Magnficent Ambersons, The (United States, 1942)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The infamous background about the post-production woes of The Magnificent Ambersons is perhaps as interesting as the story told in the film. And, to add flavor to an already-spicy dish, movie critics and historians, in their zeal to lionize legendary director Orson Welles, have conveniently ignored certain verifiable facts in order to make the tale behind The Magnificent Ambersons more of a David-versus-Goliath struggle than it actually was. To pin all of the blame for what happened with The Magnificent Ambersons upon RKO Pictures and executive producer George Schaefer, and to exonerate Welles completely, is to take an arguably unfair position. When it comes to this film, there's plenty of culpability to go around.

The Magnificent Ambersons was Welles' second feature for RKO, and, as such, was placed in the untenable position of having to live up to Citizen Kane. (In recent years, Kane has been almost universally acclaimed by critics as the best film of all time. It was not so lauded around the time of its release, but the prevailing opinion among scholars and film experts was nevertheless extremely favorable.) Displaying much of the technical virtuosity he showed in Citizen Kane, but applying it to a different kind of story, Welles turned out a 131-minute cut of The Magnificent Ambersons before packing his bags and heading to South America, where he was to make a goodwill propaganda film called It's All True.

In the director's absence, a worried RKO elected to test screen the film, concerned that it would not be warmly received. They were correct. The Magnificent Ambersons was deemed unreleasable in its current form - too long and too depressing (especially with America now involved in World War II). The decision was made to do a drastic re-cut. Welles' towering ego, always his worst enemy, had alienated enough people at the studio that no one was willing to take a stance in favor of the original version.

Contrary to the story that is commonly told, the studio did not re-work The Magnificent Ambersons entirely "behind Welles' back" and without his knowledge, although it was easier for Schaefer to act with the director on a different continent. Ultimately, while Welles had some input in the re-cutting of the film, his absence forced the task to fall primarily on the shoulders of his editor, Robert Wise. In addition to excising nearly an hour of material, Wise included several re-shot scenes, one of which is a markedly different ending. At only 88 minutes in length, the final cut of The Magnificent Ambersons is only a skeleton of the original. To add insult to injury, RKO, in a burst of shortsighted pique, elected to destroy all of the unused footage, making a future restoration impossible (this, more than anything else, represented Schaefer's chief crime in the entire affair). And the film still failed miserably at the box office.

The question mark that will forever punctuate discussions about The Magnificent Ambersons is how much better the film would have been had Welles been given complete control. Would it have rivaled Citizen Kane? Would it have been the "lost masterpiece" that many critics, looking back in anger, mournfully predict? We'll never know, because, although the shooting script survived RKO's purge (and will be used as the basis for a 2001 TV mini-series directed by Alfonso Arau), nothing else did. Many of those who saw the original 131-minute cut indicated that it was in desperate need of editing, and some wondered if even Welles could have re-shaped the footage into a picture to rival his earlier masterpiece. Few deny, however, that Welles would have been able to salvage something superior to what RKO released. Yet, for all of the film's problems, there are glimpses of greatness in what remains of The Magnificent Ambersons - enough to make the truncated motion picture a compelling experience in its own right and to hint at what might have been had not commercial considerations, Schaefer's lack of respect for art, and Welles' ego conspired to sabotage the project.

The Magnificent Ambersons is divided into three clearly delineated sections. The first, which establishes the characters and sets up the plot, shows the Amberson family members at the height of their prosperity. The second, in which the tone turns darker, illustrates their gradual fall from their position of power and privilege. And the third, which at times has a Dickensian feel to it, concentrates on the "comeuppance" and redemption of the main character, George Amberson Minafer. Most of the cuts and re-shoots affected the latter portions of the film. The first part, despite having had a significant scene or two snipped, is coherent and effective. Elements of narrative choppiness and stylistic unevenness surface during the film's second third. The final half-hour, however, is little more than a series of disconnected vignettes. The tone is unstable, the focus is uncertain, and the storyline becomes confused and unclear.

From a plot perspective, there's nothing groundbreaking about The Magnificent Ambersons, which is based on Booth Tarkington's novel of the same name. The movie tells of the fall from position of a turn-of-the-century (19th to 20th, that is) landowning Midwestern family as bad investments, careless spending, and an inability to keep up with progress rob them of their fortune. The movie contains an element of class consciousness that is a staple of many British stories, but is not often found in American productions. The Ambersons, with their grand mansion and courtly manners, represent the landed gentry. Contrasted against them are Eugene Morgan and his daughter, Lucy, who are the "new money". By embracing technological advances, they gain prestige and wealth at the expense of families like the Ambersons, who are unwilling to face the upheaval being caused by modern innovations (notably the automobile).

The film's main character is George Amberson Minafer (Tim Holt), the only child of the loveless but respectful union between Isabel Amberson Minafer (Dolores Costello) and Wilbur Minafer (Don Dillaway). As the only Amberson heir, George is doted upon by his entire family, including his uncle, Jack Amberson (Ray Collins), his aunt, Fanny Minafer (Agnes Moorehead), and his grandfather, Major Amberson (Richard Bennett). He becomes spoiled and spiteful - a nasty, egotistical young man who will do anything and hurt anyone to get his way. One winter evening, during a grand party, two newcomers arrive at the Amberson mansion. They are Eugene and Lucy Morgan (Joseph Cotton and Anne Baxter), a widowed inventor and his 18 year-old daughter. Eugene is Isabel's true love, and, if not for a youthful error on his part, they would have been married two decades ago. George falls head-over-heels for Lucy while harboring a growing resentment for Eugene. When Wilbur dies and Eugene and Isabel begin planning a possible marriage, George is infuriated and concocts a scheme to destroy their relationship - at the cost of his mother's health. In the process, he loses Lucy, who loves him but is unwilling to wed her fortunes to those of a petty and shortsighted man.

The story of The Magnificent Ambersons may not be extraordinary, but the manner in which Welles tells it is. The director's hallmark exquisite craftsmanship is evident in every frame of his work which remains in the film. Collaborating with cinematographer Stanley Cortez, Welles composed every scene carefully, using techniques such as deep focus, reverse cuts, and long, unbroken takes to give The Magnificent Ambersons a look and feel of unparalleled richness and depth. Welles employs a number of unbroken shots that have the camera moving from one point-of-interest to the next, and Cortez's use of light and shadows is masterful. In fact, one of the strongest clues that certain scenes have not been shot by the team of Welles and Cortez is the lighting. Subtle and carefully arranged in the original material, it becomes flat and glaring in the re-shoots.

The Amberson mansion set, in which a majority of the film was made, was one of the most expensive and elaborate sets ever constructed in Hollywood. Instead of adhering to the traditional practice of having each room on a separate soundstage with only two or three walls and no ceiling, Welles demanded that the inside of the mansion be built as if it was a real house - continuous rooms with four walls and ceilings. This gave his restless camera the freedom to move and shoot from any angle, and led to a number of impressive shots that show adjacent rooms in the background. A long, winding staircase was a featured element in at least four scenes (one of which was a re-shoot).

Welles' meticulous attention to detail extended beyond the Amberson mansion. During an important scene that takes place outdoors on a snowy day, Welles was unwilling to use the traditional Hollywood stand-in of painted corn flakes for snow. Instead, he elected to film the scene in a Los Angeles-area ice house where tons of man-made snow could be used to coat the ground. In addition to resulting in far more realistic snow than is commonly found in Hollywood films of the time period, the cold temperatures caused the actors' breaths to frost, adding yet another layer of verisimilitude to a sequence that Welles labeled as his "Currier & Ives scene."

In casting The Magnificent Ambersons, Welles eschewed the traditional practice of finding the biggest avaiable names. Instead, he used actors with whom he was familiar from the days of the "Mercury Theater Radio" and relative unknowns. For the central role of George, he chose Tim Holt, who, at the time, was primarily recognized as a player in B-movie Westerns. Holt's performance verified Welles' faith in his range. Unfortunately, it could be argued that Holt played George too well - he comes across as extremely unlikable. This becomes a factor because of the amount of screen time accorded to the character. The payoff - George's comeuppance and redemption, occurs almost too late to be effective. Meanwhile, it took Welles almost as long to cast Lucy as it did to select George. Welles finally settled upon a young starlet named Anne Baxter. Baxter's solid work in The Magnificent Ambersons, coupled with what she accomplished in several other films in the same time period, led to meatier roles. Four years later, she won a Best Supporting Actress award for playing Sophie MacDonald in The Razor's Edge, and in 1950 she played the title part in All About Eve.

For Euguene, Welles turned to his old friend and frequent Mercury Theater collaborator, Joseph Cotton. Cotton, who was on his way to becoming a Hollywood leading man, shows tremendous charm and charisma in this part. Paired with him as Isabel is silent screen star Dolores Costello in one of her last roles. Because of scarring to her face caused by caustic makeup, she was forced to retire from the motion picture industry shortly after appearing in The Magnificent Ambersons. Mercury Theater player Ray Collins plays Jack Amberson, and, in the most acclaimed performance of the film, Agnes Moorehead is Fanny. Moorehead received an Oscar nomination for her emotionally wrenching interpretation of George's high-strung, occasionally manipulative aunt. Ironically, Moorehead's signature scene, in which she bemoans the turn of the Amberson fortunes and her inability to provide for George, is a cobbled-together sequences that is part original footage and part re-shoot. However, even in the material without Welles behind the camera, Moorehead's performance stands out.

After spending much time in front of the camera for Citizen Kane, Welles accepted a smaller part in The Magnificent Ambersons. Although he had played George in the Mercury Radio Theater production of the book, he recognized that he was not physically right for the part. Instead, he allowed himself to be heard, not seen, by providing the voiceover. Anyone interested in an example of when this kind of narration is useful (instead of redundant, as is too often the case in modern movies) should check out this film. During the first ten minutes, which provide a copious amount of background, Welles' voiceover is irreplaceable. Throughout the rest of the film, he breaks in only on rare occasions when he has something useful to contribute.

Aside from the choppy editing, the most serious flaw of The Magnificent Ambersons is the final scene, which RKO used to replace Welles' more downbeat ending. Sappy, melodramatic, and shot in an uninspired manner, the brief exchange between Eugene and Fanny may bring closure to the story, but it leaves a bad aftertaste. According to nearly everyone who has seen it, the original conclusion (which included a "tour" through the decaying Amberson mansion) retained far more power than what appears in the theatrical version.

The Magnificent Ambersons is regarded as a classic largely for what it might have been, although the film earned four Oscar nominations (including one for Best Picture). Even with so many cuts reducing the final third to a frustrating mish-mash of disjointed segments, it retains the occasional power to mesmerize and amaze. Viewed from another perspective, it's somewhat astonishing that, with more than one-third of its footage removed, the end product remains compelling, and that the story has a sense of completeness. Following The Magnificent Ambersons/It's All True debacle, it would be four years before Welles was trusted to helm another feature (The Stranger), and, although he would go on to direct many great films, none of his future endeavors would salve the wounds left by what occurred with his second outing behind the camera. And not until Terry Gilliam's Brazil would another high-profile motion picture be subjected to the same kind of indignities that were heaped upon The Magnificent Ambersons.

Magnficent Ambersons, The (United States, 1942)

Run Time: 1:28
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Mature Themes)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1