The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
“Real life screened more daringly than it’s ever been before!”
The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
Director: Orson Welles
Cast: Tim Holt, Joseph Cotten, Dolores Costello
Synopsis: The spoiled young heir to the decaying Amberson fortune comes between his widowed mother and the man she has always loved.
There’s a general belief that films cut for theatrical release are nothing more than shadows of their original greatness, irrespective of the fact that there is no longer a living memory of the original, and scant documentation to support such a theory. The directors insist – perhaps with some justification – that the studios have desecrated their work before going on to claim – perhaps not so convincingly – that their original work was so much better before the meddling studios went to work on it. We believe them, often because the version of the film that was released is considerably less than perfect. Of course, studios are infamous for ruining the product on which there success depends – after all, who ever heard of a director praising one of them for improving on their vision? It makes you wonder how they manage to stay in business
Fans of The Magnificent Ambersons make just such a claim for this movie – as, indeed, did the director, who saw it slip out of his grasp while filming another movie in Brazil. A re-edit was ordered after previews of Welles’s original cut received poor reviews. RKO executive George Schaefer – the man who had stood so firmly behind Welles during the troubled shoot of Citizen Kane – gave him the opportunity to contribute suggestions for reshaping the movie which the director seized upon, only to have studio rep George Moss refuse to take his calls and ignore his lengthy telegrams. We can’t begin to imagine how frustrating that must have been for Welles, how impotent he must have felt. Whether the original cut of The Magnificent Ambersons was superior to the one we have today is debatable, but you can bet your life that the cut we have today is inferior to anything Welles would have come up with.
The story of The Magnificent Ambersons is one of pure melodrama, a soap opera dressed up as a serious work of art. Welles knew this, I suspect, but he believed that his skills as a storyteller and filmmaker would enable him to salvage something from Booth Tarkington’s novel (which was rumoured to be based in part on the life of Welles’ own father). The Ambersons are a wealthy family which is at the height of its magnificence when we meet them, but their decline is almost immediate, as symbolised by the rejection by Isobel Amberson (Dolores Costello – The Sea Beast) of young Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotton – Shadow of a Doubt, The Abominable Dr. Phibes), even though he is the love of her life. The forward-looking Morgan will amass a fortune of his own through the design and manufacture of a powerful symbol of the future: a motorised vehicle, and Isobel’s rejection of him is a reflection of her own family’s inability to change with the times.
Isobel marries the colourless Wilbur (Don Dillaway – The Absent-Minded Professor) and their one son (Tim Holt – Stagecoach, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) grows to be a spoiled and selfish brat. When Wilbur passes on shortly after Eugene returns to the Ambersons’ home town, the couple tentatively begin to rekindle their love for one another. This autumn romance is something which George is unable to handle, and with the surreptitious assistance of his Aunt Fanny (Agnes Moorehead), who harbours an unrequited love for Eugene, he works to prevent their romantic reunion, despite being in love with Eugene’s daughter, Lucy (Anne Baxter – The Razor’s Edge, All About Eve).
Welles’s skill and artistry as a filmmaker are plain to see in the look of The Magnificent Ambersons. It’s a dark film – too dark for an American audience that had just joined WWII – and the darkness pervades even the more light-hearted scenes, which possess an air of melancholy that is undetectable when first viewed, but inescapable upon later reflection. Unfortunately, the studio interference is obvious – and near-fatal. Too many scenes feel truncated, and the final third in particular is disjointed and episodic. This has the unfortunate effect of making all of The Magnificent Ambersons seem a mess despite Welles’ technical brilliance, some fine individual scenes, and an astonishingly good performance from Moorehead, whose frail but cunning Aunt Fanny is by far the film’s most interesting character.
(Reviewed 30th April 2015)