Like 'Citizen Kane', 'The Magnificent Ambersons' was another Orson Wells film masterpiece. A complete copy of Wells film, however, does not exist.
All that is left is the extensively cut version released by the studio. It is unfortunate that Ambersons, regarded by some as a work finer than even Kane, should
be a film of speculation. Some believe that had a complete copy of the film managed to exist today it would be 'The Magnificent Ambersons' and not 'Citizen Kane' which would be hailed as the greatest film ever made. been called one of Hollywood's great tragedies, a testament to the studio system's disdain for true cinematic artistry. Wells began work on the 'The Magnificent Ambersons' right after his 1941 masterpiece 'Citizen Kane'. Hollywood was braced for another tour de force.
The Magnificent Ambersons is based on ther Booth Tarkington novel.
It is a turn-of-the-century period drama about a prosperous Midwestern family whose fortunes decline with the arrival of the automobile and changing economic times. It spans the period between 1873 and 1912 and centers on an aristocratic Indianapolis family that is
unable to adapt to the societal changes brought about by the invention of the automobile. The story of The Magnificent Ambersons is one of decline and darkness and sadness, a family unwilling to change with the times. Despite the weakenesses of the studio edited version, it is one of the movies' greatest works. If you've ever sat
through Gone with the Wind or
Giant or other such passionate soap operas, you can handle The Magnificent Ambersons. Watch it for its grace, poetry, astounding beauty, wizardry, and imagine that it could have been even more. We are not sure just how Tarkington describes Georgie's costuming in the book, but plan to look it up.
The film begins with Welles' own distinctive narration of Tarkington's prose:
The magnificence of the Ambersons began in 1873. Their splendor lasted throughout all the years that saw their Midland town spread and darken into a city. In that town in those days, all the women who wore silk or velvet knew all the other women who wore silk or velvet -- and everybody knew everybody else's family horse-and-carriage.
The Magnificent Ambersons centers around a wealthy Midwestern
family, the Ambersons, and how it disintegrates towards the end of the 19th century. The story concerns Isabel Amberson (Dolores Costello), who, at the beginning of the film, rejects suitor Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten), who drunkenly falls into his bass fiddle outside her window. Isabel gets married to the more respectable Mr. Minafer, and bears a child, George Minafer Amberson (played by Tim Holt), a single child who is spoiled
beyond belief. Because he's an Amberson
George feels that it's his right to do whatever takes his fancy. Everyone in town can't wait until George gets his comeuppance. Years later, Eugene shows up at a party with his beautiful daughter, Lucy (Anne Baxter) to whom George takes a liking. Elizabeth's husband dies, and Eugene becomes a suitor again. George doesn't like this, and neither does his aunt Fanny (Agnes Moorehead), who was in love with Eugene. George takes Elizabeth away on a round-the-world trip. When they return,
Elizabeth is ill and on her deathbed. George is left penniless, having got his comeuppance at last.
The main character in 'The Magnificent Ambersons' is George, know as Georgie as a child. He is pictured as a child of 9 years of age in two fancy outfits, overdressed by his doting mother Isabel. He is the spoiled son of the town's wealthy family. We first see him in a dark (it does not seem to be black) velvet Fauntlroy suit and a wide-brimmed sailor hat. He wears white long stockings with with supporters. low-cut. He has low cut, but not strap shoes. They are rther like dancing slippers. We next see him in an even more elaborate outfit, a Fauntleroy kilt suit with lace collar and cuffs. The kilt is a plaid than usually worn with kilt suits. There is no sporan or other kilt acoutaments. The cap seems to some time tam. He has dark rather than white long stockings. He also wears high-top shoes which were very common at the time. And he has a cane. We see him with his hair in long ringlet curls. This was some of the most elaborate costuming of late 19th Century boys wear pictured in any Hollywood film. It was also one of the few major productions showing a boy in long ringlet curls. Tarkington provides a description in his novel.
One reader writes us claiming that the costuming in the "Magnificent Ambersoms" is "outlandish". As a persusal of the HNC sections on Fauntleroy suits, kilts, and ringlet curls will show, the costuming in the film, seems quite accurate. There are many examples on HBC of American boys wearing comparable outfits. One good example is an unidentified American boy. The one aspect that seems not very accuate is the white stockings and slip on shoes.
There is only two brief scences in the film with George as a boy. Georgie has long curls and is first outfitted in a classic Fauntleroy suit and then a little later in is outfitted in a kilt outfit. Early in the story we get a flashback of Georgie as a spoiled boy. He gets into a fight with a neighboring boy for being so pampered, and the two wrestle on the ground for a few minutes before one of the Amberson elders sees the fight through a window in the
family mansion and rushes out to break it up. Then there is a subsequent scene in the Ambsesons' garden where Georgie denies what happened. We have the text from the film.
George as a younger child was played by Bobby Cooper. Bobby played in several movies between 1941-46, but as far as I know only very brief parts. HBC knows very little about him. He was not credited for his performancein 'Magificwnt Ambersons'. One wonders, given the costuming, how happy he was about getting the part. Tim Holt played the older George. The principal actors were Joseph Cotton, Dolores Costello, Anne Baxter, and Agnes Moorehead.
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 for his Mercury Theatre broadcasts. One of the film's great achievements is the fact that Welles was adapting a novel, but still made it look like an Orson Welles film. It was a meeting of minds--an compromise of two styles. Most directors, even today, are afraid of making movies out of books for fear of alienating the fans of the books. They stay "faithful" to the printed page. They don't allow themselves the freedom to let the work be a blueprint and make it fly. So, we get films like "The Age of Innocence", which seems more like a
book-on-tape than a Martin Scorsese movie. "The Magnificent Ambersons" is Tarkington, and it is Welles.
This black and white film was briliantly shot by Wells. Film critics have acclaimed The Magnificent Ambersons for its beauty, poetry, brilliance, ingenuity, and greatness. The end product, however, was compromised by studio editing. The studio criticized Wells for the film and initial public reaction. One studio executive wrote Wells, God knows you have all the talent and ability for writing, producing, directing -- everything in Citizen Kane and Ambersons confirms that. We should apply all that talent and effort in the right direction and make a picture on which "we can get well." That's the story, Orson, and I feel very miserable to have to write you this.
RKO in effect destroyed the masterpiece Wells had filmed. After finishing the shooting, Welles was commissioned by the U.S. government to make a documentary in South America and chose to leave the presumably rotiene post-production chores to others.
RKO was disturbed by the audience reaction to a preview. A teenage audience was shown a double feature. They had first been treated to a rousing wartime musical. Next they found themselves viewing Wells' rather darkm complex, and slow-paced period drama.
The young producer, whothey distrusted, was conviniently in South America. So RKO ordered the film recut. They added new scenes written and shot by others. The entire focus and thrust of the movie Wells had shot was changed. The result is not a bad film. But it is not the masterpiece that it could have been. The final version is visually striking with Wells' inovative filming and lighting, but the studio alterations destroy needed transitions--making the film seem disconnected and choppy and the ending oddly optimistic. The studio later inexplicably destroyed the cut footage. The original film had run 131 minutes, 45 seconds, Carringer noted; the recut version ran 88 minutes, 10 seconds. Wells was devestated. "They destroyed `Ambersons', Wells said in a BBC interview, "and it destroyed me."
When one considers Welles's childhood, the film takes on a very personal aspect, so personal perhaps that Welles was torn between making his masterpiece and distancing himself from it. After Welles's birth, his father, Richard Welles, found himself "replaced" in the eyes of his wife, Beatrice Welles. The relationship between his father and mother was already strained; his father drank heavily and would actually die from alcoholism. His mother was a very independent woman, an active leader in politics and the fine arts. The two were not terribly close, and when Welles was born, his mother saw a chance to succeed where she failed with Welles's older brother, who was not an especially bright child; he would later be expelled from school and horribly institutionalized for many years. She
tried to make Welles a cultured child, teaching him how to read with Shakespeare, taking him to plays, concerts, and teaching him how to play the piano. Meanwhile Welles's father continued to deteriorate, spending nights drinking, fooling around with prostitutes, and waking up in a special house his own mother had for him whenever he came back drunk. Publicly he was somewhat a disgrace while Beatrice Welles was very prominent and held in high regard. Film historian Robert L. Carringer has given convincing arguments that Welles is represented by George, his mother is represented by Isabel, and his father is represented by Eugene. The Oedipal aspects of this argument
is a bit jarring since there certainly seemed to be a subtle Oedipal relationship between the character of George and Isabel, but one must take into consideration the circumstances behind the relationship between Welles and his mother. Welles's mother dominated the relationship Welles had with his parents. Most importantly she passed away when Welles was still a young child. Most males develop a rather strong relationship with their mothers in childhood, one better detailed in a psychology textbook than here. Welles was never given a chance to develop past that relationship he had with his mother, and perhaps this is the reason for any particularly strong feelings he may have for his mother. Whether or not Ambersons reflects such a thing is a little questionable, but then again
Welles himself once said that one should turn to an artist's work rather than to research if one is to learn anything about the artist.
Welles' "Magnificent Ambersones" is without doubt a film classic. It may have been more effective if Wells had is way with the editing. Even so it stands as a important, powerful film. It was not as well received as his other classic, "Citizen Cane" which regularly makes the list of the greatest films of all time. One reviewr reports that when the film was released in 1942 that audiences laughed at Agnes Moorehead's performance in the film - it was campy stuff when America was at war. He thought that if "Ambersons" had been released
a year earlier, it might have been better received. Modern audiences have given the film a higher rating.
Welles' version was itself a remake and there have been other remake projects.
Welles' "The Magnificent Ambersons" was a remake of the earlier silent version. The first movie was entitled Pampered Youth. Interestingly, the boy playing Cedric was Ben Alexander, familiar to American TV viewes as Sargent Friday's sidekick on Dragnet and Colonel Potter on Mash.
Oscar-nominated director Herbert Ross ("The Turning Point"), veteran producer Gene Kirkwood, an Italian production company that wants to establish itself in American entertainment and a reborn RKO are about to answer the lingering question, ``What if?''
They have dug into the RKO archives and pulled out Welles' original 165-page screenplay and will begin principal photography in Ireland during the summer of 2000 on a four-hour television drama of The Magnificent Ambersons.
The A&E cable channel in America filmed an elaborate remake of the "The Magnificent Ambersons" and broadcast in 2002. I saw the end of it and it was reasonably made. I did not see the beginning, however, and do not know how George was costumed as a younger boy. A HBC reader reports, "Whoever costumed the show did know much about Little Lord Fauntleroy suits and late 19th century boys clothing or hair styling. In the fight scene, Georgie does wear a velvet suit, but that is about it. His hair looks like early Bettles--no ringlet curls. Also he never wears kilts. I think a boy yells out to him while he is riding hell bent in his horse something about wearing girls' clothes or his sisters clothes That and some other remarks starts the fight. I think in the original movie it was wearing ringlet curls that sparked comments and the fight. While they did no get Georgie's costume right, the adult costuming was pretty good." A Canadian reader reports, "Georgie wore a blue valvet suit with white stockings and a lace collar. I'd say he was about 8, maybe 10 years old. He was also costumed in black above the knee knicker suits, with eaton style collars, and plain long black stockings. I believe he was around the age of 13 during this portion of the movie. There was not a great deal of the movie deticated to his boyhood, but rather most dealt with after he was grown up." Actually HBC is not sure just how the pertinent sections of the novel described Georgie's costumes so we do not know which version was closer to the book.
Tarkington, Booth. The Magnificent Ambersons (Doublrday, Page & Company, 1918).
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