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MARCH 16, 1998: 

The Magnificent Ambersons

D: Orson Welles (1942)
with Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorehead

Few people have visited as much turbulence on cinema as Orson Welles. By age 27, Welles had already made the greatest American film ever, Citizen Kane, and had characteristically served as the undoing of another would-be masterpiece, The Magnificent Ambersons. Based on the Pulitzer-winning 1918 novel by Booth Tarkington, The Magnificent Ambersons is a faithful rendition of the fall of a well-to-do Midwestern family at the dawn of the automobile. The story centers on George Amberson Minafer (Tim Holt), a spoiled grandson whose comeuppance is not only inevitable, it's wished upon him by his own townspeople. Welles' mastery of radio-theatre sound and direction, so evident in Kane, elevates Ambersons as well. Previously, he had produced this story as a radio play, and his filmmaking trademarks -- extensive use of shadows and deep focus -- return in this, his second picture. But the story behind the story is how RKO studios ultimately took this film away from Welles. The original cut of The Magnificent Ambersons ran 132 minutes. By the time RKO was through editing it, Ambersons ran just 88 minutes.

Like Charles Foster Kane and the youngest Amberson, Orson Welles was often his own worst enemy. Because Citizen Kane had caused terrific controversy and failed to recoup its blown budget quickly enough, Welles found himself working without a sympathetic ear inside his own studio. He had enjoyed absolute control over the making of Kane, an arrangement that had shocked Hollywood. Further, the ravenous Welles ego routinely earned him the wrath of moguls, allies, starlets, cast, and crew alike. Alarmed by advance reports that Ambersons was too bleak for an audience that would be seeking escape from wartime stress, RKO test-screened the full version. Predictably, the film tested too "down beat," allowing the studio to order self-justified cuts and re-shoots. Welles, making a documentary in Latin America at the time, was aware of the mess. Despite having ample opportunity to defend an ending he had added to the novel (which had Joseph Cotten visiting the superb Agnes Moorehead in a nursing home), Welles entrusted the editing and re-shoots to his editor Robert "Sound of Music" Wise. RKO had Wise shoot an entirely different ending.

The whereabouts of the excised 44 minutes are unknown. Though the script survives, gone for good is a decidely more powerful final sequence that included extensive tracking shots showing the now-empty, dead Amberson mansion. Surviving in truncated form, The Magnificent Ambersons retains a haunted, elegant feel that takes the viewer inside an era Hollywood has largely sidestepped. This is Orson Welles' lost movie, one he might have been able to rescue, had he been less brash -- and a film he and others believed to be superior to Citizen Kane.-- Stuart Wade


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