Citizen Kane

Lucille Ball
Lucille Ball
Some of his first assignments as editor were Dorothy Arzner's DANCE GIRL, DANCE (1940), starring Maureen O'Hara and Lucille Ball (pictured left); Garson Kanin's MY FAVORITE WIFE (1940) (on which Wise met his first wife, Patricia Doyle, who was a stand-in for Irene Dunne), and William Dieterle's ALL THAT MONEY CAN BUY (1941).
In the '40s RKO was a thriving studio with the young and talented Wise finding himself in the position of editor after working his way up from the cutting room floor.

OrsonAnother young talent found himself inhabiting the studio lots of RKO. Orson Welles, 26, had shot several scenes under the guise of doing screen tests until the studio realized he was actually shooting a film. That film was CITIZEN KANE (1941), a movie that would go on to be considered one of the best pictures of all time. The production of CITIZEN KANE at RKO provided Wise with the first watershed moment of his career. Welles was unsatisfied with the old-timer editor who had been assigned to his work, so Wise was brought on instead. His editing on the classic film earned him an Academy Award nomination.


from the AFI documentary


On working with Welles:

"He is as close to a genius, I believe, as anyone I've ever come across in my time. A brilliant man, but a maddening man. One minute he could have you so angry at his behavior that you wanted to just tell him to shut up and walk off the picture. But before you could do it, he would come up with some notion so brilliant, that it had your mouth gaping open, and you'd hang in there. You never did walk off."*

Wise and Welles
Wise and Welles

Welles' influence on Wise:

  • Keeping the energy level high, the movement forward in the telling of the story;

  • The use of deep-focus photography;

  • Increased his sense of what a soundtrack contributes to a picture.*
  • Wise also worked on Welles' second film classic, THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS. Before the film was edited, Welles trekked off to Brazil to work on another project. When a preview for the movie was held in Los Angeles, audiences laughed at the screen and walked out. RKO wanted a return on their million and a half investment, so Wise and his team had to do more cutting. Wise also had to direct several new insert scenes.

    Wise's direction of scenes for THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS and other subsequent films he edited fueled his desire to direct. His break came
    Wise on the Magnificent Ambersons:

    The Magnificent Ambersons"In terms of a work of art, I grant you Orson's original film was better. But we were faced with the realities of what the studio was demanding. The old bit of art vs. commercialism. Yet it seems to me that since Ambersons has come down through the years as something of a semi-classic, we didn't completely emasculate everything Orson had...I'm sure, though, had Orson been able to have his own hand in what was being done, it would have been far superior. "

    Filmmakers Newsletter, April 1976

    See a clip
    when the director of CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE (1944), a Val Lewton-produced low-budget chiller, fell way behind schedule and Wise, already the editor on the project, was asked to take over directing duties. The result was a popular and critically acclaimed first effort. From Lewton, Wise learned a discipline and practicality while working on a small budget. Val's production staff, known as "The Snake Pit," churned out low-budget sophisticated thriller and horror films. It was on these B films that Wise first started to hone his directing ability. In 1944, Wise directed MADEMOISELLE FIFI, a wartime drama (with which Lewton was trying to break out of the horror mold), then THE BODY SNATCHER (1945), a now-classic horror film starring Boris Karloff.

    Wise, Lewton and Robson
    Wise, Val Lewton and Mark Robson
    In the post-War period, Wise was assigned to more B pictures which transcended RKO producers' expectations. A GAME OF DEATH (1946) was lauded for its suspense; CRIMINAL COURT (1946) was a well-paced crime drama with music; BORN TO KILL (1947), was a film noir (now considered a classic) starring Lawrence Tierney; and MYSTERY IN MEXICO (1948) was a spellbinding mystery filmed in Mexico.

    In 1948 Wise got his chance to graduate to an A picture. The movie was BLOOD ON THE MOON, a Western starring Robert Mitchum. But Wise and his producer were so detailed in their preparation of the film that the studio increased the budget and started to look for a "name" director. RKO's production head,
    Mitchum and Wise
    Robert Mitchum and Robert Wise
    Dore Schary was an ally of Wise's, and Wise went on to direct the film to some very favorable reviews.

    His greatest directorial achievement, however, would come from his last film of the decade, THE SET-UP (1949). The brilliant film about an aging boxer was an inspiration to subsequent boxing films and earned Wise the Critics Prize at Cannes.


    1. AFI Seminar, 5/75
    2. Robert Wise On His Films, p.21

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