The Only ‘Film Conceived for the Box’: Orson Welles’ The Fountain of Youth

In 1958 Welles made a television pilot film, The Fountain of Youth, based on John Collier’s short story Youth from Vienna. It was to inaugurate a series of short story adaptations which he would host, narrate and direct, much like the old ‘First Person Singular’ series on radio.
Orson Welles - The Fountain of Youth

First Person Singular

by Joseph McBride

‘First Person Singular’ was the singularly apt title of Orson Welles’ first radio series. Although he signed off each of his programmes with the words ‘Obedi­ently Yours’, Welles was about as self-effacing as a drunken butler, intruding himself into the plots of everything from Hamlet to Commander Edward Ellsberg’s Hell on Ice. In an original drama he broadcast three days before the first showing of Citizen Kane, a fable about Fascism in small-town America entitled His Honor, The Mayor, there is a brief scene in which the beleaguered mayor sits down to a hearty breakfast. This prompts a long rumination from Welles begin­ning, ‘Take my word for it, when responsibilities get to be almost unendurable, a man on a diet takes to his sugars and starches as an addict retreats to his opium-pipe, or a drunkard to his bottle . . .’ Welles used this interlocutory technique heavily in the early scenes of his radio shows. Only after the issues were thoroughly defined would he withdraw and let his characters work out a solution to the problems he had outlined: ‘As I told you, this story hasn’t any moral or message of mine tied to it. It’s about morals and messages though . . .’ Of course, the commentary also served simple technical functions, but the way Welles forced the audience’s attention on to his own presence in the drama was wholly personal. As a show progressed, his omniscience would begin to seem rather sinister, as if the characters were merely functions of his own thoughts and desires.

Welles’ films reflect the influence of radio in their narrated prologues, which often provide a poetic or literal synopsis of the story, and in the director’s dual presence as protagonist and commentator. But because of the cinema’s heightened complexity, Welles could never more than approximate the confidential intimacy possible in the one-dimensional world of radio. He has said that he loves ‘innocent’ forms of entertainment, such as magic, Westerns and the early horror films, because they take the audience back to the beginnings of story-telling . . . back to the bard strumming his lyre and murmuring in the darkness of the cave. This may also explain his nostalgia for radio, which has persisted decades past the death of radio as a dramatic instrument.

In 1958 Welles made a television pilot film, The Fountain of Youth, based on John Collier’s short story Youth from Vienna. It was to inaugurate a series of short story adaptations which he would host, narrate and direct, much like the old ‘First Person Singular’ series on radio. The second pro­gramme was to have been based on Collier’s Green Thoughts. At the end of the pilot Welles calls it ‘A sort of spook story with a seasoning of giggles’; which is also an apt summation of The Fountain of Youth. Needless to say, the pilot was considered eccentric, and Welles never found backing for the series. Given a single showing on ABC-TV, The Fountain of Youth won a Peabody Award for creative achievement and then disappeared into the oblivion of the vaults, surfacing only briefly during a Welles retrospective at Hollywood’s Los Feliz Theatre in 1969.* It remains his only work of television fiction (he has done fairly extensive work in TV documentary), his only ‘film conceived for the box’, as he recently described it. For the record, his Don Quixote, recently completed after sixteen years of intermittent shooting, began production as a television show but gradu­ally grew into a feature; and his The Immortal Story was only financially con­nected with the box—it was made with money from a French television network.

Welles’ film audience is missing a revealing experience in not being able to see The Fountain of Youth. Its mixture of bold theatrical stylisation, puckish humour and bardic intimacy draws on a side of Welles, the ‘radio side’, which seldom pokes through the intricate architectonics of his feature film work. The Immortal Story is told with a fabulist’s simplicity, but it is still a story film conceived for the large screen, with all the pretence of showing real people involved in a real drama. The Fountain of Youth is more a chamber play than a drama. Welles is on screen, in Mephistophelean evening dress, longer than any of the putative principals, often stepping in front of the camera while the scene behind him blurs or fades away; he speaks the characters’ un­spoken thoughts, interprets their motives, warns of impending events, and occasionally even speaks their lines while they move their mouths like puppets. The most nostalgic touch comes at the very end, when Welles signs off, ‘Till then, I remain—as always— obediently yours . . .’ as the screen darkens around his darkly smiling profile.

But in The Fountain of Youth form follows function, for the theme of the piece is narcissism. The Collier story is a whimsical take-off on the Faust theme; it is about an endocrinologist, Humphrey Baxter, who develops an eternal youth potion and uses it to tamper with the affections of a naive young actress, Caroline Coates. Like Collier, Welles relegates the Faust business to a red herring (the potion turns out to be a fraud, nothing but water and salt, which the scientist has been using as a kind of truth serum), in order to reduce our metaphysical speculations to a baser, more human, level. Welles had the distinct advantage over Collier of working in a visual medium. None of his films has ever made such extensive use of mirrors, for instance, and the sheer physical data of the characters’ faces and bodies (e.g., the pneumatic bliss of watching Joi Lansing waddle through the role of Caroline) speak volumes. In fact, it is problematic who should be considered the protagonist of the tale: Caroline, who has Humphrey in her spell, or Welles him­self, who has both of them in his spell.

I opt for Welles, on the evidence of one splendidly theatrical moment. It occurs after a gossip columnist burbles into a radio microphone about Caroline and Alan Brodie (Rick Jason), her tennis-player Valentino, and we sec a rococo fountain cascading against a lowering sky. Welles begins talking about the legendary fountain of youth and the myth of Narcissus. Sud­denly he is before the camera, telling us sotto voce, ‘It was his own expression he fell for . . . and he fell in.’ The camera holds on Welles for a long moment, with vague shadowy forms moving in the studio behind him, as he contemplates that statement with a bemused expression. It’s as if he’s saying: 4Here’s Narcissus, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Orson Welles. You will shortly be watching several varieties of human being fall under the spell of vanity, but don’t be smugly superior, for it is your obedient servant who is playing out his obsessions so that you, on the other side of the lens, will see them in yourselves. Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men ? The mirror does . .

The early sequences are suffused with that off-handed indulgence toward human weakness which Welles often uses to impli­cate the audience in the characters’ dilemma. The prologue of The Magnificent Ambersons, for instance, presents the family’s snobbery as charming and captivating (young George snapping his whip at the inviting butt of a street labourer, Isabel curling her nose at Gene Morgan’s horrid automobile). The nostalgia Welles shares with his characters is a melancholic glance back at a time of moral innocence. He lets us indulge in the pleasures of irresponsibility before we have to face its consequences. In The Fountain of Youth, as in Ambersons, he dwells on the romantic quaintness of vanished artifacts and customs to keep us aware of their evanescence. The story is prefaced by a shot of a magic lantern flashing into the camera; the characters are introduced with stills; honky-tonk music on the soundtrack whisks us back to the 1920s. In this context, Humphrey’s dabbling with the sources of life seems, at first, an invigorating rebellion against his own encroaching decay, a LawrEntian howl against the stuffiness of the laboratory.

The play in which he spots Caroline is titled Destiny’s Tot, but destiny is the furthest thing from his mind: what we actually see of the play is Caroline lascivi­ously posed against a barnyard backdrop to an undertone of orgasmic clapping. Stunned by the spectacle, the scientist removes his social mirror—takes off his glasses—in a gesture which will be echoed at the end, when he confronts Caroline with the truth about his deception. Hum­phrey (Dan Tobin) is not the effortlessly passionate young scientist of the Collier story, but a tweedy middle-aged remnant of the Victorian era uncomfortably stranded, like Gene Morgan, amidst the techno­logical brutalities of the new century. Just as Gene’s automobile quickly evolves from a romantic fancy into a soul-devouring monster, Humphrey’s potion begins as an offshoot of his fascination with Caroline but soon leads to cool talk about how the potion is obtained in an ‘extremely delicate opera­tion which unfortunately is fatal to the animal we get it from . . . It’s quite a common animal . . . man.’ The brittleness of Humphrey’s dream is beautifully cap­tured in the fast montage of stills Welles uses to depict the couple’s first kiss.

Befitting the medieval (or is it futuristic?) nature of Humphrey’s experiments, his laboratory is an eerily unreal chamber with outsize jars and bottles looming behind him like the odd shapes moving behind Welles in the studio/laboratory he inhabits. To clinch the connection, the director has placed one incongruous object in the laboratory—a bulky old-fashioned radio with a giant shell for a speaker. Like other Wellesian Faust figures (Bannister in The Lady from Shanghai, Arkadin, Quinlan in Touch of Evil, Qay in The Immortal Story), Humphrey tests his powers by constructing a fable with living characters. Removed, by his romanticism, from the world of ordinary people, he tries to twist reality to fit the shape of his own ego. The irony in The Fountain of Youth is that the man who pulls the strings is also attached to an invisible set of strings. When Humphrey divulges his secret to Caroline and Alan in the laboratory, Welles mocks the ‘secret’ by supplying the first lines for each character. During the scene the camera moves repeatedly in and out on the vial as it changes hands, giving it an almost palpable power of involuntary attraction. A clock ticks with hallucinatory slowness throughout the scene, and Caroline and Alan exchange glazed, zombie-like looks as Humphrey facetiously ‘marries’ them by joining their hands around the vial.

‘Time, which was the cause of all this trouble, went on . . .’ Welles murmurs in one of the subsequent scenes, barely sup­pressing an unholy smile at the thought of Caroline and Alan examining each other for wrinkles and arguing over who should drink the potion. Caroline is Youth, and youth is impermanence, and what is it that Humphrey wants if not to immortalise the moment ? The grotesqueness of an older man, a man of superior intellect, pursuing a young floozie evokes all the destructive illogic of the romantic impulse. Caroline is the reductio ad absurdum of romance, all surface and show. Humphrey doesn’t want her for herself, but for what she represents. She is a token of everything missing in his life, beginning with sex, which is nothing if not a struggle to escape into a timeless state of perfect irresponsibility. The rub is, of course, that the moment of happiness disappears as soon as consciousness returns to savour it. In Welles’ fundamentally romantic viewpoint, women stand for every­thing a man strives after but cannot possess. Since women symbolise everything which is greater than man, they are also the source of his destruction. They are beyond reason, beyond morality, beyond responsibility.

The last section of The Fountain of Youth is given over to a series of expressionistically lit, ballet-like gestures in which the two youths act out the consequences of Hum­phrey’s narcissism while he, with scientific detachment, disappears from view. Welles fades in on the vial shining unnaturally out of the darkness, harsh electronic sounds hovering in the air. A hand comes out of the void to put the vial on a mantel, and the light rises to reveal both Caroline and Alan gazing into a mirror—the lens of the camera. The effect is profoundly disturbing, for we are watching them but they are watching us. They fade away, again leaving the vial shining in the darkness. Soon we see Caroline standing behind Alan as he gazes into the camera. Welles narrates in a hushed voice, ‘She watched him in the mirror, and he saw her . . . watching him . . Suddenly everything but his hand and the vial plunge into darkness, a coup de théâtre which defies verbal description except to say that it is the closest equivalent to a shudder ever put on film.

The world turns into a crazy house (cf. the last reel of The Lady from Shanghai) when Alan, succumbing to the temptation of drinking the vial, refills it with water and bitters to let Caroline do the same. The vial on the mantel, seen through the camera/mirror, dissolves to a shot of an actual mirror, which in turn dissolves to a shot of that mirror seen through another mirror. The master of ceremonies explains off-screen, ‘Now the emptiness of one’s own home at midnight can seem like an injury . . The emptiness of mirrors re­flecting upon themselves with no one, but the audience, looking into them: the emptiness of a mind disintegrating. Our mind.

The next shot, as extraordinary as any­thing Welles has ever conjured up with his camera, shows Caroline standing in sil­houette before a huge mirror. The mirror mocks its function, for it does not reflect anything at all; instead it is filled with a frozen view of her own face, grinning. The mirror is festooned with a garland of thorns. Welles’ voice, portentous and rhythmic as the ticking of the clock in Humphrey’s laboratory, intones, ‘She could feel and almost hear the remorseless erasures of time . . .’ as she runs her hands over the mirror. A clock begins ticking, and the face in the glass begins to metamorphose. Like the Picture of Dorian Gray, the mirror reveals the hidden emptiness of death. Layer after layer of luxuriant flesh dis­solves relentlessly down to the skull. She screams, cymbals crash, and our mirror, the screen, is engulfed with hers in utter darkness. A still shows Caroline drinking the potion—time has stopped— before Humphrey tells her that it has all been a trick. Maybe I was wrong when I said that The Fountain of Youth came out of radio. Maybe it came out of those ‘Mercury Wonder Shows’ in which Welles, billed as The Great Orsino, sawed blondes in half and made them disappear. It was done with mirrors, remember.

* Max Laemmle, manager of the Los Feliz, had to obtain clearance from several trade guilds in order to give it a theatrical showing. Desilu, now a Paramount subsidiary, provided the 35 mm. print, which played for four weeks on a bill with Chimes at Midnight.

Sight and Sound, Winter 1970/71

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