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Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Review: The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

* * *

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

Years after the fact, Orson Welles told biographer Barbara Leaming that before the final cut of The Magnificent Ambersons had been taken away from him, he felt more confident about the film's value than he had about that of Citizen Kane. Granted, you can chalk this up, to a certain degree, to lingering frustration at having had control taken away from him and at wistfulness for the career he might have had, one in which he achieved the creative control he wanted and one which didn't result in him leaving behind a long trail of unfinished projects, particularly when you take into account editor Robert Wise' assertion that Welles' original was not significantly better than the cut that became the film. Yet, it's hard to watch The Magnificent Ambersons, especially if you've read the novel, and not see the movie it could have been. It's a good movie, but the seams show, the ones left over from where those elements that could have made it great have been excised.

The Magnificent Ambersons is a grand saga centering on a wealthy family who fail to fully recognize the ways that the world is changing around them. They are perfectly suited for the world into which they rise to prominence - one where the Civil War is a not at all distant memory and where genteel aristocracy, rather than growing industrial power, sets the tone of society - but unable to adjust to the rapid changes to come over the years and decades leading into the early 20th century. In their glory days, the Ambersons - made up of patriarch Major Amberson (Richard Bennett), his son Jack (Ray Collins), daughter Isabelle (Dolores Costello), grandson George Amberson Minafer (Tim Holt), son-in-law Wilbur (Don Dillaway), and Wilbur's sister Fanny (Agnes Moorehead) - and the mansion in which they all live are the center around which the society of their midwestern town turns, their power so assured by the time George Amberson Minafer is born that he grows up running roughshod over the town as if it's his birthright, resulting in the town being full of people who long to see him get the comeuppance he so richly deserves.

By the time George is in college, that comeuppance is still yet to come and when he returns to his hometown during a school break, the Ambersons throw a lavish party in his honor and which Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotton), a former suitor of Isabelle's recently returned to town and on the verge of great success as an automobile manufacturer, and his daughter, Lucy (Anne Baxter), attend. George takes an instant liking to Lucy, despite the fact that she steadfastly refuses to be impressed by his pretensions and never even pretends to let him have the upper hand in any of their interactions, but is suspicious of Eugene, believing that his aim is to hit up the family for an investment in his company, which George sees as doomed to fail because he sees cars as a passing fad. Later, it's Eugene's attachment to Isabelle that incites George's anger and accelerates the major tragedy that the Amberson family has been moving towards for years.

Though Booth Tarkington's novel is not a particularly long one, it has a grand sweep and ambition to it, charting not just the rise and fall of the Amberson family, but also the changing socio-economic landscape of the United States. Judging by both what remains in the film version, and the list of scenes cut out of it, Welles' intended his adaptation to be a very faithful one (except for the ending), capturing the full breadth of the novel's design. What remains is pretty faithful to the novel, but the 40 minutes cut from Welles' version transform the context from a large scale story about a changing America, to a smaller scale romantic tragedy about loves lost and a family crumbling to dust. Some of the elements of the changing society do remain, addressed largely through Welles' voiceover narration, but it ceases to be part of the story developing in parallel to the trials and tribulations of George and his family, which makes the narrative seem more insular and less like a complex statement about the growth and development of America as a nation.

Still, even if the film pales in comparison to the novel and falls short of what Walles intended it to be, it's still very good and far from the abject failure that Welles sometimes characterized it as (it was, after all, nominated for 4 Oscars, including Best Picture). Holt and Baxter are pretty much pitch perfect in their interactions as George and Lucy, capturing the playful (on her part) and frustrated (on his) push and pull of their relationship, and you can basically never go wrong with Joseph Cotton. While I long to see the long take of the ball sequence in which Welles explored all three floors of the Amberson mansion with a crane shot, what survived the cutting room confirms Welles as the master directorial technician he first proved himself to be with Citizen Kane. All told, though, the film probably plays better if you've never read the novel and can't compare the two.

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