Happy birthday, Orson Welles! Welles, who’s 99th birthday was Tuesday, was probably the most important American filmmaker of the 20th century (remember, Hitchcock was British), and he was a living enigma. Impermeable and perpetually opaque, Welles seemed to be always putting on a performance — in his interviews, his onset demeanor, and his supposed personal life. David Thomson’s spectacular biography Rosebud discusses how Welles began his career by lying. In Ireland, to which he ran off to paint, he told some theater producers that he was a well-respected Broadway actor, and they simply believed him (or so Welles claimed.)
Welles would spend the rest of his career behind a shroud, not unlike Oz’s great and powerful Wizard. He pioneered myriad of technical and creative concepts in the world of cinema; credited as the first auteur, Welles conjured and created a singular vision that coursed through all of his films — from the paranoiac, panic-inducing War of the Worlds broadcast to his final masterpiece, the meta-documentary F for Fake.
1938: The War of the Worlds (Mercury Theatre on Air)
Contrary to popular belief, Welles did in fact inform the public that he was performing an on-air production of the other Welles’ classic tale of alien invasion. However, most people tuned into the broadcast after that initial warning (which ran just once, right before the program began), and thus pandemonium ensued. The Mercury Theatre Air program ran without commercials, which didn’t help alleviate any confusion. Welles’ baritone voice lent an air of authenticity to the absurd story of space invaders landing in Princeton Junction and running amok in tripod apparatuses.
The next morning, newspapers (which still mattered back then) slammed Welles and bemoaned his “irresponsibility” because they, the paper-men (they were all men), were still angry that they had lost advertising revenue to radio.