The Magnificent Ambersons Essay, Research Paper
?The biggest mistake we have made is to consider that films are primarily a form of entertainment. The film is the greatest medium since the invention of movable type for exchanging ideas and information, and it is no more at its best in light entertainment than literature is at its best in the light novel.?
Orson Welles was passionate about film. By the young age of 25, he had directed, produced, and starred in what is today considered by most to be the greatest movie ever made, Citizen Kane. About a year later, Welles began work on his next film project, The Magnificent Ambersons. Based on the novel of the same name by Booth Tarkington, The Magnificent Ambersons tells the story of a falling aristocratic family in a small midwestern town during the late 19h century. It depicts the sad, rapid industrial growth of the Midwest.
Welles, who grew up in Kenosha, Wisconsin and later in Illinois, understood what life was like in this part of the country and the novel allowed him to delve into his roots and examine his personal past. Surviving many risks and crises, this film is still revered today, almost 60 years later, as yet another great work of art by Orson Welles.
After finishing up Citizen Kane, Welles? search for a second film to fulfill his contract with the Hollywood studio RKO radio pictures was a hard one. He first wanted to make The Pickwick Papers with W.C. Fields, but someone else was already under contract to make the film with another studio. He also considered trying Joseph Conrad?s Heart of Darkness but RKO considered the project too experimental, and he finally decided to write a script based on Booth Tarkington?s novel, which had won a Pulitzer Prize in 1919 (McBride 53). It had been filmed once before as Pampered-Youth, a 1925 silent film directed by David Smith (McBride 53). Tarkington?s novels were a favorite of Welles?, including the trilogy of which Ambersons was a part of, and he had directed several of them into radio plays (Naremore 19). Welles wrote the script of The Ambersons in nine days (McBride 53).
The film was to be financed by the production company RKO/ Mercury. A major problem arouse with the budget before shooting began. Because of the shrinking international film market, RKO had set a maximum budget in Welles? contract of $600,000 for The Magnificent Ambersons (Higham213). Also, according to the arrangement that RKO had made with its bank, no film from the studio was ever to exceed $750,000. A pre-budget estimate of Ambersons came close to one million dollars. Pared down to more details in its final form just before shooting, the film looked as if it would still cost in excess of $850,000. Permission to proceed with production was eventually granted, but with strict rules to Welles to bring the cost down to under the $750,000 figure (Higham 214).
The Magnificent Ambersons is a Historical Epic Drama based on a time almost 70 years prior to its making. In order to cast the film, Welles read a delineation of the characters Tarkington had given in a 1917 issue of Metropolitan Magazine (Brady 316). The silent star Dolores Costello was brought out of retirement to play Isabel Amberson. Welles also made the surprising choice of selecting contract player Tim Holt for the role of George Minafer. Holt was considered a mistake by most people (Bogdanovich 113). Although he does give a strong performance, some have wondered why Welles did not take the role of George. Instead, Welles gives the finest narration to have been heard in the cinema (Higham 185). The Mercury Theatre players filled the rest of the cast. Joseph Cotton, perhaps the most underrated actor in film history, plays Eugene Morgan while Agnes Moorhead gives one of the great performances in sound cinema as Fanny Minafer (Higham 185).
Welles began rehearsing the cast of Ambersons for a total of five weeks, discussing with each actor the characters and their role in the story, their homes, their schooling, their backgrounds and the society in which they lived in the script (Cowie 132). In selecting the crew, Welles decided on Stanley Cortez as his cameraman, since Gregg Toland, who had shot Citizen Kane, had gone into the army (Sarris 107). Welles used the rest of Toland?s crew from Kane. Cortez was extremely talented, but too slow and particular for Welles? taste.
The shooting began on October 28, 1941 and was completed on January 22, 1942. The snow sequence was filmed at the Union Ice House in downtown Los Angelos. Real snow was brought in and below zero temperatures were reached because Welles wanted everything to look as authentic as possible (Sarris 211). According to materials contained in the RKO Production Records, the exterior process photography shots for the sleigh sequence were filmed at Big Bear, California (Sarris 211). George?s last walk home after saying goodbye to Jack at the train station was shot with a handheld camera in L.A. (Sarris 212). All of the other scenes were shot in the RKO studio. Welles and Cortez used many extreme wide-angle shots as was done in Kane, but this time the focus was much softer, adding a more appropriate feel to the film (Cowie 220). The effect of The Ambersons lies largely in the quiet frustration of the audience. Welles holds each shot a little longer than normal. Thirty seconds or a minute is such an uncommon length for a shot that we are unconsciously drawn into thinking that it will last still longer. And when Welles does cut, for the most part unobtrusively, there is a slight disappointment – a nostalgia – that the scene is already over (Film Comment). To achieve this requires high concentration in each shot. The overlapping conversations, the continual use of music, and the flowing motion of and in front of the camera achieve the grace and intensity needed for the effect (Film Comment). ?This film was made in violent contrast to Citizen Kane, almost as if by another filmmaker who detested the first one and wanted to give him a lesson in modesty? (Brady 317).
Of all the tricks Welles uses for Ambersons, the most notable is the iris shot of Morgan’s automobile driving off into the background with the Morgans and Ambersons on board, singing “Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo.” As the automobile putters off over the snowy horizon, the iris engulfs the world around it, a metaphorically appropriate trick since the Indianapolis they once knew is quickly disappearing. Not only is the Ambersons and the Morgans leaving the frame, they are leaving an era, and it is also appropriate that they should have an automobile as their mode of transportation because the era they are about to enter is one dominated by automobiles. The iris shot itself is an antiquated trick, one that was used frequently in the silent era but hardly at all after the coming of sound. Just as the iris shows the end of pre-industrial Indianapolis, it harks back to the beginnings of the cinema. It is a beautiful shot that captures the film’s essence better than any other (Slide).
The recutting of The Magnificent Ambersons has become a black legend. Welles was halfway into shooting the film when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Just after the bombing, the U.S. State Department Committee on Inter-American Affairs recruited Welles to make a film in Brazil (McBride 55). The head of this committee was Nelson Rockefeller, who was then a major stockholder of RKO and a supporter of Welles. It was Rockefeller’s idea to have Welles shoot a film in Brazil in order to improve relations between the U.S. and South America (McBride 55). The idea of a promotional film was pushed even further by fear of a German invasion on South America. Nazi influence was already growing rapidly in some parts. As a result, Welles had to rush shooting on Ambersons and finish principal production of several other scheduled projects as well (McBride 55).
Overloaded with so much work in so little time, Welles resorted to using second units on other sound stages in order to complete Ambersons on time. A committee consisting of Robert Wise, Welles’s manager Jack Moss, and Joseph Cotten was given the job of preparing certain scenes. Harry J. Wild and Russell Metty were also hired as auxiliary cameramen (Brady 318). After completing shooting for Ambersons, Welles prepared to leave for Brazil to shoot the film for the U.S. State Department. He first flew in to Miami, Florida where Wise prepared a rough cut of the film for Welles to record his narration, and to discuss plans for the final cut, after which Welles left for Brazil (Hanson).
The plan was for Wise to return to Hollywood to complete the editing, sound and music tracks, and then fly to Brazil with the final print. When Wise?s application to leave the country was denied due to wartime restrictions on travel, however, the print was shipped to Brazil, were Welles was to shape the final cut (Hanson). According to a March 6, 1942 HR news item, Welles remained in constant contact with Wise, telephoning and cabling the editor with detailed cutting instructions (Hanson). Welles teamed Wise with Jack Moss, the business manager of the Mercury Theater, with Wise acting as supervisor of post-production and Moss as surrogate producer (Brady 318). Re-edited footage was shipped regularly to Brazil where Welles would then comment on the changes via cable or telephone. The cutting continued until March 16, when Wise in a telegram notified Welles that studio head George Schaefer, anxious for an Easter release, requested a screening for himself and Charles Koerner, an executive who harbored contempt for Welles? artistic ambitions and would soon replace Schaefer as head of the studio. Wise informed Welles that Schaefer, concerned about the picture?s two-hour plus length, had ordered a sneak preview to be shown at the Fox Theatre in Pomona, CA on March 17 (Hanson). Audience response cards from that preview indicate that the film received mixed reactions: ?A horrible distorted dream.? ?The worst picture I ever saw. I could not understand it.? ?Exceedingly good picture.? ?This picture was a masterpiece.? (Slide).
Focusing on the negative comments, Schaefer asked RKO’s legal experts if RKO could possibly take Ambersons out of Welles’s hands. In Welles’s original contract, he was given carte blanche on his first film with RKO. Unfortunately, Ambersons was covered under a later, compromising contract that gave Welles complete control of the first preview cut and not the final cut. The final release cut had to be made under RKO’s orders. As terrible as the final editing may have been, it was legally under RKO’s jurisdiction (Film Comment). Another preview in Pasadena was quickly arranged with most of the cut film made before the Pomona preview restored. The audience’s reaction was an enormous improvement, with only one-fourth of the preview cards being negative compared to the Pomona preview cards of which three-fourths were negative (Slide).
However Pasadena’s audience was more sophisticated than Pomona’s, and the fact was if the film could not play in Pomona, it stood little chance of recouping its budget. RKO felt that the film needed to be drastically reduced for any hope at the box office. Schaefer’s hopes for an Easter premiere were gone, and the film would never be seen in its original, complete version.
The day after the Pasadena preview, Schaefer sent a typewritten letter to Welles describing the situation. Richard Wilson, a close associate to Welles, was with Welles when he received the letter and has told how he sank into a deep gloom after reading Schaefer’s devastating news. Schaefer wrote, ?Never in all my experience in the industry have I taken so much punishment or suffer as I did at the Pomona preview.? Schaefer also criticized the film as being ?too slow, heavy and topped off with somber music.? (Higham 187).
Attempts to work with Welles over telegrams and telephones were, as Wise recalls, “hopeless.? ? I simply couldn’t follow his instructions, they made no sense. One telegram he sent me was 67 pages long. I couldn’t follow it at all.” (Naremore 49). Charles Koerner ordered Moss to supervise the final cuts. All the important documentary footage on the city’s development, which accounted for about two reels, was removed as well as the original ending (Magill). When RKO finally had what they felt was a “releasable” form, they released it as the second half of a double bill with a Lupe Velez comedy, Mexican Spitfire Sees a Ghost (Film Comment). Not surprisingly Ambersons did not make any money.
The final product is only a fragment of Welles’s original film. Welles said it looked like it had been “edited with a lawn mower,” but according to Peter Bogdanovich and many others it is still a beautiful, lyrical film despite its current truncated form. While much of the heart of the picture was removed, at least most of the film’s set-up remains intact. There are moments in the film, though, in which the damage done is very obvious. This is seen in several vulgar, abrupt cuts, in a few awkward shots, in the sudden softening in George’s attitude, and in the tacked-on ending that seems saccharine.
Although The Magnificent Ambersons had a poor track record at the box office, it was still admired by many. A July 20, 1942 Time Magazine review called it ?a great motion picture, adult and demanding. Artistically it is a textbook of advanced cinema technique? (Variety Film Reviews). It was also nominated for several Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Art Direction, Best Black and White Cinematography and Best Supporting Actress (Agnes Moorehead) (O?Neil). Moorehead won the New York Film Critics Award for her performance as Fanny Minafer (O?Neill). ?Agnes Moorehead gave a brilliant and thoughtful portrayal in the somber and murky Orson Welles picture The Magnificent Ambersons? (Variety Film Reviews). There has been speculation that the film would be widely regarded as Welles’s best work and possibly the greatest film ever made had an original cut been available.