Orson Welles' RKO career as the irrefutable ‘enfant terrible’ of American cinema was short-lived and very bittersweet. Hailed as the new boy wonder genius of 1940, by 1942 his reputation had soured to the point where Welles was persona non grata in Hollywood. His tenure at RKO generated two immortal classics that effectively ostracized Welles from the director's chair but left him with a succès de scandale and a fairly lucrative acting career. The first of his RKO/Mercury Player Productions was Citizen Kane (1941); the second, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), an even more somber outing, based on Booth Tarkington's 1918 novel and centered on an incestuous mother/son relationship (which, for censorship reasons, could never be shown, much less implied); unceremoniously butchered in the editing process by assistant director/editor, Robert Wise, himself forced by the powers that be to shoot a prerequisite ‘happy ending’ in lieu of Welles’ glum finale, thereby defeating the point and purpose of all that had gone before it. The Magnificent Ambersons has long been rumored to be Welles’ other great masterwork; the first being the aforementioned Kane. If it is, then it endures as a masterpiece in absentia, the sum of its total creativity never scaling the anticipated formidable heights of its predecessor.
Sincerely, and with all due respect to Welles’ legacy, I have never been able to warm to its presence on the screen. As with virtually all of Welles’ movies, Ambersons is far more a testament to the director’s superior prowess behind the camera than a deification of the art in making popular entertainments. Given Welles’ penchant for testing the boundaries of screen censorship – as well as the patience of his superiors – I suspect this is as it should be. But The Magnificent Ambersons is not a movie for movie lovers, per say, as much as it remains a fascinating – if costly – test subject or textbook example of how not to make a grand familial epic – even a monumentally tragic one. One need only reconsider Welles’ favorite scene in the film – the ball – more bound to his sense of pride in achieving a dramatic single take in long shot with a crane; the camera effortlessly following the action up three flights of stairs. Welles considered this a technical achievement. It probably was. The studio thought it profligate. I probably was. Ditto for Welles’ second most cherished sequence, the boarding house finale – excised altogether to accommodate RKO’s need for a more hopeful ending.
Welles’ love affair with Tarkington’s novel began in 1939 when he adapted it for his one-hour radio drama. From that moment until the cameras began to role nearly three full years later, on Oct. 28, 1941, Welles pursued the project with a passion, insisting production designer, Albert S. D'Agostino construct the Amberson manor as a real and fully functional estate with one major advantage; virtually all its walls could be rolled back and/or lowered to accommodate Welles’ inspiration and Stanley Cortez’s cinematography. It is rumored Welles shot several of the crucial scenes himself, with cameraman, Jack MacKenzie – neither receiving official screen credit. After Ambersons proved a flop and RKO had effectively rid themselves of ‘genius’ (in their own words, replaced by ‘showmanship’) the studio kept and reused whole portions of these lavishly appointed sets to augment producer/writer, Val Lewton’s run of lucrative psychological horror classics; most noticeable in The Seventh Victim (1943) which employed the Ambersons’ foyer and staircase for an all-girl’s academy.
For authenticity, Welles demanded, and was granted the right to go on location near Big Bear Lake and San Bernardino National Forest. He also shot some of his ‘exteriors’ inside the refrigerated storage facilities of Union Ice Co. to capture breath for the winter scenes. In its fully realized form, The Magnificent Ambersons ran 135 minutes – nearly double the length of the average RKO programmer; its budget, at first envisioned around $800,000, eventually ballooning in excess of $1.1 million; a very weighty responsibility for the modest studio that, in the thirties had prided itself on the art deco lavishness and elegance pervading a series of frothy Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicals, but by 1942 had fallen in reputation, enough to earn the rather unflattering wartime tag – “In case of an air raid, head to RKO…they haven’t had a hit in years!” Today, one can only speculate what The Magnificent Ambersons must have played like at 135 min. Indeed, the Pomona preview was a disaster. Even Welles felt the picture ran long and, together with editor, Robert Wise, elected to make several trims before previewing it again to equally tepid audience response. As Welles had already conceded his contractual right to the final cut, RKO unceremoniously took the picture away from him at this point, electing to hack away nearly 40 min. of footage. Unable to make head or tail of the piece, the executive decision was then made to re-shoot whole scenes and tack on a new ‘upbeat’ ending. RKO’s notes are a little sketchy on who shot what, but we do know directors, Fred Fleck, Robert Wise, and, Jack Moss, the business manager of Welles' Mercury Theater Co., all had their hand in reshaping the final cut. Not only did Welles disapprove of these cuts and retakes, his various attempts to intervene from afar were virtually ignored by the studio.
“Of course I expected that there would be an uproar about a picture which, by any ordinary American standards, is much darker than anybody was making pictures back then," Welles later explained to biographer, Barbara Leaming. "There was this built-in dread of the downbeat and I knew I'd have that to face. But I thought I had a movie so good — I was absolutely certain of its value. But they destroyed Ambersons and it destroyed me!” In the end, Welles believed himself to be a prisoner of Roosevelt’s ‘good neighbor policy; shooting a movie in Brazil and quite unable to do anything beyond flooding RKO’s front offices with a barrage of cabled memos on how to improve and/or restore the picture; virtually all his suggestions ignored. In later years, the pall of Ambersons’ failure at the box office would continue to stick in Welles’ craw, although Robert Wise has gone on record to suggest Welles’ cut was hardly a masterpiece. Alas, we will never know; the original negative, as well as all prints made from it, cut down to barely 88 min. with all excised portions destroyed to free up vault space. In the sad final days leading up to The Magnificent Ambersons officially premiere, RKO also received word from composer, Bernard Herrmann that he wished to have his name stricken from the credits as almost half of his original underscore for the picture had been either excised or replaced altogether. RKO reluctantly honored the request and Herrmann severed all ties with the studio immediately thereafter.
The picture was met with indifference by the audience; even modest laughter in all the wrong places; RKO chagrined and with an expensive turkey on their hands, pulling The Magnificent Ambersons prematurely, as they had done a year earlier with Citizen Kane – only this time, for all the wrong reasons. For too long thereafter The Magnificent Ambersons remained buried in the annals of film-making as the butchered chef-d'oeuvre from a cinema genius. To be certain, in reviewing the movie today – or rather, what remains of it – one can definitely see flashes of Welles’ own magnificence on display; ambitious touches and direction and staging unlike most anything being made in Hollywood at that time. But great moments alone do not a cohesive motion picture make, and Ambersons, even in the scenes that arguably retain Welles’ penchant for long takes, do not play with maximized dramatic effect. In the end, what emerges from the exercise is a series of vignettes, some creaking with an unbearable maudlin streak; others, suffering from an intolerable, almost embalming theatricality.
The screenplay by Welles opens with a superb time capsule of the gay 1890s in Indianapolis. Society is gentile and relaxed. Cordiality and superficiality rule the roost: propriety, the beacon and the hallmark of all good taste. However, just behind these splendid fine grain wood doors, beckoning the weary traveler to enter, is a moral turpitude as insidious and self-destructing as anything yet deemed acceptable in such ‘polite society’, and at the forefront of all this faux respectability are those magnificent Ambersons - the wealthiest family in town. Daughter, Isabel (Dolores Costello) is amiably pursued by Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten), a middle class suitor destined to rise above his modest station in life, leading the charge of the ‘new’ entrepreneurial American spirit – although no one, least of all the Ambersons are ready to accept their fleeting era, dominated by old money and robber barons, is fast coming to an end. After a clumsy moonlight serenade, Isabel allows herself to be spirited away by the rather stuffy, Wilbur Minafer (Donald Dillaway). The two quickly marry and have a son, George (Bobby Cooper) who is spoiled rotten during his youth and grows up a defiant and rebellious prig (played as an adult by the rather wooden Tim Holt). Upon returning home from studying law at college, George is given a rather lavish reception by his grandfather, Major Amberson (Richard Bennett). In the interim, Wilbur has died leaving Isabel to rekindle her affections for Eugene, himself a widower. Eugene's daughter, Lucy (Anne Baxter) briefly becomes the focus of George's romantic interests.
Almost instinctively, George scorns Eugene - not only in his chosen profession as one of the proponents of the newfangled automobile, but also because he absolutely refuses to allow his mother to fall in love with anyone else. For all his wealth and privilege, George, like the rest of the Ambersons, is a very backward thinking 19th century man, destined to have his stately brow and lingering heart broken by the hustle and bustle of the mechanized 20th. Alas, George would prefer the times of gentlemen to the current age of the industrialist. And why not? The past suckled the Ambersons like a lovely camellia into this ancient flowering world of graceful beauty and charm. By contrast, the future is cold and foreboding, unsettling even, as money alone can no longer guarantee prominence or a place amongst the privileged class. The future belongs to men like Edison, Westinghouse, Einstein – and yes, perhaps even Eugene Morgan: men of vision. Indeed, the Ambersons wealth will quickly evaporate in these changing times. Very soon Eugene's good fortunes and smart investments come to rival the family’s formidable wealth. To George, this makes Eugene more of a threat than a contemporary, for he cannot be dismissed as an upstart any longer, and certainly not on the grounds of lacking all the privileges that money alone can buy. George's Aunt Fanny (Agnes Moorehead) and Uncle Jack (Ray Collins) inform him Isabel has long admired Eugene, even before she met his father. This realization sends George into a petulant rage. He interrupts his own love affair with Lucy, rebuffs Eugene and takes Isobel on an extended trip to Europe where they live obscurely until illness forces them to return home.
The bond between Isabel and George is vaguely tinged with a hint of incest that the film cannot fully explore. Hence, we are left with a curiously possessive mother/son relationship. Isobel's strange and compelling far away glances and her periodic cradling of the adult George in her arms is meant to suggest a relationship far more insular and self-destructive. But when Isabel and George return to Indianapolis they find a very different home than the one they left behind. One thing unchanged is Eugene's love for Isabel. But Eugene is once again thwarted in his attempts to woo her by George, then by Fanny who has becoming increasingly erratic in her behavior. Isabel confesses on her death bed she would have liked to see Eugene one last time. Grief stricken over his daughter's loss, Major Amberson gradually succumbs to bouts of crippling depression and an opium addiction. Jack decides to leave town and take a job in New York. He tells George plainly he has finally received his comeuppance for all the wickedness he perpetuated upon the clan these many years. Through bad investments the family's fortunes are squandered. George is forced to forsake the law and get a job at one of the local factories to support himself and Aunt Fanny, who has completely lost her mind. The Amberson mansion is boarded up. Although she loves George, Lucy never reconciles with him, telling her father a story about a Native American chieftain who was pushed out in a canoe after he became too obnoxious and overbearing for the rest of the tribe to tolerate. Lost and alone, George wanders the streets - unable to comprehend how the world has moved on without him. In the final moments we learn George has had a terrible ‘off camera’ car accident, paralyzed in both legs. Eugene rushes to his side and the two are reconciled. Eugene manages to bring Fanny back from the brink of her mental implosion. Together, they leave the hospital with renewed hopes for a brighter tomorrow.
This final sequence was not shot by Welles, nor did it receive his consent when he screened the rough cut. Worse, the excising of nearly 40 minutes of footage by the studio after Welles’ departure has transformed the last act of The Magnificent Ambersons into nothing more than an extended montage, the cohesive narrative carefully constructed by Welles during the first two thirds completely removed and replaced by a pantomime of rushed devices and narrative entanglements, merely designed to bring the meandering story together, however, unsuccessfully. Major Amberson’s drug-induced diatribe is interrupted by a slow fade to black right in the middle of his thoughts. We lose Fanny's progressive descent into madness. She ricochets from relative sanity in one scene to stark-raving lunacy in the next.
The tempo and the mood, the meticulous pacing that is Orson Welles at his very best at the start of the film is utterly destroyed in this last act. There is no build up to George's car wreck. We simply fade up on a wreck with strangers gathered around and gossiping about what has transpired. But we never see George again. Instead, the scene dissolves to Eugene leaving George's hospital room. He is met by Fanny who lovingly takes him by his arm as the two stroll down the hall with Eugene insisting George will be well once again. All is forgiven. All is well. In this upbeat ending, Fanny appears just as she did at the start of the movie – her temporary insanity at an end, or perhaps merely a fantasy of her imagination. How has she recovered? Why has she recovered? Why have George and Eugene reconciled? They were mortal enemies. No. The pieces simply do not fit. Is it any wonder The Magnificent Ambersons tanked at the box office. In its current form it is a severely fractured masterpiece. To be sure there are touches of greatness scattered throughout. But the last act is shockingly bad.
It has been rumored Brazil might hold a more complete version of the film. After RKO took over the picture and shed 40 minutes they presumably destroyed the original camera negative and all prints containing Welles’ additional scenes. Without them it is difficult, if not altogether impossible, to judge The Magnificent Ambersons as a work of art – good, bad or indifferent. Clearly, this is not the movie Orson Welles intended audiences to see. And despite Robert Wise’s protestations, that the longer cut was merely ‘longer’, not better, The Magnificent Ambersons in its current state plays like an elongated ‘coming attraction’ for a movie yet to follow it.
In 2006, Warner Home Video elected to release The Magnificent Ambersons as ‘an extra’ on DVD to accompany their lavishly appointed Blu-ray of Citizen Kane. The DVD, while adequate, was hardly stellar, owing to a lack of archival materials. The image on the DVD was both thick and occasionally murky, its' mid-register gray scale looking rather harshly contrasted. Edge effects were prevalent from time to time. Overall, the image was free of digital manipulations, but age-related dirt and scratches were fairly obvious and occasionally distracting. Like the video, the audio, in Dolby mono, was passable, though just, and, suffering from occasional hiss and pop. Now, some ten years into the future, we have a Blu-ray – alas, not from Warner Home Video, but IVC – an independent ‘art house’ label out of Japan. IVC has promised The Magnificent Ambersons as only the beginning in their endeavors to release a slew of RKO classics, yet left moldering with the past in Warner’s vaults on this side of the Atlantic; including hi-def releases of Val Lewton’s Cat People, and, I Walked With A Zombie; also, The Thing from Another World, They Live by Night, Suspicion, The Fugitive, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Wagon Master and Bringing Up Baby.
The reality is RKO’s rights in Japan were sold off long ago, Warner having no say in the matter and unable to prevent another company from releasing these deep catalog titles overseas. However, since IVC has made The Magnificent Ambersons available in a region free hi-def encoding, the expectation some of these discs will eventually trickle into collector’s homes on this side of the pond is not only plausible but highly likely.
But you may want to reconsider such releases and use IVC’s Blu-ray of Ambersons as a solid barometer of what to expect from the company’s output in the future. I cannot say I am all that impressed with what is here. The image is sharper, tighter and more heavily influenced by a prominent grain structure – as it should be – but it is also considerably, and I would argue, artificially lighter than necessary. There are NO true blacks, the inky shadows in Stanley Cortez’s cinematography reduced to a medium grade tonal gray. As such, fine details needlessly suffer; the contrast extremely weak and the entire image fairly bland and uninspiring. I think it prudent to point out that ‘in motion’ The Magnificent Ambersons reveals some rather obvious age-related damage that only a full-blown restoration would remedy – one IVC obviously cannot afford. It is also possible to slightly tweak these weak black levels by adjusting contrast and brightness on one’s home viewing monitor, although nothing you can do at home will recreate the true darkness of the image as originally intended.
If only Warner Home Video would be more proactive with their output of deep catalog RKO titles on home video, collectors might not have to resort to such subpar editions being peddled on the – if not ‘black’, then extremely ‘gray’ world market. Do I support IVC in their efforts? Hmmmm. Only if they spend a little more money and time to improve the overall quality of their subsequent releases. Yes, this is full 1080p and shows considerable ‘improvements’ over the Warner SD-DVD. Yes, it does look more film-based. But the results are hampered by the aforementioned misfires factored in. The biggest advantage to owning this IVC release is the audio; a new uncompressed PCM soundtrack greatly benefiting Bernard Herrmann's underscore with dialogue sounding much more crisp and refined. As one might expect, there are NO extras to compliment this release. Personally, I am going to reserve my judgement on IVC until I can sample a few more of their discs state’s side; preferably, Cat People and I Walked With A Zombie, the latter given an appallingly subpar DVD transfer by Warner in North America – so catastrophically riddled with aliasing and edge effects it is virtually un-watchable. To see I Walked With A Zombie in an un-digitized edition, even with weak contrast levels, would be a definite plus. How sad to admit as much. As for importing The Magnificent Ambersons to add to your hi-def collection – pass, and be glad that you did.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)