Orson Welles

Orson Welles’ Wartime Campaign for Pan-Americanism: Hello Neighbors

Orson Welles

We have cited several examples of Hollywood and the entertainment industry doing their part to fight the Second World War. The Stars did whatever they could to boost the morale of men in uniform, and more than a few Hollywood figures actually donned their country’s uniform. More than a few made the ultimate sacrifice, giving their lives in the service of their country. In his rush to serve the nation, Orson Welles sacrificed something that, to many in Hollywood and beyond, was even more precious than his life. To serve his country, Welles sacrificed his career and reputation.

Welles was still in his mid-Twenties when he first answered the nation’s call. That call came due to his meteoric rise in the entertainment industry, and anyone who upsets the status quo as much as Welles did is bound to attract controversy. The wunderkind’s spectacular rise through the Federal Theater Project and the notoriety gained in radio where based on a stunning combination of audacity and creative genius. His infamous “War of the Worlds” broadcast is thought to have been the catalyst which caused RKO to agree to what was an unprecedented contract for a new movie director. The notoriety from the “War of the Worlds” is based on the hype generated after the fact by entertainment reporters who were willing to report just about anything that seemed like a juicy story, the supposed “nationwide panic” that the broadcast caused was largely fictional, but it certainly boosted Welles’ reputation.

The deal with RKO was for Welles to write, produce, direct, and perform in two motion pictures and to have complete creative control over the projects. The studio rejected his first two film proposals before allowing him to proceed with Citizen Kane (1941). Today, the film is regarded as an artistic triumph and one of the best films ever made, but at the time of its release, it was an expensive boondoggle for RKO which drew the ire of William Randolph Hearst, one of the most influential men in the country. Hearst’s war on the film is attributed with not only ruining its chance for box office success but hurting all of RKO’s pictures.

Welles went to work on his second picture, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), which may have salvaged his reputation with RKO, but as the picture was going into post-production Welles was appointed as a goodwill ambassador to South America by Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, Nelson Rockefeller. The honor of such an ambassadorship had been offered to Bing Crosby, Rita Hayworth John Ford, Walt Disney (resulting in The Three Caballeros), and others in the entertainment industry. Rockefeller was a big investor at RKO, and the reason for choosing Welles as a goodwill ambassador was to film a documentary about the February 1942 Carnival in Rio de Janeiro.

Although he had only completed a “rough cut” of Ambersons, Welles left extensive notes on how he wanted the film edited before leaving for South America. He was thoroughly briefed in Washington before the trip south (allegedly, the intelligence services conducted part of that briefing and Welles was to do some spying on as well as filming his South American friends).

Working mostly on his own dime, Welles traveled to several South American countries gathering footage for a project tentatively titled It’s All True, an “omnibus picture” with three parts, “The Story of Jazz” which was a history of Samba, “My Friend Bonito” where a Mexican boy befriends a bull, and “Jangadeiros” about four poor Brazilian fishermen sailing a raft. When he finally returned to Hollywood, Welles discovered that his editing notes for Ambersons had been ignored and the studio edited and released version was “ruined” in his opinion (all of the unused footage had been destroyed, possibly to prevent future editing). What’s more, the studio terminated any further work on It’s All True.

Despite lack of support from RKO, Welles was far from being finished with his fight in the War. Just days after returning to U.S. soil, he acted as emcee of a seven-hour coast-to-coast War Bond Drive broadcast which raised $10 million. He continued campaigning for Pan-American unity by presenting “Admiral of the Ocean Sea”, a biography of Christopher Columbus, on the October 12 episode of Cavalcade of America. A month later, he began hosting Hello Americans on CBS, sponsored by the OCIAA to promote inter-American understanding. Hello Americans drew heavily on the research he had done for It’s All True. During the same period, he created Ceiling Unlimited which would also broadcast on CBS, sponsored by Lockheed and glorifying the contributions of the Aviation industry.

At the beginning of the War, Welles’ draft status was “1-B”, or “unfit for active duty by available for limited duty. This was soon upgraded to “1-A”, Fit for duty, however, Welles, the Army, and the Roosevelt administration all seemed to agree that he had more to contribute as a media personality than he would have in uniform.  Gossip columnist and long-time agent of the Heart newspapers, Louella Parsons soon began making discrete (and not so discrete) inquiries as to why Orson Welles was living the life of a Hollywood playboy while so many others were in uniform, fighting and dying for the cause of Democracy. Finally, in the spring of 1943, Welles presented himself to the induction center set up at the Pacific Electric Building in downtown Los Angeles. After his medical examination, his status was downgraded to 4-F because of “myoditis (skeletal muscle inflammation), bronchial asthma, arthritis and inverted flat feet”.

Far from being the only Hollywood figure with 4-F status, Welles was in the company of Frank Sinatra, Mickey Rooney, and Errol Flynn. However, it can hardly be said that Orson Welles shirked in his duty. However, whether because of bad press, driven by the Hearst organization, bad professional choices, or simply changing public tastes, Orson Welles would never quite regain the reputation he enjoyed as a pre-War wunderkind.

Christmas Christmas Radio Shows Texaco Star Theater

Texaco Star Theater with John Barrymore

In this 1938 Christmas Variety Show, host John Barrymore shared a few hilariously funny Christmas remarks with actress Una Merkel, then introduced Kenny Baker, who reminded everyone of us to? Don’t Wait Until the Night Before Christmas to be Good? Following that, the stars of the show performed a drama based on ?The Song of Christmas? you won’t want to miss:

Christmas Fibber McGee and Molly Jack Benny Jack Webb Police Drama

Enjoying Christmas Radio Classics

Jack Benny

After the end of the Golden Age of Radio, the Christmas season simply meant that radio commercials got cheerier and more obnoxious at the same time. We were also sure to be subjected to those darned chipmunks at least once every forty-five minutes.

Of course, it wasn’t always that way. Many social critics (and kindly curmudgeons) bemoan the supposed commercialism of the Holiday Season. Although it is hard to find any real personal value in a spending orgy that begins before the Thanksgiving turkey leftovers are cold, the national obsession with making the Christmas Season special that ran from the Depression years through the Post War period was more than a boon to retailers. At its deepest level, the season of “Goodwill to All Men” became an important thread in the fabric that made us Americans.

Town and country, city and village, prairie and mountain, no matter where you were during the period, radio from the four big networks helped to bind us together as a nation, and made our Holidays a common experience. Jack Benny taught us that Christmas Shopping was supposed to be frustrating, hearing Bing belt out ?Adeste Fidelis? every year reminded us of the importance of tradition, and Fibber McGee helped to teach us that we never outgrow Christmas.

Fibber McGee & Molly

Seasonal Silliness would be carried into the Television era, of course. With television, the season became less real and more retail. The reality of TV’s fantasy world was that the Christmas shows were often written in the summertime and recorded before the fall season started. Radio, with rare exceptions, was live, being performed by people who were involved in their own version of the holiday rush. This was especially true, and that much more poignant in the holiday editions of AFRS programs during WWII. Hollywood and Radio’s biggest names came together on programs like Command Performance, GI Journal and Mail Call. Working on a volunteer basis, and more often than not led by Bob Hope, the Stars did all they could to make Christmas special for the troops.

Bob Hope

Any program that held onto a time slot as well as managing to stay on the air for more than a couple years had a pretty good chance of Christmas Eve or The Big Day falling on a broadcast night. Of course, the longer the show stayed on the air, the more likely it was to happen more than once. The long run of Fibber McGee and Molly gave us a number of terrifically festive Christmas programs (and usually more than just during the week before Christmas), but some of the best took place on Christmas Eve or Christmas and included ?Teenie? Marian Jordan’s little girl character) reciting Twas The Night Before Christmas along with the Kingsmen.

With Beulah in the kitchen and Leroy scheming for the perfect present, The Great Gildersleeve gave us a number of terrific Christmas memories. Gildy’s Christmases often involved manly voices raised in song as well as schemes to do something nice for the town’s young folks, but few Christmases were as poignant than 1948. That fall a baby had been abandoned in Gildersleeve’s car. Having an infant in his life turned the confirmed bachelor on his ear. The story arc climaxed at Christmas when Gildy must make the decision to adopt the baby girl or return her to the father who had been forced to abandon her. The was not a dry eye within earshot of the radio.

Jack Webb as Sgt Joe Friday of Dragnet

Even Radio Tough Guys softened a bit around the edges at Christmas, even of the Radio Noir world they operated in didn’t. Sgt Friday on Dragnet shocked us one year over the dangers of kids and guns with “A Rifle For Christmas”, and then in another season warmed our heart to melting in “Big Little Jesus” when an immigrant boy makes good on his promise to take the Baby Jesus for a ride if he receives a red wagon for Christmas. The great Nero Wolfe and his sidekick Archie Goodwin discover that street corner Santa Clauses are being murdered and that one of the Santas is a millionaire. Even Sherlock Holmes has to come to the rescue when Professor Moriarty stoops so low as to try and steal kid’s Christmas gifts.

Christmas is not forgotten in the Wild West. One of the best Cowboy Christmases is shared by James Stewart’s The Six Shooter when Britt Ponset tells a very Western version of the classic Scrooge tale.

Even without Chipmunks, Christmas is a time for music, and Old Time Radio does not disappoint. On Christmas Day, 1943, NBC managed to connect every theater of the War with music and inspiration talks. Two days earlier, Dinah Shore delighted everyone with her beautiful Christmas songs while apologizing that her sponsor’s Birdseye frozen turkeys would all be going to support the War Effort. Of course,  Melody Ranch and the rest of the guitar and fiddle crowd would never forget Christmas.