"Orson Welles and the Un-Making of The Magnificent Ambersons: A Brief History"
When Orson Welles' film career comes up for discussion, talk often turns to Citizen Kane (1941), his triumphant debut, and how that same debut was his downfall. This is merely one of many misconceptions about Welles. Although Kane provided a good deal of negative publicity for the young director, it was his follow-up, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), that really spelled the end of his golden period and the beginning of his slow decline.
Before coming to Hollywood, Welles and his Mercury Theater pulled off great successes in radio and theater. Film was the next logical step, though the 24-year-old Welles had never been involved in the film industry before. That Kane was such a stunningly accomplished and innovative picture amply demonstrates the ability of Welles to adapt to a new medium as well as his adeptness in choosing collaborators. For his next project, Welles could and probably should have chosen something more bankable with the audiences of the time, but instead went again in his own direction.
Despite winning the 1919 Pulitzer Prize, The Magnificent Ambersons, as a novel, is largely a forgotten book, read only by students of American literature and rarely even then. The author, Booth Tarkington, is held in no great esteem anymore. Tarkington was hugely popular in his own day, however, and was a particular favorite of Welles. Regardless of that, Ambersons remains Tarkington's best known book, but for all its merits, it was not a box office-friendly choice for Welles.
The story of an aristocratic American family whose downfall is played out against the rise of the automobile and the new America it spawned, Ambersons was character-driven, depressing material, and however much Welles may have liked it, was hardly an obvious choice for a nation newly at war. Audiences in 1942 wanted pictures that made them feel good, pictures that affirmed the basic goodness of America. The Magnificent Ambersons did neither of these things.
Still, Welles and his work meant prestige, so RKO Pictures approved the film and shooting got under way in October 1941. The picture cost the then-huge amount of $1 million, due to its elaborate sets of the Amberson mansion, and was more expensive than Citizen Kane. Welles, who would direct and narrate but not star in the film, rehearsed his cast for several weeks before shooting commenced. The shoot progressed, and upon completion, Welles began preparing to leave for the project that would mark the next step in his downfall.
Nelson Rockefeller had asked Welles in 1941 to go on behalf on the U.S. government’s Office of the Coordinator of Latin American Affairs to South America and make a film to help cement relations between the hemispheric neighbors. While such an undertaking may now sound ridiculous, in the early days of the war it sounded perfectly plausible. And so Welles, exhorted to do his patriotic duty, agreed to make the film. RKO agreed to send Welles all the equipment necessary to finish Ambersons while he worked on the government project.
Before leaving, a rough cut of Ambersons had been assembled by Welles and his editor, Robert Wise, who would later go on to direct such films as The Sound of Music. Unbeknownst to Welles, RKO decided to test the film with a preview audience. A Saaturday night crowd in Pomona, California, witnessed the rough cut, and met it with almost quiet hostility. While a few audience members prasied the film as the greatest they had yet seen, many thought it rubbish and waste of time and money. One such viewer commented that “People like to laff (sic), and not be bored to death.”
In a panic over the investment they suddenly saw as a bad idea, RKO tried to fix the picture, getting Wise and the cast and crew together to film a new, happy ending and removing much of the latter half of the film, thus destroying the dramatic cohesion of the story. Welles tried to regain control of his film by cabling instructions to Wise and RKO but found his ideas ignored.
Meanwhile, the leadership at RKO had changed, and Welles' only ally, George Schaffer, was among the newly replaced executives. Welles' South American footage was screened and deemed to be worthless, despite RKO’s full knowledge of the project being a non-commercial venture. That the executives saw it without any sound did not ameliorate their judgment in any way. Welles was called back, and work on the picture, titled It's All True, ended incomplete.
The Magnificent Ambersons was released shortly thereafter, with little fanfare and less publicity. The picture unsurprisingly failed with audiences and vanished quickly, but somehow managed to get an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, which it did not win. The footage that RKO and Robert Wise excised from the Welles cut eventually was burned in a studio space-saving effort. The picture that Welles repeatedly said was better than Citizen Kane would remain unseen, a Holy Grail of film.
The It's All True footage remained undiscovered in studio vaults for nearly forty years before being found. One portion, mislabeled as "stock footage," was found in the 1970s. Not long before Welles’ death in 1985, 314 cans of film, the remainder of the surviving footage, were discovered. Using this silent footage, a documentary of the same title was released in 1991 that showcased this unseen Welles work for the first time. What remains leaves tantalizing indications of what might have been.
The Magnificent Ambersons, strangely enough, has seen a gradually increasing tide of postive critical opinion sweep its way. Sight & Sound magazine, in its once-a-decade poll of film critics on the best ten films ever, saw The Magnificent Ambersons join Citizen Kane on the ten best list in 1992. This is despite the fact that the film remains a mere shadow of what it had been, with a storyline that gets increasingly more muddled as the Welles footage finishes and the reshot footage takes its place. The tacked-on happy ending fails entirely to fit in with what has transpired before it and leaves the viewer unsatsified with its pat response to the questions and dramatic conflicts that have come before it.
Still, the film retains some of the qualities Welles hoped to imbue it with, and it is perhaps those qualities, as well as what might have been, that made those Sight & Sound respondents, as well as a host of other critics, praise the film. It certainly isn't Welles' second-best film. Chimes at Midnight and The Trial are more complete, better executed films in a dramatic sense, but that bittersweet and tragic element of Ambersons’ destruction by studio hacks probably plays an important role in how the film is viewed.
As for the main participants, Welles saw his stock in Hollywood irreparably damaged. Painted now as a profligate and difficult to work with, he was unable to get another directorial job for four years, when he helmed the The Stranger, which was also taken out of his hands. He directed The Lady From Shanghai the next year, which yet again ended as another victim of studio interference. Following a poorly received, low-budget version of Macbeth in 1948 for Republic Pictures, Welles would not return to Hollywood until asked to act in and direct Touch of Evil in 1958, which would be his final Hollywood assignment.
Robert Wise went on to a distinguished Hollywood career following his acquiescence to studio pressure in re-cutting Ambersons. Films such as The Day the Earth Stood Still, West Side Story and The Sound of Music are just part of his long career as a Hollywood director. In interviews about his work with Welles, Wise has shrugged off comments that he helped butcher a masterpiece by noting the good standing among critics the film enjoys today, indicating indirectly that what he and the others did holds some key to that response.
It's perhaps too easy to blame Wise, as he was the main individual doing the cutting, because it was his job and he was following orders, but also somewhat disingenuous of him to claim afterwards that he did the right thing. He obviously knew how Welles felt about the film, and to sell him out as Wise did shouldn't garner him any of the credit for the film. What rankles the observer is that Welles, an all-time great despite the difficulties he suffered, had to languish in exile, making his films on the cheap while Robert Wise went on to a long and distinguished career despite being a modestly talented director at best.
The Magnificent Ambersons, at least as Welles envisioned it, may be lost to us now, but the shooting script, production designs, and stills remain of the missing elements. In one final indignity to Welles, RKO announced in the fall of 1999 that it would be producing a miniseries based on Welles' original script. The plundering of a property the studio destroyed and is now trying to exploit -- even going so far as to prove its “sincerity” by trumpeting the use of the original script -- reeks of Hollywood at its worst. In the end, all we are left with is the shell of what might have been and the story of how it happened, a story that probably deserves a film of its own.