Orson Welles on Television: The Fountain of Youth (1958)

The Fountain of Youth is a 1956 TV pilot for a proposed Desilu TV series (with a tentative title, The Orson Welles Show) which was never produced, and was subsequently televised once, on September 16, 1958 for NBC's Colgate Theatre. The short film was directed by Orson Welles, based on the short story "Youth from Vienna" by John Collier.
Orson Welles

The Fountain of Youth is a 1956 TV pilot for a proposed Desilu TV series (with a tentative title, The Orson Welles Show) which was never produced, and was subsequently televised once, on September 16, 1958 for NBC’s Colgate Theatre. The short film was directed by Orson Welles, based on the short story “Youth from Vienna” by John Collier, and stars Joi Lansing and Rick Jason as a couple faced with an unavoidable temptation concocted by a scientist (Dan Tobin). Welles himself is also much in evidence as onscreen narrator.

 

 

As early as 1939, Welles had been intrigued by television. He told William A. French of Motion Picture Magazine (December 1939): “The great entertainment form of tomorrow will be television shows on film. Today they are all live. But television films will combine all the best that the stage, radio and motion pictures have to offer.”

While in England in the fifties, he directed many shows, none of them particularly inventive; of these, the most interesting appears to have been a documentary about the murder of the British diplomat Sir Jack Drummond and his family in the South of France (the French government was unhappy about this filming before the trial of the accused murderer). Most of these programs have now vanished. After finishing Touch of Evil, he was intrigued to note that early in 1958 his old stomping ground, RKO-Radio, was bought by Desilu (Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz). Soon after, he received an offer from Arnaz, one of his greatest fans, to direct a pilot for a television series which he would narrate and sometimes direct, based on various short stories.

It was a great opportunity, but Welles’s methods were impossible in a tightly organized studio like Desilu. He horrified Arnaz by taking almost a month over the pilot, based on a story called “The Fountain of Youth,” by John Collier, originally published in 1952 as “Youth from Vienna” in a collection called Fancies and Goodnights. The pilot was considered uncommercial, and was never used. It was finally shown in a graveyard of unused pilots presented as specials on Colgate Theatre, on September 16, 1958. It was typical of Welles’s career that, after all that, Fountain of Youth won a Peabody Award.

Welles adapted for the pilot many techniques used by him in theatrical productions and by Laszlo Benedek in Death of a Salesman (1951). Cutting from scene to scene was eliminated; when a character was to be seen in a different situation, the background faded, leaving him isolated in darkness; then the light increased again, and a dilferent set or back projection and materialized. Significant objects were highlighted dramatically, while shifts of time were indicated as the background beyond the object changed in shifting light.1 In an extension of the “flickering” images of Too Much Johnson, Welles used — with comic effect — rapid juxtapositions of stills showing the characters framed in successive attitudes, rather than providing the usual fluid images. The effect was like looking through a funnel at an ancient zoetrope.

The result as seen today is an extremely economical, clean, precise technique that reflects Welles’s seldom-commented-on fondness for a kind of visual shorthand, the direct antithesis of his baroque methods elsewhere. One’s only regret is that the camerawork by Sid Hickox is no more than functional, and downright flat in the dialogue scenes, which are rather uninterestingly handled by the director as well. There is a quite monotonous series of two- and three-shots, and the film is largely in medium shot; the surface is very plain and unvarnished. To be blunt, for all its brilliance, the pilot looks physically rather cheap, and one may understand the exasperation of the network chiefs on being confronted with such a massive budget. If Welles’s determination to get to the Carnival in Rio helped wreck his career at RKO and Touch of Evil’s failure destroyed his Hollywood film career, then the extravagance of The Fountain of Youth wrote finis to the possibility of a Hollywood television career.

The story of The Fountain of Youth is echt Collier, about a rather seedy endocrinologist who has distilled an essence (contained in the obligatory phial) that can enable a person to live for two hundred years in the condition he was in when he swallowed it. Welles’s adaptation is faithful, energetically recapturing Collier’s bitter, whimsical wit, which is closely related to his own: half fey, half deadly. At the very outset, Welles makes a sly dig at commercials; commercially excusable in the case of a Hitchcock, but hardly so here — referring to the properties of the youth potion, he says that he is not “plugging some cosmetic.” One sees here, too, though it is hidden in a joke, the essential ambiguity of his attitude to commerce.

The opening of the film is accompanied by honky-tonk music, very much as Too Much Johnson’s was intended to be: we are in 1922. As Welles, the narrator, describes the career of the endocrinologist Dr. Humphrey Baxter, Baxter is seen frozen against a bookcase while Caroline Coates, stage and screen star, is seen on a poster advertising a production called Destiny’s Tot (the name of a story in that psychiatric vade mecum, The Jet-Propelled Couch). She seems to be based on Rita Hayworth, and Welles’s comment may be reminiscently unkind: “She was more than an actress . . . she stands for something greater than talent.” With equal cynicism we are introduced to a poster of tennis star Alan Brodie, with a tennis racket jauntily brandished. Welles moves in front of these figures as they appear, weaving in and out of his own visual and aural narrative with effortless insouciance.

We observe Humphrey introducing himself to Caroline, for whom he has set his cap; “You can imagine the effect of this gaunt man lecturing a popular idol of twenty-three on the ductless glands.” Caroline “falls head over heels in love” with Humphrey, and their affair is as ironically and swiftly charted as Eugene Morgan’s wooing of Isabel Amberson. There follows a narration on the fountain of youth, again strongly reminiscent of The Magnificent Ambersons and spoken against a still of an ornamental water-jet:

There are all sorts of fountains . . . some are beautiful, some are purely mythological, some are silly fountains . . . The silliest of all is the fountain of youth . . . old Ponce de Leon thought that one was somewhere down in Florida, three centuries before the invention of Miami Beach. He aged a whole lot looking for it!
It was only human. Most all of us wish we were a little younger than we are. Ladies quite late in their seventies can be addressing each other as girls. Very rich old ladies, even rich old gents, have squandered fortunes on monkey glands and I don’t know what all.

Here we can see a cynical revision of Welles’s obsessive central theme: age, and the passage of time.

Caroline jilts Humphrey for the tennis player, preferring looks to wisdom — a fatal choice, as it turns out. The scene shifts, without cuts or dissolves, from an excited gossip columnist announcing the change of marriage plans, to Humphrey discovering the pair in a New York restaurant, to a party celebrating her new engagement — all achieved with simple changes of lights. Billy House (the inane shopkeeper Potter in The Stranger) is introduced as Morgan, an editor preparing a science magazine article on the endocrinologist. Morgan and the gossip columnist jointly announce the discovery of VB282, the miracle potion. “It controls the aging of the tissues!” the columnist gurgles. “Girls! Just imagine what that means!”

Here we have a really brilliant device. As Welles repeats the dialogue of the characters in the narration, his words are matched in with the lip movements of Humphrey and Caroline — particularly amusing as Welles’s basso flees the girl’s pretty lips. Caroline is being shown a kitten by Humphrey; as she coos exaggeratingly over it, Humphrey tells her: “The kitten had a birthday last week. It was five years old.” (A subtle “black” touch here: since he doesn’t refer to the creature by name, it is clearly an experimental object rather than a pet.) She drops the animal with a hilariously timed scream of horror. At this moment Humphrey describes his secret to Caroline: there is one dose left.

Sinisterly, Humphrey presents the happy couple with his wedding present: the remaining dose, knowing well what they will do with it. As he describes the violent endocrine disorders that would accompany a half dose, Welles brilliantly uses the (musically simulated) slow and awful ticking of a clock, thus paralleling the ticking of the bomb in Touch of Evil and the jigsaw puzzle scene in Kane, as well as commenting on the inexorable nature of time. (There is another reminiscent musical passage: the return of Alan and Caroline home from the doctor’s apartment is accompanied by Latin American themes adapted directly from the Acapulco music of The Lady from Shanghai.)

As the phial is placed on the couple’s mantelpiece in the place of honor, Welles expertly adapts the poison-bottle scene in Citizen Kane: the phial is given every ounce of light while the background fades, reflected in the mirror above the fireplace, and the couple are seen in silhouette, the phial glowing with an unearthly brightness; as time passes, we see her gradually brighter, then his face in silhouette again; gradually he moves forward into the light. By slow degrees, the full set comes into view. A moment later there is a superb silhouette shot of the couple leaning statuesquely on either side of a table. As we see them more clearly, we know that they are reflected in the mirror again, and that they are — because of their awareness of the potion’s possibilities — becoming acutely aware of their own (and each other’s) aging. “She watched him in the mirror,” Welles says, “and he saw her watching him.” She says that most men would think they were in heaven if she looked at them; he tells her that all she is looking for is wrinkles. As a tennis match follows, expertly managed in a series of stills of the various ritualistic actions of the game, we are aware that Alan is conscious, during the playing, of his own increasing age. At midnight that night, he takes the potion, lacing the phial with cocktail bitters and water, so that Caroline will think the dose is still intact.

After this, the most remarkable sequence in this remarkable work occurs. As Caroline watches her reflection in the mirror, we see her profile change into ugly old age, then into a pathologist’s abstract head threaded with X-rayed veins, then into a skull, as the accompanying words, heavy with foreboding, are delivered by Welles: “She could feel and almost hear the remorseless erasures of time. Moment after moment particles of skin wore away, hair follicles broke, splintered, all the little tubes and lines and threadlike chains of the inner organs were silted up like doomed rivers . . . the glands, the all-important glands were choking, . . . clogging.” And she too drinks the contents of the phial, refilling it with medicinal quinine.

“So (each), secure in imperishable youth . . . saw in the other as through a magnifying glass more of the hastening signs of decay,” Welles says, as Caroline goes to Humphrey and confesses her guilt. Humphrey discloses to her that he never put the youth serum in the phial he gave them; that he knew each would cheat the other, and wanted to see them suffer. At the end of this bitter trifle, as Humphrey’s face fades on a sneer, the music becomes jazzy, and Welles’s final title (after the cast is reviewed in early talkie poses, as in Mr. Arkadin) is characteristically grand: “Screenplay, musical arrangement, production designed and directed by Orson Welles.” And the tone of pride is justified, for this — with its theme of the erosions of time, its brilliant adaptation of theatrical lighting techniques — is among the most personal works of the master.

Source: Charles Higham, The Films of Orson Welles, 1970

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