Reviewer: Craig Phillips
Rating (out of five): ****, Likely ***** if footage wasn’t lost
For a film that had been one of the most sought-after missing-in-action DVDs, Orson Welles' “other masterpiece” -- when it finally arrived -- did so with surprisingly little fanfare. It's certainly at least partially due to the DVD arriving as part of an exclusive special edition set with the more widely available 70th Anniversary Blu-Ray version of Citizen Kane, and not individually or on Blu-ray. Still, its release is cause for celebration, especially for Welles completists and cineastes in general.
The film was famous for being butchered by RKO when released in 1942 -- over forty minutes were cut and the studio enforced re-shoots to give it a happier ending that rang false. And yet despite all that, the heartbreak it caused Welles and the amount of money the film lost, Ambersons was critically praised and nabbed four Oscar nominations, including Best Director and Cinematography.
Sadly, most of the original cut footage is lost forever: after it had been stored briefly in studio vaults, it was eventually destroyed due to a lack of storage space. One of cinema's all-time tragedies; the edits, reshoots and then losing the footage had to have been something that haunted Welles' for the rest of his life.
But what is here is still wonderful in many ways, even if there are times the film is indeed choppy and one really misses the excised footage.
Based on Booth Tarkington's novel -- which won the Pulitzer in 1919, Ambersons is essentially about a boy with mother issues. It’s the story of a proud, long-wealthy Midwestern family in slow decline, the loneliness of being so tight-knit it becomes stifling, and the passing of time as the world changes around them. And it is the story of love unrequited, as Joseph Cotten's Eugene courts Isabel Amberson, whom he'd fallen for once before; now a widower, he returns to his hometown as a successful businessman and finds the one thing that gets in his way is Isabel’s overprotective son George, who resents his very existence.
Initially the film is lighter in tone, almost farcical in its portrayal of an odd family and those townsfolk connected to it by tendrils, but the playful mood becomes increasingly dark. Supposedly one of the important parts of the film that was excised and lost to history involves an expanded version of the more cheerful first section. It gets darker and melodramatic more quickly than it feels it should.
George, bratty as a child, brooding as an adult, loathes and fears the coming of the automobile, and despises Eugene for being in the automobile business. As the story progresses, and the world becomes more industrialized, the car spreads its influence, and even comes back to bite George later. He yearns for his more playful childhood, of sleighs and horse carriages, when he had his mother all to his self.
Tim Holt, who six years later would famously play the partner of Bogie's Fred C. Dobbs in Treasure of the Sierra Madre, was about 23 at the time and reminds me strikingly of Joseph Gordon-Levitt (in resemblance, not persona). His George is generally a loathsome character through much of the film but Holt gives him a humanity underneath his prickly surface.
As Cotten's daughter Lucy, Anne Baxter, who would later become famous for playing the titular character in All About Eve, is absolutely lovely here. Sweet-faced and sweet-natured, it’s hard to imagine why she briefly falls for the temperamental George, but c’est l’amour. Agnes Moorehead seemed to have made an impact every film she was in, and was terrific here as George's Aunt Fanny (makes me wonder if that's where that phrase came from), who stayed loyal to the family despite the years of dysfunction, promising Isabel that she'd watch over the son. She takes on her characters' years of resentment with a tightly-wound spinster’s physicality and near-constant state of hysteria after many battles with her beloved George. [Evidenced by the boiler room scene: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8VCa2srdoZM]
But even if on the surface Magnificent Ambersons is a family drama, as you'd expect with Welles there's much more going on than meets the eye, and what meets the eye is an astonishing visual feast. If not quite the frame-by-frame revelation that Citizen Kane was, Ambersons is just as remarkable cinematically and in some ways even more advanced. The cinematography by Stanley Cortez who, with Welles, gives the film a startling mix of light and shadows; daylight streams in to the increasingly isolated mansion, almost against its will, and other spaces (apartments, offices, bathrooms) reflect the characters’ various states of claustrophobia and depression. The giant Ambersons’ mansion takes on a haunting, haunted life of its own. The elaborate place was one of the most expensive interior sets for any film ever at the time and feels like an actual home, full of rooms, life, darkness, nooks and crannies, a haunted history that does not need explanation. And the film’s famous set-piece, the Christmas ball sequence, is one of the highlights of Welles’ career, bar none, a masterful convergence of direction, set and acting.
The editing is by Robert Wise, who would later be credited with directing the non-Welles footage and would go on to have a pretty successful directorial career himself (The Sound of Music, West Side Story, The Haunting).
To be truthful, I don't find the story itself nearly as compelling as Welles' first masterpiece, but even with the missing and inserted footage it still fascinates. And despite all of the downbeat moments I mention here, it is not all despair: there is humor, there is humanity, there is life. The Magnificent Ambersons is a work of art that has had some of its pieces dismembered and yet the spirit of the thing remains intact.
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