Houseman, with his excellent business sense and practical good taste, appealing to Welles' most crucial needs, might well have preserved the delicate balance to keep AMBERSONS on its brooding descent into emotional and economic degradation.
As for George Schaefer, he was a businessman put in charge of a bankrupt RKO by warring board members, one of whom was Nelson Rockefeller. They wanted nothing but a profitable balance sheet. Aside from the publicity stunt value, Schaefer's bosses, with perhaps the exception of Rockefeller, had little interest in Orson Welles, nor in cinematic masterpieces.
The overwhelming critical praise heaped on CITIZEN KANE engendered little joy in the New York offices, where Floyd Odlum and fellow owners Nelson Rockefeller and Sarnoff were grappling with the problem of rapidly mounting losses for both 1939 and 1940. The root of the red ink appeared to be in Hollywood, on the doormat of George Schaefer’s executive suite…Exhibitors had been burned by critical successes, such as William Dieterle’s ALL THAT MONEY CAN BUY…and not even the success of KITTY FOYLE, the Disney product and Samuel Goldwyn’s prestige pictures could counter the image of a down-in-the-mouth studio.
It was the opinion of insiders watching the RKO situation early in 1941 that the stock control would shortly be “tossed into a single basket”, meaning Odlum and his Atlas Corporation putting an end to this detrimental period of divided rule. Joe Kennedy, on the friendliest terms with Odlum, Sarnoff, and the Rockefellers, had recently made one of his famous investigations of the floundering company, with an option to aquire a major slice of the stock.
In Hollywood, the beleaguered Schaefer responded to the press’s insistence that Kennedy was headed to RKO, by taking complete charge of the studio, and replacing production chief Joe Nolan with a surprise choice, Joseph Breen, lord high censor of the Hays office. Breen told the press he would stress entertainment, dropping names like La Cava, McCarey, and Ford. Orson Welles was definitely staying on too, and would make three or four pictures a year.
But by summer of 1941, one thing seemed clear in the muddled RKO situation: Schaefer would probably be felled by contractual difficulties. RKO’s Wall Street directors were unwilling to give Schaefer a long-term deal, and postponed the annual stockholder’s meeting in June, to give Odlum and Atlas, reportedly now in full voting control, the chance to buy up controlling interest.
In August, Odlum tried to install Peter Rathvon as Breen’s replacement, but Schaefer defended his lair vigorously, denying that Breen would be replaced by Rathvon. However, after Pear Harbor was bombed, Breen was challenged again, first by his number two man, Sol Lesser, and then by Charles Koerner, RKO’s theatre head, who was favored by Odlum. When Breen went on vacation in March 1942, Keorner became temporary production chief, and when Breen came back from vacation, Keorner refused to relinquish the production reins, leading to dual authority for a short time, followed by Breen being sent back to the Hays office in May 1942. This left Orson Welles in a very vulnerable position.
Throughout the winter and early spring of 1942, a management and control battle had raged in New York, with neither Rockefeller nor Odlum interests giving an inch. But by June, it appeared more likely that Odlum’s Atlas would come out on top. Atlas had tried to sell it’s $8 million investment in RKO, but was unsuccessful, so Floyd Odlum reluctantly decided to invest $4 million more in production and run the company, in order to protect Atlas’s huge investment. At the stockholder’s meeting on June 17th, all RKO directors were reelected, with the exception of George Schaefer, who had been given notice earlier, and who was replaced by Charles Keorner.
When Keorner visited the set of the latest Charlie McCarthy picture, the flippant dummy piped up: “Hello, Mr. Keorner. I’m here for six weeks. How long are you here for?”
Keorner’s belief in the box office pull of radio stars led to increased emphasis on B pictures adapted from radio series’. The smash business of these B pictures, combined with the failure of prestige pictures like ABE LINCOLN IN ILLINOIS, had proved that the multimillion radio audience would rather escape to Fibber McGee and Molly land.
Lest anyone take his slogan “Showmanship in Place of Genius” lightly, Koerner took swift action against the enemy – in this case, the cinema’s “eccentric” but “universal genius.” Using the pretext that the space was urgently needed for Sol Lesser, who had been signed to make two Tarzan pictures, on July 1 Koerner ordered the Orson Welles Mercury Productions unit to vacate it’s offices on the Pathe Lot…The Wellesian response from Mercury officers Jack Moss and Herbert Drake, “We are Leonardo da Vinci, evicted from his draughty garret,” brought a minimum of chuckles…Even though Mercury attorney Lloyd Wright stressed that the order came “at a time when CITIZEN KANE has been judged one of the outstanding pictures of 1941”, and emphasized the importance of the work Welles was doing for the government in Brazil, Hollywood was unmoved.
Ultimately, Welles had failed to heed the line that guarded the Studio System from a perilous border, beyond which lay freedom of self-expression… The government had allowed the movie industry, because of it’s essential nature, to stay in business, and Hollywood had shown it’s gratitude by turning out huge support for the war effort and public morale, and otherwise policing itself strictly…Thus, George Schaefer’s boy wonder had fast deteriorated into the new regime’s “bad boy” who would have to be dumped.
The tip-off had come in a poetic Reporter headline the previous March 6. WELLES SO TIRELESS, CUTS AMBERSONS BY WIRELESS brought an exchange of knowing glances from those who knew the score. “Orson Annie” was overreaching himself, behaving like a super-genius. He had toted a print of Ambersons down to Rio and had actually thought that he could edit it over the telephone with cutter Robert Wise in Hollywood.
On April 16, the trade paper reported that the studio was “putting several un-Orson touches into retakes on Ambersons, while Welles works in Rio.” The “un-Orson touches” triggered a dispute, while the references to “work” brought laughter, since everyone knew that upon arriving in Rio, the flamboyant Welles had abandoned himself to the bacchanalian spirit of Carnival time.
“RKO breaks out in a cold sweat whenever Joe Cotton goes near a studio phone,” The Reporter informed Hollywood on April 21. “He calls Welles in Rio to tell him what goes on with Ambersons and Journey Into Fear. The latter picture had also been confiscated by the studio and was being edited without Welles’s supervision.
Meanwhile, the town buzzed with tales of Welles’s wild behaviour in Brazil…which it suggested would probably cause considerable embarrassment to his sponsors, the Rockefeller Group, in it’s attempt to establish better relations between the Americas.
After Jacare’s death, the repercussions were felt in both Washington and Hollywood. In it’s aftermath, Welles’s film company lost it’s hold on Brazilian sympathies. Early in June, the trade press reported that the Welles crew had shrunk from twenty eight to three…Members who had been recalled to Hollywood by order of Charles Koerner told how they had been afraid to venture into the streets of Rio after the death of Jacare.
Tragically, the footage of It’s ALL TRUE turned out to be an editing nightmare. Welles had attempted several scripts, and rashly tossed them aside.
In mid-August, Welles slipped into Hollywood and tried to salvage his incompleted film. The Office of Inter-American Affairs had pledged $300,000 to RKO against loss on completion. After investigating the facts in a closed budget session of the House Committee on Appropriations the following summer, Nelson Rockefeller and Francis Alstock, the new director of the Coordinating Office’s motion picture division, reneged.
George Schaefer...hired Welles, probably under the influence of Nelson Rockefeller (and whoever his board member faction), to ginger up RKO's Radio image -- a publicity stunt, as I say, hopefully to make a version of "The War of the Worlds" ...Certainly not dark chronicles of American financial decline,
Welles was in South America for six months, much of that time waiting on Robert Meltzer's cultural research team to complete a survey, soaking up Latin-American background, and expanding the scope of IT'S ALL TRUE far beyond anything even he had envisioned. Don't you think, Toddy, that he could have spared a month or six weeks to come back to save THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS?
...while it may have been foolish of Welles to expect George Schaefer to stand by him on AMBERSONS, especially since Schaefer was about to be fired, Welles was still expecting it, mainly because he thought he also had the backing of Nelson Rockefeller and David Sarnoff, who did not resign from the RKO board until early June.
I went because it was put to me in the very strongest terms by Jock (John Hay Whitney) and Nelson (Rockefeller) that this would represent a sorely needed contribution to inter-American affairs. This sounds today quite unbelievably silly, but in the first year of our entering the war the defense of this hemisphere seemed crucially important. I was told that the value of this project would lie not in the film itself but in the fact of making it. It was put to me that my contribution as a kind of Ambassador extraordinary would be truly meaningful. Normally, I had doubts about this, but (President) Roosevelt himself helped to persuade me that I really had no choice.
I only agreed to the Brazilian junket on the firm guarantee that the moviolas and all the film (of THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS) would immediately follow me. What happened instead? The film never came.
A takeover in RKO brought in new bosses committed, by the simple logic of their position, to enmity. I quickly lost the last vestiges of control over AMBERSONS, and friends at home collapsed in panic. Who can blame them? Even if I'd stayed I would have had to make compromises on the editing, but these would have been mine and not the fruit of confused and often semi-hysterical committees. If I had been there myself I would have found my own solutions and saved the picture in a form which would have carried the stamp of my own effort.
The first phase of the Shores matter came to a head the night before Welles left for Forteleza (March 17, the night of the Pomona preview?). Welles had called him to the Copacabana for a meeting which was to follow a press conference Welles had. This press conference kept Welles there an extra hour before our production meeting started. He had barely started discussing the problems of Forteleza and mapping out second unit work to be done during Welles's absence, when Welles was called to the phone for an international phone call. He was gone for about a half an hour. Shores did not agree with this entire (Jangadieros) adventure and would only discuss it or take an active part in it when directly requested. After the contract was signed however, he said he was going home. I told him that we had not concluded the discussion, and I was sure that Orson would want him. He said he works too hard to stay up like this, that Welles had already spent as much time with him as he ever would, and that he was going home. I told him if he felt the matter was thoroughly discussed he should use his own judgment, but I felt he was making a mistake. He left.
When Welles returned he was very surprised and piqued that Shores had gone before they finished, and asked me to get him back. In about half an hour, I put a call into him at the hotel. He absolutely and profanely refused to come back on the grounds that he was tired and that we didn't need any more discussions. We could go ahead and fire him or send him back. Not wishing to precipitate matters, I let the things slip as Welles was discussing with Meltzer and myself the reaction about Ambersons he had just received by phone call. This discussion lasted for about two hours, in which he formulated in his mind the basic cuts he felt should be in the picture. About 3 AM he asked for Shores again, saying "Hasn't he come in yet?" "We will keep calling him until you get him as it's very important we settle the work to be covered while I'm gone. I then had to say that I had already spoken to Shores and Shores was very tired, had a headache and told me that he didn't think he could come. When Welles was insistent on his coming I told him that I didn't think he would come. Welles then talked to him on the phone and apparently Shores was very angry, and refused to come for Welles.
We saw him early that morning at the airport and from that time on Shores seems to have taken the attitude of opposition toward Welles and the staff that represented him. From then on, he was opposed to any actions or negotiations in which he did not have an active part as a director. He was also opposed to the Jangadieros from the beginning... His Operations Reports (and probably the accompanying letters) have put an unfair emphasis on Welles and his activities personally, and in no way have they taken into account the many other things he is done connected with the picture, or other aspects of the mission.
...the boys (on the crew) want me all day for shooting and general lending an ear to their beefs. Whatever they feel about Welles they are taking out on me.
"At all times he (Shores) has placed a greater emphasis on the poor morale situation then actually existed. I found, from personally investigating after each time he spoke of it, that it was never really as bad as he said. In most cases he was using a particular incident from an individual member of the group and attributing it to the whole company."
"I got a letter from Joe Cotten in which he said. You don't realize that you've made a sort of dark movie. It's more Chekhov then Tarkington. I got that in Rio. And of course I did it very clearly and intended it that way. You see, he was distressed for me. It was a very sweet letter, all about You know we're doing our best to protect you, but there was this terrible preview, and you don't understand you've made a movie that, in spite of itself, turns out to be very dark. Yes, exactly! That's just what I was making! He had become, with the best will in the world, an active collaborator with Wise, and the janitor of RKO, and whoever else was busy screwing it up. They used him. First they convinced him, undermining his confidence by the preview, convinced him of their point of view, and then used him with me...(Joe) was helping to protect me from this disaster, which the movie would have been had it been released in anything resembling my form. That was a heartbreaking thing because it was very hard for me to reply to that. I don't think I even answered it."
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