Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Tragedy of The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

There are those who call The Magnificent Ambersons a great film. There are those who think it is one of the best films ever made. They are wrong. It is a bad film. It is, in its heartbreaking way, one of the worst movies ever made. That The Magnificent Ambersons for much of its running time shows the unquestionable marks of genius is beyond dispute. Even more than with Citizen Kane this film amazes us with the jaw-dropping self-assurance of its creator. Orson Welles directed The Magnificent Ambersons like a man who never had a moment of doubt. The sweeping camera shots at the Amberson ball, the cinematography which manages to be realistic and expressionistic in equal doses without throwing off our eye, the cast of fine actors giving wonderful, nuanced performances—all of it works together with some of the best damn mise en scene anyone ever put in front of a camera to create a towering achievement…almost.

Because how can you talk about The Magnificent Ambersons without talking about the last ten minutes? The last ten minutes of this movie are some of the worst ten minutes on film. Placed into context with the rest of the film they may well be the worst ten minutes in the history of cinema.

Of course, that’s not Orson Welles’ fault because he didn’t direct them. Over the years we’ve read the original shooting script, we’ve seen the surviving stills of the missing footage, and with all we’ve read and seen there can be little doubt that the ending of The Magnificent Ambersons which Welles wrote and directed is as good as the rest of his film. There is even room for the speculation that with this footage restored and with Welles’ original editing scheme in place (his film was 148 minutes long and this one is, sigh, 88 minutes) that The Magnificent Ambersons would be his best film. I think it is very safe to say that. If you were feeling saucy you might even go so far as to assert that The Magnificent Ambersons, the one Welles made, might very well have been the best movie anyone ever made.

The problem is, of course, that The Magnificent Ambersons is gone. It was destroyed. It was literally chopped up and set on fire by the assholes who ran RKO pictures. The new ending, that brutally, heartbreakingly inept ten minutes, was shot by a studio flunky who would later go on to direct movies that were great. He would win Oscars and make millions.

Welles, however, slipped into exile. He went onto direct other masterpieces (Touch of Evil, The Trial, Chimes at Midnight, F for Fake), but he never had full control of a Hollywood production again. After Ambersons, he was always suspect, and his films were regularly butchered by studio heads and fly-by-night independent producers. Ambersons was the end of the dream that began when Welles first signed his legendary Hollywood contract.

So what do we say about The Magnificent Ambersons, the only one we have left? At best you can call it a mangled masterpiece. Picture, if you will, someone painting a fat grin on the Mona Lisa the day after da Vinci finished it, so that no one living had ever seen the original. Could you still call it a great painting? Imagine a functioning illiterate rewriting the last act of Hamlet so that Claudius and Hamlet worked out their problems off stage and the play closed with Claudius and Gertrude strolling offstage arm-in-arm. What would you call that play?

Or to put it another way: if by some miracle we uncovered Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons tomorrow, then we could let RKO’s The Magnificent Ambersons fall into the sea (unless we wanted to keep it for a DVD extra). What does that say about the actual value of the film we have, this vile imposter posing as an Orson Welles movie? We would dismiss it in an instant, like we would ditch a boring date if the love of our life swept into the room.

We don’t do Welles any favors to act as if this is a good movie. We insult him by acting as if these 88 minutes are what he created for us. They are not. And, we should note, Welles himself could not bring himself to watch The Magnificent Ambersons as we have it. It reduced him to tears, like a man looking into the coffin of his child.

The Magnificent Ambersons is a complete movie only in our minds. It is the great lost film. With something like von Stroheim’s Greed we can say it would be interesting to see his original uncut nine-hour production, but can we say we really, deeply want to? With The Magnificent Ambersons we would jump at the chance. Once you see the imposter, your mind begins to wonder, what would the real one look like? How much better would the ending be, how much better would those long sweeping ballroom shots be? What would this story feel like if it were allowed to affect us? Watching the RKO version is like meeting the love of your life and watching them get run over by a beer truck.

That, really, is the final tragedy of The Magnificent Ambersons, the way the real film calls out to us from its grave, enchanting us with the real promise of brilliance.

I bet it was a great movie.

For Welles Fans

Anyone with any interest in Welles must watch the amazing full length interview he gave to the BBC in 1982. It's an extraordinary piece of work. I've never seen anything in which the sheer complexity of the man came across so well. He was a brilliant artist, one the real jewels of our cinema, but he was also maddening and self-absorbed. Of course, he was also funny, charming and tragic. All of this comes across in this BBC documentary. Check it out.

And if I've stoked your interest in The Magnificent Ambersons, you may want to read an overview at what went down at RKO. Here's a piece from Wellesnet.com (the place to go, by the way, for all things Orson).

Finally, there are several excellent books about Welles. One best of the best is the newly released Orson Welles At Work, a magisterial overview of the director's entire career. It's huge, packed full of gorgeous photographs, and exhaustively researched. It's pricey, but it's worth every cent. The other must-have book, perfect for the beginning fan and far more affordable, is This Is Orson Welles, a book length interview between Welles and Peter Bogdanovich, edited by Welles expert Jonathan Rosenbaum. The interview is wide-ranging, covering art, politics, religion and, of course, movies. Welles was a great raconteur and with Bogdanovich he has a knowledgeable, sympathetic listener. Bogdanovich and Rosenbaum have packed the book full of goodies: memos, sketches, photographs, a day-by-day timeline of Welles' career (it's shocking how much Welles worked) and a section detailing the mutilation of The Magnificent Ambersons. Check it out.

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