This entry continues our look at some of the under seen films from Orson Welles’ filmography. I’ve somewhat mawkishly entitled this venture “Welles-Fest”.
Click HERE to read Part 1: Intro & Review of “Me and Orson Welles”.
WELLES-FEST PART 2: The Magnificence of the Ambersons.
The problem with discussing Orson Welles’ “The Magnificent Ambersons” is the ‘baggage’ of the production itself. I could probably write a few entries about the troubles surrounding the production alone.
Welles was looking for his directorial follow up to “Citizen Kane”. He chose Booth Tarkington’s novel, The Magnificent Ambersons. The situation after the tumultuous release of “Kane” was such that he had to concede his say of having ‘final cut’ on the film. Compounding this foreboding development was the fact that Orson was keeping himself rather busy. He wasn’t just adapting and directing “Ambersons”. Mr. Welles was also starring in Norman Foster’s “Journey Into Fear”, maintaining his regular radio duties, and working on his South American film “It’s All True”. In fact, shortly after photography wrapped on “Ambersons”, he was off on his South American adventure. I would be remiss if I did not mention that this was at the behest of Nelson Rockefeller, the goal being to foster goodwill relations with the related countries.
Let’s see if I can speed this prologue up. RKO held some test screenings that didn’t go well. Audiences felt the film was too somber and that it needed a happier ending. Orson agreed and sent notes…lots of notes. Many of them were ignored. Orson was in the lower half of the Americas doing some pretty interesting work, so there was certainly a disconnect. Robert Wise and a couple other folks were given the task of trimming 50 or so minutes and creating a new end sequence….
(SPOILER WARNING: Since this film is not on DVD in the US, there are probably a lot of you that haven’t seen this. As always I will try my best to avoid spoilers, but there will likely be some as we examine certain aspects of the film.)
THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (1942)
The term ‘flawed masterpiece’ is thrown about all too often in film discussion these days. We use it to describe films that really aren’t masterpieces, but instead are decent works undone by major miscues in execution. For example: “King Kong” (2005) isn’t a flawed masterpiece. It’s a decent/good movie with great ideas undone by some poor decisions and pacing issues. “The Magnificent Ambersons” is a flawed masterpiece.
“Ambersons”, based on the 1918 Booth Tarkington novel of the same name, is set in early 1900’s Indianapolis. The Ambersons are the upper class family of this rapidly modernizing city. Their mansion and wealth are the cause of some simmering resentment on the part of the rest of the populace.
Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotton) is a well to do horseless carriage inventor/manufacturer that was on the presumptive groom to be of Isabel Amberson (Dolores Costello). Unfortunately there were a few hiccups in the courtship process and she decided to marry the much less interesting Wilbur Minafer (Donald Dillaway). They in turn have a son, George Minafer (Tim Holt, chosen by Welles for his work in John Ford’s “Stagecoach”). We learn that George is a terrible brat. He speeds around town in his carriage, randomly accosting various townsfolk. Indianapolis isn’t sad when he leaves for college.
George has returned after time away at college and meets Lucy Morgan (Anne Baxter), daughter of Eugene. Eugene and Lucy have also returned to Indianapolis after time abroad. George is instantly smitten with Lucy and doesn’t fail to notice that his mother still seems to harbor affection for Eugene. Matters are further complicated when Wilbur Minafer passes away, and Eugene and Isabel begin to rekindle their relationship.
This all moves along at a brisk pace. Much like “Citizen Kane” before it, this feels like a truly modern film. While viewing it you don’t have to make excuses for acting or technical hindrances, it just works.
Welles’ wanted Gregg Toland as cinematographer for this, but the latter was under contract by MGM. Instead he utilized Stanley Cortez as DP, along with ancillary camera crew from “Kane.” Welles is said to have referred to him as being “criminally slow”. Whatever issues they had behind the scenes, the result of their collaboration is a film with camera work that is every bit as innovative as Welles’ freshman effort.
If you were impressed by the long continuous takes used by Cuaron and Lubezki in “Children of Men” then you’ll be astonished by what you see here. It’s important to note that Welles came from a theater background. He was well trained in the concept of Mis en scene. Characters move in and out of frame almost as if in a well-trained ballet.
Many words have been written about the grand ball scene in the Amberson’s mansion. There are numerous long takes in this section of the film. Almost all of them involve dolly movement. The set was designed with rolling walls to accommodate the cameras. I think Cortez probably hated doing it, but the results are amazing and seamless. If you geeked out about the ghetto scene in “Children of Men” you’ll lose your mind over this. They move in and out of rooms, and elevate and follow through flights of stairs without so much as cut.
A second sequence involves a long carriage ride through the streets of Indianapolis. (Remember this scene when we talk about “Touch of Evil” a few weeks from now). George and Lucy are having a nice leisurely ride past storefronts, over railroad tracks, and around townsfolk. The camera stays with the open carriage of the young lovers but also occasionally moves laterally to take in various parts of the city around them, again without cuts.
The best part about both of these sequences is that they advance the arcs of the characters and provide fluid exposition. Welles’ aforementioned theater instincts pay off as he allows George and Lucy to play out the subtly volatile nature of their relationship, or Eugene and Isabel to painfully yearn for each other’s affections.
The use of darkness is also particularly solid in this film. You could even say that Welles and Cortez out do Hitchcock in that aspect. The characters are often seen as no more than the outlines of dark figures, features completely hidden in shadow. Occasionally the camera will capture a reflection of light that creates a particularly haunting effect. The Ambersons are in decline. It’s fitting that their world of riches should be cast into darkness.
Whatever faults Welles might have had as an actor, he was incredibly adept at directing actors. It also helped that he was surrounded by amazing talent. Cotten and Costello more than live up to their legends with their performances. Agnes Moorehead (previously seen as Charles Foster Kane’s mother and later in Bewitched) is really allowed to stretch her legs with her performance as Fanny Amberson. She and Ray Collins as Jack Amberson (also a Kane alum) nearly steal the show as the middle generation of the Amberson clan.
The only real weak link is Tim Holt as George Minafer. In fairness he plays a character that spends much of the runtime being rather unsympathetic. Simon Callow (In Volume 2 of his Orson Welles Biography) referred to Holt as a “serviceable” actor and I think that is on point. He isn’t terrible, but he is overshadowed, particularly in scenes with Agnes Moorehead and Anne Baxter.
The quality of the performances alone are a reason to see this movie. There is some fantastic acting, for any era of filmmaking. Welles’ handling of these patient performances combined with the intricacy of the camera work elevates the material into a classic dramatic piece.
Now begins the rocky territory of discussing the parts of the film that were adversely affected by the studio alterations….
Bernard Herrman composed a score that melded with the haunting nature of the film. The problem is you won’t hear all of it in the completed work. RKO decided to cut portions of it and replace it with rather bland material from their in house composer. The results aren’t terrible, but they are disjointed. Thankfully, Herrman’s theme for the Ambersons themselves remains intact. It gives you an idea of the complexity of the work that the notoriously confident composer turned in for the original cut.
The other elephant in the room is the ending. It’s abrupt and hackneyed compared to the rest of the film. It’s a heavy Deus Ex Machina on the emotional front. It also cuts short George Minafer’s character arc. Just when we see him humbled and growing as a character we get a scene with two people not named George Minafer talking about how much he seems to have changed. This probably also serves to hamper the interpretation of Tim Holt’s performance. We never get to see him make his final progressions, we just hear about it from Eugene.
This was RKO’s (under the care of Robert Wise and Joseph Cotton) answer to perceived problems with the film. These weren’t the choices of Orson Welles. This was the point where he really lost the support of RKO. The transient phase of his career had begun. Years later Joseph Cotton apologized to Welles for it. It feels like it shaves at least 15 minutes of story off of the film, 15 minutes that is necessary to give us a true sense of the redemption of George Minafer and the survival of the Amberson legacy.
In a lesser film, these problems would have destroyed the final sum of quality. “Ambersons” is such a ridiculously well crafted and heartfelt drama that they merely serve as minor disappointments. Others have stated that it’s hard to imagine the film being much better than it is. Even it its shortened state it is considered by various critics and organizations to be one of the best American films ever made.
The problem is that very few people in the US have actually seen it. There hasn’t been a legit North American release in the DVD era. There are some prints floating around, but no easy way to view the film without happening to catch it on Turner Classic Movies.
My advice to you is find a way to see it however you can.
Epilogue: The Lost Cut!
When Orson Welles was in South America galavanting about, RKO sent him a copy of the 150 minute version of Ambersons. This was the version he viewed before interacting with RKO through various memos. Unfortunately this print was lost and RKO destroyed the other prints and ‘superflous’ footage to keep Welles from possibly altering the film upon his return.
The recent discovery of a lost print of “Metropolis” has many of us hoping for a similar find with Ambersons. Maybe…just maybe in some old arthouse cinema south of the equator is hiding this treasure.
Check in next week for another installment of Wellesfest.
1. Bernard Herrman’s original soundtrack for the film was in release on CD at some point.
2. I gave Simon Callow’s in-progress Orson Welles biographical trilogy a mention. We’ll be talking about them a bit later down the line. The currently published installments are Orson Welles: Volume 1: The Road to Xanadu and Orson Welles: Volume 2: Hello Americans. Volume 3 is hopefully going to be out in the next year or so.
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