On The Trail Of Film Icon Orson Welles

12 May 2015
Read Time: 4.8 mins

“It isn’t enough to tell us what a man did. You’ve got to tell us who he was.”

These two lines from Citizen Kane chime with special resonance on this particular Wednesday. The film in question – the 1941 cinematic cornerstone regularly cited as one of the greatest movies ever made – is, of course, a semi-fictitious look back at the life of a newly deceased newspaper magnate.

But it is the star whose performance gave the story such enduring power who takes centre stage in this latest edition of May 6. Happy Birthday Orson Welles, actor, director, matinee idol – who would have turned 100 today.

An entire century is, to state the obvious, a sizeable chunk of time – but not so sizeable that it is no longer possible to trace Welles’s tale in the places which framed his existence.

Far from it, in fact – although you might, perhaps, need to be a genuine obsessive to seek him out where it all began. He was born in Kenosha, a small city in the south-eastern corner of Wisconsin – so close to the Illinois state line that you can practically see the skyscrapers of Chicago gleaming in the distance, some 60 miles to the south.

 Kenosha, with its distinctive red lighthouse has never forgotten its famous son (Image: Getty)

A plaque outside a smart blue-painted brick house at 6116 Seventh Avenue recalls that young Orson came into being here, in an upstairs flat – when the address was 463 Park Avenue.

Beyond this, there is little to see – mainly because Welles was gone by the time he was five years old, off to Chicago to endure a traumatic childhood – his parents having separated shortly after his birth, his mother fated to die of hepatitis when he was nine.

However, Kenosha is rightfully proud of its most famous son, and is staging a month of events to mark his milestone.

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The Day America Panicked

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These will include a “Trivia Crawl” of downtown locations designed to celebrate key moments of his life – and the opportunity to scrawl chalk aliens on the pavement in colourful tribute to The War Of The Worlds, and the day which, according to legend, sent America into a desperate panic.

That was October 30 1938 and an autumn evening when the skies over New York seemed to be choked by more than clouds. Welles lent his deep baritone to an inventive reading of HG Wells’s classic science fiction yarn – where a plot which describes the invasion of Earth by extraterrestrial forces was cleverly delivered as a running news bulletin.

The ensuing terror – an America sitting appalled in front of the wireless in the kitchen, utterly convinced that the end was nigh – has certainly been overplayed in the subsequent decades (this was, after all, a radio show on one station, CBS).

But the image of the entire United States united in fear would only burnish Welles’s reputation as a gifted performer.

 War Of The Worlds - Welles's reading of the iconic H.G. Wells story stopped America (Image: Getty)

You can still walk past the site where the recording took place, at 485 Madison Avenue, at the heart of the Big Apple – a sturdy brick structure which was then the Columbia Broadcasting Building.

But the fuss over “alien attacks” would help take Welles to more distant destinations. Not least Austria. His ghost still haunts Vienna, which made so evocative a setting for The Third Man.

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Vienna's World Of Harry Lime

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While much of this taut 1949 drama was shot at Shepperton Studios in London, Vienna hosted six weeks of principal photography in the November and December of 1948, and Welles flitted through the shadows as the elusive Harry Lime.

Sixty-seven years on, Vienna Walks offers a guided tour (Mondays and Fridays at 4pm; €18 - A$25.50) of the relevant dots on the city map – Josefsplatz, where Lime has an apartment; the Reichsbrucke suspension bridge; the Wiener Riesenrad, the giant ferris wheel which has stood as a slowly rotating symbol of the city since 1897, in the Wurstelprater theme park.

And yet, Welles lingers most noticeably, not on the shores of Lake Michigan, or in the sewers of the Austrian capital – but on a golden portion of America’s west coast.

By the time of The Third Man, he was a major celebrity – though not necessarily thanks to Citizen Kane. His first lead film role (and his directorial debut to boot) was a commercial failure when released, but it grew into a classic, thanks, in part, to its subject matter.

 Hearst filled his castle with European art treasures (Image: Getty)

Here was a thinly veiled portrait of an eccentric, domineering media potentate – not so much the Charles Foster Kane of the title as William Randolph Hearst, the all-powerful figure who bestrode the American newspaper world in that era.

And where Kane built Xanadu, a palatial home fictionally set on the Gulf Coast of Florida, Hearst had created La Cuesta Encantada, a stately hideaway – now better known as Hearst Castle – on a lonely bluff above the ragged flank of central California, some 230 miles (370 kilometres) north-west of Los Angeles.


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Stroll In The Footsteps Of The Old Time Stars

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It is still there at San Simeon, open to outsiders as a curious mish-mash of architectural styles – an almost never-ending story, crafted between 1919 and 1947, which incorporates elements of southern Spain (the church of Santa Maria La Mayor in Ronda was a direct influence) and ancient empires (the columns and pillars of the Forum in Rome also played their part).

You can visit to see a priceless collection of art and antiques – and to stroll in the footsteps of Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo and Clark Gable, who attended parties here at Hearst’s invitation.

But the main reason to step inside is to glimpse the likes of a dining room which dreams of being a medieval banqueting hall, tapestries on its walls, a long table laden with candlesticks – and feel that, somehow, Hearst, Kane and Welles collide here in one whimsical complex.

Welles would have driven past the Castle on many occasions – but most notably in 1944, on a journey which rather summed up the full-pelt way in which he barrelled through life.

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Fantasies That Came To Nothing

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At this juncture, Welles was married to his second wife, the Hollywood screen siren Rita Hayworth. Theirs was not an everlasting union – they swapped their vows in September 1943, and were divorced by November 1947. But in the summer of 1944 they were still in love, Hayworth pregnant with their only child, a daughter, Rebecca.

 Big Sur where Welles thought he could live an idyll (Image: Getty)

Flitting south from San Francisco to Los Angeles, following the (relatively) recently laid tarmac of the iconic Highway 1 along the edge of the Pacific, they paused for a picnic at Big Sur, the now-chic settlement which sits roughly midway between these two big cities – and noticed a cabin on a small crag above the water.

Within hours, fantasies were being indulged – of a discreet retreat far removed from the buzz of the movie industry, a place where they could sit in silence and watch the ocean roll to land. A swift purchase – for a down-payment of $167 – was agreed. Hayworth even went as far as measuring windows for curtains.

And then they left, never to return, their plan scuppered by the break-down of their relationship. The cabin was sold, never to fulfil its destiny as an A-list property.

However, it, like Hearst Castle, still exists.

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Small Slice Of Paradise Welles Never Saw

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In 1949, the new owners opened a restaurant. Nepenthe has been a prime pit-stop for anyone rolling along Highway 1 ever since, an eatery which revels in hearty portions – swarthy steaks, the signature Ambrosia Burger ($15.25/A$19), with its thick wedge of beef and cheese.

 Highway to heartbreak - Highway 1 where Welles and Hayworth thought they found their spiritual home (Image: Getty)

But the main attraction is the outdoor terrace which gazes south towards Los Angeles, the Santa Lucia mountains on one side, the Pacific on the other. Pull up a chair here as the sun starts to set and you can glimpse a small slice of paradise.

And then you will find yourself wondering – how could a man who had the vision to carve out a movie as ground-breaking as Citizen Kane not have been able to see the beauty of what he bought for peanuts 71 years ago?

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This article was written by Chris Leadbeater from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

Chris Leadbeater

Chris Leadbeater has travelled to six of the seven continents in the past 10 years (Antarctica still eludes him). He won Travel Writer of the Year in 2012 and writes for the Daily Mail and The Independent. You can find him tweeting at twitter.com/leadbeaterchris.