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(Credit: Alexander Kahle)


Watch 'The Hearts of Age' online free: The surrealist Orson Welles short film

Orson Welles is one of modern cinema’s founding fathers. A master director and actor, he understood the power of film long before the likes of the French New Wave, Andrei Tarkovsky and Stanley Kubrick broke onto the scene and took auteur cinema to a different level entirely. 

Without Welles, some of cinema’s most iconic tropes would not have been established, and if you were to delete his contributions from the great hard drive that we call culture, contemporary life would look completely different.

Notably, Welles is most famous for his 1941 drama Citizen Kane, and the effect that the film has had on the development of film and culture is a different article entirely. However, Welles also gave us many more captivating pieces of cinema, such as the noir classics The Lady from Shanghai and Touch of Evil and the 1973 docudrama, F for Fake, the latter of which makes a strong claim to be his most underrated work.

Whilst Welles gave us many moments, one of the most interesting is the 1934 effort The Hearts of Age. Composed in the summer of 1934, when Welles was just 19-years0old, he teamed up with his high school friend William Vance for the proejct, and it’s a thing of rough yet surreal beauty.

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Shot in 16mm, the picture runs for only eight minutes and features a small cast of five actors, two of which were Welles and Vance. The other three were Virginia Nicholson, Welles’ girlfriend and subsequently first wife, the soon-to-be-famous Charles ‘Blackie’ O’Neal and Paul Edgerton. 

Featuring themes of racism, suicide and religion, although the point of the film is opaque, it does point to Welles’ mature outlook on the world. It may shock you that the servant’s character is donning blackface, particularly given the ambiguous narrative, but given Welles’ lifelong and very vocal campaigns against racism, you can’t help but think that there was a more profound point he was trying to make. 

In a now-famous interview with Peter Bogdanovich, Welles shrugged off any serious readings of the film and dismissed it as nothing more than a parody of surrealist Jean Cocteau’s first film, the 1930s effort The Blood of a Poet. To Welles, it was a “joke” that was “shot in two hours, for fun, one Sunday afternoon. It has no sort of meaning.” 

Later in life, Welles clarified that it was not a serious piece of work and was amused by the idea that it was hailed as a part of his creative canon. It would then have tickled him to have read more contemporary takes on the film, which see it as a direct precursor to Welles’ first and most famous outing, Citizen Kane, because of some minor stylistic similarities. 

Watch The Hearts of Age below. 

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