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Orson Welles: A Superstar Meteor Impact in Wisconsin

In "Lives of Red Stone River," WID Director David Krakauer profiles influential Wisconsinites. His essay on Kenosha-born film pioneer Orson Welles hints at the Midwest's grip on the cinematic star.

Orson Welles photo by avilas.es / Flickr.com

Lives of Red Stone River is a profile series by WID Director David Krakauer examining the people, places and ideas that exemplify creative life in the state of Wisconsin. The series searches for the “imaginative center of gravity in a local constellation of creative lives and places,” Krakauer says.

“In 1935, native Ojibwe speakers recognized the three syllables [in Wisconsin] as phonetic equivalents of ‘Misko’ (red), ‘Ahsin’ (stone) and ‘Sin,’ an ending that signifies a location or place. By this reasoning, Mesconsing / Ouisconsin / Wisconsin meant, ‘Red Stone River.’ Glossaries of Algonquian languages, including Ojibwe and Sauk, confirm that these syllables had the same meanings 300 years ago as they do today.” — Wisconsin Historical Society


William Blake, that great mystical iconoclast of urban inhumanity, was born in London. Mozart, the distilled essence of precocious musical capability, was born in Salzburg. Anna Pavlova – “the Sublime Pavlova” — prima ballerina of the Ballet Russes, was born in Tsarist St. Petersburg. And Orson Welles, widely regarded as one of the finest actors and directors in the American cinema of the Golden Age of Hollywood, a veritable meteor of a celebrity, was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

The biographical inclination is to make much of birthplaces when they accord with the pattern of later life and career, and to diminish them when native connections and influences seem remote. But as Simon Callow, Welles’s biographer, points out, “Wisconsin was none the less the scene of his earliest experience, and his family — mother and father, uncles, aunts, grandfather and grandmother — were prominent and engaged participants in its intense life.” In interviews throughout Welles’s life, Wisconsin continued to exercise an influence on his career, to the extent that he contemplated running for public office: “Roosevelt encouraged me to run for Senator of Wisconsin, my home state, which is in the hands of very reactionary milk producers. But as a leftist I had no chance at all. And I cowardly declined…” The man that Welles was contemplating running against was none other than Joe McCarthy, another Wisconsinite (born in Grand Chute).

“Welles illustrates how novel ideas, stylistic insights, and creative excellence obey no laws so much as the unswerving desire and drive to create objects and works of outstanding quality…”

— David Krakauer

Both Welles and McCarthy had oversized personalities, and I imagine had this political campaign played out, it would have provided a spectacle of equal explosive temperature to The Rumble in the Jungle, that 1974 epic boxing match in Zaire, where Muhammad Ali famously defeated George Foreman in a 8th round knockout. Indeed, McCarthy is exactly the kind of driven, flawed and tortured personality that Welles sought to impersonate in his most famous roles: Charles Foster Kane, Gregory Arkadin, Macbeth, and Hank Quinlan. For each of these characters, an early seed of potential goodness is crushed and deformed by circumstance and weak character into an excrescence of rabid personality.

Shadowed closely by the mid to late-career Marlon Brando, Welles is the greatest expositor in film of those personalities in which a tension arises between a locally conservative environment, a culture undergoing convulsions, and near infinite self-will, generating a giant-sized howl of revolt. Welles was a seizure in the space-time continuum of temperament, generating tidal waves of change that have left permanent cultural deposits in the societies that his films visited. In this way, Welles is rather like a Steve Jobs, a role he would undoubtedly have enjoyed playing, but for his bulk ill-fitting Job’s ectomorphism. Both men were of humble origin, improbable mercurial intelligence and ability, and once glimpsed, impossible to forget.

Welles illustrates how novel ideas, stylistic insights, and creative excellence obey no laws so much as the unswerving desire and drive to create objects and works of outstanding quality, and finding those like-minds and collaborators with whom these dreams can be realized. Much is made of the London and the Globe of Shakespeare’s England, but Welles is of Wisconsin and in his own words, “Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn.”  Next time you are in Wisconsin, drop by the town of Kenosha, one of the unlikely cradles of American Cinema.

David Krakauer



Callow, Simon. “Orson Welles: Volume 1: The Road to Xanadu.” Penguin Books, 1995.

Estrin, Mark. “Orson Welles Interviews.” University Press of Mississippi, 2002.

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More articles in Lives of Redstone River:

Frederick Jackson Turner illustration from Wisconsin Historical Society

Frederick Jackson Turner: The Revolutionary Frontier

In “Lives of Red Stone River,” WID’s director writes about influential Wisconsinites. The first essay in the series focuses on historian Frederick Jackson Turner and lessons learned from physical and metaphorical frontiers.