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The Orson Box

Ladies and gentlemen: his eminence, Orson Welles.

UNITED STATES—Astonishing news: 33 years after calling it quits on Earth, Orson Welles is back, strong as ever, with his last motion picture being redeemed from legendary limbo by Netflix, the oft-described, seldom seen “The Other Side of the Wind.”

This brings to mind a morning spent in Atwater Village opening a box of Orson’s final screenplays. Liz Derby was a woman who had run a typing service in Los Angeles in the 70s and 80s. A friend who later worked with Liz in Pasadena helped arrange to see this trove of things, amassed from that period when Orson was better known for appearances on Merv Griffin. He was thought to be in an eclipse, but far from it, it was a remarkably fertile period as Orson strived to make a major Hollywood movie. The screenplays were a result of that.

Liz said he didn’t like to sign his name. A memo she’d saved, “Make sure all the clunkers are out of the script.”

That was affixed to a copy of “The Big Brass Ring” that was a sardonic take on American politics, as an Texas senator with an eye on the White House takes a cruise on the coast of Spain. The arch political farce was tantalizing close to production, (Arnon Milchan had promised to produce) It was a dark story, the climax of it is where some of this privilege, who will sure be president, clobbers a blind beggar in an anonymous suburb of Madrid in a pique of rage. It is an untraceable crime and the end of the screenplay you can almost his the somber drums leading up to the man’s presidential inauguration.

I had a dream one night of this last reel—in black and white and tried to get Almodovar interested. Somebody who could really do it visual justice.

“The big change Orson kept toying with was whether his character, Kim, a one-time Roosevelt aide who is now out of the closet, would do the killing or the senator,” Liz told me. Clearly, he went for the Wellesian, the most dramatic choice. Liz Derby considered Welles and her other client, Ridley Scott, had the Midas touch for drama.

At one point, Liz told me, Orson had the notion of turning the script into the novel. It made a very short novel. “He didn’t make any textual changes,” Liz told me. “The dialog went all into quotes. Orson’s retort to it’s shortness: ‘Look how short Love Story was?'” It shows he was itching to get the story into some form.

Ms. Derby told me that Orson was special even when it came to screenplay formatting. The dialogue lines came in wider, four-inch swathes. And it was nicer to read for sure, and is a reflection that Orson came out of an era when script format was still being figured out; he obviously preferred the wider dialogue lines..

The most satisfying property in Liz’s box was “The Cradle Will Rock” written by Orson and Ring Lardner, Jr. It was to have a folksy-funny voiceover by Orson and indulged a bit of myth-making in his own life. Dramatic and colorful, it’s about young Orson growing up, heading the Mercury Theatre Group in New York and putting staging a musical too-proletarian that the U.S. government decided to shut down minutes before opening night. The doors to the theater were chained. The crowd of theater goers and astonished actors went in search of an empty theater in the Broadway zone. The composer, Marc Blitzstein, ended up playing a piano in the middle of the stage. The performers sang out there parts posted in different parts of the theater.

You get glimpse of that fabled life, a party in house in New Jersey, with his young wife; Hollywood is already lurking. Surprisingly, Welles didn’t really want to come to Hollywood.

Peter Bogdanovich later asked how the studio contract at RKO came to included a clause that freed him from having to show rushes.

“I thought of it. After a while I run out of reasons to keep me from going to Hollywood, and I had to think up a new one.”

To be continued…

Graydon Miller is the wizard of fiction. He is the author of “Later Bloomer: Tales from Darkest Hollywood.”

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