“Young Orson: The Years of Luck and Genius on the Path to Citizen Kane,” by Patrick McGilligan

  • Harper, 832 pp.  Hardcover $40.00.

A delightfully readable, masterfully researched biography about one of film’s most notable names.

In his giant book about a cultural giant, Young Orson, author Patrick McGilligan provides an abundantly detailed examination into how a precocious youngster from Kenosha, Wisconsin, reached an improbable pinnacle of fame by the age of 25.

To understand the spectacular rise of young Orson Welles, McGilligan embeds his subject in concentric rings of several environments: his family, his town, his schooling, and even his country as it moved from the heights of prosperity, plummeted into the Depression, and then, eventually, rebounded.

He reveals the boy’s special opportunities and his readiness to seize them. Welles was a theatrical being from the beginning, a fellow whose voice, articulation, height, appearance, and quickness to learn what he needed to learn made him a large figure in the initially small arenas of his life — and he remained large as the arenas became more and more significant and filled with greater challenges. Welles always admired magicians, and in his own way he was one: an illusionist and escape artist. He could project himself greatly, take big risks, and usually get out of trouble.

His luck involved being educated at the Todd School for Boys in Woodstock, Illinois, where his genius was quickly recognized — just as it had been previously in Kenosha and Chicago. He arrived at Todd in 1926, and it was his principal home for five years, through 10th grade graduation. Under the forbearing tutelage of headmaster Roger Hill (one of Orson’s several surrogate fathers and later an important friend), he became an adept all-purpose “man of the theatre.” The busy theater schedule at Todd was astounding, and Orson was the heart and soul of it. He also edited and wrote for school publications.

Finishing high school? Going to college? Considered, of course, but a genius had better follow his genius, and his luck. Orson’s schooling including summer travels abroad — most importantly a sojourn in Ireland during 1931-1932 during which he painted (what couldn’t he do?) and hooked on with the Gate Theatre in Dublin. For teenager Welles, this was his college and perhaps also his graduate school. He became a professional.

McGilligan’s treatment of these stages in Orson’s development offers not mere chronologies, but carefully crafted explorations of places and times, replete with detailed character studies, what’s going on around the fast-developing tyro, and evocations of cultural ambiance.

When Welles returned to the U.S., he was quickly reunited with Roger Hill and given a job as drama coach for Todd School productions. However, as was so often the case throughout his meteoric career, he was also the designer of costumes and settings, the player of many parts, and the script editor. Seventeen-year-old Orson’s efforts led to a prestigious regional drama award for the Todd Troupers.

By now, the Great Depression was devastating the economy, particularly the always economically challenged fine and performing arts. For Welles, it was time to move to New York and join Actors’ Equity. He even tried to sell a dramatic script. Orson struggled, now more than ever dependent on the generosity of his other surrogate father (and guardian after Orson’s father died), Dr. Maurice Bernstein. As was always the case, the impressive young man managed to meet influential people at just the right time, make his impression, and demonstrate — like the Houdini he admired — his magic blend of genius and luck. . . .

To read the full review, posted November 26, 2015, click on: Young Orson | Washington Independent Review of Books

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