REEL 13

Welles and The Magnificent Ambersons

Thursday, August 27th, 2009 at 9:25 am
Orson Welles and Anne Baxter in 'The Magnificent Ambersons'

'The Magnificent Ambersons'

Orson Welles considered several projects for his much-anticipated follow-up to Citizen Kane. His favorite was an adaptation of an espionage novel about a fascist organization in Mexico; Welles’s studio, RKO, vetoed that project, fearing it would upset the Mexican government during wartime.

Welles then settled on adapting The Magnificent Ambersons, a Pulitzer-prize winning novel written by Welles’s family friend, Booth Tarkington, in 1918. Welles once theorized that Tarkington’s character Eugene Morgan was based on his father, Richard Welles, who had also made his fortune as an automobile manufacturer, and that George, the spoiled and egocentric Amberson who inadvertently contributed to his family’s downfall, was based on Orson himself.

Orson Welles had already adapted The Magnificent Ambersons once, in 1939, as a radio play in which he starred as George. He rewrote his script for the screen in just nine days and cast Ray Collins as Jack, George’s uncle, the same role he had played in the radio production. Instead of playing George himself, Welles surprised Hollywood by casting Tim Holt, a second-generation B-movie actor who had intentionally focused his career on westerns.

Welles submitted a $900,000 budget for the film to RKO, $100,000 higher than the studio allowed. Studio executives negotiated with Welles and brought it down to around $850,000; by the end of shooting, however, the film was more than $200,000 over budget (and fourteen days behind schedule). Set construction alone cost $137,265.44; Welles and his production team built full sets for everything, including the Amberson mansion. Many rooms in the mansion had walls that could be repositioned or raised to allow the camera to pass through, allowing Welles more control with continuous takes.

By the time editor Robert Wise had finished his initial cut of the film, Welles had traveled to Brazil at the U.S. State Department’s request to produce a documentary about Latin America titled It’s All True. The American government hoped that Welles’s documentary would promote good will toward the United States in South America; RKO hoped it would open new foreign wartime markets that could replace the now inaccessible European markets.

The initial cut of The Magnificent Ambersons was poorly received; many critics and Welles enthusiasts would later claim that this was a result of a poorly planned screening—the audience was mainly teenagers, and the often somber film was screened following a comedy. Nonetheless, the studio panicked and took control of the project. Editor Robert Wise sent his cut of the film to Brazil for Welles to comment on; this cut, considered by many to be “definitive”, has since been lost. Welles sent thirty seven pages of notes to Wise, who, in turn, attempted to join Welles in Brazil to re-cut the film, but was unsuccessful due to wartime travel restrictions.

RKO, meanwhile, worked with Wise to significantly shorten the film; over forty minutes of footage was cut from the version Wise sent to Welles, and additional scenes were shot by Welles’s assistant directors to provide material for a more upbeat ending. Welles was extremely dissatisfied with RKO’s resulting final cut and several friends have given accounts of Welles emotionally refusing to watch the second half of the film when The Magnificent Ambersons was replayed on television in his later years. RKO burned all other cuts and the original prints, partially to create storage space and partially to prevent Welles or others from altering their final cut. Welles would always consider Wise a traitor for his hand in derailing his vision.

He would also consider The Magnificent Ambersons, which was, for years afterward, viewed by the studio-system as a enormously expensive disaster, and the State Department’s planned documentary It’s All True, which was quickly canceled, for destroying his career. He would never be given the same freedom he had enjoyed on Citizen Kane again.

–-John Light

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  • Bonnie Kirsten

    I consider Orson Welles to be the most talented director in American film. I think it is the greatest tragedy he didn’t get to direct more films, and I’m sorry I can’t see the film “The Magnificent Ambersons” the way he envisioned it.