Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Orson Welles Television Show That Might Have Been...

This pilot was made by Welles for Desilu to pitch to CBS as a proposed Welles anthology series (sort of a pre "Twilight Zone" or "Alfred Hitchcock Presents") in 1956. Welles was friends with Lucille Ball from their days of working together on one of the gazillion versions of radio's "The Mercury Theatre On The Air". Ball has a great part in one episode reading Dorothy Parker verse which Welles introduces.

So, cut to a decade or so later and Lucille Ball is one of the great powers of television and can basically do whatever she and Desi want. They have bought her old studio (RKO) and are producing "I Love Lucy" as well as various pilots for pitching to CBS. This, of course was also the studio where "Citizen Kane" and "The Magnificent Ambersons" were made.

Now Welles has just returned from Europe and is looking to try and make his mark in the new medium of television. He contacts Lucy and Desi, they meet him in New York and discuss two ideas- the first being a guest spot on "I Love Lucy", the second being the new series Welles wants to do.

As I said before, this series was going to be a "Welles-zone" anthology. But it had its precedents in Welles' various former radio shows like "This Is My Best" (which, during this version of that long-running show should have been called "This Is Orson's Latest Vehicle"), "The Columbia Playhouse", or any of the previously mentioned to gazillion variations on "The Mercury Theatre".

The "Lucy" episode came off without a hitch, but the pilot was another matter. Given five days to shoot, Welles typically went 3 and a half days overbudget. But, just as typically, watch what he did. His use of slides, the way he cuts in camera and his own presence as narrator/host make this story a marvel of creative ingenuity.

The mind reels at what could have been one of the great anthology shows, had it been picked up.

But it wasn't. CBS turned down EVERY pilot Desilu presented that year, and all of them were eventually run two years later as part of a different anthology show. Networks typically did this to burn off pilots.

And later in the year, Welles' pilot that was weird , that went overbudget, that nobody wanted to have anything to do with, won the prestigious Peabody Award for comedy.

Here's Part One.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It is a shame that this series was not picked up and that what is picked up today, pales by comparision. Thanks for sharing.