Thoughts on History
Mix government with art, and the result can be volatile. For example, consider the Federal Theatre Project, a 1935 Works Progress Administration (WPA) program that set out to put theatrical people to work but ended up creating controversy with some left-leaning productions. Our story concerns one production in particular, a musical Orson Welles directed called The Cradle Will Rock. It’s also the subject of a new film directed by Tim Robbins that should be arriving in theaters at the same time this magazine comes out.
The issues raised by The Cradle Will Rock situation didn’t end with the Depression years. Periodically, the National Endowment for the Arts comes under fire for channeling federal money to controversial–some might prefer to say offensive–artworks. As we were preparing this issue, an art museum in Brooklyn became embroiled in a controversy about an exhibit–partially funded with local tax dollars–that included a painting of the Virgin Mary festooned with elephant dung. What incenses many critics of these works is not just that they offend their sensibilities, but that their taxes help support them.
Whether butting heads with WPA officials in New York or studio heads in Hollywood, Orson Welles had his own share of controversy. Today it’s a sad fact that if people remember him at all, it’s as a large, bearded man who appeared in wine commercials and performed magic tricks on talk shows. But of course, he was much, much more than that. Recently the American Film Institute selected his first feature, Citizen Kane (1941), as the country’s greatest movie. Before making Kane, Welles became famous by scaring the nation to death with his radio dramatization of H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds in 1938. And he did all of this, Citizen Kane included, before he was 26. Welles was so precocious and self-assured (and perhaps a little pompous on occasion too) that his cowriter on Kane, Herman Mankiewicz, once quipped, “There, but for the grace of God, goes God.”
Unfortunately for Welles, the rest of his career didn’t match his early triumphs, though his misfortunes were not entirely of his own making. His studio, RKO-Radio Pictures, took control of his second film, The Magnificent Ambersons, while Welles was in Brazil making a movie. The studio altered the film by cutting it nearly in half and tacking on a happy ending. To add insult to injury, RKO released it on a double bill with a movie called Mexican Spitfire Sees a Ghost. He did make other films that are now acknowledged as masterpieces, most notably Touch of Evil (1958), which was recently re-released in a version edited according to Welles’s instructions. (Typically, the studio bosses had originally ignored most of his recommendations.) One of the many projects Welles tried and failed to launch was his own movie about The Cradle Will Rock.
“God, how they’ll love me when I’m dead,” Welles once complained to director Peter Bogdanovich, and he was right about that. Fourteen years after he died in 1985 at the age of 70, we’re in the middle of a Welles revival, fueled in part by the Tim Robbins film and an HBO special about the making of Citizen Kane. Better late than never, I guess. *
Tom Huntington, Editor, American History