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July 2nd, 2008

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11:02 pm - in which we take the long way
One of the classic film urban legends (or rumors, or perhaps "hopes") is that somewhere in South America, stashed in someone's basement or hiding in a chest in an attic, is a full, uncut version of Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons. Welles finished his first cut of the film in 1942 while in South America shooting a documentary called It's All True, which itself was devised in an attempt to improve relations between the US and several key Latin American countries. We were in a war, see, and needed all the pals we could get. If we couldn't get pals, we would've settled for good neighbors.

Neither Ambersons nor It's All True turned out the way Welles wanted them to. Higher-ups at RKO, the studio which was to distribute the films, grew seriously unhappy with the way Orson was behaving while down in Brazil. Oh, sure, the guy worked like a madman, but he also played like a madman as well, and his filmmaking approach (progress? what progress? can't you see there are dances to dance, skirts to chase and delicious drinks to enjoy?) had long since ceased to worry the RKO brass. It had begun to piss them off something fierce. At this point in time Welles had only one film to his name. It just so happened to be Citizen Kane, which nearly everybody but William Randolph Hearst had praised, so Welles was under serious scrutiny from a lot of different eyes. His second film would have to surpass Kane in brilliance or else it'd just prove that Orson had gotten lucky the first time around.

The first audience preview of Ambersons was an absolute disaster. The film was previewed second on a double bill. The first film screened was a light-hearted, zippy peppy musical, which was what audiences wanted, especially so soon after Pearl Harbor. By all accounts, they loved it. The Magnificent Ambersons, on the other hand, was a brooding, slow-paced moody drama with (in the original cut) no uplifting ending, and it clocked in at just over two hours. Faced with this ordeal, the audience turned sour, began heckling, and left behind angry survey cards which were the 1940s version of YouTube comments only with just slightly less cussing (and, one presumes, without seventeen comment cards all containing the same line of dialogue with no extra comment.)

RKO knew they had to make drastic cuts to the film. Orson would never approve of their cuts, and they knew it. They also knew they didn't have to worry about that since Welles was completely powerless, being out of the country and without the right of final cut (he'd given it up during contract negotations.)

Welles could make suggestions from afar via telegram and telephone and he did, very much so, but his dispatches often carried no weight. If he had been in Hollywood, or if Robert Wise, the film's actual editor, could have gone to Rio to work with Welles (his trip was denied due to wartime travel restrictions) there's a good chance that the film might not have been butchered as it turned out to be. As it was, Wise edited the film under the guidance of studio executives who disliked Welles. Also involved with the editing process was Welles' own business manager, Jack Moss, but he was completely ineffective in defending the project and upholding what Orson wanted.

The result was a drastically shortened movie with a new, happier ending tacked on. Welles' relations with RKO fell apart. The studio eventually destroyed all the unused footage of Ambersons ("to free up vault space" was the official story, though it doesn't take a tinfoil hat to theorize they'd done it to keep the material out of Welles' hands.)

It's All True suffered disaster after disaster, including the accidental drowning death of an impoverished fisherman whose true story was being recreated for the film. The jangadeiro was one of four who sailed over 1600 miles down the coast of Brazil in order to bring public attention to their way of life, which involved working in a semi-feudal system of dubious legality. In the spirit of the pseudo-documentary, Welles had cast all four of the jangadeiros as themselves. However, as they were filming the re-creation of the dramatic conclusion of their journey, their raft capsized, killing one of the jangadeiros before a rescue crew could swim out to help him. Stop for a moment and boggle at that irony if you'd like; then we'll move on.

RKO quickly cut their losses on the project, which first had its budget slashed before it was eventually cancelled outright. Combined with the well-publicized Ambersons disaster, Orson Welles' reputation as an enfant terrible who couldn't finish a project was amplified and inflated, however justly or unjustly you want to call it.

Stories would later circulate that a print of the Ambersons first cut had been sent to Welles in Brazil, and there would be some folks in Rio who claimed to have seen it. Where that print went, though, nobody knows. It could very well be stashed somewhere. One can hope.

I only write this tonight (wait, was that just a lead-in?) because of an awesome piece of news out of Argentina. What appears to be an original, full print of Fritz Lang's Metropolis has been discovered in Buenos Aires. Lang suffered Hollywood studio butchery similar to Welles' ordeal when his amazing German impressionist masterpiece went over to the States. Executives at Paramount slashed nearly a quarter of the film's content, oversimplifying the story and removing key scenes for American audiences. Lang's original cut was lost in Berlin, and the versions of Metropolis you can get on DVD today will tell you, at certain points, what the next scene in the original narrative was supposed to have been. Even that, however, is based mostly on speculation.

Well, soon we won't need those title cards anymore. The discovered print has been brought to Berlin for restoration (after 80 years in hiding look as good you will not, hmm?) and it's only a matter of time before it's released. This is an amazing find. I cannot wait. Isn't it wonderful? And to think that maybe someday we'll be saying the same thing about The Magnificent Ambersons. Hope springs eternal, cat. Just remember that.

(14 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:July 3rd, 2008 05:03 am (UTC)

I got to see Metropolis in the chapel at college, projected on big screen with translation on another, with accompaniment by the university organist (who was incredible). This was done on Halloween to raise money for pipe organ maintenance. (I'm pretty sure Metropolis was one of these -- they did a different silent film each year, and had previously done Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.)
Date:July 3rd, 2008 06:16 am (UTC)
I hope that Ambersons surfaces that way someday. The thing that really sucks is that even the theatrical version is not available on DVD; I had heard something about it being released soon, but it has yet to materialize. I do have the DVD of what survives of It's All True, though.
[User Picture]
Date:July 3rd, 2008 10:33 am (UTC)
If you haven't already, you ought to listen to/read this story.

[User Picture]
Date:July 3rd, 2008 11:14 am (UTC)
[User Picture]
Date:July 3rd, 2008 01:46 pm (UTC)
!!! I love Metropolis. The Brandeis U film department screened it and got the Alloy Orchestra to do a live soundtrack, which event I may have mentioned once or a million times because of its awesomeness.

*is now fantasizing about the uncut Metropolis being screened at the Somerville with a live soundtrack*
[User Picture]
Date:July 3rd, 2008 02:36 pm (UTC)
A) Great post

B) I friended you.
[User Picture]
Date:July 3rd, 2008 05:00 pm (UTC)
Great Googley Moogley! I would purely love to see Metropolis in its original form.
[User Picture]
Date:July 3rd, 2008 06:06 pm (UTC)
We spent 3 weeks on Citizen Kane in my Intro To Film class in my third semester of community college way back in 1990. My prof talked about The Magnificent Ambersons briefly, saying that Welles was stripped of creative control of it after the box office failure that was Kane. And that his ridiculous prima donna grandstanding didn't help matters.

So I knew all about the cuts and the changes and how RKO ruined a reportedly great film, but the history you provide here is much more rich and intricate. Plus, I knew absolutely nothing about It's All True and how that factored into everything.

So thanks for this. I'm really glad that mink_rose pointed me in the direction of your blog all those months ago.
[User Picture]
Date:July 3rd, 2008 07:56 pm (UTC)
The Metropolis discovery is pretty amazing news.
[User Picture]
Date:July 3rd, 2008 09:29 pm (UTC)
You've heard him yelling about peas, I trust.
[User Picture]
Date:July 3rd, 2008 10:15 pm (UTC)
In July, even.

He may have had a point about absolutely ghastly copy, though. Have you heard his radio ad for Diet 7-Up? It's hideously compelling and awful.
[User Picture]
Date:July 16th, 2008 05:12 pm (UTC)
Thanks for that - I was swept away by his mellifluous oral interpretation. Fountains bubbling, splashing - starting out like single, gentle notes on the piano; then, instantly, the strings come in. I want more!

Just to be clear, I'm totally on his side - the right reading for the peas is the one he's giving it.

Secondarily, I love teh internets - now I can hear Buddy Rich, Insult Comic, any time I want, and I don't even know any drummers.
[User Picture]
Date:July 10th, 2008 10:11 pm (UTC)
And then the Pinky and the Brain parody of it. Well, something like that. O_o
[User Picture]
Date:July 4th, 2008 06:32 am (UTC)

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