The Magnificent Ambersons (US 1942)

Produced at the RKO Studio and scripted and directed by Orson Welles; this film is a flawed classic, missing about forty minutes of the original version. It is screening on BBC 4 this coming Thursday [May 19th] as one of the titles accompanying the six part documentary, The RKO Story Tales from Hollywood’ [Hollywood the Golden Years: The RKO Story]. This is a six part series, each episode an hour long, originally produced and transmitted in 1987. It makes a welcome return to terrestrial television and is accompanied by a number of classic titles from the RKO Studio. The series was jointly produced by the BBC and RKO Pictures. The RKO studio closed in 1957 but had a reinvention in the 1980s as RKO Pictures Inc. This company controlled the archive of studio records and titles. These offer a wealth of information on RKO presented by Edward Asner. But what makes the series stands out are the interviews with surviving stars and production personnel from the studio era. This provides an impressive and fascinating account of the studio; something that is rarely offered in contemporary cinema programmes.

On Thursday May 19th part four of the series deals with the period in which Orson Welles worked at RKO. Following the seminal Citizen Kane Welles then made an adaptation of the novel ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’ [Ambersons] by Booth Tarkington. Not that well known now in the early decades of the C20th Tarkington was a popular and highly respected writer; he won Pulitzer Prizes for two of his novels, ‘Ambersons’ and Alice Adams. The latter was filmed at RKO in 1935. In fact both ‘Ambersons’ and ‘Alice Adams’ were also filmed in silent versions in the 1920s.

Tarkington was the chronicler of ‘mid-western USA’; in another sense that central cultural artefact in US Americana, ‘small-town America’. As well as the two award-winning novels Tarkington also wrote a series of  ‘Penrod’ stories; following young boys growing up in a Midwestern town. Welles read these and other Tarkington works in his youth. He remained an admirer. Welles himself and his biographers frequently drew attention to the parallels between his childhood and characters and settings in the Tarkington novels. Simon Callow, in his biopic of the years leading up to Welles’ Hollywood ventures , ‘Orson Welles The Road to Xanadu’. quotes a description of a mansion in ‘Ambersons’ which was very similar to Welles’ first home.

In fact, Welles adapted the novel in his long-running series of radio adaptations; in October 1939 in the Campbell Playhouse on CBS. In this version Welles played the key protagonist, George Amberson Minafer. However, when it came to a film, with a character seen and heard, Welles settled for the narrative voice. In one of those innovations of which Welles was so fond, even the credits were voiced by Welles as narrator.

The story in the novel and the film follows the declining fortunes of the Amberson clan.

Major Amberson had “made a fortune” in 1878, when other people were losing fortunes, and the magnificence of the Ambersons began then. Magnificence, like the size of a fortune, is always comparative, as even Magnificent Lorenzo may now perceive, if he has happened to haunt New York in 1916; and the Ambersons were magnificent in their day and place. Their splendour lasted throughout all the years that saw their Midland town spread and darken into a city, but reached its topmost during the period when every prosperous family with children kept a Newfoundland dog.

The Amberson elders with Eugene

Times moved on and the family fortunes declined as new social movements and new technologies arose. The Ambersons’ decline was symbolised in both novel and film by the arrival and rise of the motor car. The Major’s daughter Isabel was courted by a host of ‘ineligible’ young men. Finally she chose and married Wilbur Minafer,

a steady young man and a good churchgoer . . .

The marriage dashed the hopes of another young romantic, Eugene Morgan, who left town. The Minafer marriage was passionless and Isabel devoted her love and attention to the child George Amberson Minafer. He was bought up a spoilt and arrogant child and young man; one whose behaviours caused many townspeople to wait for his ‘comeuppance’. Meanwhile Eugene returned to town, a widower and with a daughter. He became a pioneer in the new motor-car business and grew wealthy. Young George disliked Eugene and his business but found Eugene’s daughter Lucy very attractive. Minafer suffered from bad investments and died. Eugene renewed his romantic interest in Isabel but George prevented the potential union. Later Lucy turned down George’s proposal of marriage, partly because of his behaviour, partly because of his arrogance.

After Isabel’s death it was discovered that family fortune has evaporated. The great Amberson mansion was sold. George and his Aunt Fanny, who for years has carried a passion for Eugene, were forced into lowly lodgings. George, for the first time in his life, was forced to work in manual labour at Eugene’s factory; ‘comeuppance!’. Then George was injured in an accident and in both versions he is visited in hospital by Eugene, but there are different resolutions in the situation of the characters.

The film of Ambersons was shot at the RKO Studio and around Los Angeles. When production finished Welles had directed a rough cut of approximately 132 minutes. Welles, in characteristic fashion, was already involved in a new film, It’s All True; to be shot in Latin America, mainly Brazil, and a film supporting the US war effort and its ‘Good Neighbour policy’ in Latin America. Welles accepted the full-length Ambersons needed cuts and entrusted this to the editor Robert Wise. After some editing and two previews the film was seen as a likely box office failure. Welles, who had the unusual option of a ‘final cut’ on Citizen Kane, had lost this option after changes in his contract. RKO bosses took over and Wise’s editing finally produced a version running only 88 minutes. There were reshot and additional scenes, [some by Wise, some by Fred Fleck]; moreover the finale of the film was reshot to produce a clear resolution.

Welles was appalled by the cuts and changes in the release version. Film critics and later audiences have tended to see the result as an example of Hollywood ‘commercial butchery’. What remains and what is known of Welles’ original version suggest a film that would have offered an equivalence to Citizen Kane though with a very different tone and some rather different stylistic achievements. The Studio later destroyed the original negatives so that a ‘director’s cut’ was not possible. In the 1970s Welles toyed with the idea of completing the film in some way but nothing came of this. There was a rough cut with sound sent for inspection by Welles as he worked in Brazil. This has never been found, though fresh searches are regularly organised, it remains  a lost ‘holy grail’ rather like Erich von Stroheim’s earlier butchered masterpiece, Greed (1924).

Welles wrote a number of letters and memos suggesting ways of reducing the film’s length; these were mainly ignored. Peter Bogdanovich in ‘This is Orson Welles’ (1993, a series of interviews and supporting materials) provides a lot of detail and extracts. At one point Welles suggested a ‘happy ending’ which differs from that imposed on the film. Bogdanovich also includes records from the preview screenings and it is apparent that the audience responses were not as bad as suggested; a minority of comments were positive. However, there was new studio management, and as with Von Stroheim and M-G-M, there seems to have been a basic antagonism to Welles and his project.

Yet the surviving film is still a fine example of Welles’ film-making. The overall elegiac tone of the film is maintained until the changed ending; Welles reckoned the first sixty minutes were a reasonable approximation of his intent.. Cinematically it has many bravura qualities reminiscent of Citizen Kane. There are great set pieces like a sleigh ride in the snow: an Amberson grandiose entertainment in the impressive mansion: the gloom of the decline as family members die and the fortune melts away: and the settings in the changed circumstances of George and Fanny. As with Kane the sets that Welles required to be designed and constructed are really impressive and innovatory; some of the ceiling effects late in the film are impressive. Many of the craft people are not credited in the film version. This includes the production design by Albert S. Agostino. Mark Lee Kirk gets a credit as Set Designer, which presumably included the Amberson mansion built with moveable walls to allow long tracking shots in the interiors. The cinematography by Stanley Cortez is excellent, there are Welles typical use of chiaroscuro and long takes: fine tracking shots: and the use of blocking and reflections in windows and mirrors.  But Welles found him too slow compared with Gregg Toland who filmed Citizen Kane and he was dismissed before the end of principal cinematography; a couple of personnel worked on late shots uncredited. The sound team are likewise only partially credited though their work is as impressive as the cinematography; both contributing to the powerful ambience created in the Amberson mansion and the later lodging house.  Wise’s editing is good, allowing for the studio imposed cuts: but the latter replaced a lengthy camera movement for the ball sequence with a number of cuts: and there was some more uncredited editing work. There is no music credit though the surviving music is fine: the score was by Bernard Hermann but his music was also cut down by the studio and replaced in places so he had his name removed from the credits.

George watching and watched by Fanny

The cast are very good. Dolores del Rio really achieves Isabel and Tim Holt makes an excellent George. Richard Bennett is the Major and patriarch. Both Joseph Cotten as Eugene and Anne Baxter as Lucy make fine contributions. And there is an outstanding performance from Agnes Moorehead as Fanny; her late scene after the family collapse is memorable. Another Welles regular, Ray Collins, as Isabel’s brother Jack, brings a slightly caustic note in the decline. But dominating the whole film is the narration of Orson Welles. Unseen but with one of the memorable voices in Hollywood cinema, much of the tone of the film is down to this audio aspect.

The parallels between Welles himself and the Tarkington character are found in his childhood and subsequently as an adult film-maker. Ambersons seemed to many a ‘comeuppance’ for this young, thrusting and egoistical artist; this was especially true in the Hollywood studios. Welles never again enjoyed the control he exercised on Citizen Kane or during the actual production of Ambersons. In the 1970s Welles appeared in a lengthy interview on BBC television. At one point he commented,

I always liked Hollywood but they never reciprocated.

One can see this, not just in Ambersons, but in later projects made in Hollywood studios. The best of these was Touch of Evil (1957) but that film was re-cut and changed. Welles produced a long letter setting out how he had envisaged and filmed the original. In 1998 this was the basis for a restored version which approximates to the vision of Welles. But to date material for a likewise restoration of Ambersons is wanting. Charles Higham in his biography comments finally,

some streak of anti commercialism drove him . . .

I t is true that Welles was more interested in art than in commerce but recognising him as an iconoclast [as does Bogdanovich] is better. He was iconoclastic about the studios: about theatre: many features of genre movies: styles of management: and the dominant political discourse. Successful directors in Hollywood needed to love, or at least fit in with, the box-office, Alfred Hitchcock is a prime example. The ironies in the making of Ambersons in many ways parallel the ironies in the Tarkington original novel and in the film itself.

Higham also recognises Welles artistic talents, his biography is sub-titled ‘The rise and fall of an American Genius’; more accurate would be a ‘US genius’, but Welles achievement in theatre, radio and film do stand out in these arts. But he was a wayward genius. His ego interfered with his work with supporting artists. He often did not give due credit where due credit was due. Stanley Cortez was taken off Ambersons because Welles found his work to slow. But the many of the replacement shots after his exit were poorly executed.

Welles and Cortez

And Welles was overly ambitious. He was always juggling a number of artistic projects; often too many even for his talent Thus in the later stages of the Amberson production Welles was involved in producing, scripting and acting in Journey into Fear (1943): He was producing an unfinished segment [Bonito the Bull] for a planned film It’s All True: preparing for his trip to South America for what was eventually the proposed but unfinished film, It’s All True: a CBS radio series The Lady Esther Show: and politically, with the Pacific war beginning, involved with the Roosevelt government in ideas for the war effort and in addition a campaign to save Soviet diplomats in danger from the Nazis. This also was typical of Welles’ career.

Even so, Welles’ career, and this particular film, stand out in the world of film, radio and theatre. The story of the vicissitudes of The Magnificent Ambersons, told many times in various biographies and studies, is a depressing one. Yet the film that remains is still a fine experience and well worth watching many times. It is some years since I saw a screening on 35mm, its original format. However, the digital facsimiles on the BBC should be of good video quality. And the impressive soundtrack of the movie will be good. A flawed Orson Welles film is still a greater experience than much of the alternative product produced in Hollywood.

The RKO Story: Tales from Hollywood is available on the BBC I-Player for a short period; in a slighty different order from the transmission.

  1. Birth of a Titan

The founding of the Studio as sound arrived and its early days and films: only available until May 22nd

  1. Let’s Face the Music and Dance

The 1930s musicals, mainly Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers

  1. A Woman’s Lot

The woman stars, Lucille Ball, Katherine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers

  1. It’s All True

RKO and Orson Welles

  1. Dark Victory

RKO and film noir [including HUAC] and Robert Mitchum

  1. Howard’s Way

Howard Hughes and the studio; and its demise.

Each episode has two classic RKO title accompanying it.

Episode 1 King Kong (1933) and The Thing From Another World (1951)

Episode 2 Bringing Up Baby  (19380 and My Favourite Wife (1940)

Episode 3 Top Hat (1935) and The Gay Divorcee (1934)

Episode 4  Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

Episode 5 Suspicion  (1941) and Angel Face (1953)

Episode 6 Not yet listed but the BBC already screened Hughes’ The Outlaw (1943) between episodes.

‘This Is Orson Welles Orson Welles and Peter Bogdanovich’ (1993) has a detailed breakdown by the editor Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Welles original Ambersons and what remained of this in the studio version.

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