The Memos Part VI – Robert Wise to Orson Welles: The boarding house ending got us several laughs…”
By LAWRENCE FRENCH
Robert Wise sent this detailed report to Welles about the audience reaction at the first two previews of the film. In retrospect, it seems rather incredible that RKO executives would take only two previews as the final word on how AMBERSONS would be received by audiences nationwide. While the majority of the comments in Pomona were unfavorable, the people who did like it thought it was a brilliant picture! Today, it seems incredibly foolish to have based the wholesale cutting of the film on such a limited response. Just imagine what might have happened if only the film had been previewed in a more upscale market, such as New York or San Francisco, where AMBERSONS opened to good box office returns, or if, like CITIZEN KANE, it hadn't been previewed at all!
ROBERT WISE TO ORSON WELLES:
March 31, 1942
You asked for a detailed report of preview audience reactions and I have never tackled a more difficult chore. What I mean is, it's so damn hard to put on paper in cold type the many times you die through the showing—the too few moments you are repaid for all the blood and suffering that goes into a show.
With God's help and a sigh, here's a rough breakdown of the previews:
To start with, the audience seemed very restless and impatient during the first three or four reels of the show. It's not that there were any bad reactions or laughs during this part of the picture, but I had figured on more chuckles and general enjoyment.
Things like Joe's fall on the fiddle, the derby hat, shoes, different clothes, etc. got only a part of the laughs I'd expected.
The F.O.T.A. Club got only one laugh. That was at the boys crossing their arms and saying, “Welcome, friend of the Ace.” The balance of the scene got nothing.
Uncle John and the olive business, I had figured on both for quite a number of laughs, got very few. This was true of a lot of the lines, particularly those of Lucy kidding George, which I had always felt were more amusing.
The scene downstairs after the ballroom seemed to play very well, and the scene upstairs in the hallway between George, Aunt Fanny and Uncle Jack was a wow. They really loved it. The stable scene between Eugene and Lucy fell rather flat.
The snow sequence, especially the part of starting the car, the pushing, cuts of George pushing and coughing, all played very well and got good laughs. However, it did seem to drag along when we got into the later dialogue and the song. However, the lack of expected laughs that I have pointed out in this part of the picture is not the important thing to stress. The really important thing is the length of the film and the definite audience disinterest and inattention during all this.
During the scene of characters filing past Wilbur Minafer's casket the audience laughed at the shot of Mrs. Johnson. This badly affected the balance of the scene.
The kitchen scene between George, Aunt Fanny and Uncle Jack played to laughs all the way through with an especially big one on Fanny's hysteria and crying.The same was true of George and Uncle Jack in the rain.
The factory, George and Lucy on the cart, the Major and Jack in carriage, Eugene and Isabel under the tree all went well by comparison.
The dinner sequence played beautifully, especially Joe's long speech about the automobile. They got a big kick out of Uncle Jack's line to George: "That's a new way of winning a woman."
We again got laughs from Aunt Fanny in several spots on the stair scene where she tells George that people are talking about his mother, as well as a couple in Mrs. Johnson's scene especially on her line: "Please to leave my house."
The bathroom scene did not get any particular laughs but one got the impression in this scene, as well as the rain scene where George and Jack yelled at each other, that they resented the hysterical sort of boy that George seems to be in these scenes.
There was a feeling of restlessness when George unwrapped the picture and did the business with it in the drawing room. But they were held by the scene at the door where George turns Eugene away.
There was a little laugh at the discovery of Fanny up at the top of the stairs but the audience settled down and were interested for the balance of that scene.
There was also some bad laughter at the start of Eugene's letter to Isabel.
On the cut of George reading Eugene's letter we got, not a laugh, but a reaction that said: "Oh, God, here he is again." There was a great lack of sympathy for George through this particular part of the picture.
Scene in Isabel's bedroom and her letter to him seemed to play well enough and the scene on the street between George and Lucy went beautifully. They got right away that Lucy still liked him and was giving him the needle. That she fainted in die drugstore does not seem clear, but we have tried to remedy this by putting in one of the other takes where the clerk says, after he apparently sees her on floor: "For gosh sakes, Miss."
The scene of Uncle Jack and Lucy at the exterior of the Morgan mansion all through the scene with Eugene, Jack and Lucy, the railroad station where they bring Isabel home, and the scene in the carriage all played well. The scene in the hallway outside of Isabel's room got rude laughs on Major Amberson speaking to the nurse and on his walk back to Isabel's bedroom.
As I think you already know, Aunt Fanny repeatedly calling George got loud laughs and varied audible mimics from the audience.
The scene downstairs between Fanny and Eugene, Eugene's departure, George at the window, George's scene with Isabel in the bedroom, the scene in George's bedroom where they are all waiting, and finally the Major on the bed to the fade out played, once again, to impatience and restlessness.
I'm sorry to say that there was some laughter at the first preview on the Major's wonderful speech in the fireside scene. This, however, wasn't repeated at the second preview.
The railroad station went well. The walk home did just all right. Here again there was that same impatience. Fanny in the boiler scene again got laughter in a few spots.
Bronson's office, the garden scene, the accident, on down to the boarding house played all right. The boarding house got us several laughs, one on the man's face when the door opens and several through the scene on Fanny's strange behavior, and here again we could feel great restlessness.
At Pomona we got a big hand and what seemed to be a sigh of relief on your line: "That's the end of the story." At both previews there were too many people who walked out all during the show. This can be attributed, I think, to the great length and slow pace. The picture does not seem to bear down on people.
Please believe me that notwithstanding all in this report, we are all certain that the basic quality of the show was appreciated and it is merely a matter of gentle, tireless and careful study and work to resolve “The Magnificent Ambersons” into a real proud Mercury production.
March 31, 1942
Orson, I want you to believe me that I am personally on the hook for the whole South American venture. My board were not enthusiastic even with government help. They thought I was taking too much risk. Nevertheless, I pushed it through and prevailed upon them to be guided by my judgment. Further, we receive help from the government only up to a certain extent and that was also clearly outlined to board. That certain extent does not permit us to shoot FOUR MEN IN A RAFT in Technicolor.
With the looming threat of RKO changing or re-editing the downbeat ending of AMBERSONS, and with Welles own associates now advising him on the need to make drastic changes, Welles came up with this plan to re-do the ending credits of AMBERSONS, which, of course, would not change his grim boarding house finale, but Welles hoped it might be enough of a compromise to calm the fears of George Schaefer, and at least make it seem like the film had a happier ending. However, it failed to convince Schaefer, who very shortly would order re-takes for a new ending scene.
Ironically, in today's Hollywood, any so called "visionary" filmmaker who has made a film as well received critically, as CITIZEN KANE was, would certainly have been allowed a great deal of leeway on their next film. The perfect example of this is HEAVEN'S GATE, a film which also featured Joseph Cotten. When I talked briefly with Joseph Cotten in 1987, who was in San Francisco to promote his autobiography, VANITY WILL GET YOU SOMEWHERE, I asked him why he felt Welles needed to change the downbeat ending of THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS.
Cotten who had suffered a stroke and just recently regained his voice, told me, "It was a great film, originally... " and sadly, Cotten's voice faded away, as he couldn't continue talking, due to his doctor's orders. But unlike Robert Wise, I got the impression Cotten was truly sorry about the small role he played in helping the studio revise THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS.
ORSON WELLES TO JACK MOSS:
April 2, 1942
To leave audience happy for AMBERSONS, remake cast credits as follows and in this order:
First, oval framed old fashioned picture, very authentic looking of Bennett in Civil War campaign hat.
Second, live shot of Ray Collins, no insert, in elegant white ducks and hair whiter than normal seated on tropical veranda with ocean and waving palm tree behind him—Negro servant serving him second long cool drink.
Third, Aggie blissfully and busily playing bridge with cronies in boarding house.
Fourth, circular locket with authentic old fashioned picture of Costello in ringlets, looking very young.
Fifth, Jo Cotten at French window closing watch case obviously containing Costello's picture tying in with previous shot; sound of car driving away. Jo turns, looks out window and waves.
Sixth, Tim Holt and Anne Baxter in open car—Tim shifting gears but looking over shoulder—as he does this, Anne looking same direction and waving, they turn to each other then look forward both very happy and gay and attractive for fadeout.
Then fade in on mike shot for my closing lines as before.