Friday, June 4, 2010

The Decline & Fall of The Magnificent Ambersons

In Search of Lost “Ambersons”
by Mike Thomas

The story is well-known - fresh from making “Citizen Kane” theatre and radio wunderkind Orson Welles’ second film, “The Magnificent Ambersons” is butchered and re-edited in his absence by a group of evil RKO Philistines out to sabotage his career. Welles never recovers from that blow, spending the rest of his life trying to reclaim his past glory, hustling after funding for every project. Yet when Robert Carringer’s “Magnificent Ambersons Reconstructed” was published in 1993, shattering many of the long-accepted Wellesian assertions that the film was brutally altered over his objections, showing Welles himself was suggesting even more radical cuts in “Ambersons” than those that were made, it registered nary a blip on the critical radar. Why the critical silence on the Carringer book, which rewrote one of the most controversial episodes in the American Cinema?

Using existing storyboards, stills of the deleted scenes and the original continuity script of March 12, 1942 - the only surviving record of the full 132 minute original cut of “Ambersons,” - Carringer shows exactly what the deleted scenes were, which ones were reshot and the cables from Welles ordering cuts. the book makes clear that, although Welles may not have agreed to all the changes that were made after the disastrous previews, he was a willing accomplice to much of the re-editing. In fact, after reading Carringer it is virtually impossible to take the Welles account of the destruction of “Ambersons” at face value again. And yet it came and went without major critical discussion or acknowledgement. Its lack of impact is baffling and despite the landmark research and much evidence to the contrary, the Welles party line still remains the accepted version - “They destroyed “Ambersons” and it destroyed me...”

Well, no, not exactly.

When Robert Wise first met Orson Welles they were both 25. Unhappy with the older studio editor RKO had assigned to “Citizen Kane” Welles wanted someone younger and fresher to cut his debut film. He liked Wise and hired him to be the editor. Wise did not let Welles down, “Citizen Kane” remains a textbook example of motion picture editing and won Wise his first Oscar nomination for editing. Immediately after “Kane” Wise cut the enduring classic “All That Money Can Buy” (aka “The Devil and Daniel Webster”) for director William Dieterle. When it came time to film his second feature Welles again wanted Wise but after “Kane” Wise had become one of the most sought after editors on the RKO lot and Dieterle was asking for Wise to cut his next film. A tug of war ensued, with Welles winning Wise’s services for his second film, “The Magnificent Ambersons.”

Robert Wise later become the fall guy for the “destruction” of “Ambersons”, as though the man who edited “Citizen Kane” suddenly lost all his skill, intelligence and taste, and overnight became a hopeless studio hack with a pair of scissors, drooling in anticipation at the mutilation he was about to deliver to Welles’ defenseless masterpiece. What if - and I know this hypothesis is anathema to those who buy the Welles party line and remain that convinced he was betrayed by those closest to him - but what if “The Magnificent Ambersons” was what the studio and Joseph Cotten and Bob Wise and Welles’ business manager Jack Moss said it was? An expensive, lavish, period piece that left audiences cold and indifferent when they weren’t laughing or walking out or jeering at its histrionics?

In 1992, the long awaited Peter Bogdonavich-Orson Welles collaboration, “This is Orson Welles,” appeared, repeating the usual litany of injustices done and the standard carping about the mutilation of “Ambersons” (and “Macbeth” and “Touch of Evil”, et. al.), Welles even managed to throw in a sly dig at Wise. When it was pointed out that Wise re-shot the bedroom scene, Welles remarked, “I didn’t know Robert Wise did the shooting. That was his beginning, wasn’t it? That’s when he got off the pad.” As if a re-shoot could launch a career (whatever happened to Freddie Fleck then?)

Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Booth Tarkington, “Ambersons” is imbued with a melancholic longing for a vanished America, filled with a profound sense of loss remarkably captured by a 26 year old at the height of his glory, photographed with some of the most exquisitely shaded images in the American cinema. This deeply personal adaptation of the Tarkington novel obviously held great meaning for Welles. He long maintained the Eugene Morgan character was based upon his father. And the death of a mother obviously was something Welles, who lost his own at a tender age, could greatly feel. Eschewing the Expressionist razzle dazzle of “Kane,” “Ambersons” embraces techniques of silent film and Currier & Ives prints; it almost feels older than the cinema itself, a relic of a bygone era. And yet time and again it is painted as an irrevocably doomed film. The forty minutes cut from “Ambersons,” along with the missing six hours from von Stroheim’s ”Greed,” have becoming the twin Holy Grails of the American cinema. And yet with the publication of the Carringer book (and the earlier Bogdanovich-Welles memoir edited by Jonathan Rosenbaum) it became possible to become an archaeologist of the lost ”Ambersons” in that great cinematheque of the mind, conjuring up the lost scenes and mentally editing them back into place.

In fact, the much criticized new ending shot by RKO contained some of the same dialogue that was used in the original script. In the original draft (and in earlier radio version), Eugene writes a letter to Isabel stating he had been true at last to his own true love. In the reshot ending, Eugene walks down a hospital hallway and says he brought George under control and had been true at last to his own true love.This, though different, is not that much removed from what we have. Welles had substituted a different ending set in a boarding house at the last minute - so late, it wasn’t even story boarded like the rest of the film. The final scene has always been the crucial deletion from the present cut with Welles calling the deleted shot, with typical Wellesian enthusiasm, “the best scene in the picture.” Whether it worked or not is a different matter. It was to show Aunt Fanny sitting in a rocking chair, as oblivious to Eugene as he prattles on about the wedding of George and Lucy as he has always been to her. It was a dark scene, downbeat and somber. Joseph Cotten wondered if it wasn’t too “Chekhovian” for the audience.

The boarding house ending of “Ambersons” was sold for silver, as was all unused RKO footage after six months of a film’s release. Welles gave away his 35mm print of the film in Brazil so no known copy of the original 132 minute cut survives. (Although for years rumors have persisted that Welles’ copy may have survived and still reside somewhere in Brazil.) Those scenes that once were, cinematic ghosts from the past, continue to haunt the present. And so, the search for the Grail continued until Robert Carringer’s splendid reconstruction of “Ambersons” on the Criterion laser disc released in 1986. It included the script (with the writing of the letter ending), storyboards complete with deleted scenes, fragments of the silent version called “Pampered Youth” and the Mercury Theatre radio production with Walter Huston as Eugene, Huston’s wife, Nan Sunderland as Isabel, Ray Collins as the uncle and Welles himself as George.

The book was notable, however, for having an entire chapter devoted to the missing scenes, complete with many stills and was an excellent first step in the recreation of the original cut. When Carringer’s book, “The Magnificent Ambersons: A Reconstruction” came out the following year it also included a great number of stills and the original continuity script. Dated March 12, 1942 the continuity script documents every shot, every piece of dialogue in the completed print that was shipped to Welles in Rio. Carringer gives us the exact description of the every shot, complete with the deleted scenes so, for the first time, we can re-construct not only the missing footage of “Ambersons” but can understand the shape of the entire film. (Whether this was considered at the time to be the final cut is doubtful, however. Welles was ordering cuts from Brazil, and it was generally understood that the previews would indicate where the film needed trimming.)

Carringer had retrieved all that was retrievable and had shown it to the world in a brilliant job of research. And yet there was nary a sound from the academic world or the film community. “Ambersons” was still considered to be a fragment of the masterpiece that Welles had planned. And yet the Carringer book, in its most controversial charge, states that Welles was not only a participant in the drastic re-editing of “Ambersons”, but that he actually suggested even more drastic cuts than those proposed by Wise, Moss and RKO.

Of the many cuts suggested by Welles (and there were 35 page cables crammed with editing suggestions from Rio) none was as radical as the one Carringer labels the “Big Cut”. Immediately following the scene where Isabel reads the letter from Eugene, Welles decided to cut to her death, eliminating the scenes of George and his mother discussing Eugene’s intentions and Isabel’s decision to go away on an extended vacation, the last walk George and Lucy take before his departure, the second porch scene (which was cut) with the Major and Fanny talking about the failed headlight scheme, George and Isabel’s return, and George’s refusal to let Eugene enter the house to see the dying Isabel.

These cuts certainly would have gutted, if not quite the heart of the film, much of the core. The fact Welles was prepared to discard them shows that he was willing to make alterations to the film and was not quite the hapless victim he long pretended. Even more controversial is Carringer’s suggestion this “Big Cut” was suggested by Welles before the previews took place, thereby suggesting Welles sabotaged the film before it ever had an audience. If these cuts ordered by Welles were made in the print the audience in Pomona saw, not only would it explain why the picture performed so badly in its first preview, but also demands a critical re-assessment of the entire “Ambersons” history. Wise, however, does not recall the “Big Cut” having been made, and believes the Pomona screening was of the print Welles had authorized before leaving.

As Carringer repeatedly shows, Welles was urging cuts to be made that were as drastic, if not more so, than the studio’s. Carringer makes a major contribution to film scholarship for he shows that, not only was Welles actively involved in the re-cutting of “Ambersons” but that Welles’ Big Cut, whether implemented or not, was a Draconian solution that failed to solve bigger problem the picture faced - the audience’s rejection of George in certain scenes, Agnes Moorehead’s over the top hysteria in the boiler scene and the grim, downbeat ending.

If the original Welles cut didn’t work, which version was the true “Ambersons,” the best “Ambersons”? Since Robert Wise has long been tarred with the rep of the one who “destroyed” the film, the only solution was to watch the film with Wise, armed with the Carringer book, and discuss the missing scenes. “This is the last time I’m going to talk about “Ambersons,” said Wise before we sat down to watch the laser disc.

MT One of the surprising things in the Carringer book was his claim that Welles was ordering some drastic cuts of his own.

RW I don’t know about that. He wasn’t there, he was in Rio. He’d gone down at the request of the State Department to try and keep Brazil on our side during the war and he was happy to go down there and get out of the draft. He was draft age, remember, about 26, and he went down to make a film with the Brazilian filmmakers. And, according to the stories that came back, he was having some parties and a pretty good time.

MT You’d gone down to Miami with him?

RW I took the work print with me and spent three days and nights recording all his narration at the Max Fleischer animation studios. He left at dawn in an old flying boat and that was the last time I saw him for several years.

MT He left you in charge of post-production?

RW He left me and Jack Moss, who was his business manager, in charge. At a certain point the studio became concerned because they had a lot of money tied up in the picture, about a million dollars, which was a big budget in those days. So we went out for some previews with our work print. We’d usually preview a picture in one of the local theatres that could play separate picture and sound tracks. We’d get a temp track and go out and do a sneak preview.

MT Did you preview “Kane”?

RW No, we didn’t on “Kane.” There were no previews. But it was standard practice to take a picture out out and we took this one to Pomona and the preview was just a disaster. The audience disliked it, they walked out, they were laughing at Aggie Moorehead’s character and it was an absolute disaster. So what were we going to do with it? We went back and cut out the scenes with Aggie Moorehead where they were laughing at her over-the-top performance. It was a long picture, as I recall.

MT Two hours and 12 minutes.

RW I thought it was longer. Well, we took it the next time to Pasadena and it played a little better but still not acceptable. We then cut some more and re-arranged things and the third time we took it to Inglewood but we had cut so much out we had continuity problems and needed some new scenes to bridge the gaps. They asked me to direct a scene between George and his mother and that was one of my first directing experiences, that scene between Dolores Costello and Tim Holt in her bedroom. We took it to Long Beach and they sat for it, they didn’t walk out, they didn’t laugh. And that’s the way it went out. We had to get a version that would play for an audience.

MT It was Freddie Fleck who directed the new ending.

RW He was the production manager. The new ending was not that different in content, just staged differently.

MT Let’s take a look at the film.

(The film begins with the standard RKO logo - a radio tower on top of the globe announcing to the world this is an RKO picture.)

RW That was one of my first jobs, synching up those dot, dot dot, dots.

MT Where did they shoot the picture?

RW Down at what we called the “Forty Acres” in Culver City, the RKO Pathe Studios.

MT Here’s one of the first cuts.

(The ballroom sequence)

RW Yes, this was a long shot, it took him a day or two to line up. It went round and round the ballroom and up the stairs and it just went on forever. People were coming and going and picking up other people’s dialogue and it didn’t hold, it just didn’t work so we had to make some cuts and put in some dissolves over the cuts.

MT Welles called it “ the greatest tour de force of my career.” The complaint is that in cutting the long single take you destroyed the spatial relationship of the layout of the mansion.

RW All that’s fine but the thing was very long. The pace dragged and we had to pick it up.

MT It was done in a horseshoe pattern, with the camera moving backwards?

RW It was going all over the ballroom in one take. It took him three days overall; a couple of days to get the lighting, the blocking, rehearsing the actors, getting the timing right, then one day of shooting.

MT These sets are amazing. Did you know the art direction was nominated for an Oscar? In fact, the film received four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Cinematography.

RW The picture wasn’t destroyed then, if it was nominated for Best Picture, was it? I have always said that despite what Orson said, since it has come down through the years as a classic in its own right , that means we didn’t destroy it.

MT A lot of people actually prefer it to “Kane.”

RW They’re out of their minds. But it is an outstanding film.

MT I find it has more heart than “Kane,” there’s an elegiac quality that is very touching.

RW I remember being so moved by the radio version of it on the Campbell’s Soup Hour. We used to listen to it on Sunday nights on the radio, that was my first exposure to Orson. I was so moved by it, I was really excited when I learned that it was going to be the follow up to “Kane.” I thought, this will show those people who thought “Kane” didn’t have any heart, this will be Orson’s chance to prove that he has heart. But he didn’t get it in the film.

(Eugene and Isabel dance alone on a deserted ballroom floor)

MT This scene is one of the loveliest in the entire film, yet Welles’ cable of March 27, 1942 proposed cutting it.

RW Really? I don’t remember that.

MT He sure loved putting the camera on the floor, didn’t he?

RW He got that from John Ford.

(The long scene in the upstairs hallway)

MT It must be easy for an editor when there are long takes like this. Did he ever have a second camera shoot back up?

RW Very rarely.

(The sleigh ride scene)

MT I read that you had to re-record all the sound on this on the roof of an RKO building.

RW This was all shot in a big freezer downtown, a refrigeration plant, real snow. But the sound was no good, it was hollow. So we got the actors on the roof of the recording building at RKO and I was downstairs watching the picture on the screen as they dubbed their lines.

MT Didn’t he have all the actors originally pre-record all their dialogue onto records?

RW When he finished “Kane” I had to fight Orson like hell to get him in to re-record some of his lines. I thought, because of his radio background, he’d be marvelous, and he was. He was a master at it. Well, when it came time to do “Ambersons” he decided to get the whole cast together and record the dialogue and when it came time to shoot the picture he’d have the cast mouth their lines while the record played. Orson was such an extremist. He tried it one morning and it was chaos. But at least he had the advantage of rehearsing the whole picture.

MT I’ve wondered if he liked to go with these long takes because of his theatre background?

RW Not just theatre background. If you have a good scene for the actors to play you don’t need to have a lot of cutting. Normally, you’d shoot some close-ups. He might have shot them and then decided he didn’t need to use them.

MT Now, in this sequence, when George walks to the window , there’s a dissolve. But originally, the scene continued as he runs outside as he realizes apartments are being built on the Amberson lot and starts arguing with Uncle Jack in the rain.
RW I never in all my years heard so many laughs in all the wrong places. Now, this scene in the automobile factory, we were shooting right after Pearl Harbor was attacked.

MT Now, here’s the scene you directed...(George reads his mother’s letter and visits her in the bedroom) and there’s another scene on the porch that was cut .

RW Those porch scenes were long and didn’t really add much.

MT I read that one of the reasons the first preview didn’t play well is because they ran the film after a musical, “The Fleet’s In.”

RW I don’t think that had anything to do with it. There were problems with the film.

MT I also read where the preview cards were something like 72 negative to 53 positive.

RW And those were from the people who stayed! A lot of them had already walked out of the picture by the time it was over. I’ve always maintained that in its original version, “Ambersons” may have been a greater work of art, but we had to get the film so it would hold people’s attention.

(Major Amberson staring into the fireplace contemplating his death)

RW I shot this scene with this old guy. All I had to do was to get him to remember his lines. Orson lined it up and everything, and rehearsed it with him, but he couldn’t remember the dialogue. Orson was standing off camera and whispering the lines to him and finally, he had to go away and do something, line up another shot or something, and he asked me to do the scene. It didn’t take any direction. I just shot it when he finally remembered his lines.

MT It’s one of the most haunted, moving scenes I’ve ever seen. Now, here in the train station scene which you trimmed, I understand there was a shot of George lending Uncle Jack money. I’m surprised you cut that, since it shows the decent side of George and softens his character.

RW They were originally sitting down as I recall...(Looks at still photo in Carringer book) I think we felt that we needed to pick it up and move it along.

MT Where’d they shoot it?

RW On the set. It’s diminished perspective.

MT Now here’s the boiler scene that was re-shot by Jack Moss.

RW I don’t remember Jack Moss shooting anything. I re-shot the one scene and Freddie Fleck did the different ending but I don’t recall Jack Moss ever shooting anything. He was Orson’s business manager, he wasn’t a filmmaker.

MT All I’ve read says Moss re-shot this scene because there was so much audience derision at Moorehead’s hysterics.

RW That was true, she was over the top. And that’s the director’s responsibility to keep the actors from going overboard. And it just wasn’t this scene but all the way through the film. Whenever she’d appear, they’d start laughing and making fun of her.

MT Now, we come to the walk home. I guess there was originally a long P.O.V. tracking shot through the deserted mansion.

RW Yes, there was. I remember, he spent quite a bit of time on it.

MT Now, of course comes the infamous re-shot ending. It’s not fashionable to say so, but I actually think this scene works .

RW So do I.

MT It may not have the same visual style as Welles but the dialogue is straight out of the book, the radio show, and the original ending in the script.

RW Really?

MT That’s what so fascinated me when I read the original ending in the Academy Library and discovered it was almost verbatim to the new ending, Eugene telling Fanny that he’d brought Isabel’s boy “under shelter” and “that at last I’d been true to my own true love.”

RW I’ve always said that “Kane” was the only project where Welles was truly focused. He always had so many things going, when he was doing “Ambersons,” he was doing the Lady Esther radio show, he was producing and acting in “Journey Into Fear”, and the getting ready to go to Rio. He simply had too much else going on. He was as much of a genius as anyone I’ve ever met, but he just didn’t have much self-discipline.

MT Why did RKO destroy the footage?

RW It was standard practice that, after the previews, when you’d come backand take sequences out you’d put them in the vault. About six months after the films were released and if you didn’t need to change the film, they’d sell the footage for the silver. But that was nothing particular with “Ambersons." It was just company practice. All this about how we destroyed and mutilated it is nonsense.

MT I’ve always wondered why there such a strong reaction to this version when it seems so lyrical and poignant.

RW If the film had come out a year before, it would have gotten a completely different reception but at this time people were gearing up to go to war, getting jobs in aircraft factories, the Arsenal of Democracy and people didn’t seem to have the patience to care about the problems of Georgie Amberson. And remember, back then the average picture was 90 minutes, if you had something that went over an hour and a half you were in trouble.

MT Well, like they say, timing is everything.

Cy Endfield had seen the complete 132 minute cut of “Ambersons” and recalled, “It was the best picture I’d ever seen. But I knew it was boring other people.” At one point, Endfield, who would later become a director himself (“Zulu”, “Mysterious Island”) asked Jack Moss, the question that has been asked over and over ever since, “Why doesn’t Orson come back?”

“You want to know why?” replied Moss. According to Endfield, Moss then went over to a Moviola and put on some footage from Brazil featuring exotic Brazilian chorus girls in a nightclub. When he’d visited Welles in Brazil, recounted Moss, Welles had shown him this footage and started bragging, ‘I’ve fucked that one...and that one....and that one.’ He’s not coming back.”

Welles scholar Bill Krohn, who helped reconstruct the unfinished “It’s All True” footage, maintains Welles was on the way to creating a great and revolutionary documentary. Perhaps. But Welles had not finished “Ambersons,” instead he left it in the hands of Jack Moss, a business manager who Welles had enlisted to replace the departed John Houseman, expecting that Moss would obey his wishes and protect "Ambersons" from the Philistines at the studio. In his mind, he was done with "Ambersons" and he was already on to another groundbreaking project. But there was no one with enough clout in the Mercury Company who could protect the film from the savage preview audiences' hostility and so, with the very fate of the studio, or at least his job at the studio, in the balance, the beleagured RKO boss Shaefer began ordering cuts. As Charles Higham put it, Welles was a creative genius “who needed to have his electricity grounded.” He needed a Houseman or some kind of strong parental figure to reign in his excesses, placate the suits, and the handle the more mundane, earth-bound realities such as budgets and jittery studio executives. Welles had accomplished a tremendous amount in the last six years, and was only 26. But, he tempted the fates once too often and now the Boy Genius of radio, stage and Hollywood, had his remarkable streak of good fortune run out and he received his comeuppance. In spades. Only he didn't know it at the time and he still stayed in Rio. Through the years, the question haunts us, “Why didn’t Orson come back?,” why didn't he fight to protect his masterpiece? Or at the very least, why didn’t he hold onto his 35mm print of the 132 minute cut?

Ironically, The Magnificent Ambersons” has come to represent what it was ostensibly about - loss. Loss of a vanished pre-Industrial Garden where men wore stovepipes and used bootjacks and the trolley waited for its patrons, “too slow for us nowadays”, and of vanished cotillion balls. Loss of fortune, loss of love. “Life and money” says Uncle Jack in the train station, “When they’re gone you can’t tell where, or what the devil you did with ‘em!” And for Welles, it was the loss of a sense of invincibility, of a self-confidence that he would never have again after “Ambersons.” Another line of dialogue, cut from the ballroom scene, Uncle Jack utters with a prophetic tone that suggests that Welles himself knew his days of dancing on the edge were coming to a close: “Do you know what I think whenever I see these smooth triumphal young faces? I always think oh, how you’re going to catch it. Oh, yes. Life’s got a special walloping for every mother’s son of them.”

“That Eden people lose...It’s a theme that interests me. A nostalgia for the garden - it’s a recurring theme in all our civilization....Every country has its ‘Merrie England’, a season of innocence, a dew-bright morning of the world....Even if the good old days never existed, the fact that we can conceive of such a world is, in fact, an affirmation of the human spirit. That the imagination of man is capable of creating the myth of a more open, generous time is not a sign of our folly.”

- Orson Welles, “This is Orson Welles”

As Wise points out it was Pearl Harbor, more than anything, that sealed the fate of “Ambersons”. Not only Welles would not have gone to Brazil for the ill-fated documentary, “It’s All True,” but, more importantly, the mood of the country would not have been so altered. But after the attack, a long, slow-paced film that lamented the vanishing of a Golden Age of pre-industrialization was not going to go down with an audience gearing for war. Even close Mercury Theatre associates like Joseph Cotten and Jack Moss were all too aware that the picture didn’t work with audiences. The 132 minute film would have to be trimmed to make it play. RKO studio head George Schaefer’s job was on the line and he knew it. With great fanfare Schaefer had signed Welles, giving him unprecedented final cut, but when “Kane” lost money, “Ambersons” went over budget and with costs on “It’s All True” spiraling out of control, something had to be done. But it was all to no avail, Schaefer still lost his job. And Welles gained a reputation he would never lose, as a director who would abandon his films in the editing room and couldn't finish a movie.

And yet what we is so remarkable, so rich and full of life and wisdom and tragic loss, we must be content with what we have. The 88 minute version of Booth Tarkington’s “The Magnificent Ambersons” adapted and directed by Orson Welles is so full of an achingly lyrical beauty it will forever live in the hearts and memories of those who treasure the cinema’s possibilities. We should be grateful that such a work of art ever allowed to came into existence at all. From the minute the opening scene begins with the shot of the trolley car in front of the Amberson mansion, throughout the ballroom sequence and the heartbreaking beauty of Isabel and Eugene waltzing on the empty dance floor, on through the sleigh ride with its glorious iris fade-out, through the gripping close-up of Major Amberson’s death speech, the long tracking shot of George and Lucy in the buggy, Eugene’s prophetic speech at the dinner table of the passing of a way of life because of the automobile, George’s breakdown in the deserted mansion begging his mother for forgiveness, we are in the presence of greatness, a sublime epiphany of the possibilities of the cinema. Any one of those scenes would guarantee the film a place in history, but to have so many in one film is a cavalcade of riches.

And let us finally put an end to the nonsense that Robert Wise destroyed “The Magnificent Ambersons.” The editor of “Citizen Kane” and future director of several masterpieces of his own did the best he could under extremely difficult circumstances to bring to screen a version would that would work for an audience and remain true to Welles’ vision. We should be grateful that it was a man of Wise’s taste and intelligence who cut “Ambersons”, and not some studio hack and we should also be grateful that many of the cuts suggested by Welles were ignored. So rather than pillory a talented and decent man, we should thank Robert Wise for doing his best to save, not destroy “Ambersons,” to make it play, as his mentor, RKO editor Billy Hamilton taught him. And finally, all glories to the monumental and enduring spirit of George Orson Welles for producing this splendid cathedral of the cinema, a haunting testimony to love’s tragic consequences among the shifting tides of time. Rest easy, dear sir. Your masterpiece endures, you built better than you knew.



Oct. 29
Campbell Playhouse CBS Radio “The Magnificent Ambersons”. Adapted and narrated by Orson Welles, with Walter Huston (Eugene), Nan Sunderland (Isabel), Orson Welles (George), Ray Collins (Uncle Fred) Marion Barnes (Lucy), Bea Benadaret (neighbor).


Oct. 28
Filming begins on “Ambersons” . Welles continues acting in and hosting “The Orson Welles Show” on CBS Radio, he will appear in 11 programs between Nov. 3 and Jan. 19, 1942 and guest on others. He also begins pre-production of “Journey Into Fear.”

Dec. 7
Pearl Harbor is attacked and the following day war is declared on Japan. Welles shoots the car factory scene in “Ambersons.”


Jan. 6
Filming begins of Mercury Productions’ “Journey into Fear.” Welles plays Col. Haki in the film at night while directing “Ambersons” during the day.

Jan. 26
Principal photography on “Ambersons” ends, Welles finishes re-shoots on Jan. 31.

Feb. 1
Welles finishes acting in “Journey into Fear.”

Feb. 2
Welles leaves for Miami where he and Wise record the narration. It is planned that Wise will join Welles with the film in Rio for final work after the rough cut is completed but the government refuses Wise permission to travel abroad during the war.

Feb. 6
Before leaving for South America, Welles cables Moss: “Because of the enormous amount of work Bob Wise has to do on “Ambersons”...I would like you to makeclear to all department heads that his is the final word. He is to have a free hand in ordering prints, dissolves...It boils down to this. I want to know that he won’t be slowed up at any point because his authority is questioned. I dictate this at the airport just before departing. Orson.”

March 10
Wise shoots the bedroom scene as per Welles’ instructions.

March 12
Continuity script documents the complete 132 minute “Ambersons”, though it is questionable whether Welles himself thought of this as the final cut since he has ordered the 12 minute “Big Cut” in the middle of the film.

March 16
Schaefer holds private studio screening of “Ambersons” to gloomy results. Jack Moss walks out saying, “We’ve got a problem.”

March 17
First disastrous “Amberson” preview held at the Fox Theatre in Pomona to derisive laughter and walk outs by many.

March 18
Wise continues editing film for the next preview.

March 19
Second “Ambersons” preview at United Artists Theatre in Pasadena, to a slightly less hostile reaction.

March 20
Schaefer writes Welles, “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 in the business, I have never been present in a theatre where the audience acted in such a manner. ”

March 23
Moss cables Welles about the two previews, “Pomona preview generally unsatisfactory. Pasadena better reception. Following is way picture was previewed Pomona....Drop porch scene, fade in on Eugene and Isabel at tree. Continuity follows as shot up to new scene (bedroom scene directed by Wise) George finds Isabel unconscious. Made your big cut and come to group in hall exterior Isabel’s room...following is way picture previewed at Pasadena. First cut factory scene, second cut first porch scene, third cut bathroom scene. Continuity again as shot. Put back all your big cut except second porch scene...”

March 27
Welles sends cable ordering many deletions, including Eugene and Isabel dancing on the ballroom floor, the iris out of the sleigh ride, the scenebetween George and Uncle Jack in the rain following the extended kitchen scene, and is still ordering the “Big Cut.” Welles agrees to the re-sequencing of Eugene and Lucy in the garden earlier in the film and moving George’s “long walk home” to a later place, right before the accident. The boardinghouse scene to remain uncut.

March 31
Wise cables Welles with preview responses.

April 2
Welles cables more bizarre instructions for revising the closing credits, including Ray Collins seated “on tropical veranda, waiving palm tree behind him - Negro servant serving him second long cool drink....Aggie (Moorehead) blissfully and busily playing bridge with cronies in boarding house...” Aside from violating the spirit of Welles’ own ending, the proposed suggestions - including Anne Baxter and Tim Holt waiving gaily at the camera from a motoring car - were incredibly trite and were, thankfully, ignored.

April 17 -22
Freddie Fleck shoots retakes , including the hospital scene on April 20.

May 4
Third preview in Inglewood.

May 12
Final preview in Long Beach.

May 19
Jack Moss shoots final “Ambersons” retakes (Fanny next to the boiler).

June 8
Schaefer approves “Ambersons” for release.

Late June
Schaefer is removed as head of RKO and replace by Charles Koerner.

July 1
The Mercury Productions staff is ousted from its offices at RKO Studios.

July 10
“The Magnificent Ambersons” is released in Los Angeles as part of a double bill with “Mexican Spitfire Sees a Ghost.”

Aug. 22
Welles returns to the U.S.


“The Magnificent Ambersons” receives four Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress (Agnes Moorehead), Best Cinematography (Stanley Cortez), Best Set Direction. Agnes Moorehead voted Best Actress by the New York Film Critics Circle.

In a Sight & Sound international critics poll, “The Magnificent Ambersons” is voted one of the 10 best films of all time. (“Kane” places first)

c) copyright Michael Thomas


  1. This is without a doubt the best distillation of the "Ambersons" saga ever to be written--much to the chagrin of those preferring to see Welles as a victim of the big studio system and its evil executives. Robert Wise's word is final!

  2. Great insight and a wonderful interview that gives balance to the lost masterpiece theory of The Magnificent Ambersons. Yet author Robert Carringer still makes the claim that Wise ruined the film in the re-edit while ignoring this interview. (As Carringer did again at the Film Forum in NYC, 1-17-2015). I don't agree that Ambersons is a masterpiece. A great film yes, and it most likely wasn't helped by the re-edits and reshoots, but the acting of the lead remains flat. George seems ridiculous at times, especially in the courting scenes where we hope he succeeds yet he comes off trite. How could this film ever be a masterpiece with flawed acting of a lead character. The director was responsible for casting choices. Orson should and could have played the lead. His contract allowed this. Some say he was too old but he was only 26 and he is the master of makeup, yet he somehow chose to make this disastrous directing choice. And Moorhead still gets laughs in the wrong places, as was the case at the Film Forum screening. The film also suffers from sentimentality, which perhaps could have been saved in the original lost version. Of course that was the story but coming right after Citizen Kane, this film felt rather backwards. Kane on the other hand delt with the past with original filmmaking and story telling techniques. Kane is modern, much like Welles's other masterpieces Touch of Evil and especially (the underrated) The Trial.
    Why didn't Welles archive his only print of the 132 minute version when he knew the film was being destroyed by the studio. Surely he could have contacted someone in Brazil who had the print, even well after the fact, but he did not. Perhaps he had a reason for never letting us see this lost version.

    1. wish the great STANLEY CORTEZ were still
      alive to shine a light. He probably could have..