by Frank Olson
One of the most prevalent misconceptions about Orson Welles is that he spent the majority of his cinematic career trying to recapture the glory of his masterful debut Citizen Kane. While Kane is certainly one of the boldest and most impressive (if not the boldest and most impressive) first efforts in the history of the medium, it isn’t the only Welles film that qualifies as essential viewing, nor did it provide the model for any of Welles’ subsequent efforts. Though Welles only managed to direct about a dozen complete features in his career, his is one of the most eclectic and stylistically varied filmographies on record. Studio interference and persistent financial issues prevented the actor-writer-director from accomplishing all that he could have in the movies – and an argument could certainly be made that he made a bigger impact in radio and theatre than in motion pictures – but in a way these roadblocks only make what Welles did achieve even more impressive. Perhaps no project better illustrates the ability of Welles’ artistry to shine through unfortunate production circumstances than his second film, The Magnificent Ambersons. Though famously compromised by RKO Studios, Ambersons holds up as one of cinema’s most elegant and profound tragedies.
Director: Orson Welles
Producer: Orson Welles
Writers: Orson Welles, Booth Tarkington (novel)
Cinematographer: Stanley Cortez
Editor: Robert Wise
Music: Bernard Herrmann (uncredited)
Cast: Joseph Cotten, Dolores Costello, Anne Baxter, Tim Holt, Agnes Moorehead, Ray Collins, Erskine Sanford, Richard Bennett, Orson Welles
US Theatrical Release: July 10, 1942
US Distributor: RKO Radio Pictures
The story, adapted from Booth Tarkington’s 1918 novel, charts the declining fortunes of a wealthy Indianapolis family at the turn of the 20th century. The Ambersons begin the film as the talk of the town, but gradually find that they are unprepared for the social changes brought about by the automobile age. A witty prologue establishes the film’s tone by lightly mocking the vanished customs of the Amberson era (the endless preparation for social events, the unnecessarily ornate dress clothes) while also acknowledging the idyllic gracefulness of this bygone world. When spoiled Amberson heir George (Tim Holt) returns home on a break from college, a party is thrown in his honor where he comes into conflict with automobile pioneer Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten), who has long been in love with George’s mother Isabel (Dolores Costello). George immediately dismisses Eugene’s interest in “horseless carriages,” and his distaste only increases when he is belatedly informed of the barely concealed secret that Isabel loves Eugene more than George’s father Wilbur (Don Dillaway). After Wilbur passes away, it is revealed that the Amberson family finances are in shambles. Eugene might have been able to bail the family out with his prospering automobile business, but his attempts to reunite with Isabel are stymied by an enraged George. Gradually the Ambersons slip away into ruin.
The whole film plays out like a bitter yet somewhat fond memory, as if Welles’ offscreen narrator is wistfully recalling the era of his youth while thinking to himself “what fools we were.” It’s unclear if The Magnificent Ambersons was a conscious touchstone for Stanley Kubrick when directing Barry Lyndon or Matt Weiner while conceiving Mad Men, but the mixture of nostalgia for the past and satirical mockery of the same, as well as the empathy for characters who lose their place in the world due to societal change, is common to all three projects and is a profound existential dilemma that is too rarely explored in the arts. Very few people in any era truly wind up on the “winning” side of history, yet this uncomfortable reality is usually swept under the rug in our culture. The Magnificent Ambersons confronts this reality head on and does so powerfully.
Perhaps the film was a bit too powerful for the average moviegoer of 1942. Welles’ original cut of the film ran nearly two-and-a-half hours, but a disastrous preview screening inspired a nervous RKO Studios to cut over an hour of Welles’ original footage. They also substituted a ludicrous happy ending (directed by editor Robert Wise) that was shot while Welles was in Brazil working on It’s All True, a potentially fascinating documentary/fiction/travelogue hybrid that was never finished due to further RKO meddling. Rumors persist that Welles’ original edit of Ambersons is stashed away somewhere in South America, but for now it seems that RKO’s bastardized 88-minute cut is the one we’ll have to live with.
Yet even in compromised form, The Magnificent Ambersons is Welles’ most potent evocation of a lost Eden, featuring his most daring manipulation of audience sympathies. George, the representative of the old aristocracy, is shrilly entitled (at one point he casually mentions that his family “always liked to have someone in Congress”), and Tim Holt never plays to the viewer’s sympathies, but he nonetheless becomes the tragic protagonist simply because the world he knows is gradually ripped away from him. Meanwhile the encroaching modern world of cluttered streets and ever-present ugly machinery is represented by the kindly Eugene, who is given a warm presence by Cotten despite being in some ways the story’s antagonist. Welles’ strategy of making his “hero” as shrill as possible while putting a kindly face on his “villain” is fascinating, and gives the film an emotional complexity that exceeds the somewhat basic (albeit movingly executed) “small town boy becomes a megalomaniac” arc of Citizen Kane.
Where Kane’s flashy modern style (deep focus cinematography, elaborately clever transitions between scenes) was perfectly suited to its story of a forward-thinking entrepreneur, Ambersons has a more classical style befitting its old-fashioned characters. One scene even ends with a particularly lovely iris-out, as if Welles was bidding adieu to a favorite stylistic element from the silent era. Though not as outwardly innovative as some of Welles’ other films, Ambersons is consistently formally ravishing, and always in ways that complement the tragic story. Its images of despair as the family collapses are shatteringly, hauntingly sad. The way that the shade slowly falls over Isabel’s face on her deathbed is as beautiful as the ominous fadeouts in Kane. While the awkward tacked-on ending can’t be totally ignored, it is so obviously out of place that it barely resonates. What lingers on as the true last image of the film is an utterly defeated George shrouded in darkness in a praying position. As the narrator reminds us, he’s finally received his comeuppance, but none of the people who had previously been waiting for that moment even care to witness it anymore.