“Sneak previews are a notoriously unreliable gauge of a film’s worth and potential for success, and RKO did THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS a particular disservice by previewing it before an audience composed mainly of escapism-hungry teenagers…
Although (the many) critiques were slightly mitigated by the occasional eloquent, favorable assessment…Wise and his compatriots could not ignore the sense of restlessness in the crowd and the waves of sarcastic laughter that erupted during the film’s serious scenes, particularly those involving Agnes Moorehead’s flitty, frequently hysterical Aunt Fanny character.
But while Welles’s 22 minutes cut no doubt robbed the movie of some of it’s dramatic momentum, Schaefer, in entrusting The Magnificent Ambersons to a bunch of callow high schoolers, showed some questionable judgement of his own.
As Henry Jaglom says today “If I’d gone to the theatre to see a Dorothy Lamour movie, I’d have hated Ambersons too!”
In mid-April, Schaefer gave Wise full authority to whip the film into releasable shape (though his hoped-for Easter release was no longer a possibility), and on April 20, Freddie Fleck, Welles’s assistant director, shot a new, improbably tidy ending to the picture to replace the existing one.
The mission Rockefeller sent Orson Welles on to South America might have been, partly, to get "the boy genius" out of their hair.
Long before December 7, 1941, Hollywood's profitability was hit hard by the beginning of the war in Europe, September 3, 1939. The old rule of thumb was that a picture paid for its costs in the United States, but made its profit overseas. Suddenly, that rule was in the dustbin.
The Technicolor restriction (for FOUR MEN ON A RAFT) coincided roughly with the previews for Ambersons…In all probability, the disposition of Schaefer and other RKO executives toward Welles’ requests to enhance the Brazilian episodes (with FOUR MEN ON A RAFT in Technicolor) was influenced by the negative box office prognostications for THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS extracted, rightly or wrongly, from the unfavorable audience response to (the Pomona) preview.
April 12th, 1942
Orson Welles to George Schaefer
1270 6th Ave.
New York City
The phone service reached only my apartment despite my instructions to ring the number where I was rehearsing and waiting your call. Armour’s wire today advises me that RKO will not recognize verbal commitments regarding the Urca Casino sequence. Although this and other similar communications have not been from you or addressed to me, I am replying directly to you.
First, it need not be said again that my anxiety to keep costs down is as great as yours, since you yourself requested the abandonment of Technicolor for the “Four Men On a Raft” story. I readily consented to this economy, despite the drastic sacrifice to the quality of my film which it represented.
As to the Urca commitments, I made them personally, in no wise acting in excess of my authority, and in no way inflating the original plans for shooting Carnival in Brazil. These commitments are valid, and as producer I should be consulted before their validity is questioned. I must insist that, if I don’t hear from you personally in these matters, I hear from whoever is issuing the orders; and further, that I be consulted before they become orders. This recent arbitrary treatment has not only been a serious embarrassment to my position in this country, but is costing precious time and money.
Obviously the front office would take no steps regarding any motion picture being made in Hollywood under my responsibility, without first – and at the very least - referring such action to me, it’s producer. Here, real disaster will be the consequence of needless assaults on my authority. Here, true collaboration of interest and effort is terribly necessary, since Hollywood must be ignorant of our problems, the needs of our picture, and their relative proportions. The simple fact in the Urca matter is that our Carnival story is built entirely around and up to the Casino scene. This is the grand finale and single big production number.
April 13, 1942
George Schaefer to Orson Welles
Cable received. Sorry I was unable to reach you by phone, but I gave up in desperation after trying for four days, and after the operator reported she heard your voice on the phone. I frankly cannot agree that you had to “abandon” Technicolor for “Four Men On a Raft”, as we were dumfounded to hear that you even contemplated shooting in anything other then black and white, especially since the equipment had been sent for that particular purpose. I’m sure you can appreciate my worry and concern when I hear commitments have been made to augment the show and practically reconstruct the Urca Casino at a cost of $25,000. At that rate we will have another Ambersons situation on our hands. This latter picture as you know has gone well over $1 million.
It is very painful to send this cable because I know what a stickler you are for quality, but on the other hand, I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that you have no realization of the money you spend and how difficult it is to recoup cost. Enough of that however, I am most anxious that you phone me not later then Wednesday this week.
April 15, 1942
Orson Welles to George Schaefer
Since “Four Men On a Raft” is connected with the “Carnival” story, Black and White is excusable only on grounds of the strictest economy. Technicolor was sent for Carnival, but Carnival was to determine Four Men On a Raft. I therefore came here with the clear understanding that Men On Raft was to be in Technicolor. Black and White equipment was sent principally to protect and cover. I would have no reason to talk to the operator on the phone without talking to you.
The Urca show has only been augmented by a few chorus girls, and I mean a few. This represented no recent caprice on my part, but was always in my calculations, since it was decided to build the Carnival picture up to and around Urca. All that is required, or that we’re paying for, are enough girls to fill the screen. The Urca show was overlong, and rehearsals are necessary to brighten it up. This is part of the cost, since the girls must be paid, Rolla notwithstanding.
I cannot think how you imagined that I planned to reconstruct the casino. Some large areas of the mirror would have to be covered for purposes of camera. The first prices for this were quoted to Hollywood before I had a chance to cut them down.
Rockefeller, who spent millions on paintings by Picasso, Renoir, Matisse, etc. many of which ended up in The Museum of Modern Art, but Rocky couldn't even spring to make a copy of the uncut AMBERSONS or fund the completion of IT'S ALL TRUE. It's no wonder Welles called him a "great coward."
Welles decided to shoot a building... called the Rio Tennis Club...These particular scenes were mostly young girls and boys making love in various odd corners...
...one can sense certain sources of George Schaefer's frustration with him. For example, Welles' throwaway explanation of their inability to speak over the phone for days at a time makes little sense. Obviously, the overseas operator was telling Schaefer that Welles was talking with someone else on the line. Welles acts as if the charge was that HE was the one talking to the operator, clearly something Schaefer was not suggesting.
Lock outs are common today. They're called "down-sizings," or "lay-offs," and our movies and other popular arts say little about them.
Most of our fine arts, as well as our popular art, is decorative, easily adapted to commercial advertising, of little lasting value to ordinary people, except as the sensory Muzak in their lives. We value our art, as we do everything else, by how much money it makes.
…learn some history of why our Popular Arts offer so many explosions, meaningless sexual encounters, fart jokes and appeals to our greed. The fact is that large corporate, political and commercial interests think we are stupid; they have profits and data to support that idea. In case you hadn't noticed, they have defanged the once dangerous beast known as American Art
On Bonito the Bull they only have 40 per cent of what’s needed, though the accumulated expenses are $400,000—so we are just pouring money down the drainpipe……
I was astonished… that even you would have the audacity to turn over such a disgraceful synopsis to Lynn Shores. How in the world with such an outline you expect Shores or even your own men to carry on and give any loyalty to this company and yourself is beyond me to comprehend. The whole thing is a catastrophe, quite apart from the financial aspect: I placed my confidence in you because of my fervid desire to do something for this country… but let me remind you, you are making a picture for our company and are not down in South America as a representative of the Government or an Ambassador of Goodwill. That, while secondary, is something you naturally were supposed to do and it expected from any good American…
In Brazil, they will come to the conclusion that you, the one person in whom they have had confidence, have spoiled all their future possibilities of motion picture production. Everyone admires your work as ambassador, but quite evidently, you have come to the conclusion that you are down there representing the Coordinators office and not RKO.
It was one problem on Citizen Kane; sickness on Ambersons; $150,000 over on Journey Into Fear, now what is the answer in Brazil?
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