(Richard Brody’s article appeared in The New Yorker, 12/11; Photo: The New Yorker.)
The project that Orson Welles planned to film, in 1939, before turning his attention to “Citizen Kane” was a mystery called “Smiler with a Knife,” about a fascist plot to take over the United States. For his co-star, Welles wanted a young actress named Lucille Ball, but the studio turned her down. A decade and a half later, Welles was severely struggling to sustain a career; forty-one years old, he was famous as an actor but his directing career had been thwarted by producers’ unwanted recuts of his films and by poor box-office results. Ball had become a TV star and mogul, both starring in and producing (with her then husband, Desi Arnaz) “I Love Lucy,” which was on the air from 1951 to 1957 and made her both famous and very, very rich. When Welles’s Hollywood career was nearly nonexistent, he turned to television, and Ball and Arnaz, who by that time had the power and the money, turned a share of both over to Welles for his effort to establish himself there.
Only one episode of the resulting project was ever filmed, the pilot, titled “The Fountain of Youth” (it’s streaming on YouTube), and it’s as artistically original for television as “Citizen Kane” was for the movies, and—at least in part—for a very similar reason. The pulp-fiction plot, based on a short story by John Collier and set in New York in the nineteen-twenties, concerns a middle-aged scientist named Humphrey Baxter (Dan Tobin) who falls in love with a twenty-three-year-old burlesque dancer, Caroline Coates (Joi Lansing). When he leaves town for three years of study in Vienna, she leaves him for a muscular tennis star, Alan Brody (Rick Jason). When Humphrey returns to New York and finds himself dumped, he relies on the product of his research—a vial of an anti-aging potion, the titular fountain—to get his revenge. The story is both pleasantly seamy and inconsequential, as pat and flimsy as a mad-science soap opera. Its psychological dimensions are infinitesimal; its social context is nonexistent. But what Welles makes of the story is—or, rather, should have been—a template for what the art of television could have become.
Welles, the storyteller, is our narrator—he’s onscreen frequently, in closeups, throughout the twenty-seven-minute show, his presence punctuating the action and pushing it ahead. That action—also filmed largely in closeups of the actors—is conjured more from cinematic magic than from staged performance. Many scenes in “The Fountain of Youth” are sketched through the rapid montage of still photos; the sets are minimal and bare, a suggestion of places rather than a depiction of them, with special effects—morphing and gliding photographic backdrops, conspicuously unrealistic rear-screen projections, that lend a phantasmagorical mood to the tale’s lurid and macabre twists.