Nether Regions 07.20.10: The Magnificent Ambersons
Posted by Chad Webb on 07.20.2010
The “magnificence of the Ambersons began in 1873”, so how “magnificent” are they in 2010? This week we tackle Orson Welles’ famous 1942 film.
Nether Regions started as a segment of the Big Screen Bulletin that meant to showcase films that have been discontinued on DVD, are out of print in the United States, are only available in certain regions outside the United States, or are generally hard to find. Now it is a column all its own! You might ask "Why should I care about a film I have no access to?" My goal is to keep these films relevant because some of them genuinely deserve to be recognized. Every time I review a new film I will have a list of those I covered below so you can see if they have been announced for DVD release, or are still out of print.
THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS
Starring: Tim Holt, Joseph Cotton, and Dolores Costello Directed By: Orson Welles Written By: Orson Welles, w/ additional scenes by Joseph Cotton and Jack Moss Running Time: 88 minutes Release Date: July 10, 1942 Missing Since: forever Existing Formats:Region 1 Orson Welles Box Set (on used) and sporadic TV airings Netflix Status: Not Available Availability: Very Rare
One of the great disasters of movie history is the debacle surrounding Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons. What occurred behind the scenes is infinitely more interesting than the story itself, and as it can tend to happen over time, certain facts have been somewhat distorted. Orson Welles' reputation today, compared to when he was making films in the 1940's, equate to two different views. The general consensus now is that the evil studio prevented the good and true legend from fulfilling his vision. There are two sides to every story, and in this case we generally hear only one. The Magnificent Ambersons was Welles' second feature for RKO Pictures, and it was a follow-up to Citizen Kane. His stunning debut was not hailed as a masterpiece or "the greatest film of all-time" like it is today, but the reviews were still positive and his abilities were recognized.
Eugene looks on in this image from the glorious ball sequence.
The tale begins with Welles' contract. He was so desperate for money at the time that he trashed his existing contract, which gave him full control, in favor of a new one that presented him with more money. Regrettably, he lost final cut privaleges. Welles had something like 3 projects going at once, not to mention his duties on a radio show. When the shoot was finished, Welles turned in a 131 minute cut. He then traveled to South America after Nelson Rockefeller personally asked him to shoot a goodwill propaganda film called It's All True, which was also not completed. RKO decided to test screen Ambersons with the director in Brazil. Their worries that audiences would not take to it were realized when it was described as long and depressing. The fact that America was smack dab in the middle of World War II didn't help either.
RKO chose to make re-cuts, and because of Orson Welles' massive ego, no one stood up for his version. Christian McKay's portrayal in Me and Orson Welles is not so far off. Did the studio snip, cut, and paste like wicked saboteurs without Welles knowing? The whole truth will never be known. Producer George Schaefer found it easier to do what he wanted with Welles out of the country, but even if he had been there, final cut was not his. Welles did take part in approving/disapproving some of the re-cuts via telephone calls. It is rumored that RKO studio representative Jack Moss did not answer every call from Welles, and even threw away his telegrams. RKO ended up removing nearly an hour of material, and opted for a happier conclusion. Because Welles was not available, the responsibility to shoot that ending fell with Editor Robert Wise. The version we now see wraps at a short 88 minutes, presumably a shell of its former self.
The action that Schaefer and RKO Pictures deserve to be condemned for is when they elected to burn all the cut footage to make room in their vault. That one decision prevented any restoration of the original vision and would forever cause critics, historians, and fans to wonder: How much better would The Magnificent Ambersons be if all the footage was in tact? If "lost" footage from Metropolis can be found, there is still hope for The Magnificent Ambersons. A rough cut was apparently sent to Welles in Brazil, but it has not been found. Just who monitors the warehouses in these countries anyway? All that viewers can do is judge the film as it stands. I watched The Magnificent Ambersons for the first time to prepare for this article, and I found it to be emotionally stirring, superbly acted, and for the most part adeptly directed. I just hate, despise, and loathe the tacked-on ending. It does not fit with the characters' attitudes and is poorly shot.
A copy of the Pulitzer prize winning book by Booth Tarkington.
The story is based on Booth Tarkington's novel of the same name, and according to Welles, the main character was based on himself. The film's timeline covers the turn of the century, from the 19th to the 20th where the Ambersons are a wealthy and powerful upper-class Indianapolis family. It centers on George Amberson Minafer (Tim Holt), the only son of Isabel Amberson Minafer (Dolores Costello) and Wilbur Minafer (Don Dillaway). As the only Amberson heir, George is spoiled by everyone including his Uncle Jack Amberson (Ray Collins), his Aunt Fanny Minafer (Agnes Moorehead), and his grandfather Major Amberson (Richard Bennett). This turns him into a "princely terror" that grows up into a conceited and hurtful person that has no ambition or care for anyone but himself. During what is described as the "last pageant of the tenantry" at the Amberson mansion, George meets Eugene (Joseph Cotten) and Lucy Morgan (Anne Baxter), a widowed inventor and his young daughter. It is Eugene that Isabel truly loves, and she was prepared to marry him before he drunkenly serenaded her, fell, and broke his musical instrument.
To avoid embarrassment, she married Wilbur. George does not know this history, and he falls for Lucy nonetheless. He already dislikes Eugene because of his chief invention, the automobile, which George deems unnecessary. Eventually, bad investments and the refusal to keep up with the times sends the Ambersons and Minafers down a pathway of destruction. Wilbur passes away, and this gives Eugene the second chance he was hoping for with Isabel. When George learns of the history between his mother and Eugene, along with the town gossip, he becomes enraged, and goes out of his way to destroy their potential marriage. The film is narrated by Orson Welles, whose irreplaceable voice and moving words augment the substance considerably. It is arguably one of the finest examples of narration as everything Welles says in the opening minutes sets the tone for what is seen from then on. Welles had performed as George in the Mercury Radio Theater production of the book, but he knew was physically wrong for the part.
Because Welles peaked early as a filmmaker, and because this was made after his most renowned effort, his prowess here is remarkable. In many ways I think The Magnificent Ambersons unfolds in a smoother and more elegant fashion than Citizen Kane. Welles constructs each and every moment with assiduousness, utilizing multiple techniques that cause his directing style to stand out (especially from the re-shoots). The Christmas ball sequence is among the best I've seen. The manner in which the action is captured from the dancing to the casual conversations is nothing short of masterful. The camera winds around the staircase so wonderfully, and catches all the important players in the background. It also serves to introduce us to many people, as well as discovering more about George and his method of thinking. Welles wanted one long unbroken take for this, but that didn't exactly happen as it took over a week to complete.
The "Currier and Ives" shot.
The cinematography is handled by Stanley Cortez, whom Welles had not collaborated with previously, but together they formed a brilliant duo. Cortez shot approximately half of what we see on screen. Welles shot a number of the scenes himself, and of course staff cameramen did the re-shoots. The differences are obvious. Notice how the focal range and overall lighting is flat and shallow during the first half of the scene where George argues with Fanny by the kitchen boiler. This was shot by Jack Moss. The second half is subtler and more delicately arranged as George helps Fanny up and out of the kitchen.
Welles wanted things his way, and this meant that the inside of the Amberson house needed to be built exactly like a real mansion so that the camera could maneuver freely. This resulted in a more natural atmosphere and less confinement. Another of Welles' demands was that the cast and crew use a real abandoned Los Angeles ice house during a wintry sequence. This allowed endless amounts of man-made snow to be pumped out whereas the custom was painted cornflakes. Unfortunately this caused many members of the cast to develop colds. It also went over schedule as equipment malfunctioned due to the temperature. It's a fantastic moment, conveying the evaporating joy in the Ambersons' lives. It ends with an iris shot, which was most popular for silent films. The last image resembles a Currier and Ives print.
One of the strengths of The Magnificent Ambersons is that Welles hired relatively new faces for the main roles. Tim Holt is gracefully intense and forcefully malicious as George. He is supposed to be a spoiled brat, and Holt personifies that trait without ever missing a step. The fact that George gets his "comeuppance" very late in the story would have been fine had the last scene not botched its effect. Holt had been seen largely in B-grade westerns up until this production, and after this, he would move up to…better westerns, such as Treasure of the Sierra Madre and My Darling Clementine. Aside from Welles, it is Holt that instills The Magnificent Ambersons with its vigor. The rest of the performances feed off of his skill.
Anne Baxter's sweet-natured Lucy is about as prominent as she can be, and this is one of Baxter's better depictions. This was before Baxter would win an Oscar for The Razor's Edge and then move on to the iconic titular role in All About Eve. Baxter is poignant in the key areas, but she appears to deliver the lines for herself on occasion, not caring about establishing chemistry with any co-star. Baxter derives from that old school method of reciting lines involving sharp turns of the head and staring off into the distance for no reason. Dolores Costello is terrific as Isabel. Costello was once called "The Goddess of the Silent Screen", but the harsh makeup she commonly used caused her cheek bones to deteriorate, so she retired early. Agnes Moorhead has the showiest part as George's jittery and jealous Aunt Fanny. She is responsible for crucial exchanges, such as the lingering kitchen boiler scene mentioned above.
To fill the shoes of Eugene Morgan, Joseph Cotton was selected. He received his start in movies mostly due to Welles, who was a friend stemming from the mid-30's. This was only Cotton's fourth role, but he affords an incredibly nuanced, sensitive, and amiable performance as a likable fellow whose luck turns from bad to good while his true love's family is bludgeoned with the reverse. Welles was not pleased when he heard his buddy filmed scenes without his knowledge. It damaged their friendship for a time, but they reconciled after Cotton wrote letters of apology. Those familiar with Welles' biography will see a trend in that many of the Mercury Theater Radio actors Welles had known appear in the cast. Ray Collins is one of those as Jack Amberson, whose departure at the train station is simply splendid. Collins is also the only one that contributed to Welles' 1939 radio version. Richard Bennett is also highly competent as Major Amberson.
A photo of Orson Welles in 1942.
In light of the studio's demands, the patchy editing from Robert Wise should not be a surprise. Although Cotton and Welles mended the wounds, Welles and Wise would not resolve their differences. Wise maintained that the edited version was superior to the original. One aspect is not debatable in my eyes, and that is how Wise's editing severely affects the final portion. The conversations and plot turns become slightly confusing. Prior to that, The Magnificent Ambersons sparkled with virtuosity, but the end leaves us dizzy and disappointed.
Spoilers ahead! The true ending involved George visiting Fanny in the boarding house after George's accident, illustrating how the tides have changed between their families. A tour through the crumbling Amberson mansion was also shot. It is definitely bleak, but sometimes that can heighten the power, and in my opinion, it is George's "comeuppance" that would have prevented the original Welles cut from being a total downer unworthy of repeated viewings. But then again, we may never know. End Spoilers!
Some have called this Welles' most personal film, and after you compare the lives of George Amberson Minafer and Orson Welles, it is easy to see why. Welles speaks with hints of melancholy nostalgia in the narration. His father was an inventor, he grew up in the Midwest, and he was allegedly spoiled. The film ended up being a box office flop (It was on a double bill with Mexican Spitfire Sees a Ghost), but went on to be nominated for Best Picture and 3 other Oscars. That and Citizen Kane were the only Welles pictures to receive that nomination. The budget was $1 million, and RKO lost $600,000 after the dust cleared. The first adaptation of Tarkington's novel was called Pampered Youth in 1925, and in 2002 The Magnificent Ambersons was remade as a poor made-for-TV movie that used Welles original screenplay and his editing notes.
The Magnificent Ambersons is understandably extolled to this day, but it is still discussed so fervently because of its history and the fact that the lost footage could still be out there somewhere, waiting to be dug up. The only other analogous film loss is that of Erich von Stroheim's Greed. Welles would not direct again until The Stranger in 1946. Even Bernard Hermann, who provided a sensationally ominous score, requested his name be taken off the credits. There is little doubt that Welles could have assembled the footage into something superior. This is a good film, not a great one, but definitely a tremendous achievement. It is a hurdle every true film buff must face.
The Magnificent Ambersons did receive a region 1 DVD release, but it apparently came and went like a violent wind. It was released in a Orson Welles legend box set. I don't think it's worth buying, but I would urge anyone curious to keep an eye on TCM and PBS showtimes to see the film. I would guess that it has not received a proper DVD release because someone somewhere hopes that the footage will be found.
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