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Dave Wood's Book Report, Sept. 6, 2006

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Let's start with a regional topic. Let's start with Orson Welles, who grew up in Kenosha and became a famous actor at 18, director at 20 and the brains behind and in what many folks call the greatest American movie, "Citizen Kane."

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And then it was all downhill for the boy genius whose Mercury Theatre of the Air gave us actors like Agnes Moorhead (another Wisconsinite), Joseph Cotton, Ray Collins and Everett Sloane and scared the pants off half the radio audience when it broadcast H.G. Welles' "War of the Worlds" so realistically that people thought we had been attacked from another planet.

The critics loved "Citizen Kane," but it wasn't a box office success because William Randolph Hearst, a model for Charles Foster Kane, stonewalled the movie at his theatres and in his newspapers.

Welles went on to make "The Magnificent Amberson's," from Booth Tarkington's novel about the rise and fall of an Indiana family. That's where the second volume of a trilogy about Welles begins. It's "Orson Welles: Hello Americans," by Simon Callow (Viking, $32.95). Callow is the British actor who is best known for playing the bekilted guest at the popular movie, "Four Weddings and a Funeral" and the Anglican priest skinny dipper in "Room with a View." So you've seen his naked bottom, but probably not his biographies.

This one's a honey, as was the first volume, "Road to Xanadu," which will now be reprinted in paperback.

I was especially interested in the new volume because, despite its flaws, I have always loved "The Magnificent Ambersons," a somber account of upper crust life in small town Indiana at the turn of the century. The movie turns on a stiff and snotty young Amberson scion played perfectly by the wooden eye acting of Tim Holt. Surrounding him on gloomy sleighrides in the Indiana countryside are wonderful actors like Cotton, Moorhead, Ray Collins and a very young Anne Baxter, who also has Wisconsin connections, being the niece of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Years ago, I interviewed Cotton when he came out with his autobiography. He was a charming Virginian and smiled when he told me that Welles once said to him, "Jo, you've got a great voice. It's too bad you can't act worth a damn." Such was Welles' character.

But there has always been something wrong with this second movie. It ends shabbily and unrealistically, despite a grand beginning. (If you watch it sometime, don't miss the ballroom scene,)

Simon Callow tells us what happened in Volume II. The young Welles, full of himself and the critics acclaim took off to do a war documentary film for the U.S. Government and impatiently left the final editing of his masterpiece to the jackals in Hollywood. Admittedly it's a difficult and serious film without a great deal of excitement. But the jackals in league with the front office cut out one hour of the film and reshot the ending. What a shame.

But it has always been the same story in Hollywood. John Huston made a great movie from Stephen Crane's the "Red Badge of Courage," then ran off to Africa, only to come home to find the jackals led by Dore Schary had cut an hour from his film, that now lasts only one hour.

Callow takes Welles from that fiasco through other lesser movies like "The Stranger" and "The Lady from Shanghai," co-starring with his wife, Rita Hayworth. Some wag wrote that Welles was the only man in Hollywood who didn't want to sleep with Hayworth.

The second volume ends in 1947 and a third (and maybe fourth) volume is forthcoming.

Another interesting bio is "Modigliani: A Life," by Jeffrey Meyers (Harcourt, $27). Meyers is a writing machine, having published 45 books of literary criticism, including 19 biographies of everyone from Edgar Allen Poe to Erroll Flynn. In his new book, Meyers makes accessible the difficult Jewish-Italian who found no success in life, but has now become lionized by art critics around the world.

Dave Wood is a past vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. E-mail him at ruthann.p.wood@uwrf.edu.

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