The Magnificent Ambersons

Movie Information

In Brief: It's hard to believe that no one has run Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) locally before, but that seems to be the case. The fact that Welles would have turned 100 in May plays into this showing, but it has still been a curious omission. No film has ever been so mythologized as Ambersons — the textbook case of what might have been. Completed by Welles — but recut and partly reshot while Welles was in South America — what we have is a tantalizing glimpse of a badly mangled film that many believe would have been even greater than Citizen Kane (1941). Personally, I'm skeptical, and it's easy to wax ecstatic over something that can never be seen. Even so there are moments of pure genius in Welles' adaptation of Booth Tarkington's novel as it stands — and it remains a must-see. The Hendersonville Film Society will show The Magnificent Ambersons Sunday, Feb. 1, at 2 p.m. in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community (behind Epic Cinemas), 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville.
Genre: Drama
Director: Orson Welles
Starring: Joseph Cotten, Dolores Costello, Anne Baxter, Tim Holt, Agnes Moorehead, Ray Collins, Erskine Sanford, Richard Bennett
Rated: NR




Even had it been released as Orson Welles intended, it seems unlikely that The Magnificent Ambersons — however magnificent it may have been — would have been a popular film. It’s too downbeat and would have been more so with Welles’ original ending. In fact, it’s hard not to sympathize — at least a little  — with RKO’s desire to change that ending. For that matter, you have to give the pitch-hitter directors Robert Wise and Fred Fleck some credit for shooting an ending that visually doesn’t disgrace what Welles had done. The biggest problem with the happier ending — apart from the fact that it’s clumsily written and subverts Welles’ intentions — is that it can’t help but feel like a Band-aid slapped over a much deeper problem, and mostly because it’s so abrupt. That anyone thought it would help much with the film’s marketability is amazing. It isn’t really a happy ending, merely a bittersweet hopeful one (apparently more like the book) — and it does nothing to dispell the overall tone of the film as a study in the disintegration of a once great family.




I’ve never read Booth Tarkington’s novel (does anyone still read Tarkington?), but Welles’ film is a pretty somber affair about the passing of an era. It’s the not uncritical nostalgia for an age the 26-year-old Welles could only have dimly remembered — the novel came out when Welles was three. It feels like the work of a much older man, which raises the question of whether Welles was ever really young. One of its most memorable thoughts is the pronouncement of how what looks important — even devastating — when one is 20 looks like no big deal when one is 40. It’s an idea put forth with the idea that 40 can neven explain this to 20, that it can only be learned by becoming 40. Yet it’s being put forth by a man in his 20s. Often the message is mixed, too, since Welles both hates the modernity that is helping to kill off the age of the Ambersons, yet, like his film’s “hero,” he’s very much a part of it — and wholly conscious of the fact.




Ambersons uses much of the same cinematic language as Citizen Kane — and has a similar playful tone in the early scenes — but there are also long, often mobile, dialogue scenes that must have made the cutting of the film from 148 (Welles’ cut) or 131 (the preview version) minutes to the final 88 minute version a nightmare. Welles had crafted a film where scenes couldn’t be trimmed. They had to be cut entirely. The upside to this is that what we do see is pretty much what Welles intended. The problem is that there’s so much we don’t see at all. What’s amazing is that the 88 minute cut works as well as it does. For that matter, it’s amazing that it’s even coherent.

The Hendersonville Film Society will show The Magnificent Ambersons Sunday, Feb. 1, at 2 p.m. in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community (behind Epic Cinemas), 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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