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of the Movies and Personalities of the Golden Age of Hollywood

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Minority Opinion: The Magnificent Ambersons, Part 3

When the U.S. declared war on Japan on December 8, 1941, the Roosevelt administration felt sure (thanks to confidential intelligence) that Nazi Germany would soon, in turn, declare war on the U.S. And sure enough Hitler did, on December 11. Even before that, however -- on December 10 -- the U.S. State Department approached Orson Welles. Hitler's diplomats had been cozying up to South America for years, knowing full well that Germany would come to blows with the U.S. sooner or later, and Washington was alarmed at the number of south-of-the-border governments that had been cozying back. Shoring up relations with Latin America was a top priority. A request came from John Hay Whitney, head of the motion picture section of the State Dept.'s Office of Inter-American Affairs: Would Welles be willing to go down to South America, make a picture, and serve as a goodwill ambassador in the interests of hemispheric solidarity?

Would he ever. The request, forwarded through RKO and with George Schaefer's blessing, appealed to Welles's patriotism and political philosophy; better yet, it fit right in with one of his back-burner projects, Pan-America, since retitled It's All True. (The new title was in fact a bit of a misnomer; the components of the project, insofar as Welles and his staff had thought them through at all, consisted of fictitious episodes, though each dealt with some sort of "truth" about life in the western hemisphere.)

There was a catch: The government wanted Welles to film Rio de Janeiro's famous Carnival, which would begin in mid-February.  Welles and his production team would have to be in place and ready to go by then. One episode of It's All True (Bonito the Bull) was already shooting in Mexico, but plans for the rest were still pretty vague. In any case, none of them had anything to do with Carnival or Brazil, which meant rethinking and fast-tracking a picture that hadn't had all that much thought so far. For starters, the Bonito shoot in Mexico was summarily closed down; if Welles decided to finish it, it would happen in California. A start date of January 6, 1942 was set for shooting Journey into Fear, with Norman Foster (reassigned from Bonito) directing, under Welles's supervision and at his instrucion.

And finally on the to-do list before leaving for Rio, The Magnificent Ambersons had to be finished. The picture had already ballooned well past its original $600,000 budget -- $853,000 so far, with a full million just around the corner. George Schaefer wanted Ambersons to open Easter Week at Radio City Music Hall in Manhattan -- that was traditionally a strong week for the box office, and offered the best chance to recoup RKO's investment.

With the pressure building, Welles's impatience with Stanley Cortez, Ambersons's slowpoke cinematographer, boiled over time and again; Welles later called Cortez "criminally slow". The way editor Robert Wise remembered things, Welles unofficially demoted Cortez to second unit photographer, letting Cortez potter around with unimportant stuff while he shot principal scenes with studio photographers Jack MacKenzie and Harry Wild. (Studio records don't entirely bear this out, but there may be something to it: In interviews for the rest of his life, Cortez spoke with pride of a long tracking shot through the deserted Amberson mansion after the family's fortune disintegrates. He spent four days setting up, rehearsing, and making the shot, and he often lamented that it had been eliminated in the picture's tortuous editing process; that long tracking shot became part of the legend surrounding the "destruction" of The Magnificent Ambersons. In fact, however, the shot never appeared in any version of the picture, even before the cutting began -- leaving the possibility that it was simply a piece of busy-work to keep Cortez out of Welles's hair.)

Principal photography on Ambersons wrapped up on January 22, 1942; it had lasted a little over 13 weeks. Welles spent the rest of the month making pickup shots, working with Norman Foster on Journey into Fear and finishing his on-screen role in that picture, making his last broadcast of the Lady Esther radio show, and preparing to leave for South America. On February 2 he left for Rio by way of Washington D.C., where he was to be briefed by officials of the Office of Inter-American Affairs before continuing on to Brazil.

During those same two weeks, Robert Wise assembled a rough cut of Ambersons and traveled with it to Florida to intercept Welles on his way south. They spent February 5 at the Fleischer Animation Studios in Miami, recording Welles's voice-over narration, screening the rough cut and conferring on Welles's plans for the final cut -- at least, as they stood at that point in time.

It's important to remember that what Welles and Wise worked on in Miami was just a rough cut -- the barest assemblage of scenes with no music, special effects or fade/dissolve transitions. A rough cut is the movie equivalent of what in the theater is called a stumble-through, plowing through the show from beginning to end just to see what still needs work. The work that the rough cut needed is what the two men talked about that day in Miami; Wise would return to RKO and cut the picture to Welles's specifications.

At the airport before flying out, Welles dictated a telegram to Jack Moss, the Mercury Theatre's business manager, whom Welles had appointed a sort of surrogate producer; the telegram specified that Wise was to have the final word on editing Ambersons and that Wise's authority was not to be questioned. In a wire from Rio three weeks later, Moss was further directed to "start running Ambersons nightly" and taking input from Norman Foster, Joseph Cotten and Dolores Costello "as many times as possible ... [Y]ou know I trust you completely."

For a clear account of what happened over the four months after Welles flew to Brazil, I am indebted -- we all are -- to Robert L. Carringer's The Magnificent Ambersons: A Reconstruction, published by the University of California Press in 1993. The book includes a prefatory essay, "Oedipus in Indianapolis"; an annotated copy of the cutting continuity of the first draft of the picture assembled by Robert Wise after his meeting with Welles in Miami; and a documentary history of the editing process compiled from extant studio records now housed at UCLA and Indiana University. My own conclusions regarding The Magnificent Ambersons differ somewhat from Prof. Carringer's, but the fact that I even have conclusions is thanks to his painstaking research sifting through the surviving records of RKO and Orson Welles's personal papers.

"Who knows what happened?" Welles rhetorically asked Barbara Leaming in the 1980s, referring to the editing of Ambersons while he was in Rio de Janeiro. In fact, the paper trail is thorough and, while cluttered, surprisingly clear -- surely one of the most complete editing records for a single picture to survive from the entire Golden Age of Hollywood. And it often flies in the face of the accepted Ambersons legend.

There's one point on which Prof. Carringer isn't really clear, however, and that has to do with Wise's plans to join Welles in Rio to finalize the editing of Ambersons. On p. 27, Prof. Carringer says that Welles asked for Wise to come to Rio after their daily communications via telephone, telegraph and short-wave radio had proved frustrating and "impracticable"; then on p. 280 he implies that the plan all along was for Wise to bring the completed picture to Rio for a final check, along with alternate shots, dissolves and a spare music track for "the widest possible latitude in making changes." Welles himself always held to the latter explanation, saying he had been "promised" a print and cutters in Rio. In one interview, he seems to imply that he would never have gone to Brazil in the first place if he had known Wise wouldn't be joining him. This idea is not really credible; once Welles accepted the assignment, it was a matter of in for a penny, in for a pound. He couldn't send somebody else to film Carnival the way Norman Foster had shot Bonito for him in Mexico. Not only the U.S. State Department but the government, press and people of Brazil were all expecting the one and only Orson Welles, in person. No underling would do. Besides, Foster had gone to Mexico with a clear story (by Roberty Flaherty), if not a detailed script, on paper. It's All True was still nebulous; Welles, RKO and State were counting on on-the-scene inspiration to firm up the shape and dimensions of the movie they were going to make.

In any case, Robert Wise never made it to Rio. The first cut was ready, and Wise's travel was approved by George Schaefer. But at the last minute, Wise's request to leave the country was denied due to wartime restrictions on civilian travel. RKO might have successfully appealed the decision, since Welles was in Rio at the government's behest, but they didn't try. It's also possible that the studio had second thoughts about letting Wise go. The first cut wasn't ready till March 10, and Schaefer was still hoping for and planning on an Easter Week opening, barely a month away. Having both the director and the editor 6,000 miles away in Brazil, and with a war going on, would just be asking for trouble, especially with the unpredictable Orson Welles. So instead, Wise shipped that first cut off to Welles on March 11 (it arrived March 15) and continued the long-distance consultations by wire and radio.

The spine of Prof. Carringer's reconstruction of Ambersons is the cutting continuity compiled by RKO from the print Robert Wise shipped to Orson Welles in Rio on March 11. The running time at that point was precisely 2 hours 11 minutes 45-and-one-third seconds. (This clarifies another part of the legend, which over the years has alleged various running times, some as high as three hours, for Welles's version of the picture.) But while this was the most complete version of Ambersons, it was never intended to be the final one; it was understood by all concerned, including Welles, that the picture was running long at 132 minutes and needed further tuning, which could include cutting or retaking scenes (or shooting new ones), and would certainly incude sneak-previewing the picture, standard practice at the time.

The picture at 132 min. contained at least some scenes that evidently never pleased anyone and were among the first things to go. For example, there were what came to be called the first and second porch scenes. The first porch scene, a long take lasting nearly six minutes, involved Isabel and Fanny chatting about their changing town while George sits lost in his own thoughts. After Isabel goes inside, Fanny worries to George that Isabel is being too hasty to leave off mourning her dead husband Wilbur. Fanny then goes inside and George, alone, fantasizes first about Lucy begging his forgiveness, then about her socializing with other young men without a thought for him. This scene might have been deemed too static; also, George's fantasies may have played badly, may have in fact strained the resources of Tim Holt and Anne Baxter. (A significant number of the edits in the final release version of Ambersons seem to have been aimed at protecting Tim Holt's performance.)

The second porch scene, another long take lasting a little over three minutes, came later in the picture and showed Fanny and Major Amberson discussing the Major's financial problems and their mutual plans to invest in the ill-fated headlight company. This was in fact Richard Bennett's longest scene in the picture, and the 71-year-old Bennett was unable to remember dialogue; Welles had been forced to feed him his lines one-by-one from off-camera, Welles's voice to be edited out later. If that was the case here, it could well have played havoc with the timing of the scene and made it ultimately unusable. Whatever the reasons, neither porch scene (by unanimous agreement) was ever shown to an audience.

While Wise was still preparing the first cut for shipment, Welles ordered some radical changes, which came to be known as the "big cut". The following scenes were to be taken out, beginning after George's slamming the door in Eugene's face and Eugene's letter to Isabel pleading with her to stand up to George:

1. George and Isabel discussing Eugene's letter (a different, shorter version of this scene was eventually reshot for the release version);

2. Isabel slipping a letter under George's door telling him she will break with Eugene (this scene is not in the release version);

3. George's walk with Lucy on the street where he tells her he and Isabel are going away, and she frustrates him by her light and trivial attitude;

4. Lucy entering a nearby shop and fainting in front of the startled clerk;

5. A poolroom scene where the clerk tells his buddies about the pretty young lady who fainted in his shop that day (not in release version);

6. The second porch scene between Fanny and Major Amberson (not in release version);

7. Uncle Jack's visit to Eugene and Lucy, telling them of Isabel's failing health and George's refusal to let her come home; and

8. Isabel's return, when she is too weak to walk a step.

In place of all this, Welles (probably by telephone) ordered Wise to insert a new scene of George finding Isabel unconscious in her bedroom, with Eugene's letter in her hand. (This scene, not in the release version, was shot under Wise's direction on March 10.)

Wise went ahead and shipped the first 132-minute cut off to Welles in Rio as planned. Then he made the changes Welles had called for as he prepared Ambersons for its first preview. With the changes Welles had ordered, the picture now ran approximately 110 minutes.

The Magnificent Ambersons had its first sneak preview on Tuesday, March 17, 1942 at the Fox Theatre in Pomona, Calif.

Then all hell broke loose.


To be continued...


Monday, February 6, 2012

Minority Opinion: The Magnificent Ambersons, Part 2

Somewhere around the time the story of The Magnificent Ambersons closes -- Booth Tarkington was a little hazy on dates -- George Orson Welles was born, on May 6, 1915, in Kenosha, Wisconsin. This is how little Orson looked when The Magnificent Ambersons was published in 1918.

Late in life, Orson Welles professed a lifelong affinity for the works of Booth Tarkington, and for The Magnificent Ambersons in particular. In "My Father Wore Black Spats", an autobiographical essay published in Paris Vogue in 1982, Welles reminisced about Grand Detour, Ill., a quaint little village and artist colony 75 miles west of Chicago where Welles and his family often spent long weekends and summers. "[A] childhood there," he wrote, "was like a childhood back in the 1870s...a completely anachronistic, old-fashioned, early-Tarkington, rural kind of life." (He used the exact same words in an interview with Peter Bogdanovich published in This Is Orson Welles.) Here Welles was referring to the Tarkington of the Penrod books and Seventeen, the author's turn-of-the-century idyl of adolescence. Elsewhere in that same Vogue article Welles was more Ambersons-specific: "It has long been a family assumption that the author had my father in mind when he created the character which I will always think of as the Joseph Cotten role [Eugene Morgan] in The Magnificent Ambersons."

In other remarks and interviews, Welles went even further: His father, Richard Head Welles, was Booth Tarkington's best friend. Welles Sr. actually invented an early automobile, but didn't carry it any further because he couldn't see any future in it. I wasn't able to find references to any of these assertions until years, even decades after Welles's movie of Ambersons.

Then there's the fact that Orson Welles had a penchant for, well, making things up, especially when he was talking about his father; a 1963 monograph by Maurice Bessy includes a highly amusing load of malarkey about Orson's father, obviously gleaned from Orson himself. ("Seventy-five percent of what I say in interviews," he once warned, "is false.") In fact, other than Orson's say-so, there's no evidence that Tarkington and Richard Welles ever met. It's not entirely out of the question; Richard does appear to have been acquainted with George Ade (another Hoosier writer and contemporary of Tarkington's, less famous in their day and even more forgotten than Tarkington now). But "best friends" with Tarkington? Unlikely; certainly Orson never said anything about it before 1946, when Tarkington would have been around to weigh in on the subject.

As for inventing the motorcar, the closest Richard Welles ever got to that was acquiring a patent for an automobile jack in 1904. It may be somehow significant that in Orson's telling, his father becomes something of an amalgam of Eugene Morgan and George Minafer -- inventing a car on one hand, deciding it would never amount to anything on the other.

If The Magnificent Ambersons had really loomed so large in his family history, it would have seemed logical of Welles to choose Tarkington's novel for his first movie, but of course he didn't. In fact, Ambersons wasn't even the first choice for his second. Welles always had more ideas percolating in his head than he could ever follow up on, especially in the first flush of his carte blanche contract with RKO -- Cyrano de Bergerac; a Life of Christ set in the American West the way Renaissance painters used to portray Biblical scenes in Renaissance settings; Conrad's Heart of Darkness; a life of Henri Landru, the French serial wife-killer (this idea Welles eventually sold to Charlie Chaplin, who turned it into Monsieur Verdoux); Nicholas Blake's novel The Smiler with a Knife; Arthur Calder-Marshall's The Way to Santiago, etc.

Eventually, Welles settled on two nearly simultaneous projects to follow Citizen Kane for his Mercury Productions unit at RKO (typically, several others would simmer on back burners for later consideration), both of them adaptations of best-selling novels:  Eric Ambler's Journey into Fear and The Magnificent Ambersons; Welles would produce and act in the former, write and direct the latter. Besides these, there was another pot on the stove: Pan-America, an episodic picture that would eventually morph into It's All True. This pot would at length boil over, with a resounding effect on Ambersons. In fact, it was already having an effect -- Welles delayed the start of production to fly off to Mexico to consult with Norman Foster, who served as Orson's on-the-spot "co-director" shooting Bonito the Bull, one of Pan-America's episodes. Oh, and I almost forgot -- there was also his weekly radio show for Lady Esther Cosmetics. In light of what came later, it's important to remember that from the outset, The Magnificent Ambersons never had Orson Welles's undivided attention.

Not that this was anything new; at this stage of his career, divided attention was Orson Welles's modus operandi. In New York he was famous for keeping busy enough for three men, shuttling back and forth between the stage and radio, even keeping an ambulance on call to ferry him from one live broadcast to another, siren blaring. Now in Hollywood he was doing the same thing, stretching himself as far as Mexico for the Bonito jaunts; even on a slow day he'd be hopping from Ambersons to Journey into Fear and back, sometimes dictating his direction onto phonograph records when he wouldn't be on the Ambersons set in person. No wonder he thought he could do anything, he'd been doing it so long.

Whatever Welles might have said regarding "family assumptions" about his father and Booth Tarkington, his first experience with The Magnificent Ambersons (that we know of, anyhow) was a dramatization aired on his Campbell Playhouse radio show on October 29, 1939, exactly 52 weeks after his notorious War of the Worlds. Welles narrated the production and -- cranking his voice up to an adolescent whine -- played George Amberson Minafer. Guest star Walter Huston was Eugene Morgan (sounding old enough to play Major Amberson, a character dropped from the adaptation), while Nan Sunderland (Mrs. Huston in real life) played Isabel Minafer. Ray Collins was Uncle George Amberson, the name changed to Fred to avoid confusing the listening audience, and Marion Burns was Lucy Morgan. Other roles went to Eric Burtis, Everett Sloane, Richard Wilson and Bea Benaderet.

Conspicuous by her absence -- at least to anyone familiar with Tarkington's novel -- was the character of Fanny Minafer, and she left a much bigger hole than Major Amberson. The Major's main contribution to the story occurs before it starts, and most of what he does and says in the course of the novel can be transferred to Uncle George/Fred. (Welles would do exactly that in the movie, mainly because the aging Richard Bennett, though he was Major Amberson to the life, simply could no longer remember lines.) Fanny's presence, on the other hand, is all but indispensible. It's her unthinking mischief that sets Georgie on the course that will drive his mother to an early grave; it's her reckless enthusiasm that sends the last dribbles of Amberson money down the drain with her own; and it's her pathetic helplessness that draws out Georgie's better nature and sets him on the road to redemption. The Campbell Playhouse Ambersons is a solid piece of radio drama, but listening to it is like watching a wagon limp by with one wheel missing.

When Welles presented Ambersons on Campbell Playhouse he was
already under contract to RKO, though he wouldn't start work on
Citizen Kane for several months. Maybe he really did have an early
affection for Tarkington's book -- why else would he have done it on
radio in the first place? -- but when it came time to choose his second
picture as writer-director, he may well have picked it largely because
the radio drama had already given him a head start on it. With
everything else he had going on, who could blame him? He played
a recording of the show for RKO president George Schaefer, who
green-lighted the production on the strength of that. (Welles told
biographer Barbara Leaming that five minutes into the recording,
Schaefer dozed off, waking up only at the end, then giving the
go-ahead. Like the story of Tarkington and his father, this one
seems not to have surfaced while Schaefer was around to
dispute it; he died in 1981 at 92, and Leaming's 1985 biography
was the earliest mention I could find of Schaefer's nap.)


Anyhow, awake or asleep, Schaefer approved Ambersons to proceed, alongside Journey into Fear and the still-percolating (and partially shooting in Mexico) Pan-America -- but with a renegotiated contract for the Mercury Productions unit. The battle with Hearst over Citizen Kane was still raging, and the RKO board pressured Schaefer to rein Welles in; gone was the free hand and final cut Welles had enjoyed on Kane, and the budget for Ambersons was capped at $600,000. Welles signed, with a confidence he would come to rue.

On Ambersons, Ray Collins was set to repeat his Uncle George/Fred role from the radio show (renamed again, to Jack). Stage and silent screen veteran Richard Bennett (father of Constance and Joan) was Major Amberson, Dolores Costello (silent star, ex-wife of John Barrymore and grandmother of Drew) was Isabel Amberson Minafer, Joseph Cotten was Eugene Morgan, and 18-year-old Anne Baxter was Morgan's daughter Lucy. For the crucial role of Aunt Fanny, Welles tapped Agnes Moorehead, who had played his mother in Citizen Kane; in Ambersons, only her second picture, Moorehead would give the performance of her long and distinguished career -- but more of that later.

The other crucial role, of course, was George Amberson Minafer, the role Welles himself had played on radio. Already almost overextended, Welles opted not to spread himself thin enough to play the part again -- and I say "thin enough" pun-intended: Welles later said he had grown "too fat" for the part, having given up the do-or-die weight control he undertook during Kane. Instead he cast 22-year-old Tim Holt, perhaps on the strength of Holt's brief role in Stagecoach (which Welles called his "bible" of moviemaking, and said he had screened over 100 times). Welles was probably wise not to play Georgie himself; his radio performance reaches a pitch of squealing hysteria that would be hard to stand at feature length (indeed, Holt himself would have a tough reception from audiences -- more of that later, too). Holt may have been most familiar as a star of B-westerns, but he had ventured into A-pictures (Stella Dallas, History Is Made at Night, Swiss Family Robinson, Back Street), and he came to Ambersons one of its more seasoned players -- only Dolores Costello had him decisively outgunned on that score. Before Ambersons, Collins, Moorehead and Cotten had only Kane to their credit (plus a handful of shorts for Collins). Baxter had appeared in four features. Holt had made twenty-nine.

Welles biographer Simon Callow says Holt was less-than-ideal casting -- "stocky, plebeian in manner, sulky and impetuous." Callow has a point. Tarkington says, "George's imperious good looks were altogether manly, yet approached actual beauty as closely as a boy's good looks should dare." There was probably only one actor in 1941 -- or ever after -- who could have played Tarkington's George Minafer: Tyrone Power. Power had the beauty, and for such a popular star his roles often had more than a touch of the cad. But if Welles ever considered him for Georgie -- and evidently he didn't -- the idea was a non-starter; RKO wasn't about to pay for him and Darryl Zanuck wasn't about to lend him out. Moreover, I think Callow does Holt an injustice; I'll get to that too.

Principal photography began in late October 1941 with the dinner table scene where Georgie denounces the automobile and deliberately offends Eugene Morgan. All things considered, the shoot went well. But there were things to be considered. For one thing, Welles lost cinematographer Gregg Toland, his most valuable and stimulating collaborator on Kane, when Toland enlisted in the U.S. Navy's photography unit. A last-minute replacement was Stanley Cortez (shown here with Welles). Cortez proved to be an inspired choice, but his slow, methodical style contrasted sharply with the swift, no-nonsense Toland and caused Welles no end of frustration.

Then there was Welles's idea of having his cast pre-record their dialogue, lip-synching to playback on the set like singers in a musical. The idea, he said, was to keep actors in touch with the dialogue as they first read it, without camera-induced self-consciousness -- plus it would (theoretically) free the camera from worries about boom mikes in the frame, wobbling sound levels and the like. All in theory -- but it proved a disaster in practice; if anything, the actors were even more self-conscious, trying to match lips with readings laid down long before. The idea was eventually abandoned, but like most of Welles's ideas it died hard (he tried it again later for Macbeth over at shoestring Republic, with far more success).

When cast and crew adjourned to an ice house in downtown L.A. for the winter outing sequence -- George and Lucy in his sleigh, Eugene, Isabel, Fanny and Jack in Eugene's horseless carriage -- the stocks of frozen fish were cleared out of camera range and a Currier and Ives landscape created by feeding massive blocks of ice into crushers to make real snow. The oil froze in the camera. The 500- and 1000-watt arc lights shattered in the cold -- or when they didn't, the heat from them melted the snow.  The director wasn't always there -- this was where he sent his direction to the makeshift set on phonograph records. Once again Welles's lip-synching idea came a cropper; ultimately, all the dialogue had to be post-dubbed. Through it all the cast and crew huddled and shivered, breathing through their mouths to lessen the overwhelming stench of frozen fish. Ray Collins came down with pneumonia. 

But in the end it was worth it. So was the time -- nine ten-hour days -- and effort -- a crew of nearly 100 grips and gaffers -- required to shoot the ball at the Amberson mansion that opens the picture. Welles's actors and Cortez's camera threaded their way through a jigsaw maze of wild walls, doors and stairways flying or gliding out of the way, then back into place, ballroom mirrors rotating out and back, in a long fluid motion like the workings of an ornate Swiss clock. 

All worth it; when George Schaefer and a few other RKO suits were shown about an hour of the work in progress (including, not incidentally, a couple of Agnes Moorehead's most electrifying scenes), he was ecstatic: "I am very happy and proud of our association," he wired Welles. The Magnificent Ambersons was shaping up to be one of the outstanding pictures of the year. 

Almost exactly halfway through shooting on Ambersons came the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, changing everything. It changed the fate of The Magnificent Amberson, too, because in the wake of America's entry into the war, the U.S. State Department was about to make Orson Welles an offer he couldn't refuse.


To be continued...



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