I know there’s stuff that I should be writing about, but I’m finding it incredibly difficult to get motivated tonight. So, instead of reading through the weekend’s news and trying to come up with something clever, I’m reading up on the early life of Orson Welles. Right now, I’m watching what’s thought to be his first film, an 8-minute experimental short called The Hearts of Age. Welles, who was 19 at the time, co-directed it with a friend by the name of William Vance. Both, if I’m not mistaken, were students at the Art Institute of Chicago. (Welles had turned down a scholarship at Harvard to attend the Art Institute of Chicago.) Less than six years later, Welles would be making one of the greatest films of all time – Citizen Kane. Vance, who starred in some of Welles’ earlier stage productions at the Todd School for Boys, in Woodstock, Illinois, would go on to produce and direct television commercials. (I’ve spent the last half hour trying to find a list of the commercials he was responsible for, with no luck.)
The 16mm film would not be discovered until the late 1960s, when Welles biographer Joseph McBride would find it among a number of artifacts donated by Vance to the Greenwich, Connecticut Public Library. McBride announced his discovery in a Spring 1970 issue of Film Quarterly. His article, entitled “Welles Before Kane,” explored both The Hearts of Age and another Welles short – Too Much Johnson, which was shot in 1938. [note to self: If you ever decide to make a porn film, call it Too Much Johnson as an homage to Welles.] In McBride’s later book, What Ever Happened to Orson Welles?, he states that “Welles seemed bemused and somewhat irritated by the discovery” of The Hearts of Age. He then quotes Gary Graver, Welles’ longtime cinematographer, as saying the following: “Orson kept saying, ‘Why did Joe have to discover that film?’”
So, maybe it wasn’t his best work. I’m still finding it fascinating, though.
Here, before I share the video, is a bit of background from White City Cinema:
…Ostensibly a parody of classic avant-garde movies he had seen while on trips to New York City (in particular Jean Cocteau’s The Blood of a Poet, Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Luis Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou), the seeds of Welles’ visionary genius are already evident in this formative work…
Young Mr. Welles shot The Hearts of Age entirely in suburban Highland Park, Illinois, on the campus of the Todd School for Boys where he had graduated from high school three years earlier. Welles was living in Chicago at the time but frequently returned to Highland Park to direct theatrical productions for the Todd School. It was during one such trip that he made The Hearts of Age with a team of close friends including producer/co-director/cinematographer William Vance and actors Paul Edgerton and Virginia Nicholson (also his future bride)…
In This is Orson Welles, Peter Bogdanovich’s indispensable book-length interview with Welles, the great director claims that The Hearts of Age was nothing more than “Sunday afternoon fun out on the lawn” and “a send up”. Of course it is entirely possible that Welles did not originally intend the film to be a light-hearted parody of the avant-garde but rather an earnest attempt to work in a mode that he had seen and admired as a young man – and his later comments may have been made defensively in hindsight. But if Old Mr. Welles was embarrassed by The Hearts of Age, he needn’t have been. Like the early sketches of a master painter, the film in many ways points the way towards the greatness that would come (in particular in Welles’ use of elaborate make-up and in how he blends techniques gleaned from the German Expressionist and Soviet Montage movements), which makes it an invaluable piece of the Orson Welles puzzle when viewed today…
And here’s the video, put to the music of Dr. John and Chris Barber.
I’m just thankful that nothing I attempted at the age of 19 will ever find it’s way to the light of day. (I’m likewise thankful that none of my artistic endeavors required that I attempt blackface.)
According to the notes that accompany the video on YouTube, William Vance played the Indian in the blanket, and Paul Edgerton played the bell-ringer in blackface. Welles, of course, played Death, and that was his first wife, Virginia Nicholson, playing the old woman who so sexually rode the bell that the man in blackface hanged himself upon. As for the bell, I’m wondering where it is now. From what I can tell, the Todd School for Boys no longer exists, but I imagine the building shown in this film might still be standing. I’m writing to the Woodstock public library now. Maybe it’s an OCD thing, but I feel as though I need to what happened to that bell, and to the school that Welles considered home.
And aren’t those still shots of Welles above, which I grabbed from the video, absolutely incredible?