ORSON WELLES, KNEELING, AND ROBERT WISE SECOND FROM LEFT ON THE FIRST DAY OF SHOOTING ON AMBERSONS
When reading these interviews with Orson Welles and Robert Wise it should be understood that both men were talking from memory. In Welles case it was 25-30 years after the fact and with Wise almost sixty. As such, they both exhibited extraordinary feats of memory. Nevertheless, as is the case with memory, there are inaccuracies as to detail and certain specifics. Nevertheless, their overall take on their work on AMBERSONS as expressed here is as complete a presentation of their points of view on the subject as can be found.
1-PETER BOGDANOVICH ORSON WELLES INTERVIEW (Excerpt)
© Oja Kodar, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Peter Bogdanovich
PETER BOGDANOVICH: Why did you choose Tim Holt for George Minafer?
ORSON WELLES: I don’t remember why but I decided that the part had be a movie actor and not a stage actor so I ran every picture you could imagine before I found Tim. Before I decided on him I ran six or eight movies that he had made besides BACK STREET, his most famous picture at the time. And then we ran all kinds of six-day western movies Tim had done before we were absolutely certain. I was so glad, as it was a lucky, lucky decision. Tim was the most marvelous fellow to work with that you could imagine and unforgettably nice. He would even hold his own gobo [stencil in front of light ] with one hand while he acted in a scene which came from his B-western training. He was also one of the most interesting actors that’s ever worked in American movies. He decided to be a cowboy actor and only made two or three important pictures during his career but was very careful not to follow them up. It was his entirely his decision to go back to bread and butter B-westerns and have that kind of career. He could have gone on making A-pictures but he deliberately decided not to, and go back to westerns. It was an intelligent man’s decision.
PETER BOGDANOVICH: What about STAGECOACH?
ORSON WELLES: He did an awful lot of stunts on that one and was the man who jumps on the horses. That’s Holt. He was also a stuntman and did a great many of the difficult stunts there. He claimed that Ford did everything possible to kill him. He loved Ford and talked happily how he escaped death more than once. He stated it with great affection as someone who had been through the wars. I used to pump him about Ford for hours.
PETER BOGDANOVICH: Tim Holt’s character, who represents the dying plutocracy, is quite unpleasant; and Eugene the representative of the mercantile age, it’s very attractive.
ORSON WELLES: Well, just because he’s bringing the whole stinking hell of the automobile age doesn’t mean he isn’t a nice human being. He admits it himself that what he is doing may be a bad thing. Cotton played the role quite marvelously, I think.
PETER BOGDANOVICH: I like the dinner scene exactly because of Cotton’s ambiguity towards the automobile. For his big speech in the dinner scene, did you give him that piece of business — playing with the spoon as he talks?
ORSON WELLES: I wonder. I rather think it was probably his. Those kind of things usually comes from actors.
PETER BOGDANOVICH: You know, it wasn’t until about the fourth or fifth time I saw the picture that I saw any social points.
ORSON WELLES: One shouldn’t ever be conscious of the author as lecturer. When social or moral points are too heavily stressed I always get uncomfortable.
PETER BOGDANOVICH: Well, in AMBERSONS, the social observation is so integral to the story of the people that it never intrudes.
ORSON WELLES: Had to be careful about that. The only points I don’t mind really stressing are ones that deal with character.
PETER BOGDANOVICH: The influence of radio is very apparent in AMBERSONS.
ORSON WELLES: The narration, you mean? I’d like to do more of it in movies
PETER BOGDANOVICH: Using a narrator who is not a participant? The narrator in AMBERSONS has the quality of a story teller. I was also very interested in the townspeople as narrators.
ORSON WELLES: As chorus. In a way it was a radio device the narrator who just comes out and tells the story. I like that very much. It had the narrator who was not a character; just a narrator speaking kind of conversationally and anecdotal at the beginning. It’s something that I hoped to develop and do more in other pictures. I’ve done it in some scripts but never again had a chance to do it in movies. And I’d like to.
PETER BOGDANOVICH: It’s supposedly un-cinematic.
ORSON WELLES: That’s a cliché. It being un-cinematic is nonsense. I think words are terribly important in talking pictures. It’s not true that words don’t matter. It is true you get a bigger impact with the visual but that’s not to say that words are incidental. There’s an awful lot of talking in a many of my pictures. I have no aversion to a lot of talk.
PETER BOGDANOVICH: I liked very much narrating the credits at the end and particularly your sigh off—“My name is Orson Welles.”
ORSON WELLES: I got a lot of hell because of that. People think it’s egotistic. The truth is, I was just speaking to the public who knew me from the radio in a way they were used to hearing on our shows. In those days we had an enormous public—in the millions—who heard us every week, so it didn’t seem so pompous to end a movie in our radio style.
PETER BOGDANOVICH: When did you record the narration?
ORSON WELLES: The night before I left for South America to begin IT’S ALL TRUE. I went to the projection room at about four in the morning, did the whole thing, and then got on a plane and was off to Rio — and the end of civilization as we know it.
PETER BOGDANOVICH: The script for AMBERSONS is one of the tightest ever written. For instance, the prologue establishes all the characters in three or four situations, sets up the period and the customs of the era, all within the first few minutes.
ORSON WELLES: I don’t like to dwell on things.
PETER BOGDANOVICH: You wrote the script for AMBERSONS alone?
ORSON WELLES: Yes. Quite a lot of it on King Vidor’s yacht off Catalina. And the rest of it in Mexico with Molly Kent, the script girl from KANE, doing the secretarial work on it — best script girl that ever existed. Then we rehearsed it longer than I’ve ever rehearsed anything in movies. It was a relatively small cast, and everybody worked very hard. I think we were five weeks — not on the set or anything, no movements, just rehearsing the words. We discussed everybody’s life, each one’s character, their background, their position at this moment in the story, what they would think about everything. Then we sat down and recorded every scene which I’ve often done, for reference, so we could remember the way we’d decided that it ought to sound like even if we were going to change our minds later. I rerecorded the whole show so that the actors would listen to the way they played it in rehearsal. Because the tendency of all actors in front of the camera is to slow up. I wanted them to hear how quickly and brilliantly they played it in rehearsal. This sound would never be heard in a movie theater. It would only be heard by the actors about to perform in front of the camera. It was a device to avoid the tendency of all actors to forget the fine points of the rehearsal when they think of their being recorded as well as their voice. So when we came on the set we had decided how it ought to sound even if we were going to change our minds later. And, I’ve done that since a lot.
BOGDANOVICH: It saves time.
ORSON WELLES: It does but also it gives new ideas; you see what’s wrong and you come fresh after a week or two. Anyway, it didn’t turn out to be much of a time saver as our camerawork moved very slowly. Let’s put it that way. In fact, the cameraman was so slow that the picture took longer to shoot than any picture I’ve ever done; instead of shorter as it was planned. The picture was very carefully planned.
BOGDANOVICH: Do you ever discuss the picture as a whole with the actors?
ORSON WELLES: It’s very much against my principles to tell a cast of people what I intend a picture or play to be like, because it sometimes turns out to be something else and they shouldn’t catch you making a mistake. That’s one reason, and the second is they’re all thinking about themselves anyway. So talk about them. Don’t talk about the grand canvas. You know, they start chewing gum and looking out the window.”
PETER BOGDANOVICH: With AMBERSONS it’s the end of chivalry and an era.
ORSON WELLES: Yes. That’s the thing that interested me.
PETER BOGDANOVICH: Yet, the opening prologue has a slightly mocking tone mixed with nostalgia.
ORSON WELLES: I think we tend to look back on the immediate past — the past that isn’t history but still a dim memory — as being faintly comic. It’s an American attitude. I remember my own parents looking at old pictures of themselves and laughing.
PETER BOGDANOVICH: Why did you make fun of men’s clothes and not women’s?
ORSON WELLES: Because the men’s clothes were funny and the women’s weren’t. The women’s clothes were beautiful.
PETER BOGDANOVICH: Did you have to study that period, or was it second nature to you?
ORSON WELLES: It was much easier to do that period, because you could find the props and costumes for it in storage. It’s very much harder to make an eighteenth-century movie, because the clothes and furniture and the wigs aren’t ever really right.
PETER BOGDANOVICH: The staircase seems to dominate one’s memory of AMBERSONS.
ORSON WELLES: Well, the heart of a pompous house was its pompous staircase. It’s all that imitation-palace business since it’s a meaningless thing in a house. These people haven’t got any royal processions to make, but they wouldn’t admit it. I had great aunts who lived in houses exactly like that one. There was one house that had a ballroom on the top floor, just like the AMBERSONS.
PETER BOGDANOVICH: The top floor?
ORSON WELLES: The third floor, not the attic. And at some stage somebody changed it into an indoor golf course — some second husband, I guess. I remember those terrible green felt hills built all over the old ballroom. Ann Baxter was the granddaughter of Frank Lloyd Wright and the old man visited the sets all the time we were shooting and made withering remarks about them. I kept saying “but Mr. Wright we agree with you. That’s the whole point of these sets.” But he couldn’t get over how awful that people ever lived in these kinds of houses. We couldn’t get him to see what our intention was; that the ridiculousness of it was part of our story. He finally did but he just wanted to sound off a lot on the thing
PETER BOGDANOVICH: Was it difficult to shot the Ball scenes?
ORSON WELLES: Yes of course. Technically it was of course a big job but not as hard as you might think because the sets were built for it. We didn’t go into a set and wonder what we would do as in “Let’s do these elaborate shots.” All the camera movement were planned before the sets were built. I said this wall is going here and this wall is going there before we started. We got to the reverse shots by camera movement. They just seem to be cuts. It was the greatest tour de force of my career! [Regarding cuts] No way of saying it didn’t work. I never did anything that didn’t work. I did things people didn’t like. But any story you hear about something not working: not true.
PETER BOGDANOVICH: Did it save time?
ORSON WELLES: You mean the set ups? I never planned set ups. The sketch artists do that but I never pay any attention to them. They like to do that. We planned everything technically.
PETER BOGDANOVICH: Probably the silliest cut I know of comes in the middle of a long sustained shot during the ball when two characters make some comment about olives, which were evidently new to America at the turn of the century.
ORSON WELLES: Yes, you didn’t get to see the little joke about the olives because some lame bran said, “What’s olives got to do with it?” One of those things. They cut into two pieces our crane shot. One reel without a cut. The result was a useless jump in an otherwise unbroken scene. Too bad. I like digressions, don’t you? One little digression can give reverberation and density to ordinary narrative.
PETER BOGDANOVICH: Perhaps the best things in your pictures are the digressions.
ORSON WELLES: Maybe that’s why I’ve suffered so much from the cutters.
PETER BOGDANOVICH: Anyway, the olives cut killed your shot.
ORSON WELLES: Not stone dead, but it was kind of a shame to have worked that hard: four rooms with everything rolling back—an absolute triumph of technical engineering on everybody’s part.
PETER BOGDANOVICH: Where did you shoot the snow sequence?
ORSON WELLES: All inside. The “ice house”—a refrigerated soundstage in downtown Los Angeles. Our snow scene in KANE was all shot on Stage 4 at RKO with corn-flacks, and it worried me because you didn’t see people’s breath.
PETER BOGDANOVICH: The scene with George and Lucy in the buggy. Was that intended as a rear-projection?
ORSON WELLES: No. Never. It’s was shot on the RKO back lot in Encino. We didn’t build anything as everything was standing sets. The streets were there and we just re-dressed. They just ride along. It was a long, long scene with no cuts.
PETER BOGDANOVICH: And the other side of the street is reflected in the windows.
ORSON WELLES: Yes, we used the reflections instead of trying to avoid them.
PETER BOGDANOVICH: You also shot Lucy and George’s long walk there as well.
ORSON WELLES: Yes. An in joke is that that a Jack Holt picture is playing in a local movie theater. It was an anachronism as it was too early for that as Jack wasn’t around that early but it was just to make [his son] Tim Holt happy. His father was coming to visit us for lunch that day.
PETER BOGDANOVICH: How did you come to cast Dolores Costello?
ORSON WELLES: I’d thought of Mary Pickford. I talked to her a lot and she almost did it but I’m glad she didn’t. I don’t think she’d have been right. Finally we thought of Dolores Costello. Brought her back from total retirement. You might have thought she’d want to watch what we were up to. In rehearsals, I mean. But she was quite unfocused. Nothing naughty; just not wanting to be an actress.
PETER BOGDANOVICH: But the scene where she dies was heartbreaking.
ORSON WELLES: It’s hurt by the fact that they cut the scenes that preceded and followed it. It worked better with the length that it had before. It was very long and moving when she is brought back to the house. It was the extended scene which made that sharp finish much more effective because there was a big sustained thing before it.
PETER BOGDANOVICH: Then why did you yourself suggest so many cuts from Rio?
ORSON WELLES: I was trying to protect something. I was trapped down there. I couldn’t leave, and all I kept getting were those terrible signals about this awful movie I’d made. My own chums were running frightened—not just RKO. All I could do was send wires and I knew I was already in an area of compromise when I was sending wires. But I couldn’t walk out on a job which had a diplomatic overtones. I was representing America in Brazil you see. And I couldn’t get my film back in my hands. When I went to South America they promised that they would send a moviola and cutters to me and I would finish the cutting of AMBERSONS there. They never did. They cut it themselves.
PETER BOGDANOVICH: Were you shaken in your confidence.
ORSON WELLES: Shaken. You bet. Even those people who truly had my interests at heart felt that I’d gone too far. I didn’t think I had and I still don’t.
PETER BOGDANOVICH: Well it seemed to me that a lot of your cuts were somewhat drastic, too.
ORSON WELLES: I was bargaining. “I’ll give you that if you’ll leave me this.” They’d got so spooked because of that bad preview. And they’d been no preview of KANE. Think what would have happened to KANE if there had been one. I had no idea they would prevail. I thought that what I would say still carried some weight. I expected it! But the point is that my mind didn’t even go to “final cut.” I thought that it went without saying that, if it had to be previewed, my best rough cut would be shown and that we would talk over anything that didn’t work. But I was against the preview, as I was with KANE. See, people don’t understand how many people disliked KANE when it came out. People shouted to me on the street, “Hey Ors, what’s that KANE about?”—And, I expected the same thing on AMBERSONS, and a stronger backlash of approval, because I was certain of the quality of what I was doing.
PETER BOGDANOVICH: There were some letter-writing scenes that you wrote in South America which Robert Wise shot. Why did you write them?
ORSON WELLES: To try and cover up some of those wild cuts they were making. I didn’t know Robert Wise did the shooting.
PETER BOGDANOVICH: I read that was a great deal of improvisation in the scene in the kitchen after George has graduated from college.
ORSON WELLES: Not the material but what was said. It was improvised from material that had been discussed and given to the actors. They didn’t memorize it. Something is truly improvised if you make up a scene. Here they knew exactly the words for a scene and it was shaped before we began as some of the lines were already settled. It was loose in that sense. The actors have to be used to working together and it gets to be a great deal of fun if you do it right. It’s hard to explain. The rhythm of it was set. It’s just that the precise words weren’t but it was very carefully rehearsed.
PETER BOGDANOVICH: In the scene where the Major sits in front of the fire, Richard Bennett really looked like he was dying.
ORSON WELLES: Yes, dear man. I loved him so. I’d been breathless fan of his in the theater. He had the greatest lyric power of any actor I ever saw on the English stage. There is no way to describe the beauty of that man in the theater.
PETER BOGDANOVICH: He was the father of the Bennet sisters.
ORSON WELLES: Yes and he was great and famous on the stage. By that time he was incapable of remembering even a single word of dialogue, so I spoke every line and he repeated it after me, and we cut my voice from the sound track…I’d found him out in Catalina in a little boarding house which was, I guess the inspiration for the boarding house at the end of my original version of AMBERSONS. He was living there—totally forgotten by the world—this great, great actor. And think what it meant to him at the end of his life to be brought back and to suddenly play an important role? And to have people admire and respect him, as we did…as we all did…Right afterwards he died.
PETER BOGDANOVICH: George’s last walk home. Were there miniatures in that?
ORSON WELLES: That’s downtown L.A. I went and shot it. What they left in was a sort of a “Coming Attractions” type montage….Then, too, you know we had the end of all the other characters—not just Tim Holt. These other people weren’t incidental to the story—they were all of equal importance. You followed Ray Collins right to the finish of him. And Cotton and Moorehead, and—more fully—Richard Bennett. What you now have is a sort of synopsized version.
PETER BOGDANOVICH: Is it true that you rehearsed Moorhead so often in her scene by the boiler that she really did become hysterical.
ORSON WELLES: Well, she became more and more real. I didn’t put her into a state of hysterics; I don’t work that way with actors.
PETER BOGDANOVICH: She is quite remarkable.
ORSON WELLES: The big scene at the boiler is only half of what it was because some idiots laughed at it at the preview. The scene got hordes of laughter from some stupid Saturday night audience. So, the studio ran scarred and clipped the scene, cutting it in half. You should have seen that scene when it went the whole distance. The whole distance would have flayed you alive—Aggie was just that good. It was longer and it was better because it was longer. It was hysterical and I think that any scene that is really disturbing will always make some people laugh. They almost took it out of the picture entirely, they were so worried by those laughs. Imagine Why Moorehead didn’t get an academy award for that performance I’ll never know.
PETER BOGDANOVICH: Did you have Agnes Moorehead in mind when you were writing the script?
ORSON WELLES: There wasn’t any question about it. How could there be? She’s been all those years with us—it was going to be her great part and indeed it was, particularly in its full version. If only you’d seen how she wrapped up the whole story at the end of my version.
PETER BOGDANOVICH: It’s pretty obvious to anyone who knows your work you didn’t shoot the last scene in the film that exists now.
ORSON WELLES: That scene was shot without my knowledge or consent. There are two short scenes that I didn’t write or direct. I edited Ambersons, despite the fact that there were scenes not by me, but my editing was modified. The basic editing is mine and, when a scene of the film holds together, it is because I edited it. In other words, everything happens as if a man painted a picture: he finishes it and someone comes to do the touch up, but he cannot of course add paint all over the surface of the canvas. I worked months and months on the editing of Ambersons before it was taken away from me: thus all this work is there on the screen. But for my style, for my vision of cinema, the editing is not one aspect, it is the aspect. And over three reels were taken out in their entirety and they were in my view the reason for making the film. Not simply good reels but the whole film was a preparation for those reels. The end involved a very serious piece of surgery in that change.
PETER BOGDANOVICH: Tell me about the original ending in the boarding house ending.
ORSON WELLES: At the end Jo cotton went to see how Fanny is doing after all these years. She’s in a cheap third-rate boarding house and there’s nothing left between them and that’s what the scene is all about. A long key scene at the end which had Agee Moorehead in a third rate lodging house near with an elevated train passing. They’re playing a comic record, “Two Black Crows” on a gramophone; old people in the back playing cards. That was the best scene in the picture. It was what the picture was about. Joe Cotton has come to see how she is and everything is over; her feelings and her world and his world. Everything is buried under the parking lots and the cars. It’s a story about the deuteriation of personality and the lack of communication; the end of communication between people and the end of an era as people diminish with age and particularly with the impecunious old age. In the background there were these old people sitting around playing bridge while others listened to the record with the elevated clanking by outside. All these awful old people roosting in this sort of a half old people’s home and half old people’s boarding house. In those days it was too hard boiled for the exhibitor’s taste. Sure, it was pretty rough going for an audience—particularly in those days. But, without question it was much the best scene in the movie. It was about what the picture was about. It’s gone. I wish the film existed.
PETER BOGDANOVICH: I read a newspaper interview with Jo recently in which he said you’d been planning to shoot a new ending to AMBERSONS, since the old one was destroyed.
ORSON WELLES: Yes, I had an outside chance to finish it again just a couple of years ago, but I couldn’t swing it. The fellow who was going to buy the film for me disappeared from view. The idea was to take the actors who are still alive now — I, Baxter, Moorehead, Holt — and do quite a new end to the movie, twenty years after. Maybe that way we could have got a new release and a large audience to see it for the first time.
PETER BOGDANOVICH: When did you learn AMBERSONS had finally opened?
ORSON WELLES: In the Amazon. I met a group of doctors who were with a leprosy commission flying to the upper reaches of the Amazon in the tributaries where no one ever gets to go. I was pretending to be a leprosy doctor because there was only one seat on the plane. And in this incredible place where the natives were in the Stone Age out of a hut came a Jesuit father who said, “Mr. Welles, it’s marvelous seeing you. I saw MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS last week in Washington and I loved it. And that was the first word I’d heard of it. I didn’t even know it had been released.
PETER BOGDANOVICH: How did you come to do the film of AMBERSONS?
ORSON WELLES: Well, we had success with it on radio. I loved Ambersons and I wanted to make a movie of it. If the film of AMBERSONS has any quality, a great part of it is due to Tarkington. What doesn’t come from the book is a careful imitation of his style. What was my own was a third act which took the story into a darker, harder dimension. I can’t pay enough tribute to Tarkington. I’d loved the material! There wasn’t a tiny cloud in the sky in my mind when I left that there would be trouble with that picture. It was a much better picture then KANE. And if there ever would be trouble, it would be after I had shown what I was doing to lots of people and a big argument had been held. I can think in many ways what I liked best in the film and the thing that would have been the whole point is now completely absent from the film due to the cutting. You see, the basic intention was to portray a golden world—almost one of memory—and then show what it turns into. Having set up this dream town of the “good old days,” the whole point was to show the automobile wrecking it—not only the family but the town. All this is out. That’s the end of the story. My whole third act is lost as it was a tremendous preparation for the boarding house scene with Agie Moorehead and Joe Cotton and the terrible walk of George Minafer when he gets his comeuppance. And without that there wasn’t any plot. About the time Major Amberson dies the picture starts to become another picture. It becomes their picture. An actual plot line was changed. Then there’s a kind of arbitrary bringing down the curtain at the end by a series of clumsy, quick devices. The plot of course was really what they took out. Using the argument of it not central to the plot, what they took out was the plot. They got it absolutely upside down. The bad, black world of CITIZEN KANE was supposed to be too much for people at that time and I wasn’t there to be able to fight for it. Joe Cotten wrote me when I was in South America and said you have no idea, now that we’ve seen the whole picture with an audience, how terrifying and frightening the last part of the picture is and it’s just too much for the audience. He said, you don’t realize that you’ve made a sort of dark movie. It’s more Chekov than Tarkington. But that’s what I wanted to do; did it very clearly and intended it that way. It was a very tough picture and it still is in some ways. The real point of AMBERSONS; anything that is any good in it is really that part of it which was just a preparation for the decay of the AMBERSONS. What is left is only the first six reels; this golden world. First I charmed them, you know, then I tore the thing to shreds. In Hollywood, there was a built in dread of the downbeat movie and I knew I’d have that to face. I expected that there would be an uproar about a picture which, by any ordinary American standards, was much darker than anybody was making pictures. But I thought I had a movie so good—I was absolutely certain of its value, much more than KANE—that I had absolutely no doubt that it would win through that industry’s fear of the downbeat movie. It was thought by everyone in Hollywood that it was too downbeat—famous Hollywood word at the time. Downbeat. So, it was all taken out. But it was the purpose of the movie; to see how they all slid downhill in one way or another. And without that there wasn’t any plot. It’s now all about some rich people fighting in their house. I’m an enemy of length in a movie but this had to have—a kind of awful pompous word—a certain epic quality. When you do a family and the change of American life because of the automobile, it has to have a kind of size to it. And there was nobody who even apparently had an idea what was in my head. My whole third act is lost because of all the hysterical tinkering that went on. And it was hysterical. Everybody they could find was cutting it.
ROBERT WISE INTERVIEW
© Mike Thomas
Since Robert Wise has long been tarred with the reputation of the one who “destroyed” THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS the only solution to this question was to watch the film with Wise. “This is the last time I’m going to talk about AMBERSONS,” said Wise before we sat down to watch the laser disc.
THOMAS: One of the surprising things in the Carringer book was his claim that Welles was ordering some drastic cuts of his own.
WISE: I don’t know about that. He wasn’t there, he was in Rio. He’d gone down at the request of the State Department to help our war effort to try and keep Brazil on our side during the war and he was happy to go down there and get out of the draft. He was draft age, remember, about 26, and he went down to make a film with the Brazilian filmmakers. And, according to the stories that came back, he was having some parties and a pretty good time.
THOMAS: You’d gone down to Miami with him?
WISE: We had done much of the preliminary editing work on AMBERSONS before Orson had to leave for a meeting in Washington pursuant to his trip to South America. I worked with him like I did with any director in those days. When he shot all the angles in a sequence, each day we would review the rushes together; Orson would then describe what he wanted to accomplish with a particular segment, and I would take notes and go back into the editing room to cut the scene. I would show it to him and he would say, ‘don’t use that close up,’ or ‘why didn’t you use those over-the-shoulders I shot? I worked with my assistant, Mark Robson, to assemble the footage, and then Orson would review what we had done. While he had a good idea of what he wanted from Mark and me, Orson never hung around the cutting room to watch us work or direct the editing. I still had final decisions to be made on certain areas of the preliminary cut of the film. There simply wasn’t time to get all of this done before Orson had to be in Washington. So we proceeded in the following manner. I took the work print with me to Miami and set up shop in the Fleischer Cartoon Studio there, taking with me a number of reels of the film that needed some additional work. Orson came on to Miami after his Washington meeting and we spent three days and nights practically around the clock, doing this additional work and recording all his narration at the Fleischer studios. I saw Orson off just after dawn on the 4th morning when he left in an old Mars flying boat for South America and that was the last time I saw him for several years. I returned immediately to Hollywood with the work print film and set about completing the editing as per all our decisions, and completing the sound and music work to get a print, originally intended for me to take to South America to show Orson. I was all set, I had my passport and everything and then they called and said, “No way.” The government embargo on civilian flying just at that time stopped me personally going. So, it was this cut of the film that I finished up back in Hollywood–after Orson had gone on to Rio–and that cut of the film was sent on to him for viewing. From that print we tried to work in this unfortunately long-distance situation in getting a final cut of the picture.
THOMAS: He left you in charge of post-production?
WISE: He left me and Jack Moss, who was his business manager, in charge. So, Welles wasn’t around when the picture was edited and scoring was done and he had nothing to do with the final scoring. At a certain point the studio became concerned because they had a lot of money tied up in the picture; about a million dollars, which was a big budget in those days. So we went out for some previews with our work print. We’d usually preview a picture in one of the local theaters that could play separate picture and sound tracks. We’d get a temp track and go out and do a sneak preview.
THOMAS: Did you preview KANE?
WISE: No, we didn’t on KANE. There were no previews. But the studio decided they wanted to have a test screening for THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS. We had sent Welles a print and he wanted some changes made which we made and we took the picture off to preview. It was standard practice to take a picture out and we took this one to Pomona. We all thought we had a smashing picture, a marvelous picture. We really thought we had a classic film. But the preview was just a disaster; an absolute disaster . The worst I’ve ever experienced. Thinking we had a smash hit, and to have people just laugh at it and walk out, boy, it’s tough. The audience disliked it; the audience didn’t like it at all and they wouldn’t sit still through it. In the first reel they walked out in droves and during the course of the film a lot of people left. It was long and they didn’t find it interesting. They laughed at a lot of it at inappropriate times and laughed at some of the performances. They were laughing and laughed at Aggie Moorehead’s character all through the thing and it was an absolute disaster. As disastrous a preview as you could possibly imagine. It was just terrible. A lot of people just couldn’t stand the film. The studio was naturally very upset. They had a lot of money in this film and they wanted to get it out and their edict was, “we’ve got to get a picture that the audience will sit for and that we can release.” So what were we going to do with it? Welles was in South America making a film for the government. RKO was fed up with Welles. Jack Moss, Welles’ man here and an associate producer on the film and I were kind of caught in the middle between Orson and his inability to come up here and do anything about it. We had a picture with major problems. As I recall, it was a long picture so we decided to take it back and do some editing and try to cut out some of the places where the laughs were bad
THOMAS: Two hours and 12 minutes.
WISE: I thought it was longer. Then we took it out again for another screening. We had cut some and re-arranged things. We took it to Pasadena and it played a little better but still not acceptable. There were still some bad laughs and walkouts, so we had to cut it again. We cut out the scenes with Aggie Moorehead where they were laughing at her over-the-top performance. We had cut it three times. Consequently, we did cut about 35 or 40 minutes out of the original film and we had to make two or three or four bridge scenes to tie it together and a new ending was shot. The third time we took it to Inglewood. Then after the fourth preview when there was a new ending put on we took it to Long Beach. When we screened it the fourth time after making all these changes – we finally had a preview that an audience seemed to sit for. There were no walk-outs. They sat for it, and they didn’t walk out. There were no bad laughs. We now had a version that would play for an audience. At least not walk out on and it didn’t get any bad laughs. Because everything seemed to play all right that was the picture and that’s the way the picture went out to theaters and that’s the picture you will see today. Well, I’m sorry about that because I was involved in all the cuts and it’s too bad because it was a marvelous film at its full length, but the audience couldn’t stand it. I would have to say this; from a purely artistic point of view – purely – that it was probably a better film in its entirety looking at it from a film buff stand point. I don’t think there is any question of that. But we were faced with the realities of the other part of it. But it was one of those circumstance that couldn’t be helped. Welles was not up here when we previewed the film but I can say that all of us did the very best job we could with the problem. I feel all of us tried to keep the best of Welles’ concept and still lick the problem while retaining every bit of the feeling and the quality of what Orson was trying to do.
THOMAS: It was Freddie Fleck who directed the new ending.
WISE: He was the assistant director. The new ending was not that different in content, just staged differently.
THOMAS: Let’s take a look at the film.
(The film begins with the standard RKO logo – a radio tower on top of the globe announcing to the world this is an RKO picture.)
WISE: That was one of my first jobs at RKO, synching up those dot-dot-dot-dots.
THOMAS: Where did they shoot the picture?
WISE: Down at what we called the “Forty Acres” in Culver City – the RKO Pathe Studios.
THOMAS: Here’s one of the first cuts.
(The ballroom sequence)
WISE: Yes, this was a long shot, it took him a day or two to line up. It went round and round the ballroom and up the stairs and it just went on forever. People were coming and going and picking up other people’s dialogue and it didn’t hold. There were things in there that didn’t work for an audience so we had to make some cuts and put in some dissolves over the cuts. It became part of what was cut because of overall problems the picture presented.
THOMAS: Welles called it “the greatest tour de force of my career.” The complaint is that in cutting the long single take you destroyed the spatial relationship of the layout of the mansion.
WISE: All that’s fine but the thing was very long. The pace dragged and we had to pick it up.
THOMAS: It was done in a horseshoe pattern, with the camera moving backwards?
WISE: It was going all over the ballroom in one take. It took him three days overall; a couple of days to get the lighting, the blocking, rehearsing the actors, getting the timing right, then one day of shooting.
THOMAS: These sets are amazing. Did you know the art direction was nominated for an Oscar? In fact, the film received four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Cinematography.
WISE: The picture wasn’t destroyed then if it was nominated for Best Picture, was it? I have always said that despite what Orson said, since it has come down through the years as a classic in its own right that means we didn’t destroy it. It’s still considered quite a classic film, isn’t it? So, we really didn’t bacterize it completely or completely vitiate everything Orson did.
THOMAS: A lot of people actually prefer it to KANE.
WISE: They’re out of their minds. But it is an outstanding film.
THOMAS: I find it has more heart than KANE, there’s an elegiac quality that is very touching.
WISE: I remember being so moved by the radio version of it on the Campbell’s Soup Hour. We used to listen to it on Sunday nights on the radio and that was my first exposure to Orson. I was so moved by it, I was really excited when I learned that it was going to be the follow up to KANE. I thought, this will show those people who thought KANE didn’t have any heart, this will be Orson’s chance to prove that he has heart. But he didn’t get it into the film.
(Eugene and Isabel dance alone on a deserted ballroom floor)
THOMAS: This scene is one of the loveliest in the entire film, yet Welles’ cable of March 27, 1942 proposed cutting it.
WISE: Really? I don’t remember that.
THOMAS: He sure loved putting the camera on the floor, didn’t he?
WISE: He got that from John Ford.
(The long scene in the upstairs hallway)
THOMAS: It must be easy for an editor when there are long takes like this. Did he ever have a second camera shoot back up?
WISE: Very rarely.
(The sleigh ride scene)
THOMAS: I read that you had to re-record all the sound on this on the roof of an RKO building.
WISE: This was all shot in a big freezer downtown, a refrigeration plant; real snow. But the sound was no good, it was hollow. So we got the actors on the roof of the recording building at RKO and I was downstairs watching the picture on the screen as they dubbed their lines.
THOMAS: Didn’t he have all the actors originally pre-record all their dialogue onto records?
WISE: When he finished KANE I had to fight Orson like hell to get him in to re-record some of his lines. I thought, because of his radio background, he’d be marvelous, and he was. He was a master at it. Well, when it came time to do AMBERSONS he decided to get the whole cast together and record the dialogue and when it came time to shoot the picture he’d have the cast mouth their lines while the record played. Orson was such an extremist. He tried it one morning and it was chaos. But at least he had the advantage of rehearsing the whole picture.
THOMAS: I’ve wondered if he liked to go with these long takes because of his theatre background.
WISE: Not just theatre background. If you have a good scene for the actors to play you don’t need to have a lot of cutting. Normally, you’d shoot some close-ups. He might have shot them and then decided he didn’t need to use them.
(The Kitchen Seen with Moorehead, Holt and Collins)
THOMAS: Now, in this sequence, when George walks to the window, there’s a dissolve. But originally, the scene continued as he runs outside as he realizes houses are being built on the Amberson house’s lot and starts arguing with Uncle Jack in the rain.
WISE: I never in all my years heard so many laughs in all the wrong places. Now, this scene in the automobile factory; we were shooting right after Pearl Harbor was attacked. The day war was declared on December 8th.
(Bedroom Scene with Holt and Costello)
THOMAS: Now, here’s the scene you directed.
WISE: We had cut so much out we had continuity problems and needed some new scenes to bridge the gaps. They asked me to direct a scene between George and his mother and that was one of my first directing experiences; that scene between Dolores Costello and Tim Holt in her bedroom.
THOMAS: And there’s another scene on the porch that was cut.
WISE: Those porch scenes were long and didn’t really add much.
THOMAS: I read that one of the reasons the first preview didn’t play well is because they ran the film after a musical, THE FLEET’S IN.
WISE: I don’t think that had anything to do with it. There were problems with the film.
THOMAS: I also read where the preview cards were something like 72 negative to 53 positive.
WISE: And those were from the people who stayed! A lot of them had already walked out of the picture by the time it was over. I’ve always maintained that in its original version, AMBERSONS may have been a greater work of art. I don’t think there’s any doubt that it was a better film in its full length. But we had to get the film so it would hold people’s attention. I just knew that we had a sick picture and it needed a doctor. We were faced with the realities of what the studio was demanding. We were faced with the reality of not art, but business, and what to do with something that wouldn’t play. Yet we didn’t completely emasculate or mutilate everything Orson had done. It’s still considered quite a classic film, isn’t it? We did the best we could with Orson’s material although we did have to do some serious cutting and bridging to make the thing work. In terms of a work of art, I grant you, Orson’s original film was better. As a cinematic achievement, it was undoubtedly a better film in its original length, but it just didn’t play to an audience. At the time I think Welles understood that I was the editor and I was working under the studio’s direction. I was working with Jack Moss. So I don’t think Orson had any resentment toward us at the time. I think he understood that we were just doing what we had to do. The resentment came later. I’ve always felt that if Orson had been at the preview and had seen and heard that reaction, he’d have understood better what did and didn’t work in it. As it was, Mark Robson and I were in touch with him almost every day, these long, long telegrams — 20, 30 pages sometimes. It would have been so much easier if he could have been there. I’m sure, though, had Orson been able to have his own hand in what was being done, it would have been far superior.
[Major Ambersons monologue as he stares into the fire place]
WISE: I shot this scene with this old guy. All I had to do was to get him to remember his lines. Orson lined it up and everything, and rehearsed it with him, but he couldn’t remember the dialogue. Orson was standing off camera and whispering the lines to him and finally, he had to go away and do something, line up another shot or something, and he asked me to do the scene. It didn’t take any direction. I just shot it when he finally remembered his lines.
THOMAS: It’s one of the most haunted, moving scenes I’ve ever seen. Now, here in the train station scene which you trimmed, I understand there was a shot of George lending Uncle Jack money. I’m surprised you cut that, since it shows the decent side of George and softens his character.
WISE: They were originally sitting down as I recall. I think we felt that we needed to pick it up and move it along.
THOMAS: Where’d they shoot it?
WISE: On the set. It’s diminished perspective.
THOMAS: Now here’s the boiler scene that was re-shot by Jack Moss.
WISE: I don’t remember Jack Moss shooting anything. I re-shot the one scene and Freddie Fleck did the different ending but I don’t recall Jack Moss ever shooting anything. He was Orson’s business manager, he wasn’t a filmmaker.
THOMAS: All I’ve read says Moss re-shot this scene because there was so much audience derision at Moorehead’s hysterics.
WISE: It was Freddie Feck, not Moss. That was true, she was over the top. And that’s the director’s responsibility to keep the actors from going overboard. And it just wasn’t this scene but all the way through the film. Whenever she’d appear, they’d start laughing and making fun of her.
THOMAS: Now, we come to the walk home. I guess there was originally a long P.O.V. tracking shot through the deserted mansion.
WISE: Yes, there was. I remember, he [Cinematographer Stanley Cortez] spent quite a bit of time on it.
THOMAS: Now, of course comes the infamous re-shot ending. It’s not fashionable to say so, but I actually think this scene works.
WISE: So do I.
THOMAS: It may not have the same visual style as Welles but the dialogue is straight out of the book, the radio show, and the original ending in the script.
THOMAS: That’s what so fascinated me when I read the original ending in the Academy Library and discovered it was almost verbatim to the new ending, Eugene telling Fanny that he’d brought Isabel’s boy “under shelter” and “that at last I’d been true to my own true love.”
WISE: I’ve always said that KANE was the only project where Welles was truly focused. I doubt that Orson had as complete concentration on any of his other films as he did on Kane. That was his whole life; nothing else. It was his first picture and he was determined that it would be something outstanding. He lived, breathed and slept CITIZEN KANE. On AMBERSONS he had so many things going; he was doing the Lady Esther radio show, he was producing and acting in JOURNEY INTO FEAR, and getting ready to go to Rio. For almost the last half of the actual shooting of THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, Orson was directing that film during the day and acting at nights in JOURNEY INTO FEAR a film he suddenly decided to activate in order to get rid of all of his commitments with RKO by the time he left for Rio. And sometimes he would watch rushes in the morning after a night’s work acting. I don’t know how he kept going. He simply had too much else going on. Let me say this right now. He was as close to genius as anyone in the business. But he just didn’t have much self-discipline. A brilliant man, but a maddening man. One minute he would do something that was such an outrageous piece of behavior and could have you so angry at his behavior that you wanted to just tell him to shove it and then walk off the picture. But before you could do it, he would come up with some idea so brilliant, that it had your mouth gaping open, and you’d hang in there and you never did walk off.
THOMAS: Why did RKO destroy the footage?
WISE: It was standard practice that, after the previews, when you’d come back and take sequences out you’d put them in the vault. About six months after the films were released and if you didn’t need to change the film, they’d sell the footage for the silver. But that was nothing particular with AMBERSONS. It was just company practice. All this about how we destroyed and mutilated it is nonsense.
THOMAS: I’ve always wondered why there is such a strong negative reaction to this version when it seems so lyrical and poignant.
WISE: I have to admit that AMBERSONS was a better film in its full length, but it was a victim of it’s time. If the film had come out a year before or even six months before the war started, it would have gotten a completely different reception with the audience. But at the time the picture came out for previews, guys were going off to training camp, as people and the whole country were gearing up to go to war. Women were getting jobs in aircraft factories – the Arsenal of Democracy. People didn’t have any understanding or seem to have the patience or interest or concern to care and worry about the problems of Georgie Minafer, the Amberson family and Indianapolis at the turn of the century. And remember, back then the average picture was 90 minutes. If you had something that went over an hour and a half you were in trouble.
THOMAS: Well, like they say, timing is everything.