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Did you know Orson Welles was the voice of Unicron in the 1986 Transformers movie?
The following is a presentation I wrote about 8 years ago for a Media class I was taking at the time.
How many of you have seen the Transformers Movie before? Did you know that Unicron, the massive, god-like planet character, was voiced by theater, radio, movie genius, Orson Welles? It’s ironic that one of the last characters Orson Welles played before his death seemed to mirror what his presence once had been in the media: immense, powerful and seemingly unstoppable. Welles was not only a visionary in his three chosen fields; he also possessed an inherent talent for transforming controversial, potentially bad press into free publicity opportunities. This gift would finally fail him after the 1941 release of his magnum opus, Citizen Kane. Three of Welles’ most important, breakthrough moments in mass media were: the opening of “Voodoo” Macbeth in 1936, the 1938 “War of the Worlds” broadcast and the 1941 release of Citizen Kane.
During the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt tried to create jobs and support the arts by funneling funding into federal theater projects. Welles was recruited by John Houseman to direct a classical Shakespeare play with an entirely black cast from the newly formed Negro Theatre Unit. The Negro Theatre Unit would become the best known of the New York projects (Callow, 219). Welles decided on doing a pop culture infused version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth that would take place in a royal court in Haiti during the nineteenth century. Out of a cast of approximately 100 people, only less 10 people had any prior acting experience or training in speaking in Shakespearean verse (Callow, 223). At age 20, and somewhat inexperienced himself, (directing this production was his first professional endeavor in theater) Welles rose to the challenge of training his actors and meticulously reshaped Macbeth in a fresh way. Both the Macbeth cast and Welles soon proved that their worth in the theater community. In an interview with New York Times reporter, Bosley Crowther, Welles said “he found the present acting company a whole lot more comprehending than any troupe of professional white that he had ever seen” (Callow, 235). Harlem residents had been dubious about the project at first because they were fearful of revisiting the humiliation inspired by demeaning minstrel shows of past years. Also, some cast members were uneasy about having a white director instead of a director of their own race. The worries of Harlemites were quelled when the production was an overwhelming success. On opening night, April 14, 1936, “the applause went on for a quarter of an hour. It meant more than the success of Macbeth: its significance was that the Negro Unit, the Federal Theatre Project, John Houseman and Orson Welles were all endorsed” (Callow, 237). Welles himself regarded the “Voodoo” Macbeth production to be one of the greatest successes of his life.
On October 30, 1938, at one point during Welles’ Mercury Theatre’s infamous broadcast of the classic H.G. Wells story, “The War of the Worlds,” approximately 6 million radios nationwide were tuned in (Callow, 402). Of that 6 million, thousands of Americans all over the country, particularly those who lived in the New Jersey area, prepared to die from what they thought was an approaching Martian army. According to scriptwriter Howard Koch, “In the course of forty-five minutes of actual time---as differentiated from subjective or fictional time---the invading Martians were presumably able to blast off from their planet, land on earth, set up their destructive machines, defeat our army, disrupt communications, demoralize the population and occupy whole sections of the country” (Koch, 12). Before this incident, Americans had never been so thoroughly deceived by radio shows. They relied on the radio as an accurate source of news and, despite the warning before the program that it was only a fictional show, listeners were convinced that they were going to perish in violent alien takeover efforts. People were consumed by mass hysteria and began making makeshift gas masks out of wet towels and hastily evacuating buildings. This event forced Americans to recognize their own gullibility and it catalyzed a roaring press frenzy. “The public couldn’t make up its collective mind whether we were heroes or villains” (Koch, 24). Instead of facing harsh punishments, Welles gained instant fame. “Welles was praised for having his finger on the pulse of his times, and for being the conman of the century, able to make anybody believe anything” (Callow, 407). Consequently, in 1939, RKO began to woo Welles with an enticing contract that provided him with an enviable amount of creative freedom; he was entitled to have the final say on finished films.
Citizen Kane (1941) is an integral monument in film history. It is difficult to believe that 24-year-old Welles had the audacity to make a film that so obviously was based on the life of influential newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst. However, this risky move on Welles’ part was typical of his daring personality. Welles’ instinct of taking drastic measures did not stop at film content but also is reflected in the aesthetic presentation. Welles and cinematographer Gregg Toland collaborated, using techniques such as double exposure, deep focus, long takes, high and low angles and jarring discontinuity to bring out the intense feel of the film (Leaming, 196). Kane is unique not only for its advanced level of camera work, but also because Welles wove his own emotions and experiences into the plot. For example, in Kane the boy loses his parents early in life. This did not happen to Hearst, it happened to Welles. Working with writer Herman Mankiewicz, Welles produced a rich, timeless narrative, which would eventually earn Kane the title of “the film that could not be killed.” Louella Parsons did her best to “kill” Kane before the public would ever see it, but her efforts and the merciless smear campaign that she and her employer Hearst lead against Welles did not keep the film from becoming hailed as “the best film ever made. “ When Citizen Kane, finally premiered on May 1, 1941 at the Palace in New York City, it was a triumph not only for the picture but also for Welles himself. Parsons and Hearst may have been successful in extinguishing Welles’ flaming supernova of a career, but they could not erase the deep mark that Kane left upon the heart of American society. Welles had erroneously assumed that his luck would get him through the Hearst media storm, as it had helped him through press controversies in the past. After Kane, Welles was never left in charge of a major movie project ever again. With his death in 1985, Welles left behind a vast legacy of greatness in the fields of theater, radio and film that will continue to inspire people to strive for excellence in mass media for decades to come.