The Magnificent Ambersons

(USA - 1942)

by James Cobo

Cast: Joseph Cotten, Dolores Costello, Agnes Moorehead, Tim Holt, Anne Baxter
Genre: Drama
Director: Orson Welles
Screenplay: Orson Welles based on the novel by Booth Tarkington
Cinematography: Stanley Cortez
Composer: Bernard Herrmann
Runtime: 88 minutes

The irony of Orson Welles' choice of The Magnificent Ambersons as his sophomore film exercise is fairly hard to miss. The legend goes that Welles' second project was either going to be a lavish retelling of the story of Christ in the old west, or the story of the Ambersons. Welles selected the latter, and in the process created the most touching parable of loss ever birthed by the film industry.

It's impossible to enter into any discussion of Ambersons without delving deep into the rape of the film by the RKO studio heads. The story goes that after the dismal commercial failure of Citizen Kane, RKO tightened the creative screws around Welles, most importantly removing his treasured final cut rights. They also demanded that he create more commercially viable films, something that the American public would be able to identify with. So Welles made Ambersons.

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In many ways, Ambersons was the best possible project and worst possible project for Welles to enter into. Ambersons is the story of an old-money fin-de-siecle family in Middle America, and their Bataan death march into obsolescence. It is also the story of the rebellious young scion of the family - George (a role Welles played during his 1930s radio production of the novel, but who he wisely passed off to Tim Holt) and how a combination of unrequited love and an alien modern world drove him to his comeuppance. Finally, it is the story of the enduring love between George's mother Isabel (Dolores Costello) and her old beau Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten, in probably his best performance) - the man credited within the world of the film with introducing the automobile to the popular psyche, and inadvertently making the Ambersons and their kind obsolete. It is a story about enduring love, and it is a story where characters that need humility desperately get it in spades. To an audience in the throes of World War II, that message must have been enormously reassuring.

But that message is incomplete. Like every Welles movie the heartwarming is overpowered by the ominous. This is not, of course, to diminish the presence of the touching elements of the movie; Isabel and Eugene's romance, for instance, is one of the most beautiful love stories ever committed to celluloid. These elements simply are not what the audience is meant to take away from the experience of watching the film. Ambersons is not a romantic paean, or a homily to humility - it is a parable about the side of progress which damns the progressor and makes his world unfamiliar and cold. The arc of the family is servile to the arc of the story, which sees a noble group of people brusquely outmoded, and totally unable to cope. It is quite possibly the most ruthless movie ever created; no punches are pulled and no aspect is left unturned. George's path to salvation is tortuous; he deeply loves Lucy Morgan (the debuting Anne Baxter), yet he - and we - finds himself unable to fulfill his love, due to circumstances beyond his control. Eugene's love for Isabel is founded partially in a desire to bring back the past - a past which his automobiles help eradicate. Ambersons is rich in contradictions like these, to the point where it feels unrelenting. At RKO's behest Welles partially made this movie because he knew audiences would be less intimidated by it than by the wildly experimental Citizen Kane He was right - structurally Ambersons is a very classical movie. It's what the audience found that proved to be the movie's commercial undoing.

RKO took notice of this early in the postproduction, and pounced. Having left his cut of Ambersons in the hands of RKO, Welles was in Rio ostensibly shooting footage for his Army-commissioned project It's All True. When he was called back for the premiere, he found that forty-four minutes of his cut had not only been chopped out of the film, but destroyed. To this day, those missing minutes have not been found in any form - only still photos and production notes remain.

RKO's rape of Ambersons, then, essentially becomes the third hydra's head in the shaping of the film; their version is...what is the word? It's not peppy or uplifting or even upbeat, not by a long shot. The best description of the RKO cut is that it's simply less grim than Welles' cut. Many of the cuts excised atmospheric scenes that didn't move the film forward such as an infamous scene where the Ambersons sit on the porch and discuss nothing in particular. Removing these scenes certainly improved the flow of the film, but the cost was the overwhelming sense of dreary despair that hung over the family in the book, transforming it from a simple family to a decrepit colossus. Of course, the most famous cut was the last scene of the movie. The RKO cut ends with a slightly positive beat as George visits Isabel in the hospital. Good things - well, not even good things, but certainly better things are promised for the long-suffering Ambersons. Essentially, it's the pinnacle of positivity demonstrated by the central character, and therefore a logical finale to the RKO cut. Welles' cut, however, concluded with a scene that, had the filmed-and-destroyed version been half as good as the promise shown in the script, would have been one of the most harrowing scenes ever recorded. In the scene, Eugene desperately maneuvers through a maze of automobiles - his invention, mind you - to visit Aunt Fanny in her pauper's boarding house. And even as Eugene relays George's ascension to humanity to Fanny, her face remains rigid, mournful, pitiful, terrified. This, as you may be able to tell, changes the meaning of the film.

For the most part though, the RKO cuts simply stripped the film down to its barest bones. Most Welles scholars assert that they left the first half-hour untouched, as that chapter of the film is essentially perfect. From then on, the film feels underdeveloped; important plot points - such as Eugene's revelation of his fear of the automobile and its effects on society - are unleashed with little or no build, characters enter and leave - viz. Aunt Fanny - at will, and even the central story of George's psychological development seems stunted. As tantalizing as the ending scene sounds, the real damage was done here: many people - myself included - have watched Ambersons once, become frustrated, and written it off. Few pick it back up.

None of this is to say, of course, that Ambersons is anything less than a masterpiece. It is simply to say that Ambersons is not Welles' masterpiece. It is an emaciated corpse which happens to be the peer of nine out of every ten films on this earth.

Take, for instance, the acting. Ambersons may well be the best-acted film in history, with almost every featured player turning in the performance of their careers. The key, of course, is Holt, who forces the audience hate and pity him simultaneously. His delivery sounds wooden at first, but upon closer inspection reveals a frustrated vindictiveness. Granted, this isn't the rarest trait in film characters, but considered as the sum total of the old-money lifestyle, one encounters great difficulty in surpassing it.

Then there's Richard Bennett. Bennett plays Major Amberson, the patriarch of the family. Already withered at 68, Bennett had infamous trouble remembering his lines - but managed to nail them here. Bennett essentially has one scene in the movie - the fireside recollection - but it manages to rend the heart more viciously than anything else in the film does. His monologue is basically a requiem for the clinging-to-life, delivered like a rusty hinge on a screen door that won't quite shut. Without Bennett pathos-drenched monologue, the film loses track of what is passing with the Ambersons - the dignity, the romanticism, the splendor.

And of course, the performances from Costello and Cotten are enthralling. The pair shines when on screen individually - Cotten has a muted, sardonic charisma unlike any other actor in the history of Hollywood, while Costello virtually effervesces around the frame, always composed, always charming - but together, they form one of the most convincing, identifiable screen pairs in film history. This is mostly due to the comfort level the pair has with the concept of silence: much of their love is communicated with meaningful glances, subtle smiles, and quiet beaming. They are, in fact, only driven to excess by George - and by Eugene's auto-incited modern dystopia. They are the perfect embodiment of Bennett's monologue, and their fate makes his words - and the film - all the more potent.

Of course, as with all of Welles' great works, the cinematography is top-shelf. In fact, Ambersons presents a sort of cinematographic curio: the photography here is, for all intents and purposes, the best example of the film's untouched greatness, for the photography is uniformly breathtaking. The entity of shadow could almost be considered a character in the film; so much time is devoted to showing vast expanses of the rooms in the Amberson home, only filled to the rim with shadow. As the film progresses, the shadow encroaches to the point where it literally drives them out of the house, and to their ultimate fates. There is not a single ray of light wasted in this film - everything is put to use. Calling the photography in Ambersons the peer of any other black-and-white film - including Gregg Toland's work on Kane, typically the yardstick in question - is exceedingly easy to do. And of course, the great surprise here is that all the photography was the work of a minor cinematographer, Stanley Cortez. His work speaks volumes about the greatness of the film - it's the rare work that inspires such genius from relative unknowns.

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Of course, he had a lot of help from the art department and the screenplay. The pair conspires to make the house more than a repository for darkness and shadow; the house is literally a safe haven for the antiquated ways of the Ambersons. Whenever the family leaves the house, unfortunate incidents happen - George and Lucy fall out of the sled, George embarrasses himself when pushing the car, Lucy playfully devastates the departing George, Isabel becomes ill, and so on. The outside world, then, is a place of ungloved harshness. The townsfolk rail against the youthful George against blank backgrounds, background buildings seem unwelcome as George and Lucy ride through town, and most famously, a single black tree sullenly portends as the Ambersons go on a ride. Even the dialogue changes between the two locales - in the house, speech is refined and dignified, and certain rules of decorum are expected, but out in the world, people speak what they feel. The only link between the pair is the velvet-voiced narration of Welles, serving notice that the story of the Ambersons is only a story, but its impact should be no less.

Ambersons is the trickiest of beasts - how can one judge a film when it's incomplete, and almost certain to remain that way in perpetuity? Standing alone as a film, Ambersons is a very, very great work of art, especially in terms of visuals and performances. And naturally, it's been recognized as such; Ambersons has appeared twice on the Sight & Sound lists (a list of the ten greatest movies ever made as voted by a large panel of persons involved in the film industry, and compiled every ten years. The next one is due out in 2002), peaking at number seven, and is undoubtedly one of the three greatest American films snubbed by the AFI on their 100 Greatest Films list. But that's just not enough. Orson Welles himself called Ambersons the greatest film he ever made, and although taking on the lone perfect American film - Kane, b'dur - is the tallest of tall orders, there's enough tantalizing evidence left in the RKO cut to give a fair amount of credulity to his claim. So in the end, all we are left with are the earmarks of a perfect movie. And it seems a shame to have to downplay it by calling The Magnificent Ambersons merely great.




* Copyright 2001 - Raging Bull Movie Reviews *