On a Risky Director

The guy had zero experience behind the camera. None. Zilch. Nada. It was as if the studio who hired him for this project seemed to want the film–and therefore the studio itself–to fail. In fact, if you wished for a film to fail, you would choose to allow someone like this guy, someone with no ties to Hollywood, to be in complete charge of a film production.

You see, this was 1941, and the Hollywood Studio System was in full swing. That system produced incredible films in the year 1939 alone such as Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Even 1941 itself saw The Maltese Falcon, Sergeant York, and How Green Was My Valley produced. The Studio System was a complex web of producers, directors, the screenwriters, and the various artistic craftspeople (lighting technicians, wardrobe and makeup artists, musicians, etc.) who combined to provide safeguards from one person breaking a project and causing it to fail.

The choice of this man to head this film went against that system, spectacularly. There was no head of production who would act as a safeguard or pump the brakes if the project started going off the rails. There were no voices who spoke up to warn that this neophyte was in over his head and should be yanked from the director’s chair before the expense of the film doomed the studio (and, by extension, all the jobs associated with it) to bankruptcy. This man had complete autonomy over the film. He even co-wrote the script.

Now, this particular studio was RKO. It was seen by many as having lost a step in recent years compared to the other big boys on the Hollywood block like MGM and Paramount and Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox. Moves like giving this man carte blanche spoke of a hint of desperation from the studio that desperately wished to recapture its old glory and stature.

On his first day at the set for the film, the new guy climbed one of the ladders and began adjusting the lighting above the set below. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” asked one of the long-term lighting techs on the set. The man shrugged and said he wanted to see what a change in the light would achieve on the sound stage below. “Lookit, mac; you tell me what you want, and I’ll adjust the lights.” The man sheepishly climbed back down the ladder.

And, to top it all off, this new man was only 25 years old.

And the film bombed at the box office. The story was confusing to some. There was no real romance to it. The film seemed preachy in its message. The odd angles and lighting that this rookie directed insisted on detracted from the story, some critics said. And, what’s more, the start of the film was criticized as having a wooden performance.

Oh, did I mention that this 25 year old man who co-wrote and directed the film was also its star?


And his projects with RKO ended up costing the studio over $2,000,000 when it was all said and done. The studio head who took a chance on this young guy saw his career almost ended by his poor choice, and he had to resign from RKO the next year. Oh, RKO would make a comeback eventually, but its reputation was damaged for some years.

And what happened to the young director?

Well, today, Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane is often hailed as the greatest film ever made.


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