The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

*. A great movie, but hard to talk about for a couple of reasons. In the first place there’s the mountain range of stuff that’s already been said, which is pretty much everything by now as it’s been picked apart frame by frame. And second because of its status as cinema’s great lost masterpiece, unlikely now to ever be reconstituted.
*. What we have is a bowdlerized fragment, slapped together after RKO panicked when it didn’t play well in Pomonoa and Welles was (stuck?) partying down in Brazil. Apparently the working print was 132 minutes, but Welles had already cut 22 minutes from that for the Pomona screening. Still more was then cut and the ending was entirely reshot (along with some other scenes), for a final running time of 88 minutes.
*. So it’s not the movie Welles made. One question then is how good that movie, which we don’t have, originally was. We can only speculate. Welles thought the final edits (directed by Robert Wise) were done with a lawnmower, and that before the cuts and reshoots it was a better film than Citizen Kane. I think that’s unlikely, but not impossible, which is rating what’s left very highly indeed since I was never one to argue with Citizen Kane‘s perch atop the list of greatest movies ever made (and I would certainly argue, strongly, against Vertigo knocking it off).

*. From what we can reconstruct of the (or an) original version I think it would have been terrific. In particular, the problem of the terrible ending of Tarkington’s novel had been mostly solved, taking the story in a “darker, harder dimension” (Welles) not in the novel. But the reshot version not only took away this ending but made its most egregious substitution in the final scene. More than that, however, there is the loss of any sense of rhythm, pace, or shape to the story, especially in the more mangled second half. The tragedy of the Ambersons is a slowly developing photograph, but that’s not how it plays here.
*. That said, it’s worth nothing that Robert Carringer (the authority on this subject) says that according to everyone he talked to who had seen it the film was unplayable in its original form. I’m not sure why. I also don’t understand the frequent line about how it wasn’t a film for the public taste during wartime (Pearl Harbor was attacked just as they were finishing up filming). Why not? This seems reductive reasoning.
*. I say the tragedy of the Ambersons more than just the story of George’s comeuppance. One of the great strengths of the story is how the tragedy is that of several families, all inextricably bound up in each other. George, Isabel, Eugene, Fanny, even the old Major. Aren’t they all tragic figures?
*. And aren’t the greatest tragedies about the destruction of a family, or families, more than that of a single tragic hero? I’d say that’s true from the Oresteia through Hamlet up to such famous American tragedies as Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Death of a Salesman, and The Glass Menagerie. A hero’s downfall may be unfortunate, but a whole family is a tragedy.
*. Saying it’s an ensemble tragedy also gets us away from talking about George. According to the DVD commentators on the Criterion release George is a big problem audiences have always had with the movie, due to his being so unlikeable. If I could, however, I’d like to say a few words in his defence.
*. Yes, Georgie is a snob and a mama’s boy, but that’s the way he was raised. Does he ruin his mother’s chance for a loving relationship with Eugene? Well, isn’t she a bit (or a lot) to blame for that? And why is Eugene so firm that George should have a profession? Why should he have a profession if he doesn’t need one, as he clearly doesn’t seem to. Meanwhile, the adults in his family are all pretty much stupid and useless. Aside from the Major none of them seem to be capable of doing anything, and they are the ones in the positions of most responsibility.

*. And is George such a snob, strictly speaking? He doesn’t disapprove of Eugene because of his social rank. After all, he wants to marry his daughter. He seems more upset about his mother loving anyone but himself.
*. I also think George is redeemed quite a bit at the end. He shows character in adversity. He even accepts responsibility for Fanny, which I didn’t see as necessary, and becomes “the most practical young man I ever met” in the eyes of someone who should have been one of those most looking forward to his comeuppance. Though clearly George isn’t that practical in his choice of profession. He’s never learned practicality.
*. On the same subject of how we see poor Georgie, isn’t it unfair that his Oedipal syndrome is played up so much when nothing much is said about Lucy as Electra? Yes, George throws a monkey wrench in his mother’s affair with Eugene, but Eugene has already exercised a veto on Lucy marrying George. So he can keep her all to himself? That’s not very nice.
*. Yes, I admire the facility Welles had with a long take. And it’s a shame that what he considered the best of them, the ball scene, was cut here. But there are other places where I found myself wondering why he wasn’t mixing shots up a bit more. Why bother playing the scene with George eating the shortcake with Fanny as a fixed-camera long take? It seems dull and inexpressive to me.
*. The photography, mostly by Stanley Cortez, is a marvel. I’d forgotten just how dark a movie this is. The number of shots where pools like ink or curtains of black velvet overwhelm the field is really noticeable. A few of the better known examples:

*. Of course this darkness has thematic content as well, representing the growing gloom that is overtaking the Amberson family, swallowing like that closing iris on the motor vehicle. Apparently the film’s final shot was going to be another shot of a vehicle riding off into the darkness as well. Another part of that “darker, harder dimension” Welles wanted to evoke.
*. It’s a critical commonplace that Ambersons was Welles’s own swan song, or Waterloo. I’ve never entirely understood why Hollywood had it in for Welles. Too young to have so much talent? But the movie biz has always loved its wunderkinder. Spielberg and Coppola weren’t hated. But something about Orson set them off. Talent is less tolerable than success.
*. There’s no denying it’s a movie that was wrecked through editing and reshooting. But still there’s something so suggestive in what remains, from the stills of lost footage to the scraps of drawings and script that were never shot. We all carry in our heads versions of movies we never really saw, memory doing its own editing job. The Ambersons Welles made will never be found, but what’s left is a magnificent ghost that’s been haunting me since the first time I saw it. Does the imagination dwell the most on a movie seen or a movie lost? It’s not a movie I go back and rewatch very often, but I think about it a lot.

6 thoughts on “The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

  1. tensecondsfromnow

    And yet it’s hard to get away from George’s come-uppance, or lack of it, as one of the most haunting and effective moments in cinema, a lyrical, poetic moment that’s worth the entire movie. Like you, I think of this almost every day. As a piece of wreckage, it’s got more going for it that most masterpieces, even in abbreviated form…

    1. Alex Good

      The more I watch this movie the more sympathetic I am to George. He really comes off well in the end, I think. Whereas Eugene and Fanny become more insufferable as success and failure have their way with them. It is a beautiful movie though, and haunted by what it might have been.


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