The Magnificently Mutilated Ambersons

Had its original ending been kept, The Magnificent Ambersons would prove Orson Welles one of Hollywood’s masters of tragedy, if not the greatest.

Of all the so-called lost, incomplete or rare films of Orson Welles (The Other Side of the Wind, Don Quixote), there is none whose loss is so frustrating to me as that of an intact The Magnificent Ambersons. Whether the fault of Welles himself, panicky producers or, most likely, a combination, the post-production debacle of this still magnificent movie is one of cinema’s saddest stories.

The background is so familiar it hardly needs fleshing out: As a follow-up to Citizen Kane, Welles delivered the much more somber The Magnificent Ambersons; the film then played to misplaced preview audiences, prompting re-cuts and re-shoots, with Welles dispatching instructions, largely via telegram from South America, where he was filming the even more ill-fated It’s All True. After much reshuffling, and a change in studio heads, the film was re-edited and appended, finally deemed releasable at 88 minutes — considerably shorter than the original 131-plus minute running time.

Of these 131 minutes, Welles himself at one point ordered a good portion cut, and there’s no doubt that had his orders been heeded the results would have been disastrous. Among the proposed cuts were such critical episodes as Isabel and George discussing Eugene’s “reasonable” letter; the walk taken by George and Lucy, wherein Lucy pretends to be over George; and Uncle Jack’s grave visit to the Morgans followed by the sickly Isabel’s return from abroad, all incredibly affecting scenes.

In the final analysis, it seems the film would’ve benefited best had Welles at least stayed in Hollywood for the final edit, which he’d relinquished for the privilege of making the film in the first place. Perhaps if he’d been present, he could’ve pressed the studio for something closer to a more satisfying cut. Or as Jack Moss, Mercury Theater’s business manager, stated, “If only Orson could communicate his genius by telephone.”

And yet, truncated and/or mutilated as the film may be, it still radiates “Orson’s genius”. Though Citizen Kane has cemented his place in film history, The Magnificent Ambersons — especially had its original ending been kept — would prove Welles one of Hollywood’s masters of tragedy, if not the greatest. In The Magnificent Ambersons even more than Citizen Kane, Welles fused his wide-ranging talents for popular storytelling, deploying techniques from radio, theater, music, painting and literature, not to mention cinema, into one totally refined work of tragic art.

The Magnificent Ambersons is Citizen Kane matured, as if after pushing the outer-most possibilities of cinematic trickery, Welles then settled in and created something truly emotional rather than simply fantastic — that is, something fantastically emotional. In short, having exorcized his youthful cine-mannerisms through Citizen Kane, Welles grew up and got down to business with The Magnificent Ambersons.

Not that The Magnificent Ambersons doesn’t have expressionistic or manneristic effects. Welles’ films often look like gothic horror movies, similar to how the plays of his hero, William Shakespeare, often read like horror shows (Othello, the horror of jealousy; Macbeth, the horror of power; Hamlet, the horror of…resolve?). But Citizen Kane comes closer to Raymond Durgnat’s definition, in his wonderful book on American comedy The Crazy Mirror (1970), of cinematic mannerism as something “rococo, in the sense of a fanciful lingering over offbeat details.” Citizen Kane is full of this: The optical manipulations, the exaggerated perspectives, all represent a forceful, fanciful lingering over inarguably offbeat baroque details.

With The Magnificent Ambersons, the effects are largely reserved to elaborate set-ups and camera movements — long tracking shots through pages of dialogue, with camera and actors traversing streets, or passing through the vast halls of the Amberson mansion. For example, the famous shot at the end of the ball, with Isabel and Eugene dancing in the shadowed foreground while George and Lucy look on from the staircase behind them, is just as meticulously composed as anything in Citizen Kane, yet somehow more assured and contained, with details that feel on beat rather than off.

Even though in many ways no less ostentatious than Citizen Kane, most of the effects in The Magnificent Ambersons have a subdued fluidity that reinforces the content without overriding it. In Citizen Kane, for example, the matte shot of Susan Alexander’s attempted suicide nearly undercuts the pathos of the scene; the glass and spoon in the extreme foreground are so cartoonishly massive we cannot help but become aware of Welles’s youthful preciosity, however ingenious. But a slightly similar super-imposed shot (in terms of exaggerated foreground/background composition) in The Magnificent Ambersons, showing George’s head reflected in the window as a dejected Eugene departs below, while comparatively gimmicky, registers as much more ominous and foreboding.

At times, The Magnificent Ambersons plays like pure visualized radio. Even though he is freed by the visual from having to rely solely on voices and sounds to create atmosphere and space, Welles retains his early-career radio practice. More than wedding the soundtrack to the image, or using it solely to widen the illusion of space, he also uses it as its own space. A beautiful example of this is the elaborately constructed scene at the end of the ball, when Eugene and Lucy prepare to depart: characters mix and match, conversations overlap, and as the camera captures multiple set-ups in one seamless long take, the voices, dubbed with Welles’s usual attention to aural properties, ring with the natural reverb of the cavernous mansion, rising and falling on the soundtrack.

Sound, camera and actors are each allotted individual place and movement, but they also mesh. The soundtrack is not completely disembodied from its image, still extending that image in space, but also existing as a kind of isolated ghostly overlay. The entire scene is like the layers of silhouetted images in a 19th century picture postcard.

The above scene ends with a shot of George and Lucy in the background, George coercing Lucy into a date, with Isabel’s shadowed head between them looking wistfully after Eugene, a shot which might seem more contrived if it wasn’t charged with the tensions that resound throughout the entire film. The whole scene is built upon this intimate interplay between bustling, wistful romance, and George’s bullying. Thus, set-up fits logically to content. Manners and belligerence collide.

This elemental collision between belligerence and manners might be summed up as George versus The World. How long will these people defer to him? Why are they so willing to be so tyrannized? It’s astounding the things George gets away with: insulting Lucy and Eugene, whining about “This man Morgan,” keeping his mother locked away in an unnatural celibacy. Welles always had a narrative sympathy for these kinds of selfish megalomaniac figures who ride down life oblivious to the consequences of their actions or behavior (Lucy’s “Native American” story is a fabled version of this trope).

Even more than Charles Foster Kane, George always seems a boy, with a boy’s obstinate resistance and haughtiness. But in choosing to remain so, to hold onto his boyish peevishness, George is doubly destructive. He has never had normal relationships because he has refused himself true empathy with any humans but Ambersons. And because he is incapable of normal relationships, he tries to restrict his mother — indeed, everyone else — from them as well. While, as Uncle Jack says, everyone, especially Isabel, spoils “Georgie”, they also try to compel him into manhood, into getting over himself for the benefit of all, especially himself. But George is a monster of obstinacy, refusing any and all rebuttal.

Which brings up the question of Tim Holt’s too-often underrated performance. While several commentators note Holt’s limitations or inadequacies, I tend to think these so-called limitations, such as the actor’s stiffness, work perfectly for the character. Welles himself, having voiced George on the radio broadcast of The Magnificent Ambersons, initially considered the film role but, rightly I think, decided against it. He wouldn’t have been nearly grating enough. Where Holt is rigid and shrill, Welles might have been too expansive, too shrewd. Welles when he’s acting often looks like he knows something you don’t, but might be willing to tell you anyway.

By comparison, Tim Holt’s face is clamped shut, unyielding to the extreme, with a thin-lipped, petulant sneer as a lock. Holt projects an irrational pragmatism, and a snide, unforgiving arrogance, sinister in its possessiveness, that is exhibited most strongly when he pauses with Lucy on the stairs to watch Eugene and Isabel dance: Notice the terrible glint in his beady eyes as he insults Lucy’s father right to Lucy’s face, and the unsettling leer, bordering on lasciviousness, with which he regards his mother, as if to say, “We’ll see if some ol’ widower can get between us.” Anne Baxter, as Lucy, deserves a lot of credit here, for her complicated response to George’s very personal callousness. She expresses part distaste and part mature forgiving fascination.

But Welles’s ambiguous sympathy for the character of George is evident. He lends a sort of nobility to George’s violent resistance to 20th century progress, however pointless and destructive this resistance proves to be. George sees himself as the last bastion of Amberson aristocracy, and there is something undeniably tragic about that. George is the last Amberson (even if he is really a Minafer) and thus embodies their descent; all their money, power, prestige and position — in short, their magnificence — has dwindled down to this petty spoiled boy with not a penny in his pocket. And only when he’s disabused of all his loftiest self-impressions does George get down on his knees and beg forgiveness. But it’s too late.

At least, for Isabel, Eugene and Fanny, for the tragedy is theirs. In both Welles’s original ending and the released version, George and Lucy reconcile, while the older generations fall away, their dreams and loves unfulfilled, perhaps extinguished in that burning sun envisioned by Major Amberson. Whether strolling down a hospital corridor or meeting in a boarding house, ultimately Eugene and Fanny are remnants of an era with only one dire destination.

All this would have been clearer, of course, had Welles’s original ending been kept. That ending, in brief, involved Eugene visiting a fragile Aunt Fanny at a boarding house to report the reconciliation of George and Lucy, and his own apprehension of Isabel’s presence in the hospital after George is hit by an automobile. The entire scene is accompanied, and complicated, by a scratchy diegetic recording of an “Amos ‘n’ Andy”-type comedy routine.

Though the dialogue between Eugene and Fanny essentially matches their exchange in the hospital corridor in the released version (“…true at last to my one true love…”), the meaning in the original version is drastically transformed by the more dynamic mise-en-scene. Welles’s proposed end continues the preceding film’s reliance on long takes and deep-focus shots, with dominant spatial counterpoint.

In one remaining still, Eugene’s somber face darkens a third of the frame from the right side, while Fanny sits in a chair on the left, looking up with taciturn, bird-like rigidity, both of them struggling to maintain a reserved dignity in the face of a more voracious culture. The shot, the scene, the entire mise-en-scene embodies the tension of 19th century genteelism giving way to a new kind of 20th century hysteria, speed and discontent. In the remaining stills and small bit of trailer footage, Eugene looks depleted, his optimistic “there are no times but new times” knocked out of him. This once progressive, truly forward-thinking man now dreams only of the past.

As for Aunt Fanny, in the released version we witness her shattering breakdown and very rushed recovery, rather than the more likely and dramatically appropriate end of her settling into a precarious eccentricity. Indeed, the released film as a whole, with its focus on the Eugene/Isabel relationship and its hurried resolution, subordinates Fanny’s tragedy, which would have been much more evident in Welles’s original version.

For Fanny, things are twice as tragic because twice unfulfilled. However limited and constricted their time together, Isabel and Eugene each experience “one true love.” In the original boarding-house ending, Fanny is once again face to face with her one true love, and he doesn’t even notice. Again, in the stills and trailer footage, Eugene appears as distracted as the audience might’ve been by the comedy record playing throughout the scene, a device that once again displays Welles’s theatrical radio ingenuity. Besides raising Eugene’s and the audience’s discomfort level, I imagine the playing of a scratchy old record would have also generated a sense of bygone nostalgia, of soft lost yearning rounding out Fanny’s earlier jagged hysterics.

In a testament to Welles’ careful orchestration, Fanny’s tragedy is prefigured continually in the most musical sense throughout the film: her anxious movements around Eugene, her small sort of pre-breakdown in the famous cake-eating scene, and especially her absolute forlornness at her brother Wilbur’s funeral, where her sorrow is as much for herself as her own dead sibling, as she knows she’s now lost Eugene to Isabel forever.

These scenes sit throughout the film like preludes to a crack-up, little notations predicting the full-blown orchestrated crescendo and explosion of Fanny’s breakdown with her back to the boiler. (As justly lauded as Agnes Moorehead’s acting is in the boiler scene, I feel her performance on the staircase with George, where she admits to just venting frustrations in implying Isabel’s illicit affair with Eugene, is more devastating and heartwrenching: “It’s nobody but ol’ Fanny, so I’ll kick her…”.)

While the released end scene, in the hospital corridor, is a forced resolution of false consonance, the original end would’ve retained the dissonance that had played throughout the film in the triangulated discrepancy between Fanny’s feelings for Eugene and Eugene’s for Isabel, and, by extension or subset, George’s deeply-rooted feelings for Isabel and conflicted love for Lucy. This sense is foreshadowed most strongly in one nonchalant virtuoso scene near the film’s middle, when the five main players — Eugene, Isabel, George, Lucy and Fanny — visit a car factory. One long tracking shot discloses layers of narrative information, so what we have is essentially a shot, a scene and a sequence all in one, as Welles combines the factory tour with bits of dialogue and acting that hint at the events to come.

As the car is being built in the background, and as the players weave in and out of the production line, the Eugene/Isabel and George/Lucy relationships are solidified. Tragically, at the same time, Aunt Fanny’s life is dismantling: her brother has died, leaving her widowed sister-in-law open for the man she hoped destined for herself. As the shot finishes with Eugene and Isabel embracing in budding happiness (Eugene: “Thank you for making a factory visit into such a kind celebration…”), Fanny’s reaction, unnoticed by the others yet coexisting in the same shot, is one of devastating hopelessness.

There’s a huge disjoint of expression displayed in the final composition of this shot, from the couple’s happiness to Fanny’s heartbreak. The long take as a whole captures the ambiguous emotional tonality of the entire film, as what appears to be romantic and industrial progress already contains the seeds of calamity, loss, frustration and bitterness. The magnificence of the Ambersons indeed.

All of this is lost, of course, in the ending we have, that static soap opera stroll of Eugene and Fanny arm-in-arm down the hospital corridor. This ending is so dramatically disproportionate to the rest of the narrative, they may as well have tacked on a musical number, with all the characters in a chorus line, singing, “We – are – the – magnificent Ambersons!” It makes that much dramatic sense. As it is, I feel it is wiser to halt the film before that ending, and jump forward to the end credits, where Welles, in a rare-in-Hollywood move akin to and extending his shared title card with Gregg Toland on Citizen Kane, gives well-deserved credit to the film’s cast and crew.

This device, a potently touching blend of pure radio, pure theater, pure cinema, as well as pure director’s gratitude, is, or would have been, the ideal antidote to the preceding somberness. Like an old-time radio program, it settles the viewer/listener back into a more intimate and homey world, with an extra-narrative cue revealing all this tragic magnificence as merely another of Orson Welles’ magic tricks.

Note from the author: This article is deeply indebted to Robert L. Carringer’s book, The Magnificent Ambersons: A Reconstruction (1993). His detailed description and study of the film’s background, his research, and his insights are all an inspiration. Most of all, his inclusion of the continuity script with the original end scenes intact forms the basis of my reading of the film, as I consider that ending the only one worthy of the film as a whole.

I feel that a combination of Carringer’s reconstruction, the remaining stills and trailer footage, and a thorough familiarity with the visual logic of the film allows for a fairly clear impression of how the original 131-minute cut would’ve played. Yet obviously, this reading, like any of the film, is provisional: a ghost-reading, a scanning of trace evidence, a reenactment.