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  • Post last modified:April 23, 2018

Magnificent Ambersons: The Fall of a Family

REAL LIFE SCREENED MORE DARINGLY THAN IT’S EVER BEEN BEFORE!

magnificentambersonsA year after the release of his brilliant first film, Citizen Kane, Orson Welles made another epic drama that has become a true classic. However, its release was highly dramatic. Welles delivered an original cut running 135 minutes, but he felt that it needed to be shortened, especially since the first preview was far from a hit. Editor Robert Wise shortened it, but the second preview wasn’t much of an improvement.

This is where Welles lost control. Having given up his right to final cut, and being busy in Brazil shooting another movie, the studio RKO decided that bigger changes had to be done. Aided by Wise and assistant director Fred Fleck, the studio ordered reshoots; 40 minutes were taken out of the original print and a happier ending replaced the old one.

The story begins at the turn of the century in Indianapolis. The Ambersons is a very wealthy family and there seems to be no threat to their way of life. The young Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten) is courting Isabel Amberson (Dolores Costello), but in the end she decides that the dull Wilbur Minafer (Don Dillaway) is a better choice. They have a son, George, who is spoilt rotten; as a child, he has a habit of going on wild carriage rides, completely disregarding the safety of everyone else in town. Years later, George returns from college and is introduced to Lucy (Anne Baxter), a girl he’s instantly smitten by. She turns out to be the daughter of Eugene Morgan, now a successful manufacturer of a new invention, the automobile. He’s also a widower, and when Wilbur suddenly dies, Eugene shows interest in Isabel again. George is told by his aunt Fanny (Agnes Moorehead) that Isabel probably always loved Eugene more than Wilbur, and the young man is enraged…

Thoroughly unpleasant main character
The film, as well as Booth Tarkington’s novel, portrays the rise of a technological revolution in society and compares it with the decline of a conservative family that doesn’t know how to survive when everything around changes. It sounds like the set-up for an epic tale, but its running time is very short and it’s easy to get the feeling that so much more could have been made of it.

Still, Welles gets his point across, telling the story in a very swift, direct and dark manner. You can definitely tell that this is the work of the director who made Citizen Kane, in the way shots are arranged and in his fascination with the superrich and their tragic secrets/intrigues. The main character is thoroughly unpleasant. George is raised the wrong way and shows no sign of improving as a young adult, being entirely guided by his selfishness. It is suggested early on in the film that he deserves to get his comeuppance and the journey to that moment is entertaining, albeit sad since his and the entire family’s fate is so closely entwined. Tim Holt, who plays the adult George, serves his purpose well, but the other characters, though often fiery in temper, aren’t equally memorable.

The film is superbly narrated by Welles himself, including the final credits, creating the illusion that he really was in charge of the final results.

Composer Bernard Herrmann demanded his name removed from the credits and Welles found it hard to forgive his friends Cotten and Wise for having collaborated with RKO in the process of recutting and reshooting the movie. Ironically, the happy ending was more true to Tarkington than Welles’s original idea. This isn’t a black-and-white example of disastrous studio interference. We’ll never know what the “full” Magnificent Ambersons looked like… but this version, a classic in its own right, is an excellent substitute.

The Magnificent Ambersons 1942-U.S. 88 min. B/W. Produced, written and directed by Orson Welles. Novel: Booth Tarkington. Cinematography: Stanley Cortez. Music: Bernard Herrmann. Editing: Robert Wise. Cast: Tim Holt (George Amberson Minafer), Joseph Cotten (Eugene Morgan), Dolores Costello (Isabel Amberson), Anne Baxter, Agnes Moorehead, Ray Collins. Narrated by Orson Welles.

Trivia: The story was previously filmed as Pampered Youth (1925). Remade as a miniseries, The Magnificent Ambersons (2002).

Last word: “I never would have gone to South America without a guarantee that I’d be able to finish my picture there. That I think is a matter of record. And they absolutely betrayed me and never gave me a shot at it. You know, all I could do was send wires … But I couldn’t walk out on a job which had diplomatic overtones. I was representing America in Brazil, you see. I was a prisoner of the Good Neighbor Policy. That’s what made it such a nightmare. I couldn’t walk out on Mr. Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy with the biggest single thing that they’d done on the cultural level, and simply walk away. And I couldn’t get my film in my hands.” (Welles, “Orson Welles: A Biography”)

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