Today in History: May 6

Orson Welles was born on this date in 1915. If he had not been born, America would have needed to invent someone like him. He left a mark on radio, theater, and film history, and he helped push each one of those forms forward into the future; and his public persona—a charming rogue, self-serious yet self-deprecating—is still missed 30-plus years after he left.

To the day he died, at age 70 in October 1985, he was scrambling for support, for the finances to back his film projects. Hollywood’s powers decided in the late 1940s, as a group, that he had decided to go it alone as a filmmaker. So he decided to go it alone as a filmmaker. At this Hollywood’s powers decided, as a group, that Welles could not be trusted, because he had kept his word.

“F for Fake” is the last film he wrote, directed, starred in, edited, cast, and released willingly. (Many of his earlier films were taken forcefully from him by the studios and released with new endings or sliced down and released without his blessing.) It was released in 1974, a decade before his death. He continued to work on various film ideas till his last day.

The production of “F for Fake” followed his unorthodox (read: chaotic) method of production of the previous decade or so, and the remaining few years of his life: when he had his own finances (usually from his many film and television and radio jobs—for intoning, “No wine before its time,” say), or when he had attracted a patron or two, he hired crews and leased equipment and cast actors and they traveled the world in a quest for the perfect movie; when he had no finances, he borrowed equipment and cast actors who were willing to donate free performances and they traveled the world in a quest for the perfect movie.

Often, sections of the same finished scene were shot on different continents and months apart and, amazingly, sometimes on different sizes of film stock with different cameras. (Sometimes he and his friend and cameraman Gary Graver, who appears in “F for Fake” as a news reporter, would sneak onto Hollywood studio backlots after hours and steal canisters of unused film to save money on their own film budget. The Orson Welles you saw on talk shows in the 1960s and ’70s was possibly appearing on those shows to linger on the set and surreptitiously jimmy a door open so he could re-visit after midnight. Possibly)

With “F for Fake,” Welles’ film-editing brilliance (quick cuts among several shots before music videos and TV ads inured us to the effect) and his strengths as a storyteller pulled out of this ramshackle, fly-by-night method of film-making a beautiful non-documentary about partial truths and complete frauds. When you think he is outdoors, he reveals he is in a room, and vice versa. All in the service of making a virtue out of difficult circumstance.

At one point early on, he promises “in writing” (a film scroll repeats his contracted promise to us) that “everything” in the next hour is going to be true. When a compelling scene unfolds that involves Welles’ girlfriend Oja Kodar, Pablo Picasso, her grandfather’s art forgeries, and some of Welles’ better acting on film, we forget to notice that the hour had expired quite a while earlier. “For the last 17 minutes, I’ve been lying my head off,” he tells us, by way of wishing us all a pleasant good night.

A pleasant good night to you, Mr. Welles. Here is “F for Fake” for your viewing:

* * * *
The German airship Hindenburg burst into flames as it was being moored at its destination site near Lakehurst, New Jersey, 79 years ago today. The reasons for the fire remain unknown. Thirty-six people were killed, 62 survived; the last survivor died in August 2014. The era of cross-Atlantic passenger travel by rigid airship, which had become popular in the 1930s, came to a sudden and complete end.

* * * *
Bob Hope made his first appearance on behalf of the newly formed United Service Organization (USO) 75 years ago today. The USO performs many services but its most famous is live entertainment for U.S. troops here and overseas, even near combat lines. Hope brought his show, for free, to American troops from 1941 through the 1990s.

* * * *
Wilfrid Hyde-White died 25 years ago today. Marlene Dietrich died on this date in 1992.

* * * *
Both Robert Peary and Sigmund Freud were born on this date in 1856. Rudolph Valentino was born in 1895 on this date. Randall Jarrell was born on this date in 1914. Theodore H. White was born in 1915 on this date. Rubin Carter would be 79 today.

* * * *
Willie Mays is 85 today. I do not have many reasons to desire the use of a time travel machine, but one is so that I could select a random date in the 1950s or ’60s so I could sit at the Polo Grounds or Candlestick Park and see Willie Mays play baseball.

Bob Seger is 71 today. Prime Minister Tony Blair is 63. Roma Downey is 56. John Flansburgh (They Might Be Giants) is 56. “Sometimes a Lonely Way,” from Nanobots by They Might Be Giants, the lead sung by John Flansburgh:

George Clooney is 55 today. Martin Brodeur is 44.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Please comment here. Thank you, Mark.

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