Friday, May 4, 2012

"Because he could do all these things, he imagined that he did do them."

Now that I think about it, I'm surprised that Pauline Kael's "Raising Kane" hasn't come up before while we were discussing taking credit for other people's work.

The Mercury group wasn’t surprised at Welles’s taking a script credit; they’d had experience with this foible of his. Very early in his life as a prodigy, Welles seems to have fallen into the trap that has caught so many lesser men—believing his own publicity, believing that he really was the whole creative works, producer-director-writer-actor. Because he could do all these things, he imagined that he did do them. (A Profile of him that appeared in The New Yorker two years before Citizen Kane was made said that “outside the theatre … Welles is exactly twenty-three years old.”) In the days before the Mercury Theatre’s weekly radio shows got a sponsor, it was considered a good publicity technique to build up public identification with Welles’s name, so he was credited with just about everything, and was named on the air as the writer of the Mercury shows. Probably no one but Welles believed it. He had written some of the shows when the program first started, and had also worked on some with Houseman, but soon he had become much too busy even to collaborate; for a while Houseman wrote them, and then they were farmed out. By the time of the War of the Worlds broadcast, on Halloween, 1938, Welles wasn’t doing any of the writing. He was so busy with his various other activities that he didn’t always direct the rehearsals himself, either—William Alland or Richard Wilson or one of the other Mercury assistants did it. Welles might not come in until the last day, but somehow, all agree, he would pull the show together “with a magic touch.” Yet when the Martian broadcast became accidentally famous, Welles seemed to forget that Howard Koch had written it. (In all the furor over the broadcast, with front-page stories everywhere, the name of the author of the radio play wasn’t mentioned.) Koch had been writing the shows for some time. He lasted for six months, writing about twenty-five shows altogether—working six and a half days a week, and frantically, on each one, he says, with no more than half a day off to see his family. The weekly broadcasts were a “studio presentation” until after the War of the Worlds (Campbell’s Soup picked them up then), and Koch, a young writer, who was to make his name with the film The Letter in 1940 and win an Academy Award for his share in the script of the 1942 Casablanca, was writing them for $75 apiece. Koch’s understanding of the agreement was that Welles would get the writing credit on the air for publicity purposes but that Koch would have any later benefit, and the copyright was in Koch’s name. (He says that it was, however, Welles’s idea that he do the Martian show in the form of radio bulletins.) Some years later, when C.B.S. did a program about the broadcast and the panic it had caused, the network re-created parts of the original broadcast and paid Koch $300 for the use of his material. Welles sued C.B.S. for $375,000, claiming that he was the author and that the material had been used without his permission. He lost, of course, but he may still think he wrote it. (He frequently indicates as much in interviews and on television.)

“Foible” is the word that Welles’s former associates tend to apply to his assertions of authorship. Welles could do so many different things in those days that it must have seemed almost accidental when he didn’t do things he claimed to. Directors, in the theatre and in movies, are by function (and often by character, or, at least, disposition) cavalier toward other people’s work, and Welles was so much more talented and magnetic than most directors—and so much younger, too—that people he robbed of credit went on working with him for years, as Koch went on writing more of the radio programs after Welles failed to mention him during the national publicity about the panic. Welles was dedicated to the company, and he was exciting to work with, so the company stuck together, working for love, and even a little bit more money (Koch was raised to $125 a show) when they got a sponsor and, also as a result of the War of the Worlds broadcast, the movie contract that took them to Hollywood.

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