Orson Welles: “The Magnificent Ambersons” first preview

Orson Welles: “The Magnificent Ambersons” first preview
Anne Baxter and Tim Holt in “The Magnificent Ambersons”

It’s 1942 and RKO aren’t taking any chances on Orson Welles second feature film “The Magnificent Ambersons.”

Studio executives line up a preview at a movie theater in Pomona, California. They spring the film unannounced to an audience who had just watched a forgettable musical.

After the screening, preview cards are handed out to the audience. Out of the 125 they handed back, 72 contained negative comments. The cards pose questions such as, ‘Did you like this picture?’ Here were some of the answers.

- Yes. This picture is magnificent. The direction, acting, photography, and special effects are the best the cinema has yet offered. It is unfortunate that the American public, as represented at this theatre, are unable to appreciate fine art. It might be, perhaps, criticized for being a bit too long...

- No, the worst picture I ever saw.

- Too dramatic and strained but very artistic in spots.

- I did not. People like to laff, not be bored to death.

- Yes. Picture will not be received by the general audience because they as a whole are too darn ingorant.

- No. A horrible distorted dream.

- Yes, I liked it but I feel that it was above the audience. I think it was very depressing and nerve-racking, but still when I think about it in retrospect, I can see its good points.

- It stinks.

- The picture was a masterpiece with perfect photography, settings and acting. It seemed too deep for the average stupid person. I was disgusted with the way some people received this picture which truly brings art to the picture industry. Each artist is deserving of a great deal of praise.

- Rubbish.

- Exceedingly good picture. Photography rivaled that of superb Citizen Kane. Too bad audience was so unappreciative.

- Why do you like any good piece of art? A little hard to say in five lines, isn’t it?

Based on the preview results, the studio cuts more than an hour of footage, and shoots and substitutes a new, happier ending.

Although Welles’s extensive notes for how he wants the film to be edited survive, the excised scenes and footage are lost forever. Trashed to make way for new film stock in the vault.

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