This is a paper I wrote for a film class last year (my freshman year in college). I thought you guys might enjoy it (but beware--the comma splice is out of control
Heard Melodies Are Sweet, but Those Unheard Are Sweeter
Welles’ Mutilated Masterpiece: The Magnificent Ambersons
Written by: Joshua Gehling
Perhaps disheartened by the public’s rejection of his first film, Citizen Kane (1941), or perhaps stepping back to make something a little less grand in scope, Orson Welles decided to take on Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons for his second movie at RKO Studios. Admittedly, the film does seem “aimed at the audience that preferred stories about families, romance, and mothers and sons” (Thomson 198), and, furthermore, as the filmmaker Francois Truffaut commented, “[the] film was made in violent contrast to Citizen Kane, almost as if by another filmmaker who detested the first and wanted to give him a lesson in modesty” (McBride 55). However, Welles wasn’t interested in making a film of pure tradition, but rather, as the tagline for the film ominously threatens, he was interested in having: “Real life screened more daringly than it's ever been before” (www.imdb.com
). Unfortunately, with the Axis powers raging like the fires of #### across Europe, an inquisitive social commentary on the progress of America was the last thing an American film audience was looking for in 1942. So, The Magnificent Ambersons was slaughtered in the cutting room and released with nearly an hour missing. The cut footage is now probably gone for good, but descriptions of the lost footage (in interviews, the script, and stills) suggest a tantalizingly beautiful film, and admittedly, the remaining film—though slaughtered—is quite magnificent as well!
George Schaefer, the president of RKO, upon hearing a recording of Welles’ 1939 Mercury Theatre on the Air radio production of Booth Tarkington’s novel, The Magnificent Ambersons, approved the story for production in the summer of 1941 (Thomson 200). Schaefer, however, had somehow overlooked the oppressively bleak story Tarkington had written, which progressed from light to dark (instead of the then traditional Hollywood setup of dark to light), perhaps relying instead on the popularity of the book and the effectiveness of the radio play—as Schaefer constantly exclaimed to Welles, “We need a hit!” (Thomson 202). The story of The Magnificent Ambersons must have seemed extremely banal after the radical ride Kane offered (after all, the story had a temporal beginning and ending, a discernible romance, and no one in power was attacked—what could possibly go wrong?). The budget was the only big problem Schaefer had with Ambersons, but Welles eventually agreed to reduce the large budget of $1 million to $800,000 (Thomson 202-203). The main costs sprung from the gigantic sets Welles was calling for (and why shouldn’t he? He retained most of the “carte blanche” liberties he had enjoyed on Kane) (Thomson 202). So, sometime in early autumn, Welles wrote the script of Ambersons in a nine-day stint on King Vidor’s yacht (McBride 56). Welles’ shooting of the film, which began on October 28, 1941, and finished on January 22, 1942, went just as smoothly as the script-writing process and, despite the fact that the film had went over budget by $300,000, RKO remained hopeful (McBride 56-57). Unfortunately, two short months later, RKO would consider The Magnificent Ambersons one of its biggest failures of 1942 (Thomson 222).
The commercial failure of Citizen Kane, most people would argue, sprung from the deeply offended William Randolph Hearst and the consequent ban imposed upon the film within
his newspapers. The reasons behind the commercial failure of The Magnificent Ambersons, however, are slightly more complicated. Ultimately, the film’s commercial failure can be traced to two main reasons: World War II and the estimated $150,000 debt RKO incurred from Citizen Kane (Thomson 195).
The connection between World War II and The Magnificent Ambersons is quite deep. First of all, the film, which was originally scheduled to open Easter weekend of 1942, had the unfortunate position of following hot on the heels of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941), which solidified America’s involvement in the war. Granted, Kane was released in the shadow of war, but the atmosphere for Ambersons opening was quite different—it was released in the midst of war. “The most successful films of 1942 included Casablanca, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Pride of the Yankees, and Mrs. Miniver” (Thomson 222). The audience of 1942 wasn’t interested in “Real life screened more daringly than it's ever been before” (www.imdb.com
), they were looking for escapist films. In other words, Americans were looking for a wide-eyed glorification of America, certainly not the inquisitive social commentary prompted by Welles in Ambersons—the war was all they could think about, or all they cared to think about.
Additionally, the threat of war presented an exciting new prospect for Welles through the Office of Inter-American Affairs, a government entity “meant to foster feelings of allied goodwill in the Americas [in times of war]” (Thomson 208). In the late winter of 1942, upon being approached by the head of the office, Nelson Rockefeller, “to be a special ambassador for the United States’ Good Neighbor Policy, which aimed to help stem Nazi influence in Latin America” (Berg and Erskine 174), Welles immediately suggested the filming of an idea he had been toying with for nearly a year: a film to be called It’s All True (Thomson 208). The film, originally proposed by work-a-holic Welles in the summer of 1941 (nearly simultaneously with the proposal for two other Welles films: Journey Into Fear, which was ultimately credited to director Norman Foster, and The Magnificent Ambersons), was to be an anthology of fictional short stories that had a basis in fact (Berg and Erskine 173-174). Through this unexpected appeal from the Office of Inter-American Affairs, Welles now had RKO’s approval to begin work on the film in South America. Unfortunately, one of the segments Welles wished to film for It’s All True, an exciting carnival in Rio de Janeiro that took place in mid-February of 1941, caused Welles to abandon the shooting of Journey Into Fear to Norman Foster and the editing of The Magnificent Ambersons, which the director hurriedly finished shooting on January 22, 1942, to Robert Wise, Welles’ trusted editor from Citizen Kane (Thomson 209).
The second of the two aforementioned causes for the commercial failure of Ambersons lies in the commercial failure for Welles’ first film, Citizen Kane. George Schaefer, after the incredible difficulties with releasing Kane, was naturally worried about any problems that may arise with The Magnificent Ambersons, so he ordered a screening of the film (the supposed director’s cut—which ran two hours and twelve minutes) for RKO executives sometime in early March of 1942; Schaeffer felt it was too long, however, Cy Endfield exclaimed: “it was the best [movie] I’d ever seen” (Thomson 214). Nevertheless, Schaeffer hopefully turned to Welles (now filming It’s All True in Rio de Janeiro) for suggestions on how to cut the lengthy film. Welles’ elaborately detailed comments soon came rushing back through cable, and the film’s editor, Robert Wise, attempted to fly to Rio to meet up with Welles in order to work on a new cut of Ambersons (Carringer 280). Unfortunately, Wise’s trip was denied at the last minute due to wartime restrictions (Carringer 280). Admittedly, it certainly would not have been too difficult for Welles’ to return to America (unfortunately, he was enthralled in the exciting Rio night-life—as demonstrated by his quote to Jack Moss, the Mercury Theatre business manager, in which Welles, upon showing Moss a scene of a Rio nightclub for It’s All True, proclaimed: “I’ve fucked that one… and that one…and that one” (Thomson 216)), or for Wise to come to Rio (after all, RKO could argue that it was the government’s fault that Welles was in Rio in the first place), however, the men continued to communicate by cable alone (Carringer 280).
On March 17, 1942, undoubtedly fearing the red numbers that Welles’ second film may evoke, RKO previewed the film to the public (something that had never happened for Kane (Bogdanovich et al. 122)) at the Fox Theatre in Pomona, CA (three scenes were cut from the RKO executive screening, giving the film a run-time of just over two hours) (Thomson 214); Schaefer wanted the film ready for an Easter release (one of the best times of the year for the box office)—after Pomona, however, he wouldn’t be done with the film until the height of summer (Carringer 280-281). The comment cards for the Pomona preview were decidedly negative: 53 positive responses against 72 negative (Bogdanovich et al. 116); comments to the question “Did you like this picture?” met with negative responses such as: “No, the worst picture I ever saw,” “It stinks,” “Rubbish,” and my absolute favorite: “No, it’s as bad if not worse than Citizen Kane” (I’d watch a film that bad any day!), however, the film also met with quite a bit of praise: “Exceedingly good picture,” “The picture was a masterpiece with perfect photography,” and, again, “I think it was the best picture I have ever seen” (Bogdanovich et al. 117).
Unfortunately, despite the fact that preview audiences were often wrong (for example, producer Darryl Zanuck’s screening of John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath, one of the most popular and critically acclaimed films in history, was nearly as disastrous as the preview for Ambersons, but Zanuck wisely replied, “Ship it—don’t touch a foot of it.”) (Bogdanovich et al. 118), Schaefer, undoubtedly fearing moves within RKO to have him replaced as president of the company, feverishly began looking for ways to “fix” the film (Thomson 214-215). Schaefer asked Ross Hastings, an RKO lawyer, about his legal rights to cut the film. Unfortunately, because of the time it had taken Welles to complete one film (Citizen Kane), his original “carte blanche” contract had been waived (Thomson 195)—therefore, he no longer had the right to make the final cut of the picture (Carringer 281). Upon receiving this news, the barrage of telegrams being sent in by Welles (from Rio where he was filming It’s All True) began to go unopened at RKO (Thomson 216). The studio tried another preview at Pasadena, CA, with a shorter cut of the film on March 19th, 1942; reactions were more favorable, but Schaefer remained unimpressed (Thomson 215). Editing on Ambersons continued rapidly (two more previews were held at Inglewood, CA, and Long Beach, CA) until Schaefer approved a final print on June 8th, 1942 (Carringer 300).
Interestingly enough, after Pasadena, RKO began inviting “experts” in to “repair” the film (Bogdanovich et al. 124-125). The most comical of these, according to Jack Moss, was producer Bryan Foy, who suggested: “throw all the footage up in the air and grab everything but forty minutes—it don’t matter what the fuck you cut. Just lose forty minutes” (Bogdanovich et al. 124-125). Unfortunately, the studio’s final cut of Ambersons follows Bryan Foy’s quote rather closely. Somehow, the film, from its original cut in early March to its final cut, released on July 10, 1942, had managed to go from 132 minutes long to a startlingly slim 88 minute run-time—roughly 44 minutes had been cut from Ambersons (Thomson 219) (that’s the difference between an epic and a Disney film)! To add insult to injury: the 44 minutes of cut footage from the film was held in RKO’s vault for a few months, and then eventually burned to make storage space (www.ambersons.com/FAQs.htm
)! RKO had a new slogan in 1942: “Showmanship in place of genius” (McBride 53), and this final, truncated version of the film followed this model to a “T”. The studio’s version (certainly not a “small” picture with its $1.118 million budget) eventually opened on a double bill with a seventy-minute Lupe Velez film (Thomson 222). In other words, The Magnificent Ambersons was given roughly the same chances at survival at the box office as a firstborn male in Egypt was given during the first Passover. The film lost an estimated $600,000 at the box office (McBride 60).
The critical response to the released Ambersons was just as lukewarm as the previews had been. Farber Manny at The New Republic felt the film “should show […] that filmmaking, radio, and stage are three different guys better kept separated,” he also proclaimed: “while telling this story, haltingly and clumsily, the movie runs from bothersome through heavy and dull to bad.” The reviewer for Time magazine, however, had a completely different response to the movie: “The Magnificent Ambersons is a magnificent movie,” and “Hollywood is now confronted with the painful necessity of admitting that outsider Orson Welles is its most important and exciting cinemaestro.” The most cohesive argument for the film’s failure comes from the reviewer in Variety magazine, who laments: “with a world in flame, nations shattered, populations in rags, with massacres and bombings, Welles devotes 9,000 feet of film to a spoiled brat who grows up as a spoiled, spiteful young man.” None of the critics in 1942 noted the unfortunate editing job that was conducted behind the scenes at RKO.
Like Kane, Ambersons was “honored” (perhaps “teased” is a better word) with many Academy Award nominations (four, to be exact). It won nothing (Thomson 223). Thankfully, by the late 1960s, there was a renewed interest in The Magnificent Ambersons. In 1968, Joseph McBride printed a reconstruction of the film in his book, aptly titled Orson Welles, while the infamous filmmaker/critic Francois Truffaut described Ambersons as “a mutilated masterpiece” (McBride 53). Even Welles himself (who often proclaimed: “it [Ambersons] was a much better picture than Kane—if they’d just left it as it was” (Bogdanovich et al. 114)) showed a renewed interest in the film in the early 1970s when he often talked about re-filming the cut scenes of Ambersons. Unfortunately, these plans went up in smoke with the death of Agnes Moorehead in 1974 (Berg and Erskine 238). The rise in popularity of The Magnificent Ambersons is evident in the popular film magazine Sight and Sound, and its famous “Top 10 Films” articles (conducted every ten years). In their 1972 poll, ten years after Kane’s emergence as the magazine’s #1 film of all time, Ambersons appeared on the list, tied for 8th place. It was on the list again in 1982 (then tied for 7th place), but it hasn’t appeared on the list since. The reasoning behind this sudden resurgence in the film’s popularity is fairly understandable—the film had been a rather obscure title until a renewed interest in Welles erupted in the late 60s (as more and more new filmmakers wished to claim Welles as their director), however, the popularity for Ambersons was eventually quelled as people’s initial excitement for the film lessened because of the inherent flaws contained within the movie due to its glaring mutilation. The film began to be admired for the missing footage that couldn’t be seen—that could only be imagined—rather than the 88-minute cut that remains. “If […] the lost footage of […] Greed is the cinematic equivalent of the Holy Grail, then the cinematic equivalent of the lost Ark of the Covenant surely must be the lost footage of The Magnificent Ambersons” (McBride 53). As the poet John Keats said in “Ode on a Grecian Urn”: “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter […].”
And how sweet it is to revel in the script and stills that remain of the 44 minutes cut from Ambersons! Some of the highlights include a delightfully dreary boardinghouse finale, which Welles described as: “The end of the communication between people, as well as the end of an era,” and, “without question it was much the best scene in the movie” (Bogdanovich et al. 130). Unfortunately, however, the boardinghouse was replaced by a cheery hospital scene, directed by the film’s editor Robert Wise, in which the complete tone of the film is altered in the blink of an eye. Also, a continuous shot of George’s party at the beginning of the film originally took up nearly a whole reel of film (something akin to the incredible opening shot of Welles’ 1958 film A Touch of Evil) as the camera slowly glided through four rooms of the Amberson mansion. Unfortunately, this scene was split up by a series of cuts in RKO’s final version of the film (the logic of cutting up this shot absolutely eludes me—the set-piece of the Amberson mansion, which encompassed nearly half of the $1.118 million budget of the film, was elaborately constructed for this scene alone—why cut one of the major attractions of the picture?) (Bogdanovich et al. 125-126). Finally, the fall of the Amberson family in Welles’ cut, at least according to the script, makes perfect sense. Unfortunately, the fall of the Amberson family in the final cut of the film is nearly incomprehensible due to the lawnmower editing of Robert Wise (we never see the new lots being built in the Amberson’s yard, or understand how brutal the headlight investment was to Uncle Jack, or understand the implications of the misplaced deed to the house—in fact, we don’t understand much of anything in the second half of the film due to the high number of missing scenes, not to mention the newly added contradictory scenes).
Fortunately, the movie that remains is still quite a film! The beauty and innocence of the first half of the film contrast rather violently (as Welles intended) with the tragic downfall of the Amberson family in the film’s second half (the two acts are divided by a super-cool iris-out, a technique of the silent era of films, the old era), very similar in structure to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. This Shakespearean influence is certainly not uncommon in the films of Welles, as Ruth Warrick notes on WB’s Citizen Kane DVD: “[Orson always said] if you know the Bible and know Shakespeare—that’s all you need to know for life.” In fact, this connection between Shakespeare and The Magnificent Ambersons deepens, as Robert Carringer notes in response to the missing Hamlet from Welles’ film repertoire (he appeared in filmed versions of Shakespeare’s three other main tragedies: Othello (1952), King Lear (1953), and Macbeth (1948)): “Welles did produce a […] version of Hamlet in The Magnificent Ambersons” (Carringer 31). And, admittedly, perhaps the eerie similarities between the two stories (at least in a Freudian reading of Hamlet) are what attracted Welles to Booth Tarkington’s novel. Additionally, thematically, the film is akin to reading a few verses from Ecclesiastes (“One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh, but the Earth abideth forever”) due to its “all things must pass” message.
Ultimately, however, the film is certainly not remembered for its story, but rather for its awesome aesthetic beauty. The film is undoubtedly much more focused on the mise-en-scène elements of filmmaking, rather than the editing process—indeed, Welles is nearly editing with the camera (Beja 137). This is most recognizable in his constant usage of sequence shots, in which the camera is placed in a position so as to allow a complete scene to be played out in front of it for the sake of realism (Beja 138). Although the greatest example of the sequence shot, the ball room scene, was unfortunately mutilated, many great examples remain, such as: Fanny’s talk with George over strawberry shortcake, George and Lucy’s carriage ride, Uncle Jack’s visit to Eugene regarding Isabel overseas, and Eugene’s scene with Lucy in the garden. Another technique used to build the film’s impression within a scene, is through the usage of deep focus, which Welles picked up from Citizen Kane’s cinematographer, Gregg Toland (Beja 139). Nowhere is deep focus (when the objects in the background are just as in focus as the objects in the foreground) more prominent in Ambersons than in the ball, where the viewer can literally choose what image he wants to view—whether it is a beautiful couple dancing in the background, a delightful chandelier in the middle ground, or a nearby arrangement of refreshments in the foreground—it’s the viewers prerogative what he/she wants to watch (a very liberal—and realistic—filmmaking method, indeed!).
Granted, Welles certainly didn’t invent the deep focus technique (heck, he merely picked it up from Toland), however, he was definitely one of the first directors who knew how to construct images in depth (Beja 140). For instance, at the Amberson ball towards the start of the film, Welles isn’t simply using deep focus—he has mastered it! In one scene in the ball sequence, for instance: if one wishes to view the signs of jealousy emerging in Aunt Fanny, it’s in the background; if one longs to see the delightful dancing between Isabel and Eugene, you can look in the middle ground; and if one hungers to see the budding love between George and Lucy, it’s in the foreground! This beautiful attention to detail in “constructing” each scene also includes the awesome camera angles Orson Welles utilizes so well in Ambersons. As in Kane, a low angle on a character is used to represent prominence, while a high angle is used to represent their insignificance. Likewise, a short character in the foreground may appear larger than taller characters in the background (i.e. young George’s punishment after getting into a scuffle) to suggest prominence (or at least imagined prominence).
Another area that Ambersons is known for is its realism (Beja 138). Two perfect examples of Welles’ ceaseless devotion to realism in the film are: George and Lucy’s carriage ride, and the daytime snow scene. George and Lucy’s ride, which must have filled nearly half a reel in 1942, is a sequence shot using an old RKO back lot. Years later, when asked if he intended to use rear projection on the scene (certainly the most likely, and easiest, option for nearly all film directors of the 1940s), Welles, in a great show of his devotion for filmmaking, quickly replied: “Never” (Bogdanovich et al. 127). Additionally, the snow scene is another great leap towards purveying a sense of realism for the audience. Welles refused to shoot the scene in a traditional set because the actors’ breath could not be seen, so the production for the sleigh scene was moved to an icehouse in downtown L.A. (Thomson 205). “The temperature presented many problems: lights blew out [,] there was a disconcerting stink of fish [,] [and] the icehouse had few other facilities suitable for cast and crew. But the actors’ breath showed” (Thomson 205). Additionally, because of the terrible acoustics within the icehouse, the dialogue for the scene was recorded in a studio afterwards and inserted into the film (the innovations in sound design, exacted throughout Ambersons, is almost certainly carried over from Welles’ radio career) (Thomson 205). Although this method of dubbing would hinder some of Welles’ later works, the large RKO budget allows for the emergence of many beautiful, well-rounded scenes in Ambersons (for instance: the sleigh ride and the Amberson ball). Furthermore, this dubbing process gives the camera in Ambersons, much like in Kane, nearly unlimited freedom to wander through a scene—like a ghost (some examples of this remain in the Amberson ball, or when Fanny and George argue on the staircase)!
But, unfortunately, as much as one talks about the 88-minute cut of The Magnificent Ambersons we have today, they are always haunted by the intriguing stills, storyboards, and script that have been left behind from the 132 minute cut of the film. Like Samuel Taylor Coleridge proved in the poem “Kubla Khan,” or Brian Wilson sadly demonstrated with his incomplete “SMiLE!” album, sometimes the unfinished project—and the mythology surrounding it (for “Kubla Khan” it’s the visitor from Porlock; for “SMiLE!” it’s Brian Wilson’s ravishing LSD addiction; and for Ambersons it’s the larger-than-life genius of Orson Welles being destroyed by the Hollywood hierarchy)—is just as exciting as any finished project. So, as John Keats aptly exclaimed:
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endeared,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone [!]
1. Primary Sources:
Farber, Manny. “Twice Over Heavily,” The New Republic. August 10, 1942, v. 107, p.173.
“The Magnificent Ambersons Review,” New York Times. August, 14, 1942.
“The Magnificent Ambersons Review,” Newsweek. July 20, 1942, v. 20, p. 56.
“The Magnificent Ambersons Review,” Variety. July 1, 1942.
“The New Pictures: The Magnificent Ambersons,” Time. July 20, 1942, v. 40 (pt. 1), p. 42.
2. Secondary Sources:
Bazin, André. Orson Welles: A Critical View. New York: Harper and Row Inc., 1978.
Beja, Morris, ed. Perspectives on Orson Welles. New York: Simon and Schuster Macmillan, 1995.
Bogdanovich, Peter, Joseph Rosenbaum and Orson Welles. This Is Orson Welles. New York: Da Capo Press, 1998.
Carringer, Robert L. The Magnificent Ambersons: A Reconstruction. California: The University of California Press, 1993.
Magnificent Ambersons, The. Dir. Orson Welles, Perf. Joseph Cotton and Tim Holt, Com. Robert L. Carringer. Criterion Ed. Laserdisc. Criterion, 1988.
Mcbride, Joseph. Orson Welles. New York: Da Capo Press, 1972.
Thomson, David. Rosebud. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996.
“Top 10 Films: The Rules of The Game,” Sight and Sound. September 2002, v. 12, issue 9, pp. 24-50.
3. Reference Works:
Berg, Chuck and Tom Erskine. The Encyclopedia of Orson Welles. New York: Checkmark Books, 2003, pp. 235-239.
“The Magnificent Ambersons” in The Encyclopedia of Film. New York: Putnam Publishing, 1991, p. 570.
4. Internet Sources:
Internet Movie Database: “The Magnificent Ambersons.” http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0035015/
Wilson, Jeff. Wellesnet. "Orson Welles and the Un-Making of The Magnificent Ambersons: A Brief History." April 2001. http://www.wellesnet.com/Unmaking%20Ambersons.htm
Lightfoot, Jeff. Ambersons FAQ. Unknown Date. http://www.ambersons.com/FAQs.htm