Orson Welles was not only a genius—he played one on the screen. The most lavishly gifted Hollywood director of his generation, this all-around showboat both lived and dramatized the self-serving Promethean spectacle of the outsize artistic temperament laid low by the constraints of commerce.
The movies and the image will jointly be on display at Film Forum during the course of a two-month retro that opens Friday with a 10-day run of Welles’s 1942 second feature, The Magnificent Ambersons. Having begun his career with a movie that continues to top critics’ polls as the greatest ever made, Welles suffered a suitably outsize sophomore jinx. The Magnificent Ambersons, however different in tone and subject from Citizen Kane, gave every indication of being a comparable precocious masterpiece. Then it ran into a perfect storm of historical and studio interference, surviving today as a magnificent ruin.
Adapted from Booth Tarkington’s barely remembered Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about social change in turn-of-the-century Indianapolis, The Magnificent Ambersons was in production when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Less than two months later, patriotic Welles took off on a war-related mission to Latin America that would result in his unfinished documentary It’s All True. Ambersons‘ original 131-minute cut was entrusted to editor Robert Wise. The movie tested poorly with audiences, and the RKO brass deemed it too long and too gloomy; Ambersons was re-edited in Welles’s absence, or, should we say, it was butchered.
Thus, the movie became the sacred relic of Welles’s martyrdom. About 50 minutes were cut, and new material was indifferently filmed and inserted along with several crass reaction shots designed to break the flow and make obvious what particular characters were feeling. The last half was reshuffled in preparation for a new, horribly botched ending, and then—with a new management team in place at the studio—the version we know was dumped into release on a double bill with a Lupe Velez vehicle, Mexican Spitfire Sees a Ghost. (Legend has it that Welles left a print of the original cut behind in Brazil; were it ever to turn up, this lost ark would rival Greed‘s still-missing reels as the greatest archaeological find in movie history.)
“It was a much better picture than Kane—if they’d just left it as it was,” Welles famously told Peter Bogdanovich decades later. But even still, The Magnificent Ambersons is a pretty sensational movie. The film language is more fluid and adept than Kane‘s, the expressionist lighting is more rigorously modulated. The astonishingly choreographed Christmas ball that serves to introduce the major characters is arguably the greatest set piece of Welles’s career. The highly rehearsed ensemble, which complemented a contingent of Mercury Theater regulars (Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorehead, Ray Collins) with RKO cowhand Tim Holt, retired silent star Dolores Costello, and then-unknown Anne Baxter, is sensational.
Detailing the decline of a wealthy family and the much deserved “comeuppance” delivered its scion, Georgie Minafer (Holt, with an uncanny resemblance to the young, petulantly entitled George W. Bush), The Magnificent Ambersons is unusually somber for a Hollywood movie. What American secrets are being hidden here? The Amberson mansion is a miniature Xanadu, with Welles’s camera relentlessly craning up or prowling around its gloomy grand staircase. Filled with dark nostalgia for the artist’s Midwestern boyhood, Ambersons may be Welles’s most personal film—he would maintain that Tarkington had based the character of the automobile inventor (Cotten) on his own father.
Welles had adapted The Magnificent Ambersons as a radio play two years before (assigning himself the role of Georgie), and not even Kane made more effective use of dramatic sound. Again, and with greater subtlety, there are Welles’s trademark overlapping dialogue and his construction of aural “deep space,” a brooding Bernard Herrmann score, and the clever deployment of a naturalistic Greek chorus. Most remarkable, however, is the voice. The Magnificent Ambersons is the lone Welles feature in which the maestro does not grace the screen. Still, he is overwhelmingly present in the insinuating invisibility of his tender, omniscient narration. The movie is haunted by Welles’s voice, by his youth, and by a sense of a lost America that he would never again visit—and mainly by its own lost possibilities. It might be unfolding in his mind’s eye—or inside the snow globe Kane dropped.
Film Forum’s series mixes Welles’s movies with his performances in other people’s movies (famous for scenes in which the undirectable sacred monster directed himself). All the completed features, save for the wonderful Henry IV adaptation Chimes at Midnight, are included—some in new 35mm prints. The series ends with a one-week run of Carol Reed’s 1949 The Third Man, the movie that, as André Bazin wrote, transformed Welles into a myth.
More coverage of “Orson Welles” at Film Forum