Orson Welles' RKO career as the ‘enfant terrible’ of cinema was short lived and very bittersweet. Hailed as the new boy wonder in 1940, by 1942 that reputation had soured to the point where Welles was persona non grata in Hollywood. His tenure at RKO generated two immortal classics that effectively ostracized Welles from the director's chair but left him with a fairly lucrative acting career. The first of his RKO/Mercury Player Productions was Citizen Kane (1941); the second, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), an even more somber outing based on Booth Tarkington's 1918 novel. The screenplay by Welles opens with a superb time capsule of the gay 1890s in Indianapolis. Society is gentile and relaxed. Cordiality and superficiality rule the roost, but propriety is the beacon and the hallmark of all good taste, and at the forefront of respectability are those magnificent Ambersons - the wealthiest family in town.
Daughter Isabel (Dolores Costello) is amiably pursued by Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten), a middle class suitor. After a clumsy moonlight serenade Isabel allows herself to be spirited away by the rather dower Wilbur Minafer (Donald Dillaway). The two marry and have a son, George (Bobby Cooper) who is spoiled rotten during his youth and grows up to be a defiant and rebellious prig (played as an adult by Tim Holt). Upon returning home from studying law at college George is given a rather lavish reception by his grandfather, Major Amberson (Richard Bennett). In the interim Wilbur has died leaving Isabel to rekindle her romance with Eugene, himself a widower. Eugene's daughter Lucy (Anne Baxter) briefly becomes the focus of George's romantic interests.
Instinctively, George scorns Eugene - not only in his chosen profession as one of the proponents of the automobile, but also because he absolutely refuses to allow his mother falling in love with anyone else. For all their wealth and privilege George, like the rest of the Ambersons, is a very backward thinking man. He would prefer the time of gentlemen to his current age of the industrialist. Very quickly Eugene's fortunes come to rival the Amberson family’s wealth. George's Aunt Fanny (Agnes Moorehead) and Uncle Jack (Ray Collins) inform George that Isabel has long admired Eugene, even before she met his father. This realization sends George into a rage. He interrupts his own romance with Lucy, rebuffs Eugene and takes Isobel on an extended trip to Europe where they live obscurely until illness forces them to return home.
The bond between Isabel and George is vaguely tinged with a hint of incest that the film cannot fully explore. Hence we are left with a curiously possessive mother/son relationship. Isobel's strange and compelling far away glances and her periodic cradling of the adult George in her arms is meant to suggest a relationship far more insular and self-destructive. But when Isabel and George return to Indianapolis they find a very different home than the one they left behind. One thing unchanged is Eugene's love for Isabel. But Eugene is once again thwarted in his attempts by George, then by Fanny who has becoming increasingly erratic in her behavior. Isabel confesses on her death bed that she would have liked to see Eugene one last time.
Grief stricken over his daughter's loss, Major Amberson gradually succumbs to depression and an opium addiction. Jack decides to leave town and take a job in New York. He tells George plainly that he has finally received his comeuppance for all his wickedness. Through bad investments the family's fortunes are squandered. George is forced to forsake the law and get a job at one of the local factories to support his Aunt Fanny who has completely lost her mind. The Amberson mansion is boarded up. Although she loves George, Lucy never reconciles with him, telling her father the story about a Native American chieftain who was pushed out in a canoe after he became too obnoxious and overbearing for the rest of the tribe to tolerate. Lost and alone, George wanders the streets - unable to comprehend how the world has moved on without him. In the final moments we learn that George has had a terrible car accident, becoming crippled in both legs. Eugene rushes to his side, the two reconciling. Eugene and Fanny leave the hospital together with renewed hopes for a brighter tomorrow.
This final sequence was not shot by Welles, nor did it receive his consent when he screened the rough cut. RKO further elected to butcher the movie by excising nearly 40 minutes. Viewed today, one can see how lethal and heavy-handed these cuts are. The last act of The Magnificent Ambersons is nothing more than an extended montage of snippets and sound bytes, the cohesive narrative carefully constructed by Welles during the first two thirds is completely absent. Major Amberson’s drug induced diatribe is interrupted by a slow fade to black right in the middle of his thoughts. We lose Fanny's progressive descent into madness. She ricochets from relatively sanity in one scene to stark raving in the next.
The tempo and the mood, the meticulous craftsmanship that is Orson Welles at his very best at the start of the film is destroyed in the last act. There's no build up to George's car wreck. We simply fade up on a wreck with strangers gathered around and gossiping about what has happened. But we never see George again. Instead, the scene dissolves to Eugene leaving George's hospital room. He is met by Fanny who lovingly takes him by his arm as the two stroll down the hall with Eugene insisting that George will be well once again. All is forgiven. All is well. In this upbeat ending Fanny appears just as she did at the start of the movie - her madness a thing of the past, or perhaps merely a fantasy of our imagination. How has she recovered? Why has she recovered? Why have George and Eugene reconciled? They were mortal enemies. No. The pieces simply do not fit. It's no wonder The Magnificent Ambersons tanked at the box office. In its current form it is a severely fractured masterpiece. To be sure there are touches of greatness sprinkled throughout. But the last act is shockingly bad.
It has long been suggested that Brazil might hold a full cut of Welles’ film. After RKO took over the picture and shed 40 minutes they presumably also destroyed the original camera negative and all prints containing these additional scenes. Without them it is difficult to damn near impossible to judge the movie as a work of art. Clearly, this is not the movie Orson Welles intended his audience to see. Editor Robert Wise has gone on record as saying that the movie was not much better in its longer cut; simply 'longer'. Nevertheless, it would be fascinating to reassemble the missing pieces for today's audiences to be the judge. Perhaps someday we will have that opportunity.
In the meantime Warner Home Video has seen fit to release The Magnificent Ambersons in its truncated form on DVD, advertised as digitally remastered. Despite this claim, the transfer is a below par effort for WHV. The image is thick and occasionally murky. The mid register of the gray scale is rather harshly contrasted. Edge effects are prevalent and crop up from time to time. Overall, most of the image is free of digital manipulations, but age related dirt and scratches are fairly obvious and occasionally distracting. The audio is mono as originally recorded and adequate for this presentation. For shame - Warner's DVD has NO extras - not even chapter stops! Bottom line: with a back story as intriguing as Citizen Kane it would have been good form on Warner's part to include a making of documentary or audio commentary as supplements.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)