Orson Welles at 19… The Hearts of Age

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?

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  1. Posted October 23, 2011 at 10:10 pm | Permalink

    Now I’m just waiting to see what Tater might have to say about Orson Welles.

  2. Mr. X
    Posted October 24, 2011 at 8:08 am | Permalink

    Speaking of where Welles’ props – like the bell – are now, I seem to recall an episode of Columbo once where one of the characters had the the gates to the Kane to estate in his home.

    Thanks to Google, I just verified it.

    The episode was called “How to Dial a Murder” (1978). In it, a psychologist (played by Nicol Williamson) kills his wife’s lover by remotely triggering trained dobermans. Their kill command is “Roesbud.”

    I have no idea where the gates are now, or, for that matter, the sled Rosebud. Three Rosebud sleds were used in production of Citizen Kane, of which only one was not burned.

  3. Edward
    Posted October 24, 2011 at 8:31 am | Permalink

    I can’t believe he’s only 19 in this footage.

  4. Anonymatt
    Posted October 24, 2011 at 8:42 am | Permalink

    Mark, did you see this article from a few months ago about Orson and his reliance on fake noses?


    Apparently he disliked his own nose because he felt it was too small. I should have such problems.

  5. Film Historian
    Posted October 24, 2011 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    I know you’re probably thinking about baby names, Mark. Here’s one for you to think about. Christopher, if it’s a girl. That’s what Welles and Virginia Nicholson named their daughter.

  6. K2
    Posted October 24, 2011 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    An interesting bit of trivia. Welles had three daughters, each by a different woman, and one illegitimate son. The son’s name is Michael Lindsay-Hogg, and he grew up to direct the Beatles’ film Let It Be. His mother, the actress Geraldine Fitzgerald, was married to Sir Edward Lindsay-Hogg at the time. They were next door neighbors to Welles.

  7. Eel
    Posted October 24, 2011 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    Personally, I prefer Gene Wilder’s blackface work.


  8. Christine M
    Posted October 24, 2011 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

    Opening shot in A Touch of Evil. Pure Genius! I love that part best of all his films. Well, at least the ones I’ve seen.

  9. Posted October 24, 2011 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

    I think my nose is too small too. Maybe that’s why I love Welles as much as I do. And I was unaware that his daughter was named Christopher, or, for that matter, that he knocked up his next door neighbor. He was definitely a charmer in his early years, that’s for sure. And I agree that the establishing shot at the beginning of A Touch of Evil is Pure Genius. It’s a beautiful thing to watch unfold.

  10. The Fourth Man
    Posted October 25, 2011 at 12:46 am | Permalink

    I don’t like the beginning of Touch of Evil. Too busy.
    Try the opening of his Othello. That is great work.
    His very small nose made him look a little pig like. In his later years, it grew into him. But a man who married Rita Hayworth should never ever ever complain about anything. What a doll.
    And Heston was way off for that role anyway.

  11. Matt T
    Posted October 26, 2011 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    It looks like many of the property owned by the Todd School is now owned by Woodstock Christian Life Services (WCLS).

    There was talk of tearing down the dormitory in 2008, but I’m not sure what happened with it.


  12. Dale
    Posted August 27, 2013 at 8:49 am | Permalink

    In the early 1960s I had an original writing course at the University of Hartford with Will Vance. His course had a great influence on my writing. I remember Will saying that his father was involved in movies or theater. I was around 20 at the time and Will looked to be in his late 40s or early 50s. When you do the numbers, it could have been my teacher not his father who did “Hearts of Age.” Do you have any idea how old Orson Welles and William Vance were in 1934? Any other information might help as well.

  13. Posted August 27, 2013 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

    I’ll have to dig though my notes, Dale. At the time that I wrote that piece, I reached out to several people at the school, and I’m sure that there are details that I left out. If I’m not mistaken, though, Orson was 19 when it was filmed. As he was born in 1915, that would put the production of “Hearts of Age” at around 1934. Assuming Vance was roughly the same age as his classmate, he would have been 41 in 1960. I don’t know about his father, but, if you figure he was 20 when Vance was born, he would have been 61 in 1960. Given what you’ve said, my guess is that it was your teacher who made the film, and not his father.

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