Minority Opinion: The Magnificent Ambersons, Part 5
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.
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.
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.
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.”
To be concluded…
Jim, I think Kim is onto something: with all the amazing work you've done on this astounding MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS blog series, you really should consider turning this into a book, if you're not already exhausted from the sheer scope of this series! 🙂
It blows my mind how crazily complicated it must have been to work with the peripatetic Orson Welles and the people in his orbit trying to keep up with him! No wonder the RKO brass were going nuts!
One of the things that bewilders me as a lover of both movies and books is: why the hell did Welles want to essentially turn a Booth Tarkington novel into a Chekhov play? Call me a Philistine, but why not keep …AMBERSONS true to its source material? I mean, if I want to read Tarkington, I'll read Tarkington, and if I want to read a Chekhov play, I'll read a Chekhov play! If it ain't broke, why "fix" it? Was it just sheer arrogance on Welles' part, or what?
Forgive my ramblings, Jim, but consider this a compliment to you for giving me so much food for thought. I can hardly wait to see how all this winds up! Great job, my friend, as always!
So much has been written about Orson's perfection, need to edit, cut, reshoot his films and you've certainly given us some amazing examples here.
I've been waiting patiently for your Part 5 and I have to say it was worth the wait.
I can imagine that the scenes, footage cut from Welle's films triple what was left for movie goers to enjoy.
Thanks for including a couple of still shots from those scenes.
I plan to go back and watch TMA once your series is complete. I'll certainly see it in a different light and most definitely appreciate it more knowing what you've provided with us here.
Truly enjoyable Jim and I do hope you'll choose another one of Orson's films to do this type of series, pick it apart and analyze it if you will.
Have a great weekend!
Just want you to know this is a fantastic series, Jim. I just saw the film for the first time last month and so it's very fresh in my mind as I read all your comments. Thank you for this great slice of movie history!
Orson Welles must have been on drugs! How delusional can one man be? Oh, and I see you're still not done. Are you writing a book?