The Magnificent Ambersons, the Second Welles’ Masterpiece

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Prologue: The Devil is in the details. It all began with the signing of the new contract by Orson Welles with RKO. With Kane came unprecedented freedoms and choices for Welles, the new agreement gave cast and script approval along with the final cut to RKO for The Magnificent Ambersons. In return Welles would receive the opportunity to regain his unique and unheard of contractual stipulations, for any future projects, if Ambersons and Journey into Fear (for the last half of The Magnificent Ambersons shooting schedule, Welles was directing Ambersons by day performing in Journey into Fear, by night) were financially successful.[i]  According to Ross Hastings (RKO legal counsel) in his missive[ii] to RKO President George Schaefer dated March 19th, 1942, once Ambersons was out of the first preview the film went to the control of the studio.

On to the film! Friday, July 10th, 1942 was a special day, the day that Orson Welles’ second film was released. Even though The Magnificent Ambersons was drastically truncated by RKO, yet it is regarded as a top-notch film, some saying as good as Citizen Kane, a few have said it is better than Kane, with a long catalog of critics listing the movie as one of the best ever made. For me, Ambersons is so close to being as good as Kane and in some areas better than Kane, that it becomes a simple matter of film-preference.

This is a beautiful movie, every component of production working harmoniously bringing about a powerful, bleak view of human effort and progress. The Magnificent Ambersons is story of what all of us goes through, yearning for the past, a tale of loss, of what could have been; a stark reminder of how quickly time, can pass us by and leave us in the lurch. This other masterpiece by Welles is a dark, foreboding, nearly hopeless cautionary narrative…

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And now to the crux of the matter. But the question must be asked, how can we anoint Ambersons as one of the greatest films in moving-picture history, while it is not the final vision of its director, being nowhere close to what Orson Wells had in his mind? His film came in at over 130 minutes the final RKO version at 88. The ending reshot, the editing completed with him out of the country, how can we give accolades to such a project? Because regardless of how or who finished The Magnificent Ambersons, it is a fantastic effort on all fronts! And has all of the traits and trappings we know as Wellesian. In this short post I intend to make the argument that Ambersons is magnificent because it was edited.

October 28th, 1941 through January 22nd, 1942, saw Welles and crew working hard and furious at RKO’s Gower Street studios in Los Angeles, California. Joseph Cotton had the role of Eugene Morgan, Dolores Costello appeared as Isabel Amberson-Minafer, Anne Baxter took the part of Lucy Morgan, Tim Holt as Georgie, Agnes Moorehead as Fanny Amberson, Richard Bennett as the patriarch Major Amberson with Ray Collins as Jack Amberson and let us not forget the familiar and eloquent voice of Orson Welles as our narrator. Stanley Cortez was Amberson’s photographer, Albert S. D’Agostino took care of the production and art design, Darrell Silvera set decoration, Bernard Herrmann (uncredited by his own wish) composed the music and also Roy Webb contributed about 6 minutes of the film’s score.  Robert Wise performed the duties of editor as he had on Kane, along with his trusty assistant Mark Robson.

In my humble opinion (and please pardon the forthcoming pun) Wise made some wise choices in editing and indeed (although my estimation is un-provable) may have made Ambersons better still than what Orson Welles’ preparations had initially intended. I have always felt an outsider with this point of view about Ambersons but a small bit of vindication came my way with the script restoration by Robert L. Carringer;[iii] so, now my view-point is no longer “out on the limb” nor unique in any way, just another opinion open for derision or plaudit, as the reader sees fit.

Ambersonian minutia. With principal filming accomplished and director Welles already in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for his next project, Wise and Robson worked around the clock, editing, transposing and replacing scene after scene, trying to make Ambersons a concise picture and more easily understood.[iv]  Throughout the preview and editing process Wise communicated with Welles, updating him to specific and overall audience response. A reconstruction of script, of directions for editing from Welles to Wise, comment cards from the preview audience may serve to whet our appetites for the Wellesian adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, but unfortunately that information will never bring Mr. Welles original dream to us, unless the copy of Ambersons that was sent to Welles in Brazil shows (much like Metropolis did) up unexpectedly.

Orson Welles’ ideal closing for Ambersons (according to all available sources) was a somber, melancholy affair, unlike Booth Tarkington’s novel which finished with hopeful reconciliation achieved in one sentence. The finale for Ambersons was reshot using the heart of Tarkington’s description, with Mr. Morgan at the hospital visiting Georgie (excepting that his recitation of his call on Gerogie is spoken to Fanny), it plays just as the novel. Whereas, Welles’ wanted to finish with Morgan’s recounting of his time with Georgie, to Fanny at the boarding-house. This is Orson Welles’ largest complaint with regards to the editing, the cutting out his ending and re-shooting a new one. Even taking in to account Peter Bogdanovich’s interview with Welles that Welles’ inspiration for the scene came from his visit with Richard Bennett on Catalina Island, prior to filming, (his visit with the aged actor was in a boarding-house)[v], yet, If you look at the final script[vi] for Ambersons on pages 164-165, no such scene with Eugene and Fanny was written and in fact no story-board was prepared for the scene. Granted the new final scenes are easily distinguishable from the direction of Orson Welles, but I do not feel that they detract from the quality of the story being told.

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Still from Welles deleted ending

Welles had hired Robert Wise as editor; Wise was more than good enough for Kane, was he not good enough for Ambersons? The obvious answer is yes. Welles left Wise to take care of the editing. Contemporaneously and for years to come Welles had an acrimonious relationship with Wise, I understand that, he making numerous derogatory comments about Mr. Wise’s involvement in the cutting of his film, yet in Welles’ conversations with Peter Bogdanovich, Welles said of Wise “That was his beginning, wasn’t it? That’s when he got off the pad.”[vii] It appears through time (old adage: time heals all wounds) that Orson Welles began to entertain different ideas about Ambersons from his first embittered feelings regarding RKO’s editing of Ambersons, to it being the launching-pad for the editor and soon to be director Robert Wise.

The Magnificent decision of legacy belongs to you and me. Maybe your mind is already made-up; it could be that another viewing will not make the slightest bit of difference in your approbation (or dislike) of The Magnificent Ambersons, but maybe it is time for us all to take one more appreciative look at Orson Welles’ second movie through a new lens of revelation. I have made my case for the better Ambersons being the edited Ambersons, now the question remains what is your stance?

Suggested reading and surfing. There is nothing quite like reading the source material, therefore I submit “The Magnificent Ambersons” by Booth Tarkington, which is available online for free (if you do not wish to make an investment). An invaluable tool are the words from the man himself This is Orson Welles is a must read, and if time allows take a look at Robert L. Carringer’s aforementioned book The Magnificent Ambersons: A Reconstruction and or Orson Welles: The Rise and Fall of an American Genius by Charles Higham. Also there are a few of good online resources:  the Alt blog on Alt Screen, the magnificent Ambersons by Jim Emerson 10/25/2011;  Ambersons.com and Wellesnet.com

I have also included three reviews of The Magnificent Ambersons, from 1942: Thomas M. Pryor for the New York Times; Manny Farber with New Republic and Variety

Lobby cards, stills and such:

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By C. S. Williams


[i] This is Orson Welles, by Orson Welles, Da Capo Press, 1998, page 115

[ii] Ross Hastings to George Schaefer: March 19, 1942

You asked me concerning our rights in connection with the cutting of THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS.

Orson Welles has the right to make the first rough cut of the picture or to cut the picture in the form of the first sneak preview if it is to be previewed. Thereafter he agrees to cut the picture as directed by us.

I am not really informed as to the facts, but I know that the picture has been previewed, and assume that this preview was in the form in which he cut the picture, or at least in the form as to which he controlled the cutting. In view of the fact that from this point on he is obligated to cut as directed by us, and in view of the further fact that his now not available for cutting, it is my opinion that we have the right to cut the picture.

[iii] The Magnificent Ambersons: A Reconstruction by Robert L. Carringer, University of California Press, April 29th, 1993

[iv] Orson Welles: The Rise and Fall of an American Genius by  By Charles Higham, page 197

[v] This is Orson Welles, by Orson Welles, Da Capo Press, 1998, page 128

[vi] 158                                  CLOSEUP of Eugene as he writes. We hear only the scratching of his pen, and on the sound track his voice.

EUGENE’S VOICE

 (on sound track)

Dearest Isabel – – your boy was

hurt in a street accident today

–run down by an automobile.

I thought at first I wouldn’t

go to see him at the hospital,

but of course I did. I thought

It would be hard not to be

bitter but I found it was easy

–he looked so much like you,

dearest one. As I came in, he

lifted his hand in a queer

gesture, half-forbidding, half-

imploring, then let his arm

fall back on the covers. (cont’d)

EUGENE’S VOICE (cont’d)

(on sound track)

He said “you must have thought

My mother wanted you to come

So that I could ask you – –

to forgive me.” Lucy was

beside him and she shook her

Head “No,” she said, “just

to take his hand – gently.”

She was radient… But for me

another radiance filled the

room – and I knew I’d been

true at last to my true love

and that through me you had

brought your boy under shelter

again ….

FADE OUT

THE END

[vii] This is Orson Welles, by Orson Welles, Da Capo Press, 1998, page 122

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