28 May 2018

We have got to get away from "arty" pictures

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) is often considered Orson Welles' second masterpiece, even if it's not the film Welles had envisioned. Welles' original film, 131 minutes long, was cut down to 88 minutes by RKO editor Robert Wise, with the original ending (Welles' favourite scene) changed and reshot. Welles was devastated and later said: "They destroyed Ambersons, and it destroyed me". (Welles was working on another project in Brazil when in his absence his film was "butchered".)

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.

Above: Orson Welles on the set of The Magnificent Ambersons with cinematographer Stanley Cortez. Below: Welles pictured with RKO president George Schaefer and Dolores del Rio (with whom Welles had a relationship for four years) at the premiere of Citizen Kane (1941), Welles' first masterpiece.

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 commercialWe 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        
Dear Orson: 
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, 
George Schaefer

Source: Wellesnet

March 28, 1942 
Dear Orson: 
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, 
Obediently yours, 
Source: Wellesnet

Above: Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten having a laugh. Below: Robert Wise (second from left) with Welles and others on the set of The Magnificent Ambersons. Wise had also been editor on Welles' Citizen Kane a year earlier and would later direct such classics as West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965).

21 May 2018

My dear Bogie

In January 1956, Humphrey Bogart was diagnosed with esophageal cancer and a few months later underwent surgery to have his esophagus removed. While in hospital recovering from the surgery, Bogie received the following letter from director George Cukor. Knowing that the two men never made a film together, I browsed the web to see what the connection was between them. While they didn't seem to be friends, I found they did have mutual friends (Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Clifton Webb) and probably moved in the same social circlesIn any case, Cukor wanted to cheer up Bogie following his surgery and instead of sending flowers --Bogie hated flowers-- he sent this funny letter.

(Incidentally, the cancer had already spread and neither surgery nor chemotherapy could save Bogie's life. On 14 January 1957, just 57 years old, Bogie died.)

Via: icollector


March 14, 1956

My dear Bogie:

Having known for years from what a fine, old aristocratic New York family you come, and being reminded of that fact from time to time by you, I looked up in my Emily Post what should be done when a classy friend is in the hospital.

Emily says: ".... it's always thoughtful to take a gift of flowers, etc...." I was prepared to go along with this when Mr. Clifton Webb, who comes from a fine, old aristocratic Indianapolis family, as Maybelle [Webb's mother] reminds us archly from time to time, told me that above all things, you loathe flowers.

That did save me three or four bucks right there, but I was perplexed as to what my next move should be. Emily Post hasn't provided what to do in a case of Floraphobe. I decided, what better than to sit right down and write Bogie a Get-Well letter, a real comical one.

First, let me say I was rash when I said all actors were horses' you-know-whats. I should have said all actors-one-doesn't-like are horses' asses. As for those that one happens to like.... well, they have the potential of developing  into first-class H.A.'s.

It might please you, and maybe even surprise you a little, to know with what genuine affection people speak of you. I'd be less than truthful, though, if I didn't add that there's a slight note of surprise as they find themselves uttering these tender sentiments. Even the Old Man of The Sea, who's inclined to be grudging with his praise, became almost lyrical when talking of your many splendid qualities. You'll most likely be awful hard to get along with after all this.

Now a confession. As you know, it was in "Swifty" that I first saw you. I didn't flip. I didn't say, "That kid's got it! .... Stardust!" Blind fool that I was, I wasn't impressed. Never in my born days could I have imagined that you'd turn out to be a great beeg, beeg star-- and a fine actor besides. Be frank, aren't you surprised too?

Yet on that very same Playhouse stage, at a special matinee, I saw another young actor, Leo Mielziner, Jr..... no surprise finish there.

At this point you're probably muttering, "...... what does he mean, comical letter....". Well, I tried.

Go on and get well soon, so's we can all get off this sentimental kick and be our own natural, horrible  selves again.

(signed) George

Mr. Humphrey Bogart
Hospital of The Good Samaritan
1212 Shatto Street
Los Angeles, California  

8 May 2018

Marilyn & Ella: the "truth" behind Ella's booking at the Mocambo

Prior to my visit to the 2016 Marilyn Monroe exhibition in my old home town Amsterdam (The Netherlands), I had never heard of the connection between Marilyn and jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald. It was through the exhibit that I discovered that Marilyn was responsible for Ella's booking at the Mocambo, in the 1950s thé jazz hot spot in Los Angeles frequented by many Hollywood stars. Legend has it that the Mocambo had refused to book Ella because of her skin colour and Marilyn, a huge Ella fan, then called the owner of the club demanding Ella's booking. In exchange, Marilyn would sit at the front table during every performance. The affair attracted much publicity and it is said the two women became friends after that.

The source of the Mocambo story was Ella Fitzgerald herself. In an August 1972 interview with Ms. Magazine she had said: "I owe Marilyn Monroe a real debt … she personally called the owner of the Mocambo, and told him she wanted me booked immediately, and if he would do it, she would take a front table every night. She told him – and it was true, due to Marilyn’s superstar status – that the press would go wild. The owner said yes, and Marilyn was there, front table, every night. The press went overboard. After that, I never had to play a small jazz club again. She was an unusual woman – a little ahead of her times. And she didn’t know it." 

Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe photographed at the Tiffany Club in Los Angeles late 1954.

While I love the story of Ella being the 
first black artist to perform at the Mocambo thanks to Marilyn's interference and Marilyn being there front and center every night, the story has been disputed, in particular by the website Marilyn: A Day In The Life with this interesting article. Apparently, Ella was not the first black performer at the Mocambo, other black artists had performed at the club before her including Dorothy Dandridge in 1952 and Eartha Kitt in 1953. The reason why club manager Charlie Morrison didn't want to book Ella was not because of her race but probably because he didn't think her glamorous enough. As to Marilyn being present at the Mocambo every night during Ella's run (15-25 March 1955), April VeVea of Marilyn: A Day In The Life argues that Marilyn couldn't have been there since she was not in Los Angeles at the time. However, Marilyn did make several appearances at the Tiffany Club, another Hollywood jazz venue, in November 1954 while Ella was performing there. The famous pictures of the two women together at a Hollywood nightclub were taken at the Tiffany Club and not at the Mocambo. And so, argues VeVea, in her 1972 interview Ella must have confused Marilyn's actual appearances at the Tiffany Club with appearances at the Mocambo.

With both the race story and Marilyn's presence at the Mocambo disputed, did Marilyn still play a role in Ella's booking at the Mocambo or not? According to a newspaper clipping (see image) and Marilyn biographer Michelle Morgan (here), Marilyn did. However, VeVea of Marilyn: A Day In The Life says Marilyn didn't and her point of view seems confirmed by a memo written by Marilyn's secretary Inez Melson. Melson wrote the memo as a reminder of the conversation she had with Jo Brooks, wife of Jules Fox who was Ella's publicity agent. It confirms that Marilyn had visited the Tiffany Club late 1954 when Ella was playing there. Judging from the memo, however, it looks like Marilyn had nothing to do with the Mocambo booking and merely wanted to give a party for Ella after Ella had been booked. Ultimately, Marilyn never hosted the party as she was out of town then.

Melson's memo, written on 15 February 1955, is shown below.

Source: Julien's Live


February 15, 1955

Memo of conversation with Jo Brooks

Jo Brooks is husband of Jules Fox who is a publicity agent, handling publicity for Ella Fitzgerald.

A few months back, Miss Monroe visited the Tiffany Club on West 8th Street where Ella Fitzgerald was playing. Miss Fitzgerald talked of a possible future date at the Mocambo and Miss Monroe said when this happened, she would like to give a party for Miss Fitzgerald.

Miss Fitzgerald will open at the Mocambo on March 15 and Miss Brooks wanted to know if Miss Monroe was serious about giving a party. I told her that I did not think that Miss Monroe would be in town on that date but I would tell her about Miss Fitzgerald's opening.

Marilyn and Ella photographed in 1961. Marilyn may not have played a role in Ella's booking at the Mocambo but her appearances at the Tiffany Club in November 1954 certainly gave Ella's career a boost.