Criterion’s new disc release is simply magnificent. 5 Stars

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 Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
Released: 10 Jul 1942
Rated: NOT RATED
Runtime: 88 min
Director: Orson Welles, Fred Fleck, Robert Wise
Genre: Drama, Romance
Cast: Joseph Cotten, Dolores Costello, Anne Baxter, Tim Holt
Writer(s): Booth Tarkington (from the novel by), Orson Welles (script writer)
Plot: The spoiled young heir to the decaying Amberson fortune comes between his widowed mother and the man she has always loved.
IMDB rating: 7.9
MetaScore: 93

Disc Information
Studio: Criterion
Distributed By: N/A
Video Resolution: 1080P/AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1
Audio: English PCM 1.0 (Mono)
Subtitles: English SDH
Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 1 Hr. 28 Min.
Package Includes: Blu-ray
Case Type: Dikipak
Disc Type: BD50 (dual layer)
Region: A
Release Date: 11/27/2018
MSRP: $39.95

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.

Video: 4/5

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.

Audio: 4/5

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.

Overall: 5/5

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.

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Josh Steinberg

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Brent Reid

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Nice review, Josh. Pampered Youth (1925) was the first adaptation of Booth Tarkington's novel and like its successor, originally an exceptional film. Also like Welles' film, it now only survives in its truncated version, having been butchered by more than half for a 1927 reissue.

It's such a pity that Criterion, rather than porting over the 28-minute silent excerpt from their Ambersons LaserDisc. didn't transfer the entire remaining 33 minutes and give it a simple piano score, especially as no one else looks likely to do so.
 

JoeDoakes

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Wow. Personally, I would suggest that you rewatch this several more times. Ambersons was regularly rated as one of the best films ever even in this cut. I think every bit of it is beautiful. Maybe it’s not exactly what Welles intended, but tbe Venus de milo was butchered too.
 

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Wow. Personally, I would suggest that you rewatch this several more times. Ambersons was regularly rated as one of the best films ever even in this cut. I think every bit of it is beautiful. Maybe it’s not exactly what Welles intended, but tbe Venus de milo was butchered too.
Hhmm...I am not so certain of this. I love Welles but in its surviving form this is not one of his better pictures. Yes, like you I love watching this film and there is plenty that is good in it...where you obviously see and feel Orson's fingers at work...but the ending is utter rubbish and does not fit the film as Josh states. I agree with Josh that it is a frustrating watch. Successive viewings I think just make me long to see Orson's version and makes this...at least to me...one of his least enjoyable films to sit through. I mean I love parts of it. I love seeing what he did and thinking about where he was trying to go with this but each time I reach the end of this film I feel like I want to smash something.

I love the film for Welles' work on it, this Criterion disc is a must have, and this film is, as a piece of film history, both influential and a must watch...but one of the best films ever? In this 88 minute intentional destruction of what Orson set out to do?

No, I would not call it one of the best films ever by a long shot. Could it have been if they let Welles finish it his way? Maybe, it definitely would be pretty damn compelling. As it is now though it is basically mighty Casey striking out. Compelling as an idea, as a what if, where you begin watching it excited but end deflated. This film is a legend but like a lot of legends it is better as a legend than as a reality.
 
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Josh Steinberg

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Wow. Personally, I would suggest that you rewatch this several more times. Ambersons was regularly rated as one of the best films ever even in this cut. I think every bit of it is beautiful. Maybe it’s not exactly what Welles intended, but tbe Venus de milo was butchered too.
I mean, I gave the disc a 5 out of 5 and I’m basically saying it’s a perfect release of an imperfect but important film...

For what it’s worth, not only had I seen the film prior to this disc release, but I watched the film at least three times while working on the review. I’m sorry we don’t agree on the film overall but I appreciate your feedback.
 

Robert Crawford

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In defense of Josh, I'm not as enthralled on "The Magnificent Ambersons" as I am with other great films. It's a flawed movie in my opinion, some of it is due to the cuts, but not all of it.
 

Robert Crawford

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Hhmm...I am not so certain of this. I love Welles but in its surviving form this is not one of his better pictures. Yes, like you I love watching this film and there is plenty that is good in it...where you obviously see and feel Orson's fingers at work...but the ending is utter rubbish and does not fit the film as Josh states. I agree with Josh that it is frustrating watch. Successive viewings I think just make me long to see Orson's version and makes this...at least to me...one of his least enjoyable films to sit through. I mean I love parts of it. I love seeing what he did and thinking about where he was trying to go with this but each time I reach the end of this film I feel like I want to smash something.

I love the film for Welles' work on it, this Criterion disc is a must have, and this film is, as a piece of film history, both influential and a must watch...but one of the best film's ever? In this 88 minute intentional destruction of what Orson set out to do?

No, I would not call it one of the best films ever by a long shot. Could it have been if they let Welles finish it his way? Maybe, it definitely would be pretty damn compelling. As it is now though it is basically mighty Casey striking out. Compelling as an idea, as a what if, where you begin watching it excited but end deflated. This film is a legend but like a lot of legends it is better as a legend than as a reality.
I can't dispute much of what you stated above.
 

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I have had the TV remake sitting on the shelf for years and never watched it. It purports to be much closer to Welles vision. Is it worth a look or the utter piece of crap I fear it may be?
 
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PMF

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I was very surprised by Josh's production score of 3.5; but, then again, "Ambersons" was never an across-the-boards fare of favor.
And this is the beauty of film and of our own personal takes, tastes and truths; for be it pro or con, the film itself will never change. But gosh darn it, I'll bet everyone across-the-boards will be in favor of those "Magnificent" Special Features; which, in and of itself, is worth the entire price of admission. No fillers, no additives and all meat.

BTW, Josh, excellent review !!!
 
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Robert Crawford

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I was very surprised by Josh's production score of 3.5; but, then again, "Ambersons" was never an across-the-boards fare of favor.
And this is the beauty of film and of our own personal takes, tastes and truths; for be it pro or con, the film itself will never change. But gosh darn it, I'll bet everyone across-the-boards will be in favor of those "Magnificent" Special Features; which, in and of itself, is worth the entire price of admission. No fillers, no additives and all meat.

BTW, Josh, excellent review !!!
I'm not going to speak for Josh and his 3.5 grade, but even though, I have some reservations about the film itself. I still think it's a great movie with some superb film-making techniques.
 

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I'm not going to speak for Josh and his 3.5 grade, but even though, I have some reservations about the film itself. I still think it's a great movie with some superb film-making techniques.
I agree.

I have to be honest and say that assigning a numerical value to a film is something I find very difficult to do. I always hope that more attention might be paid to the paragraph below the number than the number itself.

Ambersons was tricky for me to pick a number on the film itself. The overall package rating was much simpler - it’s a 5/5. The physical design of the packaging is beautiful. The selections of vintage bonus material are enlightening. (And Welles on the Dick Cavett show is as fun as you’d expect.) The newly created bonuses add a tremendous amount of context and wisdom. It’s one of their best special editions ever, I think. So that’s easy.

And there’s stuff in the movie I love. That prologue with the Welles narration, I could watch that as it’s own short any day of the week. There are some great performances. I love the cinematography. It’s a downbeat film but I’ve loved plenty of downers. It just feels uneven to me. The deletions rob the film of context and character, and it can make some of the stuff that does remain seeming out of place without that extra material.

That’s what becomes tough - is a movie that has 5/5 scenes truly a 5/5 if those scenes aren’t assembled correctly in relation to each other? The movie had infinite potential - but what’s there in the final cut falls short of that potential to me. So whether that’s 3.5 or 4 or 5... I think we’re all going to feel a little bit differently about how much that matters to us. It even varies with me from film to film. Some movies I admire and enjoy despite the fact that they missed the mark and maybe even because they tried so hard, and other times I can acknowledge the effort and not be as enthralled with the falling short part.

If Citizen Kane is a 5/5, Ambersons-as-it-is at 3.5 feels about right to me, inasmuch as a totally subjective, arbitrary numbering system can feel right.

I still think this disc is one of the must-get titles of 2018.

:)
 

Robert Crawford

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I agree.

I have to be honest and say that assigning a numerical value to a film is something I find very difficult to do. I always hope that more attention might be paid to the paragraph below the number than the number itself.

Ambersons was tricky for me to pick a number on the film itself. The overall package rating was much simpler - it’s a 5/5. The physical design of the packaging is beautiful. The selections of vintage bonus material are enlightening. (And Welles on the Dick Cavett show is as fun as you’d expect.) The newly created bonuses add a tremendous amount of context and wisdom. It’s one of their best special editions ever, I think. So that’s easy.

And there’s stuff in the movie I love. That prologue with the Welles narration, I could watch that as it’s own short any day of the week. There are some great performances. I love the cinematography. It’s a downbeat film but I’ve loved plenty of downers. It just feels uneven to me. The deletions rob the film of context and character, and it can make some of the stuff that does remain seeming out of place without that extra material.

That’s what becomes tough - is a movie that has 5/5 scenes truly a 5/5 if those scenes aren’t assembled correctly in relation to each other? The movie had infinite potential - but what’s there in the final cut falls short of that potential to me. So whether that’s 3.5 or 4 or 5... I think we’re all going to feel a little bit differently about how much that matters to us. It even varies with me from film to film. Some movies I admire and enjoy despite the fact that they missed the mark and maybe even because they tried so hard, and other times I can acknowledge the effort and not be as enthralled with the falling short part.

If Citizen Kane is a 5/5, Ambersons-as-it-is at 3.5 feels about right to me, inasmuch as a totally subjective, arbitrary numbering system can feel right.

I still think this disc is one of the must-get titles of 2018.

:)
Frankly, I pay little attention to film grades in disc reviews, particularly, to those films I've seen beforehand.
 

PMF

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[...]The selections of vintage bonus material are enlightening. (And Welles on the Dick Cavett show is as fun as you’d expect.)[...]
My first introduction to Orson Welles was as a teenager during the period where he seemed like an often accessible guest on television talk shows. I knew nothing of his history and hadn't seen a single one of his films at that time; and still, I found him to be captivating and intriguing. And then, in a catalogue of old radio shows I plucked out "War of the Worlds"; and from there I was off and running.
 
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Scott Merryfield

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My first introduction to Orson Welles was as a teenager during the period where he seemed like an often accessible guest on television talk shows. I knew nothing of his history and hadn't seen a single one of his films at that time; and still, I found him to be captivating and intriguing. And then, in a catalogue of old radio shows I plucked out "War of the Worlds"; and from there I was off and running.
The first time I remember seeing Orson Welles was him doing one of those Paul Masson wine commercials.

 

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My first introduction to Orson Welles was as a teenager during the period where he seemed like an often accessible guest on television talk shows. I knew nothing of his history and hadn't seen a single one of his films at that time; and still, I found him to be captivating and intriguing. And then, in a catalogue of old radio shows I plucked out "War of the Worlds"; and from there I was off and running.
It seemed Welles had Carte Blanche to appear on Merv Griffin's talk show. I would sometimes anticipate a certain guest only to have the "raconteur" show up for an entire show. I remember being disappointed one time when he appeared that the scheduled guest was bumped. Even though, he came across as arrogant and pompous I would watch transfixed as he told stories (sometimes with different endings etc than the first three times he had told the same story;) ).

When they showed the the TV movie "The Night That Panicked America" (about TWoW radio show) my relatives who were watching it said "That's the night we decided to listen to Edgar Bergen (papa of Murphy Brown et al)"...

Everyone who loved films who had any knowledge of the them called Citizen Kane the GOAT. When I finally saw it I totally disagreed. And as I have started watching earlier (especially "European") film makers, I am seeing where some of his "original" ideas came from. CK IS a masterpiece - but it is not my favorite of Welle's films.

MA and The Stranger are far better IMHO. Apparently Welles went to South America with an Answer Print of MA and had intended to give Robert Wise his cutting notes. For whatever reason (including CK's relative boxoffice failure and the poor reception the original cut of MA) his wishes weren't followed. I'm sure if Welles had had the chance MA would have come out better. But MA is what we have now ... unless the Answer Print or another source is found... MA is still a masterpiece IMHO ...
 

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No disrespect to "The Magnificent Ambersons", but I disagree that it's a better film than "Citizen Kane". Perhaps my opinion is different because I watched "Citizen Kane" a 2-3 times in my youth back in the late 1960's while I didn't see "The Magnificent Ambersons" until I was a young adult later on in the mid-1970's One reason, I didn't like Tim Holt in his role. The cuts made in the film also didn't help my appreciation of it. Today, I think more highly of it knowing more details about the film and more acceptance of Tim Holt's performance in the film, but it's still not as good as "Citizen Kane". I do agree that "The Stranger" is a really good film that I've loved for over 50 years which I would watch over "The Magnificent Ambersons". Two more Welles films that I prefer are "Touch of Evil" and "The Lady from Shanghai".
 
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