THE ORSON WELLES ALMANAC
December 2004: "Jack Moss: The Man Who Ruined Welles?"
Note: In the interest of providing further scholarship on Welles on the site, this is the first of a monthly (he said hopefully) column of sorts that will seek to focus on any number of topics relating to Welles, in a (hopefully usually) short, readable format. Anyone who wishes to contribute something is welcome; please email for further details. This month, we take a look at Jack Moss and his disastrous impact on Welles and his career in the early 1940s.
When the downfall of Orson Welles
in Hollywood is discussed, we focus, for obvious reasons, on two projects,
The Magnificent Ambersons, and It's All True. The two are inextricably
linked; had Welles not gone to South America to make IAT, there is
perhaps the slightest chance that Ambersons may have had a different
fate, with the director there to actually edit and fight for it in person.
Instead, Welles was forced to communicate with editor Robert Wise and company
via phone and telegram, with plainly catastrophic results. The wreckage then
spread to It's All True, as Welles had his funding cut and eventually
was dismissed from RKO in the aftermath. He had a butchered film and an unfinished
film, and no prospects for any further film work, at least on his own terms.
Welles ended up spending most of the remainder of the war doing radio work.
In looking at these events, the onus of who was responsible usually falls on Welles; his supposed rash decision to leave the country and work on IAT being cited, and his subsequent raucous behavior in Brazil being another. Rarely however do we look at the people behind the scenes working for and with Welles. Robert Wise's role in the Ambersons fiasco has been well chewed over, but what of Jack Moss? Anyone with a passing knowledge of Welles knows that Welles was clearly a self-destructive type in many ways, but when he had the right people looking out for his interests, such as John Houseman and Arnold Weissberger, he was able to make projects like the Mercury Theater and Citizen Kane happen. With Ambersons and It's All True, both of those men were out of the picture. Who was running Welles' affairs? Jack Moss. It may not be putting too much blame on Moss to lay the Ambersons' fiasco initially at his feet. In the end however, those who want to blame Welles for the loss of Ambersons and IAT are not really far off the mark, but they are looking in the wrong place: Welles' critical mistake was not leaving for South America, but hiring Moss in the first place.
Prior to joining Welles, Moss worked as a professional magician, agent and film producer, meeting Welles in his capacity as magician in 1941. Moss produced three films for Paramount in 1940-41, including John Wayne's The Shepherd of the Hills. According to the Internet Movie Database, Moss worked at some point as a secretary to Gary Cooper. Welles and Moss obviously took to each other, with Welles hiring Moss at first to help train him for some magic performances he had arranged to give. Moss, was hired by Welles to be his business manager and as Frank Brady put it, Mercury's "general factotum," because he was someone who, as Welles put it, "only read the fine print" in contracts.1 Barbara Leaming mentions that another of Moss' jobs was to watch over Welles' habits, and Moss duly tried to help Welles control his eating and otherwise assist Welles in maintaining his routine.2
In the Lilly Library holdings at Indiana University, one can of course see Welles' voluminous papers and documents, but one can also see another, much smaller, but certainly interesting Welles-related collection, in that of Arnold Weissberger. Weissberger handled Welles' legal affairs for several years, beginning in the late 1930s and into the early 1940s. In September 1942, after the events with RKO had transpired, he wrote to Welles in regards to Welles' situation, and the letter is a damning indictment of Jack Moss (and to a lesser extent lawyer Lloyd Wright) and the damage he had done to Welles and his career.
Before looking at the letter, there may be questions of motive on Weissberger's part, as he was essentially attacking Moss. Did Weissberger have any real profit to gain here? Welles was not wealthy at this point, was in serious tax trouble, and was without steady employment outside radio work. Weissberger appeared to genuinely care about Welles getting the best advice possible, and he doesn't mince words, though he does understandably tread somewhat carefully around Welles' ego.
Weissberger (hereafter AW) begins by telling Welles he will be "shocked"3 by what he will read within the letter, which obviously contained material that the two had discussed previously in some less substantial way. AW shortly thereafter goes into a point by point relation of the shoddy handling of Welles' affairs by Moss. To wit, the first point to be mentioned is the allowance of Welles' Citizen Kane contract to lapse. Essentially, the contract stipulated that Welles must deliver his two follow-up pictures to Kane within a given timeframe, and if not, he would be in default, allowing RKO to force him to fulfill his end of the deal, whereas they would not be so constrained. AW notes: "If the extension had been signed, so that there was no default, and RKO wanted to get rid of you, it would have had to buy up your contract."4 AW had previously negotiated three such extensions, and claims that Wright refused to sign the fourth, which AW had worked out with RKO. AW describes this failure as having "absolutely no excuse."5
AW then compares the contracts for Kane and Ambersons. Essentially, the focus here is on five elements. The first, and obviously most important to Welles, was final cut. While the Kane contract specified that Welles would have final cut, aside from censorship issues in foreign versions of the film, the Ambersons deal gave that right of to RKO, with the added proviso that RKO could "subtract from, arrange, rearrange, revise and adapt such material and the Picture in any manner."6 AW writes that in negotiating the Kane deal, "I knew that the most important thing was the artistic integrity of your work, and I saw to it that the contract gave you complete protection."7
A side note: In this regard, David Thomson's Rosebud mentions this contract, but Thomson lays the blame for this (unsurprisingly) directly at Welles' feet, noting that the contract was sent back under the signature of Moss. As we will see later, Welles may not have known what the contract even contained; he cabled Moss from Brazil to ask what the legal status of his right to cut the film was. One can of course surmise that Welles was told and ignored or otherwise felt that he would not be denied final cut, but we cannot know this. One would like to assume that Welles knew the dangers of allowing such a prized asset as final cut to slip away so cheaply.
AW moves on to "Choice of Actors," which again gave complete control to RKO in this regard, and then to the budget, which, as with the previous two points, gave RKO much more latitude in refusing and/or controlling what was spent. The final two points, "Studio Availability" and "Morality Clause," both further tied Welles' hands as well, though neither appears to have come into play on Ambersons; they were simply further restrictions on his potential freedoms in working for the studio. AW notes that Welles went from having "carte blanche" to being "an employee."8
Next up is a comparison of what Welles would have received under his old contract compared to the new, in financial terms. AW tells Welles that under the deal he had negotiated with RKO boss Jack Schaeffer before leaving to return to New York, AW had worked out a deal in which Welles would receive "$100,000 for acting in [a] picture, $100,000 for directing a picture, $50,000 for writing a picture, and $3,500 a week synchronously for producing the pictures."9 Had Ambersons and Journey Into Fear been made under this deal, Welles stood to make $300,000 more than he ended up making. AW and Scaheffer had worked out this deal while Kane was riding high critically, but "this picture was entirely up-set as Schaeffer himself has told me, when Moss' injection into the scene antagonized him and made him wary about granting to you the terms upon which he had theretofore been willing to grant."10
From RKO, AW moves to Welles' abysmal tax problems. He notes that Welles has a $30,000 deficiency assessment (approximately $345,000 today) for which Moss has ignored AW's requests for assistance in dealing with. AW writes that he has written Moss and Wright on ten different occasions the previous nine months in trying to deal with the problem, but that Moss has ignored him. Wright met with AW in March 1942, but beyond that, there was no contact from Welles' camp. AW tells Welles that in the years he handled his affairs, AW always managed to pin Welles down and get the job done. He ascribes Moss's reluctance to deal with him as a mix of personal antipathy and simply not wanting to pay AW to do the work. "My complaint against Moss is that he preferred to endanger your tax affairs rather that consider the question of the fee Instead he has just abandoned the whole thing, regardless of the seriousness of the tax situations, leaving you to face the music."11 He goes on to write "The fact that I am the only person who will advise you in your own interests and that I am, as Moss undoubtedly realizes, fully aware of all the boners that have been pulled, is reason enough for him to wish to sabotage me."12
In wrapping things up, AW goes into further tax problems that he showed Welles the previous day, when he and Welles went to the tax bureau to deal with Welles' affairs. Due to money owed from the 1939 Five Kings theatrical production, Welles stood to lose control of the Mercury name to his creditors, something AW claims Moss had ignored as well, despite his telling Moss "the danger in your [OW's] owing to Mercury a still-unpaid obligation of $26,000" (approximately $299,000 today).13 AW concludes by telling Welles that "I might speak less emphatically in this respect were it not for the fact that in my six years of service for you, my record - whether with respect to negotiating deals, preparing contracts, saving you taxes, or paying your bills, has been pretty near perfect."14
Weissberger wasn't the only one who felt that Moss and company were doing a poor job with Welles' affairs; longtime friend and doctor Maurice Bernstein telegrammed Welles in May 1942, and his statements back up some of what AW would say later on. Bernstein writes that " I wished I could trust the people who claim to be your friends, and look after your affairs. I know your relations with Schaefer were friendlier before you established the 'new order'." He goes on later to say "I am alarmed when I think of the mercenary people who surround you - Moss, his lawyer, and others who have sucked you dry!" He further mentions being kept out of a screening of Ambersons, but that he was told that Moss "did a masterly job of 'editing' it, and really made a great picture out of it," a comment which has the tang of someone being told something with the intention of getting rid of them.15
From the various Welles biographies out there, it is unclear as to when Welles and Moss disintegrated their working relationship; the Encyclopedia of Orson Welles mentions a falling out between the two, but gives no date. Considering the way Moss vanishes from the Welles story after the RKO debacle, it would seem shortly after Weissberger's letter or thereabouts, things began to fall apart between the two, although it appears to not have been spontaneous. Weissberger sent another letter two weeks after the one discussed above, in which he decries the lack of movement from anybody on Welles' end regarding the tax matters. In any event, Moss would remain in the film business for some time after his association with Welles, producing at least two generally forgotten films for Columbia, Mr.Winkle Goes to War (1944) and Snafu (1945, which he is also credited on as director).16 He died in 1975.
In the end, Welles casting Moss as an assassin in Journey Into Fear turns out to be a cruelly ironic twist; the damage done by Moss and company to Welles during this period is immense. One must of course lay the blame for this at Welles' feet in the end, as he did appoint Moss as his business manager. But when even the simple act of renewing a contract could have spared Welles some misery, and if Weissberger and Bernstein are correct in stating that Moss' behavior toward Schaeffer soured the deal Welles would have received to make his follow-up films, that stands out as an even more egregious failure to work in Welles' interest.
1: Brady, Frank. Citizen Welles, p
2: Leaming, Barbara. Orson Welles, p 277
3: Letter from Arnold Weissberger to Orson Welles, September 16, 1942. p 1. Weissberger mss, Lilly Library, Box 1, folder 9. Courtesy Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN.
5: Letter from Arnold Weissberger to Orson Welles, September 16, 1942. p 2. Weissberger mss, Lilly Library, Box 1, Folder 9
8: Letter from Arnold Weissberger to Orson Welles, September 16, 1942. p 3. Weissberger mss, Lilly Library, Box 1, Folder 9
9: Letter from Arnold Weissberger to Orson Welles, September 16, 1942. p 4. Weissberger mss, Lilly Library, Box 1, Folder 9
11: Letter from Arnold Weissberger to Orson Welles, September 16, 1942. p 5. Weissberger mss, Lilly Library, Box 1, Folder 9
14: Welles clearly didn't know the details of the contract he signed for Ambersons; he telegrammed Moss from Brazil to ask Moss to find out if retakes on Ambersons would be allowed, as Welles was totally against the idea. Moss cabled back to say "CAREFULLY THOROUGHLY CHECKED LEGALITY DEFINITELY GIVES STUDIO FINAL RIGHT ON BASIS FILM THEIR PROPERTY." The phrasing of Moss' response could lead someone to believe that he may not have known either. This from someone who "only read the fine print."
15: Bernstein to Welles, letter, May 14, 1942.
16: Moss may have done further uncredited work; in a Film Comment interview with blacklist member John Berry (who worked with the Mercury Theater on stage in the 1930s), Berry comments that Jack Moss collaborated with Berry on the script for the Berry-directed He Ran All the Way (1951). Moss is not listed among the credited writers. The interview can be found online at http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1069/is_n3_v31/ai_16898287. and was published in May-June 1995 issue of the magazine.
©Jeff Wilson 2004