The Memos Part III – Preview in Pomona for Orson Welles’ ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’
By LAWRENCE FRENCH
On March 15 — the ides of March — Welles received the 132 minute rough cut print of THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS in Rio. The next day, Welles had the first inkling that something might be terribly amiss with the film when he received a telegram from Robert Wise. As Wise had noted in his previous letter, he was originally supposed to join Welles in Rio so they could complete the editing of AMBERSONS together, but that plan became unfeasible either due to travel restrictions imposed by the war, or possibly because the studio didn't actually want Welles to have control over the final cut of the film. Meanwhile, after watching the 132 minute rough assembly, George Schaefer ordered several scenes removed from the film for the first public preview to be held in Pomona.
In early March, Welles himself had ordered a drastic cut of about 11 minutes from the film, consisting of most of the scenes pertaining to George and Isabel's trip to Europe. Welles "big cut" eliminated Isabel talking with George about her possible marriage to Eugene, George's objection and Isabel's capitulation, and their decision to go abroad. Instead, Welles substituted a brief new scene that Norman Foster was supposed to shoot (but instead Robert Wise did, on March 10), where after we hear Eugene's voice reading his letter, George would go into Isabel's room and find her unconscious, presumably indicating she had become too ill to even consider Eugene's proposal.
Here are Welles instructions for shooting the new scene to take the place of his big cut:
ORSON WELLES TO JACK MOSS (excerpt):
In Isabel's letter to George, Delores's voice track is horrible, too sibilant. I hope this is temporary.
Here is a new scene for AMBERSONS. Have Norman shoot tonight, and rush to Benny for music.
Delores reading letter from Joe. Tim as before, he starts to burn letter, leaves his room, walks down the hall, knocks on Isabel's door. Pause. Knocks again. Pause. Then dub in Tim saying, 'Mother?'
Now, here is new scene:
Interior Delores bedroom. Make over again from JOURNEY INTO FEAR Hotel Room, but show only the door, part of bed, camera left part of dresser, camera right at post. Tim opens door and heads into a camera close up. Then Tim looks down and falls to his knees, camera staying with him on crane, Delores lying unconscious. Tim grabs her in his arms, in a tight two-shot. Says, 'Mother!'
ROBERT WISE TO ORSON WELLES (excerpt):
March 16, 1942
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 17 THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS was previewed in Pomona, a small town about 30 miles east of Los Angeles at the Fox Theater, after a showing of THE FLEET'S IN, a Paramount musical starring Dorothy Lamour and William Holden. The running time for the film is estimated to have been between 110 minutes and two hours, as both Schaefer and Welles had ordered scenes cut as outlined in the above memos.
Why RKO had picked Pomona to preview the film has to be one of the biggest unanswered questions in the whole sorry story of the AMBERSONS saga. Firstly, Pomona could hardly be considered a town that would be representative of the kind of audience that would want to see a dark and difficult film, but compounding that serious error was showing the film to a audience who had come to see a musical comedy!
Given this set-up, it's rather astounding that most of audience didn't walk out during the showing of AMBERSONS. Of course many people did walk out during the film, to the great alarm of the studio executives present, but who could really blame them? They hadn't come to see a film with "somber music" and "dark and moody photography." They wanted to laugh and have a good time and that was apparently what many of the teenagers in the audience did, as reports indicated people were laughing at several of Aunt Fanny's hysteric scenes and generally restless throughout much of the showing. What is truly amazing, given the make-up of the audience, is that 52 of the 130 comment cards returned were not only positive but quite ecstatic! 17 were mixed, while 61 were bad.
Here is a sampling of the 52 positive comments to the question, "Did you like the Picture or not? Why?"
Yes. The picture is magnificent. The direction, acting, photography, and special effects are the best the cinema has yet offered. It is unfortunate that the American public, as represented at this theatre, are unable to appreciate fine art. it might be, perhaps, criticized for being a bit too long.
Yes. Picture will not be received by the general audience because they as a whole are too darn ignorant.
The picture was a masterpiece with perfect photography, settings and acting. It seemed too deep for the average stupid person. I was disgusted with the way some people received this picture which truly brings art to the picture industry. Each artist is deserving of a great deal of praise.
Exceedingly good picture. Photography rivaled that of superb CITIZEN KANE... To bad audience was so unappreciative.
Yes, I liked it but I feel that it was above the audience. I think it was very depressing and nerve-wracking, but still when I think about it in retrospect, I can see its good points.
I think it was the best picture I have ever seen.
A hell of a good picture. Why do you like any good piece of art? A little hard to say in five lines, isn't it.
Mike Teal has provided a complete list of the audience comments which can be viewed here:
As can be seen from these positive comments, the out of place laughter and other rude antics of the audience was obviously very distracting to those who were prepared to enjoy the film on it's own terms, and quite possibly may have caused audience members who otherwise might have liked the film to view it unfavorably. It's also interesting that the negative comments were not just bad, but brutal in the extreme. It appears most people either loved or hated the picture.
Here are some of the 61 negative comments to the question, "Did you like the Picture or not? Why?":
I did not like it. I could not understand it. Too many plots.
No, I did not care for the picture at all. I don't see why in times of trouble, bloodshed and hate, movie producers have to add to it by making dreary pictures... I wish you producers could see how much more the audience enjoyed THE FLEET'S IN after they had seen the THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS.
No. The worst picture I ever saw.
I did not. People like to laugh, not be bored to death.
No. A horrible distorted dream.
Too many shadows and the scenery was too dark.
No. It's as bad if not worse than CITIZEN KANE.
Only Orson Welles could think up a thing like that.
Too many weird camera shots. It should be shelved as it is a crime to take people's hard earned money for such artistic trash as Mr. Welles would have us think... Mr. Welles had better go back to radio, I hope.
Too dramatic and strained but very artistic in spots...
We do not need trouble pictures, especially now... Make pictures to make us forget, not remember.
Who cares about that junk.
Too much gloom.
The God Damn thing stunk.
It was putrid.
Obviously, getting 61 such responses was highly upsetting to everyone present, from the top RKO executives (George Schaefer and Charles Koerner), to Welles's own artistic collaborators (Robert Wise, Joseph Cotten and Jack Moss). One thing everyone could now agree on, was that the picture had serious problems and it would be extremely difficult to market to a mass audience that was seeking "entertainment" in pictures. But that was never part of George Schaefer's original plan after he took over the studio in 1938, and then signed Orson Welles with such great fanfare. At that point, Schaefer's slogan was "Quality pictures at a premium price." Schaefer's had now produced two extraordinary RKO pictures by Orson Welles, but they were not made "at a premium price." Presumably, Schaefer realized he was now facing his own possible termination (which did indeed occur, in less than three months), unless he could somehow turn THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS into a box office success.
It retrospect, one has to wonder if Schaefer, knowing what his own fate would be if he couldn't make AMBERSONS into a hit, may have purposely picked Pomona, so that the picture would be received poorly and then RKO could step in and "save" the movie. Certainly Schaefer couldn't just tell Welles that he wanted to change the film simply because it was too dark and might not be a hit for the studio. This is of course, complete conjecture, but it certainly makes more sense than blaming the studio's cutting of AMBERSONS on Welles himself, because he left the film "uncompleted" and then "ran off " to South America to make IT'S ALL TRUE!
The day after the preview, Welles cabled George Schaefer, saying he was "Eager to hear reaction to AMBERSONS preview," but his first indication of how badly the Pomona preview had gone came to him from his manager, Jack Moss.
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.
Only one 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 asked RKO's attorney Ross Hastings about the legality of making further cuts, since on Welles previous film, CITIZEN KANE he had complete control over the final print. 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.