Tuesday, August 25, 2009

#133: Communication Breakdown

William Randolph Hearst made a few mistakes in his life and was far from perfect, but when you consider the fact that he was one of the richest men of the first half of the 20th Century, a man who amassed one of the largest collections of fine art and sculpture, then it’s hard to find any real fault. That is if we only ever look at his professional life (and public persona) and ignore his xenophobic tendencies and the facts that he was as pigheaded as they came, hated taxes and unions, along with immigrants, had extra-marital affairs (which, if we believe history, resulted in the birth of an illegitimate daughter, Patricia Lake) and ruled his publishing empire with a hand so iron he could have made all the Packers combined look like mealy mouthed pacifists. His expenditure was gigantic. This was a man who had wealth enough to tell someone to buy a castle, no matter the cost, and have the structure dismantled and shipped from Europe to America to be reassembled, brick by brick, building his own road and a railroad in order to carry the stones to the docks. Harpo Marx recounted a story of taking a book from the Hearst private library, stuffing it into his pocket and walking off, only to have Hearst ask for it back – a first edition, signed, copy of Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift, published in 1725. That was the kind of literature that Hearst had on his bookshelves in his reading rooms. No less a luminary than George Bernard Shaw stated that Hearst’s castle, San Simeon, was the place God would have built if He'd had the money. No-one had the money, nor the largess, that Hearst had.

Orson Welles was equally as flawed and also as much a genius in his own right as Hearst. The two men could almost have been different sides to the same coin, both had insatiable appetites, both loved the finer things life had to offer and both walked their own path, regardless of the cost, both professionally and personally. However I’ve always believed that Orson Welles main mistake can be found in a conversation between Douglas Fairbanks and Hearst in the same year that Welles was born. Hearst fell in love with actress Marion Davies in 1915, the same year that he bought a movie studio primarily to showcase Davies in films that he, Hearst, wanted to watch. The archetypal story as to why he didn’t persist with motion pictures, as recounted by Douglas Fairbanks Jr., goes something like this; “My father once asked him, he said, ‘Mr. Hearst, why don't you concentrate more of your energy on motion pictures, which has a world-wide audience, instead of journalism, which appeals to one city or one nation?’ He thought a minute, and he said, ‘Well, Douglas, I'll tell you. I thought of it, but I decided against it, because I realize that you can crush a man with journalism, and you can't with motion pictures.’ That was his answer.”

In that one sentence Hearst revealed the depth of his power. For Hearst had real power, not the imaginary power of cinema. Hearst had a print media empire, the likes of which hadn’t been seen before. Hearst’s media empire was forged in blood, literally. It was established in a period that saw the legendary ‘newspaper wars’, in which the employees and representatives of both Hearst and Samuel Pulitzer would regularly fight in the streets, bloody fights, knives, bats and guns. People died in search of an advantage over the opponent and increased circulation. Incredible to imagine such events today, but in the late 1800s and early 1900s this was the norm. Hearst was the first to have a real newspaper chain, obtained by simply buying newspapers across the country and thus expanding his own empire. It helped that Hearst had an almost limitless pot of money to draw from. It was an era of Yellow Journalism and armed reporters. Hearst’s power extended to declaring his own war on Spain and Cuba – when the American government declined to get involved, Hearst raised his own private army and invaded Cuba himself, eventually dispatching a reporter to the King of Spain to offer Mr. Hearst's terms for peace. The most Kerry Packer did was to tell the world of cricket to get stuffed.

Back to the Fairbanks-Hearst conversation; Hearst believed that he had definite power not because he had a hand in motion pictures but because he believed that while people might well be illiterate or ignorant and anyone could watch a movie and absorb the messages contained within, but those who could read would always win out, and those who couldn’t read simply didn’t matter. This emphasis on print was to Hearst’s advantage as virtually none of the movies he produced had any deep or real message other than to cast Marion Davies in movies she was ill suited for, and, frankly, they never held up well, even at the time. People can name movies made by Chaplin, Mayer, Goldwyn, the Warner Brothers or Thalberg, but I doubt you’d find many, if any, who can recall any Hearst movie. Hearst’s real power and impact more than likely wasn’t apparent to many until 1941, well after his own career as a motion picture producer was dead and buried.

Hearst had always believed that print was the be all and end all of power and communication and in 1941 got his chance to test that theory to stunning public effect. In 1940 Orson Welles made Citizen Kane, a thinly veiled account of Hearst’s own life, complete with a scathing, and grossly unfair, attack upon long time Hearst mistress, Marion Davies. Welles was a firm believer in the message of the spoken word. He’d made his career and reputation upon radio broadcasts – the ultimate in spoken word – and had been courted by the Hollywood system. Welles believed that his movie would expose Hearst for the dinosaur and fake that he was perceived as being. However when alerted to the movie Hearst sprung into action, a last act of a once powerful man. His empire had been severely reduced, his wealth had eroded and before too long even Davies would be selling her diamonds to help keep the remains of his publishing empire afloat. However this was all to come, in 1941 Hearst attacked Welles.

Hearst’s movie reviewer, and possessor of power in Hollywood, was the columnist Louella Parsons. Working in competition, and at times in tandem, with Hedda Hopper, Parsons could make or break almost anyone. Decades after the Hollywood Golden Age was dust, David Niven wrote that it was better to feed Parsons and Hopper stories, to keep them on side as it was always advantageous to have them working for you than against you. They operated with several tools, from subversiveness, to outright blackmail to praise to hate. With Parsons Hearst had one of the ultimate tools to unleash upon Welles and his studio, RKO, and Welles was about to have his first lesson in real power.

First Hearst approached the heads of RKO. Parsons demanded to see Citizen Kane and reported the contents back to Hearst (it’s a matter of conjecture as to if Hearst ever saw the film proper). Parsons then contacted the head of RKO, George Schaefer, and threatened ''one of the most beautiful lawsuits in history.'' The offer was made to buy the film and negative outright, this was declined. Hearst, via Parsons, then issued a direct threat to the heads of every movie studio in Hollywood at the time. “Mr. Hearst told me,” Parsons is reported as saying, “to tell you if you boys want private lives, he'll give you private lives.” This resulted in Louis B Mayer, representing all the heads of the Hollywood studios, attempting to buy the movie for a reported eight hundred thousand dollars, a large sum for the time, with the view of destroying it. When this failed Hearst really went to work. “Hearst threatened the industry in every way he could think of,” recalled Frank Mankiewicz, the son of Citizen Kane co-writer Herman, “He recalled scandals, drunkenness, miscegenation, crimes of various kinds that he had, at the request of the studios, suppressed in his newspapers and which remained, I assume, in type somewhere. He reminded them that the country that read his newspapers might not look kindly on the high percentage of Jews in the industry.” This was at a time when racial relations were at a flashpoint, with some very prominent Americans going as far to publicly support the Nazi regime in Germany. Part of Hearst’s attack took place in his publication, The Hollywood Reporter. “You Hollywood people who crave respectability do not want the country to think about and talk about and dwell upon the fact that you're all Jews,” read one article, “and that many of your key executives and directors and writers are now refugees from Germany.” Despite this enormous pressure RKO stood behind Welles (and their investment) and indicated that the movie would be released regardless.

Hearst’s written attacks weren’t merely limited to threats. In print he attacked Welles directly, casting aspersions upon his private life in another of his publications, American Life. Suggestions of homosexuality and sodomy were hinted at but the two main attacks involved Welles’s relationship with actress Delores Del Rio, who he’d hooked up with while she was still married. This attack was ironic to say the least, when you consider that Hearst himself had been involved with Davies since 1915 while remaining married. Hearst then shifted his stance and questioned Welles' willingness to serve his country at a time of impending war. This led to the greatest smear of them all – Hearst labelled Welles a communist.

The latter threat might seem very passive in today’s era, but in context calling an American a communist in the early 1940s would be akin to calling a person a member of Al Qaeda today. It’s a vile smear that followed Welles for the rest of his life. The result of that campaign saw the FBI begin to investigate Welles with the result of a file being opened and from then onwards the FBI never really stopped investigating. Seeing that even this wasn’t going to stop RKO Hearst then expanded his attacks further and threatened to pull advertising for the various theatres that’d been booked to screen the film. The result of this was that more than one theatre booked Citizen Kane, accepted the film stock but simply didn’t bother to show it. When the movie eventually gained (a rather limited) release no reviews were published within any Hearst publication. According to Hearst employees this order came straight from San Simeon – no advertising would be accepted for the movie, nor would any review, indeed not even a mention of the film, would appear in any Hearst publication.

Despite Hearst, or possibly to spite him, the movie gained nine Academy Award nominations. Welles was nominated for screenplay, actor, director and the movie was nominated for Best Film. This was a four-peat that has rarely been seen since (one person nominated for producer (best film), actor, director and screenplay for a single movie – it remained a record until Warren Beatty achieved the same spread for his film Heaven Can Wait nearly forty years later) and despite the quality of the film it won only one award – screenplay, an award that Welles had to share with his estranged co-writer, Herman Mankiewicz. As soon as the awards were over RKO buried the movie and only then did Hearst allow life to go on. The fall-out was a movie that is universally hailed as being one of, if not the, finest American movies ever made and Welles being shunned from Hollywood to become an outcast. Never again would Welles be allowed carte blanch on an American movie, despite his obvious talent. From a lofty peak of being hailed as a potential saviour of Hollywood, Welles became a pariah and could be found in later years begging for funding to make movies that were never finished and reduced to humiliating himself doing television commercials for frozen peas. He was washed up at the age of twenty four.

William Randolph Hearst had told Douglas Fairbanks, nearly twenty five years prior, that print had more power than movies. He was right then and he proved this to Welles, and the world, in 1941. Hearst believed that the written word held more power than the spoken word, and it was his own personal written campaign against Welles that buried the movie at the time. The written word had killed the spoken word and the visual medium and diminished any impact either might have had. There’s real power in the written word, it retains its power long after the spoken word has faded and long after film has vanished. Citizen Kane might well be the exception to this rule as more people recall the movie than the controversy behind it, indeed most people today would be hard pressed to even know who the movie was based upon, however Hearst and his media empire, as reduced as it was at the time, succeeded in suppressing a film for at over a decade. If Welles had written his story as a novel and had Hearst attacked Welles in celluloid the results might have been very different.

It matters not what a person wants to say, the true message is in the delivery. Anyone can gossip, anyone can report via television or in a motion picture, but it is the written word that (still) has real impact. A report, well written and researched, can do more damage than any verbal report, and the truth is always the best place to start. It’s amusing to think people firmly believe that they can affect any form of real change by engaging in scurrilous rumours and outright fabrications when a simple article can shoot that down with comparative ease. It can be argued that a person hears rumours and lies and therein lays the impact. That’s true, to a degree. Once the comments are spoken, they’re gone. Once a word is printed it exists for generations, and with the right publication, be it print or on-line (in this day and age) an article’s power is timeless. Remember, the written word has been with us since The Epic of Gilgamesh was penned back in around 2,000BC, if not earlier, but who can remember what was actually spoken?

On a personal level, I’ll see anyone’s spoken word, whisper or gossip and counter it with the written word and hopefully I can manage to do that with a certain degree of panache, verbosity and eloquence. I’ve always been happy to stand, or fall, with the truth that pure writing brings me and in doing so I’ve always hoped to push the burden of proof back onto those who exist only to verbally pull a person down, instead of assisting them to stand back up and move onwards and upwards. It’s always easier to turn a blind eye than it is to help, or admit that you might be wrong.

With the debate of spoken word versus the written word I hope that people never change their views, for as Bernard Berenson once said, “Consistency requires you to be as ignorant today as you were a year ago.” People might well make the same mistake as Fairbanks did back in 1915, but I learnt from the savagery of Hearst in 1941. Progress is a bitch of a thing, isn’t it? Of course it is. Evolution is only ever useful for seeing dinosaurs become extinct.


Anonymous said...

Great piece, but I don't subscribe to the Hearst conspiracy bringing Welles down theory. He'd already alienated enough people in the theater to demonstrate where his career was going. Even without Citizen Kane he would have ended up exactly where he was in what passed for his old age--obese, broke and turning tricks for Nashua and Xerox.
Swing it, baby. Swing it.


Anonymous said...

Please keep writing