The Black-and-White Magnificence of the ‘Ambersons’


Tim Holt in The Magnificent Ambersons

Last night I watched Orson Welles‘ 1942 film The Magnificent Ambersons for the first time. Of course, like everyone else, I’m watching the edited down 88-minute version of the film, which was recently re-released by Warner Home Video along with the 70th anniversary release of Citizen Kane, but at this point you take what you get as it seems decided we’ll never see the original 148-minute version.

As David Kamp wrote in his 2002 Vanity Fair piece, Ambersons is considered one of the “two great ‘lost’ movies in the annals of Hollywood filmmaking” along with Erich von Stroheim’s Greed, which Christopher Nolan recently pegged as a Criterion hopeful.

I’ve had Kamp’s piece bookmarked for the longest time, not wanting to read it before seeing the movie myself and I was finally able to do so. It’s a fascinating story of how the film came to be an hour shorter than the original cut and where a version of that cut may actually still reside. Among the stories, I found the following excerpt of particular interest:

Peter Bogdanovich, who was very close to Welles from the late 1960s through the mid-70s, and who for a time even let Welles bunk in his Bel Air home, remembers an incident that took place in the early 70s when he and his then girlfriend, Cybill Shepherd, paid a visit to Welles and his companion, a Croatian actress named Oja Kodar, in Welles’s bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel. “Orson had this habit–you’d be having a conversation, and food would be there and whatever, and he sat rather near the TV with the clicker,” he says. “So he was clicking it and watching it go, with the sound turned down a bit. I had my eye half on the TV, and there was a flash of Ambersons that I caught. He was off it almost before I could see it, because he obviously recognized it before I did. But I still saw it, and I said, ‘Oh, that was Ambersons!’ And Oja said, ‘Oh, really? I’ve never seen it.’ [Mimicking Welles’s stentorian boom:] ‘Well, you’re not going to see it now!’ And Cybill said, ‘Oh, I want to see it.’ We all said, ‘Let’s see a little bit.’ And Orson said no. And then everybody said, ‘Oh, please?’ So Orson flipped to the channel and walked out of the room in a huff.

“So then we all said, ‘Orson, come back, we’ll turn it off.’ [Wellesian boom again:] ‘No, it’s all right, I’ll suffer!’ So we watched it for a while. And then Oja, who was sitting furthest forward, kind of gestured to me. I looked back, and Orson was leaning in the doorway, watching. And as I remember, he came in and sat down. Nobody said anything. He just came in and sat down rather close to the set and watched for a while, not too long. I couldn’t really see him–his back was to me. But I looked over at Oja at one point, who could see him because she was sitting on the other side of the room, and she looked at me and gestured like this. [Bogdanovich runs a finger down his cheek from his eye, indicating tears.] And I said, ‘Maybe we shouldn’t watch this anymore.’ And we turned it off, and Orson left the room for a while and then came back.”

71 years after its release the original version is unlikely to ever turn up. Then again, who would have thought lost footage from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis would have been found 81 years after its release?

As for what remains, it’s an enjoyable feature with moments of brilliance to be found within.

I was initially struck by Welles’ voice over that begins the feature, batted back and forth from narrator to narrative. At once it sets up the story, establishes the thematic elements and plays with the narrative in a unique way. Unfortunately, the video to the right doesn’t run long enough to get to the moment where a group of townspeople hope young George Minafer (referred to by Welles’ narration as a “princely terror”) will get his comeuppance.

George’s comeuppance would come, though, and it’s captured in the images below and the scene can be viewed here.

For my money, the image that leads off this post and the four I’ve included below best display Stanley Cortez‘s luscious black-and-white cinematography.

The image above is beautifully ironic. Doves float around George’s head as he stands in the middle of the family’s grand staircase, arguing with his aunt Fanny (Agnes Morehead). It would seem to paint George as an angel if seen out of context. As the movie proves, he’s anything but.

Later in the film and captured in the images below, the narration tells us, “George Amberson Minafer had got his comeuppance. He got it three times filled, and running over.” George is seen praying for forgiveness and the narration continues, “But those who had so longed for it were not there to see it, and they never knew it. Those who were still living had forgotten all about it and all about him.” It makes me wonder, had God also forgotten George?

In my opinion the film essentially ends with this scene. From here it begins to feel like a different movie, especially with the tacked on ending, that strangely works in some ways, but never feels entirely true to the narrative. However, to have some context surrounding the making of the film, it’s easier to see where it might have gone and catch on to some of the subtleties that were never fully realized. Whether it’s a classic or a masterpiece I’ll leave for others to decide. I, however, enjoyed watching it fully.

Tim Holt in The Magnificent Ambersons

Tim Holt in The Magnificent Ambersons

Tim Holt in The Magnificent Ambersons

Tim Holt in The Magnificent Ambersons