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The Magnificent Ambersons Movie Review

welles orson george film

1942 – Orson Welles –

Somebody should make a movie about the making of The Magnificent Ambersons. Tim Robbins could play young Orson Welles, who in 1941 was fresh from the critical success and financial failure of Citizen Kane when he chose for his second RKO project Booth Tarkington's 1918 Pulitzer prize-winning novel about an Indianapolis family at the turn of the century and their fall from wealth and prestige. The completed film was previewed twice to caustic and restless audiences, and the studio, fresh from a top management change and still stung over the loss of revenue from Kane, ordered changes. Welles was in South America working on the abortive documentary It's All True when a wartime embargo on intercontinental flights complicated attempts to involve him in recutting Ambersons. Welles' original 131-minute film was trimmed to 88 minutes with some short, transitional scenes and a new ending added. Original editor Robert Wise, who had worked with Welles on Citizen Kane, was involved in condensing the final cut. He says it was done thoughtfully. “I feel that all of us tried sincerely to keep the best of Welles' concept and still lick the problems.” What remains is probably the best so-called “flawed masterpiece” in cinema history.

Writer, director, and friend of Orson, Peter Bogdanovich dug into the archives at RKO to see what the preview audiences had actually written on their comment cards. He quotes from them in his book This Is Orson Welles. Of the 125 cards, Bogdanovich judged 53 to be positive. Of the 72 negative ones, some of the answers to the question “Did you like this picture?” revealed an audience more in the mood for escapist fare: “People like to laff,” “I could not understand it,” “It is a crime to take people's hard-earned money for such artistic trash as Mr. Welles would have us think,” “As bad if not worse than Citizen Kane.”

Welles' focus on the family and their declining fortune makes Ambersons one of the first Hollywood films to supplant the traditional hero and heroine with a Chekhov-like ensemble of characters, something more common today in the films of Robert Altman and Woody Allen, among others. Welles uses the early scenes of the prologue (with his spoken narration) and the last of the great Amberson balls to both introduce characters and convey a flavor of the age of privilege quickly passing away. Every member of the family is defined with regard to others, so that, for example, we see how George's (Tim Holt) spoiled nature ties to Isabel's (Dolores Costello) indulgent mothering and how Fanny's (Agnes Moorehead) introspection and silence grows from her disappointed awareness of Eugene's (Joseph Cotten) love for Isabel. The agitated, overlapping voices in the hallway after the ball wonderfully reflect various states of mind. Welles drew on his experience in radio to create striking sound montages throughout the film (notice the irreverent-sounding emissions from the bathtub faucet when George talks to his uncle).

When asked about the recut film, Welles said “it's all gone,” but his emotionalism over the lost material made him too harsh. Its technique is as assured as that in Citizen Kane, but the humanity of The Magnificent Ambersons is even greater than its more famous predecessor.

Cast: Joseph Cotten (Eugene Morgan), Dolores Costello (Isabel Amberson), Anne Baxter (Lucy Morgan), Tim Holt (George Minafer), Agnes Moorehead (Fanny Minafer), Ray Collins (Jack Amberson), Richard Bennett (Major Amberson), Erskine Sanford (Roger Bronson), J. Louis Johnson (Sam the Butler), Don Dillaway (Wilbur Minafer), Charles Phipps (Uncle John Minafer), Dorothy Vaughn (Mrs. Johnson), Ann O'Neal (Mrs. Foster), Elmer Jerome (townsperson outside Amberson mansion), Maynard Holmes (townsperson outside Amberson mansion), Edwin August (townsperson outside Amberson mansion), Jack Baxley (townsperson outside Amberson mansion), Harry Humphrey (townsperson outside Amberson mansion), Bobby Cooper (George as a boy), Heenan Elliot (laborer terrorized by George), Drew Roddy (Elijah), Gus Schilling (drugstore clerk), James Westerfield (Irish cop), William Blees (young motorist in accident) Screenwriter: Orson Welles Cinematographer: Stanley Cortez Composer: Bernard Herrmann (uncredited) Producer: Orson Welles for RKO Running Time: 88 minutes Format: VHS, LV Awards: New York Film Critics Awards 1942: Actress (Agnes Moorehead); Academy Awards 1942: Nominations: Picture, Black and White Cinematography (Stanley Cortez), Interior Decoration, Supporting Actress (Agnes Moorehead).

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