Jeff Porter: The Many Lives of Orson Welles

Lost Sound: The Forgotten Art of Radio Storytelling, by Jeff PorterWe welcome a guest post from Jeff Porter, author of Lost Sound: The Forgotten Art of Radio Storytelling. From Archibald MacLeish to David Sedaris, radio storytelling has long borrowed from the world of literature, yet the narrative radio work of well-known writers and others is a story that has not been told before. And when the literary aspects of specific programs such as The War of the Worlds or Sorry, Wrong Number were considered, scrutiny was superficial. In Lost Sound, Jeff Porter examines the vital interplay between acoustic techniques and modernist practices in the growth of radio. He identifies the ways radio challenged the conventional distinctions between highbrow and lowbrow cultural content to produce a dynamic popular culture.

In today’s post, Porter marks the 101st birthday of one of America’s most legendary radio storytelling voices: Orson Welles.

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Orson Welles

Orson Welles. (Photo courtesy Indiana University Lilly Library.)

If he were still alive, Orson Welles (1915-1985) would be 101 years old today. Welles is remembered as one of America’s most important filmmakers, but before he became famous for his movies, Welles ruled the airwaves.

On radio, he read poetry on CBS’s Musical Reveries at $50 per poem; performed as both the president of Germany and the arms dealer Sir Basil Zaharoff for The March of Time; impersonated John D. Rockefeller in Du Pont’s Cavalcade of America; and was heard as Lamont Cranston in The Shadow, as a disdainful British actor (Rex Dakolar) in NBC’s Peter Absolute on the Erie Canal, as Hamlet on the Columbia Workshop’s Shakespeare for Radio, and as the narrator in his own adaptation of Les Misérables for the Mutual network. By the time the Martians arrived in New Jersey in his notorious broadcast of War of the Worlds, Welles was on the cover of Time magazine and about to become a nationally known celebrity. It was precisely at this moment (June 1938) that he signed on with CBS to host an hour-long radio series that would become Mercury Theatre on the Air, a program devoted to radio adaptations of literary classics. Between the Mercury Theatre’s first and last programs, listeners tuned in to over 100 broadcasts of sophisticated storytelling, from Dracula and Heart of Darkness to Rebecca and Jane Eyre. These were acoustic marvels whose innovations changed radio forever.

first edition of The Third Man, by Graham Greene.

The Third Man, by Graham Greene. (Photo Burnside Rare Books.)

When Welles left for Los Angeles after signing with RKO in 1939, it may have seemed that his radio days were winding down. But even during the filming of Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, Welles continued to be heard on the air, wrapping up the Mercury broadcasts (now called Campbell’s Playhouse) in 1940 and directing and performing in Lucille Fletcher’s hit radio play The Hitchhiker in 1942. His attention may have been split between radio and film, but that never cramped Welles’s style.

In fact, his knack for moving across the media divide only enhanced his mastery of both. A striking case in point is the remake of the classic 1949 film noir The Third Man, adapted by Carol Reed from a story by Graham Greene. Orson Welles, who starred as the infamous villain Harry Lime in the movie, reprised his role for BBC radio in The Lives of Harry Lime in 1951.

Because the movie ends with the death of Harry Lime, Orson Welles had to find a way to bring Harry back to life on the air. The radio version ingeniously resurrects Harry Lime not by retelling Graham Greene’s story, but by imagining what happened before that story began. Perhaps the first-ever prequel, The Lives of Harry Lime was an immense hit on both sides of the Atlantic. Radio not only provided Harry with a new lease on life, producing an endless supply of back stories that, like the tales of Scheherazade, kept death at bay; but it also gave Harry Lime a startling makeover. The ruthless racketeer of Graham Greene’s novel, the devil of postwar Europe, on radio also became something else: if not a lovable villain, at least a good-natured rogue.

Each episode of the radio story began with the by then familiar zither music of Anton Karas, which was dramatically interrupted by a gun shot. And then the prologue was spoken by Welles: “That was the shot that killed Harry Lime. He died in a sewer beneath Vienna, as those of you know who saw the movie The Third Man. Yes, that was the end of Harry Lime . . . but it was not the beginning. Harry Lime had many lives . . . and I can recount all of them. How do I know? Very simple. Because my name is Harry Lime.”

Orson Welles as Harry Lime, film still from The Third Man, 1949.

Orson Welles as Harry Lime, film still from The Third Man, 1949.

Once Welles had Harry Lime all to himself, he began tinkering with one of film’s most memorable scoundrels. The remediated Harry is not only kinder and gentler, but also mistake-prone. Through bad luck, poor judgment, or a mix of the two, radio’s Harry always finds himself in a jam, narrowly escaping disaster, and in the process often doing more good than harm. In Episode 2, “See Naples and Live,” which aired in August 1951, Harry hopes to steal a lavish emerald locket from a wealthy American tourist in Italy. Matters get complicated, however, when Harry falls for the woman’s personal assistant, and when a gun-toting hoodlum muscles in on Harry’s scheme. Harry more or less saves the day, even though it costs him the jewel. In the end, Harry rues the loss of the girl more than the loss of the loot, softy that he has become. Film’s Harry Lime sacrificed friends and lovers for his own profit; not so radio’s Harry, a small-time crook with a soulful side.

Orson Welles is back! "The Lives of Harry Lime" (Image otrcat.com).

Orson Welles is back! “The Lives of Harry Lime” (Image otrcat.com).

Radio gave Harry Lime not only another chance at life but an opportunity to make amends, maybe even to atone for what, at least in the reverse logic of the prequel, lay ahead. Whereas in the film, Harry Lime was corrupt but charismatic, on radio he becomes affable but wistful. On the air, Harry’s capers almost always miscarry, and there are hints of melancholy in his awareness of the persistence of failure. Money vanishes, companions disappear, he quickly packs his bags and moves on. As he laments to listeners: “I’ve known many places and left them, made many friends and lost them, won many fortunes and spent them. My fate seems to be linked to a cosmic yo-yo.”

If radio Harry takes us to a place where film Harry couldn’t go, it’s partly thanks to radio’s uncanny ability to confer interiority on its speakers. The voice of Harry Lime reveals what is inaccessible to the filmed image, what exceeds the visible, which is the inside life of a character. On radio, Orson Welles’s Harry talks continually. So reticent on the screen, so loquacious on the air. Welles’s voice, with its privileged sign of narratorial authority, endows Harry Lime with an inner life he did not possess in the film, where he was just the object of our fascinated gaze.

Welles may be gone, but like Harry Lime, his voice lives on. Thanks to the San Francisco-based Internet Archive, thousands of old-time radio shows have been preserved and are accessible in searchable databases. The complete library—all 52 episodes—of The Lives of Harry Lime is available online, as are the recordings of Mercury Theatre on the Air and The Campbell Playhouse. Come-back artist that he was, Welles would no doubt be pleased to find that radio is not the “abandoned mine” he once called it. Let the show go on.

Jeff Porter teaches English at the University of Iowa and is author of Lost Sound: The Forgotten Art of Radio Storytelling. Visit his website, jeffporter.org, to learn more about his work.