As with almost all of Orson Welles’ filmography following the monolithic precedence established his 1941 debut Citizen Kane, it’s impossible not to deliberate on what could have been with his 1942 adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons had RKO not infamously butchered it by removing 50 minutes of footage and tacking on a happy ending while Welles was out of the country (resulting in a now mythical fall-out with editor Robert Wise, who had to re-cut the picture in the director’s absence).
Purportedly, a test screen of the 133-minute cut yielded a fussy response, as audiences weren’t too keen on depressing familial sagas during the WWII era. To appease the masses the studio balked in predictable fashion and the excised footage would eventually be lost forever. Similar interferences would continue to plague Welles’s projects—the original plan for 1946’s The Stranger was to have Agnes Moorehead star as the Nazi hunter, and then, of course there was his movie goddess sacrilege when he transformed Rita Hayworth’s lush red locks into those of an icy blonde femme fatale in 1947’s The Lady from Shanghai (a film which would have his name removed from directorial credit). What does exist, as with all these films, is still evidence of a master filmmaker, despite whatever roughshod editing transpired or tacky hackneyed ending employed for the sake of commercial prospects.
We meet the Amberson clan at the height of their powers, with the beautiful Isabel Amberson Minafer (Dolores Costello) married to Jack Amberson (Ray Collins), their son George a spoiled hellion whom polite Indianapolis society is forced to contend with. But dark times befall the Amberson clan, with George (Tim Holt) returning as a young man, his parents’ marriage in a state of decline. Following the death of his father, George must contend with the enterprising Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten) a burgeoning auto industrialist returned to nurse the crush he had on Isabel from their youth. George’s Aunt Fanny (Agnes Moorehead) also has eyes for Eugene, whilst the young man finds himself falling for the auto head’s comely daughter Lucy (Anne Baxter).
Despite its dilemmas, The Magnificent Ambersons was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Unfortunately, Welles’ title was ignored for the patriotic fervor bestowed upon Mrs. Miniver, as was the excellent supporting performance which Agnes Moorehead was nominated for. Even by 1940’s standards, however, this is a clearly a film which presents a portrait of nostalgia via stilted engagement, with Welles seeming to prize remembrance through a prism of privilege as its own self-hobbling mechanism. Moorehead’s Aunt Fanny, for instance, is a portrait of how cultural affluence only benefits the white, male patriarchy—unmarried women forced into spinsterhood, likened to superfluous barnacles, continued to be crippled entities, wholly dependent on the continued existence of familial empire. Moorehead is a jarring bit of impassioned emotion as the lovelorn Fanny, whose outbursts are the only remonstrances to her allotted social standing. The rest of the players are presented as the social remnants they are, vague echoes from the pages of a yellowed, decaying American history. The compromised romance between Dolores Costello (grandmother of Drew Barrymore, forced into retirement shortly after the film due to the facial scarring caused by the toxic make-up used on performers during the silent era, in which she had flourished) and Joseph Cotton is merely a throwaway inevitability. A youthful Anne Baxter, eight years before menacing Bette Davis as the scion of a new generation intent on sloughing off the elders, also a figment of a characterization. Standing out in opposition to all of them is an incredibly wooden Tim Holt, arguably styled as the spoiled, ignorant inheritor of a dysfunctional legacy, balking at the decline of his class and the expectations of a new century.
While doomed as a compromised product, not to mention all the uncredited work of crew members who had their names removed (such as composer Bernard Herrmann), The Magnificent Ambersons is a deliciously photographed time capsule, with Albert S. D’Agostino’s impressive set designs belying the craftsmanship and detail which went into recreating turn-of-the-century Indianapolis. The film’s tone is that of a mournful memory, replete with moments of joyfulness and hope. At times, it’s formality and lack of expected sentimentality considering its subjects, plays like an odd, faded elder to the avowed humanity of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, released only four years later and fashioned on the economic woes which had mutated the American class systems into an industrial dependent infrastructure which it would never escape.
Criterion provides The Magnificent Ambersons with a brand new 4K digital restoration, presented in 1.37:1 with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack. Picture and sound quality have been updated superbly in this new transfer, which expertly highlights the title’s expressive roving cinematography (credited to Stanley Cortez, while Welles and Jack Mackenzie remain uncredited). A bounty of extra features is included on this compromised classic from one of America’s most innovative directors.
Actor Simon Callow, who wrote the multivolume biography Orson Welles, discusses how The Magnificent Ambersons is one of the director’s most personal films as well as the resounding and fateful impact the film’s fate had on the rest of his career in this twenty-five-minute interview recorded for Criterion in 2018.
Orson Welles scholar Francois Thomas compares the work of cinematographer Stanley Cortez with that of the other various cinematographers who worked on the film ins this 2018 fifteen-minute video essay.
Orson Welles and Dick Cavett:
This May 14, 1970 episode of The Dick Cavett Show featured Orson Welles.
Orson Welles scholar Joseph McBride discusses the studio politics and external circumstances which led to the re-editing of The Magnificent Ambersons for this twenty-eight-minute interview filmed by Criterion in 2018.
Bernard Herrmann scholar Christopher Husted explores discusses the composer’s “mangled” score for The Magnificent Ambersons in this eighteen-minute-interview, examining clues from Herrmann’s full version to deduce the original vision the director had for the film.
Booth Tarkington’s novel was originally adapted in 1925 as a silent film directed by David Smith. Criterion presents a two-reel segment here released in the UK in 1931 as Two to One.
Peter Bogdanovich Interviews:
Two audio excerpts from several hours of interviews director Peter Bogdanovich recorded with Welles through the 1960s and 70s are included. The tapes provided the basis for Bogdanovich’s 1992 book This Is Orson Welles.
AFI Welles Symposium:
Criterion includes twenty-nine-minutes’ worth of audio excerpts related to The Magnificent Ambersons from a 1978 American Film Institute symposium entitled Working with Welles.
Welles had previously adapted the work of novelist Booth Tarkington via radio adaptations, including Seventeen in 1938 as well as The Magnificent Ambersons in 1939, both presented here.
As Cotton’s Eugene Morgan quips early in the film, “There aren’t any times but new times,” and Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons is a snapshot of old times, both as a reverie for a lost mythical American certainty and a Hollywood studio system which still at least allowed for the concept of an auteur.
Film Review: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Review: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆