Dedicated to the Study and Appreciation
of the Movies and Personalities of the Golden Age of Hollywood

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Minority Opinion: The Magnificent Ambersons, Part 6

I worked with Robert Wise once. In 1986 I played a small role in Wisdom, on which he served as executive producer and all-round good shepherd for first-time writer-director Emilio Estevez. My scene was a small one, only about 45 seconds on screen, but it meant two twelve-hour days on the set. As I reported for work on my first day, Wise came up to me and introduced himself (as if it were necessary!). There was something I had thought and said about  him more than once in the past, but now, to my amazement, I actually had the chance to say it to him in person: "I have to tell you, Mr. Wise, I think you're the greatest film editor who ever picked up a pair of scissors."

He looked pleased and surprised in equal measure. "What makes you say that, in particular?" 

"In particular," I said, "The Magnificent Ambersons. You might have ruined that movie, but instead you saved it."

I said this to Robert Wise before I had ever seen Robert L. Carringer's reconstruction, or even read Booth Tarkington's novel. Now that I've done both, I haven't changed my mind. But it must be said, mine is not the generally held view on the matter (that's where the "Minority Opinion" title to these posts comes in). To most critics and historians, Robert Wise is the chief culprit in the mutilation of The Magnificent Ambersons -- a judgment planted, watered and grudge-nursed for over 40 years by Orson Welles himself. Because make no mistake, whenever Welles said "they" destroyed the picture, he was talking about one single individual.

"They destroyed Ambersons," Welles said late in life, "and the picture itself destroyed me; I didn't get a job as a director for years afterwards." That's dramatic, but probably not true. Regardless of what Charles Koerner and his minions at RKO might have thought of Ambersons, or of the prospect of ever hiring Welles again, nobody could deny that with Ambersons, there was a picture there. If anything destroyed Orson Welles in Hollywood, it was It's All True. With that one, he came back from spending six months and half a million dollars in South America with almost nothing to show for it -- miles and miles of footage, but no picture.

Nowadays, in hindsight, with World War II safely won and South America no longer leaning toward the U.S.'s Axis foes (beyond playing host to the occasional Nazi fugitive), we can see that flying down to Rio to make It's All True was probably the biggest mistake Orson Welles ever made; it cut short (like a brick wall) the momentum of his rocketing career, and he never really got it rolling again. Welles no doubt came to see it that way himself, judging from the way he distanced himself from the decision. "I was sent to South America by Nelson Rockefeller and Jock Whitney," he said. "I was told that it was my patriotic duty to go and spend a million dollars shooting the Carnival in Rio." Sounds almost as if he was drafted, doesn't it? Uncle Sam walked up out of the blue, poked a finger in his chest and growled "I want you!" Actually, when Whitney and Rockefeller made their proposal, Welles took little persuading; he deliberated barely 24 hours before agreeing to go.

And nobody ever had to tell Orson Welles to spend a million dollars -- he could do that all on his own. In fact, the Office of Inter-American Affairs only underwrote It's All True to a total of $300,000; RKO was on the hook for anything over that. (Welles made it clear that this was to be an RKO production with assistance from the U.S. government, not vice versa.) It was when the studio's budget projections forecast an eventual cost over $1 million that Charles Koerner finally pulled the plug on It's All True.

Welles's mistake wasn't in letting Whitney and Rockefeller talk him into something against his better judgment -- in his best judgment, and everybody else's, it seemed like a great idea at the time. His mistake was in thinking he could do anything: He could make an ambitious documentary about South America even though neither he nor anyone on his crew had ever made one before (he didn't even take any newsreel cameramen along); he could leave The Magnificent Ambersons and Journey into Fear behind while still controlling what became of them -- when Ambersons had yet to take final shape, and Journey hadn't even finished shooting. (In fairness, Welles couldn't have foreseen that Wise wouldn't be allowed to join him in Rio -- but that one glitch was all it took to undo his whole plan. Besides, whether it would have made any difference to have Wise in Rio rather than Hollywood is another question; it might have made things worse.) The bitter lesson in store for Welles was this: It was one thing to dash around Manhattan from stage rehearsals to various radio gigs a mile or so apart, or to shuttle from one set to another at RKO. But to edit a troubled picture from 6,000 miles away with makeshift equipment and only a telephone, telegraph and shortwave radio to help -- that was something entirely else.

Orson Welles was, let's admit it, a man of prodigious, even titanic gifts -- the kind of artist who comes along not once in a lifetime, or once in a century, but once in history. Three major media of the first half of the 20th century -- radio, the stage and motion pictures -- had never seen anything like him. He was a unique phenomenon, like Joan of Arc (meaning no other comparisons, of course). But he wasn't omniscient, omnipotent or infallible. If I seem to be hard on him in these posts, it's because I think he blundered badly on both It's All True and The Magnificent Ambersons, and because I think that in his public remarks about Robert Wise he was often shabby and small; Wise -- at least in his conversations with me -- showed far more sympathy for Welles's situation than Welles ever showed for his. (Welles, for his part, called Wise an idiot.) The fact is, Welles walked into his situation with his eyes wide open; Wise's situation was thrust upon him by Orson Welles.

In 1984, complaining to Barbara Leaming about Joseph Cotten's "Judas" letter, Welles said Cotten had become "an active collaborator with Wise, and the janitor of RKO, and whoever else was busy screwing it up." This is frankly disgraceful. For the record, the men who were wrestling with The Magnificent Ambersons -- while Welles was in Rio lecturing cultural groups, hatching grandiose plans for It's All True, tossing furniture out his apartment window, and screwing chorus girls -- wrestling with Ambersons were Robert Wise, whose authority was not to be questioned (until Welles chose to question it); Jack Moss, who had Welles's full confidence (until he didn't); and Joseph Cotten, who was probably Welles's best friend (until, in Welles's eyes, he wasn't). 

In This Is Orson Welles Peter Bogdanovich expands on that "janitor at RKO" crack. He asserts that RKO "approached several directors -- among them William Wyler" to recut Ambersons, but all refused out of respect for Welles. (Prof. Carringer's history of the editing makes no mention of this.) Bogdanovich also says that producer Bryan Foy of Warner Bros.' B-picture unit was called in. Foy's verdict: "Too fuckin' long. Ya gotta take out forty minutes." Asked what to cut, he said to "just throw all the footage up in the air and grab everything but forty minutes -- it don't matter what the fuck you cut. Just lose forty minutes." Bogdanovich cites Jack Moss as the source of this story, but I've been unable to find it corroborated anywhere else. I tend to suspect that the real source was Welles himself, as in "Jack Moss told me..." (If I'm mistaken about this, I'll be happy to post an update when I know better.)

Easier to corroborate is David O. Selznick's reaction to the editing of Ambersons. Selznick biographer David Thomson says Selznick, an admirer of Welles who had loaned the services of Stanley Cortez to photograph the picture, tried to have "the original version" deposited at the Museum of Modern Art. A worthy suggestion, Mr. Selznick, but just what is the original version? The 132-minute answer print that Wise prepared after Miami and shipped to Welles in Rio? The 110-minute version prepared at Welles's instruction and previewed in Pomona? It couldn't be the 148-minute version Welles mentioned to Bogdanovich because Ambersons never existed at that length.

This brings us to the central fallacy in the Magnificent Ambersons legend: the idea that Welles created a masterpiece that was slashed and mangled afterwards to what we have now. In fact, there really was no "original version" of Ambersons because Welles never finished the picture. He left for Brazil while Ambersons was in its final stages -- before music and visual effects had been added, transitions (fades, dissolves, etc.) put in place, even before the order of scenes had been settled. Then, from Rio, before even seeing the 132-minute version, Welles ordered extensive changes: making the "big cut" (everything from Eugene's letter to Isabel's death) and removing the "Indian legend" scene and George's auto accident; this trimmed a total of 22 minutes. If anything, that should be considered Welles's "original version", even though he never actually saw it, since it was ordered by him before the first preview (and before any studio panic had set in). When Orson Welles went to Rio, The Magnificent Ambersons was an unfinished work. Welles's partisans cry that Ambersons was taken out of his hands, and they're right. What they will never say is that he abandoned it -- but in effect (if not in intention) that's exactly what happened.

In "Oedipus in Indianapolis" Robert L. Carringer theorizes that leaving for Rio with Ambersons incomplete was Welles's way of distancing himself from it, a process that began with his choosing not to play George Minafer himself. This distancing, Prof. Carringer thinks, rose out of Welles's unresolved feelings about his parents -- his imperious mother and feckless father -- and his discomfort with the Oedipal subtext in Tarkington's novel. Prof. Carringer's theory is forcefully argued, but I don't find it entirely persuasive; if that's how Welles felt about it, why would he have filmed Ambersons at all, or done it on the radio (when he did play George) in the first place?

I think it may have been something simpler: that Orson Welles, for all his mastery of moviemaking so manifest in Citizen Kane, didn't fully grasp the nuances of the editing process -- not as early as 1942, anyhow. Certainly his first edits from Rio must have looked capricious and arbitrary, so much so that Wise and Moss immediately reversed them after they played so badly in Pomona. Then when Welles doubled down on the "big cut", wanted to eliminate the end of the Amberson ball and the iris-out in the snow scene, and capped it all with a bizarre idea for a cheery curtain call "to leave audience happy", how could it not look as if Welles had lost his train of thought on Ambersons, or simply didn't understand how these changes would play?

Simon Callow is firmly in the mutilation-and-destruction camp regarding The Magnificent Ambersons (he calls Wise, Moss and George Schaefer "partners in crime"), but even he admits that there was never a time when anyone connected with it could honestly say, "It's perfect; don't change a thing." Welles's new contract entitled him to edit the picture through its first preview, which had been a disaster. After that came the changes -- and like it or not, the farther Wise and Moss took the picture from Welles's last edit, the better the previews were received. Callow relates an unconfirmed anecdote about pages and pages of Welles's telegrams going straight into the wastebasket, the phone from Brazil ringing on and on with no one bothering to answer. Enough has survived in RKO archives to suggest that sort of thing wasn't common, but it does seem that Welles's demands were looking more irrelevant and less helpful to those back home. Moss later said, "If only Orson could communicate his genius by telephone"; Robert Wise expressed similar sentiments to me. He and Moss and Mark Robson wanted to follow Welles's wishes, but the bottom line was Orson wasn't there -- in Pomona or in Hollywood.

Robert Wise was under a threefold mandate: (1) from himself, preserve the spirit (and as much of the letter as possible) of Welles's (and Tarkington's) Ambersons; (2) from George Schaefer, get the picture into releasable form; and (3) from Charles Koerner, keep it to no more than 90 minutes. In the end, Wise had to do more than simply assemble the picture. He had to edit it -- in the literary, Maxwell-Perkins-to-Thomas-Wolfe sense of the word. In later years, as the auteur theory took hold, this would be considered the crowning effrontery.

And yet. A comparison of Prof. Carringer's reconstruction with the release version gives the lie to the notion so snidely implied in Peter Bogdanovich's Bryan Foy anecdote -- the idea that 40 minutes were cut thoughtlessly, at random. The cutting may seem drastic in places -- especially to Welles, seeing the hard-won ball sequence, which he (mis)remembered as "one reel without a single cut", shortened from 12 minutes 25 seconds to 6 minutes 56 seconds -- but it's not random. Wise followed the compromise plan worked out in late March with Jack Moss and Joseph Cotten, with a few differences. He kept in the kitchen scene but ended it before George (and Tim Holt) began raving in the rain about the new construction; and he retained the bathroom scene between George and Jack but trimmed George's melodramatic overreaction ("unspeakable", "monstrous", "horrible"). Both of these moves, if they didn't exactly create sympathy for George, at least helped keep Tim Holt's performance from going over the top.

And Wise replaced the boarding house scene with the new one between Eugene and Fanny in the hospital corridor. Admittedly, this scene is hard to defend. It's frankly so awkward -- with its shallow-focus photography, Joseph Cotten's line readings a little too chipper, Agnes Moorehead's expression a little too blissful -- that I tend to believe it was directed by Jack Moss. Wise and Freddie Fleck did better with the added scenes they directed. But at least the new scene was more faithful to Tarkington, albeit an over-compensation for Welles's somber, downbeat ending.

To be sure, there are lines, passages and scenes whose loss is regrettable; Robert Wise admitted that the 132-min. cut was superior to what was finally released. But running much over 90 minutes simply was not an option. In 1984, Welles complained to Barbara Leaming: "The plot of course was really what they took out. Using the argument of not central to the plot, what they took out was the plot..." Excuse me, but that is rich coming from the man who wanted to take out the end of the Amberson ball, the "big cut", the Indian legend, and George's auto accident, all to protect his long ballroom sequence and boarding house scene. If anyone tried to cut "plot" out of The Magnificent Ambersons, it was Orson Welles (Robert Wise is roundly denounced for what he cut, but never gets any credit for what Welles wanted to cut that he left in). In fact, with one exception, nothing essential in Booth Tarkington's novel is left out of the picture as it was finally released.

The exception is the ruinous investment in the headlight company by Major Amberson, Uncle George/Jack and Fanny. In the release version there are only two rather cryptic references to it, with no explanation. But the only other mention in the cutting continuity is in the second porch scene, which not even Welles ever wanted to keep (possibly because of Richard Bennett's struggle with the lines), so that would surely have been a problem no matter how long the release version ran. (Welles wanted to add some voice-over references in the closeup of the dying Major Amberson, but this was deemed too much information for that short, simple scene.)

An instructive (and nearly simultaneous) comparison is to look at what happened over at Paramount to the picture Preston Sturges wrote and shot with the title Triumph over Pain, but which finally went out as The Great Moment. (I wrote about that one in detail here.) To be sure, The Great Moment was never going to be as good as The Magnificent Ambersons, but it was going to be a lot better than it turned out, and contrasting it with Sturges's published script shows clearly that the men who took it away and cut it didn't know what they were doing -- and didn't care.

Anyone willing to shell out 60 bucks for Prof. Carringer's reconstruction can see that there's really no "aha!" moment in the reconstructed version, no scene that clearly says "This absolutely should have been left in." But the fact that the reconstruction is "a print-on-demand volume" testifies that there's no great demand for it. Most people instead fall in with Orson Welles's 43-year tantrum over being ignored, and they call Wise's editing of Ambersons a mutilation instead of what I think it truly is: one of the most heroic feats of film editing -- against unique, almost overwhelming odds -- in the history of Hollywood. The picture's high esteem to this day (though often qualified with "even in its present form...") testifies to how well Wise preserved the picture Orson Welles left in his hands on February 6, 1942.

I said it before and I'll say it again: Robert Wise -- besides being an Oscar-winning producer and director, National Medal of Arts and AFI Life Achievement Award winner, and past president of the Academy and the Directors Guild -- was the greatest film editor who ever picked up a pair of scissors. 

*               *               *

There's a persistent question that won't die: What happened to the answer print that Wise sent to Welles in Rio? When Welles returned to the U.S., he left the print behind with Adhemar Gonzaga, head of Brazil's Cinedia Studios. Gonzaga wired RKO for guidance, they told him to destroy it, and he told them he did. But Gonzaga was a film collector when film collecting wasn't cool, and...well, would you have destroyed it? Someone claimed in 1995 to have seen the print in the 1960s, but it's never turned up. Gonzaga's daughter, present head of Cinedia, has looked but can't find it. But hope never dies; remember Metropolis

*               *               *

There was a version of The Magnificent Ambersons produced in 2002 for A&E -- with absolutely no sense of style, period or history, and a lamentable mix of good actors miscast and bad actors who shouldn't have been cast at all. It would be a kindness not to mention it, but I have to, because it had the gall to pass itself off as a "restoration" of Welles's original. The writing credit reads only "Based on a Screenplay by Orson Welles", but there is no relation between the two except that they are, of course, based on the same novel. The 2002 version has no narrator, no opening sequence describing the styles of the period, no showing of Eugene Morgan's mishap in the serenade, and no prologue of George Minafer's childhood (these last two are inserted in clumsy flashbacks). The term "come-uppance" is never mentioned. And Isabel Amberson Minafer smokes cigarettes. A&E's pathetic attempt to hang this abomination on Orson Welles is really beyond the pale. It's false advertising, and I wish someone had warned me about it before I wasted my time. 

*               *               *

POSTSCRIPT: This series has grown so much since I started that it might be useful to include these links to what came before: 

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Minority Opinion: The Magnificent Ambersons, Part 5

In March 1942, Charles W. Koerner replaced Joseph I. Breen as head of production at RKO. The previous July, George Schaefer had lured Breen away from the Hays Office to RKO, and ever since then Breen had served more or less as a rubber stamp for Schaefer's decisions.

Charles Koerner, however, was made of more contentious stuff. His background was in theater operation; before replacing Breen he had been head of RKO's exhibition arm in New York. In that position he had surely seen the theater owners' reports in Motion Picture Herald's "What This Picture Did for Me" column, and in the case of Citizen Kane the verdict had been "Nothing."

Koerner was the point man and chief organizer of those who were alarmed at RKO's march toward insolvency under Schaefer's stewardship; millions were gushing out of studio coffers, pittances trickling in. The studio had managed to climb out of receivership only in January 1940, and now it was in danger of falling back into it. Koerner was angling to get Schaefer out of the way, then to put RKO back on a sound financial footing, and he meant to curb what he and his allies saw as the studio throwing good money after bad.

Just to show how the wind was blowing, one of Koerner's first acts in his new Hollywood office was to send out a memo to the studio at large: The Magnificent Ambersons, Journey into Fear and It's All True would all proceed -- for now -- but everyone should check with him before entering into any new agreements with Orson Welles or Mercury Productions. Clearly, George Schaefer wasn't the only one whose days at RKO were numbered.

Koerner brought an exhibitor's perspective to his new job; it told him that the shorter the feature, the more showings per day and the more money a theater could make. Koerner also believed that the double feature was the wave of the future (giving credit where it's due, he was right; the double feature would outlast the studio system itself). He decreed that 90 minutes, give or take a few, was to be the target length for all RKO features, and this edict was conveyed to Robert Wise as he and Mark Robson toiled away on The Magnificent Ambersons.

Meanwhile, down in Rio, Orson Welles was devising his latest and last plan for recutting Ambersons. He transmitted his instructions to Jack Moss and Wise in a 30-page telegram on March 27. He probably didn't know about Koerner's 90-minute cap on feature length, but it may not have made any difference if he did.

We can't know what the running time of Welles's March 27 cut would have been because it was never assembled, much less screened for an audience. Welles ordered some major changes from the last version he had called for, the one previewed in Pomona. In the Christmas ball scene, he wanted a dissolve from the moment when George and Lucy dance away from the camera (after she asks "What do you want to be?" and he replies "A yachtsman.") directly to the scene of Lucy and Eugene putting their horseless carriage away in the barn as they return home (a scene that is not in the release version). As Robert L. Carringer says, this would entail losing this shot of Eugene and Isabel dancing alone after all the other guests have gone, "what many regard as the single most beautiful shot in the film." 

The shot is beautiful and evocative, but much more would have been lost if Welles had had his way. Also out would be the conversation between George and Lucy on the stairs (you can just glimpse them in the background coming down to take their seats on the steps) in which they banter about Eugene's automobile business ("Papa would be so grateful if he could have your advice." "I don't know that I've done anything to be insulted for!") and George presses Lucy for a sleighing date the next afternoon ("Tomorrow? I can't possibly go." "I'm going to sit in a cutter at your front gate and if you try to go out with anybody else he has to whip me before he gets to you."); the party breaking up as the Morgans prepare to leave; George quizzing Uncle Jack ("Who is this fellow Morgan?" "Why, he's a man with a pretty daughter, Georgie ... Do you take this same passionate interest in the parents of every girl you dance with?" "Oh, dry up!"); Lucy finally giving in on that date ("No, I won't." "Yes, you will. Ten minutes after two." "Yes, I will."); the goodbyes in the snow; and Lucy and Eugene talking about George and Isabel on the ride home ("You liked her pretty well once, I guess, Papa." "Do still.") Prof. Carringer marvels that Welles would contemplate cutting Eugene and Isabel dancing; personally, I'm amazed that he would cut everything else. 

Welles also called for cutting this shot, the iris-out on the horseless carriage as it trundles along in the snow with everyone singing "The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo". This would entail no substantial loss, but the iris-out is a truly lovely moment that evokes the period as vividly as any four seconds in the whole picture. Prof. Carringer calls cutting it "another great surprise", but I'd go further than that; I'd say it's a real head-scratcher, a cut that loses far more than the time it saves. I think, just maybe, if I'd been Robert Wise, I might have started to wonder if, in all the bustle and flurry of It's All True, Orson had perhaps begun to lose touch with the movie he was making before he flew off to Brazil. But never mind, that's just me thinking out loud; I don't want to put thoughts into Wise's 1942 head.

I don't want to put thoughts into Welles's head either, but I have to speculate on why he was willing to trim so much meat (a little over four minutes) off the tail end of the ball scene after the "yachtsman" line. I suspect Welles was focused on preserving the sequence that made up the centerpiece of the Amberson ball -- the one that had consumed nine ten-hour days and occupied a crew of 100 to shift walls, doors and step units in and out of place as Tim Holt, Anne Baxter, Joseph Cotten, Ray Collins et al. strolled and chatted amid their splendid surroundings, alternately basking in them and taking them for granted.

The sequence is represented here by (top) a frame from the release version of Lucy and George strolling across the parquet floor, George wondering why so many "nobodies" at the ball seem already to know this young lady he's only just met; and (bottom) a production photo of a portion of the shot that didn't make the final cut, as George and Lucy climb to the third floor of Amberson Mansion, where the dancing and most of the celebrating are going on.

This series of long takes, so intricate and time-consuming to get on film, loomed large in Welles's heartsick memory of Ambersons. "It was the greatest tour de force of my career!" he told Barbara Leaming, and it may well have been. "The entire sequence was one reel without a single cut." Here, however, Welles's memory played him false. In fact, according to the 132-min. cutting continuity, the twelve-and-a-half minute sequence consisted of ten separate shots, the longest of which ran 376 feet, a little under four-and-a-quarter minutes. Even so, with all the choreographed movement of actors, sets and camera, it's no surprise that Welles remembered it as one long uninterrupted take. Nor is it surprising that he would want to preserve it. The scenes of the end of the ball that he wanted to cut run about a minute less than what was eventually cut out of that ten-shot sequence. The question is, did Welles want the earlier footage left in because it advanced the picture as a whole, or because he was proud of it as a technical and logistical achievement all by itself?

Welles was similarly protective of the boarding house scene that ended the picture ("much the best scene in the movie"). The loss of these two scenes -- the bookends, if you will, of The Magnificent Ambersons -- were what Welles most bitterly lamented for the rest of his life (along with that long tracking shot through the deserted Amberson Mansion that Stanley Cortez was so proud of -- Welles evidently having forgotten that he never included that shot in the first place). For what came between the bookends, Welles on March 27 had other, rather radical changes in mind.

Two scenes -- (1) the buggy ride scene, where George and Lucy quarrel over George's reluctance to "make something of himself", and (2) the following carriage scene between Uncle Jack and Major Amberson, talking about the changes in their town and the decline in the family fortune -- Welles wanted to move to much earlier, before Wilbur Minafer's funeral. This would, as Robert L. Carringer notes, get on more directly with the development of George and Lucy's relationship -- and perhaps compensate somewhat for the loss of the development of their relationship as they sit on the stairs at the end of the ball. At any rate, this was not done -- both scenes remained later in the picture -- but another of Welles's edits was implemented: At Wilbur's death, instead of the shot of Wilbur's tombstone that was in place, he ordered a new shot of townspeople, with one saying "Wilbur Minafer -- Quiet man -- Town will hardly know he's gone." ("Phone me to get correct reading for line.") In the release version the line is spoken by Erskine Sanford as Roger Bronson.

At Welles's direction, a shot of George Minafer's diploma was cut, which leads to some inevitable confusion in the beginning of the kitchen scene between Fanny and George (and later Jack); at first it seems to follow Wilbur's funeral rather than coming months later after George's graduation and return home. This is probably unavoidable since George's life at college, and Jack, Isabel and Eugene attending his commencement -- all of which is in the novel -- was never shot. Welles also directed that the kitchen scene end before George sees the construction outside in the yard, and this was also done in the final version.

Welles called for keeping the first porch scene, ending it before George's fantasies about Lucy, but the scene remained out.

As for the "big cut" that so truncated the lingering death of Isabel Amberson Minafer, and which Moss and Wise had restored for the Pasadena preview, Welles wanted that footage taken out again, with other changes and reshoots that he felt would improve what remained. But he had evidently had second thoughts about the Moss-Wise-Cotten compromise plan he had dismissed out of hand on March 25, and now was willing to go along with some of their suggestions, especially the major restructuring after Isabel's death: Jack and George's farewell at the railroad station, the "Indian legend" scene with Lucy and Eugene, the scene of Fanny's breakdown as she and George discuss their financial straits, George in Bronson's office giving up his hopes for a career in law, and George's last walk home to Amberson Mansion, where he gets his come-uppance ("Mother, forgive me ... God, forgive me.")

In a letter to Welles dated March 31, Robert Wise summarized the audience reaction at both previews ("I have never tackled a more difficult chore ... it's so damn hard to put on paper in cold type the many times you die through the showing...") Wise went through the picture step by step; he didn't always distinguish between one audience and the other, but he made a point to say how well some of the "big cut" scenes had played, which the Pomona crowd hadn't seen but the Pasadena audience had. Wise again emphasized the problematic nature of the last scene between Fanny and Eugene: "The boarding house got us several laughs, one on the man's face when the door opens and several through the scene on Fanny's strange behavior, and here again we could feel great restlessness."

Welles was determined to retain the boarding house scene, and he thought he had the solution to everyone's concerns. It would come in the closing credits, which were to be spoken by Welles with shots illustrating each name as it came up. "To leave audience happy for Ambersons," he wired Jack Moss on April 2, "remake cast credits as follows..." First he wanted an oval framed picture of Richard Bennett "in Civil War campaign hat", presumably made up to look younger than he does in the movie itself; then, "live shot of Ray Collins ... in elegant white ducks and hair whiter than normal seated on tropical veranda ocean and waving palm trees behind him ... [then, Agnes Moorehead] blissfully and busily playing bridge with cronies in boarding house." And so on, down to Joseph Cotten looking out a window at Tim Holt and Anne Baxter as they drive away, waving at Eugene/Joseph behind them: " ... they turn to each other then forward both very happy and gay and attractive for fadeout."

"As solutions go," says Prof. Carringer, "this one could only have raised doubts about how fully Welles comprehended the gravity of the situation." Indeed so, if Welles thought he could win an audience over with a cheerful curtain call of George/Tim and Lucy/Anne waving and smiling at the audience as they drive off into the sunset. This would surely register only as a breezy non sequitur. The same goes for Welles's intention to show Richard Bennett in a Civil War uniform or Ray Collins basking on a tropical beach; these poses would have looked particularly odd since no version of the picture ever referred to Major Amberson's Civil War service or Uncle Jack's obtaining a South American consulship. To someone who had just sat through the picture, it would look as if Richard Bennett was dressed for a costume party and Ray Collins off on a vacation from Hollywood; if an audience was inclined to laugh at The Magnificent Ambersons, none of this would have persuaded them to stifle their giggles. In the end this suggestion was not followed; the cast list showed the actors in medium closeup, turning to regard the camera with friendly half-smiles.

There is in fact some reason to believe that Robert Wise had begun to think Welles had lost touch with the picture. "I've always felt," Wise said years later, "that if Orson had been at the preview and had seen and heard that reaction, he'd have understood better what did and didn't work in it. As it was, Mark Robson and I were in touch with him almost every day, these long, long telegrams -- 20, 30 pages sometimes. It would have been so much easier if he could have been there." Schaefer -- deciding, perhaps, that the law of diminishing returns was kicking in -- called a temporary halt to any activity on Ambersons, to let Wise, Robson and Moss recharge their batteries, and to try to reach some agreement with Welles.

Adding to the fear that Welles had lost touch with Ambersons was the very real fact that he seemed to have lost control of It's All True -- if, indeed, he'd ever had control of it in the first place. After Carnival, the weather in Rio had turned awful and wouldn't let up -- constant bitter cold and thundering rains that made outdoor shooting impossible. An expected shipment of supplies and equipment seemed endlessly delayed. The crew idled and grumbled, piddling along with what interior pickup shots could be managed, often without Welles even being present, and with little sense of exactly what they were shooting (when they were shooting) or why.  "Everything here proceeding beautifully," Welles blithely wired Schaefer, but production manager Lynn Shores -- a querulous, irascible man who was virtually a spy for the anti-Welles faction at RKO -- painted a much bleaker picture. Shores carped about everything, from spending all night in "meaningless conferences" with Welles to having to be the one calling "action" and "cut" when Orson wasn't around. Shores, ever the proud martyr, portrayed himself as the only thing standing between the crew and demoralized, mutinous chaos.

Schaefer probably knew to consider the source, but enough reports were coming in from second, third and fourth parties to suggest that Shores's sour perspective was closer to the truth than Welles's. Finally, in mid-April, Schaefer transferred full responsibility for editing Ambersons to Robert Wise and told him just to do whatever was necessary to get the picture in a releasable form.

Actors were called back to shoot retakes and new inserts. There was a new scene (directed by Wise) between George and Isabel after they've read Eugene's letter, omitting or softening some of George's wilder overreactions ("It's simply the most offensive piece of writing that I've ever held in my hands ... if he ever set foot in this house again ... I ... I can't speak of it."). A scene (by assistant director Freddie Fleck) of Eugene being turned away by George, Fanny and Jack as Isabel lies dying upstairs. A shortened opening (directed by Jack Moss) for the scene between George and the hysterical Fanny in the empty Amberson Mansion. Another scene (Fleck again) in which first Lucy, then Eugene, decide to visit George in the hospital after his auto accident.

And, most notoriously, this. Audience reaction and response cards had convinced everyone but Welles that his beloved boarding house scene had to go, so it was replaced with this one between Eugene and Fanny in the corridor outside George's hospital room. Much of the dialogue was the same, but with a more upbeat reading from Joseph Cotten and a more serenely blissful reaction from Agnes Moorehead; the result was closer to Tarkington's ending -- though a far cry from the melancholy, even sullen tone that Welles had so carefully set, and which Joseph Cotten had found more Chekhov than Tarkington. Simon Callow says this scene was directed by Jack Moss; Prof. Carringer says it was Freddie Fleck. But whoever was responsible, they both hate it, as does nearly everybody who's ever had an opinion on Ambersons.

For the music in this and other new scenes, composer Bernard Herrmann was not consulted. Instead, the studio brought in Roy Webb, more malleable than the notoriously prickly Herrmann, albeit vastly less talented. In the end, 30 of the 56 minutes Herrmann had written were used, supplemented by 6 minutes 45 seconds from Webb. The furious Herrmann threatened to sue unless his name was removed from the picture, and he got his way.

Another recut of Ambersons (running time unknown) was previewed in Inglewood on May 4, and yet another (87 minutes) in Long Beach on May 12, with (according to Prof. Carringer) "encouraging results". But by now, Charles Koerner and his anti-Welles faction were only too eager to stick their thumbs in the Ambersons pie; Schaefer, Wise and Moss were forced into a rear-guard action to try to preserve what they could (within a 90-minute deadline) of the great movie they knew was in there somewhere. Moss was a fish out of water whom nobody outside Mercury Productions regarded with even an ounce of respect. Schaefer, outflanked by Koerner, was increasingly a dead man walking the halls at RKO. The struggle fell largely to Wise, since he was the man most intimately familiar with all the footage, and the one whose job at the studio ultimately proved much more secure than either Moss's or Schaefer's. The cutting and pasting continued -- this scene out, that scene in, this one trimmed, that one moved, another back in, another back out -- as The Magnificent Ambersons inched ever closer to final form, the form (with a few minor differences) proposed in the "compromise" version worked out by Robert Wise, Jack Moss and Joseph Cotten and wired to Welles on March 23. Finally, Schaefer ordered a handful of last-minute tweaks and a print was shipped to him in New York on June 5. Three days later Schaefer screened the print and approved it for release. The picture now ran 88 minutes 10 seconds.

The Magnificent Ambersons finally saw release on July 10, missing not only Easter Week, but Memorial Day, Flag Day and the Fourth of July as well. And forget Radio City Music Hall; in New York it played the 4,000-seat Capitol -- still a picture palace, but hardly the RKO flagship.  And not all of the picture's play dates were that prestigious; in some places it ran on a double bill with Lupe Velez in Mexican Spitfire Sees a Ghost -- with Ambersons as the bottom half. Despite RKO's malign neglect and a $625,000 loss, the picture impressed enough Academy voters by early 1943 to garner four Oscar nominations: for best picture, best art direction/interior decoration, Stanley Cortez's cinematography, and Agnes Moorehead's harrowing performance as the neurotic, sexually frustrated Fanny.

But even before the picture's release, the game was up. George Schaefer, maneuvered by Charles Koerner into a lame duck, finally resigned on June 26. Koerner had been stewing since May over a report from the budget office that It's All True had cost $526,000 so far and would take at least another $595,000 to finish; now, finally rid of Schaefer, Koerner pounced. He cut off Welles's money and ordered the unit back to Hollywood forthwith. When Welles, enthusiastic about the Four Men on a Raft episode he was currently involved in, pleaded to finish it, Koerner granted him $10,000, one camera, and 40,000 feet of film; let him see how long that would last. Finally, the killing blow: Koerner evicted Mercury Productions from the RKO lot, giving them 24 hours to vacate the premises. In a telegram from Brazil, Welles tried to buck up his people's spirits: "Don't get excited. We're just passing a rough Koerner on our way to immortality." In rebuttal, the Koerner faction had a pun of their own: "All's well that ends Welles."

Friday, March 2, 2012

Minority Opinion: The Magnificent Ambersons, Part 4

"Who knows what happened?" Orson Welles asked Barbara Leaming in 1984. "I was all covered in confetti trying to pretend I like carnivals, you know. I hate carnivals..." Welles may have been indulging in a little rueful hindsight 40 years after the fact. Simon Callow's magisterial biography of Welles (two volumes so far, a third to come), draws on contemporary letters, telegrams, memos and news stories to present a very different picture of Orson Welles in Rio from the one he drew for Leaming.

For one thing, this wasn't any old "carnival", some smattering of rides set up in a pasture somewhere with booths for the locals to shoot pellets at plywood ducks and toss dimes into glass candy dishes. This was Carnival, a four-day samba-flavored bacchanal leading up to Ash Wednesday that made Mardi Gras in New Orleans look like a Methodist ice cream social, with a history stretching back to 1723. It's clear from the record that Welles waded into Carnival with both feet -- literally, grabbing one of his crew's 16mm cameras and venturing out among the millions of revelers to get close shots, emerging drenched with sweat like a man coming out of the sea, all while his Technicolor cameras stood back to get the big picture, lit by the carbon-arc glare of anti-aircraft searchlights. Moreover, his notes and directives to his on-scene staff show that he saw the social and historical roots of Carnival as the core of the Brazilian section of It's All True -- a picture that was growing in scope and ambition by the day, even as Welles remained sketchy about the nuts and bolts of precisely how to get it made.

I don't want to get sidetracked onto It's All True, that landmark fiasco from which Welles's career never recovered. That's a whole other can of worms. What concerns me here is its effect on Ambersons. When Welles told Barbara Leaming about hating carnivals, he was burnishing the legend of Ambersons being snatched from his loving hands while his back was turned. In fact, at the time, he was reveling in his Brazilian adventure; the movie he was planning appealed to his experimental impulse to let a project find its own shape without conforming to a script, and he reveled as well in immersing himself in this exotic foreign culture. To say nothing of the patriotic duty he was discharging in the cause of inter-American relations.

Welles was fully engaged in shooting Carnival, in recreating sections of it afterward to shoot details his crew had been unable to capture during the crush and riot of the real thing, in mapping out (however vaguely) the other episodes of It's All True, and in being feted and celebrated as the U.S.'s goodwill cultural ambassador. Fully engaged, but not, it must be said, to the exclusion of all other things; he was still in frequent contact with Robert Wise about Ambersons and with Jack Moss about both Ambersons and Journey into Fear. His ambitious ideas for It's All True even spilled over into the two pictures he'd left behind: He wanted to shoot some new scenes for himself in Journey, which would mean sending his costume and makeup as Col. Haki to Rio. He wanted to hold the world premiere of Ambersons in Buenos Aires ("resultant international publicity will be enormous", he wired Schaefer), and to record the picture's narration in both Spanish and Portuguese. For his part, Schaefer didn't relish the thought of Welles venturing another 1,200 miles farther from home; a Rio premiere maybe -- maybe -- but Buenos Aires was out of the question. On February 27, he politely reminded Welles that they still needed to get Ambersons ready for its Easter Week opening in New York (Easter Sunday that year would be April 5); time and tide, Orson, time and tide.

In response, Welles put the Ambersons crew in Hollywood on triple shifts editing and shooting new footage; Wise's assistant Mark Robson later remembered the two of them moving into a motel near the studio and working as much as 120 hours a week. Even before Welles received Wise's 132-minute cut, he had ordered the "big cut" and other changes, which Wise made in time for the first preview in Pomona.

The Pomona preview was -- there's no other word for it -- a disaster.

The regular feature at the Fox Theatre that night was The Fleet's In, a rousing musical with Dorothy Lamour, Betty Hutton and the Jimmy Dorsey Band. Simon Callow sneers at The Fleet's In as yokel-bait, with songs like "Arthur Murray Taught Me Dancing in a Hurry" and "Conga from Honga". That's a cheap shot; the score also included the standards "I Remember You" and "Tangerine". Still, Ambersons was an unhappy match that night, facing what Robert L. Carringer calls "a raucous, largely teenage audience".  Pomona is also close by what later became the Claremont Colleges, whose students were no doubt regular patrons of the Fox. Anybody who's ever sat through a screening of a vintage movie with a smartass college audience knows what that can be like, and the boys from RKO got it with both barrels that night. (Not to mention the fact that the preview was on St. Patrick's Day; the audience may have been well-oiled by the time they got to the theater.) As Ambersons unspooled, the audience laughed, jeered, talked back at the screen, and generally carried on like the robots on Mystery Science Theatre 3000 -- those who didn't walk out. At the conclusion, when Welles the narrator said, "Ladies and gentlemen, that's the end of the story," there was sarcastic applause and an audible sigh of relief.

The reaction wasn't unanimously negative. Forty-two percent of the response cards praised the picture, some in glowing terms, and a few even apologized for the behavior of other patrons. But that "42 percent" can be misleading. Only 125 cards were filled out, in a theater that seated 1,750. More important was the hostile reaction, and the fact that some cards even mentioned it was telling; it proved that the men from RKO weren't overreacting or imagining things. The people who didn't like this picture absolutely loathed it.

That Pomona audience of 70 years ago has earned the scorn and contempt of critics and historians for years -- from Callow and Prof. Carringer to Peter Bogdanovich and, well, Orson Welles himself. But let's remember what they saw. This wasn't the 132-minute cut, which everyone agreed needed some fine tuning. This was the 110-minute cut made according to Welles's instructions from Rio, including the "big cut". You can see in Part 3 of this post what the "big cut" entailed; on the screen that night in Pomona it meant that the dramatic center of The Magnificent Ambersons played as follows:

1. George tells Eugene that he's not welcome at Amberson Mansion, slamming the door on him; then --

2. Eugene writes to Isabel, begging her to be strong; then --

3. Isabel reads Eugene's letter and drops dead (or at least dying) on the spot.

To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, it would take a heart of stone not to weep with laughter at a turn of events like that.

There were other things the Pomona audience didn't care for. Most of all, they didn't like Tim Holt. Or more to the point, they didn't like George Amberson Minafer; Wise reported to Welles that Holt got "a reaction that said: 'Oh, God, here he is again.'" Indeed, it's hard to deny that the protagonist of The Magnificent Ambersons is an arrogant, destructive little bastard. In the novel, Tarkington had built sympathy for George despite the awful things he does, sugar-coating this pill much the way Margaret Mitchell finessed the fact that Scarlett O'Hara is a selfish, conniving bitch. Tyrone Power might have created more sympathy in an audience, as Vivien Leigh did for Scarlett (Prof. Carringer says the same about Welles himself), but Holt had a tougher time hoeing that row. The second half of the so-called "kitchen scene", where George and Uncle Jack tease Fanny until she runs from the room in tears, originally continued with George spotting the Major's new houses under construction through the window and running out into the rain to shout his outrage over the roar of the storm -- and, in Pomona, over the screams of laughter from the audience.

George Schaefer was in the house that night, and he was rattled to his very bones. RKO had $1 million in Ambersons, and his position at the studio was on the line. Schaefer was Orson Welles's best friend at RKO, but Schaefer himself had enemies who had been biding their time, ready to pounce. His support for Welles was a large part of it, but not all.  Besides the uproar over Citizen Kane and its underperformance at the box office, there had been other expensive losses on Schaefer's watch. Two of his closest lieutenants had already been sent packing; the tigers were at the gate.

The next day a panicky Schaefer queried RKO's lawyers about the possibility of -- if need be -- taking Ambersons out of Welles's hands. Their answer: Welles's new contract relinquished his unprecedented right of final cut. He now had the right to cut the picture up to and including the first sneak preview; after that he was subject to the studio's behest. Reassured, Schaefer waited to see what would happen.

Ambersons' second preview was held on March 19 at the United Artists in Pasadena, where it got a better reception. Pasadena was a more upscale location, with a more sophisticated audience; it may also have made a difference that the main feature that night was Captains of the Clouds, a wartime drama with James Cagney and Dennis Morgan. But the venue and the lead feature weren't all that had changed: the folks in Pasadena saw a substantially different picture from the one that had been hooted out of town in Pomona.

Wise and Jack Moss had recut the picture in the 48 hours since the St. Patrick's Day debacle. Back in was all of Welles's "big cut", and the so-called "Indian legend" scene, in which Lucy conveys to her father the fact that she misses George, telling it in the form of a supposed Native American folk tale that she makes up on the spot (this scene had been left out in Pomona, again on Welles's orders, since without Lucy and George's conversation on the street earlier it no longer made sense). Out was the scene of Isabel, Fanny and George's visit to Eugene's auto factory, and the argument between George and Uncle Jack after George's run-in with the gossipy Mrs. Johnson; both porch scenes remained out and would never be back in. There were trims and minor adjustments to other scenes, and the running time was about 117 minutes, seven minutes longer than in Pomona. The response cards were 79 percent favorable, but again the percentage is misleading; there were only 85 cards, and the United Artists seated 912. For every one of those 67 positive cards, there were several people walking out long before the picture was over, and a general air of restlessness prevailed. "This can be attributed, I think," Wise wrote to Welles, "to the great length and slow pace. The picture does seem to bear down on people." All in all, things weren't as bad as in Pomona, but they still had a way to go. 

At this point, Palm Sunday was only ten days away. Schaefer had reluctantly given up the idea of an Easter Week opening, and with it any hope of recouping RKO's investment. If he had any thoughts about the future of his own job, he kept them to himself.

Somewhere around this time Joseph Cotten chimed in, with a letter that Welles never answered and apparently never forgave -- in 1984, talking to Barbara Leaming, he was still comparing Cotten to Judas Iscariot. After attending the Pomona preview, Cotten wrote that Welles's script for Ambersons was "doubtless the most faithful adaptation that any book has ever had" but that "the picture on the screen seems to mean something else...It's more Chekhov than Tarkington." ("Yes, exactly!" Welles told Leaming. "That's just what I was making!")

The focus of Cotten's concern was the picture's final scene, when Eugene visits Fanny at her boarding house and tells her of his reconciliation with George in the hospital room after George's accident. That scene has been the focus of a lot of concern: Cotten was concerned at the time because it was in the picture; others since then, Welles among them, have been concerned because it was cut out and replaced. Even reading the scene in the cutting continuity, and looking at the surviving production photos like this one, it's easy to see Cotten's point. The scene is indeed Chekhovian -- in fact, it's reminiscent of the last scene of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya. In the play, Vanya's niece Sonya speaks wistfully of the days to come, when their troubles will be behind them and "We shall rest", while Vanya sits desolate and unhappy and a servant plays softly on the guitar. In the boarding house scene, Eugene tells of his making peace with George and being "true at last to my true love" while Fanny sits listless and impassive in her rocking chair and a corny comedy record plays on a Victrola in the background.

Simon Callow suggests that the boarding house scene was an improvement on Tarkington, something that's beyond confirming or refuting now. What is certain is that it was a departure from Tarkington. Tarkington's novel ends on a note of reconciliation and hope, even uplift; the boarding house scene ended Welles's movie on a note of bleak melancholy, suggesting that the reconciliation was too little too late. Cotten, by calling the finished picture "something else" from what he experienced reading the novel, may not have grasped that something else was exactly what Welles was going for. On the other hand, Welles may not have fully grasped the unpleasant taste the scene left in its audience, and the pall it cast over the whole picture, because he never saw it with an audience  -- or indeed with anyone other than Robert Wise, once, in Miami, a month and a half ago, before the riotous distractions of Carnival and It's All True.

On March 23, Jack Moss wired Welles with a detailed report describing both preview versions of Ambersons (which makes it possible now to calculate the running times and differences of both versions). Moss also laid out for Welles a compromise plan thrashed out by Robert Wise, Joseph Cotten and himself, which they felt would "remove slow spots and bring out heart qualities" of The Magnificent Ambersons.

It was, as things turned out, almost exactly the form in which the picture was finally released. Orson Welles was having none of it. "My advice absolutely useless," he wired back on March 25, "without Bob [Wise] here...cannot see remotest sense in any single suggested cut of yours, Bob's, Jo's...cannot even begin discussing on proposals as received without doing actual work on actual film with Bob here."

Moss assured Welles, rather disingenuously, that "every effort being made secure immediate passage for Bob". But Welles probably knew better. In any case, he now prepared his own detailed plan. It would be his last attempt to retain control of the editing process going on a quarter of the world away.

Copyright Notice

All textual content Copyright (c) date of posting by Jim Lane. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express written permission from this blog's author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jim Lane and Jim Lane's Cinedrome with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.