Saturday, February 1, 2020

RKO 281 (1999).

Orson Welles is and was the kind of personality that generates stories.  He collected tall-tales about himself almost as if was his own folklorist.  He would use them often in his interactions with others, especially when it came to funding his many celluloid endeavors.  That much is a fact of history, though its an open question of just how many today still realize it.  Perhaps its the director's penchant for taking creative license with his own existence that accounts for the strange back story for the film under discussion today.

I remember hearing that RKO 281 was originally slated as a big screen production featuring Marlon Brando as the main antagonist.  For some reason, however, the deal never managed to come together.  Instead, the whole thing wound up as a TV movie.  To be fair, that in itself is no determination of a picture's quality, especially not today, when guys like Scorsese, De Niro, and Peschi can use the small screen to deliver a film like The Irishman.  All that counts in the end is that the story is intact, or that there's a narrative worth telling.

The subject matter behind RKO 281 is the stuff of Hollywood legend.  That makes it ripe for dramatization.  There is a problem with this particular story, however, and its adaptation into film, that winds up raising more questions than answers.

The Story.
Orson Welles (Liev Schreiber) was an established name by the time he came to Hollywood.  He carved out his reputation first in the theater, and then after that on the radio.  By the time he arrived in Tinseltown, he was already known for such accomplishments as an all African-American production of Macbeth, along with an adaptation of War of the Worlds that managed to stir up a panic in the country.  It was the kind of deliberate notorious sort of fame that Welles both liked and needed in order to get others to pay attention, as well as stick his foot in the door. 

The first studio big wig to take the bait Welles offered was George Schaefer (Roy Scheider), then head of RKO Pictures.  I suppose the best way to think of the studio was as one of the little guys that somehow managed to find itself able to compete with the big kids like MGM and Warner Bros.  By the time Welles came along, the company had also made a name for itself.  By 1939 it had already cemented the careers of Katherine Hepburn, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, as well introducing the world to a giant ape named Kong.  In all that confusion, it's difficult to say what made Schaefer decide to go ahead and give an untried novice like Welles a chance.  He'd never made a picture in his life, though he could handle a troupe of actor's like they were his own personal fiefdom.  Perhaps it was this skill with crowd control that gave the head of RKO enough confidence to take the risk.  Either way, a contract was drawn up, signed, and soon Welles found himself on the company payroll.
The question on everyone's mind, however, was simple.  What was he going to do for a breakout performance?  In other words, what would his first motion picture be about?  There is a rumor that both Schaefer and even Louis Mayer (David Suchet) were expecting him to just do a screen adaptation of his War of the Worlds stunt.  It is possible Mayer saw it as an opportunity of just finding a way to add another employee to his roster of slumming directors.  Welles' ambitions, however, were always urging him to try and find different and greater heights.

He soon came to Schaefer with the idea of a character study.  He'd been working on a script with Herman Mankiewicz (John Malkovich) from an idea the writer had based on a semi-professional acquaintance of his.  It would be a feature-length examination of of a man who fights his way to the height of power in America, and of how it corrupts him.  Welles envisioned it as the rise and fall of a titan in the grand tradition of classical tragedies.  The main character's name would be Charles Foster Kane.  The title itself still needs to be worked out, there are still a few options being mulled over.  Then Schaefer suggests that Citizen Kane might work as a good marquee.

The filming is productive, yet somewhat aggravating.  Welles keeps insisting on take after take for one thing.  Then there's the question of where to put the camera.  His cinematographer Gregg Toland (Liam Cunningham) is driven half out of his mind with the demands Orson makes on him.  Then there's the fact that the director goes over-schedule and over the budget to make the picture.  Still, these are sort of minor gripes, almost.  In the end, Welles gets the film in the can, premier dates are set, and everyone begins to anticipate the next big thing from the new infant terrible.

There is one hitch in the plan, however.  It goes all the way back to the inspiration for the entire story.  According to Mankiewicz, Kane himself is based on a real life figure.  This real, larger-than-life personality belong to none other than the owner and operator of one of the most syndicated newspapers in the country.  His name is William Randolph Hearst (James Cromwell).  Welles of course claims that the film bear no relation whatever to the famous publishing tycoon.  However when Hearst finagles a sneak peek at the finished product, he launches a campaign against Welles that culminates in a battle of wills that will become the stuff of Hollywood legend.

Fact, legend, and a lack of focus.

 The first thing to jump out at me wasn't anything to do with the action.  Instead it was somewhere during the opening credit crawl that I noticed Ridely Scott was an actual producer of this film.  I wasn't prepared for that.  The last thing I was expecting was that the director of Alien would lend a hand in the making of an Orson Welles biopic.  Say what you will about him as either an artist or a person.  My own take is that as long as the studio or various assorted suits aren't breathing down his neck, and he's got a bit of inspiration going for him, then he's usually able to deliver more often than not.  It's just unfortunate I have to admit that this is one of those occasions when a good idea and a decent amount of ambition are brought low by a number of factors.

I seriously wanted to come away liking this film.  The premise is one of those ideas that ought to be a sure-fire guarantee.  Orson Welles was a larger-than-life character who made a point of filling his time on earth with enough drama for several biopics.  This is ideal at a time when, for the most, Hollywood is starting to get something of a handle on how to deal with the lives of famous figures.  Before, as far back as a time when the internet was just a free-floating idea in the head of a bunch of nerds, the trend and setup was that the whole life had to be covered from start to finish.  This is the way normal biographies are written, and how even the most extraordinary life is experienced on a daily basis.  Therefore the initial logic is at least understandable on paper.

In practice, however, the problem with a lot of biopics is that by trying to cram an entire life into an average feature-length running-time the story somehow manages to lose sight of its subject.  This is mainly down to the fact that a lot of the earlier films never bothered to show what made their subject tick.  Audiences never had enough time to get to know individuals like Charlie Chaplin or Martin Luther King.  Instead three-dimensional personalities were treated to what amounted to a bunch of abbreviated Cliff-notes versions of their lives.

Pretty soon, however, a lot of the more perceptive filmmakers became aware of these short-comings and went back to the storyboard to figure out what went wrong.  The best idea they discovered was that rather than trying to tell the story of an entire life, they had to focus in on those personalities during key moments in their experiences, the ones that went on to shape who they were or went on to be.  I think the earliest example of this strategy can be discovered in an old A&E TV movie adaptation of Howard Fast's The Crossing.  It recounts the night George Washington forded his way across the Deleware River and won the Battle of Trenton.  The time-span of the entire film takes place in just about two to three days in the life.  The film's runtime is just 89 minutes, and yet during such a brief span we've been given as decent and accurate a look into the man now known as the Father of Our Country, and perhaps what will have to go down as the best depiction of the creation of America.

This is all due to the way Fast was able to compartmentalize Washington's personality by focusing on the one situation for which he is most famous, and in which all his strengths as a leader were on display.  In addition to being about as accurate as you can hope to get from a showbiz depiction of a real life incident, it also manages to accomplish one of the stated goals of a good narrative by bringing on-stage a character the audience can identify with, and making us care about the struggles he has to undergo.  The skill in which it is told is perhaps best on display during a simple dinner sequence between Washington, Hamilton, and a very uncooperative, erstwhile ally.  It's just a series of people in a room talking, and yet Fast's screenplay is able to ratchet up the tension of intelligent conversation in a way that lets the viewer understand what's going, and what's at stake.

It strikes me that this scene is very similar to another confrontation between allies in a much later film, Ava DuVernay's Selma.  That film also featured a scene in which Civil Rights workers threatened to break apart due to differences of opinion and approach.  In both cases, the filmmakers made the wise choice of realizing that their subject weren't like butterflies pinned for display, and instead just a bunch of flesh and blood individuals caught up in situations that can either make or break them, and that they found ways of triumphing over.  Since then, it is the snapshot, rather than the life which seems to be the best course forward.  It's also the strategy behind RKO 281.  In this case, however, there are at least two issues with the film that keep it from any kind of greatness.  The first has to do with the difference between fact and legend.  The other is a simple question of focus, or the lack thereof.
I said just a moment ago that Welles liked to dramatize his life.  This is the one element that makes telling his story in a dramatic form so much of a challenge.  With people like King or Washington, the writer's task is a bit more easy on based on the fact that his subjects are more or less open books.  They've left behind plenty of documentary evidence that helps piece together what they were like on a human scale, and what they did and said.  With Welles, the task becomes a bit harder.  Like other biographical subjects, he left behind plenty of documentary evidence.  The problem, however, revolves around the way he handled it.  As a man who liked to tell stories about himself, Welles was quite capable of jotting down one record of an event that either happened to him, or that he witnessed.  He could then turn right around and sketch in another version of the same event with all kinds of embellishments from his previous account.  It was a habit (one almost wants to call it a nervous tick) for which he was both notorious and famous for.  You've got admire his imagination, even as you curse him in private for making the documentarian's job a living nightmare.

The struggles of the ordinary chronicler are also on full display during the action of Scott's film.  The viewer is treated to a series of events that act as though they were history, when all it takes is a brief examination of the reliable evidence to discover that what's going on in the story could never have happened in real life.  The best example of this is near the beginning, when the fictional Welles is invited to a dinner/sleep-over being held in Hearst's sprawling mansion.  We are shown the actor/director holding court at a big dinner table, trading barbs with and easily upstaging a flustered and aging tycoon.  After the party, when all the lights are off, and everyone else is asleep, Welles is shown making his quiet way through the hallways of Heart's mansion.  The audience is treated to a series of long-shots meant to evoke the look and feel of Kane, only in this case, rather than defining and being held captive by the scene, Welles is instead framed as a mere observer, soaking up inspiration from his surroundings like an artistic sponge.

I suppose it is just possible to call this sequence interesting.  Some viewers may even come away feeling like they understand the all important question of "where do you get your ideas"?  There's just one problem.  None of it ever happened.  Welles and Hearst never met face to face a day in their lives.  And the director was never even once invited to the tycoon's estate, whether for business or pleasure.  They both lived and moved in two separate worlds, and kept it that way.  Yet the screenwriter saw fit to take liberties with the facts for reasons that are just not at all clear to this reviewer.  This is not an isolated incident, either.  The narrative strategy of cherry picking the facts also comes into play in the way the film handles the filming of Citizen Kane itself.

We are shown a very abbreviated version of events.  We launch into things with little to no fanfare, and are treated to scenes in which Welles gets into these little mini-conflicts.  For instance, the one that stands out the most in my memory is the scene where Welles is driving everyone up the wall because he can't get the camera angle he wants for an important dramatic confrontation between the main character and his former best friend.  The lighting is good, the actors are in place, and he hates it all because the frame of the camera is not the one he sees in his mind.  Welles is told they can't move the camera any lower because the floor is in the way.  Welles' answer to this is to grab a pickax and start flaying away at a piece of studio property in order to create a hole big enough to fit the camera in.  The scene is amusing, so far as it goes.  The trouble is its difficult to tell what the point is.  Are we being told that Welles is a perfectionist?  If so, then I'm left with a lingering question of whether or not that scene was the best way to handle this idea?  It also doesn't help that I'm left wondering is this scene isn't true history, or else just apocryphal.

It is just possible to find a few gems scattered here and there in these early sequences.  When Kane cinematographer Gregg Toland walks on-stage, we here Schreiber's Welles deliver the following observation:  "So Gregg Toland plumps his Oscar down from Wuthering Heights and says, "Mr. Welles, I want to shoot your picture".  "Mr. Toland," I said, "you are the finest cinematographer in Hollywood.  Why would you want to work with a stumbling neophyte"?  "Mr. Welles," he replied, "the only way to learn anything new is to work with someone who doesn't know a damned thing"!  Welles goes on to state that, "The whole to use the language of cinema as though its never been spoken before.  To challenge the audience.  I mean, why does anyone go to the movies in the first place?  To see themselves, to see their own bizarre, complex, fascinating, and paradoxical lives".

In addition to this, there is the scene of the final day of filming, in which all the actors and production crew are tired, and Welles just won't let up.  The actor playing Joseph Cotton complains how he's dead on his feet, and wants to go home.  Welles objects, Cotton basically tells the director to go screw himself.  Welles responds by flat out challenging Cotton to bring all that energy of resentment into to his performance, and calls action once more.  This time the actor is able to channel that anger into his lines, and the scene is complete.  When Welles asks what's next, he's told it's a wrap.  The film is in the can.  Even the auteur is a bit surprised that he was able to pull it off, and I think Schreiber's performance is at it's best here, where he is able to convey the director's elation at having achieved his artistic goals.  The scene ends with Welles performing a little celebratory waltz with a chorus girl.

A little earlier there is also a scene featuring Welles planted firmly in front of a film screen while scenes from John Ford's Stagecoach unreel in front of him.  I like that moment because it does match with something that is verifiable.  When it came to the directors whose he admired, Welles always had just one answer: John Ford.  He seems to have practiced what he preached, for part of his pre-production on Kane was to make the crew watch Ford's 1939 oat opera in order to get a sense for the kind of look and feel he wanted for his own project.  I'm just left wondering how many realize that both director's techniques resemble a stlye that is closer to that of a fairy-tale, rather than any kind of gritty realism.  In any case, what makes scenes like that, and the few mentioned above so valuable is that they are the few scattered moments when the audience gets an inkling of the kind of film we could have had.
I have said that the biographical drama has learned how to tell a story as the years went by.  I wish that were true of RKO 281.  The simple fact is that it all starts to go downhill as soon as the shooting of Kane wraps up.  From there, the narrative focus shifts to the battle of wills between Hearst and Welles as each tries to determine the fate of the movie within the film  I call it a shift in the picture's focus.  Though really what it amounts to is an almost total loss of any kind of narrative focus.  The goals the filmmaker's set for themselves at least appear to be somewhat clear.  They want to tell the story of an underdog artist struggling with the weight of an oppressor.  The basic description of the conflict is so old its practically a cliche.  In that case, what matters the most is how well the writers are at filling in the  form.

It should be a simple enough task, provided the makers have a sustainable creative vision, or else just enough intelligence to pull their trick off.  The unfortunate truth is that I'm not at all sure that screenwriter John Logan was able to do anything truly creative with the idea.  The lack of focus comes down to the way the character arcs of both Welles and Hearst are played.  We should be getting a sense of the real individuals, and what ideas were driving their motivation.  Perhaps this is one of those stories where the drama was always meant to be character, instead of plot based.  As it is, Logan allows his characters to devolve into a series of stick figures that are moved around and made to say things according to whatever the convenience of the plotting dictates.  Any sense of investment is lost, even in those moments when Logan tries to grant Hearst a bit of sympathy.  What makes gesture worse is that after its introduced, the film moves along as if it didn't matter, and Cromwell is forced to go back to playing the cardboard cutout villain.

The final coffin nail for the film is that there is the lingering sense that the facts of the real history are being toyed with.  It's an giant elephant a lot of other critics have been more than willing to acknowledge, and there is a point to be made there.  I mentioned a few scenes between Welles and Hearst that never happened in real life.  I suppose if the film's writer's had been content to limit themselves to just that, then it would have been possible to dismiss it as a minor creative transgression on their part.  However, Logan doesn't seem content to leave well enough alone, and I'm left to guess at the reason(s) for it.  As the rest of the story unfolds, the real life historical figures begin to take a back seat in the service of whatever soapbox the writer wanted to take his stand on.  This is not the first, and probably won't be the last time it happens during one of these ventures.

Logan's problem is that his seems to suffer from a fundamental level indeterminacy, or lack of direction.  It sounds like he wants to take a bold stand for artistic freedom and independence.  However, he turns right around and shows Welles acting like a pointless cad.  Other times it sounds like Logan is about strike a blow for the little guy against big corporate interests.  Then why bother to show us a scene of Hearst in a moment which reveals just how truly vulnerable he is?  To top it all off, it is just possible that none of what we are being shown is really all that true.  It's this lingering sense of doubt, mixed in with a lack of a narrative through-line that really sinks the film.

Conclusion: A Tale Untold.

It's a shame we didn't get a hit with RKO 281.  The story of Citizen Kane, and what it took to create is a narrative of history that is well worth dramatizing.  This goes double for a time when filmmakers are learning all the right ways of telling a true story.  It's just a shame that these are all lesson that got lost in the making of this particular performance.  If I had to give any constructive criticism for anyone who wanted to try and tackle this particular subject, then it would all have to center around a handful of suggestions.

The raising of Kane is an event that comes with a lot of baggage attached to it.  The real trick for any writer who wants to try and capture this event on either page or film boils down to just one question, where is the heart of the entire matter?  It's always possible I'm wrong, yet while watching RKO, I always got the sense that it was the writing and construction of the picture itself that were the most interesting moments.  The hassles with Hearst and the newspapers just comes off as too much of a superfluous after-thought.  I understand that this was the event that helped cement Welles' status as an underdog artist.  The problem is I can't help wonder if it the whole debacle doesn't just serve to take audience's attention from the accomplishment that really matters.  The most important aspect for any dramatization of Welles' relationship to Kane seems to rest on the simple creation of the movie itself.  Therefore I'm left to suggest that the future screenwriter should keep his or her focus on the artistic angle, and leave Hearts and the gossip columns out of it.

You can bring in a few side glances at Welles as both an artist, performer, and human being, however the temptation here is to go overboard.  If you want to show how Welles' dedication to the picture takes its toll on those around him, then this can be the right way to go, so long as the scene or imaginary event is not allowed to derail off the tracks by taking attention away from the main story.  In the broader terms of character development, I am willing to grant that there is one angle I've never seen explored in this story before, and which could be a way of introducing a new note into the proceedings.

One of the interesting things to learn about Welles is his devotion to both Elizabethan Theater in general, and Shakespeare in particular.  There are moments in 281 where the script has Welles spouting off what sounds like a bunch of jargon about what he intends the film to mean.  I think these were crucial moments where the writer had the opportunity to give the audience an insight into Welles' thinking, and artistic methods.  Sadly, we never quite get there, expect for bits and pieces of hints into his mindset.  The job of the next artist to tackle the material is to put the story's ultimate focus on Welles as a 20th century Elizabethan or Renaissance Man.  Showcase the director's devotion to the Bard, and find ways of cuing-in the audience that it is this adoration that drives the way he constructs Kane and its cast of characters.  Let it also be this devotion that sometimes gets in the way of his better judgment.  When anyone tries to to reign Welles' ambitions, those should be at least one of the moments where his dark side emerges, as he shows himself willing to cast aside anyone who won't help him realize his vision.

The value of this approach is twofold.  On the one hand it gives general movie-goers, Welles fans, and Kane aficionados a way into the actual movie behind the film.  It makes sense to see Charlie Kane as a Shakespearean figure who is forever haunted by his own hubris, and hence his tragedy is his glory.  In the second place, such an Elizabethan narrative framing would help average viewers understand that the real Welles very much saw himself in a similar, if never entirely tragic light.  His identification with Shakespeare and the Renaissance was such that he felt compelled to embody as much of what he saw as the virtues of that era, and its artistic models, in everything he said or did, especially in the all the stories he tried to tell, whether it was an original idea of his, or an adaption of some the best authors in history.  All these elements, it seems to me, would be the best approach to telling a tale about the making of Citizen Kane.
RKO 281 was an attempt to tackle the themes and ideas hidden in a simple piece of history.  As I said, it's the kind of topic with a lot of baggage that needs to be unpacked.  It's a creative task that requires patience, care, and above all, a good deal of literacy.  Perhaps its for these very reasons that the makers of this particular version just weren't up to the task.  Perhaps the best thing to takeaway from it is that it can act as a spur to greater creative minds to take their own swing at it one day.      


  1. (1) I have not seen this RKO movie, although it sounds quite interesting - or rather, any making of Citizen Kane/ biopic of Kane SOUNDS interesting, but as you sketch out, might not live up to its potential.

    (2) I'm delighted to see THE CROSSING brought up, though. I saw this one. I hadn't meant to, the night I saw it, and can't recall the circumstances now, nor have I ever watched it again. But several of the scenes are clear in memory, and just the other day, seriously, I was thinking about Jeff Daniels in this movie. I may even have channeled him while walking with the girls across Western Avenue ("We cross!") once the light changed. I agree, though, that this is a useful approach: one event or a limited time frame in a major figure's life.

    (3) i kept waiting for you to bring F Is For Fake into things in this section on cherry picking reality for a curated version of events! Have you seen that one?

    (4) Good call with STAGECOACH.

    (5) In theory I could see Liev being a damn good Orson. That was good casting. The idea, I mean. It's too bad they bungled it. John Logan wrote THE AVIATOR, right? I've been iffy on his other scripts, particularly NEMESIS. So many hands in the pot for movie scripts, it's tough to tell who did what or where to place the blame, but (unluckily for him) Logan has enough of a CV where certain unappealing patterns can be mapped. So, either he's worked with people who mess with his scripts in the same ways over and over, or he and I have a fundamentally different idea of what beats to hit and how to bring them out. (THE AVIATOR being the notable exception.)

    1. (2) Yeah, I'd definitely say give "Crossing" another chance. Not only is it the best film about the Revolutionary War (a great sight better than "The Patriot, that's for damn sure) it's also a good vehicle that might make people remember that Daniels can carry a dramatic role. That traffic light bit sounds just great.

      (3) Say sorry on this one. I've heard of it, yet I've never watched it as of this moment in time (quietly dons toilet lid of shame).

      (4) It's just one of those bits of historical information that have passed into legend really. Of all the moments in the film, it's the one I'm inclined to believe is real. If I had to figure why else the real Welles did that, then I'd have to say it was something Toland encouraged him to do it once he agreed to shoot the flick, it might have been his way of getting Welles to pay attention to his strengths and weaknesses as a cinematographer.

      (5) "The Aviator" I have seen, and I hate to say this, yet I think I prefer "Gangs of New York" to this one. I'll admit there are scenes that work for me, yet as things went on I just began to see where it was all headed, and it occurred to me that I just didn't want to stick around for it. The moments I like best are near the start, where the Golden Age Hollywood is the main setting. I almost wish Scorsese had made the creative decision to just focus on those moments, and leave it at that. Those were the best, I think.


  2. I never saw this, but I remember when it aired. Great cast, but it sounds like it's not much of a movie. And the thing is, if you're going to make a movie about one of the agreed-upon classics of cinema, you've got to deliver; otherwise, you're risking being laughed off the screen. This doesn't sound THAT bad; but it doesn't sound too good, either.

    What it sounds like to me based on your descriptions of it is one of the several biopics about Ian Fleming, all of which are mediocrities, and some of which feel the need to try to be half-baked James Bond movies. You're mostly left wondering why anyone bothered, and that's kind of the feel I get from this Welles-based film.

    1. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is this film's whole damn problem summed up in a nutshell.

      Maybe next time, perhaps. That is if someone can get both their script and the facts straight. Also remember to just focus on the making of the film itself. That's the only part that really matters.