50 Years Ago This Week – Kael Lauds Orson Welles

On June 24 1967, Pauline Kael – not yet established at the New Yorker where she would emerge as one of the most influential film critics in America – wrote a long essay for the New Republic singing the praises of the then under-appreciated Orson Welles and his new under-seen film, Chimes at Midnight.  “Like Brando, Welles is always being attacked for not having fulfilled his prodigious promise; but who has ever beaten the mass culture fly-by-night system of economics for long?” Kael wrote in “Orson Welles: There Ain’t No Way.”  As for Chimes, she noted that although unfortunately it had already left local theaters, “it should be back (it should be around forever) and it should be seen.”

Dedicated Wellesians (and Paulettes, as her acolytes would come to be known) might be surprised to read of this, given that one of Kael’s most notorious turns took place when she tried to take down Welles with a slash-and-burn revisionist account of the making of Citizen Kane. In 50,000 words written for the New Yorker in 1971, which would become the heart of the book Raising Kane, Kael set out to denigrate the contributions of Welles to that film, especially with regard to the screenplay, emphasizing instead the contributions of others (like co-writer Herman Mankiewicz). 

Kael was motivated to land a hammer blow in the ongoing debate over auteurism, which, to oversimplify, is the position that great films can be recognized as expressions of the single, identifiable authorial voice of their director.  This perspective was championed in the US in the 1960s by the critic Andrew Sarris, and pilloried by Kael. Presumably she reasoned that if she could take the monumental Kane away from its producer-director-cowriter-star, how could the auteur theory possibly survive?

Unfortunately (and even setting aside that Kael at times reduced auteur theory to a straw-man—after all Welles went so far as to share his title card with Greg Toland in honor of the importance of the cinematographer’s contributions to Kane), Kael was egregiously sloppy in her research, and she wrote a bad book.  Even when attentive to detail her account looked only into one side of the story, and she was also quick to wholeheartedly embrace versions of events by participants who were either eager to polish their own reputations, or nursing decades-old grievances against Welles, or both.  (John Houseman dedicated almost one full volume of his memoirs to settling old scores with his former collaborator.) 

Many took Kael’s account at face value, at least until the following year when Welles affiliate Peter Bogdonavitch rebutted – that is eviscerated – the central claims of Raising Kane in a long essay for Esquire, “The Kane Mutiny.” (The young director took an admirable risk in forcefully attacking the powerful critic with his compelling defense of the then-marginalized Welles.) According to Kael’s recent biographer Brian Kellow, the critic, then friendly with Woody Allen, asked him how one could respond to such a comprehensive refutation.  His advice, which she followed: you don’t.

So don’t bother with Raising Kane. With the passage of time, let it be overtaken by “There Ain’t No Way,” with its praise of Welles, “the one great creative force in American films in our time,” and for Chimes, which, Kael assessed, among many other high notes, has a long battle sequence that “ranks with the best of Griffith, John Ford, Eisenstein, Kurosawa—that is, with the best ever done."

In the Library of America’s Selected Writings of Pauline Kael (we review that rewarding book here, along with the Kellow biography), the Kane piece is out, the Chimes essay is in.  As it should be.  

Welles as Falstaff

Chimes at Midnight: Welles as Falstaff



John Gielgud as Shakespeare's Henry IV



Falstaff with Doll (Jeanne Moreau)



The Battle of Shrewsbury


Uneasy Lies

"Uneasy Lies the Head" . . .