JEAN RENOIR and ORSON WELLES: bad previews at RKO
Coming across an interview with Jean Renoir from the Summer, 1954 issue of Sight and Sound, I was astonished to read that Renoir had only the highest praise for RKO executive Charles Koerner, who after all was the man that fired Orson Welles from RKO after the double fiasco of The Magnificent Ambersons and It's All True. RKO's mounting losses and the problems of those two high profile films led to President George Schaefer's resignation in June, 1942. Koerner took over as head of production and like any incoming studio chief, he fired all of the old regimes mistakes, which in Koerner's case meant first and foremost, Orson Welles and his Mercury unit.
Jean Renoir's comments, below, however led me to re-consider Koerner as the so-called "villain" in the rise and fall of Welles at RKO. Given the circumstances, no matter who replaced Schaefer, it seems fair to assume Welles and his Mercury players were going to be kicked off the RKO lot. Koerner, after all was not the man who ordered the drastic cuts in The Magnificent Ambersons, but George Schaefer, who was supposed to be Welles "supporter" at the studio. It was also Schaefer who had hired Welles to bring artistic movies to RKO in the first place, and when Welles delivered the biggest art movie of all time, he trembled at the threats of W. R. Hearst, but finally stood by Welles. What else could he do after he had given Welles a contract with such carte blanche?
However, by the time of Ambersons, Schaefer was in a near panic about the mounting studio losses, which could hardly be blamed solely on Welles, since he had only made two films for RKO, which together had cost only a little over $2 million. But Schaefer wasn't ready to support a second Welles "artistic" masterpiece, and after the supposedly "poor" previews (Kane had no previews), he quickly agreed to cut the film down in order to "save" it.
What is clear, is Schaefer was making decisions out of fear, mostly about losing his job, and as his letters to Welles show, he was a very frightened man after the bad Amberson's previews.
Given what Renoir says in his interview with Francois Truffaut and Jacques Rivette, it seems likely that if Charles Koerner had hired Welles, and there had been a bad preview of Amberson's, he might have at least given Welles the chance to edit the film himself, even if he was in South America. As Renoir states, he got the chance to do that, even after his film Woman on the Beach was badly received in Santa Barbara.
This is, of course, merely a theory, but it seems to me, it's a far more plausible one, than the writers who place all the blame on the re-editing of The Magnificent Ambersons squarely at the feet of Orson Welles, claiming RKO was only acting in their best interests. I think that argument holds absolutely no validity. While Welles didn't always make the best decisions during this period, it's still safe to say if a 120-minute version of Ambersons had been released instead of the studio version of 88-minutes, it would have probably done just about the same (or possibly even better) at the box-office. It certainly would have gotten better reviews!
What's ironic, is that both the essays contained in the published scripts for Welles's first two RKO films suggest that: A) He was not the author of Citizen Kane, and: B) He was himself largely responsible for the fiasco that led to the re-editing of The Magnificent Ambersons.
JEAN RENOIR on working at RKO
Interviewed by Jacques Rivette and Francois Truffaut
(From Sight and Sound, Summer - 1954)
Q: Then you undertook This Land is Mine as an independent production?
JEAN RENOIR: As an independent production distributed by RKO although the word "independent" is only one of numerous terms used to describe fifty different ways of making films in Hollywood. This film was independent in so far as the studio left (writer) Dudley Nichols and me in complete peace, but it was financed and distributed by RKO and we were responsible to them for both costs and box-office returns. During that period RKO was run by an extraordinary man, Charlie Koerner. I deeply regretted his unfortunate death. Had he not died, I believe I should have made twenty films for RKO. I would have worked all my life at RKO. He was a man who knew the business and the exploitation of the cinema, but at the same time conceded that one must experiment. Indeed, his predecessors were also extraordinary men; they had allowed productions like Citizen Kane; which could have been made in no other studio than RKO. Certainly it was the center of real cinema in Hollywood during those years up to the death of Koerner. In 1946, he died while I was making The Woman on the Beach, which was finished under only nominal supervision from the studio.
Q: You worked on This Land is Mine in close collaboration with Nichols?
JEAN RENOIR: Very close. We locked ourselves in a small room, Nichols, my wife and I composed the whole thing together. Nichols was not interested in mise en scene then, that was my affair, although he afterwards became interested. At that period he didn't want to become involved with the actual shooting, and so on the set I was alone; but we worked together on everything concerning the script, as well as in discussions with the art directors. Actually, as art director, I had brought (Eugene) Lourie with me from France.
Q: Is it true that you encountered some difficulties in your film, Woman on the Beach?
JEAN RENOIR: That was quite an adventure. Joan Bennett, who is a friend of mine, asked me to make it. She said: "I've been invited to make a film at RKO. Come make it with me.” RKO seconded the offer, and I was pleased to go back to them—I'd been very happy there before. Originally, Val Lewton was going to produce the film. He was a most interesting person, and it was very tragic that he died some years ago. If not the first, he was certainly one of the first to make fairly ambitious films cheaply; that is on "B" picture budgets, although with good scripts and stories out of the ordinary run. Don't think I despise "B" pictures; in principle, I prefer them lo the big, pretentious psychological films—they are more amusing. When I happen to go to the cinema in America, I go to see " B " pictures. In the first place, they are a great technical achievement. To make a Western in a week as Monogram does, beginning on Monday and ending on Saturday, takes a good deal of skill, believe me. The crime stories are made at the same speed. Secondly, I consider that they are often better than the important pictures, because the director has complete freedom—working at that rate, no one has time to supervise him. Val Lewton kindly helped me to begin Woman on the Beach, and then went back to his other projects, which no doubt interested him more, and left me to myself. I was more or less my own producer, in association with a man named Jack J. Gross, who kept strictly to the business side. In fact, I was wholly responsible, and I've never shot a film with less script and more improvisation. I took the opportunity of attempting something I had long wanted to do; a film based on what, today, is called sex—perhaps it was called sex then, but people didn't talk so much about it—seen from a purely physical point of view. I tried to tell a story of physical attraction into which sentiment did not enter. I made it and was pleased with it; the film was perhaps a little slow, but the scenes were well balanced and excellently played by Robert Ryan—this was his first important part—and by Joan Bennett.
The studio, the actors and I were all pleased with this film, but we had some doubts about the public reaction, so we agreed to have several previews. I remember one in particular, at Santa Barbara before an audience of college kids. They didn't like the film, they weren't interested, and I had an impression that my method of showing emotional scenes devoid of emotion shocked them—or perhaps it wasn't what they were used to. In any case, it was a poor reception and we returned to the studio very disheartened.
You know, a preview is an unbearable ordeal. You sit down and feel as though your body was being pierced by blows from a knife. I was so discouraged that I was the first to suggest cuts and alterations. The film had been expensive to make, as to arrive at the style I wanted I had to work slowly; and Joan Bennett had succeeded in completely altering her personality for the part—I even asked her to lower her voice, which was rather sharp. All of that took time. This time, it was I who feared a financial catastrophe, for which I would have felt responsible. The studio authorities were most considerate, and said: "All right, we shall have to make changes, but you must do it."
I felt then that I had no right to take complete responsibility for launching the film on the public, and I believe that moment of doubt did no good to the picture. I carefully re-shot numerous scenes, altogether about a third of the film, including mostly the scenes between Robert Ryan and Joan Bennett; and I produced a film which was, I think, neither one thing nor the other, and which had certainly lost its raison d’ệtre. I had allowed myself to be too greatly influenced by the Santa Barbara preview, and, at the thought of losing contact with the public, I had flinched. All the same, people who criticize this film should not consider the things that influenced me. I was myself responsible for the alterations. Actually, I believe that I was attempting something which would have been successful now; today, in America, audiences are more ready to accept the ideas of Woman on the Beach, and I am afraid that my film was premature, and anticipated the present state of mind.