Before getting into the history of the film: the mangling by the studio, the likely deliberately destroyed edited footage, and all of that intrigue, first we have to see the movie itself: The Magnificent Ambersons, Orson Welles’s follow-up to his explosive debut Citizen Kane. Based on a novel by Booth Tarkington about the downfall of a noveau riche mid-Western family, The Magnificent Ambersons has elements of drama and comedy and some sense of tragedy, but most of all it is the portrait of a changing country, and world.
George Amberson, the only son of Isabel and heir to the fortune, treats the unnamed town his family resides in as if he owned it. In fact, he states at one point, “Anybody that really is anybody ought to be able to go about as they like in their own town.” The Ambersons won their great fortune in some unspecified way that didn’t involve much honest work, they live like landed gentry and treat the townspeople, as the narrator puts it, like “tenantry.”
Into this spoiled, delusional family’s life returns Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten). He was nearly Isabel’s fiancée before he caused her some minor embarrassment, which in her Ambersonian mind was the worst kind of insult. She married Wilbur Minafer, and Eugene left town. When he returns, 20 years later, it’s as a self-made man, and a widower with beautiful daughter Lucy in tow (Anne Baxter).
George immediately dislikes Eugene, but is intrigued by Lucy, who is not nearly as impressed with George as she ought to be, given how important he’s sure he is. George is deeply wary of the attention that Eugene pays to his mother, without quite noticing how much Isabel likes it. All the while, George’s aunt Franny (Agnes Moorehead) is madly in love with Eugene, and is willing to scheme in order to get anywhere near him.
George is so self-absorbed he barely notices or understands what anyone else could want – the only thing besides himself that he’s concerned with is the family name. When he finally discovers, after his father’s death, that Eugene actually is interested in his mother he takes a hard stand against the man. A little too hard, as the film implies that George’s love for his mother is a little too intense for a son.
The plot is melodramatic, but the film is not. While Citizen Kane was a flashy rollercoaster ride through cinematic techniques and twisted storytelling, moving through timelines the way the camera rushes through sets, The Magnificent Ambersons is elegance and beauty. It manages to achieve a kind of tone of naturalism despite using completely stylized effects. Enormous sets were built for the film, and the ballroom scene at the centerpiece of the first half was set to be an enormous single take crane shot that moved from floor to floor. Alas, this was one of the things that was cut up when the film was re-edited while Welles was out of the country.
Much of the film has the feeling of a well-staged play, or a visual radio show: groups of citizens chime in occasionally on the actions of the Ambersons like a chorus. The action of the film takes place almost entirely in or around the Amberson mansion, and never leaves the small town. When Eugene and Isabel begin to solidify their relationship at George’s college commencement, we don’t see it happen. Rather, we listen as George cluelessly spills the news to Franny, breaking her heart without even knowing it, or noticing.
For the first hour and change, The Magnificent Ambersons is sumptuous, surprising, with a remarkably fluid direction and visual style. One thing I did not remember from earlier viewings (and which this new Criterion Collection Blu-ray shows up magnificently) are the extremes of lighting. Chiaroscuro is employed throughout. Many scenes are nearly pitch black, with only character’s face lit and visible. Compositions are usually complex, often with multiple planes of interest. For the time, the sound design is also surprisingly sophisticated. Voices will fadeout, overlap, and be barely audible, practically forcing the viewer to crane in closer to hear what’s being said. It’s a beautifully produced film.
There is no sudden flashing light or title screen that tells you when The Magnificent Ambersons begins to be heavily edited. Rather, there is a shift in tone. For most of the film, the tone is delicately, masterfully maintained, so that there’s intriguing ambiguity in all the characters and their actions. In the opening, Eugene drunkenly trips and smashes a bass viol while trying to serenade Isabel. This is a minor bit of embarrassment, played as broad comedy. But Isabel found it bad enough that she upended both of their lives completely and went to another man, had her wretched son, and set up all of the tragedy to follow. Though “tragedy” might be too strong a word because tragedy requires greatness, and the Ambersons are always a little ridiculous. They’re nouveau riche who think they’re royalty, and are already rapidly falling out of step before their world starts to fall apart. Even George, who is a nasty piece of work, has a kind of vulnerability as played by Tim Holt that, while not quite endearing, makes him a little too clueless to be a real villain.
These shades of grey are, scene by scene, filled in with white and black as the film draws to its conclusion. I couldn’t state exactly which scenes were shoe-horned in, and which were merely cut down, though others with access to the script and call sheets have been able to pin point exactly where things have changed. Unfortunately, the very last scene is the most glaring. The dialogue, performances and music feel like they came from some completely different world than the one Orson Welles had created to that point.
So as a film, The Magnificent Ambersons has the unfortunate feeling of something that peters out. It opens and moves with an incredible grace. The plot doesn’t move too quickly, but the tensions and tone and multiple levels of each scene are so engaging that it feels faster paced than it is. The ending is a violation of the film that has come before. So, it isn’t entirely successful as just a movie, but so much of it is so good that to dismiss it entirely would be unfair. The Magnificent Ambersons is a flawed masterpiece, but still a worthwhile film.
It was flawed largely because Orson Welles was super busy. While making the film, he was also starring in another, Journey Into Fear. And the moment The Magnificent Ambersons was finished with principal photography, he left for Brazil on a goodwill mission that was organized by Nelson Rockefeller. He was to make a movie there to help solidify the relationship between the states and South and Central America. The sneak attack on Pearl Harbor occurred while The Magnificent Ambersons was shooting, and much of Hollywood mobilized to help with the war effort. What happened next is a matter of contention, and all sides are represented in the copious extras on the disc and in the accompanying booklet. Whether Orson Welles was double crossed, or if he was having too much fun in Brazil to pay attention to what was happening with his film, The Magnificent Ambersons was screen tested, found unlikable by the audience, and radically altered to become something other than an Orson Welles film.
The Magnificent Ambersons has been released on Blu-ray by the Criterion Collection. Along with the astounding new transfer (which is as good as this film has looked in years – I know the print I saw at film school 20 years ago was nowhere as clean), the mono soundtrack has been cleaned up. The extras for this release are the sort of extravagance that Criterion made its name on. Along with the feature, there are a pair of commentaries. One is by Robert Carringer, who wrote the book The Magnificent Ambersons – A Reconstruction and is an expert on the history of the film. His commentary is academic (though interesting), sounds pre-written, and was recorded in 1985. The other commentary, newly recorded for this release, is by James Naremore and Jonathan Rosenbaum and it is more discursive, but both commentaries complement each other well.
There are a few new video extras: one by Simon Callow, the actor, who has written a three-volume biography of Welles, and another by critic Joseph McBride. Those are about 30 minutes each. There’s a 16-minute video essay on the different cinematographers who worked on the film by Francis Thomas, and a 20-min video on how Bernard Herrmann’s score paralleled the film’s structure by Christopher Husted. These are very academic, which I as an old film student love, and are chock-full of production information and details. There’s also an old Dick Cavett show with Orson Welles appearing from 1970, and a two-reel segment (roughly 30 minutes) from a silent adaptation of The Magnificent Ambersons from 1925.
In audio extras, there’s an excerpt from Peter Bogdanovich’s long interview with Welles (about 36 minutes long) where Welles discourses about the film, and filmmaking in general. There’s also a 30-minute audio from an AFI Symposium on Welles, including the sound recorder James G. Stewart, and some of Welles fellow travelers from the Mercury Radio days. Also included is a pair of Mercury Theater radio plays: an adaptation of The Magnificent Ambersons with Welles playing George, and an adaptation of another Booth Tarkington novel, Seventeen, about an hour long each.
The booklet, which is bound with staples to look like an old screenplay, contains several essays by critics and Welles himself about various aspects of the film’s production. It’s an exhaustive collection of information for a filmed tragedy that had its own kind of tragedy behind the scenes.