RKO was guilty of the performing the cinematic equivalent of a partial birth abortion on Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons. Its 88 minute running time only came about after fifty minutes of it were shaved off by RKO butchers following a disastrous test screening.
And for some reason they thought they should show this movie to a Saturday night audience after they had already sat through a test screening of the upbeat musical The Fleet’s In! Guess what? People weren’t quite prepared to sit through Welles’ thoughtful meditation on the ending of a way of life and the coming technological boom after watching sailors sing and dance.
Just to secure themselves a place as one of the great villains in cinema history, RKO burned all the footage they cut and none of that footage survives. The studio also managed to tack on a happy ending that goes so much against the grain of everything you had been watching that you can’t help but substitute a grimace for the smile that crosses one of the character’s faces as the movie draws to a close.
The film really does suffer from the missing footage (Welles has said that RKO pretty much eliminated the third act) and once the first half of the film has finished, the remainder feels rushed. In spite of the studio’s meddling with this film, is it still worth seeing? Without question, The Magnificent Ambersons, even in its truncated form manages to weave an enthralling tale of a family who was the pinnacle of its time and what happens when that time inexorably passes it by.
Welles chooses the character of George, the only son of Wilbur and Isabel (she is the Amberson) to represent the ideal that nothing is forever and that the only thing in life that is inevitable is change. Those that resist change, even if that change isn’t necessarily for the better are doomed to what amounts to a slow extinction.
Wells sets all this up with extraordinary care, showing us the fabulous life these Ambersons lead, complete with their fancy clothes, the best house in town, their gigantic balls, and carefree sleigh rides. While we see the family holding court and generally enjoying the fruits of all their wealth, we know from the narrator that we aren’t seeing a family in their prime, but are seeing them as they used to be.
We know that times are changing and that this type of genteel and privileged life can’t on forever. We also see how Isabel has denied herself her true love in Eugene Morgan and has married the steady and unremarkable Wilbur.
From this union they had George, a hell raiser loathed by the townspeople and a kid whose parents spoiled him. You can see the kind of person George will become in these early scenes, a person for whom the rules don’t apply and who feels he is entitled to treat others as beneath him.
The bulk of the movie takes place about twenty years after Isabel rebuffs Eugene. Gene comes back to town with his daughter Lucy in tow. Gene is an inventor whose newest contraption is the horseless carriage. It’s clear that time has not dimmed his feelings for Isabel and even though she is happily married, she is obviously still fond of him.
George has been away at school and comes home just as big a jerk as he’s always been. He takes a liking to Lucy and she seems to be sweet on him as well, but it becomes plain to see that his lack of desire to do anything other than be rich and spoiled sours her on marrying him.
Meanwhile, Isabel’s husband Wilbur has literally worried himself to death over some investments he made and you can see the family’s fortunes begin to turn at this juncture. Gene and Isabel renew their friendship which causes George, who has always had no respect for Gene or his horseless carriage contraption, to freak out.
George is the personification of the status quo and more importantly, stagnation. You see this in his views on the coming of automobiles, his desire that his mother not get involved with Gene, his continual refusal to “grow up” and be something more than a rich kid, and insisting on wearing that silly wavy perm of his. What he gets for his troubles is a universally miserable experience as he has to watch his mother waste away, she having denied herself her love with Gene again, this time for George’s sake.
The movie about this time, like the Amberson family itself, begins to peter out, just kind of evaporating into darkness as we learn George’s ultimate fate. It occurs in such an abbreviated fashion and is so completely at odds with the finely crafted and deftly paced first part of the film, that the whole thing is rather jarring and you get the idea that Welles just lost steam and was trying to wrap it up as fast as he could.
We know that’s not the case, but that’s how bad all that editing left this film. The command that Welles shows with the camera and the sets in this one, combined with the powerhouse and soulful performances of all involved demonstrate that this would have been the follow up to Citizen Kane that Wells wanted – bigger, more involved, darker, and something that would resonate with the audience more than his acknowledged masterpiece. After all this was about the problems we have finding our place not only in this world, but even within our own family.
What you are left with in The Magnificent Ambersons is much like George himself – unfinished and remarkable for the potential that was wasted. It’s still an excellent film, but you just can’t help wondering wistfully what might have been if those dullards in that Pomona screening sixty years ago had appreciated what they saw.
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