The Memos Part X: George Schaefer resigns as RKO president; urges studio to save extra negative and postive cuts made to Orson Welles’ ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’
By LAWRENCE FRENCH
As George Schaefer's position as head of RKO (as well as the Mercury's chief supporter) became extremely precarious, Herbert Drake, the press representative for Mercury productions, sent Welles this plan to help with his public relations efforts regarding IT'S ALL TRUE and the increasingly hostile RKO regime, which would soon be headed by RKO vice-president Charles Koerner.
HERBERT DRAKE TO ORSON WELLES (excerpt):
June 1, 1942
You have got to come home right away - hugely - and not sneak in on a plane. You must return with trumpets and banners because the campaign really needs a good hot fillip of the old Welles personality. I have been planting pretty solid stuff locally and nationally and I think we have made par for the course.
There have been two other Welles pictures to keep alive, and the RKO anti-Welles battle to fight. It has never been so virulent. The juggling act done by your press office here has been nothing short of extraordinary.
I'm as nervous as a cat, and being without information all the time has made things really tough. But a real bang-up arrival can take the newspapers' attention off Kirkoff and Ann Sheridan and focus the limelight on you.
There is a widespread, nurtured campaign to prove you have been spending too much time and wasting too much money in Brazil; that "Ambersons" is no good, and "Fear", ditto. This has gone so far as a personal visit by Koerner to The Hollywood Reporter. As I wrote Wilson, Billy Wilkerson informed his staff that he was quoting Schaefer when he said "Koerner told Wilkerson that RKO would on no condition ever allow you to work in the studio again".
I have shown Ambersons on two occasions to the picture papers, once when it was two hours twenty minutes long and once at one hour thirty three minutes - the final version. They liked it both times, from "Beautiful" (Life) to "Better then Kane" (UP). So, you need a splash arrival.
It will be tough to get Nelson Rockefeller's cooperation, since the whole intent of the Coordinator's office is to avoid anything that looks like publicity. Nothing you can say and nothing I can say can impress anyone with the importance of the expedition, as opposed to the film itself. I can always sell them the idea that your pictures will be magnificent, but they have been hearing about neighborly expeditions for some years now, and Disney's Saludos Amigos took the cream off the idea. However, if someone in Washington will come out with a Thank You statement to you, you will return a conquering hero.
JACK MOSS TO GEORGE SCHAEFER (excerpt):
June 1, 1942
The Long Beach preview of AMBERSONS was amazing and gratifying... critics (Time, Life and UPI) have unanimously raved...
I cannot stress too urgently, George, the deep belief that the picture should be left as it is since we have had such phenomenal luck with last previews and critical showings. We have expended so much work and time and care and together have fought this problem though. I ask you to review this message and make your final consideration an all-round ageement not just with me but with unanimous opinion. May I hear from you?
HERB DRAKE TO GEORGE SCHAEFER (excerpt):
June 2, 1942
About a year ago you came to the rescue of CITZEN KANE with an exciting advertising insert in the trade papers... With AMBERSONS, not enough press people have seen the film yet to counteract the irresponsible chatter of the anti-Ambersons element...
There is always a ready audience for anti-Welles talk. The current belief is that Welles has muffed his opportunity and that he is a flash in the pan and does not justify RKO's faith in his talents...
Only a statement on the picture's great worth from the very top can untie our hands and allow us to get the picture the attention it deserves. A powerful trade ad from you will set us right with the rest of the press.
Jack Moss attempted to get through to George Schaefer for a final word on AMBERSONS, not realizing that Schaefer was ill and had already begun to cede much of his authority to Charles Koerner, who would shortly replace Schaefer as RKO’s head of production.
JACK MOSS TO GEORGE SCHAEFER:
June 3, 1942
With AMBERSONS, including last changes, going into final printing tomorrow, this becomes my last attempt to contact you. I have been unable to reach you by phone, and have had no reply to two telegrams respectfully requesting your final consideration, and a chance to discuss with you the most important points concerning AMBERSONS. I must say that, in view of every move to prove sincerity, and the great amount of untiring effort expended by all in editing AMBERSONS, that I am entitled to better consideration and certainly a reply. I'll put it this way: I beg you to consider my comments regarding the changes in AMBERSONS. Please let me hear from you.
With Welles future at RKO now looking exceedingly gloomy, he may have felt the need to let off some steam. On June 12, Welles received some very unwelcome publicity in the Rio newspapers, when he and Alfonso Reyes, the Mexican ambassador to Brazil, broke up all the furniture in Welles apartment on the Avenida Atlantica and proceeded to throw it out the window (presumably after having had a few drinks). Ray Josephs, an RKO employee in South America, related Welles own version of this incident, to the RKO executives back in Hollywood.
RAY JOSEPHS TO RKO:
June 12, 1942
The members of the staff of a Latin American embassy, which shall remain nameless (it was Mexico), were frequent guests (of Welles), and at 3:00 P.M. of the afternoon before his departure (to Fortaleza), he and a diplomat from the embassy in question were looking at some crockery which Welles's landlady insisted should be paid for as damaged. Orson and the diplomat went out on the balcony to look at the porcelain and, according to Orson, discovered stamped on the back the words "Made in Japan," whereupon the piece in question was hurled over the railing on to the beach front sidewalk below. Several other pieces of furniture and assorted dishware followed, while an increasing crowd of cariocas gathered around to cheer. That's all there was to it, Orson insists.
The day after this incident, Welles and a small skeleton crew (including Richard Wilson, Elizabeth Amster and cameraman George Fanto), departed from Rio for Fortaleza. Meanwhile in Hollywood, the final cutting of THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS had finally been locked and Jack Moss now found himself having to deal with Charles Koerner about the final editing of Mercury’s third film JOURNEY INTO FEAR.
JACK MOSS TO CHARLES KOERNER:
June 15, 1942
Again I appeal to you for help. It was clearly my understanding that we here at Mercury would edit Journey Into Fear in accordance with Mr. Schaefer's suggested cuts and change of ending. This work was to be performed upon return of the film from New York. Subsequently, I learned that not only had the film returned, but that editing was completed, and that the film was screened for the sound and music departments. The natural conclusion can only be: Mercury can go fishing. I called Mr. Armour and he confirmed the foregoing details. I asked to bring to your attention that there are points to discuss regarding Mr. Schaefer's editing. Also there were ideas for sound and music that we wished to offer. The reply came the next day when Mr. Armour phoned to say that the studio would complete the editing, scoring and dubbing without Mercury's help. I will not introduce any arguments over rights, legal and moral. Courtesy alone should be enough to cause Mercury to be included in any function concerning Journey Into Fear. The present action is unwarranted. I want very, very much to talk with you. It will be better then boring you numb with lots of written words, if I haven't already done so. If my persistence is annoying, truly I am sorry. I must risk being annoying rather then risk losing your respect for Mercury because I failed to follow through on something I believe is just and right. What I ask of you IS just and right. Will you see me? When?
CHARLES KOERNER TO JACK MOSS:
June 16, 1942
Believe me, I realize your situation very definitely and clearly. Nevertheless, never for a moment can I imagine that RKO has, at any time, failed to extend every possible courtesy to Mercury productions. In fact, the extent of RKO's help to Orson Welles and The Mercury Productions would, in many circumstances, be considered somewhat fantastic. In regards to Journey Into Fear, I simply followed very definite and clear-cut instructions. There was no other alternative, and as far as I'm concerned, the matter is permanently closed.
After re-cutting THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, George Schaefer at least had the foresight to suggest that the studio save the material.
GEORGE SCHAEFER TO REGINALD ARMOUR:
June 16, 1942
I think it important, in the scheme of things that you save the extra negative and positive cuts that we made on The Magnificent Amberson. Some day someone may want to know what was done with the original picture Welles shot.
…It might be a good idea to put all cuts together and show him all the useless material he shot and the improvement that was made by the elimination.
One of George Schaefer's last acts as President of RKO was to approve the mutilated final version of THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS for release—incorporating the numerous re-takes directed by Freddie Fleck, Robert Wise and Jack Moss. This final version runs a scant 88 minutes. The most incongruous changes and the ones Welles loathed the most, were the two re-shot and re-scored ending scenes, which flagrantly violated everything Welles had intended.
When Bernard Herrmann finally saw the re-cut version in mid-June, he urged that the film be restored to it's original form. If not, he demanded that his name be removed from all credits and publicity material, threatning a lawsuit if RKO should refuse. An RKO legal executive in New York explained Herrmann's position to RKO's west coast attorney and urged him to make one final cut: Bernard Herrmann's credit.
RKO PRESS RELEASE (killed):
Behind the film is heard a nostalgic score by Bernard Herrmann, who scored Citizen Kane, and who is the youngest American composer to have had a work performed by the New York Philharmonic orchestra. Long the musical director for all the Welles radio productions, Herrmann chose a Waldteufel waltz for the thematic approach to scoring The Magnificent Ambersons, and his original music built around this is heard through the entire film.
GORDON YOUNGMAN TO ROSS HASTINGS (excerpt):
June 22, 1942
...Herrmann demands that we refrain from giving him any screen credit for score. Perfectly willing to have us use his music but wants all mention of him elminated. Mention is made in a Welles reference (publicity) to him as composer of score. Please discuss with Koerner and Depinet and advise because Herrmann insists cut be made before trade showing.
GORDON YOUNGMAN TO ROSS HASTINGS:
June 23, 1942
...Had lengthy disussion with (Herrmann's and Welles's Attorney) Weissberger about Bernard Herrmann matter. Insists cut be made before trade showing (on June 30). I am convinced in view of man's temperament he will bring injunction proceeding and cause all the trouble that he can. His theory is that statement is made that “score is by Bernard Herrmann” while it is not entirely so, and that this is a deception to the public and injurious to his reputation. Doubt he would ultimately recover on this theory but there is some chance and urge re-consideration by studio of the desirability of making the cut.
As Simon Callow notes in his Welles biography, “Had some of Welles's other collaborators been equally obdurate, THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS's might exist in something like its original form, though it is equally true that RKO, and especially Charles W. Koerner, had long ago made up their minds to cut it down to size, in every sense.”
An excellent essay on the cuts in Herrmann's score cam be read here:
GEORGE SCHAEFER RESIGNS
June 26, 1942
Three and a half months after the Pomona preview, George Schaefer's reign as President of RKO effectively came to an end, when two of his (and Welles's) chief supporters on the RKO board, Nelson Rockefeller and David Sarnoff resigned in early June. At the RKO board meeting in mid-June, Schaefer was replaced on the board by Charles Koerner. Succumbing to the inevitable, Schaefer tendered his resignation and was replaced by Ned E. Depinet as President of RKO, with Charles Koerner assuming Schaefer's duties as head of production in Hollywood.
Charles Koerner's intentions towards Welles and his Mercury unit were made unmistakably clear when he banished Mercury Productions from the RKO lot only a few days after assuming control of the studio, even though RKO still had two films that needed Welles's input to be finished properly.
CHARLES KOERNER PRESS STATEMENT:
July 1, 1942
Upon completion of The Magnificent Ambersons and Journey Into Fear and pending completion of Orson Welles' work in Brazil and his return, there is nothing further to be done at RKO Studios by representatives of Mr. Welles or Mercury Productions, in connection with either of the completed pictures or the picture currently being photographed in South America. Accordingly, because space was urgently needed for those engaged in current production, RKO requested representatives of Mr. Welles to make available offices which had been occupied by them. RKO's future relationship with Mr. Welles will be discussed with him upon his return from South America.
Orson Welles attorney in Hollywood, Loyd Wright, issued the following statement, reacting to the Mercury's abrupt banishment from the RKO lot. In Brazil, when told of these events, Welles supposedly replied, "Don't worry, boys we're just passing another bad Koerner."
LOYD WRIGHT PRESS STATEMENT:
July 2, 1942
Disagreements that have existed between RKO and Orson Welles and his Mercury Productions have culminated in the necessity of his leaving the RKO Pathé lot. Journey Into Fear, on which Mr. Welles was working prior to leaving for Brazil, was arbitrarily taken over by RKO during Mr. Welles' absence and is being edited without benefit of the services of those who worked on the picture and conceived its creation. Mr. Welles is at present completing his services in Brazil where he went to make a picture in the interests of hemispheric solidarity. This film will be released by RKO. Mr. Welles will return to Hollywood in the last week in July, after reporting back to Washington.