13th Sep2013

First Time Watch #7 – The Magnificent Ambersons

by Ian Loring

magnificent-ambersons

The second directorial feature effort of Orson Welles’ then young career, watching The Magnificent Ambersons now is a rather troubling experience as while the genius and overwhelming force of personality of the man is all over the film, so is that most depressing of complaints of the master director: that of the fight for creative control and final cut.

You’d be forgiven for thinking Welles had the world at his feet after Citizen Kane but this wasn’t neccesarilly the case. While its commonly held as “The Greatest Film Ever Made”, the film wasn’t universally acclaimed upon release and indeed didn’t sweep the board at the Oscars, losing Best Picture to How Green Was My Valley (always a good one to remember for pub quiz questions) and being booed whenever its name was mentioned thanks to Welles’ personality and the work against the film by William Randolph Hearst, the inspiration for the film who hated what his life had birthed.

Unlike the creative freedom given to directors working on their second features after a significant first that many directors in subsequent years, specifically the “New Hollywood” of the 1970’s, Welles found himself a master of ceremonies in the safe environment of his Mercury players, establishing a familiar cast with Ambersons, this wasn’t quite the case with RKO Pictures whose release cut of The Magnificent Ambersons incensed Welles and will likely do the same to anyone who watches it today, the film being an engaging picture but one which frustrates by the end.

The film starts with a great deal of promise, a quick prelude giving us an introduction to the characters, most notably George (Tim Holt), a character for whom the expression “a little shit” appears to have been made for. Used to getting what he wants and getting nothing in return, George has the trappings of a perfect sociopath, caring not a jot for others and thinking only of himself even in the pretense of wanting to protect those close to him. His father growing increasingly withdrawn, he takes comfort in being the “man” of the house but finds himself threatened by Joseph Cotton’s Eugene, a better man than George and one who could easily bat the boy away but won’t because of common good manners. George also sparks up a relationship with Eugene’s daughter Lucy (Anne Baxter) for reasons which aren’t entirely clear, to complicate Eugene’s affections for George’s mother Isabel (Dolores Costello)? To hide complicated sexual impulses involving his mother? Or for pure companionship? Frankly, the latter doesn’t strike as likely.

Despite the title, the film isn’t really about a family as much as it is about one man’s part in a family which slips away before his eyes, largely thanks to him. It’s an involving story which is exceptionally well played by all involved. Tim Holt’s George isn’t the stereotypical evil young man he could quite easily be, his plans are selfish but he doesn’t seem to hate anyone, he just wants the status quo and can’t accept it changing. It flirts with the feeling of tragedy throughout, at some moments you get a sense that just perhaps there is a better man trying to come out but he can’t help himself. Jospeh Cotton’s Eugene is certainly a tragic figure, unable to have much of an impact on George despite his surprisingly noble intentions and Anne Baxter’s Lucy is fascinatingly played, never melting at the sight of George and being a more independent figure than he.

So then it’s such a shame then that the seams in the material do come apart so much as the film gets into its final act. After some methodical pacing and wholly satisfying drama earlier on, the truncated 88 minute runtime, a whole hour shorter than Welles’ original version, manages to drop several narrative balls, the overall feeling as if someone had accidentally pressed the fast-forward button through the narrative. Lucy’s entire character is taken out of the picture quickly, George’s downfall and that of those around him is hastily played and his subsequent “redemption” as the film has it is dealt with in a superfluous final scene which Welles himself picked out for criticism. Indeed my wife who was watching it said after “I go to the toilet for 2 minutes and I miss the redemption!”

It is bizarre just why so much would be cut out of the film by the studio looking at it now. There’s so much worth in here, performances, direction, the look of the film and myriad other areas which suggest original material which could have crafted a film with a similar level of impact as Citizen Kane but in a rush for haste, or perhaps a feeling of not letting Welles have it all his own way, instead we are left with a tragically missed opportunity, one which offers many pleasures but also shows the scars of a battle for its soul. It’s not the last time Welles would face battles to keep his creative spark intact but this is likely the most damaging to a viewer.

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