Young Orson: Review

Patrick McGilligan’s 2015 book Young Orson: The Years of Luck and Genius on the Path to Citizen Kane tracks the early life of director and actor Orson Welles, studying his environment, experiences, and opportunities to provide a narrative of his path from child prodigy to boy wonder director. McGilligan examines the life of Orson Welles from his birth to the pre-production of the film he is most associated with, Citizen Kane. In fact, except for a final chapter taking place at his death, the book ends with him calling “Action!” on the first day of shooting (p. 706).

The book reads like a narrative, telling the story of this enigmatic man from his birth to the beginning of shooting Citizen Kane, a movie consistently regarded as the best ever made by countless film fans and academics. McGilligan devotes the first chapter to explaining Welles’s ancestry, and then the whole first section of the book studies his early life, with chapters broken up into a few years at a time. As Orson grows older in this book, however, the chapters, while remaining over thirty pages in length, begin to cover one year at a time. In that way, McGilligan devotes an incredible amount of attention to explaining his early life and experiences and how they, in turn, lead to and shape the experiences that take Welles to Hollywood and Citizen Kane.

Welles in his early Mercury Theatre days

There is an incredible amount of mythos surrounding Welles and Citizen Kane, but McGilligan paints him as incredibly human- an exceptional one, sure, but a flesh and blood person nonetheless. That was probably my favorite part of this book. As McGilligan himself explores and concedes, Welles almost seemed destined for greatness from birth, having an incredibly driven artistic mind from a very young age. However, it never comes off as anything other than just being very talented; McGilligan does not write it in such a way that makes Welles seem superhuman, which was fascinating and admirable. One quote that particularly resonated with me was one McGilligan shared from another great director, François Truffaut, who “wrote that Orson always examined ‘the angel within the beast, the heart in the monster, the secret of the tyrant…the weakness of the strong’” (p. 312). It becomes clear that Welles is so capable of doing this in both his directing and acting because of the incredibly strong, pervasive sense of humanity he possessed himself.

When I picked up a 747-page book just about the first twenty-six years of Orson Welles’s life, I will admit I was a little intimidated. While I love biographies, I often struggle to make it through the first few chapters where we learn about the person’s ancestors going back several generations and their childhood pets and experiences. Consequently, this initially felt a little out of my depth. As I read on, however, I found myself increasingly invested in Welles’s life and experiences, constantly excited to find out what incredible creative project or idea he would tackle next, all while putting these pieces together in the great puzzle of what brought him to Citizen Kane. It is an incredible path and story that a biography of his entire life would have to cut down considerably, but McGilligan’s specific focus allows for an engrossing and fascinating explanation of the life events and opportunities that led Welles to create such an important film.

Welles directing Citizen Kane

I really enjoyed Young Orson. I learned an incredible amount about the early life of a filmmaker who is now shrouded in so much mythos that it can be challenging to see through the fog to meet the man. Still, McGilligan manages to pull back the curtain and create an incredibly compelling narrative study. I especially enjoyed reading more about Welles’s early theatre and Mercury Theatre work, but one common theme stood out to me throughout the whole book. Every action and opportunity Welles took led him directly to Citizen Kane and his success in these artistic endeavors. Welles himself attributes this to luck, as McGilligan quotes, “‘I was just awful busy and awful lucky,’ he added. ‘I had a tremendous streak of luck, and I was very grateful for that. Because I’m not being fake-modest talking about luck…I do really think that it has everything to do with anybody’s life” (p. 733). He does himself an incredible disservice with this. Sure, he was born with a great artistic mind that afforded him some more opportunities, but he took every single one of them and worked hard, devoting himself entirely to it. His success came not from luck but a long history of all-consuming dedication to his craft.

“A genius?” Welles laughingly told the New York Post in 1937, shortly after his triumphant Mercury Theatre production of Julius Caesar came to Broadway. “Perhaps. I’m either the genius they say I am or the world’s godawfullest ham. It’s a fifty-fifty split.”
Patrick McGilligan, Young Orson: The Years of Luck and Genius on the Path to Citizen Kane, p. 132

This book review is part of Raquel Stecher’s Summer Reading Classic Film Challenge. Follow her on Twitter (@RaquelStecher) and check the hashtag #ClassicFilmReading to see more reviews!

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