The Magnificent Ambersons

Dir: Orson Welles, 1942. Starring: Tim Holt, Joseph Cotten, Anne Baxter, Dolores Costello, Agnes Moorehead, Ray Collins. Classics.
The Magnificent Ambersons
Aside from the missing, approximately 9 hour cut of Erich Von Stroheim’s silent epic Greed, Orson Welles’sThe Magnificent Ambersons is easily the most mythologized lost American film ever made. To recap the essential narrative of how this tragic loss for American film history occurred, unlike with Citizen Kane, Welles did not have final cut on his second film for RKO, an adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s turn of the century American family saga The Magnificent Ambersons. Because the studio brass at RKO didn’t like or trust Welles they were happy to wrest his opus from his chubby little fingers and—since he was in Brazil at the time filming the festivities of Carnival as an emissary of the federal government as part of a North American goodwill gesture towards South America—there wasn’t much he could do about it. His absence from Hollywood during the editing stage of the film and his lack of artistic control over the end result cost him dearly. After the Ambersons debacle Welles would never regain his wunderkind status that preceded his arrival in Hollywood. He was unjustly portrayed as unprofessional, someone who couldn’t bring a project in on time. After all, he might run off to Brazil.

The original running time of Ambersons was just over two hours but it did not test well with a preview audience and, by the time RKO dumped it onto the market, it had been butchered to 88 minutes. So what was cut? Robert Carringer’s essential chronology The Magnificent Ambersons: a Reconstruction goes a long way towards explaining what we are missing. Using the original screenplay and stills from the scenes that were cut Carringer pieces together a “reconstruction” to give us a semblance of what watching the original Welles cut would have been like. Some of Welles’s amazingly complicated tracking shots had been junked in favor of artless insertions done by studio hacks. Scenes that went a long way towards explaining how the Amberson fortune dwindled to nothing were also cut. Scenes dealing with the rise of the automobile and how it led to a lowering of property values in the oldest and grandest section of the Midwestern city where the story takes place were taken out.  These cuts hinder the cohesion of the story while a chopping up of what Welles maintained to his death was the single greatest shot he had ever pulled off—a breathtaking single-take, multi-level tracking shot through the Amberson Christmas ball—is surely the worst thing to ever happen anywhere to anyone or anything ever.

What’s left still constitutes one of the greatest films ever made, as far as I can tell, but what might have been is painful to speculate upon. Still, the film is mostly excellent: a Chekovian family saga set in the American Midwest at the dawn of the twentieth century, with several superb performances. To summarize briefly: In the film, set in a nameless Midwestern city that most assume was based on Indianapolis in the early 1900s, Tim Holt plays George Amberson Minafer, a petty tyrant, a horrible brat whom everyone in town hates with a passion. George’s mother, Isabel, married a bore named Wilbur after she got mad at her true love, Eugene (a terribly genteel Joseph Cotton), who showed up drunk to a serenade and embarrassed her. Isabel saved all her love for her son and warped him into a monstrous black hole of arrogance and entitlement. George falls for Eugene’s daughter, Lucy, while Isabel rekindles her passion for Eugene, now an industrialist just coming in to his own fortune as the fortunes of the old money Ambersons begin to wane. Rounding out the cast is Agnes Moorehead as Wilbur’s pathetic spinster sister, Fannie. Fannie carries a torch for Eugene and it’s something of a town joke. Moorehead brings such a depth of feeling to the role of Fannie it’s almost painful to watch. For a turn of the century period drama made in the 1940s, her meltdown is unnervingly naturalistic. This is the kind of subtle innovation Welles was doing with his second feature, though; it’s not as sexy as Kane but it’s a brilliant film and an incredibly dark one, too.

I sometimes think that if I could travel back in time to any event it would be to that Pomona sneak preview of the The Magnificent Ambersons before RKO cut it to pieces.  I know I should say I would try to stop, like, the Kennedy assassination or something but if I’m being worryingly candid, I'd probably head straight for Ambersons preview. There’s something uniquely sad about a work of art that hardly anyone got to see except in a mutilated form. As a Welles fan, this remains the ultimate glass-is-half-full challenge. But who knows? Perhaps someone someday somewhere will open a closet, maybe in Rio, and find a mud caked rough cut of the film. In the meantime, it’s worth savoring what's still there in all its tattered glory.

The Magnificent Ambersons was nominated for 4 Oscars including Best Picture, Best Cinematography (Stanley Cortez), Best Supporting Actress (Agnes Moorehead), and Best Art Direction.
Posted by:
Jed Leland
Apr 4, 2012 6:14pm
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