THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (Welles, 1942)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Nov 27, 2018
Review by Christopher S. Long
Orson Welles's “The Magnificent Ambersons” (1942) was the original Rocky Balboa. The boy genius's sophomore film suffered a vicious beatdown at the hands of studio executives, absorbing a whirlwind flurry of roundhouse cuts and haymaker reshoots. It lost its first fight but stayed on its feet, staggering and bloodied but stubborn and proud, winning the hearts of the public, becoming the ultimate people's champion, cherished by generations of film lovers as much for what it once was as for what it still is.
As a follow up to his star-making debut with “Citizen Kane” (1941), Welles chose a long-time favorite (relatively long – Welles was still just 26) novel to adapt, Booth Tarkington's Pulitzer-winner “The Magnificent Ambersons” (published in 1918). Welles, born an old man pining for the better days of yore, was drawn to Tarkington's elegiac tale of an allegedly more genteel time now lost, the idyllic rural life of the titular family of landed gentry displaced by the postlapsarian industrial horrors of the early 20th century when quiet towns were doomed to “darken into cities.”
One of Welles's biggest surprises in his second directorial turn was not to cast himself at all (save as a narrator), despite having already portrayed the spoiled scion George Amberson Minafer in a radio adaptation in 1939. Another surprise was to cast B-movie cowboy star Tim Holt in the role instead. Holt is stiff, stilted, and altogether an inspired choice for the last of the “Magnificent” Ambersons, an anachronism ill-suited to his changing times from the day he was born. Just like Welles. Maybe.
The story roughly centers on the inevitable, hard-earned “comeuppance” of the bratty George, who sneers at the very notion of work as uncivilized. But even in the film's severely truncated version (lopped down more than forty minutes from its initial cut) writer/director Welles vividly depicts several generations of Ambersons, from the brooding patriarch (Richard Bennett) to George's devoted mother, Isabel (silent film star Dolores Costello). Several almost-Ambersons play major roles too, especially industrialist Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten) whose newfangled automobile becomes the symbol of everything that's wrong with this fallen world, at least in the eyes of George and some of the Ambersons.
I have left the unforgettable Aunt Fanny for last only because Agnes Moorehead's brilliant performance deserves to be singled out. Deluded, conniving spinster Fanny could have been a one-note shrew, but Moorehead develops the frustrated spinster into one of the film's most complex and sympathetic personalities, and Fanny's scenes with young George spark with a surprising chemistry.
“The Magnificent Ambersons” may not be held up as a paradigm-shifting stylistic landmark like “Citizen Kane,” but Welles's formal ambitions are on full display with the frequent use of long takes, especially in the film's celebrated ballroom sequence (or what's left of it). Welles, working with cinematographer Stanley Cortez (and then Harry J. Wild and then Russell Metty... it was a complicated shoot), experiments both with complex, sinuous camera movements as well as long takes with a relatively stationary camera, but with multiple bodies choreographed in motion. The film offers constantly fresh looks at familiar faces and places (the Amberson mansion is a character in its own right), a quality that has drawn viewers back time and again.
Welles already faced a tall order in trying to live up to the success of “Kane” but after the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred during principal shooting, a whole new set of challenges arose. Welles was enlisted to assist with war propaganda and flew to Brazil to shoot a documentary intended to generate good will in South America. While there, Welles, for a variety of reasons, couldn't supervise post-production on “Ambersons” as closely as he wanted to. And when a 131-minute cut of the film received negative feedback from a preview audience, RKO executives, already nervous that the somber film wouldn't connect with war-time audiences, took control, ripping the guts out of the film and tacking on a hokey upbeat ending in which I swear you can almost see a skeptical Moorehead flipping off the assistant director. As far as we know, the studio simply disposed of the cut scenes altogether, leaving nothing but the current 88-minute version.
What remains of “The Magnificent Ambersons” is remarkable enough, but the whole project resonates even more deeply with viewers enchanted by the dream of the lost vision. The mutilated cut speaks to the faded glory of the pure, noble version now gone forever, just as the Tarkington/Welles story evokes the lost Eden of the Ambersons before all those belching automobiles ruined everything. Bruised and battered in its first fight, “The Magnificent Ambersons” has remained undefeated ever since.
The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. This “new 4K digital restoration” from Criterion is astonishing, with rich black-and-white contrast and impressive image detail throughout. The Ambersons' mansion never looked so exquisite (not in home theaters anyway) and that ballroom sequence, oh my. This is a top-end effort from Criterion with no discernible flaws.
The linear PCM Mono audio isn't dynamic, but it's crisp and distortion-free. Nothing much to discuss here, really, just a solid, professional audio presentation. Optional English SDH subtitles support the English audio.
Criterion may not have been able to unearth the fabled 131-minute cut of “The Magnificent Ambersons,” but they've done their best to compensate by packing this Blu-ray with hours of meaningful extras.
Viewers can choose between two commentary tracks. The first is an import of a 1986 (!!) commentary by Robert L. Carringer. The second is a recent commentary by two of my favorite film critics, James Naremore and Jonathan Rosenbaum, who come to the table with an impressive amount of research regarding Welles's original plans for the film versus the studio's butchering.
The disc also includes two new interviews by prominent Welles scholars. Historian Simon Callow (26 min.), author of a multi-volume biography on Welles, discusses the director's long-term relationship with the “Ambersons” project, from his first radio adaptation of the novel in 1939 to his dubious claim that one of the book's main characters was based on his father. He also talks about how the film's production was impacted by the attack on Pearl Harbor and Welles's subsequent involvement in the war effort. Historian Joseph McBride (29 min.), also a Welles biographer, touches on some of the same issues, but with a different focus.
In a feature titled “The Cinematographers” (15 min.), Welles scholar Francois Thomas combs through detailed documentation to differentiate the scenes shot by the film's multiple cinematographers, including Harry J. Wild, hired by Welles to replace the allegedly slow-working Stanley Cortez, and even a bit by Russell Metty.
Criterion has also included an extensive excerpt from the May 14, 1970 episode of “The Dick Cavett Show” (36 min.) in which Welles, unusually nervous and tentative, holds court, spinning his usual combination of mesmerizing anecdotes and outright fibs. The show's other guest, Jack Lemmon, mostly just watches with amusement.
Bernard Herrmann scholar Christopher Husted (19 min.) reminds us that just as Welles's film was mutilated by the studio honchos, so too was Herrmann's score.
There's still more. The disc includes 36 minutes of audio excerpts from director Peter Bogdanovich's interviews with Welles, naturally those focusing on “Ambersons.” We also get an audio recording from a 1978 AFI Film Symposium called “Working with Welles” (30 min.) which includes several members of the Mercury Theater.
Criterion keeps it coming with two Radio Plays. The first is a warbly audio recording of the Oct 16, 1938 Mercury Theater adaptation of Booth Tarkington's novel “Seventeen” (60 min.) with Welles in a starring role. Second is the Oct 29, 1939 adaptation of “The Magnificent Ambersons” (55 min.) with Welles playing George.
“Pampered Youth” was a 1925 silent-film adaptation of “Ambersons” by director David Smith. This feature is actually a 2-reel re-release in 1931 (28 min.) under the title “Two to One.” It's... not so good.
The collection wraps up with a scratchy Theatrical Trailer (2 min.)
The insert booklet, stapled to look like the draft of a script (yeah, I know, you're supposed to put brads in your script) rather than the usual square-bound booklet, includes essays by writers Molly Haskell, Luc Sante, Geoffrey O'Brien, Farran Smith Nehme, and Jonathan Lethem, as well as essay by Orson Welles about his father.
For everyone who skipped down here: Wow, the original 131-minute cut of “The Magnificent Ambersons”!!! It must be amazing. Too bad Criterion couldn't unearth it. What they've provided us, however, is a luminous high-def transfer of a gorgeous film and several hours of top-notch extras. This is obviously one of the best Blu-ray releases of 2018.