The Honorable Box Office Failure of Orson Welles’s THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS
Even after RKO drastically cut THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, I would have to say that based on the impressive ads I've recently come across, AMBERSONS actually must have had quite a bit of effort placed behind its initial release. This two-page trade ad certainly attests that RKO had quite a marketing campaign lined up for the film.
There's also the fact that even in it's truncated version, THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS received many excellent reviews and eventually was nominated for four Academy Awards:
Best Picture - Orson Welles
Best Supporting Actress - Agnes Moorehead
Best Cinematography - Stanley Cortez
Best Art Decoration - Mark Lee Kirk
The nominations for AMBERSONS were certainly no easy task for a film that was released in July of the awards year, especially if the film had been "dumped" by RKO.
However, it is widely perceived that AMBERSONS was orphaned by it's studio, partially because Welles was fired at the time of the pictures release by Charles Koerner and because the studios new motto, "Showmanship in place of genius" was a clearly meant as a slap in Welles face.
However, at least initially, RKO gave AMBERSONS an impressive campaign, with full page ads appearing in many national publications, such as LIFE, LOOK and GOOD HOUSEKEEPING. According to Joseph McBride, AMBERSONS box-office returns for major cities also boded very well for the films prospects when it opened in July, 1942. "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." (taken from reports in VARIETY).
Yet most accounts on the release of AMBERSONS follow the the short and sweet version similar to the one David Kamp describes in his VANITY FAIR article:
"...The Koerner regime, lacking any confidence in The Magnificent Ambersons, opened it without fanfare in two theaters in Los Angeles, on a double bill with the Lupe Velez comedy Mexican Spitfire Sees a Ghost."
That AMBERSONS opened on a double-bill with MEXICAN SPITFIRE SEES A GHOST was actually standard practice in 1942, so it in no way indicates that RKO was dumping the picture, which seems to be the implication. AMBERSONS was the A-picture and SPITFIRE was the B-picture. Just as CASABLANCA played with a B-picture when it opened (and initially didn't do that well, either.) SPITFIRE isn't even mentioned in the full pages ads RKO took out promoting AMBERSONS release at the Pantages and RKO Hillstreet theatres in Los Angeles.
However, RKO may have pulled the plug just a bit too quickly when AMBERSONS didn't perform as well as they would have liked, although it still apparently grossed over $500,000, which means it did fairly well for 1942 (during the start of WWII) and it could hardly make even that much money if it had been dumped on the market. The movie was always going to be a difficult sell and had it been made for it's original budget of $850,000 it might even have had a chance of breaking even!
It's also important to realize that at the time, no RKO film costing over $1,000,000 (such as THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME) had made a profit for the studio. In short, THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS actually had quite an honorable release, especially compared to later Welles's films such as OTHELLO, CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT and MR. ARKADIN. Those independent Welles's productions really were movies that got "dumped" on the market.