All’s Well That Ends Welles
The Magnificent Ambersons: A
by Robert L. Carringer
U. of California Press, 1993
A book by a nut. It purports to contain a cutting continuity dated March 12, 1942, at which time the film’s duration was 131 minutes 45⅓ seconds. The bleeding torso was partially reshot and rewritten by other hands. A senseless butchery.
And yet, for reasons not explained here, Welles appears to have ordered 22 minutes cut and a new scene to be shot by Robert Wise. This version played badly at the preview, and precipitated the disaster. Welles was in Rio at the time making a film for the U.S. Government, and could not supervise (for Carringer, this was a psychological “distancing”).
The cutting continuity is gold, whatever its provenance, and all is dross that is not Welles. Some work has been done to clarify matters of post-production, but not enough. Instead, Carringer offers a “transactional” psychological explanation which, from a Professor of Psychiatry, would be an embarrassment—from a Professor of English and Film, it’s mere idleness. One might as well posit sabotage by an Axis agent, or the moon’s influence.¹
Carringer does not like Tim Holt’s performance, so not casting himself meant Welles had “conflicts.” I completely disagree with Carringer here, to the point that I cannot understand what he’s talking about. Holt’s performance is a model of precision, it couldn’t be any better.
Bernard Herrmann’s music was also butchered and rewritten, so that he sued or threatened to sue to have his name removed, and won.
It seems possible that Welles’ cut was designed to streamline a part of the narrative and secure large-scale scenes like the ballroom sequence from editing. Even his original ending, a long talk between Fanny and Eugene in her boarding house, was reshot against his wishes, and the stupendous ballroom scene is a vestige. The new scene would have Isabel discovered unconscious by George, and must “be beautifully done” (Welles telegram).
What’s served by Carringer’s book is a knowledge of the impenetrable mystery surrounding the final print. Until now, one could only surmise (correctly, I would think) about the finished work and what was intended. Now, at least for the purposes of discussion, there is some material basis for conjecture.
It isn’t exactly scholarship, and it sure isn’t editing. It’s something people do in academia nowadays. They write “dark side” biographies exposing artists as really just like you and me, down underneath.
In an earlier book, The Making of Citizen Kane, Carringer takes up the cudgel of Pauline Kael and apparently sets out to prove that Welles didn’t create Citizen Kane, but rather (as Red Skelton would say), “they all did.” We know what happened to The Magnificent Ambersons in Welles’ absence. His response to Kael’s book on Citizen Kane was not to dignify it with a response.
This book deserved no better, except that it offers not a reconstruction at all, but a cutting continuity, which ought to have been documented, more fully annotated, and coupled with a thoroughgoing analysis of the post-production records. It “betrays certain tendencies in that direction,” and doesn’t even have an index. It devotes 28 pages to a first section called “Oedipus in Indianapolis,” and 22 pages to a final section called “Editing Ambersons: A Documentary History.”
Gold, too, is Mercury Theatre business manager Jack Moss’s observation: “If only Orson could communicate his genius by telephone.”
¹ ”The picture on the screen seems to mean something else. It is filled with some deep though vague psychological significance that I think you never meant it to have.” (Cotten to Welles, March 28, 1942)