December 30, 2012

Missing Orson Welles

Immediately after debuting with the much-talked-about and controversial ‘Citizen Kane’ (1941), Orson Welles was directing and producing his second film (under his banner Mercury Production) with RKO, the studio which had offered him the unprecedented contract that had attracted the obvious envy and wrath of the film-making fraternity. No one then, not even Welles, would have imagined that history will remember his first as the ‘Greatest Film Ever Made’ for several decades to come, despite some handsome accolades that had come its way. For RKO, Welles was the boy-wonder they had discovered and had turned into a sensational film-maker, whose first film, despite the fame and controversy, remained a box-office failure. Welles was contractually bound to make a second film with them, and this time too, like with ‘Kane’, he had the rare opportunity to have the right to the final cut. However, the talks between Welles and RKO on the second film failed. Welles went on to make his next, with the same studio, but this time they retained the right to the final cut. A few months later, Orson Welles was fighting a futile battle to make the film he wanted to make.

The rough-cut of ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’ that Welles had prepared was 135 minutes long. After poor response at test-screenings, the studio decided to chop it down. Eventually, they re-shot the climax in the absence of Welles, to achieve a ‘happier’ ending. The version that was finally released was 88 minutes. More than half of the film’s musical score, composed by Bernard Herrmann who had done a phenomenal work in ‘Kane’ (and who later worked with Alfred Hitchcock on some of the most memorable films of all time), was also deleted. An angry Herrmann forced the studio to remove his credit from the final film, threatening legal action if they declined. Eventually, the rough cut of the film was also lost and the footage destroyed, and the world could never see the film its director wished to make. As Welles later said about the studio’s treatment of his film: “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…. They destroyed ‘Ambersons’ and ‘it’ destroyed me.”

The film remained a big box-office failure, despite enormous positive acclaim and a ‘Best Picture’ nomination at the Academy Awards. This was Welles’ second, and last, film being nominated for the same. In a few years, Welles was to struggle to find funding for his future projects as the studios would simply not work with him. Welles was only 27, when ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’ happened, and this was the start of his regret of being and living the life of a film-maker.

I watched the film last evening. Obsessed with ‘Citizen Kane’, I was excited to revisit the second work by the prodigy. And though the film kept reminding me of the predecessor, with its stunning low-key black-and-white cinematography, palatial sets, and common faces, I missed Orson Welles, the actor. His familiar voice providing the narration only accentuated this feeling, the feeling that I get while watching those Woody Allen films that do not feature him as an actor. However, a big smile came over my face at the very end of the film, when Welles’ voice speaks out the credits (one of the earliest films to do so) with shots of film equipment for crew and head-shots of the cast. In the end, over the image of a microphone, the assured and confident voice announces the final sentences, after which the microphone recedes into the distance, under the lights and a framing so reminiscent of ‘Kane’.

The final words are: “I wrote the script and directed it. My name is Orson Welles. This is a Mercury Production.”

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