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Friday, December 5, 2008

Review: The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

* * * 1/2

Director: Orson Welles
Starring: Tim Holt, Joseph Cotton, Anne Baxter, Agnes Moorehead

The Magnificent Ambersons has the dubious honor of being Orson Welles' follow-up to Citizen Kane, a film so great that it was destined to cast a long shadow over whatever came next, and so disasterous in terms of box office that it pretty much guaranteed that the studio would feel it necessary to undermine the artistic vision of its boy wonder director. Ambersons is famous for having been chopped up by the studio, which not only cut 50 minutes from it, but tacked-on a happy ending that's about as out of place as a musical number would be at the end of Saving Private Ryan. All that being said, Ambersons is still a really good movie, which is a testament to the power of Welles' vision and skill.

Adapted from the novel by Booth Tarkington, Ambersons charts the decline of a wealthy midwestern family against the changing face of America, marked by the invention of the automobile and the subsequent shift from small, cloistered communities to sprawling suburbs around urban hubs. At the head of the family is Major Amberson (Richard Bennett), whose daughter, Isabel (Dolores Costello) is much sought after by the young men in town. For a time, it seems as if she will choose Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten), but his wildstreak proves to be too much for her and she turns instead to the staid and dependable Wilbur Minafer (Don Dillaway), whose eventual death is met with the declaration that he was so quiet, no one will even realize he's gone.

Isabel and Wilbur have one child, George Amberson Minafer (Tim Holt), who runs through the town like a holy terror and knows he can get away with it because he's an Amberson (he's never referred to as a Minafer and frequently other characters call him "Mr. Amberson" and then have to correct themselves). By the time George is college-aged, Eugene returns to town and reconnects with the Isabel. Now a wealthy man, he also has a daughter, Lucy (Anne Baxter), who falls in love with George despite his overwhelming arrogance. Although George and Eugene clash from the beginning over both the Eugene's familiarity with Isabel and his introduction of the automobile - an invention George believes to be a "nuisance" - to town, things are relatively cordial between them until George is informed of rumors that Eugene and Isabel are in love. Isabel, bound by love for her son, agrees to go away to Europe with him and breaks off her engagement to Eugene. This is the beginning of the end for the Amberson family.

I've yet to read Tarkington's novel so I don't know what to attribute to him and what to credit to Welles, but I really love the way that this story is constructed to show the incredible transition not just in this one family, but in the organization of society as a whole. It begins with a delightful voice-over by Welles, who sets a scene of Old Worldesque gentility, where everyone in town lives side by side along a handful of streets, all close together, all very much involved in each other's lives, with the Ambersons and their enormous mansion at the centre. With the introduction of cars, the population becomes decentralized; people move out and into the suburbs (getting there, incidentally, along streets named for the Ambersons), and the community becomes less closely-knit. Throughout the film it is said that people can't wait for George to finally get his comeuppance and the tragedy of the story is not that George eventually does get it, but that there's no one left who cares because everyone has forgotten about the Amberson family.

When you hear that the studio cut nearly an hour from the film, you're inclined to think that it must have been really long to begin with, but Ambersons wasn't. The original cut ran about 2 and a half hours, not an exorbitant running time at all when you consider that many "prestige" films today run to about 3 hours. The final cut of Ambersons is 88 minutes and covers a lot of ground. I could easily have sat through another 50 minutes of this movie - I would have loved to see another 50 minutes of this movie. Save for the ending, I enjoyed every moment of this film, which sparkles with life although there is the sense as it reaches its conclusion that pieces are missing. While I would never argue that it's a better film than Citizen Kane, I would say that I like it more, perhaps because it carries less academic baggage. Welles said that if the studio had left it in his hands, Ambersons would have been at least as good as Kane. I totally believe that.


Wendymoon said...

I love The Magnificent Ambersons.

I too am curious about what got cut, but as is the movie is still pretty wonderful, as well as beautifully shot. And while it does feel choppy in parts, to me this works with the shifting tone of the movie as it shows the changing times.

There's a 2002 A&E version that is supposed to be based on the screenplay by Orson Welles; perhaps it has some hints as to what got edited out. I've always meant to compare the two, but haven't gotten around to it. (The bad reviews of the A&E version have me scared, and I don't want to taint my enjoyment of the Welles' classic.)

I did read and enjoy the novel by Booth Tarkington. Although it's been a while, I think it showed more of the changes happening on a larger scale as opposed to the movie focusing more on the story of the impact these changes make on the Ambersons.

I know Orson had a darker ending in mind specifically with Fanny, but the happy ending of the movie is actually pretty true to the book, with the idea of the reconciliation and Eugene being true to his true love. Maybe that's why the movie ending doesn't bother me. It still leaves some things unseen and hints at Fanny's despair.

Norma Desmond said...

Regarding the ending: I might be wrong, but I'm pretty sure the dialogue of the original ending was the same and just the setting was different. I believe that in the original, Eugene makes up with George and then goes to see Fanny at the boarding house to tell her about it, and it's the destitution of her surroundings and her desperate behavior that make it so much darker.

I've never seen the A&E version either. I'm curious to see it, but pretty wary as well.

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