Of all Orson Welles’ films, none suffered more at the hands (and knives) of studio executives than “The Magnificent Ambersons.”
Merely viewing a scene from the version that eventually made it to theaters was enough to reduce Welles to tears all his life. Welles’ true vision of his adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s novel, is lost to history.
Peter Bogdanovich asks him what happened.
Bogdanovich: Francois Truffaut once said that if Flaubert reread Quixote every year, why can’t we see The Magnificent Ambersons whenever possible. Did you ever hear that quote?
Welles: No. Thank you for passing it along.
Bogdanovich: Tim Holt’s character, who represents the dying plutocracy, is quite unpleasant; and Eugene (Joseph Cotten) , the representative of the mercantile age, it’s very attractive.
Welles: Well, just because he’s bringing with him the whole stinking hell of the automobile age doesn’t mean he isn’t a nice human being. He admits himself that what’s he’s doing may be a bad thing. My father felt that way about it. He was a motorcar pioneer, but he abandoned it early on.
Bogdanovich: For what reason?
Welles: Got tired of it, I guess. Then he invented a bicycle lamp which, as it turned out, was on practically every automobile in the world! He was a friend of Tarkington’s, and really there’s a lot of my father in that character. An early automobile fellow with a deep suspicion of what they automobile would do — fascinated by it, and very much afraid of what it was going to do to the world. Cotten played the role quite marvelously, I think.
Bogdanovich: For his big speech in the dinner scene, did you give him that piece of business — playing with the spoon as he talks?
Welles: I wonder. I rather think it was probably his. Those kind of things usually come from actors.
Bogdanovich: You know, it wasn’t until about the fourth or fifth time I saw the picture that I saw any social points.
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.
Bogdanovich: Well, in Ambersons, the social observation is so integral to the story of the people that it never intrudes.
Welles: Had to be careful about that. The only points I don’t mind really stressing are ones that deal with character.
Bogdanovich: The influence of radio is very apparent in Ambersons.
Welles: The narration, you mean? I’d like to do more of it in movies.
Bogdanovich: Using a narrator who is not a participant?
Welles: Yes, who just comes out and tells the story. I like that very much.
Bogdanovich: Aren’t you doing that with Don Quixote?
Welles: Sort of, yes.
Bogdanovich: It’s supposedly uncinematic.
Welles: I think words are terribly important in talking pictures.
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.
Welles: I don’t like to dwell on things. It’s one of the reasons I’m so bored with Antonioni — that belief that, because a shot is good, it’s going to get better if you keep looking at it. He gives you a full shot of somebody walking down a road. And you think, “Well, he’s not going to carry that woman all the way up that road.” But he does. And then she leaves and you go on looking at the road after she’s gone.
Bogdanovich: You wrote the script for Ambersons alone?
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. And then we recorded every scene, for reference, so we could listen to the way we’d decided that it ought to sound like — even if we were going to change our minds, you know, later.
Bogdanovich: Does it save time?
Welles: It should have, but our cameraman was so slow that we took longer to shoot than any picture I’ve ever done.
Bogdanovich: The opening prologue has a slightly mocking tone mixed with nostalgia.
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.
Bogdanovich: Why did you make fun of men’s clothes and not women’s?
Welles: Because the men’s clothes were funny and the women’s weren’t. The women’s clothes were beautiful.
Bogdanovich: Did you have to study that period, or was it second nature to you?
Welles: It was a real one for my father and mother — and I was only that step away from it. 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.
Bogdanovich: The staircase seems to dominate one’s memory of Ambersons.
Welles: Well, the heart of a pompous house was its pompous staircase. It’s all that imitation-palace business. These people haven’t got any royal processions to make, but they wouldn’t admit it. I had great aunts were lived in houses exactly like that one. There was one house that had a ballroom on the top floor, just like the Ambersons’.
Bogdanovich: The top floor?
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.
Bogdanovich: I read a newspaper interview with Jo Cotten recently in which he said you’d been planning to shoot a new ending to Ambersons, since the old one was destroyed.
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 — Cotten, 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.
Welles: 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. What’s left is only the first six reels. Then there’s a kind of arbitrary bringing back down the curtain by a series of clumsy, quick devices. The bad, black world was supposed to be too much for people. 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.
Bogdanovich: When did you record the narration?
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 off to Rio — and the end of civilization as we know it.