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BINGE-ING ON ORSON WELLES’S ‘MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS’

When people say they are bingeing these days, it usually means watching one or more seasons of a TV series in marathon fashion. I’ve been doing the same thing with a single film: the Criterion Collection’s recent Blu-ray release of Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons.

To be honest, I’ve never given this film much consideration. It’s well-known that the wunderkind’s follow-up to Citizen Kane was butchered by RKO after at least one disastrous preview. The studio didn’t think to save the excised material. so all we have is the 88-minute release print—shorn of more than 30 minutes—which offers only a taste of what the filmmaker had in mind. A generous selection of interviews, commentaries, and video treatises highlight key scenes and call attention to the details of every precious moment in the movie, as do the five eloquent essays in an accompanying booklet.

As a result, I’ve fallen in love with the movie.

 

The Criterion Blu-ray

 

Welles’s biographer Simon Callow and historian Joseph McBride appear on-camera and paint a sad picture of how the picture became a “mutilated masterpiece.” The description is apt, but there is still much to cherish in Welles’s adaptation of the Booth Tarkington novel. The writer-director doesn’t appear on screen but his presence is still felt: his unmistakable voice provides the narration that bookends the film.

There is so much to admire and appreciate. I marvel at the way Welles orchestrated his shots. He makes optimal use of the sprawling Amberson mansion set to underscore the relationships of his characters. None of the deep-focus images or long tracking shots are there to show off: they all have meaning. While Tim Holt and Anne Baxter sit on a landing of the famous Amberson staircase, we can see Joseph Cotten whirling Dolores Costello around the dance floor in the distance. No amount of language could better describe the dynamics of these four characters.

Cotten gives a remarkable performance as a man much older than he actually was. I don’t think he gets the credit he deserves for his work here as a genteel industrialist and forsaken suitor. The other Mercury players who came to Hollywood with Welles are equally good, notably Ray Collins and Agnes Moorehead. Her searing portrayal of an embittered woman whose unrequited affection for Cotten goes unnoticed by her own family earned the movie newcomer her first Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actress.

 

Who better to evoke the feeling of Americana conveyed in this film than artist Norman Rockwell? This is one of a handful of movie posters he painted during his long career

 

Welles’s canny casting is another of the film’s great assets. He needed a mature actress whose beauty was still intact and chose Dolores Costello, a former silent-film leading lady (and the ex-wife of John Barrymore). To play Major Amberson, the passive patriarch of the family, he called on stage veteran Richard Bennett, the real-life father of Constance and Joan Bennett. For his callow leading man he singled out Tim Holt and gave him the challenge of playing an utterly unlikable protagonist. (Welles discreetly displays a poster of a silent film starring Tim’s father Jack Holt as the younger man walks by a movie theater with Anne Baxter late in the proceedings.) Baxter was another relative newcomer to Hollywood, an ideal choice to embody the fresh-faced young woman who is fated to drift away from the Ambersons.

The commentary by Robert L. Carringer dates back to this film’s initial release on laserdisc but is as fascinating as ever. We learn how Welles planned his film—and how it was dismantled. Scholarly critics Jonathan Rosenbaum and James Naremore offer cogent observations as they view the picture. A fascinating 1925 silent-film adaptation (provided by Kevin Brownlow) compresses the narrative to the length of a short-subject, covering major story points of Booth Tarkington’s novel with none of its nuance. A video essay by Francois Thomas examines surviving daily production reports to determine which scenes were shot by Stanley Cortez and which were handed off to other workmanlike cameramen. (Cortez’s chiaroscuro work was not easily replicated.)

Then there is Welles himself on a 1970 Dick Cavett Show, brimming with good cheer and disarmingly free of bravado. He is captured in various frames of mind in excerpts from Peter Bogdanovich’s valuable audio conversations. Two radio plays from the late 1930s, scored by Bernard Herrmann (who received no credit for his work on Ambersons) emphasize Welles’s deep-rooted fondness for the work of Booth Tarkington.

 

 

The written essays shed further light on the film without significantly overlapping each other. Molly Haskell’s writing is brilliant, and she is matched by Luc Sante, Geoffrey O’Brien, Farran Smith Nehme, and Jonathan Lethem in a booklet designed to resemble a shooting script. There is even a reproduction of an essay Welles wrote about his father, reportedly a friend of Tarkington.

It has taken the better part of a week for me to work my way through all of this, and I’m sorry to see it end. I now have deep feelings for The Magnificent Ambersons and owe a debt of thanks to the good folks at Criterion.

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