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The story behind the re-editing of the film,

as told through memos to and from Orson Welles.

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When Welles had finished shooting his second film for RKO, THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS he assembled a rough cut of the film with his editor, Robert Wise in late January of 1942, before leaving for Brazil to work on IT'S ALL TRUE. After arriving in Rio, Welles received this very optimistic cable from RKO President George Schaefer, who had just seen part of the AMBERSON'S footage.

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GEORGE SCHAEFER TO ORSON WELLES:

February 9, 1942

PLEASE FORGIVE ME FOR NOT HAVING WIRED YOU IMMEDIATELY ON MY RETURN FROM THE COAST TO TELL YOU OF MY HAPPINESS AS A RESULT OF WHAT I HAVE SEEN OF YOUR CURRENT PICTURE. EVEN THOUGH I HAVE SEEN ONLY A PART OF IT, THERE IS EVERY INDICATION THAT IT IS CHOCK FULL OF HEART THROBS, HEARTACHES AND HUMAN INTEREST. FROM A TECHNICAL STANDPOINT IT IS STARTLING AND I SHOULD NOT FORGET TO MENTION ESPECIALLY THAT AGNES MOOREHEAD DOES SOME OF THE FINEST PIECES OF WORK I HAVE EVER SEEN ON THE SCREEN. ALTHOUGH I SAW ONLY PART OF THE PICTURE HER WORK IN PARTICULAR MADE A TREMENDOUS IMPRESSION ON ME. AGAIN I AM VERY HAPPY AND PROUD OF OUR ASSOCIATION.

CONGRATULATIONS AND BEST WISHES,

GEORGE SCHAEFER

 

 

 

 

 


It wasn't until over a month later that Welles had the first inkling that something might be terribly amiss with THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, when Welles received this telegram from Robert Wise. Wise was originally supposed to join Welles in Rio, so the editing of AMBERSONS could be finished by Welles personally, but due to America's entry into WWII, that plan became unfeasible. Instead, on March 11th Wise send a 132 minute print of AMBERSONS to Welles in Rio, which was also the basis for RKO's cutting continuity script, dated March 12th. After seeing the 132 minute rough cut, George Schaefer's initial enthusiasm had faded considerably, and as Wise reports, he ordered several cuts made before the first preview held in Pomona.

ROBERT WISE TO ORSON WELLES (excerpt):

March 16, 1942

DEAR ORSON:

REPORTING DEVELOPMENTS AMBERSONS. MR. SCHAEFER UNEXPECTEDLY REQUESTED RUNNING AMBERSONS TODAY FOR HIMSELF AND KOERNER AND 4 OTHER MEN UNKNOWN TO ME, PROBABLY EASTERN EXECUTIVES. FOLLOWING SHOWING SCHAEFER INQUIRED REGARDING SHORTENING LENGTH. HE HAS ORDERED ME TO PREPARE PICTURE FOR SNEAK PREVIEW TUESDAY NITE WITH FOLLOWING CUTS: BOTH PORCH SCENES AND FACTORY. HAVE ADVISED JACK MOSS.


On March 17th AMBERSONS was previewed in Pomona. The exact running time is unclear, but was probably between 110 minutes and two hours, as both Schaefer and Welles had ordered several scenes cut. The audience reaction was deemed extremely bad, although of the 125 preview cards returned, 53 were actually positive. However, the remaining 72 cards were all highly critical, indicating to everyone present (Schaefer, Robert Wise and Jack Moss), that the picture had problems and would be an extremely tough sell. On March 18th Welles cabled Schaefer, "eager to hear reaction to AMBERSONS preview," but got his first indication of how badly the preview had gone from Jack Moss.

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JACK MOSS TO ORSON WELLES:

March 19, 1942

AMBERSONS PREVIEW UNSATISFACTORY. GENERAL COMMENT TOO LONG BUT DESPITE IMPATIENCE THEY WERE OVER AND OVER AGAIN HELD BY DRAMA. PREVIEWING AGAIN TONIGHT IN PASADENA WITH DIFFERENT TYPE OF AUDIENCE. WE WILL PHONE YOU TOMORROW WITH FULL REPORT ON BOTH PREVIEWS.

JACK

 

 

 


The day after the disastrous Pomona preview, Schaefer began making plans to cut the film - although still with Welles input - but just to make sure of his options, Schaefer asks RKO's attorney Ross Hastings about the legality of making cuts, since on Welles previous film, CITIZEN KANE he enjoyed complete control over the final cutting. Unfortunately, AMBERSONS was put into production under a revised contract between RKO and Welles, and as Hastings indicated in his reply to Schaefer, any proposed cutting RKO wanted to do on the film would be entirely legal.

ROSS HASTINGS TO GEORGE SCHAEFER:

March 19, 1942

You asked me concerning our rights in connection with the cutting of THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS.

Orson Welles has the right to make the first rough cut of the picture or to cut the picture in the form of the first sneak preview if it is to be previewed. Thereafter he agrees to cut the picture as directed by us.

I am not really informed as to the facts, but I know that the picture has been previewed, and assume that this preview was in the form in which he cut the picture, or at least in the form as to which he controlled the cutting. In view of the fact that from this point on he is obligated to cut as directed by us, and in view of the further fact that he is now not available for cutting, it is my opinion that we have the right to cut the picture.


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For the second preview held March 19th in Pasadena, AMBERSONS was re-edited to a running time of approximately 117 minutes. Although the film was much better received in Pasadena, it seems as if the memory of the bad Pomona preview was now irreversible, and that nothing could allay Schaefer's fears — as he indicates to Welles in this grim letter.

 

GEORGE SCHAEFER TO ORSON WELLES:

March 21, 1942 PERSONAL-CONFIDENTIAL

Dear Orson:

I did not want to cable you with respect to THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS as indicated in your cable of the 18th, only because I wanted to write you under confidential cover.

Of course, when you ask me for my reaction, I know you want it straight, and though it is difficult to write you this way, you should hear from me.

Never in all my experience in the industry have I taken so much punishment or suffered as I did at the Pomona preview. In my 28 years I the business, I have never been present in a theater where the audience acted in such a manner. They laughed at the wrong places, talked at the picture, kidded it, and did everything that you can possibly imagine.

I don't have to tell you how I suffered, especially in the realization that we have over $1,000,000. tied up. It was just like getting one sock in the jaw after another for over two hours.

The picture was too slow, heavy, and topped off with somber music, never did register. It all started off well, but just went to pieces.

I am sending you copies of all the preview cards received to date. They speak for themselves and do not tell the whole story because only a small percentage of people make out cards. I queried many of those present and they all seemed to feel that the party who made the picture was trying to be "arty," was out for camera angles, lights and shadows, and as a matter of fact, one remarked that "the man who made that picture was camera crazy." Mind you, these are not my opinions--I am giving them to you just as I received them.

The punishment was not sufficient, and as I believed in the picture more than the people did, I hiked myself to Pasadena again last night, feeling sure that we would get a better reaction. We did, but not, of course, in its entirety. There were many spots where we got the same reaction as we did in Pomona. I think cutting will help considerably, but there is no doubt in my mind but that the people at Pasadena also thought it was slow and heavy. The somber musical score does not help.

While, of course, the reaction at Pasadena was better than Pomona, we still have a problem. In Pomona we played to the younger element. It is the younger element who contribute the biggest part of the revenue. If you cannot satisfy that group, you just cannot bail yourself out with a $1,000,000. investment—all of which, Orson, is very disturbing to say the least.

In all our initial discussions, you stressed low costs, making pictures at $300,000. to $500,000. We will not make a dollar on CITIZEN KANE and present indications are that we will not break even. The final results on AMBERSONS is still to be told, but it looks "red."

All of which reminds me of only one thing—that we must have a "heart to heart" talk. Orson Welles has got to do something commercial. We have got to get away from "arty" pictures and get back to earth. Educating the people is expensive, and your next picture must be made for the box-office.

God knows you have all the talent and the ability for writing, producing directing—everything in CITIZEN KANE and AMBERSONS confirms that. We should apply all that talent and effort in the right direction and make a picture on which "we can get well."

That's the story, Orson, and I feel very miserable to have to write you this.

My very best as always,

George Schaefer


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After the two AMBERSONS previews, Schaefer began to consult with Robert Wise, Joseph Cotten and Welles' business manager, Jack Moss on how to best go about shortening AMBERSONS. Jack Moss sent Welles a detailed cable suggesting cuts that he, Wise and Cotten felt would help the film play better for it's intended audiences.

JACK MOSS TO ORSON WELLES (excerpt):

March 23, 1942

Dear Orson:

As cabled Pomona preview generally unsatisfactory. Pasadena preview better reception. Following is way picture was previewed in Pomona. Continuity (the same) as picture was shot (until the) end of carriage scene with Jack and Major. Fade out here. Drop porch scene, fade in on Eugene and Isabel at Tree. Continuity follows as shot, up to new scene (where George finds Isabel unconscious in her bedroom). Made your big cut and come to group in hall exterior of Isabel's room. Continuity again as shot, up until the Indian Legend (scene with Cotten and Baxter) and accident scene - both dropped. Fade in on accident insert (newspaper). Continue to end as shot.

Following is way picture was previewed at Pasadena. First cut, factory scene. Second cut, first porch scene. Third cut, bathroom scene with Jack and George. Continuity again as shot. Put back all of your big cut, except Major and Fanny in second porch scene. Continuity as shot to end of railroad station, Jack's goodbye scene. Followed by Fanny's boiler scene, Bronson's office, George's walk home, Indian legend, accident, lap out on accident, omitting line "riffraff." Lap from newspapers to Eugene exiting hospital, to process shot where Eugene says, "take me to Miss Minafers," to boarding house. Boarding house cut down. Put line "that's the end of the story," under fade out on matte shot of street.

Schaefer and his associates advocate many drastic cuts mainly for purposes of shortening length. Bob Wise, Joe Cotten and myself have conferred analyzing audience reactions exercising our best judgment and we believe the following suggested continuity would remove slow spots and bring out heart qualities of picture.

(Moss goes on to describe many suggestions for cuts throughout the picture, inviting Welles comments on these changes. Eventually, most of the Moss-Wise-Cotten changes were made in the 88 minute version of AMBERSONS that was finally released by RKO).

Please cable or phone your decisions and instructions.

Love from all.

Jack


Welles reply to the cuts and changes suggested by Moss-Wise-Cotten, was to reject them out of hand, and instead ask RKO to have Robert Wise sent to Brazil with the work print of AMBERSONS, so any changes could be made by Welles in person.

ORSON WELLES TO JACK MOSS:

March 24, 1942

MY ADVICE ABSOLUTELY USELESS WITHOUT BOB WISE HERE. SURE I MUST BE AT LEAST PARTLY WRONG, BUT CANNOT SEE REMOTEST SENSE IN ANY SINGLE CUT OF YOURS, BOB'S, JO'S. REALIZE I HAVEN'T SEEN COMPLETED FILM WITH AUDIENCE REACTION, BUT CANNOT EVEN BEGIN DISCUSSING ON PROPOSALS AS RECEIVED WITHOUT DOING ACTUAL WORK ON ACTUAL FILM, WITH BOB HERE.

ORSON


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Although Welles wanted to re-cut AMBERSONS by having Robert Wise come to Rio, he must have realized that Wise in all likely-hood would not be coming - because he sent his own detailed list of changes to be made to AMBERSONS the day after receiving this cable from Jack Moss.

JACK MOSS TO ORSON WELLES:

March 25, 1942

Dear Orson:

Every effort being made to secure immediate passage for Bob. We all agree your decisions on AMBERSONS dependent upon actual work with actual film.

Jack


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ORSON WELLES TO JACK MOSS (excerpt):

March 27, 1942

This is a preliminary list of AMERSON cuts. Details follow tomorrow morning.

(Welles went on to list many major changes he thought would improve the film's audience acceptance, giving extensive instructions for scenes to be re-shot, re dubbed, or re-edited. Welles largest cut was the deletion of all the scenes related to George and Isabel's European Trip).

REEL FIVE - Following is new scene:

Very slow FADE IN

Interior of Eugene's house. Eugene at desk near window in the late afternoon, blacklit.

TIGHT SHOT of Eugene writing almost in silhouette. Sound of pen as he signs his name and puts down pen. Looks back to top of page, as he reads letter to himself, his lips not moving. His voice reads letter heard on track with music as in present version of letter sequence.

New text of letter as follows:

Yesterday I thought the time had come when I could ask you to marry me, and you were dear enough to tell me sometime it might come to that. But now we come to this dear.-- Will you live your own life your way of George's way?---Oh, Dearest woman in the world, I know what your son is to you and it frightens me. Dear, it breaks my heart for you but what you have to oppose now is the history of your own selfless and perfect motherhood. Are you strong enough, Isabel? Can you make the fight?

Now CUT or QUICK DISSOLVE to Isabel seated as she looks up from letter then rises.

Here is added line of Eugene's narration for this setting:

I know your aren't quite well dear -- But…

I promise you that if you will take heart for it…

And so on through-- DISSOLVE TO:

George (outside of Isabel's room).

Play through George entering Isabel's room, including the new scene where he finds her unconscious which should be terrific if camera is close enough and moving with him as he drops to feel her and takes her in his arms before we FADE OUT. Again emphasize tremendous importance that this shot be beautifully done with music very strong.

(Welles apparently felt that by removing large portions of non-essential story material — in this case all the scenes pertaining to George and Isabel's trip to Europe — he could save the key material he really hoped to keep, such as the very downbeat ending. If Welles suggested cuts had been carried out, instead of having Isabel choose George over Eugene by going abroad, Welles would have simplified her conflicted decision by merely indicating Isabel has become too ill to consider Eugene's proposal (by substituting a new scene, where George would simply find Isabel unconscious in her room).


Here's the report Robert Wise sent to Welles about the audience reaction to the two previews. In retrospect, it seems incredible that experienced film people like Schaefer and Wise would take two previews as the be all and end all regarding how AMBERSONS might be received by audiences nationwide. Obviously, the previews were not good, but to base their massive cutting on a bad preview in Ponoma seems very questionable. Imagine what might have happened if the film had been previewed in a more upscale market, such as San Francisco, and gotten mostly favorable comments?

ROBERT WISE TO ORSON WELLES (excerpt):

March 27, 1942

Dear Orson:

You asked for a detailed report of preview audience reactions and I have never tackled a more difficult chore. What I mean is, it's so damn hard to put on paper in cold type the man times you die through the showing-- the too few moments you are repaid for all the blood and suffering that goes into a show.

With God's help and a sigh, here's a rough breakdown of the previews:

To start with, the audience seemed very restless and impatient during the first three or four reels of the show. It's not that there were any bad reactions or laughs during this part of the picture, but I had figured on more chuckles and general enjoyment.

Things like Joe's fall on the fiddle, the derby hat, shoes, different clothes, etc. got only a part of the laughs I'd expected.

At Pomona we got a big hand and what seemed to be a sigh of relief on your line: "That's the end of the story." At both previews there were too many people who walked out all during the show. This can be attributed, I think, to the great length and slow pace. The picture does not seem to bear down on people.

Please believe me that notwithstanding all in this report, we are all certain that the basic quality of the show was appreciated and it is merely a matter of gentle, tireless and careful study and work to resolve the MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS into a real proud Mercury production.

Warmest regards,

Bob Wise

 


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Schaefer and Welles' Mercury associates, were all attempting to improve AMBERSONS as best they could in light of the highly unfavorable previews. But, in what must have been the unkindest cut of all, Welles close friend Joseph Cotten felt swayed enough by the negative previews to write this conflicted letter to Welles, detailing his own thoughts about the changes that he felt were needed to AMBERSONS.

JOSEPH COTTEN TO ORSON WELLES:

March 28, 1942

Dear Orson:

In cases such as this great difference of opinion in the editing and cutting of AMBERSONS, people usually say "nothing personal, of course" as an excuse to say whatever they think. In my case, I have no business interest in AMBERSONS, Mercury or you; but a great personal feeling about all three, especially you, and whatever I say I know you will take in a personal way, and I want you to.

I have often been wrong in discussing scripts and plots with you, and I agree that I'm wanting in intellectual concept and understanding of art. I do, however, have a reliable instinct, and as often as I have been wrong about actual ideas, I have been right about audience reactions. I also know by now just about what your reaction to audiences is, and I am writing this to you because I know you would have been far from happy with the feeling in the theater during the showing last week. The moment the temporary title was flashed on the screen THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, a Mercury production by Orson Welles, there was a wonderful murmur of happy anticipation, which was warming and delightful to hear and feel. And the first sound of your voice was greeted with applause. Certainly I was fair in assuming at this point that the audience was with us. Then something happened… it happened gradually and awfully and the feeling in that theater became disinterested, almost hostile and as cold as that ice-house they had just seen and my heart as heavy as the heart of Major Amberson who was playing wonderful scenes that nobody cared about.

You have written doubtless the most faithful adaptation any book has ever had, and when I had finished reading it I had the same feeling I had when I read the book. When you read it, I had that same reaction only stronger. The picture on the screen seems to mean something else. It is filled with some deep though vague psychological significance that I think you never meant it to have. Dramatically, it is like a play full of wonderful, strong second acts all coming down on the same curtain line, all proving the same tragic point. Then suddenly someone appears on the apron and says the play is over without there having been enacted a concluding third act. The emotional impact in the script seems to have lost itself somewhere in the cold visual beauty before us and at the end there is definitely a feeling of dissatisfaction… chiefly, I believe, because we have seen something that should have been no less that great. And it can be great, I'm sure of that. It's all there, in my opinion, with some transpositions, revisions and some points made clearer… points relating to human relations, I mean.

…Our cables that fly back and forth I know present everything in a very unsatisfactory manner. They often must be misinterpreted at both ends. Jack, I know, is doing all he can. He is trying his best to get Bob Wise to you. His opinions about the cuts, right or wrong, I know are the results of sincere, thoughtful, harassed days, nights, Sundays, holidays. Nobody in the Mercury is trying in any way to take advantage of your absence. Nobody anywhere thinks you haven't made a wonderful, beautiful, inspiring picture. Everybody in the Mercury is on your side always. I miss you horribly and will be a happier soul when you return.

We all love you… and until then remain forever, as all of us do,

Obediently yours,

Jo


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With the looming threat of RKO changing or re-editing the downbeat ending of AMBERSONS, and with Welles own associates now advising him of the need to compromise, Welles came up with this plan to re-do the ending credits, which he hoped might be enough to send audiences out of the theater on a more upbeat note.

ORSON WELLES TO JACK MOSS:

April 2, 1942

To leave audience happy for AMBERSONS, remake cast credits as follows and in this order:

First, oval framed old fashioned picture, very authentic looking of Bennett in Civil War campaign hat. Second, live shot of Ray Collins, no insert, in elegant white ducks and hair whiter than normal seated on tropical veranda with ocean and waving palm tree behind him—Negro servant serving him second long cool drink. Third, Aggie blissfully and busily playing bridge with cronies in boarding house. Fourth, circular locket with authentic old fashioned picture of Costello in ringlets, looking very young. Fifth, Jo Cotton at French window closing watch case obviously containing Costello's picture tying in with previous shot; sound of car driving away. Jo turns, looks out window and waves. Sixth, Tim Holt and Anne Baster in open car—Tim shifting gears but looking over shoulder—as he does this, Anne looking same direction and waving, they turn to each other then look forward both very happy and gay and attractive for fadeout. Then fade in mike shot for my closing lines as before.


Nearly a month after the bad previews of AMBERSONS, Schaefer finally decided to begin his corrective surgery in an vain attempt "to fix" the film. With the new re-takes being ordered, Welles Mercury colleagues go into a panic, and when Welles gets the bad news, he cables back that he is "really desperate..."

 

GEORGE SCHAEFER TO ORSON WELLES:

April 9, 1942

DEAR ORSON:

HAVE BEEN TRYING FOR THE PAST TWO DAYS REACH YOU ON PHONE BUT UNSUCCESSFUL TO GET THROUGH CONNECTION. IMPORTANT I TALK WITH YOU WITH REFERENCE TO RE-TAKES ON AMBERSONS AND CERTAIN ASPECTS WITH REFERENCE TO PROPOSED BUDGET AND EXPENSES IN THE URCA CLUB SEQUENCE. LEAVING FOR NEW YORK FRIDAY AND MUST TALK WITH YOU BEFORE I LEAVE AS WE MUST CLEAR UP AMBERSONS SITUATION BEFORE I LEAVE.

REGARDS,

GEORGE SCHAEFER


JACK MOSS & JOSEPH COTTEN TO ORSON WELLES (Excerpt):

April 14, 1942

DEAR ORSON:

SCHAEFER ORDERED THREE AMBERSON SCENES RETAKEN. SAYS HE IS PHONING YOU FOR APPROVAL. SHOOTING SCHEDULED TO START FRIDAY. NO FURTHER WORD FROM SCHAEFER AND NOT HEARING DIRECTLY FROM YOU WE ARE PLENTY WORRIED. IF YOU HAVE NOT TALKED TO SCHAEFER YOU SHOULD WITH US, SO WE COULD DISCUSS SITUATION…


ORSON WELLES TO JACK MOSS:

April 15, 1942

HAVE CALL IN FOR YOU. MEANTIME PLEASE WIRE FULL DETAILS LEGALITY STUDIO RETAKES AND STUDIO CUTS. MY POSITION IS I CANNOT ALLOW RETAKES. WHAT CAN SCHAEFER DO ABOUT IT? IS CONNECTION COORDINATOR OFFICE WITH THIS PICTURE STRONG ENOUGH TO KEEP ME FROM BEING RECALLED OR SUSPENDED? WILL TALK TO SCHAEFER RIGHT AFTER I TALK TO YOU ABOUT SITUATION HERE…

REALLY DESPERATE…

ORSON


JACK MOSS TO ORSON WELLES:

April 16, 1942

DEAR ORSON;

CAREFULLY THOROUGHLY CHECKED… LEGALITY DEFINITELY GIVES STUDIO FINAL RIGHT ON BASIS FILM THEIR PROPERTY.

…MY OPINION THERE WILL BE NO RECALL NO SUSPENSION. WAITING YOUR CALL TO RELATE AMBERSON DETAILS…

JACK MOSS


With THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS now undergoing drastic revisions in Hollywood, Welles was facing a whole new set of problems in Rio. With much of the allocated budget for IT'S ALL TRUE already spent, Schaefer sensed that costs might continue to escalate, and became alarmed at Welles' proposal to film a spectacular finale at Rio's Urca Casino.

GEORGE SCHAEFER TO ORSON WELLES:

April 16, 1942

DEAR ORSON:

HAVE BEEN TRYING, ALL DAY YESTERDAY AND AGAIN TODAY BUT UNSUCCESSFUL. YOUR CABLE WAS RECEIVED AND I HAVE FULL APPRECIATION OF YOUR PRODUCTION DIFFICULTIES SO FAR AWAY FROM HOME. BUT ON THE OTHER HAND, I MUST TAKE FIRM POSITION AND CANNOT PERMIT MONEY TO BE EXPENDED AT RATE YOU ARE PLANNING - AND I MUST KNOW WHEN YOU EXPECT TO FINISH. YOU HAVE BEEN AWAY FOR THREE MONTHS NOW AND SURELY WE EXPECTED YOU BACK LONG BEFORE THIS. ON TOP OF THIS, RECORDS INDICATE YOU SPENT $33,000 IN MARCH. THIS IS ALL OUT OF PROPORTION TO WHAT WE EVER ESTIMATED. WE CANNOT GO ALONG ON THAT BASIS EVEN IF WE HAVE TO CLOSE DOWN SHOW AND ASK YOU TO RETURN. THIS IS HOW SERIOUS SITUATION IS. WITH RESPECT TO MY OWN APPREHENSION, I MUST CONTACT YOU BY PHONE WITHIN 24 HOURS AS THERE ARE SOME DEVELOPMENTS THAT LOOK VERY UNPLEASANT IN MANY DIRECTIONS.


April 17- 20th: Freddie Fleck, the assistant director on AMBERSONS, shoots several retakes, including the two new ending scenes. George Schaefer has both of these new sequences re-scored by staff composer Roy Webb. Webb's music is done in a far cheerier style than the sad and elegiac music Bernard Herrmann provided for the original boarding house ending.

May 4, 1942: A 93 minute re-cut version of AMBERSONS is previewed in Inglewood.

May 12, 1942: A 87 minute re-cut version of AMBERSONS is previewed in Long Beach.

May 19, 1942: Jack Moss shoots the final re-takes for AMBERSONS.


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With Welles facing mounting problems in Rio on IT'S ALL TRUE, his former guardian, Dr. Bernstein, writes to warn him that his days at RKO are now numbered.

MAURICE BERNSTEIN TO ORSON WELLES (excerpt):

May 14, 1942

There has been much talk about the "United Artist" in you, but then there is always much talk about you - some bad, but most of the time good. Today, I was at your studio and got an earful. First, that RKO is frantic about your expenses, both personal and in making the picture in South America. One million feet of color film when only 12,000 can be used. And in addition, your mixing of the blacks and whites cannot be accepted by Iowa, Missouri, not to mention all the people the other side of the Mason/Dixon line. You probably know the feeling of RKO better then I on all these things. But your doings are certainly stirring them up. I understand that JOURNEY will be released before AMBERSONS.

My last letter had more truth then fiction when I said I wished I could trust the people who claim to be your friends, and look after your affairs. I know your relations with Schaefer were friendlier before you established the "new order". This is why I wish you could form an alliance with Chaplin.

Charles Koerner said to Billy Wilkerson (from the Hollywood Reporter) that "you can take it from me that RKO will not renew Orson Welles's contract after the current deal under any circumstances". This was told to the Wilkerson staff for their guidance. You should therefore make plans now for the future. I wish you would take my advice and have Arnold look after things here. I wish too that you would have a little confidence in me. I guided you in a way that I have never regretted - and you STILL need a guardian! The proof of this is that you have little to show even after all your tremendous success. You are now a man, and I am talking to you man to man. I am alarmed when I think of the mercenary people who surround you - Moss, his lawyer, and others who have sucked you dry! AMBERSONS was shown last night, May 14, to a group from the press. I was barred from the showing, but was informed afterwards. I wonder. Anyway, reports today are that everyone was most enthusiastic about it. Moss, I am told, did a masterly job of "editing" it, and really made a great picture out of it.


As George Schaefer's position as head of RKO (as well as the Mercury's chief supporter) becomes extremely precarious, Herbert Drake, the press representative for Mercury productions, sent Welles this plan to help with his public relations efforts regarding IT'S ALL TRUE and the increasingly hostile RKO regime, which will soon be headed by RKO vice-president, Charles Koerner.

HERBERT DRAKE TO ORSON WELLES (excerpt):

June 1, 1942

You have got to come home right away - hugely - and not sneak in on a plane. You must return with trumpets and banners because the campaign really needs a good hot fillip of the old Welles personality. I have been planting pretty solid stuff locally and nationally and I think we have made par for the course. There have been two other Welles pictures to keep alive, and the RKO anti-Welles battle to fight. It has never been so virulent. The juggling act done by your press office here has been nothing short of extraordinary. I'm as nervous as a cat, and being without information all the time has made things really tough. But a real bang-up arrival can take the newspapers' attention off Kirkoff and Ann Sheridan and focus the limelight on you.

There is a widespread, nurtured campaign to prove you have been spending too much time and wasting too much money in Brazil; that "Ambersons" is no good, and "Fear", ditto. This has gone so far as a personal visit by Koerner to the Hollywood Reporter. As I wrote Wilson, Billy Wilkerson informed his staff that he was quoting Schaefer when he said "Koerner told Wilkerson that RKO would on no condition ever allow you to work in the studio again".

I have shown Ambersons on two occasions to the picture papers, once when it was two hours twenty minutes long and once at one hour thirty three minutes - the final version. They liked it both times, from "Beautiful" (Life) to "Better then Kane" (UP). So, you need a splash arrival.

It will be tough to get Nelson Rockefeller's cooperation, since the whole intent of the Coordinator's office is to avoid anything that looks like publicity. Nothing you can say and nothing I can say can impress anyone with the importance of the expedition, as opposed to the film itself. I can always sell them the idea that your pictures will be magnificent, but they have been hearing about neighborly expeditions for some years now, and Disney's Saludos Amigos took the cream off the idea. However, if someone in Washington will come out with a Thank You statement to you, you will return a conquering hero.


Two days later, Jack Moss, attempts in vain to get through to George Schaefer, not realizing that Schaefer is about to lose his job. Succumbing to internal pressures, Schaefer resigns as RKO's President in mid-June, to be replaced by N. Peter Rathvon.

JACK MOSS TO GEORGE SCHAEFER:

June 3, 1942

With AMBERSONS, including last changes, going into final printing tomorrow, this becomes my last attempt to contact you. I have been unable to reach you by phone, and have had no reply to two telegrams respectfully requesting your final consideration, and a chance to discuss with you the most important points concerning AMBERSONS. I must say that, in view of every move to prove sincerity, and the great amount of untiring effort expended by all in editing AMBERSONS, that I am entitled to better consideration and certainly a reply. I'll put it this way: I beg you to consider my comments regarding the changes in AMBERSONS. Please let me hear from you.

Jack Moss


GEORGE SCHAEFER RESIGNS

June 8, 1942

One of Schaefer's last acts as RKO's President is to approve the final release print of THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS — now incorporating the numerous re-takes as directed by Wise, Jack Moss and Freddie Fleck. The release version now runs a scant 88 minutes — 44 minutes shorter than the first rough cut. The most incongruous change proves to be the two re-shot and re-scored ending scenes. Both flagrantly violate everything Welles had intended.


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With Welles future at RKO now looking exceedingly gloomy, the pressure on Welles may have finally gotten to him. On June 12th, Welles received some unwelcome publicity in the Rio newspapers, when he and Alfonso Reyes, the Mexican ambassador to Brazil, presumably had a few drinks and then broke up all the furniture in Welles apartment on the Avenida Atlantica and proceeded to throw it out the window. Ray Josephs, an RKO employee in South America, related Welles own version of this incident, to the RKO executives back in Hollywood.

RAY JOSEPHS TO RKO:

June 12, 1942

The members of the staff of a Latin American embassy, which shall remain nameless (it was Mexico), were frequent guests (of Welles), and at 3:00 P.M. of an afternoon before his departure (to Fortaleza), he and a diplomat from the embassy in question were looking at some crockery which Welles's landlady insisted should be paid for as damaged. Orson and the diplomat went out on the balcony to look at the porcelain and, according to Orson, discovered stamped on the back the words "Made in Japan," whereupon the piece in question was hurled over the railing on to the beach front sidewalk below. Several other pieces of furniture and assorted dishware followed, while an increasing crowd of cariocas gathered around to cheer. That's all there was to it, Orson insists.


July, 1942: The final 88 minute version of THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS opens.

Even in it's truncated version, THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS received many excellent reviews and eventually was nominated for Four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress - Agnes Moorehead; Best Cinematography - Stanley Cortez; and Best Art Decoration. Certainly not an easy task for a film that was released in July. And despite a widely perceived notion that the film was dumped without fanfare by RKO, this was not entirely the case. At least initially, RKO gave AMBERSONS an impressive campaign, with full page ads appearing in many national publications, such as LIFE and LOOK. In fact, according to Joseph McBride, AMBERSONS box-office returns for many major cities boded very well for the films prospects. "It was holding up beyond expectations in LA, doing sensationally in San Francisco, nice in New York and Baltimore, good in Denver and Omaha, and not bad in Boston and Philly." (as reported in Variety).

Eventually, however the film's high budget (around $1,000,000. - before the $100,000. in additional costs entailed by the retakes), would be it's undoing, and RKO posted a loss of over $600,000. on the film. However, if looked at from a different perspective, the film actually made over $500,000., which means it did fairly well for the time, since at any cost it was going to be a somewhat difficult sell. In fact, if the film had been made for it's original budget of $850,000. it might have been successful. It's also important to realize, that at the time, no RKO film budgeted over $1,000,000 (which was extremely steep for 1942), had ever made a profit for the studio.

Among the many mysteries surrounding AMBERSONS, it also remains unclear what happened to the following bravura sequence, which Welles apparently did not include in the rough cut of the film. This except is taken from Welles original screenplay, and begins as George stands in front of the run-down Amberson mansion, after his walk home through the changed town.

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145 FULL SHOT - of the Amberson mansion seen from behind George who is standing in front of the camera. He starts walking toward the mansion.

 

 

CAMERA FOLLOWS, moving faster than he does and soon is so close to him that his body creates a dark screen for a:

DISSOLVE TO:

146 CAMERA on the steps of the Amberson mansion moving up to the door and STOPPING. George's hands enter the scene, insert a key in the lock, turn it --

NARRATOR

Tonight would be the last night that he and Fanny were to spend in the house which the Major had forgotten to deed to Isabel.

Tomorrow they were to move out...

 

147 ON the Narrator's words "move out" the door opens and CAMERA MOVES through it into the house.

 

NARRATOR

Tomorrow everything would be gone. The very space in which tonight was still Isabel's room would be cut into new shapes by new walls and floors and ceilings.

 

147 (Cont'd) MOVING SHOT as CAMERA WANDERS SLOWLY about the dismantled house -- past the bare reception room; the dining room which contains only a kitchen table and two kitchen chairs; up the stairs close to the smooth walnut railing of the balustrade. Here CAMERA STOPS for a moment, then PANS down to the heavy doors which mask the dark, empty Library. HOLD on this for a short pause, the CAMERA PANS back and CONTINUES even more slowly up the stairs to the second floor hall where it MOVES up to the closed door of Isabel's room. The door swings open and we see Isabel's room as it always has been; nothing has been changed.

FADE OUT

Narrator talks through the fade.

 

NARRATOR

And if space itself can be haunted as memory is haunted, then it may be that some impressionable overworked woman in a "kitchenette" after turning out the light, will seem to see a young man kneeling in the darkness, with arms outstretched through the wall clutching at the covers of a shadowy bed. It may seem to her that she hears the faint cry, over and over...

 

148 The dark screen FADES INTO a VERY CLOSE SHOT on George's back, and immediately CAMERA PULLS AWAY showing George, kneeling beside Isabel's bed, his hands clutching the covers. Right after the narrator's words: "over and over" we hear:

GEORGE

Mother, forgive me! God, forgive me!

 

NARRATOR

Something had happened - a thing which, years ago had been the eagerest hope of many, many good citizens of the town, and now it came at last: George Amberson Minafer had got his comeuppance. He got it three times filled, and running over. But those who had so longed for it were not there to see it, and they never knew it.

 

148 (Cont'd) CAMERA CONTINUES PULLING AWAY until it holds A FULL SHOT of the room with George kneeling motionless at the bed. HOLD on this until narrator says, "and they never knew it." The scene starts:

SLOW DISSOLVE TO:

 

149 SHOT of the Amberson mansion - massive as the old house is, it manages to look gaunt: it's windows stare with the skull emptiness of all windows in empty houses that are to be lived in no more. Of course the rowdy boys of the neighborhood have been at work; many of these haggard windows are broken, the front door stands ajar, forced open; and idiot salacity, in white chalk is smeared everywhere upon the pillars and stonework of the veranda.

NARRATOR

Those who were still living had forgotten all about it, and all about him.


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STANLEY CORTEZ ON THE ABOVE: For one sequence, when the camera explored the Amberson mansion after everyone has left it, I took the shoes off my camera operator, and with a heavy Mitchell camera he walked up the stairs with it and through the empty rooms. We used a periscopic finder, and a thirty-one inch lens. He had to move and we had to choreograph him like a ballet dancer as he walked, so the weight was not unbearably heavy.

 

SCRIPT VERSION:

1. Fanny's breakdown at the boiler
2. Bronson's office: George asks for a dangerous job
3. George and Jack's at railroad station
4. George's walk home and repentance
5. Indian Legend w/ Eugene and Lucy in garden
6. George hit by automobile
7. Eugene at factory reads of accident; leaves for hospital

8. Eugene leaves hospital and returns home; writes in diary to Isabel telling of his reconciliation with George.

132 MINUTE ROUGH CUT:

1. George and Jack at the railroad station
2. George's walk home and repentance
3. Fanny's breakdown at the boiler
4. Bronson's office
5. Indian Legend w/ Eugene and Lucy in garden
6. George hit by automobile

7. Eugene at factory reads of accident; leaves for hospital

8. Eugene visits Fanny in Boarding House; tells her of his reconciliation with George.

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POMONA PREVIEW:

1. George and Jack at the railroad station
2. George's walk home and repentance
3. Fanny's breakdown at the boiler
4. Bronson's office
5. Newspaper insert telling of accident

6. Eugene at factory reads of accident

7. Eugene visits Fanny in Boarding House; tells her of his reconciliation with George.

(Indian Legend and George hit by automobile scenes dropped)

 

PASADENA PREVIEW

1. George and Jack at the railroad station
2. Fanny's breakdown at the boiler
3. Bronson's office
4. Walk home and repentance
5. Indian Legend w/ Eugene and Lucy in garden
6. George hit by automobile

7. Newspaper insert telling of accident

8. Eugene leaving hospital to see Fanny
9. Eugene visits Fanny in Boarding House; tells her of his reconciliation with George. (cut down)

 

RELEASE VERSION:

1. George and Jack at the railroad station
2. Indian Legend w/ Eugene and Lucy in garden
3. Fanny's breakdown at the boiler
4. Bronson's office
5. Walk home and repentance
6. George hit by automobile

7. Eugene at home with Lucy reads story of accident (re-shot & re-scored)

8. Eugene talks to Fanny in hospital hallway (re-shot & re-scored to replace boarding house)

Eugene_reading.jpg (18383 bytes)NOVEL:

1. George and Jack's at railroad station
2. George's walk home and repentance

3. Fanny's breakdown at the boiler
4. Bronson's office: George asks for a dangerous job
5. On a Sunday off, George wanders around the changed town.

6. Indian Legend w/ Eugene & Lucy in garden
7. George hit by automobile while thinking of Lucy
8. Eugene reads of accident on train to N.Y.

9. While in New York Eugene sees a medium who makes contact with Isabel;

Isabel tells Eugene "to be kind"

10. Eugene returns home and goes to visit George at hospital; Lucy and Fanny are there; George asks Eugene to forgive him.