Blu-ray Review: The Magnificent Ambersons | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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The Magnificent Ambersons

Studio: The Criterion Collection

Dec 12, 2018 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Orson Welles’ second film as a director, The Magnificent Ambersons, is the patron saint of missed opportunities while also potentially the catalyst for the rest of his idiosyncratic and fascinating career. It is also a perfect entry to the Criterion Collection.

The story is one of downfall in the face of progress. The Ambersons, an austere family of means and titans of their small town, are slowly losing their grip on their wealth and status. Technology, specifically the dawning of the automobile, represents a shift in society and the family appears unable or unwilling to adapt appropriately. From the narration early on, it’s obvious that the Ambersons are of a bygone aristocratic era, and that things will never be the same.

The narrative arc focuses on George Minafer (Tim Holt), the youngest of the Amberson clan. His mother Isabel (Dolores Costello) married out of the family. As a child, George is presented as an absolute terror acting full of entitlement because he comes from rich blood. He’s not ignorant of the silver spoon in his mouth, he’s proud of it. And perhaps it all could have turned out differently. One of Isabel’s suitors when she was young, Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten), made a fool of himself in an attempted serenade and she moved on. Later, as George returns home from college even more aggravating than before, so too does Eugene re-enter the lives of the Ambersons. Just as Isabel had George, Eugene likewise had a family. Though a widower, he brings daughter Lucy (Anne Baxter) to what is foreshadowed by the narrator to be the last great Amberson ball.

The narrative moves toward a reuniting of Isabel and Eugene, and speeds in that direction when her husband takes sick and eventually dies. George, who doesn’t like anyone but himself or his mother (a boy’s best friend is his mother), takes aim to prevent this from happening. It’s depicted as his own disapproval of Eugene, believing him being from a lower caste and also thinking his work in the automobile industry to be both a waste of time and a moral mistake. Something that isn’t entirely touched on, but may be subtly implied, is George’s dawning awareness that his mother and Eugene very nearly were an item, and had that alternate history occurred he wouldn’t exist, which serves as an added motivation for his dislike of Isabel’s new/old suitor.

So, what’s the problem? The Magnificent Ambersons is famously chopped to bits. At 88 minutes, it feels at least a half hour short based on the wide-reaching story of generational downfall and failure to adapt that it’s trying to tell. After shooting was finished, Welles left for South America to make It’s All True, which never saw the light of day in its full form, either. While he was gone, RKO re-cut the movie and shot a new, more hopeful ending and tossed the rest of the footage into the sea. Whereas Netflix was able to cobble together the scraps of footage to release The Other Side of the Wind this year, and Criterion did a similar thing with The Complete Mr. Arkadin, there appears to be no lost, untouched copy of Welles’ version of The Magnificent Ambersons.

It’s doubly maddening because you can nearly see that final copy between the seams of what is on screen. Stanley Cortez served as primary cinematographer (a wonderful supplement breaking down who likely shot which scenes is a helpful resource) and his contributions breathe an exhilarating life into what, on paper, may seem like a stuffy chamber drama. Three moments best characterize how beautiful The Magnificent Ambersons is. The ball scene, which was supposedly much longer, features an active camera that moves throughout the massive hall, following the characters as they interact. Another sequence has people on different levels of the main staircase and the camera follows them as they speak to one another. The final one, is when a distraught Aunt Fanny (Agnes Moorehead) is led away from the cold boiler by George late in the film.

And that is why, as a singular film separate from the context that befell it, The Magnificent Ambersons is an infuriating film. Like Citizen Kane before it, this movie could have been a game changer and set the table for films of its ilk for decades to come. It has been superbly influential, but I wonder if that has been at least partially muted. It’s also why it’s the ideal Criterion release. The extras dive deep into the history of the film and what caused it to go off the rails. Interviews with film historians discuss how the prevalence of World War II may have caused audiences to recoil in test screenings due to its downbeat nature in a time of duress. Meanwhile, film critic Molly Haskell offers a defense of the film as is in an excellent essay in the accompanying booklet (made to look like Welles’ screenplay), suggesting that many of the scenes cut from the original version wouldn’t have made things better if they were, in fact, restored.

There are a pair of audio commentaries, radio performances from Welles’ Mercury Theatre, and a multitude of other curiosities breathing further life into the film as a historical artifact. The Magnificent Ambersons may not coalesce into a fully-realized masterwork, though many of the pieces are there, but it doesn’t need to be when it appropriately becomes about far more than its narrative.



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