An allegation from Orson   Leave a comment


Posted by vp19 on 2013.06.18 at 06:39 
Current mood: indescribableindescribable

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Carole Lombard and Orson Welles, both at RKO at the start of the 1940s, had an intriguing relationship. Welles was quite fond of her — albeit not in a romantic way — and may have toyed with casting her in what might have been his first film production, an adaptation of the comedic spy thriller “The Smiler With A Knife” ( 

As we all know, Welles went in a different direction, making the revolutionary “Citizen Kane” (he’s seen above from a 1940-41 RKO pressbook in which the film’s public working title was listed as “John Citizen, U.S.A.”). Lombard apparently was invited to its Hollywood premiere in May 1941, but perhaps fearing it might offend her good friend Marion Davies and her paramour, mogul William Randolph Hearst (both of whom were said to have been at least partial inspirations for “Kane” characters), she declined to attend, sending her mother to the premiere. Later that year, Carole saw “Kane” at a private screening provided by Welles; husband Clark Gable also reportedly attended and fell asleep during the film.

Had fate not intervened, Carole and Orson might well have worked together. Now, a conversation with Welles not long before his death in 1985 provides a controversial perspective on the accident which prevented that from happening.

orson welles 1985

In 1983, filmmaker Henry Jaglom, a friend of Welles’, recorded a conversation they had over lunch at Orson’s favorite Los Angeles hangout, Ma Maison restaurant. They discussed a variety of topics, but the following exchange shows Welles — as irascible in his later years as he was as a multimedia wunderkind –– had not lost his skill to shock:

H.J.: Was it Norma Shearer, [Irving] Thalberg’s widow, who was killed in that plane crash?
O.W.: No, no. She wasn’t killed in a plane. That was another thing that is amazing. After Thalberg died, Norma Shearer -— one of the most minimally ­talented ladies ever to appear on the ­silver screen, and who looked like ­nothing, with one eye crossed over the other -— went right on being the queen of Hollywood. Everybody used to say, “Mrs. Thalberg is coming,” “Miss Shearer is arriving,” as though they were talking about Sarah Bernhardt.
H.J.: Or Marie Antoinette.
O.W.: You’re thinking of what’s-her-name -— the good one.
H.J.: Gable’s girlfriend -— Carole Lombard.
O.W.: His wife. I adored her. She was a very close friend of mine. And I don’t mean to imply that we were ever lovers. Do you know why her plane went down?
H.J.: Why?
O.W.: It was full of big-time American physicists, shot down by the Nazis. She was one of the only civilians on the plane. The plane was filled with bullet holes.
H.J.: It was shot down by who?
O.W.: Nazi agents in America. It’s a real thriller story.
H.J.:: That’s preposterous.
O.W.: The people who know it, know it. It was greatly hushed up. The official story was that it ran into the mountain.
H.J.: The agents had antiaircraft guns?
O.W.: No. In those days, the planes couldn’t get up that high. They’d just clear the mountains. The bad guys knew the exact route that the plane had to take. They were standing on a ridge, which was the toughest thing for the plane to get over. One person can shoot a plane down, and if they had five or six people there, they couldn’t miss. Now, I cannot swear it’s true. I’ve been told this by people who swear it’s true, who I happen to believe. But that’s the closest you can get, without having some kind of security clearance.
No one wanted to admit that we had people in the middle of America who could shoot down a plane for the Nazis. Because then everybody would start denouncing anybody with a German grandmother. Which Roosevelt was very worried about. The First World War had only happened some twenty-odd years before. He’d seen the riots against ­Germans. And he was very anxious for nothing like that to be repeated. He was really scared about what would happen to the Japanese if all the rednecks got started.
H.J.: So his idea was to protect them? That’s why he rounded them up and put them in camps?
O.W.: Yes.
H.J.: You knew Roosevelt, right?
O.W.: Yes, I kept him up too late. He liked to stay up and talk, you see. He was free with me. I didn’t need to be ­manipulated. He didn’t need my vote. He used to say, “You and I are the two best actors in America.”

Wow. Were this to be proven true — that the crash was intentional, not an accident — Lombard’s death would be viewed in an entirely different light, even if she wasn’t the primary target. But let’s examine Welles’ points:

* Could Carole have been the target? Remember, she was returning from the first war bond rally (in her native Indiana), and her upcoming film was the Ernst Lubitsch-directed dark anti-Nazi comedy “To Be Or Not To Be.” It’s entirely possible Hitler and his henchmen wanted her killed. (Hitler, a movie fan who ran private screenings of all sorts of films and was aware of the power of the medium, had probably seen at least one of her earlier movies.) Working against this theory, though, is that Lombard wasn’t confirmed as a passenger on the plane until early on Jan. 16, 1942. It’s possible Nazi intelligence found out about it, learned the plane’s flight plan, and quickly set up snipers to shoot it down…but very unlikely.

* Was the plane “full of big-time American physicists,” as Welles alleges? This would run counter to reports that her fellow non-civilian victims were Army Air Corps pilots. Their deaths were reported and funerals held. If these physicists were actually on the plane, there was a major hush-up, given its seating capacity; we also know some people, including violinist Joseph Szigeti, had been on board and got off at earlier stops. None ever reported — even after the war — that there were passengers aboard other than those confirmed dead.

* Could Franklin D. Roosevelt have wanted to calm any potential anti-German feeling? Possibly; there was extensive anti-German sentiment during World War I, even reaching the level of dachshunds being kicked in the streets. And it would have been considerably more difficult to set up camps for all those of German descent, unlike the virtually homogeneous Japanese-American population. 

Perhaps Welles’ fertile mind had been heavily influenced by the assassinations of the 1960s, particularly John F. Kennedy’s, making him more apt to believe in conspiracies. He certainly had some strong opinions; witness his reference to Norma Shearer as “one of the most minimally ­talented ladies ever to appear on the ­silver screen” (somewhere, Joan Crawford is laughing, although to be fair, the pre-Code revival, which cast Shearer and other stars of the early ’30s in an entirely different light, had yet to take place). Elsewhere, Welles blasts Woody Allen:

“I can hardly bear to talk to him. He has the Chaplin disease. That particular combination of arrogance and timidity sets my teeth on edge. … Like all people with timid personalities, his arrogance is ­unlimited. Anybody who speaks quietly and shrivels up in company is unbelievably ­arrogant. He acts shy, but he’s not. He’s scared. He hates himself, and he loves himself, a very tense situation.”

I have no idea whether Welles saw “The Purple Rose Of Cairo” (which Allen directed but did not appear in), released several months before his death; that’s one film of his he might have liked.

He dismissed Richard Burton, who had passed by his table:

“Richard Burton had great talent. He’s ruined his great gifts. He’s become a joke with a celebrity wife [Elizabeth Taylor]. Now he just works for money, does the worst shit.”

And Welles made another reference to Lombard while discussing Katharine Hepburn:

“I sat in makeup during ‘Kane,’ and she was next to me, being made up for ‘A Bill of Divorcement.’ And she was describing how she was fucked by Howard Hughes, using all the four-letter words. Most people didn’t talk like that then. Except Carole Lombard. It came naturally to her. She couldn’t talk any other way. With Katie, though, who spoke in this high-class, girls’-finishing-school accent, you thought that she had made a decision to talk that way.”

“A Bill of Divorcement,” Hepburn’s first film, was made in 1932, nearly a decade before “Kane.” And Kate’s most recent movie at the time Welles cites was “The Philadelphia Story” — made not at RKO, but MGM.

These are excerpts from a book coming out next month by Peter Biskind called “My Lunches With Orson: Conversations Between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles,” and the full excerpt can be found at (It also appeared in the June 24 issue ofNew York magazine, Vulture’s parent site.) The book promises to be a solid companion to Peter Bogdanovich’s “This Is Orson Welles,” further examining the man and his flawed-yet-fascinating genius.

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Posted June 18, 2013 by vp19 in Uncategorized

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