The phrase, “sophomore slump” is common among public figures. When one’s debut venture is excellent and celebrated, there’s always a danger that anything following it will be a letdown. When one’s debut film is Citizen Kane, the stakes are even higher. Orson Welles followed up that infamous firestorm with 1942’s The Magnificent Ambersons. Based on the Booth Tarkington novel, it’s a movie that’s both Kane’s polar opposite and its fraternal twin.
The action opens with a bit of scene-setting. It’s the Victorian era, when gentlemen wore bowlers and cutaways, life was graceful, and amorous young men hired orchestras to serenade their lady loves at their bedroom windows. One such fellow is Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten), whose lady is Isabel Amberson (Delores Costello) of the Amberson family. As in, the richest and most prestigious name in town. The Rockefellers are middle class compared to these people.
Eugene is heartbroken when Isabel chooses Wilbur Minafer (Don Dillaway) over him, but he comes to accept it, moving out of town and leaving Isabel to her new life.
The townspeople, who sporadically appear throughout the film like a Greek chorus, declare that any kids of Isabel’s will be spoiled brats simply because they’re Ambersons. As it turns out, however, Isabel only has a son named George (played as a child by Bobby Cooper), but the town talkers are right: The kid is an absolute terror. He might look all romantic in his Little Lord Fauntleroy ringlets and miniature highland kilt, but he practically runs people down in his little pony and buggy, and when caught fighting, punches the gentleman who’s trying to lay down the law. The townspeople glower, shake their heads, and pray for George’s comeuppance.
George grows up and goes to school, but when he’s home on break during his sophomore year of college, Isabel throws a party. Lo and behold, her old friend, Eugene is there, with his daughter, Lucy (Ann Baxter). Wilbur is holed up behind closed doors, because he doesn’t like parties. At all. Eugene has done very well for himself, as he owns a car…er, horseless carriage company. The society set all chuckle, because it’ll never catch on, but they humor wacky old Eugene anyway.
He might be older, but George is still an insufferable prick who’s used to getting what he wants, and he sticks close to Lucy all through the dance. He also tells her he’s going to take her sleigh riding–no ifs, ands, or buts. Lucy thinks George is a trifle foward, but he’s charming enough that she finally agrees to go out with him.
To George’s disgust, Eugene also begins hanging out with Isabel and his aunt Fanny (Agnes Moorehead). George ribs Aunt Fanny mercilessly about being in love with Eugene, to the point that she collapses in hysterics. She gives it right back to him, and it’s a good thing, because she’s probably the only one.
This film has a way of eliminating extraneous characters. Wilbur dies, and Isabel begins seeing Eugene in earnest. George is livid, and he does everything he can to sabotage the relationship. Will he ever get a clue? And what will the Ambersons do when their fortune begins to evaporate?
Ambersons is similar to Citizen Kane in that we see a lot of familiar Mercury faces. It’s about downfall, except that it’s a whole family as well as an individual. We still see ceilings and deep focus occasionally. It’s got loads of dramatic kick.
That’s where the similarities end. There are very few interesting visuals in Ambersons, and it lacks Kane’s punch, even if it is a good story.
Welles’ intent was that Ambersons would outdo Kane. It was a big tale, the Mercury Players had already done a successful radio version, and since it contained no gotchas or jabs at publishing titans, it seemed free of controversy.
Let’s start with the editing job Robert Wise was ordered to do by the RKO studio executives, who were still mad at Welles for Citizen Kane. About forty-five minutes of film was cut, leaving key details and character development on the editing room floor, and none of that film exists today, apart from a few stills.
Welles was in Rio de Janeiro shooting a film for Norman Rockefeller and Jock Whitney during Ambersons’ post production. It’s an odd choice in terms of timing, but Welles was OK with it because war effort. Anyway, his editor, Robert Wise knew what Welles wanted and could act in proxy, communicating with Welles via telegram and snail mail. The idea was that the rough cut would be sent to Welles, along with a Movieola, so he could tweak whatever he wanted changed.
According to Wise, the first three previews of the film were disasters. The audiences laughed in the wrong places and RKO executives decided it was too long. Wise was told to make major snips, because if the film was over ninety minutes, no one would want to see it. When he heard that Wise had been ordered to hack up the movie, Welles frantically sent him some scenes of letter-writing to fill in some of the story blanks, which Wise shot himself.
Welles was cut out of the rest of post-production by default. Wise had also been ordered to shoot a new ending, which was done without Welles’s OK. While it’s not all that different from the old one, the film’s ending is a bit more hopeful, showing two of the characters looking rather chummy in a brother-sister way. There was nothing Welles could do. The man wasn’t even in town for the film’s premiere, as he was still in Brazil.
The finished product is oddly random, the oddest part being towards the end when Major Amberson (Richard Bennett), the patriarch of the clan, is staring glumly into the fire. We’ve barely seen him the whole film, so this seems a bit out of left field. We don’t know why the Ambersons fall from grace, except that their money has run out. They just fall, and we’re not allowed to be invested in their troubles. Welles likened the film to a long “Coming Attractions” preview.
It was a very unfortunate business all round. Right after Ambersons was finished, RKO accused Welles of going down to Brazil to waste studio money. This was their excuse for firing him.
RKO refused to let Welles be who he was, and they were petty enough to put “Showmanship Instead of Genius” on their letterhead. Literally, that’s what they did. They were so determined to crucify Welles that they made a lower bar a point of pride. Pathetic. In the end, neither side won. Welles couldn’t get a director job for years after Ambersons, and RKO films kept sliding at the box office, relying more and more on B movies instead of the higher art they wanted to be known for.
Wise said later that The Magnificent Ambersons is regarded well, which means they didn’t do such a bad job. However, he also acknowledged that the rough cut was the better film. I’m sure it was. The movie we have today is what it is, but it’s not what it could have been.