I’ve never quite subscribed to the view that The Magnificent Ambersons would have been a better film than Citizen Kane if only it hadn’t been mutilated by the studio while Welles was out of the country. But, hey, that notion makes a great story that adds to the myth of Orson Welles — and, of course, it has the advantage of being impossible to prove one way or the other.
After all, Welles’ first cut ran to 148 minutes, the preview cut ran to 131, and the release print clocked in at 88 minutes. Worse, RKO Radio Pictures was sufficiently dissatisfied with the movie’s utterly downbeat tone — just what the public didn’t want right after Pearl Harbor, they figured — that they reshot the last part of Ambersons and slapped on a happy ending
In other words, it’s just not possible to realistically assess the film that Welles made; only the fascinating shadow of it that remains.
While the shorter version certainly doesn’t approach the fireworks of Kane, it’s still a striking and deeply intriguing work, and one that dovetails so completely with themes touched on in Kane that it seems like an extension of Welles’ audacious debut. That’s especially true in light of remarks made by Welles himself, which make both films seem deeply autobiographical.
Both movies are the stories of overprivileged young men who come to grief. Both main characters seem at least partly based on Welles himself, though in the case of Kane, that portrayal has also becomes the gloomiest self-prediction of a young man’s future imaginable (Welles was 26 when he made the film).
It’s a future that, in many ways, Welles seemed determined to make happen. Ambersons — a depiction of the dark side of the American dream and the inability to let go of a romanticized past — suggests that the seeds of that future were so deeply planted that it was inevitable. One critic suggested that Ambersons might well have been what was taking place inside the famous snow-globe in Kane, and that’s not at all a bad thought, especially since the later film tenaciously holds to a fixed idea, just like the image forever frozen in the glass ball.
Thought of in that light, and combined with what we now know of Welles’ future, Ambersons — even in its mutilated form — has a resonance most movies can only dream of.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke
[The Hendersonville Film Society will sponsor a showing of The Magnificent Ambersons on Sunday, Aug. 7 at 2 p.m., in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community, 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville. (From Asheville, take I-26 to U.S. 64 West, turn right at the third light onto Thompson Street and follow to the Lake Point Landing entrance. Park in the lot at left.)]