Archive for the ‘The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)’ Category

Spine #952

Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Criterion Collection (USA)

Release Date: November 20, 2018

Region: Region A

Length: 01:28:22

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: English Mono Linear PCM Audio (48 kHz, 1152 kbps, 24-bit)

Subtitles: English (SDH)

Ratio: 1.37:1

Bitrate: 31.33 Mbps

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“They destroyed Ambersons and the picture itself destroyed me! I didn’t get a job as a director for years afterwards.” –Orson Welles (The Orson Welles Story)

So goes the legend of Orson Welles and The Magnificent Ambersons—another “mutilated masterpiece” in a career full of “mutilated masterpieces.” In any case, this is what Welles would have the world believe. It cannot be denied that the man knew how to spin a good yarn. The best of all of these tales may actually be his own revisionist history. There is certainly evidence to dispute many of his claims as to the details surrounding R.K.O.’s reshaping of Ambersons, but the legendary Welles version will always be the accepted version as it paints the picture of a misunderstood genius in an industry full of philistines.

The one thing that is absolutely certain is that the finished product was a source of sadness and regret for the director.

“I loved ‘Ambersons’ [and] wanted to make a movie of it, [but] the point of Ambersons—everything that is any good in it is that part of it that is really just a preparation for the decay of the Ambersons…

…It was thought by everybody in Hollywood while I was in South America that it was too downbeat—a famous Hollywood word at the time, downbeat—so it was all taken out, but it was the purpose of the movie to see how they all slid downhill, you see, in one way or another…

…There’s no scene in a hospital. Nothing like that ever happened in the story, and the great long scene—which was the key long scene at the end—which was ‘Aggie’ Moorehead in a third rate lodging house… and Joe Cotton has come to see how she is, and that was the best scene in the picture and it was what the picture was about… It’s gone… In other words, [at] about the time Major Amberson dies, the picture starts to become another picture—becomes their picture.” –Orson Welles (The Orson Welles Story)

Welles mentions “South America” and this alludes to one of the director’s unfinished projects entitled It’s All True. Unfortunately, this particular unfinished project played a major role in the misfortunes that befell The Magnificent Ambersons.

“I was in terrible trouble then, because I was sent to South America by Nelson Rockefeller and Jock Whitney. I was told that it was my patriotic duty to go and spend a million dollars shooting the carnival in Rio. Now, I don’t like things like carnivals and Mardi Gras and all that, but they put it to me that it would be a real contribution to Inter-American Affairs and the Latin American world and so, without a salary and a budget of a million dollars, I was sent to Rio to make up a movie about the carnival. But in the meantime comes the new government. RKO is now a new government… They had promised me when I went to South America that they would send a moviola and cutters to me and that I would finish the cutting of Ambersons there. They never did. They cut it themselves.” –Orson Welles (The Orson Welles Story)

Robert Wise, the film’s editor, is often vilified for his part in the reshaping of Ambersons, but the reality is that he was simply carrying out orders. If it wasn’t him, it would have been someone else. In any case, it wasn’t simply a matter of the film being edited without his input, and it wasn’t altered simply because it had a bleak tone. The actual trouble seems to have been the result of an unsuccessful preview screening of the film.

“At a certain point the studio became concerned because they had a lot of money tied up in the picture, about a million dollars, which was a big budget in those days. So we went out for some previews with our work print. At a certain point the studio became concerned because they had a lot of money tied up in the picture, about a million dollars, which was a big budget in those days. So we went out for some previews with our work print… We took this one to Pomona and the preview was just a disaster. The audience disliked it, they walked out, they were laughing at Aggie Moorehead’s character and it was an absolute disaster. So what were we going to do with it? We went back and cut out the scenes with Aggie Moorehead where they were laughing at her over-the-top performance. It was a long picture, as I recall…

…Well, we took it the next time to Pasadena and it played a little better but still not acceptable. We then cut some more and re-arranged things and the third time we took it to Inglewood but we had cut so much out we had continuity problems and needed some new scenes to bridge the gaps. They asked me to direct a scene between George and his mother and that was one of my first directing experiences, that scene between Dolores Costello and Tim Holt in her bedroom. We took it to Long Beach and they sat for it, they didn’t walk out, they didn’t laugh. And that’s the way it went out. We had to get a version that would play for an audience.” –Robert Wise (In Search of Lost “Ambersons)

Scholars are always talking about the “original version” of The Magnificent Ambersons as if the theatrical version of the film isn’t the “original version.” The fact of the matter is that the preview version of the film wasn’t a finished version, and Orson Welles never actually got to cut the film to his liking before heading to Rio. One imagines that the preview version was closer to the director’s intentions than the finished product, but this edit was simply an unfinished assembly of the film. Nobody really knows how closely that version actually matched the director’s vision for the Ambersons. The true tragedy is that only one “finished” edit of the film has ever existed, and this is what was released into theaters on the bottom half of a double bill. No true director’s cut of the film can ever exist (even if someone miraculously finds the earlier preview cut), because Welles was never allowed to oversee a definitive cut. This is what truly bothered Welles.

“Even if I’d stayed in the US to finish The Magnificent Ambersons, I would’ve had to make compromises on the editing, but these would’ve been mine and not the fruit of confused and often semi-hysterical committees. If I had been there myself, I would have found my own solutions and saved the picture in a form which would have carried the stamp of my own effort.” –Orson Welles

Orson Welles During Production #2

Orson Welles during the production of The Magnificent Ambersons

One certainly wishes that circumstances had been different. As it turns out, the longer preview version of the film is forever lost to history since the film was made at a time when little thought was given to the future of a studio’s catalogue.

“It was standard practice that, after the previews, when you’d come back and take sequences out you’d put them in the vault. About six months after the films were released and if you didn’t need to change the film, they’d sell the footage for the silver. But that was nothing particular with Ambersons. It was just company practice. All this about how we destroyed and mutilated it is nonsense.” –Robert Wise (In Search of Lost “Ambersons)

Some sources claim that the negative was melted down because the silver nitrate was needed for the WWII war effort. Just think of the countless treasures that are now lost to history as a result of such a shortsighted practice. It should make us grateful for the treasures that still remain. To call The Magnificent Ambersons a “lost film” seems ridiculous. It may be a bastardized version of the director’s original intentions, but it exists in its original theatrical form—and this existing version is really quite remarkable (even if it is something less than a masterpiece).

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The Presentation:

5 of 5 Stars

The Criterion Collection has given this release special Digipak packaging. Like many other collectors, this reviewer tends to prefer Criterion’s usual clear case presentations. However, this particular design is undeniably attractive. The artwork by Eric Skillman should certainly please fans of the film. Also included is a booklet that resembles the film’s screenplay—a twice-stapled bundle of white pages with most essays written in the courier font (the exception is a short selection by Welles himself)—with the original script’s title page as its cover. The pages contain six worthwhile essays, including “What Is and What Might Have Been” by Molly Haskell, “Surfaces and Depths” by Luc Sante, “Echoes of Tarkington” by Geoffrey O’Brien, “The Voice of Orson Welles” by Farren Smith Nehme, “Loving the Ruins: Or, Does ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’ Exist” by Jonathan Lethem, and an excerpt from Orson Welles’s unfinished 1982 memoir entitled “My Father Wore Black Spats.” All essays are worth reading and add to one’s appreciation of the film.

Menu

Criterion’s static menu features film-related artwork rendered in the same style employed for the packaging and the layout is exactly what collectors have come to expect from Criterion’s Blu-ray releases. It is attractive and should be intuitive to navigate.

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Picture Quality:

4 of 5 Stars

Criterion’s transfer was taken from a 4K restoration that was scanned from a 35mm nitrate fine-grain from the Museum of Modern Art. As is their usual practice, they cleaned the scan of dirt and debris while also correcting age-related anomalies such as warps, splices, scratches, and etc. Purists will be pleased to discover that they have retained the 1.37:1 aspect ratio of the film’s original theatrical presentation, and the resulting image looks much better than this reviewer was expecting. It is a vast improvement over the somewhat rare DVD edition (from earlier special editions of Citizen Kane) in that the darker scenes aren’t nearly as uneven and showcase more detail. Contrast appears to be more accurate here as well and the texture is more filmic. There may be a few density issues inherited from the source elements, but these aren’t terribly problematic. The digital corrections made during the restoration process were obviously made with incredible care and didn’t leave any room for criticism. It looks great in motion as well. This is a release that fans of Orson Welles have been waiting for and it shouldn’t disappoint them.

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Sound Quality:

4.5 of 5 Stars

Criterion’s restoration extended to the film’s original audio as the track was taken from the 35mm print and cleaned of hiss, hum, crackle, clicks, and thumps. Their work is featured in the film’s original mono presentation as a Linear PCM audio track that showcases great stability but can admittedly sound slightly thin on occasion—though this never really becomes troublesome. It never impedes one’s ability to understand the dialogue or distracts the viewer by calling attention to itself. Bernard Herrmann’s score sounds much better without being oppressed by the excessive compression of the DVD format as it is given more breathing room. In short, the limitations of the track are due to the limitations of the original production techniques and the age of the source elements. Criterion offers viewers a track that is as good as can be reasonably expected.

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Special Features:

5 of 5 Stars

Feature Length Audio Commentary by Robert L. Carringer

It is difficult to think of a more appropriate commentator on The Magnificent Ambersons as Carringer had written a number of books about Orson Welles and his work—most notably “The Magnificent Ambersons: A Reconstruction.” The book reconstructs the “lost” version of the film by analyzing the various surviving production documents and other artifacts and personal interviews with several of the people who worked on the film.

We can’t say that he does the same in this commentary, but he does manage to point out many of the scenes that have been altered while filling us in on what has been removed. The commentary was recorded in 1985 for Criterion’s ancient laserdisc release of the film but holds up nicely even if his tone is more scholarly than enthusiastic.

Feature Length Audio Commentary by James Naremore and Jonathan Rosenbaum

James Naremore (author of The Magic World of Orson Welles, Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane: A Casebook, On Kubrick, Film Adaptation, and etc.) and Jonathan Rosenbaum (author of Discovering Orson Welles, Cinematic Encounters: Interviews and Dialogues, Cinematic Encounters 2: Portraits and Polemics, and etc.) lend their expertise to a new commentary that is just as scholarly as the Robert L. Carringer track. The film’s style is discussed as is some of the film’s history. They both comment about the film’s mutilation by the studio and the effect that this has on the fluidity of the film.

A Dangerous Nostalgia: Simon Callow on ‘The Magnificent Ambersons – (25:58)

Simon Callow (author of a three volume biography on Orson Welles: Orson Welles, Volume 1: The Road to Xanadu, Orson Welles, Volume 2: Hello Americans, and Orson Welles, Volume 3: One-Man Band as well as other works about such figures as Charles Laughton and Oscar Wilde) discusses how the fate of The Magnificent Ambersons led to his own fall from glory while also examining the original Tarkington novel. Callow also references some of the specific alterations made by RKO. It is a worthwhile interview that could have been much longer as it is an interesting discussion that engages the viewer’s interest.

Joseph McBride on ‘The Magnificent Ambersons – (28:54)

Joseph McBride (author of What Ever Happened to Orson Welles, Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success, Searching for John Ford, Steven Spielberg: A Biography, Two Cheers for Hollywood and several other cinema-related titles) discusses the studio politics behind RKO’s fateful decision to rework The Magnificent Ambersons into the film that we have today. It is an engaging interview that should again add something to the viewer’s appreciation of and interest in the director and this film specifically.

Graceful Symmetries: Welles’s Long Version of ‘The Magnificent Ambersons – (18:47)

Christopher Husted’s essay discusses the film’s mutated score by the great Bernard Herrmann and uses this score for clues as to what the so-called “lost” longer edit may have looked like. Again, this original essay adds quite a bit of value to the proceedings.

The Cinematographers – (15:40)

François Thomas (author of Orson Welles at Work) offers a scholarly essay about the film’s cinematography and how the various cinematographers involved brought a different aesthetic to their work on the film. This is a great way to examine the film’s history and overall aesthetic as it will certainly add to the viewer’s appreciation and understanding of the final theatrical “product.”

Orson Welles on ‘The Dick Cavett Show’ (1970) – (36:34)

This May 04th, 1970 episode of The Dick Cavett Show features Orson Welles as one of the guests (along with Jack Lemmon) and covers a wide variety of topics. These include his early life, commonly believed exaggerations about him, his work, and etc. The information is both fascinating and entertaining. It might be the disc’s best supplemental feature (and this is saying a great deal).

Two To One (1927) – (28:05)

Two to One is a short film that was edited from a seventy minute silent feature entitled Pampered Youth (1927). It represents a silent adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s “The Magnificent Ambersons.” This shorter version was released in Britain in 1931.

Pampered Youth One Sheet

Those who are fond of the Welles version should agree that the inclusion of this short film offers the viewer a unique opportunity to compare the two different versions, and one imagines that it will add to people’s appreciation of the film (especially since sound is such a huge part of the aesthetic in an Orson Welles film).

Peter Bogdanovich Interview with Orson Welles (Audio) – (36:00)

These priceless excerpts from Peter Bogdanovich’s lengthy foundational interview with Welles were conducted throughout the latter part of the 1960s and the early 1970s and will make for fascinating listening for anyone with even the remotest interest in the director. He’s always engaging and it is revealing to learn his views on such topics as cinematography, composition, acting, and the work of other directors.

AFI Symposium on Orson Welles (1978 – Audio) – (29:46)

The audio recording of this 1978 AFI symposium about Orson Welles was excerpted from a longer recording and wasn’t recorded in a manner that makes the information particularly easy to digest, but fans of the director will likely agree that the information discussed makes the challenge well worth it.

The Magnificent Ambersons: Mercury Theatre Radio Adaptation (1939) – (55:42)

It is interesting to compare Orson Welles’s radio adaptation to his film adaptation of The Magnificent Ambersons. There are many remarkable similarities and a few interesting differences in the two adaptations. The most interesting difference is the absence of Fanny Minafer in the radio adaptation and some subtle rearrangements in the ordering of a few of the scenes. The most interesting similarity is the striking resemblance between the two endings. The ending that the studio forced upon the film version—the ending that Orson Welles criticized so harshly—is remarkably similar to his own ending to the radio adaptation. It is nice to have this radio play included for these reasons. This episode originally aired on October 29, 1939.

Seventeen: Mercury Theatre Radio Adaptation (1938) – (01:00:05)

Orson Welles also adapted Booth Tarkington’s Seventeen for one of his Mercury Theatre radio broadcasts. It is a reasonably diverting play but some of the characterizations are decidedly dated. (One might even argue that one characterization in particular is racist). The episode originally aired on October 16, 1938.

Theatrical Trailer – (02:06)

The original theatrical trailer is an excellent addition to Criterion’s stellar supplemental package. It is always disappointing when the trailer isn’t included on a Blu-ray release, because trailers give interesting insights into how a film was marketed to the public upon its release.

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Final Words:

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…” The magnificence of The Magnificent Ambersons, on the other hand, began years later in 1941 and has largely been overlooked due to its interesting backstory regarding RKO’s “sabotage.”

Criterion’s new Blu-ray release serves as a testament to the film’s underrated charms. They even sweeten the deal by offering an incredible array of supplemental features. It comes highly recommended for anyone with even a casual interest in the director’s career.

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One Sheet