The film that never was, a magnificent mess, Orson Welles’s masterpiece, better even than Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons is all these things and more, or perhaps less, since no one apart from a handful of people in 1942 has ever seen the finished version. Instead there’s just the version we have, which is minus 50 minutes of material Welles had included in the rough cut he’d made with editor Robert Wise (later of The Sound of Music fame).
After negative screenings, a general antipathy towards Welles at RKO and a change of public mood on account of Pearl Harbor having just propelled the USA into the Second World War, the studio ordered the film to be butchered and Wise carried it out, while Welles was out of the country. Wise also co-directed the happy ending, restoring the one from the Booth Tarkington novel on which the film was based. Welles always said the studio had a dread of downbeat movies and here was the proof.
Even with the re-edit and the new ending the film flopped.
The stories about what happened to this movie are legion and there are whole books on the subject, like Robert L Carringer’s scholarly and exhaustive The Magnificent Ambersons: A Reconstruction, and I suggest you look there if you want to know more. But what about the film as it is, the one you might catch on late-night TV, at an arthouse cinema or on your own big screen, courtesy of the superb Criterion Collection edition?
It’s a story of thwarted love set against a backdrop of rapid social change, barely any of it good. Rich Isabel Amberson (onetime silent movie star Dolores Costello, grandmother of Drew Barrymore, incidentally) loves automobile manufacturer Eugene Morgan (Welles regular Joseph Cotten) and he loves her. But instead of marrying Morgan, Isabel decides, in a moment of pique, to wed dullard Wilbur Minafer instead. The lovelorn Morgan does eventually marry but his wife dies. His heart in any case belongs for ever to Isabel, to the chagrin of Wilbur’s sister, Fanny (Agnes Moorehead), who has eyes only for Eugene, a secret she clutches close to her bosom.
Isabel and Wilbur have a child, the vile George (Tim Holt). Years pass, and the horrible, entitled child becomes a priggish man with all sorts of psychological hang-ups and far too close an interest in his mother’s emotional life, an interest that leads to him prying the lid off most of the secrets no one in the Amberson or Minafer family want to give up willingly.
Welles spins all these people together in a grand ball scene early on, also introducing Morgan’s daughter, Lucy (Anne Baxter), someone for George to get in a tangle over. This is one of those huge, big-production Welles displays of movie-making genius, like the opening moments of Touch of Evil, conceived as a series of massive continuous takes shot from a crane swinging up and down through the three floors of the Amberson mansion. Some of it remains in the film that we have, and what remains is glorious.
Behind the superficial fabulousness of Welles’s mis-en-scene, transgressive relationships lurk – a man for another man’s wife, a married woman for another man, a spinster for the object of her sister-in-law’s affections, a son’s for his Oedipally close mother – while in wider society, the motor car is upending social relations, destroying property values in the Ambersons’ hoity-toity part of town and replacing a world of order with one of chaos.
That negative view of progress and the downer on the motor car – and by extension on industrial America (which was just about to use its muscle to win a war) – make it easy to see why the movie was considered a problem.
Though the slash and burn has reduced nuanced individuals to a single character trait – Morgan is principled, Fanny hysterical, George a boor, Isabel silly – the acting remains fabulous, with Agnes Moorehead the standout as the tragic spinster doomed to love someone she can’t have and being driven entirely mad by it. If you only know Moorehead from reruns of Bewitched, prepare to be amazed.
Composer Bernard Herrmann – who started his career out in Hollywood with Citizen Kane and ended it with Taxi Driver (beat that!) – took his name off the credits as a protest at what had been done to Welles’s film, but his score is an immensely subtle piece of work, and who knows how much better it would have been if the film’s coherence hadn’t been shattered.
Stanley Cortez cannot match Gregg Toland for the deep-focus cinematography of Citizen Kane, though how he tries (Welles was not happy) but his lighting is superb – all gothic shadows, especially inside the Amberson mansion, where secrets lurk.
Wise’s edits have reduced what should be a coherent narrative to a series of vignettes, but they do hold up as vignettes, and the film does hold up as a piece of brilliant 1940s drama. As I write this (late August 2021), yet another expedition is readying itself for an expedition to South America to try and track down the original, pre-butchery rough cut Wise gave Welles when Welles set off to make his film to help with the war effort. Perhaps the even more Magnificent Ambersons will be found yet.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021