Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Tragedy of Mercury

If you think we have a lot of threads here at West Coast Stat Views, you ought to see the queue.

One of the threads I'd like too spend more time on is the mystery of sustained success. Why are certain individuals and institutions able to hold onto, perhaps even build on early successes, which, of course, leads to the related question of why the enormously promising so often fail to sustain that promise.

Pauline Kael's controversial essay "Raising Kane" is explicitly built around this question using W.R. Hearst, Herman Mankiewicz and Orson Welles as case studies. She also says some very smart things about what we might now call fanboy critics. I quoted some of her observations in a recent discussion at Brad DeLong blog. After finding the relevant passage I kept reading till I got to the end of the essay and it hit me just how much this was how well the theme of unfulfilled promise applied to all of the Mercury Players.  They all had good careers as character actors (Cotten even had a good run as a leading man), but, as Kael points out, entirely along conventional Hollywood standards. It seems strange now to think of the mother on Bewitched and the detective on Perry Mason as being integral parts of a group that was expected to revolutionize stage, screen and radio.
        Mankiewicz went on writing scripts, but his work in the middle and late forties is not in the same spirit as Kane. It’s rather embarrassing to look at his later credits, because they are yea-saying movies—decrepit “family pictures” like The Enchanted Cottage. The booze and the accidents finally added up, and he declined into the forties sentimental slop. He tried to rise above it. He wrote the script he had proposed earlier on Aimee Semple McPherson, and he started the one on Dillinger, but he had squandered his health as well as his talents. I have read the McPherson script; it is called Woman of the Rock, and it’s a tired, persevering-to-the-end, burned-out script. He uses a bit of newspaper atmosphere, and Jed again, this time as a reporter, and relies on a flashback structure from Aimee’s death to her childhood; there are “modern” touches—a semi-lesbian lady who manages the evangelist, for instance—and the script comes to life whenever he introduces sophisticated characters, but he can’t write simple people, and even the central character is out of his best range. The one device that is interesting is the heroine’s love of bright scarves, starting in childhood with one her father gives her and ending with one that strangles her when it catches on a car wheel, but this is stolen from Isadora Duncan’s death, and to give the death of one world-famous lady to another is depressingly poverty-stricken. Mankiewicz’s character hadn’t changed. He had written friends that he bore the scars of his mistake with Charlie Lederer, but just as he had lent the script of Kane to Lederer, Marion Davies’s nephew, he proudly showed Woman of the Rock to Aimee Semple McPherson’s daughter, Roberta Semple, and that ended the project. His behavior probably wasn’t deliberately self-destructive as much as it was a form of innocence inside the worldly, cynical man—I visualize him as so pleased with what he was doing that he wanted to share his delight with others. I haven’t read the unfinished Dillinger; the title, As the Twig Is Bent, tells too hoary much.

        In his drama column in The New Yorker in 1925, Mankiewicz parodied those who thought the Marx Brothers had invented all their own material in The Cocoanuts and who failed to recognize George S. Kaufman’s contribution. It has been Mankiewicz’s fate to be totally ignored in the books on the Marx Brothers movies; though his name is large in the original ads, and though Groucho Marx and Harry Ruby and S. J. Perelman all confirm the fact that he functioned as the producer of Monkey Business and Horse Feathers, the last reference I can find to this in print is in Who’s Who in America for 1953, the year of his death. Many of the thirties movies he wrote are popular on television and at college showings, but when they have been discussed in film books his name has never, to my knowledge, appeared. He is never mentioned in connection with Duck Soup, though Groucho confirms the fact that he worked on it. He is now all but ignored even in many accounts of Citizen Kane. By the fifties, his brother Joe—with A Letter to Three Wives and All About Eve—had become the famous wit in Hollywood, and there wasn’t room for two Mankiewiczes in movie history; Herman became a parentheses in the listings for Joe.
        Every time someone in the theatre or in movies breaks through and does something good, people expect the moon of him and hold it against him personally when he doesn’t deliver it. That windy speech Kaufman and Hart gave their hero in The Fabulous Invalid indicates the enormous burden of people’s hopes that Welles carried. He has a long history of disappointing people. In the Saturday Evening Post of January 20, 1940, Alva Johnston and Fred Smith wrote:

            Orson was an old war horse in the infant prodigy line by the time he was ten. He had already seen eight years’ service as a child genius…. Some of the oldest acquaintances of Welles have been disappointed in his career. They see the twenty-four-year-old boy of today as a mere shadow of the two-year-old man they used to know.

A decade after Citizen Kane, the gibes were no longer so good-natured; the terms “wonder boy” and “boy genius” were thrown in Welles’s face. When Welles was only thirty-six, the normally gracious Walter Kerr referred to him as “an international joke, and possibly the youngest living has-been.” Welles had the special problems of fame without commercial success. Because of the moderate financial returns on Kane, he lost the freedom to control his own productions; after Kane, he never had complete control of a movie in America. And he lost the collaborative partnerships that he needed. For whatever reasons, neither Mankiewicz nor Houseman nor Toland ever worked on another Welles movie. He had been advertised as a one-man show; it was not altogether his own fault when he became one. He was alone, trying to be “Orson Welles,” though “Orson Welles” had stood for the activities of a group. But he needed the family to hold him together on a project and to take over for him when his energies became scattered. With them, he was a prodigy of accomplishments; without them, he flew apart, became disorderly. Welles lost his magic touch, and as his films began to be diffuse he acquired the reputation of being an intellectual, difficult-to-understand artist. When he appears on television to recite from Shakespeare or the Bible, he is introduced as if he were the epitome of the highbrow; it’s television’s more polite way of cutting off his necktie.

        The Mercury players had scored their separate successes in Kane, and they went on to conventional careers; they had hoped to revolutionize theatre and films, and they became part of the industry. Turn on the TV and there they are, dispersed, each in old movies or his new series or his reruns. Away from Welles and each other, they were neither revolutionaries nor great originals, and so Welles became a scapegoat—the man who “let everyone down.” He has lived all his life in a cloud of failure because he hasn’t lived up to what was unrealistically expected of him. No one has ever been able to do what was expected of Welles—to create a new radical theatre and to make one movie masterpiece after another—but Welles’s “figurehead” publicity had snowballed to the point where all his actual and considerable achievements looked puny compared to what his destiny was supposed to be. In a less confused world, his glory would be greater than his guilt.

Kael doesn't mention that part of Welles trouble lay in his choice of company. He had started out with perhaps the most impressive set of collaborators any filmmaker had ever assembled. He ended up with fans and sycophants. He was only in his fifties when "Raising Kane" came out but his last hurrah, Chimes at Midnight (considered by some to be his best film), was already five years in the past and even his supporters (perhaps particularly his supporters) were inclined to talk about him as a revered figure rather than an active force.

As I write this I find myself thinking of another tremendously talented fellow I know very peripherally here in LA.  In his day, extraordinarily productive and influential but his work fell off to a trickle years ago. I've long been amazed by his entourage of admirers, but I never until now considered the possibility that always having someone around who wanted to hear him talk may have made him less inclined to sit down and work.


  1. Regarding the tendency of critics to only see their local environment, see this from Thomas Mallon who's so stuck in the NY literary establishment he doesn't even realize how stuck he is. The funny thing is that Mallon, I think, considers himself somewhat of an outsider (for one thing, he is very consciously a political conservative which of course is unusual in his environment). In the passage in question, Mallon considers Norman Mailer to be unique in writing about the moon landing, although of course lots of others wrote about that topic--they just weren't officially recognized members of the literary establishment so they don't count.

  2. Link here: http://andrewgelman.com/2015/07/31/this-sentence-by-thomas-mallon-would-make-barry-n-malzberg-spin-in-his-grave-except-that-hes-still-alive-so-it-would-just-make-him-spin-in-his-retirement/