Monday, July 28, 2014

Movie Monday: The Magnificent Ambersons

From the man that brought you a little film called Citizen Kane...

Usually for Movie Monday, I talk about a film I have not seen before. I like "discovering" it almost as I'm writing these reviews, to gauge what my first, gut reactions are to a particular movie.

I decided to break that rule this week, since not only have I seen this film before, I've seen it many times: as a huge fan of the work of Orson Welles, there's simply no way to ignore this compromised masterpiece.
As the opening title card says, The Magnificent Ambersons is based on the book by Booth Tarkington, about a prominent Midwestern family and the changes they and society undergo at the dawn of the Industrial Age.

A man named Eugene Morgan (Welles' pal and co-conspirator Joseph Cotten) tries to woo Isabel Amberson (Dolores Costello), but she rejects him and marries Wilbur Minafer, who is from a prominent family, but does not love.
Isabel and Wilbur have a son, George, who is basically a rotten little shit from birth. As a child, he's a terror, and the whole town roots for him to get his "comeuppance." The film flashes forward twenty years, and George is now grown up (played by Tim Holt), and meets his mother's former paramour, whom he dislikes instantly. In the intervening decades, Eugene has become a car magnate, and is fabulously wealthy. He has a daughter, Lucy (Anne Baxter), whom George does like, quite a bit.
George's father dies, and Eugene, a widower, tries to rekindle his relationship with Isabel. George will have none of it, and does everything he can to stand in his way. Isabel senses this, and goes along with her son's wishes, even though it makes her unhappy.

Complicating things even further is Aunt Fanny (Agnes Moorehead), who also had feelings for Eugene, and is descending into psychosis. Events conspire to bring the Ambersons low financially, and George is forced to take up a dangerous line of work to keep their lifestyle going, while Eugene just gets more and more successful.
George has difficulty accepting how much the world has changed around him in such a short time: cars are now everywhere, billowing black smoke. During a dinner party, George is rude to Eugene's face telling him that cars are going to ruin society, and Eugene concedes that he may be right.

The film ends on a curious note, with Eugene and Aunt Fanny visiting George after an accident, with the former declaring that he and the young man have made peace at last.
I understand that not much in my description of the plot makes The Magnificent Ambersons sound very interesting: it's a family drama based on a (then) renowned novel, the kind of stuffy, high-brow stuff that you'd see on PBS or at your nearest "art house" theater. The stuff about the car industry completely changing society is interesting, but nothing that makes you think "I have to see this movie."

What makes The Magnificent Ambersons so compelling is the style director Orson Welles brings to it. This was his first film after Kane, and he was eager to show the world that he could make something more mature, less flashy, but just as powerful. And he completely pulls it off, instead focusing on the characters, and allowing his camera to float smoothly around the sumptuous sets, as if it just another member of the family.

It's not that there aren't great shots/sequences in this film, there are: a long scene during a party was done entirely in one shot, with people moving in and out of the frame, and then back in. The shadows cast in the Ambersons' home loom long and deep, and there's a constant sense of foreboding, as history closes in on this once-prominent family.

One of the other things that makes this film so remarkable is that it is, as I mentioned above, compromised. The original cut of The Magnificent Ambersons ran almost two hours, and just as editing began Welles was asked to fly to Latin America to make another film as part of the war effort. He had planned to edit Ambersons from there, but wartime flying restrictions kept his editor (the soon-to-be-legendary Robert Wise) from joining him. A disastrous preview caused RKO to panic, and they took the job of editing the film on themselves. They lopped an entire half hour out, and reshot a "happier" ending, removing Welles' original (this being right after Pearl Harbor, the preview audience simply wasn't interested in anything challenging or even a little bit downbeat), as well as cutting other shots and the music, a move that so infuriated composer Bernard Herrmann he had his name removed from the final film.

Normally, a movie having its ending removed and replaced with a Smile Button would be fatal, tilting the film's axis to the point where it effectively makes it a bad movie. But the stuff that Welles did up until that last five minutes is so good, the acting so top-notch, the visuals so arresting, that it's strangely easy to just shrug off the tacked-on ending, and luxuriate in the rest.

The Magnificent Ambersons is loaded with Kane veterans: Joseph Cotten, Ray Collins, Agnes Moorehead, Erskine Sanford. And even though the subject matter of both films couldn't be more different, this feels like the second installment of what could have been an amazing series of films by Welles' Mercury Theatre repertoire company (Welles even throws in a gag, when we see a newspaper has a review column by someone named Jed Leland, who was a character in Citizen Kane played by...Joseph Cotten). New to Welles' stock company was Tim Holt, an actor who spent most of his career in B or C westerns, seemingly dabbling in "A" pictures only if they were masterpieces: he did this, My Darling Clementine, and Treasure of the Sierra Madre in the 1940s, and then went right back to the westerns.

The missing half hour of Ambersons is apparently lost forever, the footage has never surfaced (supposedly RKO burned it to ensure Welles could not get his hands on it, a move so retroactively infuriating it defies belief) despite rumors at least one copy was sent to Welles overseas. The destruction of the original version hurt Welles so deeply that he couldn't bear to watch the film on TV, even decades later.

So while all of this backstage stuff is quite interesting, it shouldn't take away from what we do have: a marvelous film, a worthy follow-up to Citizen Kane (if such a thing is even possible), and an unmistakable statement that, as a director, Orson Welles' genius did not stop at the burning of that sled.

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