He was one of the 20th century's great prodigies, someone who had revolutionized both live theater and radio drama by his early twenties. Before turning 26, he had similarly done the same with cinema, acting, directing and arguably co-writing a film that continues to astound viewers two-thirds of a century after its release.
And according to some accounts, he very nearly worked with Carole Lombard.
We are, of course, talking about Orson Welles, whose legacy still tantalizes many more than two decades after his death at age 70 in 1985. And while both the Hollywood system and his personal hubris arguably blunted what he ultimately might have been able to achieve cinematically, his achievements -- both in that and in other media -- remain staggering.
By 1939, Welles was already well-known to millions. His theater productions in New York, from an all-black version of "Macbeth" to plays he produced with his Mercury Theatre, many of which he also acted in, won him acclaim. He also admired the medium of radio, where he got plenty of work -- from a brief, but memorable run as Lamont Cranston in "The Shadow" (which went on for many years with other actors in the role) to the Mercury Theatre on the air. It was with this troupe that he caused a national furor in October 1938 when his adaptation of H.G. Wells' "War Of The Worlds" led more than a few people, not versed in the subtleties of the medium, to believe that Martians were actually invading the earth. (The controversy enabled the show, which at the time had been sustaining, to find a sponsor, Campbell's soup, for future broadcasts.)
What could this wunderkind do with film, many asked? RKO provided him a chance to answer the question when he signed with the studio in 1939.
Initially, Welles -- who prepped for his new medium by studying many films at New York's Museum of Modern Art -- wanted to film Joseph Conrad's "Heart Of Darkness." Unfortunately for Welles, budgetary problems and the start of World War II that September (he wanted to shoot some of the film in Africa) made the project impossible, so he went to something else -- adapting "The Smiler With A Knife," a political spy thriller by Nicholas Blake, which was actually the pen name for mystery writer Cecil Day-Lewis. (If the name sounds familiar, it's because respected English actor Daniel Day-Lewis is his son.)
As Welles once told director Peter Bogdanovich, the film "would have been a farce about a very likable, attractive, extremely handsome young man who's planning to be the dictator of America -- one of those plots where you don't know which cop is in his pay. The basic thing that I loved about it is that the girl doesn't dare go to any policeman, because she doesn't know which one has gone over." Rest assured that the girl gives the dictator-to-be his comeuppance, "but not until she's been a department-store Santa Claus and a lot of other things." Welles also called it "the only farce I ever got near to making."
But who was to be "the girl"? That's been the subject of debate for decades. Three names have consistently come up: Carole Lombard, Rosalind Russell and a then second-tier actress named Lucille Ball.
So what happened? Here are several possibilities:
* In the Lombard bio "Screwball," Larry Swindell says that Welles offered her the part at a time when Carole was trying to decide whether to renew her RKO contract or freelance. According to Swindell, she chose the latter option and Welles abandoned "Smiler."
* In Barbara Leaming's bio "Orson Welles" (written with his cooperation while he was still alive), in December 1939, Welles told RKO head George Schaefer -- the man who had brought him to the studio -- that he designed it as a vehicle for Lombard, and moreover offered to make it for free so as to give the studio an extra picture under his contract. (It was due to expire on Jan. 1, 1940, and Welles was concerned RKO would void it.) Welles had written the script, revised by Herman Mankiewicz -- but both Lombard and Russell declined the role, and RKO deemed Ball (whose leads had heretofore been in second features) not a big enough star for a project of this magnitude.
(Lombard is reported to have said that working with Welles was "a no-win situation," that he would get credit if it was a success and she would be blamed if it were a failure, although neither Swindell nor Leaming cite this.)
* Welles told Bogdanovich, in a conversation used in the book "This Is Orson Welles," that Ball was his first choice. "She could have been just superb in this picture," he said, but the studio told him, "'What do you want Lucille Ball for? She's practically washed up in pictures.'...Imagine how idiotic they were. They didn't know what they had."
He denied the story that both Lombard and Russell rejected the role because he was to be the director, and made this comment about Carole, who was more than 6 1/2 years older than Welles: "Carole Lombard was a dear friend of mine, extremely close. Real, real pal. An ugly word, because by saying that I give the impression there was some kind of romance. There wasn't. She was busy falling in love with Gable and marrying him and being his bride all during that time. But we became tremendous friends, saw a great deal of each other, and performed many practical jokes. And she was all for me."
However, he adds this comment, rather puzzling considering Lombard was on RKO's roster at the time: "She simply couldn't get released from the studio to which she was under commitment." He also sort of backtracks by saying Russell "may well have turned me down. I seem to remember somebody did."
Carole Sampeck of The Lombard Archive says Lombard read the "Smiler With A Knife" script and liked it, but that Welles was at that point unproven. She later regretted not having worked with Welles, as another project possibility with him never materialized. (It's surprising that over all these years, no one has attempted to make a "Smiler" movie based upon Welles' script.)
But even if "Smiler" had come to fruition, no matter who starred, Welles was using it to buy time for his next project...the one we all know as "Citizen Kane."
Sampeck says Lombard did see "Kane" in a private screening late in 1941, and although she was quite understandably upset by what she knew would be misperceived as a shredding of her friend Marion Davies' career reputation, Carole also recognized Welles' talent as a director. Oh, and Clark Gable reportedly slept through the screening.