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.