When it comes to the legacy of writer/producer/director/actor Orson Welles, the common consensus is that his debut feature film Citizen Kane was so perfect that it was inevitably going to be a case of “it’s all downhill from here”. He hadn’t made a great deal of friends with his thinly veiled condemnation of a newspapers magnate, so maybe his cards were already marked.
But despite the controversy of Kane, Welles still had final cut on a follow-up picture for RKO and so he began work on his ambitious adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s classic novel The Magnificent Ambersons. He brought in his usual troupe of Mercury Theatre stock stars including Joseph Cotton and Agnes Moorehead (but decided not to appear himself) plus incendiary newcomer Tim Holt.
With his talent in place, Welles started crafting a brutal look at turn of the 20th century Indianapolis from the vantage point of two families – one is invested in the creation of the automobile and another is clinging to traditionalism. Between them blossoms and wilts some love affairs spread across two generations. The undercurrent of it all is devastation – the end of honour; the unforgiving forge of change, the carnage of illness.
Like The Leopard or The Age of Innocence, Ambersons isn’t a film that is explicit with its violence but is shattering in its own stiff upper lipped manner – such is the emotional weight of a shift in social status. To be snubbed can cut deeper than a blade.
Put all that together and Welles’ vision of The Magnificent Ambersons wasn’t ever supposed to be a happy picture so it’s infuriating that the studio took control and tacked on a more upbeat ending at the last minute while killing off around 40 minutes of the characters’ disintegrations – lost forever more. It’s the equivalent of Diane Keaton and Al Pacino playing happy families at the end of The Godfather.
The result is one of cinema’s greatest “what ifs” – would Ambersons have bettered Kane? The surviving material does show Welles to be a more mature, restrained filmmaker and a master of patching together an ensemble of emotions, tones and plot strands. For all of Kane’s technical marvels, Ambersons is a more complex affair and Welles’ command is exemplary.
So assured is the footing of Ambersons is that it survives the studio butchery and deception. The upbeat ending is incongruous, yes, but it’s not a finishing blow. The Magnificent Ambersons is still a truly essential masterwork and this new Criterion Blu-ray is a suitably handsome presentation that is supplemented by a wealth of thoughtful bonus materials.
SPECIAL EDITION FEATURES:
- New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
- Two audio commentaries, featuring scholars Robert L. Carringer and James Naremore and critic Jonathan Rosenbaum
- New interviews with film historians Simon Callow and Joseph McBride
- New video essays by scholars François Thomas and Christopher Husted
- Director Orson Welles on The Dick Cavett Show in 1970
- Segment from a 1925 silent adaptation of The Magnificent Ambersons
- Audio from a 1978 AFI symposium on Welles, and audio interviews with Welles conducted by filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich
- Two Mercury Theatre radio plays: Seventeen (1938), an adaptation of another Booth Tarkington novel by Welles, and The Magnificent Ambersons (1939)
- PLUS: Essays by authors and critics Molly Haskell, Luc Sante, Geoffrey O’Brien, Farran Smith Nehme, and Jonathan Lethem, and excerpts from an unfinished 1982 memoir by Welles