The Magnificent Ambersons at 80: Orson Welles’ powerful but cursed drama

The multi-hyphenate’s follow-up to Citizen Kane was a nightmare production and a box office disappointment but remains a fascinating film about America

Meet Orson Welles. Director of Citizen Kane. Star of Citizen Kane. Writer, producer and hero behind, Citizen Kane. Twenty-six years old and fizzing with ideas and energy. Had I worked for the studio employing him in 1942, I would have tried very hard to keep him on-side. RKO Radio Pictures did not.

The Magnificent Ambersons, released 80 years today, is famously the film Orson Welles made after Citizen Kane. It’s also regarded as one of the great travesties in film history. Adapted from Booth Tarkington’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel from 1918, it charts the fading success and eventual misery of the upper-class midwestern Amberson family during an extended turn-of-the-century period. After being shown only twice in its original Welles cut, and being received terribly by preview audiences, RKO seized control of the picture, furiously trimming, reshooting and editing it. (And adding a standard Hollywood happy ending, naturally.) Welles was away and out of contact in Brazil, hopelessly working on a never-finished anthology film. It didn’t matter, RKO reasoned: the audience knew best.

The history of film is a history of compromises along these lines. Artsy directors fighting the folks with the cash. Such a tension is almost inevitable in a medium as commercial as cinema. But perhaps never before or since has it produced such a dramatically contested result. So, what to make of The Magnificent Ambersons? This is the moment where the contrarian, “edgy” critic calls it better than Citizen Kane. And the moment where the hand-wringing, painfully conformist critic (me) replies: “No, it’s not.”

But The Magnificent Ambersons does something which Kane does not do, and something very few American films have attempted. It confronts one of the decisive events in the making of the modern USA: the conclusive demise of its European-style gentry and their socioeconomic replacement by an industrial and distinctively American “big” bourgeoisie.

There are plenty of American films which critique the brutal consequences of capitalism, and plenty which hark back to a bucolic, imagined, pre-industrial America. But The Magnificent Ambersons confronts the historical moment that cleaved apart those two visions. It’s a film about periods of class struggle as the engines of historical change. If Marx had lived to watch it, he would have approved.

The middle-class Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotton) has spent his youth courting Isabel Amberson (Dolores Costello), only to lose her to a duller but “higher-born” rival. With the possibility of assimilation between the two classes lost, only the prospect of competition and displacement remains. Sure enough, while Morgan’s business booms, and his daughter (Anne Baxter) displays precocious seriousness and ambition, the Amberson family sees its finances dissipate and its paltry future bequeathed to Isabel’s petulant and naive son, George (Tim Holt).

With main characters representing variously a fading rustic past and a harsher, more pragmatic future, Ambersons foreshadows another Welles-directed classic: Chimes at Midnight. In his 1965 merger of Shakespeare’s Henry IV Parts I and II, Welles chronicles the death throes of an imagined Merrie England, soon to be replaced by the cleaner, more regimented world of the late middle ages. The key difference with Ambersons? Merrie England is represented by the working classes, cooped up in an Eastcheap tavern but implied to have influence over the traditional elites by preserving a kind of folk wisdom. They appear in Shakespeare as contradictory and diverse – real and self-determining. In Ambersons they do feature, but are presented with unqualified admiration, and given little power.

Orson Welles sketching design for the ballroom set.
Orson Welles sketching design for the ballroom set. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

If The Magnificent Ambersons can be read as a Marxist presentation of history, then it takes its framing of the proletariat straight from Soviet cinema. Throughout the first half of the film, we take intermittent breaks from the main narrative action to check in with the thoughts of locals. They speak bluntly and wisely, and the camera frames their faces tightly, always looking up towards the sky. We could be watching over-dubbed clips from a Sergei Eisenstein movie.

Welles supported powerful unions and was strongly leftwing, and the period setting of Ambersons felt a strong undercurrent of socialist sentiment. In the age of “mass production”, “the people” were now referred to by paranoid elites as “the masses”, implying revolutionary potential, as historian Jill Lepore has noted. And maybe a communist revolution is around the corner in the Indianapolis of The Magnificent Ambersons. The film certainly glimpses a future of the proletariat. But its focus remains ultimately on the bourgeoisie past.

This is increasingly the case as the film progresses and history marches on. As modernity surrounds the Amberson mansion, Welles brings the film’s focus ever more tightly into the big old house. Soon we find we’re trapped there, entombed in an architectural anachronism. The last third of the film keeps the action largely in this setting, as it puts the Amberson family through a final round of humiliation. Despite the tacked-on “happy ending”, this all feels funereal. The vibe, if not the plot, has been retained as Orson would have wanted.

Welles was a man out of time. The Magnificent Ambersons reveals a director idly waiting for a revolutionary future, while firmly assured of the brilliance of the past. Looking at Welles’ own career, you can see why. The halcyon days of creative control and productive indulgence – the days that made Citizen Kane – seemed a long time ago. Chasing the past like a real-life Jay Gatsby, Orson Welles must have felt like the oldest 26-year-old in the world.


David Alexander

The GuardianTramp

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