There’s that moment in Citizen Kane, after Kane has lost it all and he turns to Bernstein, his right-hand man, and Kane says, “If I hadn’t grown up wealthy, I could have been a great man.” It’s a wonderfully odd thing to realize that, if only you hadn’t been given everything in the world, you just might have amounted to something. That’s one way of reading it. In this case, the ultimate answer may, like so much in this film, remain a mystery.
Big Red. Jerome Charyn. Liveright. New York. 2022. 304pp. Hardcover. $28
Orson Welles was a magician in the truest sense of the word. He loved to dazzle an audience. And he was utterly fascinated with the process in which to dazzle. Many an entertainer and creative loves magic. To excel in this conjuring art form requires skill, passion, and no small amount of ego. And so it makes sense that such an inquistive novelist as Jerome Charyn, one who loves magic and is intrigued by magicians, not to mention movies, should pick Orson upon which to build a novel. Add to that the fact that Welles was married to one of the most beautiful and enigmatic of movie stars, Rita Hayworth, and you have the perfect framework for a tale about Old Hollywood.
Orson Welles portrait by Irving Penn, for Vogue 1945
Throughout the novel, Orson Welles is called, “The Boy Wonder,” as much in honor of his genius as a dig at his excess. Welles was, in many respects, one of a kind, an outsized force of nature, untamed and undisciplined, and therefore an imperfect maestro. He was a masterful filmmaker, creating unique imagery, capturing compelling performances from his fellow actors, but prone to missteps in his lavish storytelling. He was also sloppy in his personal relationships, as Rita Hayworth, aka “Big Red,” could attest. However, as Charyn comes back to again and again, there was no director quite like him. This is a novel about art colliding with life and vice versa. Orson Welles seemed to be able to better tolerate the burden of celebrity than his spouse, Rita Hayworth. But even The Boy Wonder had his limits. Charyn plays with these dynamics, these contradictions, repeatedly bringing home the fact that a big, flat footed and insecure man, no matter how talented, was perpetually bending to the pressures of being a Boy Wonder. And if the pressure should prove too much for someone as flamboyant as Welles, then how must it have been for someone so shy and demure as Rita Hayworth?
The true nature of one Rita Hayworth, with her own nickname, both a tribute and a put down, gets to the crux of the matter. Charyn brings out the fact that the real person behind the name wears the name of Big Red like an albatross around her neck. In a moment of passion, the nickname can praise just as quickly as it can cut. Who can live up to all the larger-than-life expectations? Not Rita, or Margarita, the girl who lost her childhood to a father who exploited and abused her, making her his dancing partner by age twelve, the two of them working as a duo in casinos, treating her as if she were his lover. The abuse had left her with little of a voice, a life of depression and despair, even though she had honed the skills, from an early age, of a great entertainer. Charyn provides the reader with a portrait of a formidable beauty with the soul of a frightened child.
Rita Hayworth in 1946’s Gilda.
Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth were married from 1943 to 1947. Much of the novel focuses on the dynamics of this mismatched couple. It was in star power that Hayworth held her own, and even eclipsed Welles for a time. But her shyness seemed to cancel out her extraordinary beauty. Charyn places a unique character, Rusty Redburn, right in the middle of the action, someone who manages to navigate her way between the two and provide special insight on them. Rusty is a young aspiring writer who stumbles into work on the Columbia lot and, by a set of circumstances, ends up working as a private secretary to Rita Hayworth while also serving as spy for studio boss Harry Cohn. Rusty learns it’s important to keep a close eye on Big Red, as well as Welles, but she does as she wants and maintains her loyalty to Rita and Orsie. Over the course of the novel, with Rusty’s vantage point, a rollicking story unfolds tracing the trajectory of two of the strangest and most magnificent of Hollywood icons.
Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles
Mise-en-Scène or Depth of Field technique in CITIZEN KANE
As true to form as ever, Jerome Charyn tackles the man behind the celebrated cinematic masterpiece, Citizen Kane, and his power to fascinate an audience as well as hurt those he was supposed to love. Charyn, a great fan and scholar of cinema, with a journalist’s instinct for a great story, has made the most of his subject for his latest novel, filled with his signature use of imagery and metaphor. Charyn, the magician with words, delivers various breathtaking moments once all the chess pieces to his tale are in play. One of the greatest is when Orson Welles, at loose ends and in need of an adrenaline rush, mounts a full-scale circus in the middle of Hollywood. It is one of the most surreal and entertaining tributes to Hollywood and unfettered creativity you will ever read. It may seem a pity that Welles, the man, was unable to live up to the myth. It was a legend he himself helped to perpetuate and which choked him at every turn. Of course, no one, not even a magician, would ever have survived unscathed from all the bright lights, noise, and hype. Charyn brings home the point that it is this grand illusion that will forever fascinate and captivate, prone to ensnare an audience and actor alike.
Pulp Power: The Shadow, Doc Savage and the Art of the Street and Smith Universe. Neil McGinness. Abrams. New York. 2022. Fully illustrated, hardcover. 352pp. $58.50
Walter Gibson was the writer behind the masked hero, The Shadow. Writing under the pen name, Maxwell Grant, he developed a character that seemed to emerge on its own, out of the confluence of pop culture media, circa 1930: pulp fiction and radio. The character was a strange mix of mystery and daring, part of something bigger, and a sign of things to come. The strangeness begins with the eerie voice warning that it sees all: “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!” followed by a shrill cackle. Such an otherworldly introduction to adventure was like mana from heaven for the millions of beleaguered radio listeners across the country confronting the dire reality of the Great Depression. Stranger still, at that point, there was only the weird voice to introduce the mystery hour–but the voice had become the star! Overnight, people wanted more. Who is The Shadow? Where do I get The Shadow magazine? This would lead to perhaps the greatest scramble ever to flesh out a popular character that did not yet exist!
“Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!”
The Shadow went on to become the leading product of the famous Fiction Factory, founded by Francis Street, a bookkeeper, and Francis Smith, an aspiring writer in the 1850s. Street and Smith bought the New York Dispatch, a newspaper focused on news, and turned it into the New York Weekly (1858–1910), a newspaper focused on fiction, the foundation of what was to become the Street and Smith publishing empire. It was when this publishing house decided to step into creating radio shows that The Shadow emerged out of the ether. Pulp Power covers this phenomenal enterprise providing the reader with an in depth look at the origins of America’s first pop culture icons: The Shadow, Doc Savage, The Avenger, Justice Inc., the trailblazers that would inspire Batman, Superman, The Fantastic Four, even the whole ball of wax at Marvel and DC Comics. Thanks to this generously illustrated book, with engaging writing by Neil McGinness, the original glory days of American pop culture come to life for the reader in this unique collection showcasing dazzling covers from pulp fiction, comics and movies, along with assorted ephemera.
The Shadow magazine
Getting back to The Shadow, if there is just one character to represent the exuberant creative force at play in the early years, it has got to be this strange, yet beloved, fellow. It’s fascinating to consider how much this character is so much of its time, and defies being easily bounced around various media until it finally settles into what works. Ultimately, a lot is working; it’s just a matter of doing justice to the material. You won’t be seeing a major motion picture anytime soon, until maybe you do. What you can count on is The Shadow thriving in prose and in audio. Perhaps that’s simply because The Shadow is so much a creature of the night, a mysterious force not to be observed too closely. He also has his specificity. He’s a New Yorker, and don’t you forget it. Thankfully, Neil McGinness does take a close look for the sake of better understanding the attraction. Essentially, it comes down to quality storytelling, which can’t be faked; it involves so many factors coming into place; and runs best with one determined author.
The Shadow comics
The Shadow’s original author, Walter Gibson, followed a tried and true formula, a five-point plan that never failed: a main crime; a problem arising from the main crime; a secondary crime that serves to complicate matters; an attempted third crime to thwart the investigation which is foiled by the hero; and the climax which reveals the villain, the trick, the true nature of the crime. It is a ticket to endless variations and served Gibson well as he went on to write nearly 300 Shadow novels. Not only that, Gibson was sensitive to literary refinements. In fact, The Shadow is closely based upon Bram Stoker’s Dracula. This is a hero but a dark hero. A crime fighter as grim and merciless as the worst criminal. This is a complicated character shrouded under layer upon layer of ambiguity. . .while, at the same time, just a fun thrill.
Orson Welles portrait by Irving Penn, for Vogue, 1945
The Shadow radio show ran for 17 years, from 1937 to 1954. Orson Welles, then only 22 years-old, served as the first voice of the character in 1937. Welles was quite busy with his own Mercury Theater and would do the show with no rehearsals. He just did it and he proved to be one of the best of the actors to take on the role. This was around the time that Welles was at his hottest: a year later, he would make history with his War of the Worlds broadcast of 1938. It’s a nice touch to see included here in this book a photo of Welles at the height of his success, a portrait by Irving Penn, for Vogue in 1945. It’s a masterwork of a photograph, complete with all of Penn’s still life magic–and a fitting companion piece to the magic and mystery that is The Shadow.
Mise-en-Scène or Depth of Field technique in CITIZEN KANE
Like any visual medium, as in painting and cinema, there are particular ways of seeing that are useful, even essential, when studying the mechanics of comics. Mise-en-Scène or Depth of Field is a fascinating aspect to comics that occurs more often than you might think. Sometimes it’s done more formally and explicitly and sometimes not so much. But, when done right, it can be very striking and truly enhance the comics experience. First, consider the picture plane, an impression of space, like the imaginary wall separating the audience and overlooking the space on the stage. Then think of foreground, middle ground, and background. We are considering everything. The term, Mise-en-Scène, in French, literally means “put into the scene” but I like to also emphasize it refers to making the most of the three planes depicted in a scene.
From work-in-progress by Henry Chamberlain
You are looking at a scene, in a painting, or a film, or in comics, from the close range, mid-range, and way in the back range. What you might place in these three planes can significantly move your narrative forward. A reliable trope would be to set up your scene to include past, present, and future: cast the middle as present tense for the main character, with the past set in the back; and the future set up front. That’s what I ended up doing with the above image after noodling around for a while. But it can be anything you like, anything that makes for an interesting composition.
You can call this process, “The Three Plane Method.” That comes to mind. Or you can use the term used in theater and cinema, Mise-en-Scène. In film and photography, think of this as playing with Depth of Field. In the end, you’re exploring what this technique can do for you as you compose a frame or a scene. If you want some truly riveting examples, take a closer look at how images are stacked upon each other in layered scenes in Citizen Cane to create mesmerizing montages. Some are stable landscape type moments and others are dazzling scenes which have the camera rolling for one long dizzying shot like the one that begins outside during a gloomy snow storm and snakes its way into a cozy cabin.
from The Leaning Girl from the The Obscure Cities series by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters.
The best comics tend to be, at least for me, thoughtfully composed. While comics has its own language and techniques unique to its medium, it does manage to borrow from other mediums–and make it its own. That said, it was interesting to go about finding a decent example in comics of true Mise-en-Scène. I think my initial impulse is proven because it wasn’t easy to just stumble upon something. Paul Pope? Nada. Blutch? Nada again. David Mazzucchelli? Frank Quitely? No and no again. You can’t ignore the fact that comics is a sequential art. In general, comics is mostly invested in a steady flow of a concise combination of words and pictures. Those visionary auteur cartoonists will, on occasion, create panels or whole pages with bravura artwork but these are usually some attempt at detailed exteriors or interiors to establish time and place. Not necessarily work making the most of all three planes. The long and the short of it is that a lot of comics involves people speaking to each other or going from one place to another and not much else. Many exceptions exist and hurray for them. I finally found the above excellent example to share with you from The Leaning Girl from The Obscure Cities series by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters.
There’s a wonderful interview by Dick Cavett with Orson Welles in which Cavett asks Welles to reveal his secrets to filmmaking. Welles delivers an answer spiked with mystery and simple honesty. Welles claimed that everything you need to know about filmmaking can be learned in about an hour. In other words, the basics are accessible. It’s a question of what you do after that! With Welles, you had a masterful storyteller and an artist of great vision. Filmmaking becomes just a means to an end. And so it has for Quentin Tarantino many times over. He’s had a bumpy ride with accusations of lifting from other movies including lifting the entire story for Reservoir Dogs from a Hong Kong action movie from the ’80s. In his latest film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, it seems safe to say that Tarantino displays the strengths of a seasoned director.
Pitt and DiCaprio out to defend what matters.
Tarantino the king of retro, has been around long enough to see his own career turn retro. A lot of Millennials were either too young or not even born when Pulp Fiction first came out in 1994, chock full of vintage pop culture references. In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Tarantino can bring to bear his retro obsession with mature grace. Tarantino is now, like Welles, a director with well-honed themes and obsessions, everything fitting him like a perfectly well-worn leather jacket. And that’s a huge part of what is going on in this movie: a love letter to a bygone era. Just consider the first scene set in Hollywood’s legendary Musso & Frank Grill. If there is one place that represents Old Hollywood, when actors could still be glamorous stars, that is the place. But change is in the air. It is 1969 and a number of factors have cleared the landscape, including television. The fatal break with the glorious past would arrive on the night of August 8, 1969 with the mass murders by the Manson Family. It is that turning point to which all concerned are converging upon. The two main innocent bystanders are a couple of Hollywood fixtures: aging leading man Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman/handyman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). The obsession with retro is fully satisfied here.
Margaret Qualley and her bare feet.
Another hallmark of any Tarantino movie is his love for a salty, dark and raw sensuality. It is in every one of his films. In Tarantino’s case, he seems to best evoke that vibe whenever he manages to share with the viewer his fascination with feet. He is not the first director to make that relatively offbeat choice. You can go back to such film legends as Luis Bunuel for that. To his credit, Tarantino is simply being true to his own quirky passion as well as mining for something original and provocative. It’s all interconnected: his foot fancy and his love for B-movies and throwaway culture. He seems to be challenging the viewer to find art in unexpected places. And, with age one hopes comes some wisdom. Compared to his overindulgent examination of Uma Thurman’s feet in Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill, Tarantino appears to have restrained himself enough to use his obsession like a painter to a canvas. A scene that manages to display the soles of Sharon Tate’s (Margot Robbie) feet while she’s in a movie theater must have been challenging and seems perhaps only a bit contrived. Another scene that has one of the Manson Family members (Margaret Qualley) with her bare feet resting on the dashboard and firmly pressed on the windshield comes across as more natural and provides that spot on Tarantino touch. The unique appeal of feet and B-movies may not seem to add up to much and yet perhaps a mystery remains, a nearly indescribable appeal. That’s the stuff that dreams, and movies, are made of.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
And no Tarantino movie would be complete without his ultimate obsession: righteous fury! Remember, this is a love letter to everything that Tarantino holds dear to a once wondrous Tinseltown. If there is a dark force that needs to be dealt with in order for truth and beauty to survive, then you know Tarantino is going to unleash the remedy. In this case, the hippie culture with all its navel-gazing sense of entitlement and self-righteous angst is anathema to a more refined and disciplined era. To see a new generation that is not only not up to the old standards but doesn’t care is pretty heartbreaking for Tarantino. But for that movement to be weaponized is the last straw and that brings us to the fight that Tarantino is more than willing to engage in.
A lot of us out there have one indelible image come to mind when we hear the name, “William Randolph Hearst.” We see a close-up of Orson Welles‘s lips as he sighs, “Rosebud,” and lets drop out of his hand a little snow globe. But surely there was more to the man and the best part of his legacy has got to be his contribution to the birth of newspaper comic strips. Why, to this day, King Features is both admired and respected, the company he founded to develop and distribute comics, columns, editorial cartoons, puzzles, and games around the world. Ohio State University’s Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum will celebrate the centennial of King Features Syndicate with “King of the Comics: William Randolph Hearst and 100 Years of King Features.” The exhibition runs December 13, 2014 – March 15, 2015. For more details, visit right here.