Hand a Swellhead a Pin and He’ll Make It His Scepter

Personally, your editors don’t like Mr. Welles. He is the seven-year-old kid next door who has a vocabulary twice his size. He is the good-looking young man who walks off with your best girl. He is the braggart who says impossible things and then does them. Your editors are average people. That’s why they personally are not fond of the man who is too good and knows it and shows it! . . . Your editors don’t like him because everything he does is perfect, from movies to radio plays. But he’s good, drat it, he is!

That is what the readers of a May 1941 issue Movie-Radio Guide were being told about the most talked about man in radio—Orson Welles.

I wouldn’t be surprised if this backhanded compliment had been dictated by the erstwhile Wunderkind himself. However uneven his career, however fickle his fortunes in Hollywood, the kid from Kenosha kept the conceit of his genius alive on the radio, which, immediate and expedient, proved just the medium for putting on airs.

In March of 1943, when comedian Jack Benny was unable to carry on with his weekly broadcasts, Welles was chosen to fill in for “old sniffle snoot.” The format of the Grape Nuts Flakes Program remained intact, and Jack’s gang was at hand to become foils—or fodder—for the theatrical showman-thespian.

Now, Benny had pretty much perfected the comedy of deflation by creating the persona of a pompous, vain, miserly and slightly delusional performer at whose character flaws listeners felt at ease to laugh even if the act held a distorting mirror to them by accentuating their own failings. It was not so with Welles, for whom self-deflation seemed to have been just another means of boosting his ego.

Whereas Benny presents us with a caricature whose features are not unlike some of our own, Welles’s persona was always larger than life, and as such untouchable. “I have spent years inflating the balloon that is Welles,” the guest tells Benny regular Dennis Day: “Please do not puncture it.” Fat chance, really.

On the 21 March 1943 broadcast, Welles was not so much filling in for Benny as he was filling up the studio with his aura, dimming the sunny atmosphere by shrouding it in layers of Orson. It might be a gas—but, aside from Welles’s hilarious take on the Grape-Nuts commercial—it isn’t quite nitrous oxide. As Simon Callow puts it in Orson Welles: Hello Americans,

[p]art of the problem is that, unlike the Jack Benny character, which is preposterous and bears no relations to the real man, this “Orson Welles” is uncomfortably close to the real one: are we laughing at or with him?

Indeed, the “balloon” act seems “self-serving,” an advertisement for what could be too readily taken for the man himself. Aided by Benny’s writers, Welles in his grandeur does not have to suffer one scratch from Mary Livingstone’s barbs (“Gee, I like this guy”) or Eddie Anderson’s retorts (“Mr. Welles, working for you is paradise”). Being that the entire act revolves around him, none of his fellow players gets an opportunity to cut him down to any size other than super. The familiar casting skit, in which Welles rehearses a scene that gives none beside him a chance to get a word in, works far better on the Fred Allen Show, where one genius was pitted against another, where the war of the words and the battle for a line becomes a genuine sparring match.

“Orson Welles is a genius,” Don Wilson concludes the broadcast, “but this program was written by Bill Morrow and Ed Beloin.” That remark, drowned out by the applause from the studio audience is about the only jab at Welles, who was known for taking all the credit. No, the “balloon that is Welles” was not in danger of popping, “prick” being a noun in this case. If only Welles had permitted himself—or been permitted by those who helped to fashion and fix his persona—to accept the pin without turning it into a scepter.


Related recordings
Grape Nuts Flakes Program, 21 March 1943

Related writings
“Orson Welles Lures Fred Allen into the Sewers”
The Shadow Gets a Voice-over”

4 Replies to “Hand a Swellhead a Pin and He’ll Make It His Scepter”

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