The Memos Part IV – George Schaefer to Orson Welles: ‘Never have I taken so much punishment as I did at Pomona’
By LAWRENCE FRENCH
On March 19, only two day after the Pomona fiasco, RKO held another preview at the United Artists Theatre in Pasadena. This time the film was shown after the Warner Bros. James Cagney film (in Technicolor), CAPTAINS OF THE CLOUDS. For this showing the film was re-edited to a running time of approximately 117 minutes, restoring most of the big cut Welles had ordered, but with both porch scenes and the factory still eliminated. The film was much better received in Pasadena, and in fact 79 out of the 95 comment cards returned were not only positive, but quite glowing about the film. Only 16 cards were unfavorable, with 5 mixed. However it seems as if nothing could change the memory of the bad Pomona preview in Schaefer's mind, and he was determined to shorten the film and remove "the somber music" so it would play better with young audiences, as he pointedly tells Welles in this letter.
GEORGE SCHAEFER TO ORSON WELLES:
March 21, 1942 PERSONAL-CONFIDENTIAL
I did not want to cable you with respect to THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS as indicated in your cable of the 18th, only because I wanted to write you under confidential cover.
Of course, when you ask me for my reaction, I know you want it straight, and though it is difficult to write you this way, you should hear from me.
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 I the business, I have never been present in a theater where the audience acted in such a manner. They laughed at the wrong places, talked at the picture, kidded it, and did everything that you can possibly imagine.
I don't have to tell you how I suffered, especially in the realization that we have over $1,000,000. tied up. It was just like getting one sock in the jaw after another for over two hours.
The picture was too slow, heavy, and topped off with somber music, never did register. It all started off well, but just went to pieces.
I am sending you copies of all the preview cards received to date. They speak for themselves and do not tell the whole story because only a small percentage of people make out cards. I queried many of those present and they all seemed to feel that the party who made the picture was trying to be "arty," was out for camera angles, lights and shadows, and as a matter of fact, one remarked that "the man who made that picture was camera crazy." Mind you, these are not my opinions—I am giving them to you just as I received them.
The punishment was not sufficient, and as I believed in the picture more than the people did, I hiked myself to Pasadena again last night, feeling sure that we would get a better reaction. We did, but not, of course, in its entirety. There were many spots where we got the same reaction as we did in Pomona. I think cutting will help considerably, but there is no doubt in my mind but that the people at Pasadena also thought it was slow and heavy. The somber musical score does not help.
While, of course, the reaction at Pasadena was better than Pomona, we still have a problem. In Pomona we played to the younger element. It is the younger element who contribute the biggest part of the revenue. If you cannot satisfy that group, you just cannot bail yourself out with a $1,000,000. investment—all of which, Orson, is very disturbing to say the least.
In all our initial discussions, you stressed low costs, making pictures at $300,000. to $500,000. We will not make a dollar on CITIZEN KANE and present indications are that we will not break even. The final results on AMBERSONS is still to be told, but it looks "red."
All of which reminds me of only one thing—that we must have a "heart to heart" talk. Orson Welles has got to do something commercial. We have got to get away from "arty" pictures and get back to earth. Educating the people is expensive, and your next picture must be made for the box-office.
God knows you have all the talent and the ability for writing, producing directing—everything in CITIZEN KANE and AMBERSONS confirms that. We should apply all that talent and effort in the right direction and make a picture on which "we can get well."
That's the story, Orson, and I feel very miserable to have to write you this.
My very best as always,
Internal RKO memo from Charles Koerner to RKO attorney Ross Hastings:
March 21, 1942
...Please see me Monday regarding the Orson Welles deal...
Reading Schaefer's letter today, it clearly isn't a fair and balanced picture of both previews, since a minority of the people in Ponoma actually thought the film was quite brilliant, and Schaefer makes no mention of talking to them, or considering their viewpoint, which presumably was his own—at least before the Pomona preview. After all, he was the man who approved the project in the first place, after reading Welles's very long script! Schaefer also seemed unwilling to fully acknowledge the highly favorable response the film got in Pasadena from the people who answered the comment cards.
Here is a sampling of the 79 positive comments to the question, "Did you like the Picture or not? Why?"
Wonderful. Much Better than CITIZEN KANE. Orson Welles is a genius.
Definitely 10 times better than CITIZEN KANE.
Orson Welles is the most tremendous director of the day. This is by far one of the finest pictures I have ever seen.
Magnificent direction. Outstanding performances, especially aunt, son, Eugene, grandfather, mother. Photography excellent, snow scenes like Currier & Ives.
Perfect. CITIZEN KANE was marvelous. This preview cannot be praised too highly. Depressing but better than any propaganda picture.
Yes, it portrayed realistically and faithfully a marvelous study in adolescent psychology, maternal complex and social maladjustment. The setting accurately portrayed the scenes of my own childhood and I saw some of my unlovely relatives... the entire cast was well chosen. Music so subordinated that it never jarred. The picture is a triumph for Mr. Welles, but its subject and subtleties will go over the heads of that vast populace whose mental capacity is restricted to Mickey Mouse and Pluto.
Superb. Won't be appreciated by majority but the rest of the world will profit.
Simply tops in entertainment. Absolutely perfect in historical setting of that other day, causing nostalgia which anyone over 30 will like and enjoy.
No word at my command can express the emotion that this story has aroused in me.
Mike Teal has provided a complete list of the audience comments which can be viewed here:
One can only wonder if the same kind of panic that gripped Schaefer would have happened if the film had been previewed in Pasadena first, to these rapturous comments, followed by Pomona. In any event, it seems that Schaefer was now determined to change the film, and to this end he began consulting with Robert Wise, Joseph Cotten and Welles's business manager, Jack Moss, to determine how to best shorten and "fix" THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS.
Even before the first previews, Jack Moss had come up with several ideas of his own on how to "improve" the film and with Welles absent from Hollywood, he used his position to take charge and put many of his ideas into effect, sending Welles the following detailed cable which suggested the numerous cuts that he, Robert Wise and Joseph Cotten all felt would help the film play better for audiences.
JACK MOSS TO ORSON WELLES (edited for clarity):
March 23, 1942
As cabled Pomona preview generally unsatisfactory. Pasadena preview had better reception.
Following is the way the picture was previewed in Pomona:
Continuity the same as the way picture was shot until the end of carriage scene with Jack and Major. Fade out there. Drop porch scene, fade in on Eugene and Isabel at tree. Continuity follows as shot, up to the new scene (where George finds Isabel unconscious in her bedroom). Made your big cut and come to a group in hall exterior of Isabel's room. Continuity again as shot, up until the Indian Legend (scene with Cotten and Baxter) and accident scene - both dropped. Fade in on accident insert (newspaper story). Continue to end as shot.
Following is the way the picture was previewed at Pasadena:
First cut, the factory scene. Second cut, the first porch scene. Third cut, bathroom scene with Jack and George. Continuity again as shot. Put back all of your big cut, except Major and Fanny in second porch scene. Continuity as shot, to the end of railroad station, Jack's goodbye scene. Followed by Fanny's boiler scene, Bronson's office, George's walk home, Indian legend, accident. Lap out on accident, omitting the line "riff raff." Lap from newspapers to Eugene exiting hospital, to process shot where Eugene says, "take me to Miss Minafers," then to boarding house. Boarding house cut down. Put the line "that's the end of the story," under a fade out on matte shot of street.
Schaefer and his associates advocate many drastic cuts, mainly for purposes of shortening length. Bob Wise, Joe Cotten and myself have conferred analyzing audience reactions and exercising our best judgment we believe the following suggested continuity would remove slow spots and bring out the heart qualities of the picture.
Switch continuity in the opening reel from “The faster we're carried, the less time we have to spare” to “during the earlier years of this period.” Play down to “They could not spend money either upon art or upon mere luxury and entertainment, without a sense of sin.” Cut back to “In those days we had time for everything.” Play through Eugene falling on bass viol, lap to “Magnificence of the Ambersons conspicuous as a brass band.” Cut from “Stationary washstands in every last Bedroom in the place” speech, to Eugene at front door.
Reason for foregoing is to keep the fall through the bass viol and Eugene turned away closer together. Cut the last two speeches of sewing circle. Continuity through to George on his horsecart after “But George returned with the same stuffing.” Lap to nite snow shot “When George came home from the holidays in his sophomore year” losing the FOTA club scene.
Continuity through to end of “The family likes to have someone in Congress,” then lap to all the boys saying “hello” to Lucy. Play through to the point where George is on the stairs with Lucy, says “Yes, mother, very much. Will you please excuse us.” Lap to group walking in to the punch bowl. Major says “eggnog anybody?” Play through to end when Lucy says, “thanks about letting my name be Lucy.” Cut from this to Eugene saying to Jack, “goodbye, I've got this dance with her.”
Continuity continues to fade out on ball scene. Fade in on snow sequence. Drop stable scene (of Lucy and Eugene after the Ball). Snow sequence plays through to closeup of Lucy singing after George says “how about that kiss.” From her closeup, cut to a longshot and Iris out. After tombstone go to factory. Drop diploma and kitchen scene. From interior factory scene, lap to Gene and Isabel at tree. Fade out on this. Drop Major and Jack in carriage. Fade in on dining room.
Continuity again as shot. Drop bathroom scene (George and Jack). Cut from George coming in with packages to Eugene arriving. Play through to fade out. Fanny is on stairs. Play first part of Eugene's letter over extreme high, long shot interior of Amberson mansion. Slight reverberation on his voice, no music. Lap to Isabel seated, music starts and play through to “this time I've not deserved it.” Cut to George in hall on the door slamming. Shoot new scene with George and Isabel in her bedroom. Lap to letter under door. Much shorter, making new track. Isabel's letter to play over George.
Letter two as outlined in Robert Wise's letter. Play through street scene and drugstore. Drop poolroom. Drop Major and Fanny on porch. Fade in exterior of Morgan mansion and play through. Fade out sooner on interior of mansion. Play through the exterior of railroad station. Lap in sooner to carriage. Drop hallway shot of the exterior of Isabel's room.
Shoot a new scene in which Eugene asserts himself when George attempts to stop him from going upstairs to see Isabel, then Fanny pleads with Eugene not to go up, but to come back later, and in the meantime Isabel dies. Lap from Isabel's deathbed scene to Major on bed. Play through. Cut headlight talk and Major's fireside scene. Fade in on railroad station on the line “well this is an odd way for us to be saying goodbye.” Follow with Fanny's boiler scene.
Shoot a new scene in Bronson's office stressing George's distress and need of more than eight dollars a week. In the walk home, cut from “it befouled itself and darkened its sky,” to “this was the last walk home.” After “big old house at end of Amberson Boulevard.” cut to “tomorrow everything would be gone,” this over shot of mansion. Then lap dissolve to longshot of George at bed. Long pause, then, “Mother forgive me. God forgive me.” Play on through to end as in Pasadena preview.
Please cable or phone your decisions and instructions.
Love from all.
Welles reply to all the cuts and changes suggested by the committee of Moss-Wise-Cotten was to reject them all out of hand, and instead he asked for Robert Wise to be sent to Brazil with the latest revised print of AMBERSONS, so that any changes could be made by Welles in person.
ORSON WELLES TO JACK MOSS:
March 24, 1942
MY ADVICE ABSOLUTELY USELESS WITHOUT BOB WISE HERE. SURE I MUST BE AT LEAST PARTLY WRONG, BUT CANNOT SEE REMOTEST SENSE IN ANY SINGLE CUT OF YOURS, BOB'S, JO'S. REALIZE I HAVEN'T SEEN COMPLETED FILM WITH AUDIENCE REACTION, BUT CANNOT EVEN BEGIN DISCUSSING ON PROPOSALS AS RECEIVED WITHOUT DOING ACTUAL WORK ON ACTUAL FILM, WITH BOB HERE.
POSITIVELY (HATE) NEW SCENE THAT BOB SHOT WHERE GEORGE DISCUSSES EUGENE. NOT DONE WELL ENOUGH. ABSOLUTELY INSIST THAT NORMAN (FOSTER) DIRECT IT. MUST HAVE INTENSITY AND PUNCH. SHOULD BE TERRIFIC AND THE MUSIC FOR THIS IS ESSENTIAL. RE-DUB FANNY'S LINE "GEORGE, GEORGE", WHICH GOT A BIG LAUGH. TAKE OUT THE NOTES (THAT GOT) COMPLAINT AND CHANGE TO MAJOR KEY BUT STILL KEEP HUSHED.
SURE THIS WILL KILL LAUGH OR I'M CRAZY. I GUESS I AM ANYWAY.