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Wednesday, March 20, 2024

March 20, 2024: American Magic: Orson Welles

[This coming weekend marks Harry Houdini’s 150th birthday! So this week on the blog I’ll perform some AmericanStudying magic of my own, leading up to a special post on that legendary prestidigitator.]

On two ways to AmericanStudy Orson Welles’ Magic Show.

I’m not particularly proud of the fact that the only post to date in which I’ve thought at length about the iconic artist and American Orson Welles (1915-1985) was my non-favorites examination of Citizen Kane (1941). I stand by the critiques in that post, but I don’t want to suggest for a second that I don’t recognize Welles’ towering talent, nor the countless aspects of American culture and society which he impacted in the course of his influential career and life: from his early work with the Depression-era Federal Theatre Project in New York through his groundbreaking radio shows (especially the infamous 1938 War of the Worlds adaptation) and up to a hugely important career as a film actor and director for which Kane was just the tip of the iceberg. I could dedicate an entire week’s series to Welles, and maybe will have the chance at some point; but for today, I’m writing about a project of his that was never completed in his lifetime, his unfinished television special Orson Welles’ Magic Show (filmed between 1976 and 1985 but as those hyperlinked clips indicate never finalized in his lifetime and only edited together and partially shared, both by his romantic partner Oja Kodar, after his death in 1985).

It’s pretty striking that Welles spent so much of his last decade working on this seemingly quixotic project, and I think there are a couple ways we can make broader analytical meaning of that quest. Clearly magic was something personally important to Welles, as he details in the posthumously published autobiographical book This is Orson Welles (1992; it’s really a series of conversations between Welles and filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich) where he describes being taught magic tricks at a young age by none other than this week’s inspiration Harry Houdini. I’m not saying that magic tricks are Welles’ “Rosebud,” exactly, but at least that there’s something telling and moving in seeking in the final stage of life to connect back to and recapture a part of our childhood that we’ve moved away from. And, in this case, that element is also a skillset that Welles had not been able to master or make central to his success, compared to the many aforementioned artistic and cultural arenas in which he had already left lasting legacies by that time.

Speaking of those many other cultural arenas, I also think it’s worth considering ways in which magic might be more parallel to and interconnected with them than we generally acknowledge. This Saturday Evening Post Considering History column on blackface entertainment led me to think more than I ever had before about just how much Vaudeville is a part of (and was an influence on) other defining 20th century media like radio, film, and television. Magic tricks were a part of countless Vaudeville routines and performers’ acts, so there’s a direct intersection here; but more broadly, I’d say that both are examples of early and foundational forms of mass entertainment, late 19th and early 20th century cultural forms that foreshadowed and helped shape the way that other multimedia genres developed and evolved. So it stands to reason that one of the American artists who most fully mastered those multimedia worlds of radio, film, and the like was also greatly influenced by, and apparently spent his life and career trying to recapture, the world of magic.

Next MagicStudying tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Magicians or magic histories or contexts you’d highlight?

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