I'm sure that this is really old news for folks who have been Welles fans for much longer than I have, but I have just read the memos collected by Lawrence French at ambersons.com
and was particularly heartbroken by one in particular. I've bold
ed some really depressing parts for your lack of enjoyment.
GEORGE SCHAEFER TO ORSON WELLES:
March 21, 1942 PERSONAL-CONFIDENTIAL
I did not want to cable you with respect to THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS as indicated in your cable of the 18th, only because I wanted to write you under confidential cover.
Of course, when you ask me for my reaction, I know you want it straight, and though it is difficult to write you this way, you should hear from me.
Never in all my experience in the industry have I taken so much punishment or suffered as I did at the Pomona preview. In my 28 years I the business, I have never been present in a theater where the audience acted in such a manner. They laughed at the wrong places, talked at the picture, kidded it, and did everything that you can possibly imagine.
I don't have to tell you how I suffered, especially in the realization that we have over $1,000,000. tied up. It was just like getting one sock in the jaw after another for over two hours.
The picture was too slow, heavy, and topped off with somber music, never did register. It all started off well, but just went to pieces.
I am sending you copies of all the preview cards received to date. They speak for themselves and do not tell the whole story because only a small percentage of people make out cards. I queried many of those present and they all seemed to feel that the party who made the picture was trying to be "arty," was out for camera angles, lights and shadows, and as a matter of fact, one remarked that "the man who made that picture was camera crazy." Mind you, these are not my opinions--I am giving them to you just as I received them.
The punishment was not sufficient, and as I believed in the picture more than the people did, I hiked myself to Pasadena again last night, feeling sure that we would get a better reaction. We did, but not, of course, in its entirety. There were many spots where we got the same reaction as we did in Pomona. I think cutting will help considerably, but there is no doubt in my mind but that the people at Pasadena also thought it was slow and heavy. The somber musical score does not help.
While, of course, the reaction at Pasadena was better than Pomona, we still have a problem. In Pomona we played to the younger element. It is the younger element who contribute the biggest part of the revenue. If you cannot satisfy that group, you just cannot bail yourself out with a $1,000,000. investment—all of which, Orson, is very disturbing to say the least.
In all our initial discussions, you stressed low costs, making pictures at $300,000. to $500,000. We will not make a dollar on CITIZEN KANE and present indications are that we will not break even. The final results on AMBERSONS is still to be told, but it looks "red."
All of which reminds me of only one thing—that we must have a "heart to heart" talk. Orson Welles has got to do something commercial. We have got to get away from "arty" pictures and get back to earth. Educating the people is expensive, and your next picture must be made for the box-office.
God knows you have all the talent and the ability for writing, producing directing—everything in CITIZEN KANE and AMBERSONS confirms that. We should apply all that talent and effort in the right direction and make a picture on which "we can get well."
That's the story, Orson, and I feel very miserable to have to write you this.
My very best as always,