Director - Orson Welles
Starring - Joseph Cotton, Delores Costello, Anne Baxter, and Tim Holt
Often compared as a bastard sibling to the widely praised Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons is the second of Orson Welles' two picture deal with RKO Pictures. While he was away filming another feature in Brazil, Ambersons was taken away from Welles by the studio who felt the picture was too slow and somber. RKO cut roughly 50 minutes of footage from the end, and tacked on a happy ending to appease test audiences who, since it was released after the attack at Pearl Harbor wanted something a bit more cheerful, and with laughs.
Ambersons tells the story of a spoiled little rich kid, George Amberson Minaver, played to cruel, selfish perfection by Tim Holt. George (apparently based on the somewhat spoiled Orson Welles) is so caught up in himself, and his worries, that he doesn't allow anyone else in his family the opportunity of their own happiness. Seeing the affection between his mother, Isabel, and Joseph Cotton's character Eugene Morgan, as a threat, he firmly plants himself in between the pair willing to go to great lengths to keep them apart. The families reliance on their seemingly endless wealth threatens to teach them some hard life lessons. From this brief synopsis, you can see where the story is going, but rest assured you won't see the abbreviated ending coming.
Despite the new happy ending, The Magnificent Ambersons, as it exists today is incomplete. The editor, Robert Wise, a director in his own right (The Haunting, West Side Story, and The Sound of Music) was put in charge of cutting the film to its current length. While salvaging as much as he could of the story, the film still seems to end abruptly, destroying the our investment in the characters as well as the weight and importance of the story. The cut footage was rumored to have been destroyed to prevent Welles from protesting and producing another cut, all though officially it was to clear space in the studio's vaults.
Since we will never fully know what this film could have been, it is unfair to say it is as good as Citizen Kane, nor is it fair to put it on the list of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, especially since it isn't commercially available on DVD in the United States (I watched a decent quality AVI file that I happened upon). That being said, what is present in the version that I saw, was a prime example of why Orson Welles was (and still is if you ask me) such a revered filmmaker. The ensemble acting is the quality you might expect of the Mercury players, everyone does a great job, not only of playing their parts, but also of supporting their fellow actors in their roles.
A class could be taught on the cinematography of this film alone. Stanley Cortez replaces Gregg Toland as Welles' cinematographer of choice, but none of the elegance inherent in Citizen Kane was lost. Unlike a lot of films from this era, Welles isn't afraid of using shadow to dramatic and atmospheric effect. Character's, especially female characters, in most american films seem to always find that same pocket of light that illuminates them in just such a way. In Ambersons, not only is there plenty of darkness, but it is nearly a character all its own. One that each other character interacts with, and plays against (both physically with the shadows in a scene, and metaphorically with their own motivations and intentions).
Another interesting element deserving of mention is the mammoth estate in which the Amberson's dwell. The sense of foreboding and expectation carried by the physical structure that houses this indomitable family affects the story as much as any other element in the story. The cavernous stairway is host to as many romantic kisses as it is to malicious eavesdropping and tense stand-offs.
Finally it is important to point out the resonance this film has had with one of my favorite films of all time, The Royal Tenenbaums. Similar to The Magnificent Ambersons, Tenenbaums deals with the perceived mythology of a family of spectacular characters, and juxtaposing that ideal against the reality of the dysfunction that is inherent in family. Similarities range from the small (the titles are similarly grand) to the grand (the main conflict in both films comes about when love and relationships are threatened by jealousy and depression). Wes Anderson, to his credit, has managed to finish what Orson Welles was never able to. With The Royal Tenenbaums he manages to bring closure to the wonderful story that has had a false happy ending on it for nearly 60 years.
Is The Magnificent Ambersons great? No, not as a whole, but what it's made of, what it was going to be, and what it has inspired, is far more than great! It's Magnificent!