The Memos Part II- ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’ memos to and from Orson Wellesm Orson Welles
By LAWRENCE FRENCH
In early March, Joseph Breen, RKO’s head of production under George Schaefer left for Mexico on a vacation, leaving one of Welles key supporters absent during the panic that gripped the studio after RKO held the first previews for THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS.
RKO executive Charles Koerner assumed Breen’s duties, supposedly on a temporary basis, but as can be seen, one of the first things Koerner did as the “temporary head of the studio” was to write a memo to RKO executives making sure that no commitments were made with Welles or Mercury without his explicit permission. In retrospect, it seems likely that Koerner knew George Schaefer was on his way out as the head of RKO, and since Koerner was in a position to take over, it's clear he didn't want to be tied down with Orson Welles and his expensive and “artistic pictures."
As we now know, Koerner did indeed become the permanent boss of RKO’s studio operations after Joseph Breen returned to his old job at the Hays Office on May 17. The office politics behind all this might provide for a script worthy of the Borgia's, as it seems quite probable that Koerner was after George Schaefer's job, even while he was ostensibly still working under his authority. Since Breen essentially left RKO in March, Phil Reisman and George Schaefer were now two of Welles’s dwindling allies at the studio. Charles Koerner and most of the other RKO executives, such as Reginald Armour and Walter Daniels, were openly hostile to Welles and were beginning to investigate how they could end Welles contract with RKO and cut their losses on the three pictures he was still involved with, even to the point of leaving IT'S ALL TRUE unfinished, despite RKO having already invested nearly $500,000. in making it!
CHARLES KOERNER TO RKO EXECUTIVES (excerpt):
March 12, 1942
…With respect to Orson Welles or Mercury Productions in which we are interested, please make sure that no commitments of any nature whatsoever are entered into without first checking with me…
Three days before George Schaefer ordered the infamous preview in Pomona, Robert Wise sent this memo to Welles in Rio concerning the typical tightening up and fine tuning that still needed to be done on AMBERSONS. At this point, as far as Welles knew, everything was still going smoothly, since the movie had been well received by RKO's top executives, the 132 minute rough cut had been shipped to Rio, and Robert Wise was planning to leave and join Welles in Rio to work on the final editing. It seems clear from this memo, that even if there had been no bad previews, Welles and Wise would have probably trimmed THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS to a running time of under two hours, but of course Welles never got the chance to work directly with Wise on his own final cut.
ROBERT WISE TO ORSON WELLES
March 14, 1942
I am sending this letter in the event the picture gets to you before I arrive. The film was shipped Wednesday nite, the 11th, and I was prepared to leave myself, but due to the present situation passage could not be arranged. I understand that it may be a matter of 3 to 10 days before I can leave.
In any event, I am quite anxious to be off, and the studio is working very hard to arrange it. Since we have sent you not only the complete picture, but some alternates as well, and also since the re-recording was done in great haste and we have many things to fix in that, I will go through the show, reel by reel and tell you our plans and ideas:
1. Make slower fade in on the opening shot of the house.
2. The vignettes were rushed thru and we still need a lot of work on them. They should start a little heavier and be lighter near the end. Also they have to be juggled individually so that we do not lose them in the nite scenes. We are also making a test on a white vignette which will be sent down.
3. Plan to blow up a shot of Major with hat and move back a little as he turns in to camera.
4. Your narration seems a bit low at start of reel. That will be raised in new R.R. (re-recording).
5. We also will clean up the steam-car a little in our redub.
1. You will find the C.U. of the Major at punch bowl in the alternates. The shot did not turn out well, and when cut into the picture, spoiled the whole flow of the party, so I did not use it. We consider this reel O.K. as it stands. Do you like "The Beautiful Ohio" waltz?
This reel we consider O.K. except for changing George's speech from "Most girls of sixteen are pretty bum dancers" to "Most girls of sixteen are pretty bad dancers." This at the request of our Foreign Dept.
Jack (Moss) feels that the scene in the bedroom where George gets his "come-uppance" is definitely a curtain and should come as late as possible in the picture. He also feels that this scene will have greater feeling if it comes after a greater accumulation of trouble for George. He also likes the idea of the girl appearing on the screen immediately after George gets his "come-uppance."
Jack would also like to lose the accident scene for a reason that I know has been brought up before. That is, it is a definite jar for George to say "riff-raff after he has supposedly received his "come-uppance." Jack is not particularly fond of the scene as a whole anyway, and would like to cover this by lapping to the first part of one of your other angles of the accident where we see only stretcher being put into ambulance and lap on through to inserts. This to be covered by sounds and music.
The picture as it now stands is 2 hours and 11 minutes long, and I feel very definitely that we must get some footage out of it. I would like to cut three scenes – the factory and the two porch scenes. This would take out almost 11 minutes and bring the show down to just over two hours.
This cut would make perfect continuity and would not lose any story for us. The scenes we are losing are both darn good scenes, but it is going to be a matter of sacrifice wherever we lose footage and I feel that the footage in this part of the picture makes all of our later and more important scenes seem much longer. You will find in the alternates, film that we have made up to make this cut in the picture.
Jack agrees with these three cuts and in addition has other cuts and retakes he feels would help the show. One is to drop the bathroom scene between George and Jack and fade out on Mrs. Johnson's house. He feels that all the points in the bathroom scene are brought out in other scenes and that it would be better continuity to go from Mrs. Johnson's to George unwrapping the picture and turning Eugene away at the door.
Jack was quite bothered by Isabel's walk during the first part of Eugene's letter to her. He didn't mind it after she had sat down and the last walk up to the camera was all right, but the first part he felt was stagey and awkward. He suggested playing the first part of the letter over some shots of the inside of the house and then lapping to Isabel seated. You will find a rushed version of this among your alternates but we are making a new one with all the pauses shortened in the letter and with Eugene's voice reverberated to try and give an effect to it. I certainly agree that Isabel's first walk is bad, but I am not sure that this is the remedy. Have you any other ideas?
As I have said earlier in the letter, we have made and are sending to you the scene you requested of Isabel unconscious on the floor. However, both Jack and I feel that the cuts you propose to make using this scene are entirely too drastic and are sure that once you see the picture you will wholeheartedly agree with us. It is true that we need footage out of the show but not to the extent that we must definitely hurt the picture to make it shorter, for that is what we feel you will be doing in making such cuts.
If you are proposing the cuts for any other reason then footage, we cannot help but feel that you have been ill-advised as to the quality of the show and cannot too strongly urge you to reconsider these cuts.
All of us up here feel very definitely that you have a very fine picture and that you needn't sacrifice it for any reason.
This pretty well covers all our points at present on the show. I know that this is an extremely unsatisfactory way to work and that you must have a thousand and one questions you would like to have answered. I can assure you I am waiting with great impatience to be off and can only hope that I arrive not too long after the film and this letter. In the meantime we are going right ahead with all the work that does not require an answer from you.
I have seen "Journey Into Fear" a couple of times and am very pleased with it. The finish wasn't completed when I saw it, but now is and I am going to run the complete show with Mark (Robson) tonight.
I have seen the color tests on your South American film and it looks fine. Talked to the Technicolor people and they are pleased with their end of it and say the negative is all very good.
Hope to practically beat this to you.
P.S. We need trailer material desperately.