The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)  

Mercury Productions - RKO Radio Pictures   Director Orson Welles   Producer George Schaefer  Screenplay Orson Welles based on the novel by Booth Tarkington  Director of Photography Stanley Cortez  Score Bernard Herrmann  Actors Joseph Cotten  Tim Holt  Dolores Costello  Anne Baxter  Agnes Moorhead  Erskine Sanford  Ray Collins 


"We do not need trouble pictures, especially now. Make pictures to make us forget...not remember."  

Test card from preview screening, 1941


If Citizen Kane is the best film ever made, then how come The Magnificent Ambersons is the best film Orson Welles ever made?

If we examine the Welles legend and the apparent consensus that his flame started to burn out as soon as the house lights went up at the premiere of Citizen Kane, it seems remarkable that having made a debut film as extraordinary as Kane he should actually go on to make a film as accomplished as Ambersons straight afterwards. This gives a powerful indication of Welles' genius. The overall approach to the picture is utterly different from Kane. For sure, there are moments of virtuosity and eye-catching beauty, but this film is so much more studious and reverent. One might believe that if Kane was his first picture (and despite its impact, this shows), Ambersons looks like it could have been his last. Welles, on his second film ever, is in total control of the medium. Where Kane was childish and cheeky, Ambersons is fiercely intelligent and mature.

Blessed once again with some of the very finest craftsmen at the studio's disposal (Bernard Herrmann, who had scored Kane and, taking over from Gregg Toland, the legendary Stanley Cortez) Welles breathed new life into a stuffy American high school syllabus novel by Booth Tarkington. The film's principal concern is the impact upon American life of "progress", represented by Joseph's Cotten's character, Eugene. In a strangely ironic foretaste of his murderous dandy from Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt, Cotten "invades" a dysfunctional family and sets off a tragic chain of events. Welles identified with the novel as he saw echoes of his own family in the Ambersons and his father had been a friend of Tarkington's.

Critics often single out Ambersons to prove that Welles wasn't a one-hit-wonder, citing its lack of self-consciousness and adult sensibilities as proof that Welles was a true master and not an enfant terrible who had once struck gold. There is no doubt that when the film is viewed with Kane in mind, one cannot but be impressed with the calm assurance with which Welles goes about filming what is essentially an old-fashioned melodrama. It is as if he is trying to appeal to the other half of America...the half that didn't like Citizen Kane!  For Welles' detractors, desperate for him to slip up, Ambersons must have been extremely frustrating. Nevertheless, at the box office, the film was not a success and in the language of American cinema, the word "flop" carries a lot of weight. [Indeed, in William Goldman's book, Adventures in the Screen Trade, his use of the word "flop", whilst literally meaning "financial failure" is also synonymous with a film of inferior quality - a rare example of the author's imbecility.]

It is sadly impossible to write about The Magnificent Ambersons without referring to the scandalous circumstances that surrounded its release. Having wrapped principal shooting, whilst Welles was in South America filming a documentary called It's All True, RKO tested a rough cut of Ambersons and were horrified at the results. The studio promptly ordered Robert Wise (the director of West Side Story and one of the editors on Kane) to make cuts and even re-shoot the ending to make it less pessimistic.

The resulting additional scenes are a travesty: as if someone had painted a poker-playing dog seated at the table in Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper. Nowadays, this would not be a problem as a dvd would simply be released with a director's cut, but in a twist of fate so appalling as to be almost humorous, Welles' original footage was destroyed in a nitrate fire and the full film will never be seen.

Interestingly the printed test cards from that fateful test screening were later published and they showed a strong polarisation. Broadly half of the viewers found it boring, the other half magnificent. One card simply read; "I think it was the best picture I have ever seen". Out of resentment for Welles' absence and behaviour, RKO chiefs chose to see a half-empty glass and butcher a film which was capable of provoking such comments. The second volume of Simon Callow's exceptional biography of Welles: "Hello Americans", sheds considerable light on this episode.

In the early 1970s, Peter Bogdanovich was visiting Welles and some friends in a hotel in Beverley Hills when they came upon a showing of Ambersons on the television. Welles stormed out of the room as his friends badgered him to let them watch it, then later returned but stood with his back to the television, gazing out of the window. They noticed that he had tears in his eyes. When Bogdanovich confronted him a year later and asked him how hard it had been to watch a film in its altered form, Welles replied:

"No...it wasn't that, not at all.    That just makes me angry.     Don't you see...it's because it's the past...it's over."


The Magnificent Ambersons is now available on dvd from Universal. For the full script which Welles originally shot for RKO, see the book: This is Orson Welles by Orson Welles and Peter Bogdanovich.


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