Saturday, March 23, 2019

Not as magnificent as legend has it

Another recent watch off my DVR was The Magnificent Ambersons, the 1942 movie that is probably best remembered for the fact that the studio edited it over the objections of its director, Orson Welles.

Dolores Costello plays Isabel Amberson, daughter in a wealthy family in Indiana in the late 19th century. She's being pursued romantically by Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten), but Cotten makes the mistake of getting drunk while serenading her, which cases her father to break off the engagement. Instead, Isabel marries Minafer (Don Dillaway), while Eugnee goes off to become a success in life.

Roughly two dozen years pass, to around 1900. Isabel has an adult son George (Tim Holt), and they live in the old Amberson mansion together with Isabel's sister-in-law Fanny (Agnes Moorehead). Eugene, for his part, has become relatively successful as a manufacture of the new-fangled automobile. He's a widower with a daughter Lucy (Anne Baxter) who is about George's age. George has been spoiled rotten, and thinks that automobiles are an idiotic idea. Worse, he gets it in his head that Eugene has only returned for two reasons, both having to do with Isabel: one is that Eugene might still love Isabel; the other is that George thinks Eugene is fishing for an infusion of capital, specifically, Isabel's inheritance.

Idiotic George, for his part, announces that there's no way in hell he's going to do real work, either taking a profession like the law or doing manual labor. Instead, he's going to be a yachtsman or something; how the hell he ever thought he was going to make ends meet living like this is a mystery. General scuttlebutt is that George and Lucy would make a good couple, and they do go riding together, but Lucy wants a stable future, not a flake with no idea what he wants to do in life. George's father dies, revealing that there's not much to inherit, and to keep Isabel from Eugene, since the two really did remain friends, George takes her on a long trip which effectively kills her and depletes the family fortune.

The Magnificent Ambersons isn't a bad movie, but it's not without its flaws, and those aren't necessarily due to the editing. Welles insisted on using all sorts of camera tricks, and most of them not only add little to the movie, they detract by making the camera tricks the focus of the movie and not the plot. The story and acting are good, although George is an irritating enough character that at times when he's on the screen I found the movie a bit tougher to watch.

Supposedly, the original cut of the movie flopped badly in previews, which is why RKO edited it down by chopping about 50 minutes and leaving us with an 88-minute movie. Would Welles' original vision be better? I wouldn't be surprised if it would. But I also don't think it would be the masterpiece a lot of people believe it would have been. My guess, since none of the cut footage is known to survive, is that the original cut probably did need some editing since it came in at nearly two and a half hours, but that it wouldn't have needed to be cut down to 90 minutes. Also, the studio did have the impetus of that disastrous preview showing, Welles' going over budget, and changing tastes thanks to the American entry into World War II. And as I said above, The Magnificent Ambersons is still pretty good.

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