They’re all sort of home movies—a vacation documented…—Orson Welles to Peter Bogdanovich
Paris, February 1955: Orson Welles is trying to get a staged version of Moby Dick off the ground. Enter English writer Wolf Mankowitz. Armed with means, Mankowitz convinces Welles to relocate to London and stage the play there. Welles goes. Two months later, Mankowitz arranges for Welles to appear in a weekly TV show broadcast on the BBC, Orson Welles’ Sketchbook.
Running six episodes long from April 24 to May 28, Orson Welles’ Sketchbook consisted of nothing more than Welles talking to a static camera while doodling on a sketchpad for 15 minutes. Topics range from John Barrymore’s dogs and his 1939 radio broadcast of War of the Worlds to policing and bureaucracy, bullfighting, and his early days in the theater. The series was a great success for British broadcasting, enough that they wanted a second series out of Welles, a series of film travel essays. Welles agreed, and from October 7 to December 16, 1955, British audiences were treated to Around the World with Orson Welles, six 25-minute episodes hosted by Welles as he explored the people and customs of the Basque country, talked tortes in Vienna, visited the oldest neighborhood in Paris, chatted with pensioners in London, and saw a bullfight in Spain.
And you can watch all six episodes now through June 20 via Metrograph’s virtual membership.
Have Camera, Will Travel
Around the World opens with a static shot of a camera, recalling Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera. Then a whip pan, and we’re in the Basque country. Welles returns to that static shot and to that whip pan often. And they’re not the only shots Welles recycles: In the second episode, the previous episode’s opening and closing are presented again with no alteration or indication of why. Welles probably ran out of footage and needed to fulfill the prescribed televised runtime. Around the World is loaded with these moments: Duplicate footage, poor dubbing, reversals filmed in another time and place. You don’t have to look hard to see the seams of production.
Yet, Welles uses the looseness to his advantage. He walks around with a prop camera; he flubs his lines when someone off-screen yells at a barkeep. Lookie-loos gather in the shot to watch the proceedings, and Welles doesn’t stop. He also photographs the interviews with boom mics and lights next to his subjects while he stands next to the camera. It feels fresh, even by today’s standards, and completely genuine. Welles isn’t out to subvert and reinvent the travelogue—at least in the James FitzPatrick way—he’s simply trying to make a buck and make it interesting. It’s Brechtian by way of poverty, and it works. Form follows function, and fun follows the form.
Welles had just turned 40 when he filmed Around the World, and though a few wisps of gray hair betray his age, his face still has that boyish, cherubic look. He talks to the camera as much as he talks to his subjects, recounting tales famous and personal, maybe even making up a few along the way. When watching Welles, expect the invented.
Episodes One & Two: Pays Basque
Episodes one and two—Pays Basque I: The Basque Country and Pays Basque II: La Pelote Basque—function best as one long episode. These are the two episodes with the reused openings and closings from “a fairly out of the way, little-known corner of Europe.” Here the biggest industry is smuggling, except during the pigeon season, where “maneuvers of the highest intricacy and beauty” capture English and German pigeons, “very orderly and methodical pigeons,” with massive fishing nets. The above quotes come from Welles, in case you had any doubt, and I have no idea the legitimacy of those claims. What the Basque do with the pigeons, I do not know because Welles doesn’t mention it.
But he does claim that the Basque is a race of people unlike any other in Europe with ancestry reaching back to Adam and Eve. Again, Welles provides this tidbit. He also claims the Basque invented whaling, sheepherding, wearing berets and that “every Basque is born with a ball in his hand.” That’s so they can play pelota (jai alai is a close relative). It’s an ancient game with many variations, but they all require a ball and a wall. Legend has it the first game of pelota was played in the Garden of Eden, and the apple was used as the ball.
How much of this is true, and how much of this is Welles spinning a good yarn? That’s hard to tell. An interview with Lael Tucker, an American writer who relocated to the Basque country to raise her son, Chris, traffics in similar hyperbole. It could all be a put-on, or it could all be a lot of fun. For the sake of enchantment—and Welles finds a lot of enchantment—I’m inclined to buy it on face value but will refrain from repeating it in front of educated company.
Episode Three: Revisiting Vienna
Also known as “The Third Man Returns to Vienna,” this episode opens with the familiar zither strings of Anton Karas’ Third Man theme. You see a lot more of Vienna in that movie than you do here: Welles strolls only a block or two of the city before stopping at the Hotel Sacher for a lengthy discussion of the infamous Sachertorte—a dense chocolate cake covered in marmalade and chocolate icing. Even in black and white, it’s mouthwatering.
Welles spends a lot of time with the torte, both at the Hotel Sacher and rival Demel’s, and the families who have made it for generations. For fans of current travel shows, this episode’s structure feels familiar. Rather than take in the whole of the city, Welles zeroes on a few key aspects of the culture to explain the larger sum. For Welles, Vienna boils down to the torte, the café, and the opera. How they’ve changed says as much about history as anything else.
Episode Four: St.-Germain-des-Prés
It’s half movie/half montage. Welles stages a scene at the New York Herald Tribune offices with reporter Art Buchwald learning Welles is in town. Buchwald begins to write an article about Welles and the neighborhood of Paris he is visiting. These words, hammered out on Buchwald’s typewriter, act as narration while Welles’ camera captures the city in small snippets, each one more charming than the last. Kids at play, cats in the street, old buildings as attractive as they are decrepit. This is St. Germain des Prés, the oldest neighborhood in Paris. And the oldest resident (or so we are told) is Raymond Duncan, an American.
Called a “mixture of a Methodist missionary and Shakespeare,” Duncan is a painter, a poet, a writer, and a sculpture. He makes everything he needs and tries not to need anything he cannot make. Except for his printing press or paper, which prompts Welles to asks:
Do you regard that as a compromise of your principles?
No, I say it’s stolen.
Yes, stolen. Because even if you pay money for a thing, that’s a very polite way of stealing it.
As Duncan says, “The value in things is not to have the thing, but to have made them.”
In addition to being self-sufficient and completely independent, Duncan is a bullshitter of the highest regard. There’s an immense delight in watching Duncan and Welles go toe-to-toe on modern-day dress, footwear, and gender roles. Duncan is, shall we say, conservative on such matters, and Welles has good fun in needling him without antagonizing his subject. Welles would have made a great talk show host. He almost was: A pilot for The Orson Welles Show was taped in 1978 but never picked up, broadcast, or released.
Episode Five: The Queen’s Pensioners
An unexpected theme emerges as Welles speaks with a group of impoverished widows living close to one another. The world has left them by, and Welles wants to hear their story. When he finds out they are all members of the Tory party, Welles does not engage them in combative discourse but in simple, humane dialogue. Much like his exchange with Duncan, Welles finds a way of asking questions without putting anyone on the defense. Then Welles recalls his own many aunts and proposes that a group of aunts should be referred to as an “Eccentricity of Aunts.”
Of the six episodes, this one works the least. That’s partly due to technical reasons: Both the widows in the first half of the episode and the Old Soldier’s Home residents in Chelsea in the second half of the episode are poorly miked. Making out what they are saying isn’t easy. Additionally, Welles refrains from his usual visual trickery, and the results make for poor TV.
Episode Six: Madrid Bullfight
The sixth and final episode lands in Madrid, Spain, and the entire episode is dedicated to the bullfight. Americans Kenneth Tynan and Elaine Dundy are our narrators, walking the viewer through the steps of the bull’s life from the ranch to the plaza de toros de Las Ventas, where death in the afternoon has become death in the evening. Welles enters, walks through the crowds to his seat in Las Ventas, and takes a microphone to narrate the fight like a ringside announcer. These images look and sound too clean to have been shot on location and must have been added later. Not that it matters, Welles’ command of radio comes through with a microphone in his hand, and he guides the viewer through one of the more fascinating displays of civilized brutality.
There were supposed to be more. A seventh episode was planned, partly shot, but never finished: “The Tragedy of Lurs,” with interviews filmed shortly after the Dominici murder case before being scrapped. According to the Metrograph’s website, Welles’ contract stipulated 25 episodes in 25 weeks. No way that was going to happen.
Instead, we are left with six slices of European life from a man who adored the continent and its people. As a whole, it’s easy to draw a line from Welles’ unfinished “good neighbor” project from 1943, It’s All True, through Around the World to 1973’s F For Fake—arguably Welles’ greatest hoax in a career of hoaxes, tricks, stories, and magic. There’s a lot of magic behind those Wellesian eyes; you can see it beaming at the end of the fourth episode of Around the World. He concludes with this:
“Well, the train’s about ready to go. If you join us next time, you’ll see some new people. Until then, I remain, as always, obediently yours.”