The decision to drastically change Welles' film was made by RKO after a disastrous preview screening in Pomona, California, on 17 March 1942. The Pomona audience consisted mostly of teenagers who had just seen the light-hearted musical The Fleet's In, starring Dorothy Lamour and William Holden. When served with Welles' long and somber Ambersons, the youngsters became restless, laughed in all the wrong places and turned in mostly negative comment cards after the show. During a second test screening in Pasadena a few days later, reactions were more positive, but RKO had already decided that something should be done about Welles' film.
George Schaefer, president of RKO pictures, was in the audience at both the Pomona and Pasadena test screenings. In a letter to Orson Welles written on 21 March 1942 (as seen below), Schaefer informed Welles about the negative reactions from the audience and how he had "suffered" at the Pomona preview. Worried about his $1 million investment, Schaefer told Welles that something really had to be done ("Orson Welles has got to do something commercial. We have got to get away from "arty" pictures and get back to earth").
Apart from Schaefer's letter, also shown below are excerpts from a letter by Joseph Cotten to Orson Welles, written on 28 March 1942. In the letter, Cotten (a close friend of Welles and a leading character in The Magnificent Ambersons) not only talked about the disastrous test screening but also shared his own criticism on the film ("The emotional impact in the script seems to have lost itself somewhere in the cold visual beauty before us and at the end there is definitely a feeling of dissatisfaction"). Eventually, the "butchering" of Ambersons caused a rift in Cotten's friendship with Welles, but the two men later reconciled and also made more films together (including Carol Reed's The Third Man (1949)).
March 21, 1942
I did not want to cable you with respect to THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS as indicated in your cable of the 18th, only because I wanted to write you under confidential cover.
Of course, when you ask me for my reaction, I know you want it straight, and though it is difficult to write you this way, you should hear from me.
Never in all my experience in the industry have I taken so much punishment or suffered as I did at the Pomona preview. In my 28 years in the business, I have never been present in a theater where the audience acted in such a manner. They laughed at the wrong places, talked at the picture, kidded it, and did everything that you can possibly imagine.
I don't have to tell you how I suffered, especially in the realization that we have over $1,000,000. tied up. It was just like getting one sock in the jaw after another for over two hours.
The picture was too slow, heavy, and topped off with somber music, never did register. It all started off well, but just went to pieces.
I am sending you copies of all the preview cards received to date. They speak for themselves and do not tell the whole story because only a small percentage of people make out cards. I queried many of those present and they all seemed to feel that the party who made the picture was trying to be "arty," was out for camera angles, lights and shadows, and as a matter of fact, one remarked that "the man who made that picture was camera crazy." Mind you, these are not my opinions—I am giving them to you just as I received them.
The punishment was not sufficient, and as I believed in the picture more than the people did, I hiked myself to Pasadena again last night, feeling sure that we would get a better reaction. We did, but not, of course, in its entirety. There were many spots where we got the same reaction as we did in Pomona. I think cutting will help considerably, but there is no doubt in my mind but that the people at Pasadena also thought it was slow and heavy. The somber musical score does not help.
While, of course, the reaction at Pasadena was better than Pomona, we still have a problem. In Pomona we played to the younger element. It is the younger element who contribute the biggest part of the revenue. If you cannot satisfy that group, you just cannot bail yourself out with a $1,000,000. investment—all of which, Orson, is very disturbing to say the least.
In all our initial discussions, you stressed low costs, making pictures at $300,000. to $500,000. We will not make a dollar on CITIZEN KANE and present indications are that we will not break even. The final results on AMBERSONS is still to be told, but it looks "red."
All of which reminds me of only one thing—that we must have a "heart to heart" talk. Orson Welles has got to do something commercial. We have got to get away from "arty" pictures and get back to earth. Educating the people is expensive, and your next picture must be made for the box-office.
God knows you have all the talent and the ability for writing, producing directing—everything in CITIZEN KANE and AMBERSONS confirms that. We should apply all that talent and effort in the right direction and make a picture on which "we can get well."
That's the story, Orson, and I feel very miserable to have to write you this.
My very best as always,
March 28, 1942
In cases such as this great difference of opinion in the editing and cutting of AMBERSONS, people usually say "nothing personal, of course" as an excuse to say whatever they think. In my case, I have no business interest in AMBERSONS, Mercury or you; but a great personal feeling about all three, especially you, and whatever I say I know you will take in a personal way, and I want you to.
I have often been wrong in discussing scripts and plots with you, and I agree that I'm wanting in intellectual concept and understanding of art. I do, however, have a reliable instinct, and as often as I have been wrong about actual ideas, I have been right about audience reactions. I also know by now just about what your reaction to audiences is, and I am writing this to you because I know you would have been far from happy with the feeling in the theater during the showing last week. The moment the temporary title was flashed on the screen THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, a Mercury production by Orson Welles, there was a wonderful murmur of happy anticipation, which was warming and delightful to hear and feel. And the first sound of your voice was greeted with applause. Certainly I was fair in assuming at this point that the audience was with us. Then something happened… it happened gradually and awfully and the feeling in that theater became disinterested, almost hostile and as cold as that ice-house they had just seen and my heart as heavy as the heart of Major Amberson who was playing wonderful scenes that nobody cared about.
You have written doubtless the most faithful adaptation any book has ever had, and when I had finished reading it I had the same feeling I had when I read the book. When you read it, I had that same reaction only stronger. 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. Dramatically, it is like a play full of wonderful, strong second acts all coming down on the same curtain line, all proving the same tragic point. Then suddenly someone appears on the apron and says the play is over without there having been enacted a concluding third act. ...It is a dark sort of movie, more Chekhov than Tarkington... The emotional impact in the script seems to have lost itself somewhere in the cold visual beauty before us and at the end there is definitely a feeling of dissatisfaction… chiefly, I believe, because we have seen something that should have been no less than great. And it can be great, I'm sure of that. It's all there, in my opinion, with some transpositions, revisions and some points made clearer… points relating to human relations, I mean.
…Our cables that fly back and forth, I know, present everything in a very unsatisfactory manner. They often must be misinterpreted at both ends. Jack [Moss, Welles' associate at Mercury Productions], I know, is doing all he can. He is trying his best to get Bob Wise to you. His opinions about the cuts, right or wrong, I know are the results of sincere, thoughtful, harassed days, nights, Sundays, holidays. Nobody in the Mercury is trying in any way to take advantage of your absence. Nobody anywhere thinks you haven't made a wonderful, beautiful, inspiring picture. Everybody in the Mercury is on your side always. I miss you horribly and will be a happier soul when you return.
We all love you… and until then remain forever, as all of us do,