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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: 


Kimberly J.M. Wilson said...

And so it ends. So much work went into this, Jim, you should be proud. Orson Welles may have been a true artist, but he was also a jackass!

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful coda to a "Magnificent" series! Thank you so much for taking us on this trip...every chapter was highly anticipated by us, and the conclusion did not leave us wanting. While Welles' considerable talents cannot be denied, this was one occasion when he merited his "comeuppance". Can't wait to see what you have next for us! Thanks again!

Jim Lane said...

Kim, thanks for sticking with it to the end; I realized early on that I'd be flying in the face of 70 years of conventional wisdom, so I'd better line my duckies up good and proper. I think you hit the nail pretty much on the head about Welles; certainly he wasn't always the talk-show charmer we later knew from Dick Cavett and Johnny Carson. (Have you seen Christian McKay in Me & Orson Welles? An amazing performance that really captures what he must have been like young and full of piss and vinegar; don't know how it missed an Oscar nomination.)

William, I think you're new here, so welcome; hope you'll return often! And thanks for the kind words; it has been a long strange trip, hasn't it?

Page said...

I was thrilled with TCM aired TMA recently and I've now got it sitting on my DVR. Was waiting until I read your last of your series and went back through and read from the beginning. (I took notes! Ha HA)

Looking forward to watching it again this weekend with fresh new eyes.

Thanks for entertaining us with your very in depth series. I do hope you'll choose another of Orson's films to look at.


Oh and Kim chose TMA for my Horseathon! Hmmm, I wonder where she got the inspiration? : )

Jim Lane said...

Page, I'll be interested to see what Kim does with Ambersons for your Horseathon -- the family's trusty Pendennis was certainly a minor character, but the transition from horses to automobiles was definitely a major theme!

Unknown said...

It has to be said: Nobody alive (and blogging) has seen the 132 min. cut of The Magnificent Ambersons film. Mr. Wise who did see it in 1942 is quoted as saying it was a better picture than his final 88 min. edit. Mr. Welles would agree with Mr. Wise on this, and add that it's indeed Chekov! Mr. Callow would agree with all of the above and I surely would agree with Mr. Callow! My point is Mr. Lane is entitled to his Minority Opinion, but it's not of much value because he has not seen Mr. Welles final picture, with his final edits, and final music and other post-production values included. Even if the Rio answer print was found, and in useable condition, it will never have the final and complete Orson Welles artistry attached to it. It seems Welles' own failings harmed his movie career more than any other person or group. He was self-destructive, but only partialy. Like an explosive volcano creating some really beautiful stones while doing much damage to himself.

Jim Lane said...

Thanks for dropping by, barre117able, and taking the trouble to comment. Alas, you seem to have missed my point. The "Minority Opinion" I expressed was of the 88 min. version, which is in fact the only one we have. You're quite right that I haven't seen "Mr. Welles final picture", and for a very good reason: it never existed. Not even Welles ever saw it except in his head, where it changed over the years -- that's why he could tell Peter Bogdanovich that it ran 148 min., which was never the case.

Anyhow, I was discussing the Ambersons we actually have, and how it came to us. I can't agree that my not having seen a movie that never existed somehow devalues my opinion of one that does. But we are in full agreement about Welles's "volcanic" talents, and your metaphor of the volcano that both creates and destroys is very apt.

Again, it was wholly a pleasure to hear from you. Thanks again for stopping by.

Unknown said...

Mr. Lane thank you for your reply and for your civilized and intelligent tone. Thank you too for all your research into the Magnificent Ambersons saga. Your detail and analysis beats Callow by a nose!...which is amazing.

My point is that your Minority Opinion in favor of Robt Wise's 88 min. edit over the 132 min. rough cut isn't very cogent. Since nobody alive or dead ever saw OW's full concept and execution, at whatever length that might have been... how do you know Wise's version was better? In a way I'd like to agree with you, but I (we) have nothing to compare it with. And Mr. Wise has said the 132 min. cut was a better movie, but he was under orders from Koerner to shorten it. OW always said TMA was going to surpass CKANE in quality. BTW: I much prefer the Welles/Wise Magnificent Ambersons to CKANE. Kane is cold and hollow. TMA is warm and human and real, and yes Wise. Ooops.

The real crime was burning the outtakes and trims. RKO executives should have preserved these film pieces. After all they paid a million dollars to produce them! Welles, for his part, should have come back to Hollywood to meet his editing responsibilities rather than expect Mr. Moss, a bookkeeper/magician, to defend the picture against the post-Shaeffer management-beast. Its clear Koerner&Co. hated Welles personally and they expressed their contempt for him by destroying company assets (the film cuts) and also by failing to promote the film upon release, which further added to the $$ losses causing more harm to the shareholders. HELL: the damn thing got 4 OSCAR wasn't a piece of garbage!! RAGE INJUSTICE

PS: Joseph Cotten, who was a screenwriter as well as an actor, didn't think OW's rough cut was sucessfull and wrote Welles to this effect. So who do we believe? Welles/Wise on one side or Koerner/Cotten/Foy on the other? I believe Welles. He was a lot smarter and more talented than me.

Jim Lane said...

Thanks for writing again, barre117able! I see your point, but again, I'm afraid you miss mine. My opinion of the 88 min. version of Ambersons is not in preference to the 132 min. version, but in preference to Citizen Kane. I refer you to the very first sentence of Part 1: "It happens to be my personal opinion that Citizen Kane is Orson Welles's second greatest movie..." I see we are in perfect accord on this point, and for the reasons you cite (and which I touched on in the second and third paragraphs of Part 1) -- Kane: cold, hollow; Ambersons: warm, human, real.

It was never my intention to draw any direct comparison between the rough cut and release versions, because (as you correctly point out) we can't. Prof. Robert Carringer's painstaking annotated reconstruction is immensely valuable, but I think he'd be the first to admit that it can't give us a true sense of the movie any more than we can get the flavor of a cake from reading the recipe after the chef has deserted the kitchen. I only compared the two versions to point out that there is nothing in Prof. Carringer's reconstruction that plainly says, this should not have been cut.

Even if that answer print shows up someday down in Brazil (may we both live to see it!), any "restored" version that results from it will be no more that somebody's best guess -- without the benefit of input from Welles, Wise, Bernard Herrmann, Joseph Cotten or anybody else who was around at the time. (Still, I hope and trust it'll happen someday; it would at least be preferable to that miserable A&E "restoration".)

It is indeed a shame that the outtakes weren't preserved, but I think I'd stop short of calling it a crime. Nitrate film was a terrible fire hazard, and studios thought long and hard before hanging on to it (though admittedly, not always long and hard enough). It wouldn't have helped anybody if those preserved outtakes had someday become the flashpoint for a vault fire that wiped out the whole library. Then there was the mindset at RKO by mid-1942: Virtually everybody (except Robert Wise) who admired and respected Orson Welles had been purged, and the survivors were fed up with him; they no doubt saw preserving Ambersons outtakes as throwing good money after bad.

Again, thanks for stopping by, and for contributing to a very lively discussion!

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