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The Magnificent Ambersons (September 5, 2013)

The novelist Booth Tarkington wrote the novel The Magnificent Ambersons in 1918. It showed the succession from the previous generation of Indiana aristocrats, Civil War veterans and land developers, to a new generation whose fortunes were built on manufacturing, especially automobiles. Orson Welles said and believed that Tarkington had based the character of Eugene Morgan on Richard Head Welles, Orson Welles’ father, who had, in a small way, been an inventor of automotive equipment himself, though no evidence for that belief exists. Welles produced a radio drama version of The Magnificent Ambersons for his Campbell Playhouse in October, 1939. Welles himself played George Minafer, and the theatrical couple Walter Huston and Nan Sunderland played the frustrated lovers Eugene Morgan and Isabel Amberson Minafer.

Filming took place from October, 1941 through January, 1942. Welles wrote the screenplay. Cinematography was by Stanley Cortez, set design by Mark-Lee Kirk, art direction by Al D’Agostino, editing by Robert Wise, and music by Bernard Herrmann. Welles’ cast included Joseph Cotten and silent movie star Dolores Costello as Eugene and Isabel, cowboy movie lead Tim Holt as George Minafer, and Anne Baxter, who was eighteen at the time, as Eugene’s daughter Lucy. In February, 1942 Welles flew to Miami on his way to Rio de Janeiro, where he planned to make his next film, It’s All True. The editor Robert Wise delivered a rough cut of the film to Welles. It was to be 132 minutes long. Wise returned to Hollywood with Welles’ instructions. He was to finish the film editing, adding sound and music, and then meet Welles in Rio with the final cut. Welles continued to send instructions to Wise, though due to wartime restrictions, Wise was unable to go to Brazil. George Schaefer, RKO’s studio head, screened the film and ordered a sneak preview in Pomona, California on March 17, 1942. The film received mixed reactions.

RKO lawyers said that after Welles had done his preliminary first cut, the studio had the right to cut the film as they saw fit. After attempting to negotiate a mutually acceptable final cut with the studio via telegraph, Welles insisted that the film be released as he wanted, or not at all. In late April and May new scenes were shot by Robert Wise, Welles’ manager Jack Moss, and assistant director Freddie Fleck, with script help from Joseph Cotten. The final version, 88 minutes long, was released in July, 1942. The excised footage was destroyed by RKO. The version that survives really suffers from the disjointed continuity imposed upon it by Schaefer and the makers of the reshot scenes. Bernard Herrmann took his name off the re-edited film. For the rest of his life Welles regretted the loss of what he felt was perhaps his best film. The original screenplay was published in Robert Carringer’s book The Magnificent Ambersons: A Reconstruction in 1993. In 2002 a made-for-television movie used that screenplay as the basis of a new version of the story. Welles’ 1942 film cost an estimated $850,000, and lost $620,000. George Schaefer lost his job by the time the film was released. It was nominated for a best picture Oscar, Agnes Moorehead was nominated for best supporting actress, Al D’Agostino and others were nominated for best art direction-interior decoration, and Stanley Cortez was nominated for best cinematography.

The film’s greatness is evident, though the re-editing definitely strains the flow of the story and reduces the film’s visual impact. Stanley Cortez said that the original scene in the third floor ballroom of the Amberson mansion, from which over five minutes was cut, was a long take that was designed to flow seamlessly between actors in four different rooms, using walls that lifted up and mirrors that were tilted to disguise the passage of the camera. Despite what has been lost, I hope you enjoy watching The Magnificent Ambersons with me tonight.