After Citizen Kane failed to reach audiences (for various reasons) in 1941, Orson Welles set out to make an even better film. Thus began the tortured pattern of Welles’ relationship with Hollywood, as he negotiated away final cut, had forty minutes removed without his consent, and was in South America on another project as an upbeat ending was tacked on. The film was The Magificent Ambersons, and as charming and tight a family drama as it remains, one cannot help but wonder what it would have been if it had remained in his hands.
The film concerns the fortunes of the Amberson family, large fish in the small pond of Indianapolis that is getting bigger with every new road and automobile. It takes place in the decades around the turn of the last century, when ladies wore velvet and silk and a foolish, intoxicated mistake on the part of a young man could get him jilted and his girlfriend married off to a more sensible fellow. Cut to years later, when Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotton) returns no longer a foolish young man but a successful automobile manufacturer with attractive young daughter Lucy (Anne Baxter) in tow. Isabel Anderson Minafer (Dolores Costello), her husband Wilbur, and utterly spoiled son George (Tim Holt) are still in town, still Ambersons, and unaware that everything is about to change.
The film’s message about industrialization and the march of progress is decidedly ambiguous, but more to the point are the interpersonal relationshps that are revealed among this old guard family through their renewed relationship with Morgan and his daughter and the diminishment of their importance. And given that at the present time one is looking back at a period film directed in 1941, it’s surprising how delightful, unstilted, and punchy the film is. The dialogue (adapted by Welles from a Booth Tarkington novel) is snappy and delivered in a naturalistic fashion, often overlapping (a particular favorite is George’s frequent disgusted rendering of “oh my gosh!”). The camera moves about the Amberson mansion like another character, frequently in long tracking shots or playing with the characters’ positions through different levels of the house. Welles’ narration (only his voice appears) is sometimes interruptive but generally spot-on, and Agnes Moorehead’s Aunt Fanny is a complex (if shrill) portrait of an unmarried woman past her prime. While some of the technique looks old-fashioned to our eyes, other aspects of the cinematography and directing are arresting and fresh, and overall it’s a neat piece of filmmaking that is, amazingly, unavailable on DVD in this country.
Financial troubles dogged Orson Welles throughout his life, most likely because he was a man who wanted to go his own way yet chose a medium that requires major backing to produce. While no one will ever know if the original cut was better (even he thought it needed some trimming, but RKO took control and all the cut footage was destroyed “to save space” before Welles could get his hands on it) the film as it exists bears the scars in the holes in plot that make some of it hard to follow. Watching it now, it seems clear to me that Welles (as far as movies were concerned) should have lived later, and it's probably a testament to his directing (and Stanley Cortez's cinematography) that even the studio version holds up as well as it does.