Please note: this review is ripe with spoilers!
After the release of his film debut, Citizen Kane [M] (1941), which won critical praise and an Oscar but didn’t make the money RKO had hoped, radio's wonder boy Orson Welles moved on to another high-profile production, adapting Booth Tarkington’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel into a 2+ hour drama. Welles not only wrote, produced, and directed the project, but produced and co-starred in Journey into Fear, which was being shot simultaneously. After delivering a rough cut of Ambersons to the studio, he was sent to Brazil on a goodwill mission to make a kind of cultural exchange documentary called It’s All True, but early into filming he was told Ambersons had tested very badly. Audiences reportedly laughed at the wrong parts, reacted with disgust to the film’s mounting slope of human misery, and the studio was faced with a production that might not make back its hefty cost (augmented by some elaborately conceived sets that were mandatory to Welles’ dynamic visual design and desire to further push the limit of long takes).
Unable to return to Los Angeles and directly supervise the re-editing, and with editor Robert Wise similarly unable to consult directly with Welles in Brazil, Ambersons became what could be regarded as the first major sound film by a maverick director to be taken out of his hands and altered far beyond its original design.
There are parallels to Erich von Stroheim, silent film’s autocratic writer / director / actor: like Welles, von Stroheim tested the patience and financial resources of the studio system to make idiosyncratic epics on human debauchery and misery (his version of Greed was hacked down from 9 hours to just over 2), and Welles may have suffered because of the former’s legacy of outrageous demands.
Welles also had youth going against his position: had he been a veteran director with 10 years of the odd critical and financial windfall in his C.V., he may have had some leverage, but RKO was terror-stricken with a dreary, pricey film. The solution: reshoots, re-edits, and knocking out 43 mins. from the 131 mins. running time.
The dilemma for viewers – in 1942, and the present day – is what to make of the film with such a storied post-production history. Like Greed, it also remains a definitive ‘lost masterpiece’ because of the faint hope that somewhere, lying in deep storage – perhaps in Brazil, in the form of rough cutting copies sent to Welles by RKO – are the missing scenes which could, like the recent discovery of rare footage from Fritz Lang’s uncut Metropolis, finally restore a reputed masterpiece.
That thinking presumes what was conceived and executed by Welles was pure genius, but there are differing opinions, as gathered by film historian Robert Carringer, who chronicled the film in print, and on Criterion’s 1986 laserdisc in an ongoing audio commentary track.
The Myth of a Magnificent Masterpiece
Carringer’s interviews with editor Wise, plus survivors who saw the rough cut, suggest the film just didn’t work: it was long, had many structural problems, and was unreleasable at 131 mins. The inference isn’t that Welles was mad or inept or myopic, but that he lacked the time to re-edit and fine-cut – which is a marked difference from von Stroheim making a 9 hour film, or Michael Cimino making a 6 hour Heaven’s Gate – situations where the respective studios were betting the pretty footage and boy wonder touch would yield financial and critical windfalls.
Welles wasn’t a full-on egomaniac and wasn’t intent on making an epic that defied conventional running times. Ambersons wasn’t unreasonable at 131 mins., and according to Carringer’s tally of missing scenes, it wasn’t filled with redundancies, either. Its problems lay in anchoring the entire story around one specific character who was innately loathsome – George Amberson Minafer (Tim Holt).
If Welles’ script was faithful to the novel, then porting over George with all of his wretched behaviour perhaps illustrates a case where fidelity isn’t always the best method in translating prose to film.
The core story is quite simple: due to Isabel Amberson’s (Dolores Costello) rash decision to reject her ideal suitor, future car inventor Eugene (Joseph Cotten), she marries a banal second choice (Donald Dillaway), and their offspring grows into an over-indulged brat who regards the rest of humanity as mere ‘riff-raff.’ Even after a term in prep school, ‘princely terror’ George remains a bellicose force who’s tolerated by his family, indulged by his aunt Fanny (Agnes Moorehead), and lacks any desire to assume any career beyond a yachtsman because everything else is “useless guff.”
Eugene returns to town and sets up his auto factory, and takes his daughter Lucy (Anne Baxter, fresh from Swamp Water) to the Amberson mansion for a massive ball. George quickly realizes “queer duck” Eugene retains a seething devotion for his mother, but to add further turmoil, George also develops a fancy for Eugene’s head-strong, witty daughter. It’s only when Isabel’s husband Wilbur dies from a prolonged illness that George’s possessive streak kicks in, eventually banning Eugene from ever seeing his mother again.
Lucy soon rejects George, and perhaps in a bit of understated oedipal lust, he whisks his mother on a whirlwind European tour for an undetermined period, during which Eugene’s business thrives, and the Amberson fortunes diminish to the point where the family becomes virtually destitute. By the tale’s end, what remains is a shattered family with no title, no wealth, no stately home, and no love.
The film’s ending had George commit a single act of selflessness – he gets a job delivering dangerous chemicals so his aunt Fanny won’t have to live in poverty – but he ends up in hospital after being smacked by a car. When Eugene visits him, he forgives George for keeping Isabel away from him. In Welles’ original ending, Eugene visits Fanny in her grungy home, tells her of visiting George, and leaves Fanny alone, whereas in the final release version (and reportedly the novel), the reconciliation occurs between George, Eugene, Lucy, and Fanny in the hospital.
Ambersons is a complex drama of inter-relationships as well as a powerful study of industrialization radically altering the social makeup of towns: out go the horse-drawn carriages and land barons of old, and in come inventors – perhaps precursors to the dotcom entrepreneurs - whose toys reshape the way progress rebuilds a society into something mechanized, fossil fuel-driven, and feeds the development of suburbia and the gradual erosion of a vibrant downtown core.
It’s illuminating to see such a prescient statement dramatized in prose and film long before the car became the central mode of conveyance during the fifties, but as Carringer explains quite rightly in the laserdisc commentary, the film remains problematic because George is so distasteful throughout the course of the film, sucking away attention from other characters, and giving audiences no respite to his whiny comportment.
George ruins his mother’s last chance at love, causes her emotional breakdown, he’s horribly cruel towards his spinster aunt Fanny, and partakes in wasting significant parts of the family fortune. Although he isn’t directly responsible for the family’s slide into poverty, he shares the same bad fiduciary skills as his parents, uncle Jack (Ray Collins) and aunt Fanny. During the family’s awful downward spiral, grandfather Major Amberson (Richard Bennett) becomes more frail, and his eventual death mercifully saves him from witnessing the Ambersons’ total destruction.
Tarkington’s George is too much of a proactive force, and part of the script's tragic streak stems from Eugene’s inability to exceed his social stature: he remains an outsider for most of the film, lacking the Amberson’s fine breeding. He also accepts George’s barring him from further entry at the estate’s front door without any protest rather than storming inside to fight for Isabel’s attention. By not acting like a classic, proactive movie hero – even the finale doesn’t reconfigure Eugene into a genuine savior – audiences in 1942 were left with a doomed love affair, and one lacking moments of overt screen passion. Eugene was more of a wet rag, which left no hero, let alone no one for audiences to cheer for.
Folded into this complex mix is aunt Fanny, the spinster who once liked Eugene, but could never match Isabel’s grace, beauty, and moderate emotionalism. George is essentially Fanny’s surrogate son and she indulges in his needs, but as Carringer observes, she’s so needy and unstable no man would ever consider consorting her - even Eugene.
Booth Tarkington’s Ambersons: A Package of Multiple Conundrums
Even without any knowledge of the film's production problems, most viewers will notice Ambersons grows increasingly wonky after its first third. Welles’ narration disappears, edits between scenes are awkward, and the film’s dramatic structure becomes a mess. Characters disappear for clumsy stretches (or in the Major's case, outright after a bizarre hallucinogentic, fireside rant), and the sappy final scene feels awfully tacked on. There are lighting discontinuities due to reshoots, and the music cues feel like a slapdash pastiche. (Bernard Herrmann removed his name from the film due to the rescoring. Many of the cues often sounds like mediocre library tracks.)
It also doesn’t help that for years there was / remains no crisp print in circulation. On TV, Ambersons was often grainy, and Stanley Cortez’ high contrast lighting didn’t carry over too well to 16mm TV prints. Warner Home Video’s 2012 DVD transfer is above average compared to prior Region 2 DVD efforts, but it’s still a film in dire need of a restoration.
Fans wanting a digital remastering will be disappointed that Ambersons isn’t on Blu, but perhaps the thinking by WHV is until better elements are found, or a decision is made to create a release in which a restored version could be concocted using stills (similar to von Stroheim’s Greed) offering a blend of seamless branching, this is as good as it gets.
What’s really unfortunate is that none of the extras from Criterion’s laserdisc were ported over. WHV’s DVD is pure bare bones, and there’s nothing to place the film in any historical context, nor within Welles’ canon. It merely exists.
Carringer’s laserdisc commentary is a gold mine of facts – he covers the film’s production, and cites were scenes & shots were removed, what vestiges remain, and where material was re-ordered or integrated with the reshoots by Welles’ Mercury Theatre associate Fred Fleck and editor Robert Wise – but he’s also a terribly dull raconteur because of a delivery that’s slower than dripping molasses. It’s a real struggle at times to get through his comments because his words unfurl almost in slow-motion, and it’s obviously a lesson from which Criterion learned, opting often for moderated or edited commentary tracks to avoid future uncontrolled dullness.
Criterion’s CLV set edition includes the commentary, whereas the CAV laserdisc also contains a bonus side featuring additional materials, such as a visual essay: the original Mercury Theatre radio show from 1939; excerpts from Pampered Youth, a lost 1925 film version of Tarkington’s novel of which 25 mins. survive; and Welles’ original shooting script.
2002: (re)Filming the Original Shooting Script
The saga of RKO’s mangling of Ambersons has endured for generations because its story is so compelling, and yet Welles’ vision didn’t end in 1942. Although RKO, as a functioning studio, eventually closed and its film catalogue and production facilities were chopped up and sold off, its corporate remnants survived on paper, including a handful of assets - such as the option to remake Welles’ original shooting script.
In 2002 A&E co-produced a TV version, and it’s worth discussing the results because they hint at the original dramatic structure envisioned by Welles prior to the butchery.
‘Restored’ were various excised scenes which offered two major bonuses: the chance to see extra character nuances in their intended order (often with risqué dialogue), and the films’ original central focus George Minafer in his full power.
The filmmakers – a mélange of director Alfonso Arau and several producers – chose to drop Welles’ narration and the time-flipping sequences in the early scenes, and restrict any flashbacks to longer, more linear sequences buffered by commercial breaks. Arau also restaged a few scenes differently – George and Lucy now have a conversation under a table at the opening ball, and George and aunt Fanny are more physically combative in their final kitchen scene in the mansion – but the greatest change is the radical augmenting of George and Isabel’s oedipal relationship.
In the 1942 version, it’s played like a possessive son who discreetly manipulates his mother in a fight for attention rather physical affection, whereas the 2002 version adds touching & mouth kissing, and an obvious yearning that to fans of Welles’ understated film will be jarring. (Whether the oedipal behaviour was as overt in the novel isn’t detailed in the DVD’s nearly half-hour making-of featurette.)
George’s ‘fight’ with Fanny at the end is also provocatively staged: they grapple and almost wrestle on the table, and it ends with him lying on top of her, holding down her hands, and resting cheek-to-cheek with Fanny. During this fracas Arau has a dismissed housekeeper pass by, glance down at the two with sadness, and continue her exit. This dramatic action is typical of the way all characters are oblivious to George's oedipal behaviour; it’s as though his obsession and affections are simple demonstrations of intense familial devotion.
Madeleine Stowe (Isabel), Gretchen Mol (Lucy), Dina Merrill (Mrs. Johnson), and James Cromwell (Major Amberson) are strong in their roles, whereas Bruce Greenwood (Eugene) emotes significantly but lacks the scenes needed to give his character necessary dimension. Eugene’s a distant figure who often comes close to interacting with others but abruptly leaves scenes and the narrative for long periods – often after George behaves like a princely shit.
Additionally, Jennifer Tilly simply can’t compete with Agnes Moorehead’s potent version of aunt Fanny. Moorehead managed to convey her character’s decades-old hurt with body and voice, but Tilly’s performance is too affected, and whenever she lacks meaty dialogue, her character possesses as much resonance as a wooden chair. Worse, emotional outbursts come off as spastic, such as her sudden collapse in the kitchen before she scuffles with George on the table.
William Hootkins manages to replicate most of the wise, wry sarcasm of uncle Jack, but unlike Ray Collins, his portrayal has him more forgiving: the train station parting feels schizophrenic because Jack really ought to loathe George for the ruin he’s caused, yet he blurts a pristine ‘God Bless You’ to the boy as the train departs.
Whereas RKO chose to reduce George’s screen time and mandate reshoots to soften the character’s obsessive manipulating, A&E’s teleplay apparently makes use of the original scenes Welles designed to show George slowly coming to terms with his behaviour, and learning lessons of tolerance and self-sacrifice, but as in Welles’ film, it still comes too late. Holt’s performance made George more whiny and opportunistic than cleverly manipulative, but Jonathan Rhys Meyers transforms him into an amoral shit, and the consequences are quite dire for the drama, particularly since Meyers – either of his own design or through the support of director Arau – channels a kind of inner Nicolas Cage: Meyers’ performance is so high pitched – his eyes are crackhead psychotic, his physical movements perpetually impulsive – that he makes George utterly unsympathetic. You really want to beat him when Arau starts to photograph him as an emerging angel in his final scenes.
The 2002 effort is valiant – Arau and the producers managed to mount an impressive production, recreating Indiana in lovely Ireland – but it’s of interest to Welles fans purely to get a sense of how the film would’ve flowed (based on its current length) in its rough cut form.
As made by A&E in a pre-HD, widescreen broadcast environment, the 1.33:1 ratio feels strangely cramped – an issue that never affected Welles’ version – and the primordial CGI mattes are just adequate. The music score is generic, and the end credits feature a terrible pop version of the theme with lyrics penned by Arau. The fadeouts for ad breaks are intrusive, and the DVD transfer is strangely soft, robbing the print of proper sharpness.
The making-of featurette features more leisurely paced interviews and behind-the-scenes footage – a nice bonus that covers the film’s conception, filming, casting, and script.
As director, Arau was an unusual choice, and like his prior efforts – the saccharine Like Water for Chocolate (1992), and A Walk in the Clouds (1995) – the dramatic scenes are sometimes heavily sentimental, if not emotionally spastic. One directorial device, however, works quite well: as characters read or write letters, they’re soon shown addressing the camera directly, with the addressee reacting to their words. The tactic brings back dead or distant characters into the narrative, and the huge close-ups are quite affecting.
Going back to 1939
Although fans are essentially left with Welles’ shooting script, the 1942 film, and the 2002 teleplay, there’s also his 1939 Mercury Theatre radio production of the novel which condensed the whole tale just under 55 mins. (including Campbell’s Soup ad breaks).
Welles both narrates and plays George (his slight vocal pitch shift and speech pattern works extremely well to differentiate his roles), and there are whole sentences which reappear in the 1942 and 2002 versions. Eugene is played by Walter Huston, and the other roles are filled by Eric Burgess, Marion Burns, Everett Sloane, Richard Wilson, and Ray Collins.
The most significant difference in this radio adaptation has Isabel dying in Paris; in the 1942 version, she’s abruptly back in Indiana and dies at the Amberson home, whereas for the 2002 version her illness begins and is diagnosed in Paris, and she returns home clearly to die.
The end scene where the survivors reconcile with George in the hospital is almost verbatim to the 2002 edition with one specific difference: instead of Lucy telling her father to reconcile with George, in the radio play George speaks the lines. In the 1942 film, the dialogue (with some modifications telling audiences George ‘will be just fine’) is shared by George and Fanny as they walk down the hospital corridor, insinuating all is well, including a possible bond between the two (which, alongside George’s miracle recovery, is patently absurd). It’s no wonder the RKO edit made Welles sick.
While fans will be disappointed WHV chose to release a no-frills DVD of the film, it isn’t far-fetched to believe a third party label like Criterion might one day revisit Welles' second directorial effort with wholly new extras, perhaps offering a reconstruction of the film via stills and text cards. WHV’s DVD at least brings Region 1 land into line with Europe, where the film’s been available on DVD for some time, so the next step lies with indie labels willing to commit to an edifying special edition.
Those wanting additional info can read Carringer’s book. Additionally, in a brief 1978 interview between Stanley Cortez and TVOntario’s Elwy Yost (7:30 – 10:00), Cortez recounts his involvement with Welles for Ambersons.
Readers may also wish to hear Welles’ 1939 Mercury Theatre radio production, available at The Mercury Theatre on the Air in MP3 and Real Audio formats. Equally of use are the documentary portions of It’s All True: Based on an Unfinished Film by Orson Welles [M] (1993), which provide a glimpse into the complex chronology of events that followed the making of Ambersons to Welles being dumped by RKO.
© 2012 Mark R. Hasan