The Memos – Orson Welles’ ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’ turns 70: Triumph or Tragedy?
By LAWRENCE FRENCH
I was trapped down there (in Brazil), I couldn't leave, and all I kept getting were those terrible signals about this awful movie I made. My own chums were running frightened — not just RKO... Even those people who truly had my interests at heart felt that I'd gone too far. I didn't believe I had and I still don't... They got so spooked because of a bad preview, and there had been no preview of CITIZEN KANE. Think what would have happened to KANE if there had been one... On Pomona on Saturday night—you can imagine what would have happened!
— Orson Welles to Peter Bogdanovich, THIS IS ORSON WELLES
This critical introduction is likely to be controversial. THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS has traditionally been considered a prime instance of the Hollywood system's total disdain for mature artistry and its unrelenting commitment to its destruction. To the contrary, I argue that Welles himself must bear the ultimate responsibility for the film's undoing. While it is undeniable that George Schaefer's decision to re-cut THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS was primarily a business judgment, I believe it was a string of questionable judgments and rash actions on Welles's part that predisposed this outcome.
—Robert L. Carringer, THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS: A RECONSTRUCTION
To celebrate the 70th anniversary of THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, Wellesnet will be posting many of the fascinating memos sent to and from Orson Welles while he was in Brazil working on his third film for RKO, IT'S ALL TRUE. Like AMBERSON'S itself, it's quite a sad story and one that could probably be turned into a very entertaining movie. Just imagine Christian McKay playing Orson Welles on location in Rio, shooting the Carnival, while the panic-stricken President of RKO tries to please his corporate masters in New York, and deal with both internal office politics and a series of bad previews for a film he himself had approved and said was "chock full of heart throbs, heartaches and human interest."
To begin part one of our story, we flashback to May, 1941 when Welles first proposed making THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS as his second film to George Schaefer, the President of RKO and then continue on until March, 1942. From there, I will be posting the significant memos on the actual day they were sent some 70 years ago, until THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS actually opened in Los Angeles, in July, 1942.
May, 1941 After the sensational critical reception CITIZEN KANE received during it's New York opening, Welles proposes for his next film an adaptation of Booth Tarkington's THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS and plays a recording of his 1939 radio show of THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS to RKO President George Schaefer.
July 23, 1941: MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS AND JOURNEY INTO FEAR TO BE MADE BY ORSON WELLES FOR RKO
By Douglas W. Churchill – The New York Times
After several weeks of conferences RKO and Orson Welles today announced the program for the actor-writer-producer-director for the new season.
All conflict between Welles and the studio has been ironed out by Joseph L Breen, new head of production, and Welles will begin preparation immediately of the first screen story, Booth Tarkington’s novel of American transition, “The Magnificent Ambersons," which will go before the cameras in September. It will be followed by "Journey Into Fear," an Eric Ambler novel which Ben Hecht has adapted to the screen.
Michele Morgan, RKO's French import, had been announced for the latter picture, but the Welles office said that he will discard the RKO plans for the production and start afresh. Welles third venture will be "It's All True," a photoplay about which no information was divulged. Mystery also surrounded the nature of Welles connection with each project; which he will appear in and which he will direct was not disclosed.
His office announced, however, that negotiations had been resumed with the Mexican government for permission for the producer-writer to make a picture there with Dolores Del Rio. Mexico previously had banned the film.
July, 1941 Duke Ellington's Jump for Joy opens at Mayan Theatre, Los Angeles. Reports of Ellington in a deal with Orson Welles for The Story of Jazz project make news.
July 29, 1941 IT'S ALL TRUE is registered by Welles as title for omnibus film incorporating The Story of Jazz, My Friend Bonito, John Fante’s Love Story and Robert Flaherty’s The Captain’s Chair.
July, 1941 George Schaefer gives Welles a green light to write a script for THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, but under a new revised contract agreement that takes away the nearly complete control Welles enjoyed on CITIZEN KANE. This revised agreement is reached by Welles business manager, Jack Moss and his Los Angeles attorney, Loyd Wright, which Welles signs reluctantly. Welles's expert New York attorney, L. Arnold Weissberger points out the serious mistakes Jack Moss had made in a letter he will write to Welles over a year later, after AMBERSONS has been cut down to 88 minutes and Welles contract with RKO has been terminated.
L. ARNOLD WEISSBERGER TO ORSON WELLES (excerpts):
September 16, 1942
The deal that I worked out with Schaefer... provided that you were to get everything that the KANE contract gave you and in addition an autonomy to an extent of your not having to find your work impeded by RKO red tape... This picture was entirely upset, as Schaefer himself has told me, when (Jack) Moss's injection into the scene antagonized him and made him wary about granting you the terms which he had theretofore been willing to grant.
I knew that the most important thing was the artistic integrity of your work, and I saw to it that the (revised) contract gave you complete protection. (The negotiated fees were): $100,000 for acting in a picture, $100,000 for directing a picture, $50,000 for writing a picture, and $3,500 a week synchronously for producing the pictures.
…the fourth (extension), which I was negotiating when I left California, (Lloyd) Wright refused to sign, although it was presented to him by RKO. The result was that when the time expired... you were in default. RKO could, by waiving your default, hold you to the contract, but you could not hold RKO to the contract. If the extension had been signed, so that there was no default, and RKO wanted to get rid of you, it would have had to buy up your contract.
I have written to Moss and Wright on ten different occasions in the previous nine months trying to deal with the problem (of delinquent taxes) but Moss has ignored me… My complaint against Moss is that he preferred to endanger your tax affairs rather that consider the question of the fees… Instead, he has just abandoned the whole thing, regardless of the seriousness of the tax situations, leaving you to face the music.
The fact that I am the only person who will advise you in your own interests and that I am, as Moss undoubtedly realizes, fully aware of all the boners that have been pulled, is reason enough for him to wish to sabotage me… I might speak less emphatically in this respect were it not for the fact that in my six years of service for you, my record – whether with respect to negotiating deals, preparing contracts, saving you taxes, or paying your bills, has been pretty near perfect.
August 14, 1941 ORSON WELLES WILL APPEAR IN JOURNEY INTO FEAR—LEAD ROLE FOR JOSEPH COTTEN
The New York Times
Orson Welles next screen appearance will be in “Journey Into Fear,” with Michele Morgan at RKO, it was learned today. What type of role Welles will play was not disclosed, but Cotten has been named for the lead, and it is understood that the producer-actor-director will be seen in a character part.
Cotten will also have a leading role in Booth Tarkington’s “The Magnificent Ambersons” which will precede “Journey Into Fear” on Welles’s program. Welles will direct both pictures, and they will be filmed in immediate sequence, with “The Magnificent Ambersons” scheduled to start on Sept 16. The producer has acquired another property, “Love Story” by John Fante and Norman Foster, for probable Spring production.
August 15, 1941 An estimating script for THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS places the budget at $987,000. George Schaefer tells Welles that the high cost of the film has to be reduced.
September 4, 1941 Welles joins Norman Foster in Mexico to scout locations for My Friend Bonito, which Foster is to direct from a Robert Flaherty story.
October 7, 1941 The final shooting script for THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS brings the estimated cost of the film down to $854,000. Schaefer is still displeased, but he approves the film for production. Orson Welles begins extensive rehearsals with his cast prior to the start of shooting.
October 28, 1942 The first day of shooting on THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS.
November 6, 1941 GENIUS UNDER STRESS - Spending RKO’s Money Worries Orson Welles
By Thomas Brady - The New York Times
Orson Welles declared openly the other day that his second venture as the cinema's universal genius, "The Magnificent Ambersons" which he adapted in nine days from Booth Tarkington’s novel and is producing, directing and narrating for RKO, has him worried. "Gargantus," he says, "is only good for a one-night stand.
He will not appear in the film but his voice will be heard in a commentary, which begins and ends the picture and introduces every sequence. The visible members of the cast are Dolores Costello as Isabel Amberson, Joseph Cotten as Eugene Morgan, Tim Holt as George Amberson, Richard Bennett as Major Amberson, Anne Baxter as Lucy Morgan, Agnes Moorehead as Aunt Fanny Minafer, Ray Collins as Uncle George Minafer, and J. Louis Johnson as Sam, the butler.
Unlike “Kane” “Ambersons” will be a normal, sequential picture without startling innovations, according to Welles. The scenario. He says, adheres closely to the novel, presenting the baroque mushrooming of mid western life at the turn of the century.
Soon after he began “The Magnificent Ambersons,” Welles startled his company with the vehement statement that "time is money." He explained later that he was troubled because he is making the picture with RKO’s funds and working for the company on a salary. Though RKO paid for "Citizen Kane" too, Welles worked for a percentage of the profits, and so he felt as if he were spending his own money. He insists, however, that he has always been a cautious man financially. He even devoted his dally epigram to the subject. "David O. Selznick,” he said, "talks about money and worries about art; I talk about art and worry about money."
A contract adjustment made by RKO last summer is the reason Welles is working as a hired hand. Soon after his arrival in Hollywood two years ago, the producer-director-writer-actor agreed, as a gesture, to do a free picture for the company. An older and wiser man when the time came to fulfill the contract, he threatened not to make any picture at all. RKO compromised on a moratorium on the old deal, during which Welles would do two pictures as an employee of the studio—the first to be "Ambersons" and the second “Journey Into Fear." Welles will not disclose his salary, but says he is being underpaid. After "Journey" RKO will gets it’s free picture, which will be "It’s All True," a group of factual incidents combined in a feature (as the short subjects are) too long for double bills. Then Welles will make Joseph Conrad’s "Heart of Darkness," his favorite project, on the same basis as "Citizen Kane"—a guarantee of $150,000 against 25 per cent of the profits.
After a month of shooting, the top RKO executives viewed a rough assembly of footage from AMBERSONS and gave Welles these enthusiastic responses:
PHIL REISMAN TO ORSON WELLES:
(RKO Vice-President and Foreign Manager)
December 2, 1941
This picture will be one of the outstanding pictures of the year... produced with an intelligence that only a few people in show business are gifted with. I am certain that it will be a commercial success.
JOESPH BREEN TO ORSON WELLES:
(RKO Head of Production)
December 2, 1941
...Hastened to thank you, to congratulate you, and to tell you that I have not been so impressed for years... The material we saw was really excellent and although you know me to be a chronic kicker, in this instance I have naught but praise–from my heart.
God love you,
GEORGE SCHAEFER TO ORSON WELLES:
December 3, 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,
Unfortunately, only a few days after these memos of high praise, Pearl Harbor was attacked and the United States was drawn into World War II. Welles was only halfway through directing AMBERSONS when RKO stockholder Nelson Rockefeller approached him about going to Brazil on a good will mission for the government. John Hay Whitney, the director of the office for the coordination of Inter-American Affairs (OCIAA) then sent this official telegram to Orson Welles.
JOHN HAY WHITNEY TO ORSON WELLES:
December 10, 1941
WE UNDERSTAND YOU ARE WILLING AND MAY BE ABLE TO UNDER TAKE TRIP TO BRAZIL WHERE YOU WOULD PRODUCE MOTION PICTURES IN COOPERATION WITH BRAZILIAN GOVERNMENT. IF THIS CAN BE ARRANGED IT WILL BE ENORMOUSLY HELPFUL TO THE PROGRAM OF THIS OFFICE AND ENERGETICALLY SUPPORTED BY IT. WE HAVE ALREADY RECEIVED EXPRESSIONS ENTHUSIASTIC APPROVAL FROM RIO. PERSONALLY BELIEVE YOU WOULD MAKE GREAT CONTRIBUTION TO HEMISPHERIC SOLIDARITY WITH THIS PROJECT.
JOHN HAY WHITNEY
Only a day later, on December 11, Welles agreed to go to Brazil to make a movie and act as a goodwill ambassador which would help to strengthen relations between the America's. This meant the schedule for all of Welles's film projects would need to be altered. In order to shoot the Mardi Gras celebrations in Rio that would take place from February 14 to 17, Welles would have to leave immediately after the completion of shooting on AMBERSONS. This was to be a serious mistake for two reasons: First, it left THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS in a unfinished state, which was to prove disastrous when the film was badly received by preview audiences, and secondly, it gave Welles very little time for any pre-production planning before he would start shooting on IT'S ALL TRUE.
January 6 1942 JOURNEY INTO FEAR begins production — Norman Foster to direct, having been called back in mid-December from shooting My Friend Bonito in Mexico.
January 22, 1942 Twelve "IAT" crew members of first unit—with 4,500 Ibs. of Technicolor equipment—fly to Rio via Pan American Clipper; arrive on January 27.
January 31, 1942 Orson Welles' final day shooting on THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS.
February 1, 1942 Welles wraps role of Colonel Haki in JOURNEY INTO FEAR and bids farewell to his Lady Esther radio show audience that night before flying to Washington D. C.
February 2, 1942 Welles arrives in Washington for briefing by Nelson Rockefeller and John Hay Whitney, the heads of the Office of Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs (OCIAA).
ORSON WELLES STATEMENTS:
We have pretty well in mind what we are going to do in Brazil. And we also know that we are going on from there to other Latin American countries. My definite plan is to attempt a movie for all the people of all the Americas. It will be a polyglot movie, by which I mean we are designing it to be completely understandable, no matter what the language of the audience. Some of it will be silent, part will be in color, but we intend to make it so that it can play in its original state in all of the Americas.
THE LADY ESTHER RADIO SHOW:
February, 1 1942
This is the last time for some while I'll be speaking to you from the United States. Tomorrow night the Mercury Theater starts for South America. The reason, put more or less, officially, is that I've been asked by the office of the coordinator of Inter-American affairs to do a motion picture especially for Americans in all the Americas, a movie which, in its particular way, might strengthen the good relations now binding the continents of the Western Hemisphere. Put much less officially, the Mercury's going down there to get acquainted. We the people of these United Nations of America now stand together: We're going to have to know each other better than we do. My job--the Mercury's job--is to help with the introductions. And now it's time for good byes.
As always, we remain obediently yours.
February 4, 1942 Orson Welles and Robert Wise arrive in Miami to work on the rough cut of THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS at the Fleischer cartoon studio.
With only two days to work on AMBERSONS before leaving for Rio with Phil Reisman, Welles sends this telegram to Jack Moss giving Robert Wise total authority in his absence.
ORSON WELLES TO JACK MOSS:
February 6, 1942
Because of the enormous amount of work Bob Wise has to do on AMBERSONS, because of the necessity of speed and of some central authority, I would like you to make clear to all department heads that his is the final word. He is to have a free hand in ordering prints, dissolves, further work from Verne Walker, and anything else of a similar nature. 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.
February 8, 1942 Welles and Reisman arrive in Rio for start of production on IT'S ALL TRUE.
February 9, 1942 Welles begins tests for the Carnival shooting on locations in and around Rio. The lighting equipment does not arrive from the U.S. until early March. The same day, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominates RKO's production of CITIZEN KANE in nine categories—including four nominations for Welles—as best director, writer, actor and producer. George Schaefer is pleased, despite CITIZEN KANE's disappointing take at the box-office.
February 20, 1942 Welles writes to Schaefer with his idea to hold the world premiere of AMBERSONS in Buenos Aires, saying the "resultant international publicity will be enormous."
February 26, 1942 Orson Welles wins an Oscar. CITIZEN KANE wins only one out of the nine Oscars it was nominated for, Best Original Screenplay. It was shared by Welles and his co-author, Herman J. Mankiewicz. It would be the first and only time Welles was ever to receive a competitive Academy Award.
February 27, 1942 George Schaefer wires Welles telling him he wants a final print of AMBERSONS ready for a New York opening at Radio City Music Hall on April 3 for the Easter holiday. “Please... Do everything to make this possible.”
ORSON WELLES TO JACK MOSS:
February 28, 1942
Please start running AMBERSONS nightly and taking active production charge. Get in Norman, Jo, Dolores for jury as many times as possible. Every opinion must be covered by an alternate. You have been away from AMBERSONS long enough to be fresh and you know I trust you completely.
Part II resumes on the ides of March — when Orson Welles receives the legendary 132-minute rough cut print of THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS in Rio...
Could that print still be somewhere in South America?
If it were found, would Warner Bros. pay $1 million to get it, as someone nearly paid for an Oscar Statue for CITIZEN KANE? I seriously doubt it... In fact, after Gary Graver's fiasco with the Oscar Orson Welles actually gave to him... if I were a collector with the uncut print of AMBERSONS, I would certainly never let Warner Bros. know that I had it!