The Memos Part VIII – RKO Executive Reginald Armour on Orson Welles: ‘I saw The Magnificent Ambersons and Journey Into Fear—they are both bad.’
By LAWRENCE FRENCH
This revealing telephone conversation between Reginald Armour, RKO President George Schaefer's executive assistant in Hollywood and Phil Reisman in New York, clearly shows the animosity towards Welles and his current project IT'S ALL TRUE, that was now shared by most of the top RKO executives. Phil Reisman, however, was the exception, as he was quite friendly with Welles and was probably playing the role of a double agent here, going along with Armour’s negative assessments of the situation, in order to get information from him that he almost certainly passed on to Welles. This would seem to be supported by the fact that Reisman had been in Rio with Welles and knew what was actually happening, while Armour's information about IT'S ALL TRUE was coming from the biased reports that the studio was receiving from Lynn Shores. Reisman also failed to shut down the production of IT'S ALL TRUE in mid-May after he arrived in Rio, even though Schaefer had ordered him to do so. It actually seems probable that Reisman was the man who convinced George Schaefer to allow Welles to continue on with the filming of FOUR MEN ON A RAFT until the end of July, since that would only entail an additional expenditure of $12,000.
REGINALD ARMOUR and PHIL REISMAN
(Transcription of telephone call):
April 27, 1942
REGINALD ARMOUR: When are you leaving, Phil?
PHIL REISMAN: In about ten days. He's a tough baby—He's done a magnificent job of selling himself to Nelson Rockefeller.
REGINALD ARMOUR: From what we have seen from here (the Lynn Shores reports), the best thing you can do is to send him back—the crew do not feel any loyalty to him. We have received 60,000 feet here and there is no picture in it. If we can get 800 or 1,000 feet out of it, we will be doing well. We have roughly $60,000 (invested) in Technicolor film stock.
PHIL REISMAN: Maybe we could make a couple of shorts out of it.
REGINALD ARMOUR: I don’t think so. George will lose his job out of this.
PHIL REISMAN: George wrote Orson a strong letter which I am to deliver. After he has read the letter, he will either come back, as George says, or quit.
REGINALD ARMOUR: I think Orson wants to stay out of the country. He wants to duck military service.
PHIL REISMAN: I think I could get the authorities to take him off our hands.
REGINALD ARMOUR: This picture will put (RKO) back in 77B (bankruptcy).
PHIL REISMAN: Do you really think so?
REGINALD ARMOUR: Yes, I do, Phil.
PHIL REISMAN: I want to find out from the legal department about Welles’s contract—what rights he has... Do you have the breakdown of the actual cost to date—what the Mexican part of the picture (My Friend Bonito) has cost to date? Has there been any budget set?
REGINALD ARMOUR: No—it will be about $1.2 million altogether—but we don’t want to talk to him about that—we don’t want him to know.
PHIL REISMAN: Someone must have told him—because when I was down there he was telling everyone the picture would cost a million dollars. It’s going to be a documentary film—and we’ll never get it back. George is sending me down there with the right to shut the God damn thing off if I want to—and bring him home and take the loss right now.
REGINALD ARMOUR: I saw Magnificent Ambersons and Journey Into Fear—they are both bad.
PHIL REISMAN: I would like you to send me a consensus on both pictures—and put Citizen Kane in too—showing how much money we will lose.
REGINALD ARMOUR: We may break even on Kane—but that will be all—we will be lucky if we do.
PHIL REISMAN: ...Reg, give me a complete picture—what we have spent and what we will have to spend—and make it as tough as you can. ...Have you talked to Jack Moss at all?
REGINALD ARMOUR: They are beginning to rat on Welles.
PHIL REISMAN: In what way?
REGINALD ARMOUR: They say, “We told Welles to do so-and-so—and now we’re being disloyal to him—but we’ll do it.”
PHIL REISMAN: Any information you can send me I will appreciate—please mark the information you don’t want Welles to know about “confidential”—it will help me to know all about everything.
April 27, 1942: Internal memo from RKO attorney Ross Hastings to Charles Koerner discussing the legal arguments that would be grounds for terminating Welles contract. Among the several options under consideration: “Material interference and the loss of world markets (due to wartime conditions) making it unfeasible to produce pictures of the type and cost which Welles wants to make,” or if Welles exceeded a budget of $500,000 in making IT’S ALL TRUE.
George Schaefer had come under intense pressure from RKO’s board in New York to cut the studios mounting losses, and he wrote a heartfelt letter to Welles, noting how he had stood by him all during the Hearst attacks and the industry efforts to suppress CITIZEN KANE. With his own job now on the line, Schaefer asks Welles for a bit of cooperation and gratitude in return. To deliver this letter, Schaefer personally sent RKO executive Phil Reisman back to Rio, who had instructions to bring IT'S ALL TRUE to a quick conclusion, even if it meant shutting the production down. Since Reisman was one of Welles few allies among RKO executives, after reading Schaefer’s letter, he felt the need to cable Welles directly to give him advance warning of how serious the situation was becoming.
PHIL REISMAN TO ORSON WELLES (excerpt):
April 27, 1942
I HAVE NEVER READ ANYTHING AS STRONG IN MY LIFE AND MY REASON FOR SENDING THIS CABLE IN ADVANCE IS TO PLEAD WITH YOU TO FINISH UP AS QUICKLY AS POSSIBLE TO AVOID CLOSING OUT THE PRODUCTION COMPLETELY BEFORE IT IS FINISHED.
Phil Reisman didn't arrive in Brazil until May 8, when he gave Schaefer's letter to Welles. Interestingly enough, Schaefer talks about a "confidence that has been betrayed," but whether Welles betrayed Schaefer's trust, or Schaefer failed to stand by the artistic integrity that Welles demanded (and got on CITIZEN KANE), is something that can be hotly debated.
In any case, the betrayal of a friendship, which had already been established as a Wellesian theme in CITIZEN KANE, went on to become one of the major re-occuring threads in many of Welles's subsequent films.
As George Schaefer points out in his letter, he had stood up for Welles on CITIZEN KANE, but only after Welles had threatened to sue RKO after they had repeatedly postponed the release of the film, and of course, Schaefer could not cut CITIZEN KANE down to 90 minutes and try to make it more “commercial.” That is most likely why Robert Wise was never allowed to fly down to Rio and edit the the film under Welles supervision. From Wise's own telegrams, we know he wanted to go to Rio, but instead he had to cut the film in Hollywood, under the direction of his bosses at RKO. Yet somehow Phil Reisman could fly down to Rio, despite those pesky "wartime restrictions on air travel" that prevented Wise from making the same trip! Obviously, the “wartime restrictions” were applied rather selectively, depending on who the studio actually wanted to send.
Even if Robert Wise really couldn't get a flight to Rio, he certainly could have gone by boat. But it appears that under pressure from the RKO board, Schaefer felt the need to cut AMBERSONS down after that single bad preview in Ponoma, in a vain attempt to make it more "commercial." Thus, if anything, Schaefer was the friend who was betraying Welles.
GEORGE SCHAEFER TO ORSON WELLES (excerpts):
April 29, 1942
Here I am in New York, endeavoring against all odds to maintain the same confidence in you as I have had in the past. Facts and developments come so fast and are so overwhelming that it is no longer possible for me to maintain that frame of mind, because of the crisis which has arisen in my relationship with my company and my relationship with you...
You were chosen as the man in whom we could place our confidence. But that confidence has been betrayed. The thing that disturbs me more than anything else is that people in your unit don't know from one day to another what they are supposed to do, and that, to me, seems to be the crux of the situation. The Brazil sequence is only one section of It’s All True, but the rest of it is equally unfinished. On Bonito the Bull they only have 40 per cent of what's needed, though the accumulated expenses are $400,000—so we are just pouring money down the drainpipe…
…I was astonished… that even you would have the audacity to turn over such a disgraceful synopsis to Lynn Shores. How in the world with such an outline you expect Shores or even your own men to carry on and give any loyalty to this company and yourself is beyond me to comprehend. The whole thing is a catastrophe, quite apart from the financial aspect: I placed my confidence in you because of my fervid desire to do something for this country… but let me remind you, you are making a picture for our company and are not down in South America as a representative of the Government or an Ambassador of Goodwill. That, while secondary, is something you naturally were supposed to do and it expected from any good American…
In Brazil, they will come to the conclusion that you, the one person in whom they have had confidence, have spoiled all their future possibilities of motion picture production. Everyone admires your work as ambassador, but quite evidently, you have come to the conclusion that you are down there representing the Coordinators office and not RKO.
The way I feel right now, I am wondering if the boys (on the crew) will be out of the trenches by Christmas. If there are any personal reasons why you want to stay down till August, or longer, at least get through with the picture, send the men back and stay as long as you wish. That is your personal affair... I am now again put in the painful position where I have to write you a letter which I never, in God's world, thought I would have to write wherein I am begging you to fulfill in an honorable way your obligations and not put such a terrific load on my shoulders. In respect to the latter, I think I have carried that load a long time.
What (Citizen Kane) cost this organization, and me, personally, never can be measured in dollars... the abuse that was heaped on myself and the company will never be forgotten. I was about as punch-drunk as a man ever was. I made my decision to stand by you and I saw it through. I have never asked anything in return, but in common decency I should expect that I would at least have your loyalty and gratitude. To the extent that I have received it with respect to the Brazilian enterprise up to the present time, I would say it has merely been lip service.
It was one problem on Citizen Kane; sickness on Ambersons; $150,000 over on Journey Into Fear, now what is the answer in Brazil? Here was a real opportunity to show the industry that without adequate equipment and with a most difficult problem, you were able to come through.
…I have instructed (Phil Reisman) that he must forget his friendship for you... He has the authority to stop production immediately and call the whole production off and instruct everyone to return. That of course I would dislike to see—particularly because you left in a blaze of glory and made such a fine showing on your arrival. It would be painful to share with you the closing of the show and your instructions to return.