|Wonderful opening narration married to sublime images.|
Among cinephiles, that crazy, obsessed handful of barely human species for whom movies--no, cinema--is all, the career of Orson Welles is a puzzle and a paradox, an oeuvre maddeningly incomplete. Welles' first film, the exquisite and audacious--yet far from perfect--masterpiece, Citizen Kane, has been acknowledged as one of the greatest films of the Twentieth Century. Great and influential as that movie is, however, the remainder of the director's work suffered from interference from studio bosses, Welles' own bad judgement and bad luck. Until 1942, Welles had the best luck of almost any creature to walk the earth--or at least the studio lots of Hollywood. After that and through to his death in 1985, Welles suffered some of the worst luck of those same creatures.
The bad luck began with Welles' second feature at RKO Studios, The Magnificent Ambersons, a film that may be his most personal. Evidently, Ambersons' author Booth Tarkington knew, or at least had met Orson's inventor father, Richard Welles, and Orson, for the rest of his life, insisted the character of Eugene Morgan (played by Joseph Cotton in the film), whose invention and design of the automobile brings about the death of the Nineteenth Century in a small Indiana town, was based on his own father. Whether true or not, the important thing is that Welles believed it.
Welles' own life paralleled the story's main character, George Amberson Minafer (Tim Holt). Welles' first name was George, and he was called Georgie by his mother just as Isabel Minafer (Dolores Costello), George's mother, refers to him in the film. Like George, Welles was spoiled as a child and dreaded by his fellow classmates in school, much as Ambersons protagonist is despised by the townsfolk who cannot wait for the rich, spoiled brat to get his comeuppance. It is these comparisons that may have prevented Welles from taking on the role of George, a part he clearly understood but which may have been too close to him personally. Ambersons was the only production of Mercury Productions in which Welles would not play a substantial part.
A little backstory: Orson Welles' Citizen Kane opened in May 1941 to critical acclaim and public indifference. RKO Studios, which had courted Welles, wanted his second feature to be more commercial and less controversial. Welles was happy to give the studio masterworks, but they would not bring RKO what it craved more than artistic respect--financial solvency (RKO was a company seemingly always on the brink of monetary ruin). Kane wasn't particularly costly (final cost was $800,000), but considering all the hoopla and controversy the film caused related to its subject, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, RKO was hoping it would see a substantial profit from its investment. That did not come to pass. Consequently, with his second feature Welles was pressured by the studio boss, George Schaefer, to agree to film a more acceptable subject. RKO's agreement with the filmmaker did not include the all-important right to final cut, a clause that served as the agreement's most significant change as well as the single biggest factor in Welles' trouble with the studio's management during The Magnificent Ambersons’ production.
|Welles with his photographer, Stanley Cortez.|
The film's theme--the reason Welles was so drawn to the material--was that of progress squashing, stomping, and rolling over a more tranquil, slower, more civilized period of American history. The film lays out its intention from the opening scene with narrator Welles immediately establishing the film as a nostalgia piece: " The magnificence of the Ambersons began in 1873..." Welles once said that he was against his modern age, that progress could be taken as not progress at all, but a step back in civilization, which is precisely what Ambersons sets out to prove. Using the automobile as a device of destruction, Welles' shows how its invention brutally left behind the Nineteenth Century with its traditions of fancy dress balls, sleigh rides, and serenades. The Ambersons serve an illustration of the Nineteenth Century denizens who paid the price for progress.
The Magnificent Ambersons deals with the personal relationships of six main characters: Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotton), a widower, whose love for Isabel Amberson (Dolores Costello) sets the plot in motion. Early in the story, Iabel jilts Eugene and marries Wilbur Minafer whose only child, the spoiled George (Tim Holt), is a catalyst for the family's downfall. George's adverse reaction to Eugene's attentions to his mother after Wilbur dies that is the heart of the story. George's Aunt Fanny (Agnes Moorehead), Wilbur's spinster sister, also longs for Eugene. Lastly, there is Lucy (Anne Baxter) Eugene's only child, who George loves but cannot have him, and Jack Amberson (Ray Collins), Isabel's older brother and the most likable person in the film (and my favorite).
|My favorite scene in Magnificent Ambersons : Jack's goodbye to George in the new train station|
Filming on Ambersons began in late October 1941, some five months after Citizen Kane's premiere, and lasted three months, wrapping in late January 1942. (By this time Welles had been approached by the U.S.State Department and Nelson Rockefeller to film Carnival in Brazil as part of an effort to boost friendly relations with South America as part of the United States' Good Neighbor Policy. After the United States had joined World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, South America was seen as a country particularly vulnerable to Nazi take over.) World War II proved a significant factor in RKO's decision making once filming on Ambersons was completed and unsuccessful previews were under way.
Filming began with high hopes and spirits soaring. Yet, according to Robert L. Carringer's definitive study on the film, The Magnificent Ambersons: A Reconstruction, as the filming of the scenes related to George's decidedly Oedipal relationship with his mother approached, Welles grew "increasingly moody and irritable." Welles had an intense relationship with his mother before she died when he was nine. It was at this moment that Nelson Rockefeller approached RKO and Welles with the South America project. According to Carringer, Welles accepted enthusiastically, both for the project and to distance himself from Ambersons. In February 1942, Welles headed down to Rio. While he was in South America, Orson Welles' luck took a permanent turn for the worse.
|Orson rides again!|
According to Welles, RKO was "to send a moviola (a machine used to edit film) and cutters (editors) to Rio. Never happened." Welles was in communication with his chief cutter, Robert Wise, who he had also worked with on Citizen Kane. Along with Jack Moss, Welles business manager, Wise was essentially given control of the film with Orson, of course, dictating his instructions via telegraph and sketchy phone connections. Eyeing an Easter opening in April, RKO decided to have hold a preview for the film in Pomona, California, an agricultural town east of Los Angeles in the San Bernardino Valley, on March 17, 1942. Ambersons running time for that preview was 131 minutes. The main feature playing that night was a musical called The Fleet's In starring Dorothy Lamour, Betty Hutton, Eddie Bracken, and William Holden. The audience seems to have been made up mostly of youngsters seeking a good time, and they enjoyed the main feature. Then came Ambersons, which the audience nearly jeered Ambersons off the screen with walkouts aplenty. The preview cards the patrons filled out only confirmed the worst for Schaefer and the New York money men: Welles' brooding, complex, film was not what the good people of Pomona--or possibly anyone, anywhere--had bargained for. "More Chekhov than Tarkington," as Joseph Cotton wrote in a memo to Welles. Did Welles know what he had? Not being present to gauge the previews certainly didn't help matters. The next day RKO's executives were planning ways to cut the film to a more reasonable length, with whole scenes and character motivations left on the cutting room floor. Another preview was held in more hospitable Pasadena, California. The film was shorter--roughly 117 minutes, per studio documents--with cuts instructed by Welles when informed of the Pomona disaster.
|Eugene and Isabel dance in the Ambersons mansion|
RKO figured that with so much being cut extensive retakes would be needed. With Welles still in South America, editor Wise and assistant director Freddie Fleck re-shot some scenes mostly for the second half of the film. Additionally, previews were held in Inglewood, Pasadena, and Long Beach in April and May to a better, though still muted, response. At least we put "together a version that people would sit through and not walk out on," was the mindset of Wise, Fleck, Welles business manager Jack Moss, and others. The powers at RKO decided that it had the best version and released The Magnificent Ambersons in July 1942, playing on a double bill with a concoction named Mexican Spitfire Has a Baby.
Orson Welles' fans often speak of The Magnificent Ambersons with reverence or solemness. With bravura direction, Welles reached a level of maturity, and, at times, a subtlety beyond his 26 years. Ambersons is nearly an old man's film, which is something I like best about the film. The film has sentimentality in the best sense of the word, for Welles was one of cinema's poets of lost worlds and past regrets in a society waiting for no one. As with his other, best known films, Welles presents Ambersons starkly, with truth and honest human emotion that downplay the gooey aspects that many directors cannot avoid, conveying a power and force that is often surprising.
|Welles, on set with Tim Holt|
The fate that befell Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons was as sad as the fate that befell its titular family. The story of a proud family teetering on the precipice of disaster was a prelude to the rest of Welles' life both professional and personal. If in 1942 Orson Welles was American cinema's Napoleon trying to conquer every aspect of theatricals, whether that be stage, motion pictures, or radio, then The Magnificent Ambersons was his Waterloo.
Books: The Magnifient Ambersons: A Reconstruction by Robert L. Carringer
The Great Movies by William Bayer
This Is Orson Welles by Orson Welles and Peter Bogdanovich, edited by Jonathan Rosenbaum
Orson Welles, Volume Two: Hello Americans by Simon Callow
Photos: Web images