The second film directed by Orson Welles, The Magnificent Ambersons is perhaps better known today for what’s not in it than for what is. While Welles enjoyed complete freedom making his debut film, Citizen Kane, he faced more constraints working on Ambersons, and it was taken away from him and re-edited before he could complete it. What remains is something less than what Welles had intended, but is still fascinating nonetheless.
The Production: 3.5/5
Watching The Magnificent Ambersons through the lens of “what if,” there’s undoubtedly a powerful film buried in there, a film about changing times, of love and loss, of those who cling so hard to what they have that they can’t tell that it’s slipping through their fingers. Though the story is set at the beginning of the 20th century, writer-director Orson Welles is shooting for something bigger than a mere period piece; it’s clear that his intentions are nothing less than examining how a society changes and progresses, and that the specific turn of the century setting is just the canvas that Welles is using to paint a more universal picture. It’s well known that RKO, the studio which had given Welles so much freedom when he made Citizen Kane, yanked this film away from him while it was still being edited. The version that survives today is missing somewhere around forty minutes of material, mostly from the third act. When RKO took over editing the film, they also commissioned a new ending, a happy one which sits oddly at the end of what’s mostly a very downbeat film.
Someone once said that if you take a long film and cut pieces out of it, you don’t wind up with a shorter film; you simply end up with a long film that has holes in it. That description fits The Magnificent Ambersons perfectly. While the film runs for only a brief 88 minutes, those minutes have a way of crawling by. Pacing is wildly uneven, and character development is frequently shortchanged. The film appears more confusing than it actually is as a result of all of the trimming. What does remain is the story of George Amberson Minafer (Tim Holt), the last in a line of Ambersons at the turn of the century, in a time where the family’s wealth and social prominence are fading, in part because the family scoffed at, rather than preparing for, the invention of the automobile and the industrialization of their city. But George still thinks of himself as rich and pampered, doted on by his mother Isabel (Dolores Costello) and Aunt Fanny (Agnes Moorehead). Though George’s father has passed away, George strongly disapproves of his mother’s courtship with Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotton), though George has no issue with courting Eugene’s daughter Lucy (Anne Baxter). George’s arrogance and unjustified sense of superiority ultimately serves to doom what remains of his family to unhappiness… at least, until the RKO-mandated happy ending appears from left field.
While what’s left of The Magnificent Ambersons is somewhat unsatisfying as a dramatic whole, there are still individual moments and sequences which showcase Welles’ signature style. The best of these is a whimsical and witty extended prologue which opens the film, allowing Welles to establish the background for his characters and their city. The montages that comprise this prologue are elegant, cinematically literate and emotionally endearing. If nothing else, The Magnificent Ambersons is worth seeing just for its opening. While the rest of the film is unable to match the exuberance of the opening, individual moments often play better than the cumulative whole.
3D Rating: NA
The Magnificent Ambersons is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1. According to the liner notes, the original camera negative no longer survives; this transfer was sourced from a nitrate fine grain held by the Museum of Modern Art. The picture quality is mostly good, with the occasional short scene or sequence that can appear to drop in quality. The film is general stable and free of dirt and debris; contrast and detail are not always as good as hoped for, but consistent with the look of a transfer not taken from original elements. There are moments that are good enough to rate a 4.5, as well as some moments that might score a 3, but the vast majority is consistently good if unspectacular. None of these quibbles take away from the beauty or intent of Welles’ compositions.
The film’s monaural audio is presented in an uncompressed PCM 1.0 track. Like the video, the audio quality is less than perfect, but more than good enough to complement what’s onscreen. Dialogue is very clear and easy to discern, even in sequences where it is layered or when characters try to talk over each other. There is some occasional hiss, but nothing terribly distracting.
Special Features: 5/5
Audio Commentary by Robert L. Carringer – This commentary has been carried over from the Criterion laserdiscs. It’s very dry and academic, but includes vital information about the cuts made to the film by RKO.
Audio Commentary by James Naremore and Jonathan Rosenbaum – This commentary was newly recorded for the Blu-ray and is an excellent listen; Naremore and Rosenbaum have good chemistry and are able to present a lot of information in a fun fashion.
A Dangerous Nostalgia: Simon Callow on The Magnificent Ambersons (25:58, HD) – A newly recorded interview with Welles’ biographer.
The Cinematographers (15:40, HD) – Francois Thomas analyzes the film’s cinematography, comparing material shot by the credited cinematographer Stanley Cortez with material contributed by additional cinematographers that went uncredited.
Orson Welles and Dick Cavett (36:34, upscaled from SD) – A delightful May 14, 1970 appearance by Orson Welles on The Dick Cavett Show; Jack Lemmon was also a guest on the show that evening and appears throughout.
Joseph McBride on The Magnificent Ambersons (28:54, HD) – The film historian offers background information and analysis on the film. While McBride is frequently dry, he has a wealth of information to offer.
Graceful Symmetries: Welles’s Long Version of The Magnificent Ambersons and Bernard Herrmann’s Score (18:47, HD) Scholar Christopher Husted examines the score by Bernard Herrmann; like the film itself, Herrmann’s score was altered by RKO and Herrmann asked for his credit to be removed from the film.
Pampered Youth (28:05, HD) An extended excerpt from a 1925 silent adaptation of The Magnificent Ambersons. It is presented without any musical accompaniment.
Peter Bogdanovich Interviews (36:00, audio only) – Excerpts from Bogdanovich’s interviews with Welles, which would eventually be used for the book This Is Orson Welles.
AFI Welles Symposium (29:46, audio only) – Excerpts from a 1978 symposium featuring former Mercury Theatre collaborators Richard Wilson, James G. Stewart and Jeanette Nolan.
Seventeen Radio Play (1:00:04, audio only) – Mercury Theatre’s 1938 radio play of Seventeen adapted from a novel by Booth Tarkington, the same author who wrote the novel upon which The Magnificent Ambersons was based.
The Magnificent Ambersons Radio Play (55:42, audio only) – Mercury Theatre’s 1939 radio play of The Magnificent Ambersons.
Trailer (2:06, HD) – Though the trailer survives in less than pristine condition, it does a respectable job of setting up the film.
Booklet – Bound together to resemble an old screenplay, the booklet contains essays from Molly Haskell, Luc Sante, Geoffrey O’Brien, Farran Smith Heme and Jonathan Lethem, as well as an excerpt from Welles’ unfinished memoir.
The Magnificent Ambersons is one of the great “what if” stories in cinema history. While the film had the potential to be another masterpiece from writer-director Orson Welles, the film was taken from his control before he could complete it, and all that survives is RKO’s butchered version. Though the film itself remains a frustrating case of “it is what it is,” Criterion has created a special edition of incredible value, thanks to the inclusion of a large quantity of very high quality bonus material. Criterion has hit a home run with this tremendous release.