilder and, when telling Wilder about himself, learned that the playwright had seen the performance and been quite impressed by it. Wilder put him in touch with drama mavens Katharine Cornell and Alexander Woolcott and his performance in a Shakespeare play was seen by John Houseman, who believed in him deeply. Orson Welles’ early luck was quite fortuitous.
However, Orson Welles’ early good luck would turn to bad luck when media baron William Randolph Hearst took offense at “Citizen Kane,” feeling it was modeled on his own life. With the assistance of J. Edgar Hoover, Hearst began a campaign to attack Welles’ reputation. The fact that the attack was largely political is supported by the fact that an FBI file on Welles was not opened after the world famous Mercury Theater “War of the Worlds” broadcast, which made Welles an international celebrity. The file did not start after that October 30th, 1938 broadcast, but, instead, in 1941, when Hearst had become more and more disenchanted with FDR, especially FDR’s plans for a graduated income tax, which Hearst vehemently opposed.
Welles was a big supporter of FDR and, in fact, once stood in for him in a debate with opponent Thomas Dewey. It was Orson Welles who gave an eloquent eulogy at FDR’s funeral. FDR’s WPA project, which gave the arts in the United States $6 million 700 thousand dollars to put unemployed Depression-era citizens back to work, was a great impetus to painters and actors and artists of all kinds in the U.S. During the WPA’s hey day, Welles was put in charge of the Negro Theater at the age of 19 and produced a historic version of Macbeth with a huge cast.
Unfortunately, one of the victims of Hearst’s wrath, was the WPA funding, which fell victim to Hearst’s conservative beliefs. Hearst had originally supported FDR for the presidency, but he had fallen out of love with FDR; the axing of the money for the arts was offered up to placate Hearst. Hearst also blocked “Citizen Kane” from appearing in any of the theaters he owned, and that ultimately led to the film incurring a loss of $150,000 as a result of being available in so few theaters of the day.
Nelson Rockefeller approached Welles, soon after he had filmed (but not edited) his second movie, “The Magnificent Ambersons,” to travel to Brazil and do a somewhat light-hearted look at Brazil at Carnival time in Rio. This was part of FDR’s concerns about Latin America possibly selecting the wrong side to support in WWII.
Welles thought he would be able to edit his second film while in Brazil, but things were taking a turn for the worse and he was not only evicted from his Mercury Theater but the studio—which was supposed to have given him Final Cut on all his film projects—took over his second film and ruined it. There had also been a change of ownership at the top of RKO and the previous head of the studio, who had stood behind Welles’ auteur-ship, was replaced by a hostile force.
All of Welles’ previous good luck seems to have turned to bad luck after “Citizen Kane” and, with the formation of the House Unamerican Activities Committee, with 4 screenwriters actually sent to jail and many others hounded about Communist ties, Welles saw the writing on the wall. Famous names like Ring Lardner, Jr., and Dalton Trumbo had their lives ruined. Orson decamped for Italy for an acting role and remained there for the rest of his life.
At this point, two other documentary topics enter the Orson Welles story. One of them is fairly well-connected, because the abuse of Isaac Woodard, a decorated soldier in the Pacific theater in World War II, was a cause that Welles took up at the request of the NAACP.
Woodard was in uniform and riding a bus in the South, when he asked to use the rest room on the bus. The driver objected, based on the “whites only” Jim Crow laws of the time. Welles was opposed to all such racial inequality and began broadcasting the story of Isaac Woodard on his radio show, reading Woodard’s affidavit to the police on July 18, 1946, aloud and continuing to inform the U.S. public about Woodard’s ordeal (until Welles lost his radio show and was removed from the air in October of 1946, a continuation of Hearst’s persecution.).
Woodard continued on the bus to the next stop (after his bathroom request) where police confronted him and asked him if he was still in the Army. Unfortunately, he admitted that he had just been mustered out; the police who confronted him beat him and gouged out his eyes, blinding him. Welles campaigned to find out the name of the assailant (Lynwood Shull), but the kangaroo Southern court took only 20 minutes to acquit the assailant, falsely claiming that Woodard had been “drunk and disorderly.”
Welles was also instrumental in the benefit concert for Woodard, at which performers like Nat King Cole, Billie Holliday and Joe Louis sold 36,000 tickets, turning away another 10,000 would-be attendees. The money raised helped Isaac Woodard to start a foundation to fight for racial equality. Julian Bond—a hero of the Civil Rights movement of the Sixties—said that Isaac Woodard was a true originator of the Civil Rights movement that consumed the 60s.
This nominee for the Grand Jury Award at the Austin Film Festival does lose its way a bit when, into the mix of Orson Welles’ career and his assistance to black Civil Rights pioneer Isaac Woodard an entire segment about the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima and the interment of Japanese American citizens during World War II is inserted.
The information was riveting and interesting, involving, as it did, the eye witness testimony of a Japanese American survivor of the Hiroshima blast who was at the very epicenter, yet survived with his brother and his grandparents. It detracts from the focus of the film. The film is supposed to be primarily about the career and times of Orson Welles. The Japanese interment during WWII deserves a documentary of its own. Its inclusion and the testimony of the Hiroshima eye witness, one of the few survivors at the epicenter of the blast, seems to lack focus.
Having said that, the documentary is a terrific achievement to have gathered all this archival footage and all the testimony of the best scholars and authors who have written about Welles. I couldn’t help but think of the appearance of Peter Bogdanovich at the Chicago International Film Festival in 2018. He was there with Orson Welles‘ long-delayed film The Other Side of the Wind, which was filmed in the 1970s and featured a prominent supporting role by Boganovich. Bogdanovich had long hoped to complete it, was released by Netflix to critical acclaim and shown at that year’s Chicago International Film Festival. Bogdanovich, who began life as a film historian, would have been a great interview subject for Director Wu, but, unfortunately died in January of 2022 from Parkinson’s Disease at the age of 82.
“American: An Odyssey to 1947,” through rare archival footage and 3D modeling, immerses the audience in the era. We do discover much about one of cinema’s most iconic directors, and how he shaped the culture of Hollywood. The information about his enlightened views on race relations were welcome, but the Japanese segment needs (and deserves) its very own documentary, my only criticism of an excellent and absorbing documentary.