Robert Wise and Magnificent Ambersons (was Re: Rehabilitating Kazan?)

From: David P. Hayes
Newsgroups: rec.arts.movies.past-films
Date: Monday, February 09, 1998 8:56 PM

Al Tran wrote in message <>…
>Welles himself
>planned and tried to edit the film while in Rio. But the film tested
>badly(mostly because the wartime audience didn't want a depressing

I previously responded in message <6bm009$>…
>My understanding is that the test audience laughed at the technique, at the
>beginning of the film, before they could have realized that there were
>depressing aspects to it. The narration came across as an effort to put
>pictures to radio, not as an efficient conveyance of the characterizations
>from five book chapters in a minute or two of screen time. …
>Welles's hand a[s] director was usually
>visible (figuratively), and to audiences that expected showy effects and
>know-all narration in shorts, newsreels and non-fiction shorts (e.g., "The
>Passing Parade" series) but not in features, Welles's type of drama required
>an adjustment that some audiences were apparently not willing to make.

FilmGene responded in message
>Perhaps. But I have always heard that they previewed the film after a comedy
>and the audience was unable to make the transition and laughed inappropriately
>at Ambersons.

Dramatic pictures would surely have been previewed after a comedy before, and once released, a drama such as "Ambersons" would sometimes be shown on the same bill as a newsreel, cartoon, unusual short, and one or more comedy shorts. Why would "Ambersons" test as one of the worst-received films whereas other dramas with the same handicap of having followed a comedy, not have fared badly with their audiences? Something about the original cut of "Ambersons" made the audience not want to suspend disbelief (to use the oft-cited Aristotle phrase). (Actually, I shouldn't bring in "the original cut," as the opening scenes emerged unscathed in the cutting.) This unwillingness to suspend disbelief could not be strictly because of the radio/documentary techniques, as "Citizen Kane" opens with 15 minutes of fake newsreel that fills in the audience quickly as to the background of the story and central character. Might the blame have lain with Orson Welles's voice? As the voice behind the fake Mars-invasion broadcast, would audience members who recognized that voice decide (subconsciously) to not allow themselves to be once more taken in? (This would not have been an issue with "Kane," as its newsreel was narrated by an unfamiliar voice whose owner captures the booming assertiveness of newsreaders of the day.)

Anyway, I too regard Welles as culpable in the cutting of "Magnificent Ambersons," as he might have taken efforts (or recommended solutions) that he put off or ceased to concern himself with.

David Hayes


Return to Table of Contents

Go to next article