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?
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.