Agnes Moorehead's signature scene, in which she bemoaned the turn of the Ambersons fortunes and her inability to provide for George--which secured her an Academy Award nomination--was actually cobbled together from original footage and hastily re shot scenes. The latter had no input from Orson Welles.
The preview of the movie occurred a short time after Pearl Harbor. Because of this, most of the audience review cards stated that they didn't want to see a depressing movie, and that it should have more laughs and a happy ending. With Orson Welles out of the country, the production team had to make the cuts and changes without his input.
The re-cutting of this film caused a deep rift in Orson Welles' friendships with Robert Wise and Joseph Cotten. Cotten later wrote several letters of apology to Welles, and the two later reconciled. Welles and Wise, however, remained on acrimonious terms for some 42 years until Wise was invited to come to the stage by Gilbert Cates when the Directors Guild of America honored Welles with its Lifetime Achievement Award in 1984. The former rivals ended up shaking hands as the crowd rewarded them with a standing ovation.
Orson Welles demanded that the inside of the Ambersons' mansion be built as if it was a real house, with continuous rooms of four walls and ceilings. This enabled his camera to roam around the house freely and shoot from any angle.
Joseph Cotten remembered Anne Baxter from their experience together in the stage version of "The Philadelphia Story." Star Katharine Hepburn was unhappy with the young actress' performance as her younger sister, however, and had her dropped from the production. Cotton thought so highly of her, though, that he recommended that she be borrowed for the part of his daughter in this film.
RKO chopped 50 minutes of the film and added a happy ending while Orson Welles was out of the country. The footage was subsequently destroyed; the only record of the removed scenes is the cutting continuity transcript.
According to Peter Bogdanovich, Orson Welles said many times that this film could've been "much better than Citizen Kane (1941)." Also, while Welles always refused to watch any of his films, he was in a hotel room in the 1970s with many friends and the film was showing on TV, and he was talked into watching the rest of it. It is said that he was teary throughout, and confessed that although the ending didn't work, he still liked the film.
In the newspaper reporting the auto accident that injured George Amberson Minafer, the left-hand column is "Stage Views" featuring the picture and byline of "Jed Leland", the theater critic in Citizen Kane (1941), also directed by Orson Welles. Leland was played by Joseph Cotten, who plays Eugene Morgan in this movie.
The scenes with the automobile ride with the snow were filmed in an abandoned icehouse instead of the RKO stage reserved for such shots. However, it took much longer than anticipated because the equipment kept having problems that were brought on by the cold (film jamming because of frozen condensation, lenses fogging up, etc.). Because of this everyone involved, except for Orson Welles, contracted a terrible head cold.
Producer Bryan Foy was one of many who felt that the film was too long. Upon hearing that 40 minutes had to be excised, Foy is alleged to have said: "Just throw all the footage up in the air and grab everything but 40 minutes."
The consensus of opinion according to nearly everyone who saw the original conclusion--which included a tour of the decaying Amberson mansion--was that it was much more powerful than the tacked-on "happy" ending.
The earliest Morgan automobile shown in the film is actually an 1892 Philion Road Carriage, one of the oldest existing American-built cars and the only one produced. It can still be seen at the National Automobile Museum in Reno, NV.
After a disastrous preview, it was clear to the execs at RKO that the film was too long, too dense and too somber. Orson Welles, however, had decamped to Brazil, where he was in the midst of working on a film called "It's All True" (which was never completed). Welles had been shipped out there under the auspices of Nelson Rockefeller, one of the chief shareholders in RKO, to make a film boosting US-South American wartime relations. With him out of the way, however, the onus of re-cutting and trimming the film fell on editor Robert Wise.
In the absence of Orson Welles, RKO cut 50 minutes from the original film--which was later destroyed--ostensibly to free up vault space at the studio. However, there was also conjecture that this was done to prevent Welles from attempting to make any changes to what was left of his film. The RKO-mandated re-editing had been left in the hands of two men: Robert Wise and studio rep Jack Moss. A phone was put into Moss' office that fed directly to Welles' hotel room in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. According to future director Cy Endfield, who was working with Moss at the time, Moss would simply not answer the phone when it rang, suspecting it was Welles with his latest batch of comments and suggestions for the re-edit, Similarly, when Moss received lengthy telegrams from Welles with more suggestions and thoughts, he would throw them away.
After attending the first preview, RKO president George Schaefer wrote to Welles: "Never in all my experience in the industry have I taken so much punishment or suffered as I did at the Pomona preview".
To persuade RKO head George Schaefer to approve this film as a follow-up to Citizen Kane (1941), Orson Welles played him the "Mercury Theater of the Air" radio version of "The Magnificent Ambersons". It is claimed that Schaefer fell asleep during it. Nevertheless, he greenlit the film for $1 million, an unheard-of move for a studio whose policy was not to make films that cost more than $750,000.
Although Orson Welles had hoped to work again with the great cinematographer Gregg Toland, with whom he so generously shared a credit card on Citizen Kane (1941), Toland was under contract to Samuel Goldwyn and was not available. Welles, however, insisted that Toland's camera crew work on this film: Bert Shipman operated the camera; the assistant cameraman was Eddie Garvin, the gaffer was Bill J. McClellan and the key grip was Ralph Hoge.
Orson Welles had problems with Stanley Cortez from the beginning of the picture. Cortez had great difficulty meeting Welles's image of the film. One sequence Welles wanted, a long point of view shot as George walks through the now empty mansion, took him four days to set up. Welles was so unhappy that he ended up scrapping the shot. Toward the end of production, he demoted Cortez to shooting second-unit work and had his assistant, Harry Wild, take over.
There are two versions of how Orson Welles shot Fanny's breakdown scene in the abandoned mansion. In one, he did numerous takes of the intricate dolly shot until the actress almost had a breakdown during the take he printed. According to Agnes Moorehead, he spent the day suggesting different ways for her to play it, then had her put it all together so he could get the scene in one take. When people asked if she was exhausted, she protested that she found the work exhilarating, later stating that she couldn't sleep for a week afterwards.
Robert Wise assembled a three-hour version of the film and flew with it to Miami, where Orson Welles screened it and gave cutting notes on his way to Brazil. That was the last time Welles got to work on the film. Because of wartime travel restrictions, the U.S. government refused Wise permission to travel to Brazil for the final editing.
The final scene was shot by Orson Welles's assistant director, Freddie Fleck. Neither the lighting nor the score (which Bernard Herrmann did not compose for the scene) matched anything else in the film.
In his first directing assignment, Robert Wise shot a few additional scenes to patch up the film's continuity. Post-production head Jack Moss also filmed some additional footage. Gone from Orson Welles's original were any hints of George's Oedipal relationship with his mother, the scenes depicting the town's transformation from 19th century gentility to modern impersonality, and the family's attempts to save themselves financially. The ball sequence, which Welles had shot in one long crane shot covering the three floors of the Amberson mansion, was re-edited to remove a long chunk of dialogue, thus destroying the effect Welles had originally created. Re-shot scenes included George and Isabel discussing Eugene's letter and deciding to go to Europe, George's keeping Eugene from seeing Isabel on her deathbed, and the end of Fanny's breakdown. In the latter, everything after the long dolly shot was re-done by Moss to cut down on Fanny's hysterics as she sits with her back against the water heater.
Several cast members in studio records/casting call lists apparently were eliminated during the final editing process. These were (with their character names): Jesse Graves (Servant), Lillian Nicholson (Landlady), Robert Pittard (Charles Johnson) and Sam Rice (Attendee at Funeral). Don Dillaway (Wilbur Minafer) is not mentioned in Welles' oral credits, but he appears in three scenes in the opening minutes of the film: As Isabel and Wilbur emerge from a store, Isabel spurns suitor Eugene's attentions; Wilbur reads aloud a letter complaining about son George's misbehavior as George, Major Amberson, and Isabel listen; and Wilbur has lines in several shots of the ball scene.
It took 12 days to perfect the snow effects and get the actors' breath to appear just right for the camera. Then filming took longer than expected because the cold kept causing equipment problems. Everybody except Orson Welles contracted head colds from working on the sequence. Ray Collins lost several days when he came down with pneumonia.
For the kitchen scene in which George and Uncle Jack tease Fanny about her infatuation with Eugene Morgan, Orson Welles rehearsed the actors for five days. He did not write a word of the scene. Instead, he discussed each character's background with the actors and then asked them to improvise it as the camera rolled. The four minute plus scene plays out in a single take.
The film had its first preview in Pomona, California, on March 17, 1942. It was shown to an audience largely composed of teenagers who had come to see the Paramount musical The Fleet's In (1942). The audience laughed at dramatic moments, particularly Agnes Moorehead's big scenes as the neurotic Fanny Minafer. Most of the comment cards were overwhelmingly negative, one counselling that "People like to laff [sic], not be bored to death." The positive ones were very strong, particularly one stating, "Too bad audience was so unappreciative." George Schaefer called it the worst preview he'd witnessed in 28 years in the business.
A factor driving up the film's cost was art direction. Mark-Lee Kirk built full sets for everything, even sets only glimpsed for a few minutes. For Wilbur Minafer's funeral, he built an elaborate parlour set filled with floral displays, even though most of the room wouldn't even be seen. The film's final set-construction cost was $137,265.44, a higher proportion of set costs to the overall budget than that of Gone with the Wind (1939).
Orson Welles could never bring himself to watch the revised version. In the early '80s, director Henry Jaglom, a Welles protege, convinced him to watch an uninterrupted cablecast of the film. Welles watched enrapt for the first hour or so, then clicked off the film, saying "From here on it becomes their movie..."
In the original ending, which Orson Welles considered one of the best scenes in the film, Eugene visits a now withdrawn Fanny in her new home, a boarding house filled with noisy eccentrics. That provided an ironic counterpoint to his good news about George's recovery and his reconciliation with Eugene's daughter, an effect heightened when he leaves the boarding house, and the camera pulls back to reveal that it is the converted Amberson mansion.
Working from Orson Welles's notes, Robert Wise cut the film to 132 minutes and sent that version to Welles in Brazil. Although most scholars consider that the definitive version of the film, Welles requested another 22 minutes of cuts, most of them depicting George Minafer's efforts to end his widowed mother's relationship to Eugene Morgan. Wise complied and turned in that 110 minute version of the film.
When RKO studio chief George Schaefer saw some of the earlier scenes, he was delighted and made sure Orson Welles knew it. Robert Wise said that all involved thought the film was going to be a masterpiece.
Throughout filming there had been sound problems because of the extensive use of moving camera and crane shots. Rather than delay shooting further, Orson Welles ignored suggestions that the problems be worked out. As a result, the cast had to re-dub almost all of the film's dialogue, at a cost of $25,000. That was three times what had been budgeted for re-dubbing.
The film's second preview was set in the more sophisticated town of Pasadena. Robert Wise had restored Orson Welles's 22 minutes of cuts and made smaller cuts in other places to make up the difference. The results were much more positive, but panic had already set in at the studio. When Welles heard of the problems, he begged the studio to send Wise to Brazil so they could re-cut the film together, but that was still impossible. Instead, RKO created a committee consisting of Jack Moss, Wise and Joseph Cotten to shorten the film. Welles sent lengthy telegrams to the committee suggesting changes. In the end, RKO chief George Schaefer turned the entire editing process over to Wise.
There is some debate over how much Robert Wise and Jack Moss fought to preserve Orson Welles's vision. Wise has always said that cutting the film was a painful process dictated by economic necessity and changing times (the nation was going to war, and audiences would have little time or patience for the thoughtful, lengthy film Welles originally made), but Welles considered him a traitor and never spoke to him again. Future director Cy Endfield, who was working for the Mercury Theatre at the time, has said that Moss deliberately ignored Welles's telegrams and phone calls.