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A Family in Turmoil

Orson Welles was upset about the studio cut of 'Ambersons.' Editor Robert Wise recalls what it was like to be caught in the middle.

January 11, 2002|MIKE THOMAS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The A&E television adaptation of "The Magnificent Ambersons" scheduled for Sunday has reawakened interest in the original 1942 Orson Welles film, long considered one of the most tragic victims of studio interference in Hollywood history. Even the press kit for the A&E TV movie includes the famous Welles quote, "They destroyed 'Ambersons,' and it destroyed me."

Despite its misfortunes, "The Magnificent Ambersons" has been a deeply influential film. When Vincente Minnelli was preparing "Meet Me in St. Louis," it was the Welles film he studied. Martin Scorsese paid obvious tribute to it with his adaptation of "Age of Innocence." Even Wes Anderson has acknowledged its influence on his current hit film, "The Royal Tenenbaums."

British film magazine Sight & Sound conducted an international critics' poll in the 1980s in which "Ambersons" was voted one of the top 10 films of all time. And in his seminal book, "The Liveliest Art," film historian Arthur Knight rates it over "Citizen Kane" as an artistically more accomplished work. Welles himself always maintained that, in its original form, it was his greatest work.

Robert Wise, who edited "Ambersons," remains sympathetic to Welles' complaints about cuts in the film but insists that no effort was made to destroy the picture. "I have always said that despite what Orson said, since 'Ambersons' has come down through the years as a classic in its own right, that means we didn't destroy it, doesn't it?" Wise said.

Orson Welles Called It

a 'Mutilation,' but Was It?

For decades, Welles' version of the supposed "mutilation" of "Ambersons" has been accepted as gospel. Only in recent years has there been a willingness to reexamine the events and dispel many of the long-held assumptions regarding its troubled post-production. With the publication of Robert Carringer's meticulously researched "Magnificent Ambersons: A Reconstruction" in 1993, it became possible to study precisely which scenes were cut, trimmed or re-shot.

Carringer reveals that Welles, in Brazil filming the equally ill-fated "It's All True," was a willing accessory in suggesting many of those changes. And he says the man who was caught in the middle between Welles and the studio was the film's editor, Wise.

Though now best known as the director of such landmark films as "West Side Story," "The Day the Earth Stood Still" and "The Sound of Music," Wise was just a 26-year-old on the RKO lot in 1941 when he was summoned to meet Welles.

After recently viewing the new TV adaptation ("It makes you appreciate our version that much more"), Wise reflected on the events of 60 years ago.

"The first time I met Orson, he was already shooting 'Kane,'" Wise said. "It was the scene where he was playing Kane as an old man, and he had on all this old-age makeup. He wasn't happy with his original editor, a rather old-fashioned fellow, and since we were the same age, he thought I might work out."

"Citizen Kane," of course, went on to secure a place in film history and earned Wise his first Oscar nomination for editing. When Welles began "Ambersons," he sought out Wise again.

"I was looking forward to working on 'Ambersons,' because I remembered being so moved by the radio program. [Welles had presented a radio version of the play in 1939 as part of his Mercury Theatre series.] 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' was cold; this will be Orson's chance to prove that he has heart."

Booth Tarkington's "The Magnificent Ambersons," which won the 1918 Pulitzer Prize, held special meaning for Welles. He maintained that the character of Eugene Morgan was based on his father, who had been an associate of Tarkington. He felt an affinity for the portrait of a wealthy family's fall set against the backdrop of fin de siecle America being overtaken by the ensuing Industrial Age, and he played the part of the spoiled protagonist, George Amberson Minafer, in the radio production.

But when it came time to shoot the film, he selected cowboy actor Tim Holt for George. Welles also used some of his Mercury Theatre stock company from "Kane"--Joseph Cotten as inventor Eugene Morgan, Agnes Moorehead as the repressed Aunt Fanny and the jovial Ray Collins as Uncle Jack--to fill out the cast, choosing then-unknown Anne Baxter for the ingenue role of Lucy.

Principal photography began on Oct. 28, 1941, and there was a great deal riding on the film. "Citizen Kane" had gone over budget and had not performed well at the box office. RKO chief George Schaefer had signed Welles to a much-publicized contract guaranteeing him unparalleled artistic freedom, but with the poor returns from "Kane," Schaefer was under mounting pressure to have Welles deliver a hit.

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