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Editor’s Choice: ‘Young Orson’

Young Orson: The Years of Luck and Genius on the Path to ‘Citizen Kane’ by Patrick McGilligan, Harper, 820 pages, $40.

No longer is Orson Welles a mere genius or prime stepping stone in the ambitions of American film culture. Nor is he just a Hollywood symbol of willful and prodigious waste (of talent, above all).

He is now a cardinal industry in that same American film culture. In that sense, he is to film culture what the car business or Mexican fast food or gasoline is to the American economy.

That is where Pat McGilligan comes in. He has a history of writing imposing biographies of figures who hadn’t yet been dealt with in a definitive way. George Cukor, for instance, and most importantly Fritz Lang.

And now here is that immense industry in American film culture – Orson Welles – turned into an 800-page biography that merely takes its place on a huge, bulging shelf of books about Welles. And, moreover, it restricts itself to Welles’ “early life” – the one on the way to that transformative movie masterwork “Citizen Kane” – just as at least one indispensable previous author (actor Simon Callow) already has. His life after “Kane” is handled in an afterword.

McGilligan is invaluable. Give him a well-plowed field and he’ll not only identify all the seeds but tell where they came from. For instance, Pauline Kael in her eternally controversial essay on “Citizen Kane” called “Raising Kane,” made sure to elevate the status of Welles’ co-writer, Herman Mankiewicz, to a level closer to Welles’ own. In doing so, she quoted a quip by alcoholic, outrageous “Mank” about Welles “there but for the grace of God goes God.” To which Welles, in his own “credit where it’s due” corrective spirit in 1972, wrote to the London Times the quip “was made not by ‘Mr. Herman Mankiewicz but by Sir Winston Churchill of Sir Stafford Cripps,’ a World War II-era British Labour Politician (and doubtless many others.” In his ability to attenuate legends about Welles, McGilligan pointedly calls Mankiewicz “a writer’s (John) Barrymore.” (In other words, the subject of countless legends.)

Few recent products of the Welles industry could be more welcome than McGilligan’s. – Jeff Simon