Anyone who knows about Orson Welles’s career knows that The Magnificent Ambersons is widely hailed as another masterpiece, “culturally, aesthetically, and culturally significant”, but a tragic thing for Welles, as the film was taken away from him—changed, re-edited, re-shot, and replaced with a new ending. Welles said “They destroyed Ambersons, and the picture itself destroyed me”. More than 40 minutes was deleted from Welles’s original footage, and everything is gone forever. We now only have the film in its mutilated form.
As a film student aspiring to be a film director, I have always believed that a film should belong to the director—not the producer, not the studio, not the distributor, and not anyone else. I also think that a film should have only 1 director, unless you’re as close as the Coen brothers. Of course a film is a collaborative effort, and everyone is important, but the director should be able to have a unifying vision for the film and make all the creative decisions without being controlled or dictated to by someone else, such as a producer. The tragedy of The Magnificent Ambersons feels to me a lot more personal.
Some days ago, I watched the film. In its bastardised form, The Magnificent Ambersons has many wonderful moments. Visually, it’s great to watch, especially the mise-en-scène and cinematography. Take the scene in the kitchen, George eating, aunt Fanny talking: Welles uses deep focus, everything in frame is in rich detail, from all the food on the table, the 2 actors, the pots and pans in shadow in the background, and the curtains far at the back. Instead of breaking it up into a series of shots and jumping back and forth between CUs of the 2 actors, as lots of directors would do, Welles covers the entire conversation in 1 continuous shot, which runs on as Isabel’s brother comes in, and he and George tease aunt Fanny about Eugene. The disadvantage of such a scene is that we can’t see each person’s face in CU, but we can see everyone in the frame reacting to each other at the same time.
That leads to another point: the performances are 1 of the main reasons I would always choose Orson Welles over Stanley Kubrick. There was a time I very much loved and admired Kubrick, which has now cooled down. Looking back, I was mostly dazzled by the technical aspects, particularly cinematography and set designs, and in love with his choice of music. But even then, I saw that Kubrick wasn’t very good at working with actors and getting subtle performances from them, or he didn’t particularly care about acting. His actors always have a way of speaking very slowly and enunciating every single word that I don’t like, and they seem to lack something. Today I still see Kubrick as a giant, but I’ve discovered other directors and my taste over time has changed. To me, Welles has everything that I once admired about Kubrick, and more—his films have feelings. The Magnificent Ambersons have great performances and some wonderful moments—when the spoilt brat George realises that the weird looking duck he has been talking to Lucy about is her dad; when Eugene is hurt by George’s rude remark about automobiles but tries to be calm; when George knows he has offended Eugene but pretends not to notice; or when Lucy hears George’s farewell and keeps smiling and pretends not to care, and George keeps trying to get a reaction out of her but fails; or most of the scenes of Agnes Moorehead as aunt Fanny.
However, as a whole, the film is uneven, especially in the ending. George is introduced from the start as a brat—spoilt, thoughtless, lazy, snobbish, self-centred, who never notices or pays attention to anything. He also has an inexplicable hostility towards Eugene. To me, there’s nothing particularly good or likeable about George, it’s hard to see how Lucy might like him and why they get engaged. Then in the later part of the film, there is a change. I’ve read that when Isabel is in her deathbed and Eugene wishes to see her, what Welles got is that George refuses to let them see each other and tells aunt Fanny to get rid of Eugene, and Fanny alone harshly tells Eugene to leave. In other words, George remains an arsehole till his mother’s last moments. What we have in the film is that George and Fanny don’t let Eugene in because the doctor has said that Isabel should rest in quiet, and they appear less awful, even more sympathetic. Then later when they are all in ruin and George gets a job, any risky job, to get money for himself and to take care of Fanny, somehow it feels abrupt, like he’s now a different person.
And then we get to the ending, a Hollywood-style happy ending that is completely wrong in tone, and out of place. One wonders what The Magnificent Ambersons would have been like if Orson Welles had had complete freedom.
In short, it’s an uneven film with a weak ending, but a Welles film is always visually satisfying, and always has much to learn from.