The Magnificent Ambersons Directed by Orson Welles

The Magnificent Ambersons directed by Orson Welles
By Ron Falzone

I once had a neighbor with a three-legged dog named Scratch.  How Scratch came to be in this state was always a matter of some mystery.  Doug, his owner, knew that the loss was injury-related, but the animal shelter had conflicting stories of how it actually happened.  In the long run, though, the cause of the injury was of little import.  The dog had three legs.  Period.  What was important was that Doug loved him and that Scratch had a long and happy life.

The cinema is filled with three-legged dogs, movies that were for one reason or another disfigured then left in their altered form for the future.  Movies like the 1954 version of A Star is Born or 1980’s unfairly maligned Heaven’s Gate were edited because the studio wanted to fit in more screenings per day. Others, like Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus, were altered because their content was deemed “too adult” for the time.

The most egregious mutilations were those that were edited solely to fit a TV timeslot.  I will never forget the first time I saw Lawrence of Arabia. It was shown on Channel 7’s “3:30 Movie” in a pan-and-scan version which, along with colorizing, is a particularly horrific form of mutilation.  Although spread over two days, they still removed nearly half of the epic so they could fit in commercials for Ken-L Ration dog food and Rive Gauche perfume by Tuvaché.

By far, the cinema’s greatest three-legged dog is Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (Amazon Link to Movie and Trailer).  This was his follow-up to Citizen Kane, the film considered by many to be the greatest of all time.  While I won’t argue this assumption, I will point out that The Magnificent Ambersons has one thing that Citizen Kane lacks: a generous heart.

Based on Booth Tarkington’s 1918 novel of life among the Indiana rich, The Magnificent Ambersons is the tale of George Amberson Minafer (Tim Holt), the arrogant scion of a wealthy family.  The Ambersons are soon to be left in the dust as the country turns inexorably from a farming to an industrial culture.  As this change occurs, the citizens of the town occupy their time dreaming of the day when the awful George Minafer will finally get his “comeuppance.”  This is a tale of privilege and the awful price to be paid when that advantage is suddenly lost and replaced with obscurity.

One of the many remarkable aspects of The Magnificent Ambersons is the way in which this story is told without the imposition of self-righteous judgments by the storyteller. Welles is uncommonly kind to his characters, even to George who crushes the romantic aspirations of his widowed mother, Isabel (Delores Costello), dashes the amorous dreams of his beloved Lucy (Anne Baxter) and marginalizes his lonely Aunt Fanny (Agnes Moorehead) simply because it benefits his privilege to do so.  Despite all of this, George’s comeuppance, alone in a darkened room with no one to see it, is among the saddest images in the movies.

Most remarkable is the fact that The Magnificent Ambersons works at all.  The movie that we see is not the movie that was planned, and what that movie could have been has been the subject of speculation for nearly 80 years.  The financial failure of Citizen Kane put Welles on the outs with RKO and cost studio head George Schaeffer his job.  The problems were compounded when the head of the wartime Office of Pan-American Affairs, Nelson Rockefeller, asked Welles to go to Rio to shoot a movie extolling the alliances between South American countries and the United States. Instead of acting as a cultural diplomat, Welles indulged in the nightlife of Rio and in creating another movie of his own design, both activities to the exclusion of completing The Magnificent Ambersons

When the 131-minute cut of his version was finally prepared by studio editors, the brass did not like what they saw.  To them, it was Citizen Kane 2 and they were certain it would be a disaster.  Editor – and future director – Robert Wise was assigned the task of cutting down the film to 90 minutes and giving it a happy ending.  The result is that the last twenty minutes are a jumble.  Each individual scene is beautifully conceived, staged and performed, but there are no logical transitions to take us from one to the next.  The fatal blow comes in the last two scenes.  Hastily written and performed by actors who look like they are working under protest (they were), the happy ending simply slides the narrative carriage off the road and into a ditch.

And yet…

Mutilated or not, The Magnificent Ambersons remains one of the great works of American cinema.  Welles gives the story its own cinematic spin, divorcing it from any idea of studio style and more into the frame of personal expression.  In some ways, this is made literal by a remarkable opening sequence narrated by Welles.  Like Citizen Kane, he opens this film with a montage meant to establish the world of the story.  Here, the time of the Ambersons and their back stories are deftly and neatly put in place with a delightful series of vignettes that also define the clothing, customs and mores of small town America circa 1912.

Also like its predecessor, The Magnificent Ambersons demonstrates Welles bursting excitement with the visual image.  He employs deep focus and a moving camera throughout.  During the last great party at the Amberson mansion, Welles shoots the cotillion as though the camera itself is another dancer in the room.  A long dialogue sequence between George and Lucy in a carriage is shot uncut and alongside the buggy as it clops down the long main street.  And Welles’ use of a rising and falling camera in two sequences between George and Aunt Fanny on the baroque central staircase captures the feeling of Fanny’s entrapment in the world and politics of the Amberson household.

Beyond movement, though, Welles captures static images that are equally exciting.  Two in particular stand out.  At the end of the party, George asks Lucy out for a buggy ride.  They are framed by the etched window of an open door.  Standing in the foreground and seemingly between them is Isabel looking wistfully out to Lucy’s father, Eugene (Joseph Cotten), the only man she ever truly loved.  In another, a winter’s reverie presented in varying shades of Currier and Ives ends with the image of Eugene’s car passing a tree.  The beauty of this moment is simple, profound and breathtaking.

The lost forty-minutes of The Magnificent Ambersons is the El Dorado of film historians.  It has been sought for years without success.  Like any of them, I would love to see this.  Until then, though, I am more than happy to give my love to this three-legged dog.