Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Magnificent Ambersons, The (1942)

Director: Orson Welles


Orson Welles’ first endeavor into the realm of motion pictures, Citizen Kane, was a financial bust and giant slice of humble pie to a wonder boy that had already revolutionized the Broadway stage and the radio industry. However in time the feature would be named the one of the greatest films of all time. Welles’ follow-up to Citizen Kane would be yet another drama of darker tones with a downbeat ending. It shares poetic storytelling of the harsh realities that effect individuals through their lives. The Magnificent Ambersons would also prove to be another disappointment to the young Welles résumé, a motion picture tragically taken away from his control and altered much to his dismay. However the picture would also in time be a critical success for the filmmaker who would experience a turbulent relationship with the cinema.

The Magnificent Ambersons is a drama telling the story of wealthy early 20th century family whose fortunes slowly fall apart, centering around the family’s spoiled, self-centered son whose personal pride holds back the possibility of greater things in him and his family’s name. George (Tom Holt) is the spoiled heir of the wealthy Amberson family who puts himself between his widowed mother Isabel (Dolores Costello) and the man she has loved her whole life Eugene (Joseph Cotton). Learning of the widowed Isabel and Eugene’s romance, which goes back to before when Isabel married George’s father, George is appalled and fears this rekindled relationship will bring shame to his family’s name. George rudely shuns Eugene, even cursing his business within the emerging automobile manufacturing industry; however George is torn with his emotions because of his romantic liking to Eugene’s daughter Lucy (Anne Baxter), who takes a quick disliking towards George for his thoughts and actions towards others.

George does all he can to keep Isabel and Eugene apart until her death from illness. Through all of this the Amberson name and fortune falls apart and George is determined to do what he can to build it back up and care for the remaining family members. This leads to George wondering how the world seems to have passed him up, leaving him angry at the industrialization of the city he grew up in. One day while pondering these thoughts he is struck by an automobile, a subtle reminder of Eugene, and in a hastily constructed conclusion is said to have reconciled with Eugene and Lucy in the hospital while recovering.
The film is a sad tale with a morose plot about a man whose selfish pride leads his entire family’s wellbeing to fall apart until an abrupt ending that does feel a bit tacked on. It is this gloom that makes the movie so very palatable. George is a tragic character whom as a person we hate, but we spend our time watching and hoping he will see the error of his ways, allowing his mother to marry the man she loves and even allow himself to branch out and love as well. To have such a tale told by a young master storyteller such as Orson Welles allows this sad plot to be poetically delivered to audience eager for a motion picture with substance more appetizing than the average Hollywood tripe from the movie mill.

The picture is beautifully constructed and a wonderfully shot production that manifested a far more intuitive mind behind the camera. Orson Welles fresh off the turbulent ride of producing and releasing Citizen Kane to a world where media and audiences were not ready to accept it or its youthful author we find his second film just as irritating a process to make as he had in his debut feature. Determined to produce a motion picture with a substance that most features lacked at that time was the goal for the sophomore filmmaker, only to discover that studios are the one ultimately in control.

RKO Radio Pictures had signed young Welles to a two picture deal with unbelievable creative control for the great publicity that came with Welles wherever he went, as it would appear. However with Welles’ creative stubbornness came the controversy of Welles with Citizen Kane being a story based on media magnate William Randolph Hearst’s life which proved to create many powerful enemies in Hollywood and the media against Welles.  RKO was apprehensive towards Welles’ follow-up, for which he chose a story he had already produced for his radio show in 1939, The Magnificent Ambersons. Based on a 1912 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, the story had previously been produced as a motion picture as a silent feature in 1925 by David Smith entitled Pampered Youth. With such prior notable adaptations of the past RKO was hoping not to see any trouble with this new Welles production, but time would change that.

Joseph Cotton as Eugene with Anne Baxter in one of his latest automobiles.
Like Citizen Kane Orson Welles was not going to make The Magnificent Ambersons in the usual Hollywood manner. A large studio set was constructed for the Amberson mansion which was assembled much like a real house, but with its walls on hidden wheels to allow for wall pieces to tear away easily. This allowed for complex shots where the camera, crew, actors, and equipment could move through multiple rooms, down hallways, and upstairs in continuous motions as pieces wheeled away or into place. This allowed for shots not previously conceived to be performed before. Welles was always thinking a bit outside of the box, perhaps with influence of his stage productions where actors would move throughout the set delivering entire pages of dialogue without breaks.

Being a Hollywood outsider Welles was not fond of the idea of using star names simply for box office appeal. Using a cast for whom he felt was right for the parts Welles assembles an ensemble of performers exceptional in many respects. Joseph Cotton with his unique character presence would be a carryover from Citizen Kane as Eugene, the man who simply wants to love Isabel, but is continually denied by her son. Dolores Costello for a while in the 1930s had retired from her screen acting to focus on raising a family until she divorced her revered, yet alcoholic movie star husband John Barrymore. Her melancholy delivery as Isabel, the loving mother who fit the whims of her son over her own happiness makes her tragic performance the very saddest to audiences.

Tom Holt whose career success was most notable in westerns would portray the problematic character of George. This performance as the prideful young man whose selfishness allows for the downfall of him and his family is something special. In watching him you cannot seem to turn away from this ever so loathsome character for whom we yearn to turn that corner in his life, which only comes with a near death experience quickly at the end of the feature.

Orson Welles had chosen The Magnificent Ambersons as his second feature because of its inherent lack of controversy, as well as for its sadder, more poetic tones. In fact Welles even altered the story’s ending to further make the tale even more tragic as George after being struck by the car never made amends to Eugene or his beautiful daughter, and George’s love interest, Lucy. RKO was very unhappy with such a dark ending to this already sad story, and was determined to change it.

As The Magnificent Ambersons ran over budget and its initial cut of the feature ran near two and a half hours RKO became even more uneasy with the project. Welles had worked out a deal with RKO to give away his editorial creative control for the ability to direct a future film project that would eventually never happen. Now with RKO having the power of the final edit they decided to significantly cut back the feature and shoot a new ending. To do this RKO waiting until Welles was away in South America on a Good Neighbor assignment for the government, away from hindering the studio during their remodeling of the feature.

This new ending would quickly mend the relationship of George, Eugene, and Lucy in a quick manner while RKO trimmed away as much an hour of the film’s initial cut some believe. This re-edit made while Welles was handcuffed by other matters hurt the filmmaker greatly, bringing further animosity between the industry and Welles, a creative mind who would appear to never again have the full resources he wished for in his filmmaking career.

An example of the mansion set that allowed great depth of field.
The Magnificent Ambersons was found to be relatively well received by critics at the time of release, perhaps a motion picture with a bit more European drama than the spectacle and happy tales produced by Hollywood. However the real critics that mattered, the general audience who speak with their pocket books, did not support the film. The Magnificent Ambersons recorded significant losses at the box office despite the four Academy Awards nominations the film was up for that year, including Best Picture. The acting performance would gain the feature praise in the greater scheme of film enthusiasts outside of Hollywood, but that was not enough to save the film or its director.

The significant alterations from the feature would greatly affect the film, filmmaker, and others surrounding the feature. The full hour of cut footage would eventually be lost forever when RKO’s excess celluloid was be recycled for the war effort; the feature would never return to its originally intended for ever again. Welles for much of his life was determined to re-shoot scenes and alter the picture as he envisioned, but would be find the means to do so. The original score by the famed Bernard Herman would too be heavily altered due to the significant edits, and the composer would demand his name removed from the credits.

Despite all the controversy the feature is still a rather well made film. At points a bit jumpy in story because of all the edited out material, the picture still manifests the great mind that constructed the wonderful blueprints for a masterpiece-like feature film. Regardless of turbulent history of The Magnificent Ambersons the film would in the long run of cinema history be praised for its filmmaking and its storytelling, include being named to numerous “all time” lists.

Orson Welles closes the film out with spoken credits and the closing shot of a microphone.
Perhaps Orson Welles was too ahead of his time. Citizen Kane was his first film, and considered one of, if not the very best out of Hollywood. The Magnificent Ambersons is a sadly would be a product that would have played better to audiences twenty or more years later, at a time when film students rediscovered the mastery of the camera by a filmmaker hindered by the studio system and an era of tasteless happy movies. The film plays in a contemporary time nearly in the manner as a secret film lost treasure of cinema, even though the picture never went anywhere. For The Magnificent Ambersons George may be the tragic character, but Orson Welles is the true heartbreaking figure in the feature’s history.

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