The Magnificent Ambersons

The Magnificent Ambersons was Welles’ follow-up to Citizen Kane, and like the former, it dealt with power and with the gradual rise and fall of those who have it. In this case, however, the focus was on a family, the Ambersons, whose greatness began with Major Amberson and which has prospered in the automobile business. The protagonist is George Minafer, the Major’s grandson. George struggles with his identity and place in the family as parents and aunts and uncles pass away, leaving him the heir to and guardian of the family’s magnificence. The family wealth dissipates, leaving George a manual laborer.

The screenplay, which Welles wrote, was based on Booth Tarkington’s 1920 novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize but had mostly slipped into the mists of time. By choosing it, Orson showed he was still drawn to works concerning a male protagonist who lost his parents, in succession, at a relatively young age. He was also concerned with the simple beauty and innocence of bygone eras.

In the wake of controversies and adulation surrounding Citizen Kane, Welles cast the movie, with Tim Holt as George Minafer, Dolores Costello as Isabel Minafer, Richard Bennett as Major Amberson, and the familiar faces Joseph Cotten as Eugene Morgan and Agnes Moorehead as Aunt Fanny Minafer.

Holt was born in Beverly Hills and was fresh off a role in John Ford’s 1939 classic Stagecoach. He would later know his greatest fame for a lead role in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

Costello was much more established than Holt, having already been christened “The Goddess of the Silent Screen,” with roles in The Sea Beast, When a Man Loves, Glorious Betsy, and later, in a few talkies.

Welles began shooting the picture in Oct. 1941, directing cinematographer Stanley Cortez through a few sweeping and difficult scenes. One was the ballroom sequence, which required several grueling ten-hour days, and the other was the famous sleigh-ride scene. The latter was shot indoors and asked a lot of the art department and other crew members. “Phony snow just won’t do,” Welles would later tell Modern Screen magazine, “I want the real thing, so that we can make snowballs and people can get smeared with it and have it drip.” This meant crew members cramming 5,000 pound cakes of ice into a cruncher.

As shooting was nearing its end, Welles became wrapped in a series of other other projects, chief among them the film My Friend Bonito, which sent him to Mexico on a few occasions. Welles also worked on behalf of three Soviet men, former members of Republican forces in Spain, who’d been arrested in France and who were to be turned over to the German and Italian governments. Welles sent telegrams to Secretary of State Hull and to FDR himself asking--to no avail--for intercession. He also began making plans to make a documentary on the Samba at the Carnival in Rio and to shoot Journey Into Fear.

While Welles was in Rio, he left the editing (as well as some re-shooting that had become necessary) of Ambersons to Robert Wise and Norman Foster. Welles cabled the duo in March of ‘42, pleading for a happy ending, with Fanny happily playing bridge and George and Lucy riding merrily in a convertible. The editing zipped along at a frantic pace, dangerously running up the film’s budget. Welles began receiving cables that the plug may have to be pulled. However, audience reactions to a March preview of the film, indicating the film was terribly bloated and boring, called for more cuts.

With Welles dealing with various catastrophes in Brazil, the film was finished and ultimately premiered without his having a chance to see a final cut. An embargo on overseas flights from the U.S. kept Wise from delivering a cut to Welles, and one that he shipped arrived too late.

James Naremore describes some of the violence done to Welles’s vision by the massive cuts:
Gone completely, like the house in the story, are the long
documentary-style scenes of modern city streets, followed
by Stanley Cortez’s elaborate tour of the empty mansion.
George’s last entry into his dead mother’s room...was to
be accompanied by Welles reading from Tarkington--
a description of how everything in the house is to be
divided up into “kitchenettes.”
While the film did poorly at the box office, was a disappointment to Welles because of the way the studio had hacked it, and has gone down as a low point in his career, it did enjoy a good critical reception overall. It was also nominated for several Oscars, including Best Picture.

In 2000, A&E released a new DVD version of the film, fully re-shot to include scenes from Welles’ screenplay that had been sliced by RKO.


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