Orson Welles was a boy genius if ever there was one. From virtually his earliest works, he exhibited a kind of full understanding of each medium that he worked in. In addition, he seemed to be in total control of each medium, whether working on the stage, on radio, or in film.
It is amazing, therefore, to watch his first film, "Hearts of Age", and to see what an interesting aesthetic he brought to what is essentially an experimental student film, made at the university in Illinois where Welles was studying at the time. The film is full of suggestive imagery. His future wife, Virginia Nicholson (made up as an elderly woman) is seen sitting atop a large, ringing bell. Egerton Paul, Welles' roommate and friend, plays the blackface footman. Welles appears in a variety of roles, including a hauting appearance in a death-mask. The film has a playful charm about it, serving as something of a satire on the experimental genre. Welles is clearly having a lot of fun with his performance. Interestingly, and this is something rare in an experimental film, it is very much an actor's film, carried largely by Welles at the center of it all.
While it would be tempting to read the film as a kind of warm-up for "Citizen Kane", I'm not sure that it would necessarily be accurate to do so. Welles, for all his obvious skill, is still testing the waters in this early effort. "Kane" is a totally successful piece of cinematic experimentation, whereas "Hearts of Age" still has an uncertainty about where it's filmmaker will go. There can be little doubt after watching "Kane" that it's director is clearly a man in total control of his artistic faculties.
The film is thankfully preserved and available to watch as an early effort from one of cinema's most profound yet mysterious figures. Welles was an enigma, and this early film proves that even at the age of 19, his work was filled with mysterious and profound elements that leave viewers with something to ponder.