Saturday, July 23, 2005

More on The Magnificent Ambersons

I think the magic of the movie begins immediately; it is within those first few minutes of the film that you will know if this is the movie for you. It opens slowly, a black screen upon which white letters appear. "A Mercury Production Supervised by Orson Welles." A slow fade into "The Magnificent Ambersons From The Novel by Booth Tarkington." Orson Welles begins his narration, presenting an abridged version of Booth Tarkington's prose. A few beats after the narration begins, slowly as if someone has begun handcranking a Victrola, the music for the first scene begins and the film's first image fades in.

In fairness, I think to call the first minutes of Ambersons "illustrated radio" is not far from the truth. (Some of the same "staging" Welles used earlier in the Mercury Company's radio production of Ambersons a recording of which is found here.) As the narrator, Welles's voice is seductive; he uses it to draw you into the story. His narration puts you at ease and before you know it, you have become receptive to watch a story about a spoiled youth who gets his comeuppance (though I ask you if that's really who and what the movie is really about).

Welles's voice could be booming, but that wasn't all. I think few of us appreciate the power of his voice anymore; a sample of it should be included with every dictionary definition of "plummy." If anyone recognizes it today it is because they remember Welles when he was the spokesman for Paul Masson wines: "What Paul Masson himself said nearly a century ago is true today. 'We will sell no wine before its time.'" (However, in the Ambersons radio performance, I don't think Welles's vocal work comes off at its best. He sounds like he is doing a "Henry Aldrich" imitation.)

Just as interesting as the movie is what happened to the film after Welles completed his cut. After the publicity he had received after his War of the Worlds broadcasat, Welles had gone to R.K.O. as the boy genius. His first movie under the three-picture contact was Citizen Kane and that making that picture had proven to be an uphill battle. Ambersons may not have been R.K.O.'s first choice, the studio probably would have wanted a film of War of the Worlds before an adaptation of a 1919 novel, Pulitzer Prize or not. While Welles was in South America to take location shots for a documentary, he was swept up by the Brazilain Carnival and Ambersons fell out of his control.

While he was away, R.K.O. ran two previews that went terribly bad. Looking to make money on this film, as opposed to the return on Kane, the studio cut forty-four minutes and reshot/restaged the ending without Welles's input. Welles desperately tried to get in touch with the studio, but the regime that had recruited Welles had been replaced and his pleas were ignored. The result was a movie that was nominated for Best Picture (Welles was two for two: The first two movies he'd produced/wrote/directed were nominated in consecutive years) and broke Welles's heart. Never again would he have the opportunity his R.K.O. contract had presented, Ambersons lost money and Welles's contract was ended. He would spend the rest of his life trying to make movies the honestly represented the vision he had for them, but would continually be forced to accommodate the wishes of executives or make changes because of his lack of funds.

The most cutting to Ambersons took place after the first hour. This site presents the changes to the original film. Though the first hour didn't go untouched, that hour probably presents best what Welles was trying to do. Actually, it is the little things that I think make that hour: the overlapping dialog and sound effect; the use of shadows, especially in the Amberson Mansion; the use of silence; the incredible tracking shot (which itself was cut) that follows George and Lucy as they walk through the mansion; the frosted breaths of the actors during a winter scene, filmed in an icehouse.

Personally, one of my favorite parts of Ambersons and Citizen Kane are the closing credits. Welles's theatricality is particularily evident in them, presenting curtain calls for his key crew members and his cast, leaving himself until almost the very end. The only closing credit affectation that I enjoy more was Universal's use of "A Good Cast is Worth Repeating" on its films in the 1930s.

There are movies a person likes that can't be explained, for me The Magnificent Ambersons is one of those movies. It is in black and white and slow compared to modern films, but for eighty-eight minutes, all that is left Welles's original work, give it a try. You could thank me later.

Ordinarily, I like to embed links in the text as I write, but there is so much out there, that it wasn't natural this time. Below is a list of links relating to The Magnificent Ambersons or Orson Welles.

General information about Orson Welles can be found here, while Wikipedia has a nicely compact biography of the man.
This link leads to a site devoted to the film itself, including a discussion of what has been lost along with production stills from those scenes.
Here is some information about the Mercury Theatre Company's radio show along with links to listen or to download most of the show's productions, including the War of the Worlds show and the company's radio version of Ambersons. A dramatization of Mercury's run-in with the federal government over the latter's desire to stop a WPA production was shown in the 1999 film, Cradle Will Rock, while a similar working of Welles's fight to make Citizen Kane may be found in RKO 281 (1999), itself based on an earlier PBS documentary, The Battle Over Citizen Kane. Information, including a transcript of the show, is available here, while this link leads to a site that provides information about where RKO 281 deviates from history.
It is well known that Welles would take almost any job by the seventies to keep the wolf from the door. Here is a copy of a recording session where Welles struggled to read the copy for a frozen pea commercial.
The text of Tarkington's novel is available for download from the Gutenberg Project.
Further discussion of the film may be found here, here, and here.