In 1941, Orson Welles—who would have turned 102 years old today—was at the top of his game. Though he was only 26 years old, Welles had managed to successfully conquer every corner of the existing entertainment world.
On the stage, he introduced groundbreaking adaptations of Shakespeare’s work, including a 1937 stage version of Julius Caesar that modernized the material with imagery more reminiscent of Nazi Germany. In 1938, Welles staged what is probably the most famous radio broadcast of all time when his reading of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds was mistaken for news (though several sources claim that the “mass panic” it set off is more of a myth, as very few listeners were tuned in).
It didn’t take long for Welles’ talent for innovation to get the attention of the powers-that-be in Hollywood, who quickly came calling. In 1939, Welles signed a two-picture movie deal with RKO that granted him something truly unheard of in those days: complete artistic control. Though his budgets would be limited, Welles would be the sole decider of everything from script to cast to final cut. After toying around with other projects, including an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Welles finally settled on what would be his directorial debut: Citizen Kane, the story of Charles Foster Kane, a fictional newspaper magnate-turned-lonely old man. Even today, the film is widely considered the greatest movie ever made.
Though Citizen Kane was not without its controversies (its protagonist’s similarities to real-life newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst led to various attempts to see the movie burned and/or buried, some of them successful), it also turned Welles into Hollywood’s Golden Boy. It’s a mantle that ultimately proved a bit too overwhelming for Welles—there’s really only one direction you can go after making the greatest movie of all time.
Welles would continue to direct dozens of projects over the next several decades—many of them great (see The Stranger, Touch of Evil, and F for Fake)—but no project ever came close to achieving the critical acclaim he had received for Citizen Kane.
By the late 1970s, Welles, who had once been the voice of a generation, was simply just a voice. With a lack of movie offers, Welles capitalized on his well-known mug and famously baritone pipes as a way to make ends meet. (Before he voiced Magnum P.I.’s unseen Robin Masters or the robot Unicron on Transformers, Welles was George Lucas’ original choice to voice Darth Vader.) This is when Welles signed on as the celebrity spokesman for Paul Masson, a California winery that promised to “sell no wine before its time.”
Welles made some delightfully cheesy commercials for the company, bringing a Shakespearean feel to a mediocre vino.
He explained how he likes to cast a party the way he casts a play: with very special people—and a very special California champagne.
He also informed us that Chablis is America’s most popular wine. (Who knew?)
Most importantly, Welles proved that if you wanted to get rip-roaring drunk, Paul Masson is your man. His famously inebriated outtakes from a champagne commercial might very well be the brand’s most notable achievement.
Welles didn’t give the commercial’s director a whole lot of usable footage to work with, as evidenced by the final product.
So raise a glass to Orson Welles: maker of the world’s greatest movie, and star of its most disastrous commercial.